Moments in Mexico

The air in Mexico City looked gray. It’s possible the sky was just overcast and hazy, but through the window of a taxi, still waking from a red-eye flight, the air itself was visibly gray. Gritty streets, graffiti, and construction dust led to the cleaner, hipsterish Roma neighborhood, where we would stay for the few days that I spent with my daughter, Eleni, before she left for solo travel adventure in Peru.

Home-base was Hotel MX Roma, a small building with welcoming staff…

…eclectic lobby furnishings, and vibrantly painted walls. Our room might not have been all of 200 square feet, but comfortably held a queen-sized bed, TV, breakfast nook, a jury-rigged place to hang clothes, a large, modern shower and gleaming fixtures, for about $60 per night.

Advice from my friend, Shelley, brought us to the neighborhood, and we were quick to follow the rest of her advice: “just eat good food and drink good mezcal!” Research revealed that the well-reviewed mezcaleria called El Palenquito was just a few blocks away. The bustling sidewalks felt safe and comfortable at all hours of the day and night. Other than language differences, we were just as much at ease as in any upscale neighborhood in the U.S. That bears mention here because of recent aspersions cast on Mexico by certain U.S. politicians.

Even the language differences disappeared inside El Palenquito, which played blues music on the speakers hidden in its low, dark, wooden ceiling, and whose English-speaking waitress educated us on the 50 or so mezcals on the menu and explained that the huge phallic symbol rising from the adjacent stone table was a tahona, a device hitched to a horse to aid in crushing agave as part of the mezcal manufacturing process.

Small glasses of Enmascarado 54 and Madrecuixe sent us into the warm night. We wandered to Jardin Pushkin and played with the locals’ dogs and children, all running around loose and fearless in the dark. This was where we saw the first of several kids throughout our visit face-plant into concrete and quickly raise themselves laughing instead of crying as so many American children would.

On our walk, we noted potential future bar and restaurant stops in our neighborhood and settled on the aromatic, frighteningly-open-air-but-crowded-enough-with-locals-to-convince-us Tacos Frontera. It was delicious and turned out to be a safe buffer for our mezcal nightcap, 400 Conejos, at Gin Gin.

The next day, January 6, was Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day), a major local holiday that celebrates the Three Wise Men’s visit to the baby Jesus. Throughout the day and night, wherever we went, hundreds of people hustled through the streets carrying large boxes of Rosca de Reyes, a cake in which one slice contains a figurine of the baby Jesus as a traditional prize.

We started our day walking from the heart of Roma to Chapultepec, a park roughly twice the size of New York’s Central Park. First stop was for street soccer.

A couple miles from our hotel, the streets widened to contain cobblestone boulevards beneath cooling canopies of trees and leaves. It was urban beauty that equaled anything I’d seen in Paris and led straight into the park. Its first major feature was the Monumento a los Niños Heroes, recognizing child military cadets who died while defending Chapultepec Castle, the last major resistance to U.S. troops who had invaded Mexico in 1846.

From there, the architecture of the Museum of Modern Art drew us in. The free museum kept us there for an hour, entranced by the interior design and the quality of its collection. One exhibit covered the oppression of women in Mexico, and even beyond that exhibit, themes of oppression, violence and sensory distortion were vivid and pronounced.

Back outside, we aimed for Castillo de Chapultepec. We navigated streets closed to traffic but crowded with tents, booths and their resident hawkers of T-shirts, candy, umbrellas, blankets, dolls, keychains, sunglasses, wrestling masks, etc. The walk uphill to the castle at altitude on our first day in town tired us, so we stopped occasionally for long views of greenery unfolding before us for miles and then multiple tall-towered skylines in the distance.

The cost of the castle tour in pesos and time that we wanted to spend outside chased us. We decided to rent bikes from a roadside kiosk. Suspiciously, the rental agent required us to surrender our passports, but we were feeling bold after surviving Tacos Frontera.

The ride through the Bosque section of the park was especially beautiful. We stopped at various water features and statuary, rode past families pick-nicking on the grass and wound through a military base, all within the confines of Chapultepec.

The bikes were due back by 3. We rested and phoned my former colleague and Mexico City native Raul Escalante, who suggested how to spend the hours before he could meet us at the hotel at 8:30 to give us a night-time driving tour. On Raul’s advice, we Ubered to Palacio de Bellas Artes. Entering the Centro Historico district, traffic slowed to the typical congested pace of New York or Chicago. We felt compelled to explore more widely than deeply, so we spent just a few minutes admiring Bellas Artes.

We walked a mile or so on Av Francisco I. Madero, leading from Bellas Artes to Zocalo, the city’s historical central plaza. First stop was Antiguo Palacio de Iturbide, which Raul had recommended for its interior architecture.

On our way, we saw this sad scene in the middle of the street.

Where the street dead-ends into Zocalo, we saw Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México, the largest cathedral in North America.

And these flags flapped above the square.

Raul also recommended Salon Corona, a legendary taco joint, which in Chicago terms, is a marriage between Manny’s and the Wiener’s Circle as far as both food quality and crowd energy.

Raul met us that night to cover more ground in his car than we could on foot. He drove us past his haunts in Roma, the neighboring La Condesa district, and then back down to Zocalo. He explained the significance of certain historic buildings in socio-political terms, revealing his proud leftist leanings.

We learned a lot, including the fact that Mexico City is beautiful at night with bustle and lights to match any other large international city. Back at the hotel, Raul helped us negotiate with the desk to arrange for our next day’s tour of Teotihuacan.

The next morning, anticipating a vigorous hike around and up and down the famous pyramids of those pre-Aztec ruins at Teotihuacan, we filled up on breakfast at Belmondo, a hearty bowl of scrambled eggs, beans, tortillas and nopales (cactus leaves). Some mariachi stopped by. After one song, the leader grabbed his cell phone, perhaps to take an order for his next appearance, and I wondered if there was some sort of mariachi dispatch service.

We met our shuttle to Teotihuacan at the hotel and picked up another dozen or so guests at various hotels. The shuttle wound through some now-familiar streets down to Zocalo before heading north through the poorest-looking streets we’d seen yet and then onto a wide highway that passed through miles of industrial ugly followed by more miles of piles of rubble disguised as houses, stacked improbably into hillsides, the brilliant pastels of their exteriors at odds with whatever pains of poverty lurked inside.

About an hour outside Mexico City, we hit the outskirts of the pyramids and rumbled down an unpaved path past cottage-industry shops that had sprung up around the attraction. Rafael, the guide who explained the history and scenery on our bus ride, gave a tutorial in avoiding eye contact with the vendors who would accost us soon after we left the bus.

In the dusty parking lot, a couple of our bus-mates from Los Angeles complained so loudly about having only three hours to explore and about needing “el bano” that Rafael could not finish his speech. He pointed them across the Avenue of the Dead, the main drag through ancient Teotihuacan, and we would never see them again.

Rafael told us about the pyramids mirroring the surrounding mountains and which astronomical phenomena could be experienced atop the pyramids during the vernal equinox. He told us what time to re-convene, to follow the rules on the printed signs, and otherwise have the run of the place, walking and climbing as we saw fit.

As predicted, the vendors descended, but they understood body language well enough. Because we were closer to the Pyramid of the Moon, we chose to climb it first, saving the imposing Pyramid of the Sun for our finale. It is hard to know what sense of spirituality in such a place is real vs. imagined or even implanted by what we read and hear. But I have long felt in tune with beliefs of indigenous people, especially when walking in their footsteps, and I felt that at Teotihuacan.

The steepness of the stones was imposing. My normal workout involves sprinting on steps cut into hillsides, but this would be a slow slog, due to narrow space for footfalls, the creakiness of my knees and the altitude. I kept hold of the wire that ran up the spine of the steps, and I kept my head down for fear of dizziness or disorientation sending me tumbling back down the jagged corners of the stones. Looking down also let me study the stone patterns and narrow my focus to what it might have meant to a guy climbing this structure when it was built in about 100 A.D.

Between heartbeat, breath and where my mind went, that minute of climbing moved me. At the top, I felt elevated, literally, but more importantly, spiritually, by how far I could see and the strange, fleeting impressions of unprecedented shapes, angles and shadows.

I was cautious near the edges of the pyramid, but pushed myself as far as I dared in order to experience the place as fully as possible.

Eleni had stopped to check out some other ruins, so she climbed after me, and we lingered atop the absolutely mystifying Pyramid of the Moon until we remembered there was much more of the Avenue of the Dead to explore.

We still faced the harder climb up the much taller Pyramid of the Sun.

By the time we reached the top of that one, the crowd there and the deadline for the bus soon sent us scrambling back down.

The bus departed Teotihuacan proper and took us to an appointed nearby shop, where we enjoyed an outstanding English-language demonstration of the uses of the maguey plant (juice for fermenting into pulque and mezcal, string, needle and thread, paper, etc.). Then we learned about obsidian, a stone used for tools, weapons and art. For example, looking through a quarter-inch slab of obsidian straight at the late-afternoon sun was almost exactly the same experience as seeing the sun through eclipse glasses.

Inside, I bought an obsidian figurine that spoke to me. Because of the intrigue it holds for me visually, and as a reminder of the spiritual powers I felt at Teotihuacan, I have given it a place of honor as the only object atop my writing desk. The impetus to remove the other clutter testifies to the power of this talisman as a force toward clearer mental and emotional paths to better writing. The life-death motif of the figurine reminds me of the existential importance that writing plays in my life and of the nature of time — the balance of urgency and patience — that fuels my writing now that I am likely midway through my life.

The bus home arrived to a perfect sunset.

We hopped off at the stop nearest Zocalo so we could spend early evening there. Our walk took us past this stunning monument to Benito Juarez.

When we reached Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México, only Spanish-language tours were available. Eleni decided she would understand well enough, and though Teotihuacan maxed me out spiritually, I could still take in more art and history.

Conventional wisdom is that not much good happens in Zocalo after about 8 p.m., so we caught an Uber back to Roma and enjoyed the outdoor seating at El Palenquito, followed by a nightcap of Bocanegra beer at Soul La Roma, yet another hipster bar, this one marked by the recent vintage motorcycles on display.

We built our last full day in Mexico City around a visit to Frida Kahlo’s childhood home, La Casa Azul. Research for food in that neighborhood led us to Tostadas de Coyoacan, another better-than-fast-food-and-most-fancy-food meal, along the lines of Tacos Frontera and Salon Corona. We sat at a counter with mounds of tostada toppings, maybe 20-30 styles of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, ceviche, octopus, and cow’s foot (“Tostadas de pata res”), which made both Eleni and me gag.

We had 1:30 tickets for Frida, so we walked off the tostadas in the block-long, block-deep Coyoacan marketplace. It was a compressed version of the carnival-barkers at Chapultepec, but these stalls were crowded on top of each other, two or three times our height, and crammed around narrow aisles, plied by singers and dancers. It was an overwhelm of color, raw and cooked food, textiles, clothes, accessories, toys, and household goods.

In need of sensory relief, we left the marketplace for a trot to Trotsky’s house.

Then we spent about an hour at Casa Azul.

We had planned to visit a nearby bar made famous by frequent visits from Frida and Diego, but we could not find it. We called Raul, who directed us to its unmarked location two doors down from where we’d looked. We decided to meet there, and I had the joy of texting him: “We are seated beneath a bull’s head, watching Man City v Lyon. Heaven.”

Over one Rey Zapoteco and one Siniestro, amid the historic bullfight posters and beneath the bull’s head, we talked politics and watched the waiters dance to mariachi. It was the kind of place you could imagine sitting all day, every day just to stay out of the heat.

Raul walked us through the plaza to his favorite ice cream shop and then drove us through the University neighborhood. We stopped to admire the Olympic stadium.

Then, Raul drove us through crooked, cobbled, narrow streets of San Angel, the quietest neighborhood we visited. As night fell, he led us to a church where one of his relatives had been married and then set us up with his friends at El Carmen Deli for a fancy dinner.

My mezcal came with a side of fried grasshoppers. Eleni’s gin and tonic was a tableside preparation that involved fresh-smoked rosemary infused inside the upside-down glass, plus a few citrus rubs and juniper. Dinner was beef tongue taquitos, fillet, sea bass, garlic mashed potatoes, and asparagus. We went home early, because the next morning, we were expected at 9 at the home of Guillermo “Billy” Grimm, who, after I had interviewed him by phone for a magazine article last year, invited me to visit if ever staying in his city.

Billy is an octogenarian, an extraordinarily accomplished businessman, former government minister, and was a primary mover in the development of Cancun. My article for the St. Thomas Academy alumni magazine covered his time at that school, which had served as a springboard for his success.

We Ubered to his home in Polanco, where his housekeeper, Rosario, and dog, Max, greeted us. We waited in his living room amid beautiful art and furniture, gazing at his garden courtyard. He descended his staircase dressed perfectly in tie, cuffed white shirt, tailored trousers, vest, herringbone jacket, gleaming loafers, and red and blue striped socks to match his tie.

Billy led us back upstairs to see his office and what he jokingly called his “ego wall” filled with about a hundred diplomas, certifications, citations and commemorative photos: Billy with the minister of this and the secretary of that, and most joyously for Billy, Billy with Melina Mercouri, the star of “Never on Sunday.” Among those wall hangings:

Breakfast was some of the freshest fruit I have ever tasted, juice, delicate cheese, chilaquiles and espresso. Between his dress, his taste, his age, his air of distinction, his inquisitiveness about Eleni’s upcoming trip to Peru, the warmth of his conversation and his wisdom, Billy reminded me of my father. It is a compliment to both of them.

Billy drove us aggressively in his Benz to Museo Nacional de Antropología. It’s a world-class museum, also in Chapultepec, that we had skipped in favor of the outdoors during our prior day in the park. Between hugs and long good-byes, Billy recommended we visit the outdoor statue of Tlaloc, the rain god, a 23-foot tall, 300,000-pound monolith that was moved, despite much controversy, from Coatlinchan to its current location, and upon installation in 1964 was blamed for historic rains in Mexico City.

There is much to recommend the museum. We spent four hours there, taking occasional breaks to stretch and relax in the sun-drenched courtyard or to enjoy a light misting from its water fixture.

One display explained the origin of “400 Conejos” as a phrase from the Aztecs that described the effects of alcohol rendering a person’s brain and behavior the equivalent of “400 rabbits.” Armed with that knowledge as we left the museum, we Ubered back to Roma, stopped in at Gin Gin, and ordered “a total of 800 rabbits” to brace us for that night’s flights to our next destinations.

In the cool jazz quiet of Gin Gin, revisiting our favorite memories of those five days in Mexico City, we realized that was not nearly enough time to see all we wanted. In fact, it might have been just enough to convince us to take a return trip.