As I landed in Mexico, a dad with a wife and teenage daughter was looking at some kind of softcore video of some woman taking off a blue plaid shirt. I tried to deduce whether he downloaded this before he flight for this express purpose or if he was disobeying the no-internet-during-landing rule. I looked closer with my peripheral vision and it seemed he was simply browsing through social media. Odd.
I too am on this trip with my family, though I have the luxury of being separated from them by a few rows, thanks to their less impulsive flight booking practices. They are along for the ride on this trip. I have “backpacked” with my dad before, but never my mom, who has already said several times how this trip “wasn’t her style” and how “when she goes to a place she wants to experience it. I try my best not to take this as a personal attack. To my immediate left is an empty seat then a window seat occupied by an overweight man who seems to have purchased both, since he confidently put a back in the seat between us, sure that it would not be taken. I am grateful for the extra legroom. It is a good flight from JFK to Mexico City, and I happily read almost the entire trip. I have picked up the new novel A Terrible Country, my first recreational read since sometime in the summer. Finally, some fiction I don’t have to respond to! So I suppose I won’t do so. This ends my literary discussion.
I know this is a vacation, for me, my mother, and father, by it won’t be easy. It’s never easy. It gets easier: you get smarter, more culturally aware, and your foreign language skills improve. But it never gets easy. I don’t do this because it’s easy, and having my less sprightly parents will undoubtedly pose a challenge. Nonetheless we embark with confidence, for who knows from whence our troubles will come? It’s better not to know, go boldly and deal with problems as they arise. Despite my sureness, my largely unearned confidence and borderline cockiness, I know deep down this will be a learning experience for me as well. On this trip I will get better. I will get better at speaking Spanish, I will get better at logistics, I will get better at research. Such is the skill set of the world navigator, the explorer: to ever seek to know more, and to wander further. I fear that what I hear about the dangers of Mexico City and Colombia will be true, and this will by my, our, last voyage.
Surely, this will not be Club Med, or a cultural walking tour of Manhattan despite whatever machinations my mother has in store for turning this odyssey into such. She was invited, to be sure, and invited under the assumption that the trip would change given her presence. The trip, however, could not sustain a complete remodel. Our itinerary was too tight to avoid public transit and thus, I reasoned, the real Central and South America.
Paradoxically, I also had to keep my mom happy, not just safe. The trip had to conform to her needs, otherwise she may refuse to let me travel alone anymore. I had to appear capable. My Spanish would certainly help in this regard.
On the logistical side, I had been researching this trip for months. We would travel in cities primarily by Uber, which many online and personal acquaintances recommended from a safety standpoint. Rides on Uber are tracked, and drivers are vetted and reviewed, minimizing the risk of kidnapping. At least now, if I get kidnapped, maimed, or otherwise ‘taken for a ride’ other than that which I ordered, I could leave a 1-star review and, if I am feeling particularly disgruntled, I could refuse to leave a tip.
Our Uber from the airport passed in silence. I’m not ready to be a cheery tourist. Not yet. Mexico City must prove itself. Once this Uber drops us off safely, I’ll be ok.
We arrived in one piece at Lagunilla market, the last of the open open-air markets at 6 pm on a Sunday. It’s marvelous. We shared a mango raspado, a Mexican snow cone. And a kebab of strawberries, dipped in melted chocolate and Cocoa Puffs. In the confusion of the market, in which we seemed to be the only ones confused, we came across a man selling chapulines, or toasted grasshoppers. I offered a 5 peso coin for just a few but the man was adamant that I simply take them. So I did, thinking I had to get my parents to try them, or at least watch me try them and perhaps reconsider the cowardly child they think I am. My mother seemed to do neither, and I was left splitting the two grasshoppers with my increasingly adventurous and recently retired father. That man knows how to burn and rave at close of day. The crickets were surprisingly good (I noted lime and salt), and as I crunched I considered the role consumable crickets have played in my life as of late. These snacks, which are somewhat common in many parts of the world, are in a gray area in my gustatory profile. I still get a novel pleasure out of eating such things, yet each time the experience of eating bugs grows slightly less novel, and actually somewhat normal. I wonder if, some day, I will buy crickets or grasshoppers buy the bag and not give it a second thought.
Wandering through the stalls of grilled meats, bootleg DVDs and tacos, we eventually came to a clearing in the blanketed bazaar where a young girl was singing a Spanish song into a microphone to the block while her father played guitar behind. We stood awkwardly as the joking, laughing, smiling block party resumed around us. Cars passed, pressing our bulky backpacking into locals hanging out on milk crates. A woman in her mid thirties with lustrous brown skin and bright red lipstick was selling micheladas. For those unschooled as I was, micheladas are, from what I gather, constructed as follows: a large paper cup has its rim coated coated in a cherry fruit paste, not unlike the saccharine, almost crunchy, tooth-cleaning paste my dental hygienist would coat my teeth with when I was younger. The still- wet candy coating is dipped into dried sesame-like seeds, and the bottom of the cup is coated in lime juice and salt. Next the cup is filled with a 40-oz beer until the foam starts to run over the side.
The woman handed the drink to me, and instructed me to sip the foam so she could empty the beer bottle in the cup. Thinking we were done after the 40 oz. was emptied, my parents and I passed the cup around once before the woman took it back.
“Clamato???” she asked.
“Gringo!” she yelled playfully with a teasing eye-roll. I yielded and she laced my drink with red liquid from an unlabeled bottle.
While I can say that it was not totally disgusting, I can say that clam juice and tomato was not an improvement to the cherry-beer I had been enjoying earlier. When I get home and talk with one of my coworkers who is half-Mexican, half-Guatemalan, she will correct my pronunciation (me-chel ah dahs not Michelle-ah-das) and say that I shouldn’t have given in to this plea to add clamato to my drink. She will say “yeah that’s weird,” and I will agree. The world may be polarized on everything. One may call a tomato a fruit or a vegetable. However, I think it is time that we acknowledge the atrocity that is Clamato, and try to rid the human race of this tragedy. My parents gave up quick, and I made it halfway down before tossing my seafood soda into the trash.
For dinner, we purchased a Seuss-esque green chorizo, grilled and chopped atop a flame-fed griddle the size of a playground foursquare grid, and pile on a bluish-gray pupusa. We also ordered a tortilla of the same confederate uniform hue, and had it piled with a very banal meat-colored diced pork. As we stood around the griddle, backpacks bumping into nearly every passerby, we tried to ignore the marketplace around us eyeing our every out-of-place move, while simultaneously trying to take in all that was happening in the tent-city market. Upon receiving our meal, we pulled chairs for three different tables, whose mostly hipster-y occupants were happy to lend a chair to us.
Our long walk to our hotel in the Reforma section provided a pretty nighttime tour of a handful of Mexico City’s (thankfully) safe neighborhoods. South of Lagunilla, past two Santa Muerte shrines, we arrived at El Zocalo, the most popular square in Mexico. Strolling through past dusk, one cannot help but see the comparison between El Zocalo and Times Square. Mexico’s most tourist-laden district has fewer lights and advertisements for teen clothing stores, but off-brand Iron Men still roam in an attempt to get a few dollars from tourists, and street performers still set up their spaces to breakdance or play music in one as in the other. However, you will notice the main draw at the Zocalo is more magically real than the Times Square depicted in the movie Birdman and all the works of Carlos Fuentes combined. In the eerie dusk of the mountain city, drums began to beat and the smoke of some unrecognizable herb filled the air as we saw Nahua natives were waving smoldering plants in cup, and waving them over the heads of participants, while another group were entrancing a ring of tourists with their hypnotizing dance. I reluctantly pulled myself away as my mother quickly fled the scene to continue on to the hotel.
Heading west through a packed pedestrian thoroughfare, we saw more performers, artists, and native Speakers for the Dead. Approaching the Alameda Central, and the Museo de Bellas Artes, the crowd thinned and the city gave way to quiet paths, trees, and intertwining lover just out of the lamplight, absolutely devouring each others’ faces. On the other side of the park, older lovers were packed more closely, dancing in circles like convection currents. The moist lipped millenials on the dark side of the park seemed unaware that they had this side of the park to look forward to in old age.
We passed the Museo Diego Rivera, and strolled down Paseo de Reforma to the Cuauhtemoc Monument, then turned left. The sun had set hours earlier on Mexico City, and while our stomachs swelled with green meat and clam juice, we felt as though we were owed conventional Mexican fare, after walking so far out on a limb on our arrival. The feet of the older cohort in our party were aching, so we sought the most suitable Mexican restaurant within a block’s radius of our hotel. We settled “Vip’s,” the Distrito Federal equivalent of Denny’s. I ordered a Tecate Lite, which I did not know existed, and was satisfied. The ‘rents got lemonades, the first of many on the trip. To this day, I ask myself, “Why lemonades?” There must have been some reason. Were they afraid of the water, so they misguidedly opted for something that wasn’t water, even though it was undoubtedly made from it? Or did they think they grew lemons here, and that this was the ideal beverage? Perhaps my parents do not drink anymore, and they just didn’t tell me? But they sipped the michelada, I remembered. Oh well, some mysteries are to remain unsolved forever. Between the three of us, we ordered chips and a salsa verde, my mom ordered a tortilla soup, I ordered chicken enchiladas, and my dad got a plate of chicken mole. As one would expect from a diner in nearly any culture, nothing was spectacular and the flavor in nearly every dish seemed subdued. My weary wanderers were happy however, sitting in a soft, diner-like cushioned booth. We retired early to mitigate the effects of the early flight the following morning.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.