Christie Shary

Traveler's Tales - My Sense of Mexico City

My Sense of Mexico City

When I think of my life here in Mexico City, many things come to mind. My senses are assaulted first thing in the morning when the ancient church bells of Lomas de Chapultepec chime to awaken me. I next hear the milk truck in the street, with its ‘moo' sound, then the boy who walks before the garbage truck with his large dented bell to notify the maids that they have arrived, hoping for a propina, a tip.

I must hurry and join the maids on the street to hand them our garbage since our maid, Rosalia, is ill today. I feel so out of place in my Gap jeans, standing next to the maids dressed in black and white starched uniforms, thick braids hanging down their backs. They all stare at my blond hair, which catches the cool morning breeze of this high mountain valley nestling Mexico City. I smile at them but they seem afraid to smile back. Instead they turn their faces toward the street.

I search the sky. Will it be cloudy today? Will it rain and cleanse the air, always heavy with pollutants that sting my nose-the refuse of black automobile fumes, cooking fires and leaking butane tanks, which are stacked haphazardly on rooftops next to satellite dishes and tenacos-water storage tanks.

Returning to the kitchen, I read my English language newspaper. I savor the news from ‘back home' like a child gnawing on a Hershey Bar. It has been four days since I've been visited by the paper delivery boy. I must remember to give him some pesos. Perhaps they will keep him a regular visitor at my door.

The Mexican coffee I sip is strong, dark as a moonless night. It jolts me completely awake and fortifies me for my day on Mexico City's streets. I must remember to take lots of change for the vegetable market, the mercado. No one ever has change here in Mexico. They must keep it stored in a pit somewhere in the great vastness of the Sonoran Desert.

The local brass band interrupts my concentration. Their sounds are harsh, off-tune as they play Cielito Lindo. Should I pay them to go away? Offer them yesterday's leftover flan, now a bit on the gooey side. No, probably not. If I do this they will serenade me each and every morning, something I do not desire.

As I continue through my newspaper, I miss the swish of Rosalia's mop underfoot, the heavy pine scent of the cleanser she uses. For Mexico is the 'land of eternal mops.' I think back to the last time I landed at the Mexico City Airport when the restroom attendant had insisted on mopping between my feet as I sat on the toilet. My shoes smelled like pine for three days.

I continue to think of Rosalia; of how much I have grown to love and respect the heavy-set woman who has become a substitute sister to me. She is the eldest of twelve children born to indigenous farmer parents. She is kind, wise beyond her years. She works like a tireless robot for one hundred pesos a day. Our Mexican friends say we pay her too much, that we are spoiling her. After all, the legal daily minimum wage in Mexico is twenty-eight pesos, less than three dollars. And most workers are far underpaid.

The buzzer on our front gate rings again and again. Is it someone selling pan de dulce, the sweet morning breads of Mexico. Or is it the shoe repairman, the knife sharpener, with his bicycle turned upsidedown to provide power for his sharpening tool? Then there's the 'corn man' with his little steam engine whistle, who peddles barbecued corn door to door. Again the buzzer assaults me-it is a maid searching for a new job, her indigenous accent heavy with the state of Oaxaca.

"No, gracias, no necessito, no gracias, no necessito," I have learned to say, like a parrot in training.

Mid-shower, the hot water heater turns off. My hair still sticky with the remnants of shampoo, I hold my breath and pour a bucket of cold water that I keep handy over my head. Wrapped in a fluffy blue bath towel, I glance at the clock. It couldn't be only nine a.m.-the power must be off again.

Fortified with an additional cup of cold coffee, I set the alarm system, and make sure the electric fence on the tall outside wall topped with curved barbwire is on, just in case the electricity resumes.

I then venture out with my third chauffer in as many years. Somehow they keep robbing us. Don't they think we pay them enough? Do we not treat them fairly? But Enrique's such a nice young boy. He's always smiling and showing me photos of his three kids. He used to drive one of those big stinky green buses that say 'eco safe.' Sometimes he still drives like a bus driver. Why does he think us so rich? I wonder if he will try to kidnap me today as other drivers have done to their employers? For kidnapping's on the rise in Mexico City. They send bloodied severed ears and fingers to the victim's family. They usually never see them again. The government says it's all drug-related. I think it's peso-related.

We drive along and everything is uneventful for the time being. But at each intersection I clamp my eyes shut, and pray it won't be another 'dare' game between drivers. We usually win. We have a van-its's survival of the fittest here in Mexico. Size rules.

We enter the hubbub of Paseo de Reforma, one of Mexico City's longest and busiest streets. The cars jam together, inching for the first place in traffic. They are clogged like a swarm of bees competing to get into the hive.

I watch the street people, the indigenous poor of Mexico, as they entertain for pesos. There is never lack of entertainment in this city of twenty-four million. Why is their life so difficult?

One man blows fire, his face black and scarred from runaway flames. I wonder how long he will live before mouth cancer claims him. Three brothers stand pyramid style on top of one another, their faces painted white with big red smiling lips. Two small barefoot children wearing baggy plaid pants stuffed with balloons, somersault like tumbleweeds in the dirty street before the car, then run to collect pesos before the light turns green. I wonder where their parents are.

A Cruz Roja volunteer interrupts my thoughts when he approaches, a locked donation can in his hand. I wonder if he is authentic, or is it just that his hungry children are in dire need of tortillias? A one-legged old man hobbles toward our van, his empty pant leg pinned to his backside. A young, barefoot mother with sad brown eyes approaches, a baby tied in a worn green rebazo on her back. Two toddlers with matted hair trail behind her. She, too, pleads for pesos, her hand upstretched in that perpetual manner of Mexico's poor. We should carry a bucket of pesos in our car. No, we can't do that. The valet drivers at Hacienda de Las Morales would certainly steal them.

Another street vendor pushing a bright yellow cart peddles rainbow-colored sugar tacos stuffed with roasted pumpkin seeds, greasy churros, and chicharon, huge fried pieces of pork skin splashed with salsa, that the locals love so much. Of course, several street dogs, all the same color of yellow and covered with flea bites, beg for their wares. But the vendor merely kicks them and they run whining in different directions. Everything is so full of chaos and action. It is like we have a 'personal' yet sad three-ring circus in front of our car.

Before the light at the intersection flashes green, horns begin to bleat and the traffic presses forward in one giant glob. The circus participants scatter before the cars, which move like slugs through the intersection.

I inhale, press my only peso coin into a fleeting old woman's hand before rolling up my window, trying to hold the smells of the leaking muffler on the truck before us at bay. But before I can do so, I feel water splash my face, the tip of a window washer's spray bottle pointed at our windshield gone astray. I turn and stare into the desperate face of a young boy dressed in a tattered Mickey Mouse t-shirt. Why isn't he in school? I sigh and stare into my lap, knowing that his children, too, will be tapping at car windows some day.

I shake my head and close my eyes for a moment and try to imagine the lushness of my manicured garden in California which faces the Pacific. But this vision is harder and harder to come by these days.

My dream is shattered by another 'tap, tap' on my window. I open my eyes, and stare into a silver gun barrel. Oh, God, I'm about to die here in Mexico City! No, the gun can't be loaded, can it? Where are the police? I then remembered seeing two of them snoozing in their rusted out car farther up the street. No, we don't want to mess with them. I think of the last mordida my husband had to pay that fat policeman on a trumped-up speeding charge.

"Su bolsa, por favor," the gun's owner mouths. I unfreeze myself and reach for my purse, which is on the floor. But my driver, too, has spied the gun and decides that we are not about to make any contributions to this ladron-this thief. He jams his foot on the gas pedal and we pivot around a combibus loaded with maids and gardeners and across the intersection, almost colliding with a junior, as the sons of the wealthy are known here in Mexico. This one has the normal dark, slicked-back hair. He wears a gold Rolex watch and drives a shiny red Corvette. He speeds by us and zigzags through the clogged traffic like he's competing in the Indy 500.

I feel my eyes fill with tears. Is it the pollution? Perhaps the ozone level has hit the critical stage again today. Or are my tears caused by the soaring crime rate that I fear so much? Or do they come from the sadness of the poverty that hovers over so much of this city like a giant black cloud? Or is it just that I'm homesick for golden Pacific sunsets? I'm not sure anymore.

We finally reach Chapultepec Park, a leafy green respite in this, the world's largest city. The streetside entrances are cluttered with discarded plastic spoons, cups, and popped balloons, all left over from Sunday's revelers. A contingent of street sweepers dressed in orange jumpsuits are busy cleaning with their twig brooms. Why weren't we sent to London or New York? I am so weary of living behind barbed wire and electric fences. Weary of searching for my body alarm and mace before I enter a mercado; oppressed by the horrible poverty that seems to bother no one.

Yet there is so much I love about Mexico. I love the people; their kind and gentle nature. I love the beautiful countryside, crowded with volcanoes, pine forests, and ancient haciendas; I love the Colonial cities with their glorious cathedrals; and the tiny pueblos with adobes of white and cobalt blue. And then there are those beautiful powdery, white sand beaches on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula that feel like velvet underfoot. I also love Mexico's glistening turquoise Pacific waters, all skirted by tall coconut palms.

As I think of all our adventure here in Mexico, I experience peace for a few moments. I feel warm at the thought of 'her' people and take in the tranquility of the trees as we whiz by until I hear a scream, the squeal of brakes. The smell of burning rubber is strong as the speeding red Corvette makes a quick turn before us. I look outside my window to see a maid lying at the side of the road, the victim of this junior's madness. It is not an uncommon sight in this city, where sidewalks are used for parking cars, rather than by pedestrians. "But there are plenty more maids here to replace her," as the wealthy would say.

She does not move. I fear it is too late for her. The truck in front of us swerves to miss the body on the broad avenue, left like a discarded tire. Who will prepare food for her family tonight? Who will tuck her children into their orange-crate beds? We must stop, make sure she is really dead, move her to a place of dignity.

But Enrique refuses. He crosses his chest in reverence to the maid and tells me we must not get involved with the police, that we may be blamed for her misfortune. I begin to protest, but realize it is futile. For Enrique is also my body guard and what he says rules when it comes to my safety. But I am so tired of being treated like a young, stupid child. How I long to drive my own car, park before the mercado, and go inside unattended. I am weary of someone eying my every purchase, laughing inwardly at the Gringo prices I am forced to pay.

Reaching Superama, Mexico's idea of an American supermarket, Enrique pulls up right in front of the door, then jumps out and hurries to my side of the car. I step out, look both ways to make sure that no one is about to accost me, and hurry inside. The first three aisles are lined completely with candy. It is like a giant sugar rainbow with its many colors of red tamarindo, green and blue lollipops, tinted coconut bars and other curious-looking treats. The next two aisles contain nothing but cleaning products, all with different-colored pine scents, which I sometimes swear are used to camouflage the rancid smell of Mexico City.

I wander the aisles for a few minutes, happy to be away from the chaos of the street. The store also smells of not quite-so-fresh fish, tarragon, papaya, mango, cilantro and warm tortillias, which spill from a special machine. An obrero, a laborer, grabs a package of warm tortillas wrapped in brown paper, while counting the few pesos in his hand. He then tries to decide between a bottle of Coke or a tiny package of fatty meat. I want to take him to the checkstand with me, pay for his meager meal. But would he be offended? I'm not sure anymore.

I remember that I need canned milk for Rosalia. She likes it warm in the morning, laced with a bit of coffee.

Next I grab a huge pizza-like pan and a pair of tongs and head into the bakery section, lined with trays and trays of lard-laden baked goods. She loves conchillos best, the rounded sugar-coated pasteries shaped like conch shells.

After I finish shopping, we continue on Reforma toward El Centro, the historic heart of the city. Once classical Spanish buildings, now covered in a soot-like film, cry out for refurbishment. Graffiti laces walls, fountains and foundations, and trash tumbles from garbage cans, and fills every available crevice in the cracked sidewalks.

Parque de Alameda is filled with maids and their novios-their boyfriends-on their day off. They kiss and hug as if starved for affection. Beggars fill every nook and cranny of Avenida Cinco de Mayo, dressed in tattered ragged pants, their eyes dark and hungry, while vendors shielded with pink plastic awnings crowd the sidewalks.

Some peddle corn cooked over tiny charcoal burners; others refrescos-punch in huge glass jars; some sell bright plastic dishes, shoe laces, leather keychains, sandals and painted wooden toys. It is another circus in itself, the true face of Mexico City, so far from our 'little expat world' in this metropolis. I feel my chest tighten. I cannot breathe. It is all too oppressive. I must get out. I can't stand it anymore. I will visit the Ciudadella Mercado with its pink-topped plastic stalls another day. After our morning experience, I am too nervous to watch out who is following me; who might be slicing the bottom of my shopping bag out to steal its contents. I am unable to deal with the vendors who try to cheat me. The ones who charge me the highest prices. I need a break from all this chaos.

But in order to reverse our course, we must go around the Zocalo, Mexico City's huge main square. I stare at the giant red, white and green Mexican flag furling against the gray sky, then at the majestic gothic cathedral, which stands guard over this city. But it is slanting, slowly sinking into what was once the great Aztec empire, filled with splendid pyramids, temples and canals, all destroyed during the Spanish Conquest.

Finally we reach fashionable Polanco, one of the city's few wealthy colonias. It is like Beverley Hills in the middle of a giant ghetto. Yet I still can't get that dead maid out of my mind. Her children must be waiting for her to come home by now, to cook them some rice and frijoles.

I try to focus my attention on the chic sidewalk cafes reminiscent of Paris on tree-lined El Presidente Masarik. The polished marble and brass facades of Gucci, Hermes, Armani and Ralph Lauren are also present, all sporting guards toting machine guns, for which it is rumored they have only one hour of training on their usage. Whiffs of cappuccino and fine wines, tequila, and broiled carne asada seep from the restaurants, where the wealthy of Mexico City sip and chat, seeming oblivious as to what is happening in their city. It is almost surreal.

Has this city gone mad? Perhaps poisoned by its own pollution? All I know is that I am weary. Very weary. I wonder if it is time that I say "Adios?"