Mexico is not the obvious next destination for a person traveling around Southeast Asia. Those who, unlike me, are able to plan beyond the next taco stand carry smug little round-the-world tickets that get them from New York to London to Delhi, then Bangkok, Sydney, Buenos Aires, Lima, and San Francisco. It costs them less than the last-minute one-way tickets I buy when I decide, dammit, I have to get to New York: I want to see Jason, I miss my friends, and I have to move my stuff into cheaper storage. I flew for thirty-six hours in one endless day, which is about as long as the Martha Stewart travelers spend in the air in total.
Mexico was an afterthought, booked when I realized that US Immigration might not let me in without an onward flight. Before I left for Bangkok last July, I’d swotted up on Buddhism and Southeast Asian culture and read all the travelogues I could find. The space allotted to Mexico in my brain, on the other hand, was largely taken up by the movie Y tu mama también, images of the food stands in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, and a small hazy corner that involved Teddy Roosevelt and Ambrose Bierce. As for Mexico City: 20 million people, pollution, Volkswagen Beetles, pollution, muggings, pollution. I pictured Brasilia without the charm. When it was time to leave, I kept calling the airline to grant me just one more week in New York, and spun out the reprieve until they got sick of me. I wept all the way to JFK.
But it’s six days later, and I still haven’t left for Puebla. Mexico City, like Vietnam, is seductive. You can jay-walk with ease, the traffic is so slack. The weather is sweet as Los Angeles: seventy degrees with a faint yellow haze that so far has bothered me less than Bangkok tuk-tuk smoke. The public architecture makes London look like Levittown.
I lived in New York for five years and never went to the Whitney, the Frick, or the Guggenheim, not even for the motorcycles exhibition. But I’ve spent a happy week tramping around the Ethnology Museum, the Fine Arts Museum, Frida Kahlo’s house, the Palacio Royal, the cathedral, the post office (even the post office is more beautiful than anything in New York). They have parks here, and people use them. The university is just how it should be; a campus on the outskirts of the city full of students snogging on the grass, propped up on their backpacks. And the foodstands: ¡dios mio! My cautious verdict is that they’re possibly even better than Bangkok. I may have to stay here several months just to taste everything.
In Southeast Asia, my exotic celebrity status was continually reinforced by children yelling ‘Hel-lo! Sabaidee!’ Here, it’s noted by the men, who reflexively hurl pirropos, a sly catcall that still catches me off-guard. Apparently, grown men don’t wear watches in Mexico City; I’ve been asked the time maybe twenty times. When it starts to piss me off—’¡Ay, preciosidad! ¿Cómo estás?’—I whip out my invisibility shield, a pair of glasses that owe everything to Dorothy Malone in The Big Sleep. They’re thick-rimmed Guccis, probably fake, bought for $25 in Hanoi, and when I wear them I walk in a politically-correct world once more. Much to my chagrin.
Mexico is foreign, but comfortingly familiar, too. I speak Spanish well enough to explain my castillian lisp, and I can ask vendors what things are; an unthinkable luxury in Southeast Asia where I gamely chewed on all kinds of mysteries. Mexicans read. There are as many book stalls as taco stands, and they sell real literature, not just Who Moved my Cheese? (though that’s here too). In Southeast Asia, almost all the bookstores sold second-hand English books only, or sometimes English language text-books. The market for Thai or Vietnamese literature appeared to be close to non-existent; those squiggly scripts were for commercial use only. I could never feel at home in a culture that doesn’t read, and here I give a little inward cheer at every blanket spread with classics.
It’s not clear to me how one would get by in Mexico without passable Spanish. Only in the poshest districts are store signs in English. While Southeast Asia sometimes seemed like a theme-park run for my benefit—from English operating systems in the Internet cafes to every single vendor, no matter how remote, being able to quote prices in English—Mexicans seem to be under the impression that they live in an independent, self-sufficient, proud country, and that monoglot English is your problem, not theirs.
I like it already. I want to stay.