Monday, August 30, 2010
Until I arrived in Mexico City, I knew Plaza Garibaldi only as my favorite Mexican restaurant in Puebladelphia. Evidently, it is also a real plaza just north of Mexico City's historic center, famous for it's unique night life. Bands of mariachis roam the plaza, offering tourists a chance to hear their favorite mariachi song up close and personal, for a few dozen pesos. On Sunday, I was joined by a motley crew of new friends for dinner and some drinks there. And ended up being treated to a cheese-less quesadilla, a couple tequilas, and even a pencil portrait of myself by a friendly group of "rancheros" at the next table.
But let me backtrack a little and explain how I got here. I arrived in Mexico City last Tuesday, and spent the first few days not seeing much of it outside of my swanky hotel. Instead, the first few days were a whirlwind of Fulbright-arranged "getting to know you" receptions, lectures, and a couple short trips in which we were bussed to historic sights. I met dozens of other Fulbrighters, exchanged stories and ideas, and enjoyed nightly open bar receptions, including one in the home of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Then, on Friday, I went straight from the hotel to the home of my new friend Mariana, my generous host whom I met through couchsurfing.org. Needless to say, the week has been action-packed, tiring, and more than a little disconcerting. But I am glad to be here and amazed at the endless things this enormous city has to offer.
No travel adventure can be complete without one strange coincidence, and this whirlwind of a week was no exception. It just so happens that Mariana's best friend is an American expat who lived in Philadelphia before coming here. Not only did we both work for the Census at different times, we also both worked as Migrant Outreach workers at the same health center in South Jersey. What better place to finally cross paths than Mexico City? After exchanging drama stories from our former workplaces, we set out for Plaza Garibaldi, along with Mariana and two other Fulbrighters I had met in orientation.
I imagine most people who read that first paragraph have been on the edge of their seats wondering about this absurd occurrence of the cheese-less quesadilla. Alas, my friends, I have been disillusioned, for though I had always assumed the word "queso" (cheese) to be an etymological root of "quesadilla", I was mistaken. When I innocently ordered a mushroom quesadilla at the "Taquería la Simpatía" ("Sympathy Taquería"), I imagined a corn tortilla filled with BOTH melted cheese and mushrooms. Instead, the friendly waiter presented me with a purely mushroom-filled tortilla. Evidently, in order to have cheese in my quesadilla I needed to order a "quesadilla de queso". To my relief, I have been reassured that in Oaxaca, not only the quesadillas but also the streets are paved with cheese.
But all was not lost. I have to admit that the mushrooms in my cheese-less quesadilla were pretty darn good, and so was the "Indio" brand beer my friends and I ordered. Not only that, but a group of cheerful folks at the table next to us requested at least a dozen mariachi songs, so we were serenaded by the band without having to pay a cent. I got up to take pictures, provoking our neighbors to invite us over to their table. Hesitantly, we accepted their offer-- I think the fact that there was one woman at their table seemed to make it less sketchy. Next thing you know, we were chatting and drinking "palomas" (a yummy mixed drink of tequila and "Squirt" grapefruit soda) with a youngish couple and two older guys wearing sombreros (those two pairs had also apparently just met each other that night). Mariana later referred to the sombrero-wearing guys as "rancheros", so maybe that's what you call someone who's wearing a sombrero and drinking tequila.
I was in the midst of conversation with the young couple when the chavo (young guy) waved over another guy carrying a wooden box, with two wires hanging out of it with handles on the end. I watched in bemusement and then horror as my new friend handed over a few pesos to the guy with the box, grabbed a handle in each fist, and signaled that he was ready to receive his electric shock. The, er, electric shock vendor (what else could I call him??) turned a knob, gradually amping up the voltage as requested by his customer, who eventually started howling a little bit in some sort of masochistic pleasure. His girlfriend (or wife) encouraged me and my friends to do it too, saying it's fun and "it's good for your heart". I don't know, I personally kind of like my heartbeat how it is. I politely declined.
Now a little sketched out now by the young couple and the electric shock machine (apparently these shocks are called "toques"), I eventually moved to the other end of the table to sit with my Philly friend and the two "rancheros". Becoming progressively more intoxicated, one of the rancheros decided that I had pretty eyes, so he called over one of those street artists who does pencil sketches and had him sketch me as I sat listening to mariachis and drinking tequila. Long story short, my Philly friend and I ended up dancing merengue-style with the rancheros, they insisted on paying for all of our food, and I even got a free portrait out of it, albeit one that looked nothing like me. That's a pretty good night in my book.
As if Plaza Garibaldi weren't enough of an attraction, Mexico City is also the site of the former home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (now an amazing, touching and haunting museum called the Casa Azul), a fantastically ginormous Anthropology Museum (I spent 3 hours there and only saw a third of the museum, and was too busy marvelling at how many giant carved stones there were and repeating "incredible!" to myself over and over again to actually learn anything), the ruins of Teotihuacán (OK, so they're a little outside the city), and numerous murals by Diego Rivera and other Mexican greats. I would have to spend an entire year in this city just to properly experience the content of all the museums and cultural sites, even if I set out to do that and nothing else. Plus, Mexico City is home to some awesome "chilangos" (people from the capital). But an equally, perhaps even more awesome destination, awaits me tomorrow: