“There’s a kind of mysteriousness about Mexico…but even more than that, a kind of unpredictability. You never know quite where you’re at, quite what’s going to happen, you don’t quite speak the language…They may announce once in awhile, ‘We’re doing to do this and that.’ But they want to leave that ‘what’s going to happen next?’ kind of atmosphere.” — -Paul Vanderwood
I was ruminating about where I wanted to go for New Year’s Eve and where I wanted to kick-start my four-year global adventure when I encountered this quote from a chapter in “Best American Travel Writing 2012” called “The Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame” by sportswriter Bryan Curtis. While the rest of the article was not really relevant for my purposes, this wayward description of Mexico’s wildness intrigued me. Originally, I had thought Cancun would be the place to celebrate the coming of 2017. It would be the safe option, exotic enough but with plenty of other English-speakers and reliable American amenities. However, after reading that article and after watching an episode of “Parts Unknown” with Anthony Bourdain and one of “An Idiot Abroad” about Mexico, I decided to ditch the idea of a comfortable, vaguely familiar New Year’s Eve. I wanted strangeness, a challenge, and maybe even a little danger. I wanted that unpredictability that the historian Vanderwood described.
It was under this assumption about Mexico that my travel buddy, another poker player who was interested in traveling with me for the first couple of months, and I booked our trip to Mexico City for New Year’s Eve and the upcoming month in the colonial town of Guanajuato to learn Spanish. To that end, plans were kept to a minimum. We would let the streets of Mexico, las calles de Mexico, lead us to our destination. I didn’t research much at all; I wanted Mexico to surprise us. The biggest extent of my planning was actually on the flight there, where I read a free Amazon guidebook about the street food of Mexico City.
Every word (and picture!) about the delectable, greasy, and fatty goop that is street food in Mexico City left me in frenzied anticipation. The author of the book, Ron Upshaw, is evidently from Seattle but has an unparalleled thirst for the magical slop provided by the food vendors of Mexico and depicted each dish and ingredient in loving detail. In addition to your typical — yet beautiful — fried tacos, burritos, tortillas, and gorditas drowned in meat and cheese, Upshaw also decided to inform his readers about some of the weirder culinary possibilities that Mexico has to offer, including beetles, calf brains, dried hibiscus flowers, nopal (cactus), and grasshoppers. I instantly became obsessed with finding a place where I could eat grasshoppers. My mind solely occupied by food, I became ravenously hungry and when the flight attendant came by with the snack tray I asked if I could have one of each potential treat. She shook her head but obliged my greed, forked over the snacks, and submerged me happily in a vast arsenal of cookies, crackers, chips, and peanuts. Thus, before I even arrived in the country I was greeted with a problem all travelers to Mexico face: indigestion.
Despite arriving late at night, I woke up the next morning and, after a trip to the bathroom, found myself full of energy and ready to explore the city — -of course, I was also ready to find a taco or four, and maybe a grasshopper burrito as well. I began walking the streets of our neighborhood, La Condesa, where our Airbnb was located. Immediately, I was almost hit by a car. This didn’t really disturb me all that much, as this is ones of the hazards I deal with on a daily basis as a professional daydreamer and as a resident of South Florida, the most highly concentrated region of aggressive drivers in the USA. But as I traversed more throughout the city, I realized there were few to zero crosswalks. Also, there are stop lights and signs, but these seem to be mostly for show and aren’t taken too seriously by most of the drivers. This was the start of a universal trend I started to notice throughout Mexico and the rest of Central America: there is a general disregard for rules, regulations, and other things designed to protect your personal safety. The attitude seems to be, “well if you weren’t paying attention or being careful, it’s your fault”.This is somewhat unnatural to observe as someone from the United States. It’s definitely a freer environment than home in that regard and I’m still not sure if I find it charming or scary.
The “humble” garafone. Unable to drink tap water throughout Mexico, people compensate by using these large plastic jugs. What makes them “humble” is unknown.
I also found that gruesome injury or death doesn’t seem to faze anyone in Mexico. I saw several people reading newspapers with stories about murder and torture, replete with shockingly gory and accurate color photographs and no one was blinking an eye. Yet I don’t know if death doesn’t scare anyone here because Mexicans are known to have strong faith in their religion, or if they simply just don’t care. I tend to think the latter, as from what I can tell Latin Americans are generally unconcerned about how they are perceived by others and they unabashedly live in the moment. For example, I not only saw several couples kissing passionately in public, but lovers becoming so amorous to the point you felt like you had been somehow transported to their private bedroom after a romantic night out. A big segment of America wouldn’t engage in such blatant sexual behavior for fear of offending someone. Nor would they be able to handle graphic pictures of death in a newspaper because it’s too frightening, but in Latin America it’s accepted as a fact of life. This acceptance of reality and living in the present appeals to me greatly and was one of the reasons why I enjoyed my time and the people of Mexico so much. I think the more prudish parts of America could stand to learn a good deal from their culture.
Highly alert and sensitive to any signs of deliciousness, I continued my quest for the elusive grasshopper. Unfortunately, it was early-ish in the morning when I left my place and only juice stands were open. Using a variety of hand gestures and frequent nodding when asked a question, I was somehow able to procure a smoothie from a confused Spanish-only speaking street vendor that contained (I think) banana, yogurt, milk, and a foreign fuzzy fig-like fruit which I later learned was called guanabana. The smoothie itself was pretty good and flavorful, but my stomach was somewhat uneasy. I walked around for another hour and found a taco stand and again haphazardly ordered something unknown. After I paid the laughably cheap price — the equivalent of 40 US cents — two chorizo tacos with onion and cilantro appeared. They were enjoyable but of all the meats, chorizo probably had to be the worst choice for my stomach. I retired to our room, a full day of exploring and drinking ahead of me, as it was New Year’s Eve later that night.
Luckily, my stomach recovered quickly and before going out, Buddy and I decided to explore the nearby park where the big colonial castle and most of the famous museums were. As a general rule, I don’t want to and probably won’t write about very touristy excursions like this while I’m describing my travels, but I do feel I should for this occasion recommend the Museo Nacional de Antropologia because it was spectacular. For a pitiful 3 dollars you gain access to a world-class archaeological museum, filled with an abundance of interesting and absorbing information about the history and development of Mexico from ancient times to the near-present (and the plaques are in English!). The architecture is also astounding; the high ceilings and giant water fountain near the entrance make for an impressive display. I could’ve spent hour after hour letting my mind wander in those galleries and wished I got to see every exhibit, but we arrived somewhat late and the museum was closing. It was time to accomplish our main goal in visiting Mexico City on New Year’s: to get very, very drunk off of tequila and wine, see some fireworks, watch how Mexicans celebrate. and hopefully punch a pinata or two in half.
We decided to start out by going to a few local bars and lounges in our neighborhood, with the plan to be out in the main square, the Zocalo, by midnight. I looked up a few promising areas on Foursquare (apparently Central Americans don’t use Yelp) and then we headed out. Interestingly, the first bar turned out to be closed. We thought that was kind of strange, seeing it was New Year’s Eve and everything, but reasoned that we were out early at 9pm and maybe they open the bars a little later in Mexico City. However, each proceeding place we went to was also closed. Confused, I checked my calendar on my phone to make sure the date was right. Yes, it was still New Year’s Eve…what the fuck was happening? We moved on and eventually found a place open — -with two people inside.
You learn quickly as a traveler to have little attachment to plans and how to adapt to your environment. Even though we were perplexed, we decided to change our course, pick up some wine, and go to a party our Airbnb host invited us to at his other place. Upon arriving our host and a couple other travelers who were staying there explained to us what was happening. “New Year’s Eve is mostly a family affair here in Mexico,” they said, “I’m not surprised nothing is open. You can go to the Zocalo later and there will some people out, but it’s not too crazy.” What a contradiction of interest and just my luck, I thought to myself — -I tried to find the wildest place to celebrate New Year’s Eve and instead I ended up in the one place in the world where most people puritanically stay in their homes instead of go out and party.
It’s not like the night ended up as a total loss, however. We met several other interesting and fun travelers while drinking an overflow of wine in a pleasant outdoor area. Our host was kind enough to provide a potluck-style dinner for everybody and it was delicious (but no oddities like grasshoppers). Instead of going to the Zocalo for fireworks, we stayed at the party until midnight, where in the typical Mexican negligence for safety people set off huge sparklers on the ground, scaring the house dog to pieces and everybody in the nearby vicinity. It wasn’t what we expected, but it was still a worthwhile and ultimately more meaningful way to celebrate the passing of the year, as the friendships we cultivated at that party turned out to be long-lasting.
We spent our remaining days in Mexico City with the friends we made seeing the sights: the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the Zocalo and downtown, random still-lit Christmas decorations (Mexicans definitely are not the most efficient in quitting a celebration of any kind), etc. On our last night, though, things got exciting — -we went to a restaurant called Limosneros where I read they served historical Mexican cuisine, including my mysterious friend the grasshopper. In addition to grasshoppers, the chef decided to take it one step further and included several other unconventional items, such as beetles with squash blossom and ant eggs. We ordered everything off the menu that looked remotely insectoid. I can’t say I enjoyed everything with pleasure, as the grasshoppers sometimes had an unpleasant explosion and squishiness when biting into them and the ant eggs were a tad, you know, ant egg-like, but it was absolutely an experience worth trying. The beetles with squash blossom was a particular highlight, as were the hibiscus flower tacos.
After dinner, we decided to cap off our last night in Mexico City by going to a lucha libre performance. Lucha libre, for those of you who aren’t aware of its magnificence, is basically like the WWF — -in other words, professional Mexican “wrestlers” acting out mock battles while wearing masks. It is immensely popular in Mexico and best enjoyed with several liters of Corona. Unfortunately, my stomach was acting up after my dinner of insects (who would have guessed?) so I was unable to chug an unholy amount of alcohol down my gullet like my buddy and the rest of the rowdy Mexican crowd. Regardless, I was still able to enjoy the following act.
We watched a bunch of the standard-fare of throwing, grunting, and fake bashing before new wrestlers were introduced to the stage, including the incomparable “Maximo Sexy.” The crowd roared in delight; he evidently was a regular to the stage and a favorite hero of the people. Dressed in a tight black jumpsuit, layered in pink frill and the words “Kiss Me” printed across his chest, his main move was to attempt to make out with the other wrestlers. If he planted one kiss, they would tap out in mock agony. I’ve always felt that pro wrestling was kind of gay in the literal sense; after all, the bulk of a pro wrestling event is mostly made up of scantily clad men rolling around and passionately groping each other. Apparently the organizers of this event were cognizant of this and agreed with me, as it was incredible, some of the finest, most raucous entertainment and ridiculous hilarity that I have ever experienced. When it was over I felt like I had found at least a part of the true Mexico I was looking for and it had me on the edge of my seat; I happily had experienced and now cherished the atmosphere of unpredictability and the feeling of “what is going to happen next” that Paul Vanderwood had wrote about Mexico and I couldn’t wait to see more.