Ciudad de Mexico

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 tambi&eacuten, 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! ¿C&oacutemo est&aacutes?’—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.

Patria

Yolanda was horrified that we were being served nothing more than pretzels and soda. She had flown from Caracas to Miami, and was now heading from Miami to Mexico City. The extra miles were to double her baggage allowance, but American Airlines was rewarding her custom poorly.

‘!Es que tengo mucha hambre!’ she cried. The steward tossed her four extra bags of pretzels and explained that meals were served to business-class passengers only. No, she couldn’t buy one; they only had enough onboard for those passengers.

I passed her my pretzels, slightly in awe of a grown woman who would make her hunger known to a planeload of passengers. She leaned towards me, complaining in rapid, breathy Spanish. I was dizzy on her perfume. Both her lipliner and her hair were South American beige, a shade I recognized from my days living around the corner from Bergdorf Goodman. Her neckline plunged and her bosom heaved. I kept thinking, flesh. Like a hotdog, she was compact but bursting. This lush, beige-haired granny was now the instructor in my informal, pre-Mexico Spanish immersion course.

Yolanda Rodriguez had given up on Caracas. She had lost her business and was fleeing Chávez’s mess with four Vuitton suitcases. She wasn’t allowed to take money out, but this hadn’t curtailed her in the duty-free shops. Venezuela, she told me, had had everything.Wonderful people. Mountains. Beaches. Snow. Sun. Nature. Prosperity. (And a bargain cosmetic-surgery industry that had served half of Florida, I thought privately.) But now this man, this Chávez, this dictator, had crippled the country with his corruption. Venezuelans had never needed to emigrate, not like the Mexicans. The only ones who had moved to the US were the super-successful, the Carolina Herrerras. But now, what else could they do? They had to pack their bags like peasants and leave with practically nothing.

She wept loudly as she showed me her grandchildren, still in Caracas, where they were vulnerable to the street crime, the riots, and the shortages. Imagine, no more gasoline on sale in an oil-producing country! No Coca-Cola, no hamburgers. Nothing.

Then she composed herself, pouted, and asked me to guess her age. 52 and sun-damaged, I thought.
“42?” I said, ever the flatterer. She giggled like a little girl.
“!Cinquenta! Tengo cinquenta años de edad!”
We agreed that she didn’t look fifty, that it was extraordinary that she had a daughter of 34.We discussed my age—thirty, same as her youngest—and my sad failure to reproduce. I’ve had this conversation in sign language many times over the last year, but at least now I get to partake fully. Progress.

“I am exhausted today,” she said, “Can you see the tiredness in my face? Is it very noticeable?”
I reassured her, though her face was so close to mine I couldn’t see clearly. Yolanda’s need for personal space was smaller than mine. (Just when I think we Irish are passionate, emotional Catholics, Latinos remind me that we are no more than Northern Europeans; practically WASPs, for God’s sake.) She was relieved, and confided in a loud whisper that it was especially important that she look well today. She was meeting her Internet boyfriend for the first time at the airport. They’d met at an online dating site and corresponded for three months. Juan was Mexican, distinguished, very passionate. Since she’d lost her business, she’d spent up to eight hours a day talking to him online and by phone.

‘He calls me his queen,’ she said, ‘Can you imagine? He is very emotional, much more than me. Here is his picture. Handsome, no?’

She had met many men online, but none like Juan. This one might really work out. She hoped they might build a life together in Mexico. Did anglos date online, she inquired? I assured her they did. She expressed sympathy for our obvious disadvantages in this art form. Although she spoke hardly a word of English, she knew it to be a cold language, lacking the rich vocabulary of Spanish, barely capable of expressing real sentiment. This must restrict our relations terribly.

I bristled. I speak Spanish, French, and Gaelic, but I’m a chauvinist for English. My language makes my prouder than my nationality. As far as I’m concerned, English is a beautiful mutt; muscular, infinitely flexible, and deserving of its world dominance.

But I conceded meekly. Spanish was a wonderfully passionate language well-suited to the needs of online dating, I said, and who knows what love poetry poor old Shakespeare might have tossed out if only he’d had that Junior Year Abroad in Seville? Yolanda patted my hand and offered to help me if I chose to use Spanish online dating sites. Perhaps I would be able to have a family then.

The flight attendants prepared for landing, and so did we. Yolanda applied her lipstick twice, and I helped her with the powder. We brushed the pretzel crumbs out of her cleavage, and she crammed on her Liz Claiborne straw hat. Together, we walked towards the four suitcases that would seed her life in Mexico. I kept stopping to let her catch up to my lanky strides—I walk like she talks—but lost her for good at the duty-free stores, where her nerves demanded a final, soothing retail therapy. I was happy to give her privacy for meeting the man of her future, though I’m not sure she would have seen it that way, such was her bounty.

I hope she’s dancing salsa and toasting her future with Juan and Mexico today. I hope she brings all her passion, her appetite, and her warmth, to inventing herself again. And I wish I could thank her for forcing me to land in Mexico with fluent Spanish again, after ten years of corrosion. Yolanda, !que sobrevivamos!