An ex-pat by happenstance, Michael has spent most of the last three years in and around Germany. Some of his non-fiction has also been featured in "mental_floss" and "Americas."
On the web: www.michael-ward.com
There we stood just outside the doors of Mexico City's Benito Juarez International airport, waiting in the tawny lights that flood the passenger pickup loop. With us, one large backpack, a duffel, a laptop, and a daypack. Just enough luggage to get my girlfriend Katharina and me through the next six weeks south of the border.
A friend of ours, Luz, met us at the airport and arranged for us all to share a taxi to the southern part of the city, where Katharina had booked the two of us a homestay. The taxi, however, is not outside where we expect him, and it's getting kind of late.
After talking for a few moments, a diminutive gold and maroon '95 Sentra slows to stop in front of us. And from the look of it, I hope it will start up again. On either side of it are about dozen decals like those on a college football helmet. From the driver's side pops out a young man ready to help us. His hair is short and gelled in every direction. He's wearing a baggy grey hoodie and sagging pants.
I motion to the trunk, which he gladly opens. We'll just throw our luggage in and be off, I figure. Katharina and Luz are already inside waiting. Then I look back down to find two 12-inch woofers taking up most of the trunk. As impressive a sight that might be to others, I'm tired and I'm wondering how our luggage is going to fit.
The duffel is just amorphous enough that we can slide it in over on the right; the laptop shimmies down the left. I glance at the big backpack and then again at the stickers, wondering just how they got there. Fuel efficiency, number of safely delivered passengers, or maybe sacked pedestrians? My mind swirls with the sordid possibilities.
In any event, off we go, Luz in the front, talking friendly with the cabbie, backpack riding uncomfortably between Katharina and I, all the while the sounds of new Mexico City pulsate through the car's radio: kickin' house music.
There's no way around it. To ride in the back of cab barreling through Mexico City is to experience is closest thing I know to a real-life amusement park ride. And while I feel for the pedestrians that Frogger their way across these concrete arteries, that's not us. We're riders voyaging through one of the world's largest metro areas in a car with bad shocks, little visibility, and a driver for whom puberty is just a couple blocks away in the rearview mirror.
Then there's that music. The staccato, erratic beats of Sak Noel's "Where? I Lost My Underwear" scream out of those woofers resting inches behind us in the trunk. Suddenly the taxi experience verges on hallucinatory.
The humid night air has awakened the street vendors. And their ghostly fluorescent light peaks out from makeshift tents as throngs of people wrap around corners waiting to feast on gorditas and quesadillas filled with anything from cheese to cow brains. We whiz by it all, weaving through traffic with the elegance of a fighting toro in high heels, occasionally slamming on the brakes just in time to miss a truck in front of us or another cab to the side. Dare I say it? This is fun! Fun, that is, until we realize that Luz and our post-pubescent cabbie have no idea where we're going.
To be lost in Mexico City doesn't offer the same level of excitement as riding roughshod through it does.
In fact, it's quite sobering.
They say Mexico is a violent place, a land of narcos, kidnappers, and abandoned mines filled with the dead victims of either. When we first thought about traveling through the country, nearly everyone mentioned those "facts" to us and begged that we stay in touch throughout our trip. Now I feel we're getting a little too close to this seediness.
Quickly, as we turn a corner, the barrio becomes distinctly poorer. Edifices stand on the border of calving like glaciers, and the occasional shimmer of razor wire circling the roofs of some of the homes doesn't exactly say, " ¡Bienvenido! Mi casa es su casa."
Luz hints that we could stay at her place tonight and then try to find the house in the morning, but Katharina and I politely decline. For my part, it's stubbornness and the sense of adventure, however morbid, that comes with being lost. We stop to ask for directions three times from different people on the street. With each pause in our trip, the streets become narrower and darker than huitlacoche.
It's then that we discover we've gone too far. With the car in reverse, we flit back up the one-way street for a few blocks until we find the right avenida, Miguel Hidalgo. Another left and right puts us just where we need to be, our smiling hosts rushing from their doorway to embrace us. Our lateness has had them terribly worried.
I give Luz 200 pesos (about $16) and she assures me that it's enough to cover the cab fare plus the time spent trying to find the house. To me, it's a bargain. She climbs back in, the music cranks up, and glimmer of those decals on the side of the taxi rides off into the night.
The warmth of our new hosts and their well lit, comfortable home, makes me ashamed that I had any of those thoughts in the cab, that I had been seduced by my imagination. Our lives were never in any danger from big, bad Mexico. In fact, from the airport to our homestay, we were met with nothing but kindness and respect. Even the people we stopped along each ill lit street did everything they could to help us find our way.
Maybe the problem wasn't with Mexico after all. Maybe it was with me.
Image courtesy of Felipe Castillo Vazquez, under a Creative Commons license.