Mexico City: Bedbugs, $60 Shoeshines, and Papal Demons
In fall 2013, I briefly lived in Mexico City for about a month and a half. I never got the chance to write about it, mostly because I was too busy and it felt like every moment I was about to have the opportunity to sit and write, some new, odd, and unusual thing was happening.
I was in New York City when I made the decision to go. Why Mexico, I’m not really sure. I had no home. No plans. And I had a matter of days to figure out where I was going next. Where I end up is often arbitrary and decided on a roulette of whim. Sometimes, it’s answering to the question of “where I will get the most of my money?”. Other times, it’s “where will I live most authentically and not constantly be engaging with and having my feet stepped on by other Americans?” Typically the answer to both of these questions are the same types of places.
So I simply figured Mexico, namely Mexico D.F., was worth a shot and found a guy who was in Amsterdam at the time, subletting his top floor apartment in a neighborhood (or colonia, as they are called there) called Roma Norte for a scandalously low price. Unlike other adventures I’ve embarked on, I was feeling jaded at the time. I was superficially excited, but I was in a dark place on the inside, feeling no more like a nomad… but more like a drifting vagrant on the run. I wasn’t without action or decisiveness, but I didn’t feel like anything I did mattered.
The night of my trip, my first flight was delayed and I ended up arriving at LAX 2 hours after my flight departed, at 2AM, rescheduling my flight into Benito Juarez on a 7AM flight. I waived the opportunity to get a free hotel room and slept on the floor using my backpack as a makeshift pillow. A cleaning lady continuously bumped my backpack with a vacuum cleaner. This made me feel exceptionally homeless.
I was working for DeviantART at the time. And I was notoriously known for 30,000 feet deploys and commits from weird IP addresses in other countries, but I didn’t say anything at the time to anyone. I wanted to disappear. I was tired of the identity I had created for myself by negation. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t own things. I’m the kind of person who never wants for anything. I’m the kind of person who always bucks tradition. And, you know, when you are all of these things, or none of them rather, people lose all ability to relate to you except through the lens of voyeurism and vicariousness. Maybe not all who wander are lost, but sometimes those who wander are misguided gypsies.
When I first arrived into Mexico City, it was mid-afternoon and the taxi driver dumped me off at the corner of Calle Chihuahua and Avenida Frontera (as a side-note, I never did figure out what Frontera, which translates to “border”, was actually supposed to be a border to, because the eastern border of the Roma neighborhood was actually one street over on Cuauhtémoc). Given that Teseo, the guy who owned the apartment, was out of the country, I needed to call the building’s super to get in. This was an old lady named Nati, who spoke no English and was perhaps the sweetest little old lady I have ever met. For perspective, Nati lived in the building’s garage and spent her days parking cars and mopping the stairwell with turpentine and flannel sheets. Despite her meager living, every morning when I ran down the stairs, she was there to greet me with a polite smile and a calm “buenas.”
My first meeting with Nati was one of confusion and near-panic and within moments, turned all of the gloom and funk hanging over me into a surreal awareness that… well, when shit goes all wrong, sometimes it’s pretty fucking funny. And that’s what my life in Mexico was. Things were constantly going haywire in the worst way possible, but even as I was living it, man it was a riot.
And so, I will share, now, all these horrible stories.
My penthouse was great. From the front door of the building to the inside of my apartment, there were 5 separate locks with 5 individual keys. There was an initial door that entered into a very tiny atrium leading to a second door which led to my terrace. Far inside the terrace was the glass door entrance to the apartment’s interior. The penthouse was, inside, fairly averaged sized (maybe 400-500sqft?), but its terrace was 800sqft and had an impressive view of the central historic district with both sunset and sunrise views.
Inside, although decorated quite fascinatingly, there was something left to be desired. It was dirty and despite frequent attempts to resolve this with Nati, the water heater was broken. Fortunately my gym down the street, which I went to daily, had hot water.
The weather was hot, and I often slept with the front door to the terrace open. About a week in, I found myself waking up in the middle of the night to bites. I wasn’t sure what was causing the bites. They were too small to be mosquito bites, I was sure. Ant bites? Maybe. Stinging flies? Possibly. Maybe it was the open door. I closed it one night, but still, there I was once more waking to weird track marks down my arms and legs. Parts of my body that were buried under the sheets also victim. I wasn’t sure what to say, but all signs were pointing at bedbugs.
I had already invited my boyfriend, Joel, who I had just recently started dating less than a month before, to come visit… and was horrified of the thought of him being exposed. For me, it wouldn’t have been a huge deal. I had no home. But he did. I wasn’t sure what to say to him. We had only just had the “is this a relationship” talk and I didn’t know what the protocol was for having the “do you want to share my insect infestation” talk.
I also didn’t want to say anything to Nati or Teseo without knowing for sure. A cleaning lady, Vicki, came by once a week, but I found communicating with her difficult. We never seemed to be in the apartment at the same time. And she often left notes for me asking if she could take the leftover bread and any uneaten food I had in my fridge. Her letters were filled with spelling errors that are relatively confusing for someone who doesn’t speak the language natively.
Ah yes, te llebaste. I sort of appreciated this, though. As a non-native speaker, these aren’t the same types of spelling mistakes I make. When your ear is trained differently, the way you fail is different too.
So yeah. I moved the bed from the wall and decided to flip the mattress to inspect for bugs. But I didn’t see any bugs, per se. It was just that special kind of dirty that causes immediate gagging. I’m pretty sure there were blood stains. The stains were probably millimeters wide but in my head, they’ve been exaggerated to several feet in diameter. And at that point, I really didn’t know who to turn to, lest I let the guy subletting his apartment to me know that I was privy to his undercover murder house.
I ended up booking a separate place to stay for a couple of weeks in a hotel in the historic district, put all of my clothes in a tightly sealed plastic bag and bought new clothes at the mall–which is a huge testament to how cheap it is to live in Mexico. I took the bed sheets to the corner tintoria (full-service laundromat), hoping for the best. It’s really hard to explain just how dirty and tainted I felt. No matter how clean my clothes were or how many showers I took, every time a stray hair tickled my arm, I reactively flinched.
When I went to collect the sheets from the tintoria, the lady handed me back someone else’s bed spread. Alarmed, I pointed at it, letting her know, “Este no es mi cobertor…” (this isn’t my cover) We had a back and forth in which we discussed various colors and I misremembered what color my different blankets were, but it ultimately was uncovered that my blankets had ended up on a delivery truck out to someone’s house and I, feeling more guilty than ever, eeked out, “podria haber estado chinches…” (“there may have been bedbugs…”)
Several phone calls were made and after waiting 20 minutes at the counter, getting the stink eye from the tintoria owner and her daughter, the plastic-wrapped bed spread was thrown in my arms and I turned and walked out never to return.
As it turns out, I learned after a week, I did not have bed bugs. I just had a very dirty apartment with random biting bugs. Which kind of bugs, I may never known.
Remember me saying that living in Mexico is cheap? That’s when you’re not getting accosted by weird men on the street after dark. One night I was walking back to the historic district from the Reforma colonia, a bit north of Roma Norte and a bit west of Centro Historico, with Joel after eating dinner. Walking in D.F. is not particularly dangerous, no more than walking in a large American city is. In fact, it’s sort of charming at night. Different street vendors walk around with carts selling tamales or trying to buy your used junk. Like an ice cream truck, you can hear these from blocks away, playing recordings. The recordings are often a monotonous voice chanting things like, “Hay ricos tamales oaxaquenos calientitos” (guy selling fresh tamales made in the style of the Oaxaca region of Mexico) and “Se compran colchones, tambores, refrigeradores, estufas, microondas, o algo de fierra viejo que vendaaaaaaann” (guy buying your old mattresses and household appliances). Sometimes the cart has a sharp whistling sound. This might be a steamed yam guy. But it might also be the knife sharpener.
I was sick and my leather boots were speckled in many layers of dirt from D.F.’s dusty streets. When the old man in his dingy grandpa denim slacks and red suspenders kneeled down before me on the street, offering to touch up my shoes for 120MXN, I thought, “Yeah I need it. And that’s not a horrible price, why not.” We talked as he quickly buffed my left shoe, he moved on to the right. And suddenly, he was asking for 240MXN. I quickly said, “No, you said 120…” to which he replied, “That was per shoe,” and before I knew it, he was doubling the price again in some other shifty manner. It was confusing and suddenly I realized, we were in a darkly lit street and no one was around and he was grabbing the last bit of cash…. 1000MXN, roughly $60-65 USD at the time. It sounds ridiculous and there’s really no explaining how it all went down–the guy was a grifter. I’ve tried to recount the whole experience with Joel, but between the two of us, we’ve never been able to really rehedge the whole thing in a logical fashion. It was all very crafty slight of hand, robbery.
For days, I was somewhat angry about it. I could have walked away, but I’d be putting myself at risk if he had a concealed weapon. The guy didn’t look particularly noteworthy and I knew reporting it to the police was worthless. But… here’s the kicker, he did do an excellent job shining my shoes. They looked brand new. And he gave me tips on how to keep the shine looking good. So he definitely knew what he was doing. And because of that, it was suddenly comical. $60 wasn’t a lot of money to me. It didn’t ruin my week. So I learned to let it go.
It was the most expensive shoe shine I have ever received.
72 Hours of Non-Stop Fireworks and Gunfire
Everyone knows about Dia de los Muertes. It’s the day after Halloween (Noche de Brujas [Witches’ Night]) on November 1st. However, Mexico celebrates a few holidays before these days, including a very important holiday called Dia de San Judas Tadeo. San Judas Tadeo is the Patron Saint of Bottle Rockets. Actually, it’s Saint Jude the Apostle, but you’d never know that based on a visit to Mexico. It started off with a fairly lovely celebration involving some folk dancing and street celebration (link to video) .
As I’ve mentioned a few times now, I was sick for a couple of weeks. I won’t go into excruciating detail, but it felt like my upper abdomen was being stabbed with a knife repeatedly, I didn’t have any antibiotics with me, and it wasn’t available over the counter in the pharmacies. As a result of my illness, I had very little awareness for a few days of anything occurring around me unless its impact somehow managed to outdo the sensation of being stabbed.
Sometime on the 27th of October, it began. It sounded like distant gunshots in the middle of the afternoon. I was walking up the street along Parque Alameda on a beautiful Sunday afternoon trying to find a pharmacy willing to sell me under-the-table Cipro, when I heard a lone blast from several blocks away. “Que extraña,” I remarked to the cashier but she seemed disinterested and unfazed by the noise. As I walked back to the hotel empty-handed, the shots started to increase in frequency, but everyone on the streets seemed about as unmoved as the pharmacy cashier. I tried to reason an explanation internally, deciding quite judgmentally that crime must be so crazy in Mexico that people don’t even notice gunshots anymore (side note: crime in Mexico City proper is about as bad as any similar sized city in the United States). In hindsight, this was a really stupid observation because I’d been in Mexico for a month at this point and had never heard any gunshots before then.
The streets outside Parque Alameda are crazy on weekends, filled with all sorts of people (link to video). It’s like being in Times Square except without all the highrises and advertisements for Broadway shows. No one is really going anywhere in particular. There’s just a lot of strolling and enjoying being with your friends and family. A lot of street performers. But as undertones to all the music and laughter, distant gunshots continued to erupt from some neighborhoods southeast of the area.
“What is that??” I thought, but I was just too sick to even want to go investigate. When the pharmacist couldn’t even hook me up with “acetaminofeno,” I was about to lose my mind, wondering how a pharmacy couldn’t have something as simple as Tylenol, only to have a woman interrupt the conversation–I guess she had traveled to the US before and explained to me that outside of the US, everyone knows it as paracetamol, all the while gunfire continued to ring in my ears. After thanking the random woman, I commented how loud the guns were, but she just shrugged as if it were nothing to her.
As the day grew long into the night, the gunshots turned into bottle rockets–and so many of them. They were being set off from the roofs of adjacent industrial supply stores and were spaced apart by only a matter of seconds. Even more confused, I turned to Twitter but it felt like the combination of gunfire and fireworks were just one big inside joke amongst everyone. My favorite tweet was from a guy who said, “Escuchar fuegos pirotécnicos mientras estás cagando… El df lo tiene todo” (“Hearing fireworks while you’re shitting, D.F. has it all.”).
The fireworks continued all night long and were still going strong the next morning. You couldn’t see them though. They were commercial grade only in volume but cheap with no visual effect. About as disappointing as you can get. This went on for 3 full days. I’m not really sure the exact time they finally stopped, but it was at some point in the middle of the night the day before Dia de Muertos… when things grew more crazy. The streets then were flooded with all sorts of costumed figures, including video game characters, oversized gorillas, and a demonic version of the Pope? *shrug*
Because of my very non-Hispanic facial features, the face painter did a very weird job painting my face to the extent that I made a small child cry and overheard a young girl asking her mother, “What’s wrong with her face??” I thought my face looked pretty cool, but I guess it was too weird for some people 🙂
A Plate of Paella Bigger Than Your Head
While both of us were simultaneously sick, Joel and I headed over to a part of town that is only frequented by locals and ended up in an upstairs traditional restaurant, Casa Rosalía. The waitress was a very portly grandma-type figure with a very assertive discipline in the way she spoke. The restaurant was fairly busy and even though it was nearly 6PM, still relied on fading sunlight as its only lighting. A group of musicians were set up in the center of the ballroom-sized room playing an accordion duet. A somewhat irritated-looking old man in a baggy sweat and salt and pepper hair sat at a neighboring table, occasionally throwing shade at us with his side eye and sipping the tiniest cup of coffee (link to video). He didn’t seem to enjoy the music.
I had read Foursquare reviews of this restaurant. Foursquare is fairly popular with Mexicans and so all the reviews are by locals, but you’ll be hard pressed to find decently rated restaurants outside of Condesa (one of the richest, popular neighborhoods), everything else seems to fall around a 5-7. Everyone recommended the paella at this restaurant. “Q rico” they all said. And “OK” I said. Naturally we should be eating seafood when we both have stomach illnesses. It’s logical, right?
The waitress gave us a mild look of approval as we both ordered it, the only positive expression we’d see from her. When she returned, she came bearing two plates of paella, each one certainly, and with no exaggerations, bigger than my own head. I ate about 1/6 of it. It was delicious. I wouldn’t say it was as good as a Spanish paella but it had its own unique charms in terms of freshness and flavor. But it was just way too much.
The old lady finally returned and seemed confused, asking if we didn’t enjoy our food. I reassured her that it couldn’t be better, but that we were both sick and that it was difficult to eat so much. In some restaurants, the waiter would take this as a cue to take the food away. But she stood and stared. When I asked for “la cuenta, porfa” (the bill), she shook her head no, and told us that we had to eat more.
It must have been here aggressive head-of-the-family nature, but we obliged and continued to peck at our paellas. She would return every now and then, still not pleased with the amount of food left on the plate. After half an hour, I started doing things I haven’t done since I was maybe 5, like trying to rearrange food on the plate so that it looked like I’d eaten more than I had and even reaching across to Joel’s plate trying to advise him on how he could do the same with his (“Look if you scoop the rice to the sides, you can see the bottom of the plate…”)
The waitress returned a fourth time and finally I started to beg for the bill, telling her that it was delicious but we feel very sick and don’t have anywhere to keep the food in order to take it in a box to go. She finally gave us the bill, but not without a stern lecture on wasting food and several grumpy looks from the old man nearby.
“Women don’t do that around here.”
I lift weights. These days, I do Crossfit and do more olympic-style lifting, but back in these days, I was more into powerlifting, like back squats and deadlifts. I didn’t want to give that up when I was in Mexico, so I got a membership at a gym near my apartment in Roma Norte. It wasn’t a huge gym, but it had a respectable amount of equipment encompassing two floors of the building and having a dance studio. Going to non-Crossfit gyms, I was used to there not being many women in the free weights area and getting all sorts of odd looks, but it was a very different vibe at this gym and I got a weird peak into gender cultures one day after finishing up a fairly low-weight set of back squats.
I passed by the locker room attendant and started taking off my shoes. I was kind of on edge because there’s a lot of etiquette and rules that vary in other countries when it comes to gyms (for instance, the concept of having to shower naked in front of other people in Iceland before using the pools) and I really had no idea what was normal here. The locker room mirrors were plastered with some sort of fake notice about how it will cost you like, 50 pesos to wash your hands at the sink if you don’t stop wasting water (as an outsider, it was hard to not take this at face value and was kind of weird until I realized it wasn’t for real). And occasional reminders from other women in the locker room that you shouldn’t leave anything, even stuff that is worth nothing, in the locker room while you work out because it’ll get stolen.
People were usually helpful in letting me in on these little things without me really asking for it. So when a group of four women suddenly accosted me one afternoon in the locker room after my workout as I was putting my street shoes back on… I just assumed they were going to clue me in on some other thing I didn’t know. We don’t do that around here, one of them said. I was lost. I thought maybe she meant change clothes in the locker room and I looked around and didn’t see anyone else changing. “Oh…” I said, not really sure how to react and feeling kind of put on the spot, maybe even embarrassed a bit for committing whatever faux pas. But it was a short-lived feeling of embarrassment because my naivette caught up with me and I realized after the fact that they were being kind of rude. So I picked up my bag and started to walk out.
Suddenly, in English, I heard the words, “You’re gonna get ugly.” I turned around, the locker room attendant suddenly to my side, my face a crinkled sack of bewilderment, and stymied out the words, “Excuse me?” I felt like I was in some teen movie from the 80s. I didn’t realize bullying like this actually took place in real life, especially amongst adults. I think these were adult women at least. Maybe they were just super-developed teenagers who confused me for a teen. I don’t know.
“You keep doing those exercises, you gonna get big and you gonna get ugly.”
The words just kind of hung there in the air and I wasn’t sure what to do. “Ummm.” My face was getting red. Other people outside of the locker room could hear my side of things and were starting to stare. I continued to hem and haw. “I…. ”
The women started to laugh and I didn’t know what to do, so I just turned around and left, not really feeling like playing into their drama. I later found out they were dance students taking some sort of combo Rumba/Hip-Hop fusion class and after each session they would stare out into the adjacent free weights area to ogle the guys who lifted weights.
It’s a really negative story and I would never make the idiotic claim that women there were “bitches” or anything so assuming like that, since that’s really not true at all… I met so many genuinely nice people in D.F., but it gave me that crude insight into gender roles–the things that go unspoken. Far less women do serious weight lifting (Mexico historically has not had much presence in the weightlifting category of the Olympics from female competitors).
But it hung over me. And I suddenly became more aware of how much of an outsider I was in the gym. And how devastating it must be to be a woman who lives here permanently and feel like you can lift so much but yet you can’t lift off the oppressive weight of everyone’s disapproving stares.
Scarring My Hand on a Pyramid
Before leaving D.F., I took a trip out to the Aztec pyramids. This involved taking the metro to a kind of far-out bus station that ran out to the pyramids. However, it was not a tour bus, but a normal bus route that just happened to have an hour-long route that led out to these semi-rural pyramids. To be as creepy as possible, the bus company takes photos of every single passenger on the bus before the bus departs the station in case the bus gets hijacked and all the passengers kidnapped or held hostage. Halfway into the bus ride out, a traditional Mariachi player in full costume boards the bus at the outskirts of a random neighborhood and serenades us all with music. The music is actually pretty fucking good, despite being about as campy as possible.
Finally, we are dropped off at the pyramids. It was a semi-touristy place, I admit, filled with these horrid souvenir shops. The guy selling admission warns us about the sunlight, which is very, very fierce out in this area, even at ground-level. None of the shops had sunblock, so I ended up buying the largest and gaudiest sombrero I could find to shield me from the light. The sombrero was about twice as wide as my body and had a weight to it that made it impossible for me to turn my head.
From every direction, you could hear the sound of coyote whistles being sold from random men.
And then there were the actual pyramids. The largest one, Pyramid of the Sun, is one of the largest pyramids in Mesoamerica, very, very steep with short steps. The steps, for both directions, have a shared wire rope. Many people scale these pyramids, many of them very, very old women with no lower body strength. They would hold on to the wires and pull themselves up using just their arms.
Even with the hat on, the sun was making me somewhat dizzy and so I grabbed on to wire near the very top… where most people tend to let go… and the wires suddenly tend to fray. The wires hit the outside of my hand in such a way that gently ripped open my skin, forcing me to have to sit down and apply pressure at such a high altitude to get it to stop bleeding.
I don’t really have any scars. My skin has always managed to be pretty resistant to scarring somehow. But even still today… I have a scar from the time I climbed a pyramid. And that’s pretty cool.
But it was all pretty fucking good.
All of these are pretty negatively based stories, but you know, I kind of had a blast in Mexico. There’s gorgeous art everywhere you look. History. Some of the nicest people you could meet. Dia de Muertos has the most beautiful flower arrangements. Conchas and Pan de Muerto are like the best breakfast breads ever. Mezcal tastes like a soft velvety dream. And, in general, there’s very few places I’ve been that felt quite as alive as D.F. did at night.
TQM, Mexico D.F.!