Breaking into Mexico: Get Ready for some Headspinning

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I’m stepping onto the metro when three Mexican ladies half my height, making a triangle formation, push around me. It takes about two seconds onto the train, right after I breath, to realize my phone is gone from my left pocket. It’s surreal; the dirty lights of the train are flashing, it shakes as it starts moving, and there’s not enough air. All three woman stand around us, mute and staring at nothing, while we squawk like incomprehensible chickens—four American tourists and me, yelling and helpless as everyone on the train looks at their feet. Each woman gets off at a different station (leaving the possibility of cornering them till the police impossible), and I know by the time the first one’s off, that my phone is gone.

Looks like this wasn’t the Mexico trip I’d been planning.

You go through strange motions when semi-disasters like that happen—it’s not all devastation and tears. At first it doesn’t really seem like it actually happened, no matter how much you’d prepared for this possibility in light of Mexico’s reputation. I was light-headed on the point of elated, continuing on to the Frida Kahlo museum and still soaking in the art, the dresses, the psychedelic blue of the walls. When a thunderstorm crashed over us, causing a power outage in the massive market complex we hid in, and all the sewers exploded with brown water, we ran through the streets laughing and screaming—hopping from awning to awning, shooting mescal all the way—and I kept saying out loud, “What a weird and wonderful day.” It was only when I got back to the hotel that what had happened hit me, and I became so sad I couldn’t get out of my chair.

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These delayed reactions and their consequences are a running theme of my two weeks in Mexico. Maybe it’s all part of the city’s disorienting, bewitching charm. Salvidor Dali said that the country was “even more surreal than my paintings.” It’s surrealism on acid Technicolor: in front of a cathedral complex, schoolgirls dress up as bearded kings and dance a frumpy march, swatting swords at frowning paper mache queens.

This is the Mexico that grabbed at me right away—the food, stately buildings, noise, dust, thunder. The city with its yellow crust of smog my plane had to break through before the city could open endlessly in every direction, the city whose box-tight barrios edged right up against the airfield. I saw the homes stacked on top of each other in rainbow colors as they grew up the yellow mountains, and I thought, “Oh my God. This is something new.” It’s been fucking with me ever since.

Take Lucha Libre. I wasn’t overly enthused at the prospect of going to a wrestling match, but man, this was no normal wrestling match. It’s a pageant played out in spandex, where grown men hop and sway, dance on backs and swing off arms while the crowd screams and the lights narrow down. They’re telling a story in these short, over-choreographed rounds. Zapata revolutionaries fight Egyptian pharos. Evil Spanish conquistadors fight against the heroic Mexicans. The mask is their honor and their lifeline, and when the evil Spaniard pushes the last Mexican to the ground, he pulls his head back, the spotlight centers in, and he rips the mask off. The stadium gasps, it’s the kind of devastation GRR Martin packs into a plottwist; the people’s hero is defeated but stay tuned for next week’s rematch!

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And yet, as much as lucha libre was silly, it brought crazy amounts of fun and joy to the revved up crowd, creating a myth among the crowd. I went expecting sexist machismo antics by the barrelful and while that was definitely there, there was a surprising amount of hip-thrusting and sashaying (not to mention the general pageantry of it) that seemed intended for a gayer audience (not an impossible thing to believe, in the gayest city in Latin America). It was all so overdone and that just forced me to get all the more into it, by the time the forth beer-the-size-of-my-chest was handed to me and my hesitations melted away.

It’s fast, rough, weird, but also beautiful: basically a metaphor to the city itself. Because this smog-poisoned city also packs the world’s biggest inner park. A place where foodstalls tastes like fine cuisine and murals are masterpieces. Those boulevards their dictator made look (so much) like Paris are also the places tourists are most likely to be robbed at night. Where the metro has a tendency to breakdown every second or third stop, but plays the WKND and Smashmouth (yes, Smashmouth) on tv’s while waiting for the next one to come. The country where all the stories that you hear are about brutal muggings, kidnappings, and murder, and yet everyone you meet is unbelievably warm, welcoming and helpful. The end result? Get ready for some head-spinning.

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It’s that gleeful disorientation that was hitting me as I crossed the Passeo de la Reforma, soaking in the glass high rises that encroach on the marble Spanish mansions, and that disorientation that made me trip over a stone traffic cone and fall onto another traffic cone.

It smashes into my ribs and elbow. My gasp becomes a wheez. Stumbling up she hands my glasses he my water and the heat and the noise and the circle of people; it’s too bright, the nausea’s rising. The cross walk is counting down and I sprint across like everything depends on it. Hiding in a bus shelter, the pain bursts in my chest like a firework. An old man with a Stalin moustache comes up to check on me, and after I assure him I’m okay I feel, with a rush of blood to my chest, that no one has ever been so kind to me in my life.

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And that penchant for pretending the disaster didn’t happen? Yeah, that became a problem this time: when I stood up, grabbed my arm with my other hand and kept exploring; deeper into neighborhoods I didn’t know, farther away from people who could help me. My chest ached and the skin round the elbow was growing but this was a scratch and it would heal like all scratches. By the time I stood under the sequined art deco dome of the Palace de Bella Artes, I had to grit my teeth to tell the ticket lady “para un por favor.” I stared up at the valiant somber expressions of the valiant freedom fighters marching across the walls to their fiery victories as my arm spasmed and sent flights of pain up my veins.

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Yeah, that one was stupid. But nothing like this had ever happened to me before: I go on trips where crazy fuck-ups happen in brief enough stints that they don’t get in the way of the fun, but are still interesting enough to weave great stories out of. The Heat stroke in Thailand. The head cut in Laos. The day of, this was still all going to blow over, to heal. I read my book on the hostel terrace, dizzy with pain but willing it away because it was going to pass; come tomorrow I’d be back into diving into this crazy city.

And yet, it must be said: thank God your friends are smart when you’re crazy. Hugo was annoyed we weren’t going to Chapultapec park to enjoy his Saturday, instead needing to come across the city because I was in too much pain to get up. “Don’t worry, it’s getting better,” I texted from my cracked Ipod touch. He took one glance at me, lying on two chairs with my arm slung in an ice cube-filled towel, and said, “Yeah, no. Dude, we’re getting you checked out.”

It’s probably not what he’d expected when we’d met two days before, sharing a night exploring Centro’s best Mezcal bars while discussing cultural differences. He said he’d show me around the city, but probably didn’t consider that the kind of tour-guiding he’d be giving, would be through Mexico City’s finest clinics. But he brought me to the pharmacy, translated all the doctors and nurses, brought me the next day to the only x-ray clinic open on Sundays far up north of the city; argued with me that I really did need that x-ray, it really would help, at least to ensure things were all a’okay.

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When the doctor found the fracture in the bone and insisted a 6-week full-arm cast was required, I probably would’ve either a) lost my mind with frustration, kicking the clinic floor or b) run away and never gotten the cast, if Hugo hadn’t been there, rubbing my shoulders as he said, “Six weeks really isn’t so long.”

We went to a restaurant, crappy enchiladas arrived, and I had an agonizing time trying to eat with knife and fork. I couldn’t even eat these sad floppy things that looked like it had been prepared days before. Trying to write in my journal, the letters came out looking like a child’s and I started to realize just how completely my trip was suddenly ruined. What was I going to do? How could I possibly still make something out of this when the arm I use for everything was now useless?

“You don’t know how lucky you are, friend.” Hugo said.

Consider this: if the fracture had been a couple inches higher up, I would’ve needed surgery. Case 2: I need an orthopedic specialist, and I needed him today in order to continue onto Guanajuato the next day, but what are the chances I’ll actually find one open on a Sunday? But the area we happen to be in has seven, eight, nine orthopedic clinics within a five minute walk of each other, and one happens to be open. Why are there more, here, than anywhere else in the city? We’re beside the Basilica of Guadalupe, the major pilgrimage sight in all of Mexico—I guess when God doesn’t heal your broken bones, you go to the next best thing, right?

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And that basilica, right there, was something else altogether. As the myth goes, in the early 1530’s the virgin Mary came in a vision to Juan Diego, a native Mexican peasant, painting her image into his robes with the flowers he’d picked. That image became the most important in Mexican history, central to both inspiring conversion in Indigenous Mexicans and the Mexican revolution.

Now five churches stand on or around the hill, all from different centuries and styles, all packed with worshippers from across Mexico. None is more fascinating than the most recent, the sprawling 1976 basilica. Light falls from an orbed ceiling on floating gold leaf and the hundreds of bowing pilgrims, and a giant gross hangs like a bird suspended above our heads. Going downstairs, there’s a line of people jostling towards an electric ramp and, stepping on it brings you just underneath that ancient tunic with Mary—that center for Mexican faith—for a couple seconds before you’re whisked away with all the rest.

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Pushed through a combination of religion and theme park antics, I wandered out feeling dazed and dream-sedated—the sun in my eyes, cast on my arm, and in this square that calls itself Christian you’ve got a clock venerating the Aztec rain god Tlaloc. And all that resentment that had been building up—why’s this happening to me, fuck this, fuck my cast—washed through me like rain. I sweat out that anger.

We climb the steps to the tallest, and though the heat and the new dead weight on my arm is exhausting—every exhale gives a sharp pinch around my (probably) cracked rib—Mexico is beginning to unfurl and expand before us. A thick cloud runs above the rooftops. Tiny colorful houses climb the far hills, existing in complete opposition to the glass-strikes of towers in the central district. The swirling cyclones of horns collide with the earth-shaking bell chimes from the cathedral. And underneath all the yelling people made for the best photo spots, the Tlaloc clock plays a bellchime melody that sounds so old, but somehow so familiar.

I couldn’t be mad; this was one of the most amazing places I’d ever been.

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