On the first page of a fresh journal it is handwritten: “we are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust swirling and dancing on the eddies and whirlpools of infinity”- Paul Coelho. It is a name that has been following me around this month, and I bonded over some Brazilian bunkmates over the copy of the Alchemist I now carry. But all this holds true, and this feeling feeds me new life, the ground quakes and transforms beneath feet seeking movement and callus. My happy suitcase heart.
I cannot decide what is different this time around, whether it is me or the nature of this journey, or the place itself, but the newness is what excites me.
I landed in la Ciudad de Mexico under a full moon and a dense layer of smog, the monstrous and crowded swollen heart of Mexico. I already love it. A note to heed: the distance between two places on a map of this city are frther than they seem. Four transfers later, I emerged from the metro system facing El Catedral, the center of El Zocalo and formal political life in Mexico. This area is architecturally like any Spanish city of old. I gasped thinking I had stepped out into Madrid. I then proceeded to walk around the Cathedral the wrong way, through a system of temporary walls and climbed a fence of a construction site to get to the light on the other side. About a minute later, scaling the broken stone, a police officer called to me, and noting my backpack, decided to escort me to the area’s main hostel for youth travelers where I conveniently had a reservation. “People here are so nice”, I thought to myself. Everyone who I had asked for help thus far had either pointed me straight or found me someone who could. “Mexico” as an entity proves just as difficult to stereotype as any other country. Where, upon mention that I was headed to Mexico, people would speak of safety concerns, of rapings, and pillagings, and barbarism, I see a city where you need to walk tall and with purpose. Much like Philadelphia (but with less guns). Here, you are more likely to be pick pocketed. As a solo female traveler, there are extra precautions to take, like splitting money between different pockets, making friends quickly, not sharing drinks, and not wandering the empty streets drunk. But I would say that these are applicable rules for walking any city. To all of you who told me “why are you going there” and “watch out for the cartel”, I’m here and I’m safe and you should come here.
Anyways, the next morning I found that under new light, the construction site was actually the 14th century Aztec ruin Tenochtitlan, and while the officer may have been concerned for my safety, he was probably moreso thinking of protecting his country’s cultural inheritance. But anyways, I scaled the ruins of an Aztec pyramid by accident.
In the morning, I visited it with some other people from the hostel to learn about Aztec culture. It was originally destroyed during the Spanish Inquisition so that the Cathedral could be built on top of it, a symbol for total cultural dominance. The ruins that somewhat survived now lie in the shadow of the Spanish Cathedral. One of the Mexican hostel guests even tried to teach us to pronounce the names in Nahuatl. Life and death are pervasive themes, skulls everywhere. And there is a god or goddess for everything including a local beverage named pulque, described to me as “maybe disgusting”, “slimy”, and “spermy”. “You have to try it!”, she said with a smile. And so I did.
Also, I had forgotten to look up tipping customs, and learned that it is 10-15% in sit down restaurants and whatever leftover coins you have for more casual places. This includes anybody who helps carry a bag and restroom attendants. The exchange rate is 13 pesos to 1 dollar, which I have been rounding down to 10 to be safe.
That afternoon, I met up with Philadelphia’s Ben Wilson, who is finishing up a long stretch in Mexico City. We walked through the neighborhood Coyoacan, south of el centro, in search of the house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, which was transformed into a museum. The house itself is a deep blue with a sprawling manicured garden, and inside, it holds the relics of socialism, polio, and amputation, as well as a fiery and abusive relationship. La Casa de Frida has been one of my favorite art exhibits. Its neighborhood is beautiful, with large custom wooden doors, colorful paints, bugambillas, and enormous ancient trees lining the streets. Most importantly, it is more residential than El Zócalo, which empties itself each evening. Walking further, we stumbled upon a house that was the final residence of poet Octavio Paz and has been transformed into a Museum dedicated to sound. Mexico City is the city with the highest concentration of museums in the world, and so my surprise is not likely to be matched. The Museum of Modern Art in Chapultepec Park was another worth checking out. Ben also loves food, and so he took me to Cafe El Jarocho for Cafe de Olla (to stave off my growing caffeine headaches), churros, and tortillas de chiles rellenos in the markets of Coyoacan.
With an afternoon dedicated to wandering, I followed the advice of some students who pointed me in the direction of young hip (gentrifying) neighborhoods. Here, it is ever more clear that Mexico City, one of the strongest economies in the world, cannot be defined as third world. I found street art in Colonia Obrera. I found Pocky and 보디차 in Korean district of Zona Rosa. The hipsters of Roma Norte and Condesa. The architecture of Polanco. Each neighborhood breathes differently.
And I am excited to return to it later on to experience it after seeing more of what feeds it.