It’s interesting that one of the best days of my trip would open with me filled with regret and existential questioning. Why, I wondered, did I think it was a good idea to take a 7 a.m. flight out of San Jose? Why was I getting up at 4:30 in the morning to catch a plane just so I could spend one day in Mexico City when all I really wanted to do was get home? Why could I not find my pants?
So I staggered onto my plane out of Costa Rica, too tired to appreciate that these were my final moments of a two month adventure into Central America. Leaving was rather unceremonious. I got up, eventually found my pants (wouldn’t that have been an interesting conversation at the immigration office), took a cab to the airport, and flew to Mexico City. By the time we landed, I still hadn’t managed to muster up any real excitement for being there. I specifically picked the route that would give me 15 hours in town, but coming to the end of this whole adventure, I just didn’t have the verve to feel good about that decision. I even considered asking if I could jump an earlier flight to New York so I could just get back to the States and be done with it.
These thoughts, as any of you who have been to Mexico City must know, were me at my absolute dumbest. I was about to spend a day in one of the greatest cities in the world.
It even has chocolate mice!
I’d only been to Mexico City once before, and that was only for a day. But I’ve always remembered that day fondly. I was with a large portion of my family, and we spent most of the day visiting neighborhoods by car, though I did get to do a bit of walking around the Zona Rosa and the Zocolo. But the city is gigantic, and has a wide array of things to offer, so I decided to focus on one section of town and see as much as I could.
Though I did get to the Zocolo just long enough to watch a gang of men in the towers of the Catedral Metropolitana wildly ringing the bells by hand, and to witness a sea of fists pumping in time to chants at a protest in front of the Supreme Court.
La Catedral Metropolitana.
But the neighborhoods I chose to focus on for the day were Coyoacan and San Angel, primarily because they contained the homes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Rivera is my favorite painter, and I’ll make damn near any excuse to go see his works. In Detroit, my friend Karrie took me to see a room full of his murals, and that still stands as one of the highlights of my art-viewing life.
So, I figured, let’s check out the man’s neighborhood and see if I can’t draw a little something from that as well.
But Diego and Frida had to wait for a few minutes. Why? Because they have this little thing in Mexico called REAL FOOD!
Now that’s what I’m talking about.
I’m going to sound a bit snotty here, so forgive me. But here’s the thing about Central America: you do not go for the food. Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua…with very few exceptions, you are always eating the exact same thing prepared exactly the same way. Pico de Gallo, platanos or french fries, a small salad type setup, and whatever meat in whatever sauce. The food is never bad, but it’s never really good, either. It’s bland, functional, and very unimpressive. Food in Central America, for the most part, is simply fuel.
But not in Mexico, brothers and sisters. In Mexico, food is what separates us from the herd and brings us closer to the gods.
I got off the subway at the Coyoacan stop and walked over to a series of taco stands under a highway overpass and had possibly the best meal I’ve had in two months out of the U.S. Two tacos filled with fall-off-the-bone chicken in salsa verde, bursting with flavor and spice, and a glass of fresh carrot juice, all for about two dollars.
And don’t even get me started on the smells. Not just from that stand, but from the Coyoacan market, where a dozen kinds of mole are laid out to take home in bags, where every pot is boiling over with lunch, and where a mariachi band is walking among the diners at the dozen or so cafes, knocking out a few tunes to, as Eli Wallach says in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, help with the digestion.
Careful, Eli! Lee van Cleef wants the gold all for himself!
I spent the next nine hours wandering around Coyoacan and San Angel. I went to Frida Kahlo’s home, La Casa Azul, where she spent most of her adult life, and where she died in 1954. I took in her studio, her kitchen, her library, and the bed where she spent her last days. After reading about her and seeing her work it’s a real shock to see her bed. I couldn’t wrap my mind around how small she was.
Also, in the kitchen, a recipe for mole poblano. I spent twenty minutes copying it down in my notebook. Good enough for Frida…
From there, I walked up and down the cobblestone streets of the neighborhoods for hours, taking in the buildings, the kids practicing the dance they were going to do in their school show, and the beautiful fountain and statue in Frida Kahlo Park, which looks like this:
Also, I’d like to talk about something I did not expect as I walked around. Of course Mexico City is friendly. It’s the capital of Mexico, which might be the friendliest country in the world. Everyone smiles at you, talks on the trains and busses. It’s a warm place, emotionally speaking. What I did not expect is that Mexico City is currently working overtime to become the Makeout Capital of the World. Seriously. Everywhere you go (or at least everywhere I went) there was smooching going on. On the subway. In the park. In restaurants. Young people. Old people. It seemed like half the people in town were either kissing, flirting, or about to start kissing and flirting. I don’t know if I was just in the right neighborhoods on the right day, but this city made Paris look downright Puritanical.
Towards sunset, I ended up in San Angel, where Diego and Frida had their ultra-modern home designed by Juan O’Gorman, which meant that I got to spend about an hour in Diego Rivera’s actual studio.
With a portrait of Delores del Rio.
There’s something about being in the actual workspace of an artist you admire. You get to see where the work actually came from. Not the perception, not the finished product, but the long, slow, quiet daily slog, filled with all the doubt and revisions and the attempts to get better while the world is claiming you’re perfect and you have to keep them thinking you were born that way and never needed any help. Rivera’s studio is filled with light, supplies, artifacts he’d collected over the years. And on one table, a phonograph, so he could play music while he worked. And upstairs, an old typewriter, right next to all of his books. Jars on shelves downstairs for paints and powders. And a big open space where he could stand, move, take in new angles. It’s a very welcoming space, and overwhelming for a fan like me. It’s one thing to see the final product in a gallery, but to be in the space where it was made is intimidating. All the hours, days, and months here so someone can cast a few glances later. Or so you hope. There’s a deep faith in artistic creation that everything is going to pay off. Going into the room where you do the work is hard. You get the sense that Rivera was filling this room with favorite things, like the huge Day of the Dead puppets on all the walls. The work is intimidating enough. The workroom should, at least, be friendly as can be.
Just off the studio is a small bedroom. That’s where I found the jaguar (see top of the post). And I also found this. This is what Diego Rivera kept underneath his bed:
Of course. And right next to the shoes.
All told, between the museums and the workspaces and the parks and the food stalls and the cobblestone streets, I spent about twelve hours in Mexico City. I’ve really only spent two days there in my life, but I’m pretty confident dropping it into my list of Top Five Favorite Cities. Some of that is conjecture, as in I believe that by the time I visit the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the canals of Xochimilco, the ruins of Tula, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Bosque de Chapultepec, the dozens of museums, music venues, restaurants, and all the rest of it, I’ll be as deeply in love with it as any city I’ve ever been to. After my wanderings on this day, at the end of my trip, I’m nearly there already.
This was the city I wanted to visit the entire trip. I just didn’t know it until I was on my way home.