Our first impressions of Mexico City were formed in the back seat of a giant yellow airport cab weaving in and out of densely packed, yet somehow still speeding, traffic. Large highways and darkened underpasses turned into small slim streets. Successfully locating the obscure address, we were dropped off at our Quaker hostel, Casa de Los Amigos, tucked away among open window cafés and late afternoon fruit vendors.
A view of the tiny street that our hostel was located on–
Taking no more than ten minutes to find our room, throw down our belongings, and get rid of the stale airplane feeling, we headed over to the conference hotel a few blocks away to pick up our registration materials. The only word for the Hotel Meliã is swanky. Compare to our humble abode–
The tiered atrium lined with green vines and shiny glass elevators–
The proper name of this hotel is Meliã Mexico Reforma. Located in the center of the historic district where every other street name has something to do with the Mexican Revolution (revolucion), the irony of this resort-style monstrosity, combining touches of colonial style (complete with European paintings of Spanish conquistadors) with an overall air of luxury, was not easy to miss.
Anxious to get out and eat explore the city, we shouldered our totally cool (not at all dorky) Society for Ethnomusicology bags containing conference information and searched for our very first dining experience. To our benefit, James and I tagged along with two Spanish-speaking friends.
Here is where I interrupt the story for a brief confession–This was my first trip to a non-English speaking country. I grew up in Northern Vermont where the French language flourishes (my house is about 10-15 minutes from Quebec). What did I need to learn Spanish for? Now that I have left VT and lived in other parts of the country, I realize just how beneficial a basic knowledge of Spanish can be. So, here James and I are–non-Spanish speakers–in Mexico City…
…Trying to order vegetarian food.
We had no idea what we were in for. Luckily the first night we had friends to order for us. Walking down crooked sidewalks, carefully avoiding holes of missing cement and tripping over higher than average curbs, our hungry faces were spotted by a restaurant employee sitting outside on his motorbike. Assured that they had plenty of vegetarian options, we were lured inside the tiny cafe/restaurant. Even with friends that speak fluent Spanish, it still took us 10 minutes to get the order down. Vegetarianism is not a common lifestyle in Mexico. Each time we tried to order something sin carne, we were offered chicken, pork, and fish. Finally we got the order right–tacos with cheese, tomatoes, and avocados. The tacos were corn tortillas filled with cheese, rolled into thin tubes, fried, and topped with veggies. Not that great. The best food came later on in our trip. Already sticking out and causing problems, we decided to hold onto any remaining bits of inconspicuousness by refraining from taking food photos. This is what our tacos looked like, minus the meat and stuff.
Even when tempted by the excitement of new surroundings, weary travelers must rest. Bellies full of tacos, we freshened up in our rooms, and were soon ready for new adventures. One of our friends, who was quickly becoming our tour guide, had visited Mexico City before and remembered the location of a vegetarian and health food store. Leading us down a busy street lined with vendors selling the same shit they sell on Canal Street, she showed us to an overwhelmingly bright open-faced store full of health products. Inside there were a few tables, an ice cream bar, and a counter at which to order food. James ordered vegetarian tostadas. The owner or manager of the store was very interested in our business, offering us many free samples. He gave us each a cup of horchata, and then begged us to try their all-natural ice cream. Finally we gave in, and he brought us a little sample of the chocolate. His tactics worked, and I ordered a whole cone just for myself. Perhaps encouraged, we were given a sample of something that looked like clear jello and tasted like… nothing. This is still a mystery.
On the way back to the hostel, our gracious guide took us to one of the many fruit vendors. Grapefruit, lemons, oranges, some sort of glazed and baked squash, fruit familiar and strange, and tiny bananas. Bananas? I hate bananas. The smell, the texture, the taste. You know where this is going right? Our friend had me try one, swearing that they barely taste like bananas. She was right. I spent the rest of our time in Mexico subsisting on my new favorite fruit.
Here’s the proof:
James and I had too much energy to call it a night, so we met up with our friend Lauren and her travel companion Matt for drinks. Not knowing where to go, we decided to find a spot somewhere between our two hotels. Stimulated by our surroundings, we did not mind the amount of time we spent wandering around looking for that perfect bar. Attracted by the sounds of a guitar drifting from a bar at the end of the block, we poked our curious heads into the cozy establishment and found close-knit tables, men playing dominoes, a man softly singing while strumming his guitar, and a new friend.
Yes, a friend. As we headed over to order drinks, a short man in a gray polo shirt motioned for us to take a seat next to him at the bar. Apprehensive and embarrassed by our lack of Spanish, we ordered our beers, politely declined his invitation, and sat at a table directly behind the well-dressed domino players. Obviously determined, the friendly man in the gray polo shirt followed us to our table, pulled up a chair and introduced himself in mixed Spanish and English as Luis. We chatted about jobs, food, drinks, the differences between Mexico and the US, and whatever other random topics our combined knowledge of English and Spanish allowed. The more we drank, the better our Spanish became. Luis was probably in his 40s, and quite a regular at the bar. He had his own bottle of tequila with his name on it that was stashed behind the counter. He introduced us to new drinks–Michelado (beer, lemon juice, and salted rim), and a drink of his own creation (something to do with tequila, hot sauce, lemon, worcestershire sauce, etc., etc.). With a glance at the bar and a nod of his head, a whole new round of drinks appeared on the table, despite our protestations. Calling the guitar player by name over to our table, he requested a popular Mexican folk tune, to which he sang along never missing a word. Encouraged by our appreciation, he borrowed the guitar and began to play and sing, voice joined by the guitarist. As our long day of traveling and exploring began to catch up with us, we thanked Luis for his friendship, toasted (salud!), and insisted on paying for the drinks. However, the more we insisted on paying, the more determined Luis became. He said that our cultures were obviously much different. He invited himself to our table, he ordered more drinks, and no matter what we said, he was paying. Thank you Luis.
What an introduction to Mexico City.