Jonathan Revusky and I were in Mexico City for eight days. Though Jon had been there twice, this was my first taste of this extremely complex, exhilarating and sophisticated metropolis. For $85 a night, we had a spacious two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Cuauhte'moc. It was cheaper than, say, Spokane, yet here we were in a world-class city.
Prior to this, my only experiences of Mexico were limited to border-hugging Tijuana, Juarez and Ojinaga. At Candelaria, Texas, a town of 70 people a good 257 miles from El Paso, the nearest city, I also crossed an illegal footbridge into San Antonio del Bravo, but all I saw were a few dusty cars and trucks, so I walked right back. It was certainly not a good idea to putz around a well-known drug transit point in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, but there was no bar in Candelaria to park my ass. Since I had no cellphone then, I would have been literally toast had my rented car broken down coming or going.
Modeled after Champs Elyse'es, Paseo de la Reforma is actually more elegant, with several magnificent monuments. Crossing it from our apartment, we ended up in Zona Rosa. There in 2005, my friend Ian Keenan saw "two guys breaking into a car and trying to start the emission, alarm blaring, while two female cops were at the street corner, with their backs turned."
sh*t, man, the above scam is also practiced in Istanbul, Budapest and, well, hundreds of other cities. If a foreign knockout suddenly finds you irresistibly sexy, just remember you're not all that, you beer-bellied loser. Zona Rosa is certainly not that bad now. Though touts still offer "Chicas?" or "Lap dance?" at night, the neighborhood is solidly middle-class, with an upscale mall and plenty of nice restaurants, including 15 Korean ones. With a thousand Koreans in Zona Rosa, this Pequeño Seúl boasts all sorts of businesses, including a famous hair salon patronized by many Mexican celebrities.
In Ukraine last year, I was surprised by how popular sushi was, and it's big in Mexico City also, with sushi being sold from street stalls even. Sushi Itto is a Mexican chain of 120 restaurants in nine countries, with 16 in Mexico City alone. In the US, Mexicans make every sort of ethnic food because they can quickly grasp and appreciate its complexities, subtleties and appeals. I find this openness truly remarkable. In California, I've seen many Mexican families at Vietnamese eateries, but never vice versa. In Tijuana, there are four Vietnamese restaurants owned and operated by Mexicans.
On my first visit to Juarez, I saw soldiers perched on a tank at the foot of the international bridge, a sight that didn't alarm as much as charmed me. Walking into town, the city's bustle and colors reminded me of my birthplace, Saigon. At a restaurant, a girl of about nine, in her school uniform, went from table to table to beg, quite matter of factly, without obsequiousness. Perhaps out of pride, she skipped me, the only foreigner. In baby Spanish, I burped a few mangled words at the friendly, middle-aged waiter, who advised me to be extra careful. I was in Juarez.
Wandering around Juarez before dawn, I saw tired prostitutes resting on couches in darkened doorways. Though I was starving, the city was just waking up. Like a dream, a large, bright eatery appeared that was filled with customers. "Comida China," it advertised. I waited for the goat and tripe vendor to open.
Home to legendary drug lords Manuel "The Viper" Carrasco, Shorty Lopez and Pablo Acosta Villareal, "The Ojinaga Fox," Ojinaga made the news in 1976 when its entire police force and their families fled to the US to escape being killed by Pedro Avile's Pe'rez, the Sinaloan kingpin. In 2006, I found the town pleasant if sleepy, with excellent caprito in its restaurants. Returning stateside once, my car and I were thoroughly inspected by a very suspicious officer. He did everything but peer up my exhaust pipe.
In Tijuana, I was hosted for a day by an American Jesuit priest and fellow Philadelphian. At the beach, he showed me the border fence where illegal immigrants to the US could talk to their relatives. The tall and tightly meshed metal barrier was even painted and decorated on the Mexican side. At dusk, I saw Mexicans dressed like ninjas, all in black to avoid detection, as they prepared to cross. If caught, they could try again another night.
In Mexico City, the only daily signs of the drug wars are the horrific photos in Alarma!, the gore tabloid. After much walking, Jon and I popped into El Pe'ndulo, as civilized a bookstore as you'll find anywhere. Among the books prominently displayed were editions of Borges, Ce'line and Bolaño, and two monographs on the German Neo-Expressionist, Georg Baselitz. Nursing a fine wine, one could sit on the balcony, a couch or at a table, and there was also an area for full-course meals. The softly played music ranged from Billie Holliday to Chet Baker, to the Catalan Joan Manuel Serrat.
In Italy, the biggest book chain was founded by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who also created the militant Gruppi di Azione Partigiana. Feltrinelli accidently died from his own explosives while trying to cut off electrical power to Milan. In Mexico, Mauricio Achar believed that many of Mexico's problems resulted from its citizens' lack of reading, so he founded the first Gandhi bookstore in 1971. Now there are 36. Judging from the many well-stocked newsstands and packed bookstores, Mexicans are devouring the written words. Borrúa is another thriving chain. My only poetry collection that's been translated was handsomely published in Mexico City in 2012.
I visited the Borrúa in Bosque de Chapultepec and found that it catered to the most serious readers, not just casual ones, with plenty of art books, and a large section for kids. The space itself was high-ceilinged, bright, cheery, with vast views of trees and a lake, just outside. Over its entrance, "all the flavors, all the mysteries, all the passions are in Porrúa."
On Donceles, I ran into a charming mural advertising a dead bookstore, "TEACH THE SPIRIT WITH THE TRUTH. You want to be wise? Read daily! You want money? Read and work! Reading provides knowledge and is power / And wisdom that gives you freedom. READ!" A finger points at you.
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