Follow the adventure from the beginning

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Crossing the Bay

Acapulco, Mexico

A couple of weeks ago, I packed my toothbrush and an extra t-shirt in a plastic grocery bag and bought a bus ticket for one from Mexico City to Acapulco. Five hours later, I arrived at Guerrero’s coastal resort – famous for its Hollywood heyday in the 1950’s and subsequent downfall in the 70’s and 80’s characterized by the “black waters” that flowed straight from the international hotel sewage piping into the bay. 

My hostel turned out to be clean enough, with a private bathroom, breakfast in bed, and a communal dipping pool for just US$12 a night. I stayed in Old Acapulco – a mostly rundown part of town near the cathedral and Quebrada sea cliffs, full of cracked concrete dwellings and shops in disrepair.

My well-off friends in Mexico, the people who form the largest part of my social network across the country, tell me that I’m crazy for feeling comfortable in places like the hills behind Old Acapulco. “Como te vas a meter con esa gente?” they say. Seriously, Christine? You’re gonna hang around those people?

For sure, an added degree of caution is necessary in any barrio – any place that’s not nice enough to be called an actual neighborhood or suburb by Mexican Spanish standards. But recently, I’ve been increasingly drawn to spend time with Mexico’s raza, the large majority of the country’s population that doesn’t quite earn enough to be called middle class.

Saturday morning in Acapulco I woke up with the sunrise and started walking toward the ocean with my plastic grocery bag holding a beach book, a small wad of cash, and a bottle of water. I bought a US$5 bathing suit from a street vendor, and said a two second prayer that the thing wouldn’t fall apart upon contact with water.

As soon as I made it to the Costera, the ocean front drive that stretches across the entire city, I started looking for the public bus that would take me to the Caleta beaches. After living in Mexico for more than four years, it’s time to confess that I’ve never taken a public bus anywhere. It’s just not something that the nice people in Mexico, la gente bien, care to do, and I’ve even come to develop some sort of fear of the whole experience. I’m intimidated by the fact that the buses have no schedule, no planned stops, and no need to even slow down that much for you to hop on or off.

A couple of buses came my way but quickly passed. I wasn’t sure what to do. A teenage waiter from the restaurant with sidewalk tables behind me said, “Would you like to come in and have something to eat?”

“Actually, I’m just trying to catch a bus to Caleta,” I said. “How does it work?”

He smiled. “It’s easy,” he said. “Here, I’ll help you.”

Two seconds later a bus came around the bend. The boy whistled, waved his arm, and pointed at me. The bus slowed immediately.

“See? That’s all you have to do,” he said. He told me to have fun and to take care. For being one of those people, it tingled that the waiter treated me with more civility and respect than some of the CEO’s sons in Mexico City’s nightclubs.

I got on the bus and handed five pesos to the driver. I quickly realized, however, that I was riding no ordinary form of public transportation. To say that it was “bompin’ ” (a word my sister uses to describe anything that resembles a party) would be an understatement. The inside of the bus was covered with velvet curtains, tassels, and airbrushed babes with balloon-like boobies. And the music – a loud, trumpet blasting, base-drum pounding Mexican version of the polka known as Banda music – vibrated my hard plastic seat even more than the bumpy road. With every turn, the tassels swung wildly from side to side. I couldn’t hide a giggle, but when I looked around, everyone else was completely stoic, as if the bompin’ party bus were the most normal part of their day.

Once at Caleta beach, I found the departure point for boats headed to Isla Roqueta – a small island with private beaches just outside the bay of Acapulco. The boat captain – a half naked, sunned mahogany 16-year-old – waved his arms to get my attention.

“We’ve been waiting just for you,” he said, but with a smile that said ok so maybe not, but we’re glad you’re here anyway. “You’re just in time for the grand tour of Acapulco Bay,” he said.

Six dollars later, I was on a glass-bottom, floating shack that spewed grayish smoke from its outboard motor. The quick tour highlighted oceanfront mansions owned by famous Mexican artists, as well as a few beautifully colored fish and other marine creatures. But the best, and oddest vision from the depths of the sea was a 4-meter, 2-ton concrete statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. As the boat floated over the submerged Virgin’s head, the family next to me crossed themselves. Some say that local fisherman placed Nuestra Señora de Los Mares, Our Lady of the Sea, in Acapulco Bay and that they still call upon her to protect them and provide for a safe return.

As the glass-bottom shack neared Roqueta Island, we pulled up to another larger fishing boat and anchored to its side. Pirate vendors quickly boarded our shack to peddle their fruit wares, bottled water, and beers. Ten minutes later we docked on the island, the first of many boats that would continue arriving in waves from mainland Acapulco.

Once on the beach, I noticed that many of the women were wearing cheap bathing suits similar to mine, and some of the men swam in their underwear. People carried plastic bags, discmans, and beers. The island quickly filled with people of every shape, size, and color. A woman yelled 20 meters across the beach to her waiter for another $2 shrimp cocktail in sweet tomato sauce with lime juice sprinkled on top. Children ran in every direction. Noise and laughter and sand flying and squeals and baby tears fearful of the soft waves pattering against the shore. Pura raza! Two girls from Oaxaca, of indigenous descent, sat next to me and we offered to watch each other’s bags if anyone wanted to take a dip. By 11am, I couldn’t get in the water without rubbing against other people, and the chaos was happy.

A short while later, my cell phone rang. Friends from Mexico City – a gay couple that has requested anonymity under the names Ale-ale-jandro and Roberto (Lady Gaga much?) – vacationing in Acapulco wanted me to have drinks with them during the afternoon.

“Sure thing,” I said. “I’ll be right over.”

I took a quick boat ride back to the mainland, and hopped a bus toward la carretera escenica, the scenic highway that climbs the mountain on the other side of the bay. When the bus reached the end of its route, I was still 15 kilometers away from my friends' hotel.

I found a taxi driver who could take me the rest of the distance. “Acapulco’s buses don’t go that far,” he said. “The hotel you’re looking for, the Quinta Real, is in a private, gated community. The buses don’t go there.”

By the time I reached the entrance to the resort, I understood. Porsches and Mercedes and BMWs lined the front walk. The development where my friends were staying is called Acapulco Diamante, the Diamond, and is marked by an upper class touch. No, more than upper class, absolute luxury.

I walked through the five-star Quinta Real’s lobby and was met with a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean through the hut palms that covered the extra high ceilings. Then I started down a set of winding paths and stairs, surrounded by lush tropical greens and birds of paradise, descending the shore front cliff, toward the pool where I was to meet Ale-ale-jandro and Roberto (still trying to write that with a straight face).

Everything was immaculate. Even the ashtrays on top of the trash bins had the Quinta Real logo stamped into the sand. Every detail was designed for comfort.

Once I reached the pool, I immediately noticed it was one of those swimming areas with a disappearing edge – the kind that make you feel as though you’re wading in the pool and ocean at the same time. Everyone was using the same color towel, no children were present, and waiters with pressed white shirts, black tuxedo-like vests, and aprons wanted to know how they could serve me before I was even able to put my plastic bag down in front of my individual lounger and sunshade.

Ale-ale-jandro and Roberto were taking a week off from work as a banker and life as a med-student to enjoy the kind of quality couple time that is often complicated by the rules of engagement in high society Mexico City.

When they asked me what I was doing in Acapulco, I told them I had come alone for a little adventure and maybe some relaxation before leaving the country.

“You what?” Roberto said. “Are you serious? You just came alone, just like that, and then you decided to stay in Old Acapulco? You’re absolutely nuts, Christine,” he told me. “Estas pero reloca. Come es que no tienes miedo de estar sola, de andar ahi sola?” Why aren’t you afraid to do that? he said. Afraid to be on that side of the bay alone?

We ordered $12 margaritas and sipped them slowly while looking over the edge of the pool to the beach below. The shore was empty, quiet, and peaceful. From the Diamante side of Acapulco, it was impossible to even see the other side of the city where the Caleta beaches sprawled, to even know what esa gente, those people, were doing. All around the private beachfront resort, hidden Bose speakers whispered zen music for the descendents of Spanish criollos – thin, white people with oversized hats and sunglasses.

Before dinner, Ale-ale-jandro and Roberto took me on a drive around the new Acapulco, the side of the city that has left the Old Town cliffs behind. They pointed out the new apartment high rises, more modern than anything, and an easy target for Mexico’s narco elite to launder drug money. Exclusive gated communities, shopping complexes with Louis Vuitton, Prada and Fendi stores that surrounded a Las Vegas style canal with gondolas and Italian opera singers.

For dinner, Ale-ale-jandro and Roberto invited me to a swanky restaurant on top of the mountain that overlooked all of Acapulco with US$500 of free coupons they had to burn. We spent it all… and more. We ordered US$19 lychee martinis, and tequila, and a bottle of wine. And then seared tuna steaks with a sweet beet relish on top. Chipotle butter on fresh-made rolls. And sundaes for dessert. Then we climbed to the restaurant’s rooftop terrace to order a few rounds of digestifs, and listened to a David Guetta look-alike spin house music while chatting with a view of the entire Acapulco Bay.

Our table had four waiters to serve the three of us. By Cosmo magazine’s standards, everyone around us was good looking, well-dressed, cool. We started dancing, and the boys hugged each other, then hugged me.

 “We’re glad you’re here,” Roberto said. “With you around, we can be ourselves even more. We don’t have to worry about things, and just have fun.”

“I like your dress,” Ale-ale-jandro said. Running his fingers across the fabric. “And your shoes,” he said. “I want to wear them.”

“I feel like the princess of Acapulco up here,” I said.

Still caressing the fabric of my dress, Ale-ale-jandro corrected me. “You might be a princess,” he said. “But I’m the Queen.”

“Fair enough,” I said, enjoying the boys' sudden and sincere surge of freedom. I sipped my expensive cocktail and looked toward Old Acapulco, toward the bay-size divide between this place and that life. And I suddenly realized how few people are free to move between the two worlds – the two worlds that I experience together nearly everyday in Mexico.

Mexico has given me many gifts, but one of my favorites is the opportunity to cross the distance between the dark-skinned, plump girls from Oaxaca who helped to keep my belongings safe on Roqueta Island and the five-star plastic surgery models in Acapulco Diamante. Between the men who swam in their underwear with children hanging from both arms on the Caleta Beaches, and the adults only pool with matching towels for everyone in the Quinta Real Hotel.

It’s often difficult, if not impossible, for the Mexicans themselves to jump from one caste to the other, but Mexico forgives a foreigner many things. Forgives my naiveté, and grants me unique, VIP access to the truth of the spaces that separate rich and poor, dark and light, they and them across the country. Both worlds have taught me to appreciate and enjoy, and both worlds have introduced me to families where I very much belong. I’m a little bit from Old Acapulco and a little bit from Acapulco Diamante, but mostly from the deepest part of the bay that separates the two.

At the end of the night, sometime around 3:30am, the boys ordered me a private taxi to Old Acapulco where I would spend my last night in the Asturias hostel. Forty minutes later, as I walked through the gate of my hostel, Gustavo the night guard greeted me kindly.

“Glad to see you back safely,” he said. “Welcome home, Cristina. See you in the morning.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Mexico City

My favorite place to be when it thunderstorms in Mexico City is at an outdoor café on Rio Lerma. The first loud crack triggers a surround sound of car alarms. And then the rain chimes in. It’s almost louder than the thunder as it pricks and pounces on the awning overhead. A thin sheet of water quickly covers the street, and goose bumps prickle across my arms and legs.

A waiter comes running.

“Todo bien, señorita?” Everything okay? I tell him that I’m fine and that I prefer to stay outside. He’s carrying a five-foot-long crank, and he uses it to lower a sidewall awning to keep the rain from blowing sideways onto my books and my computer.

Across the street, ten people are huddled in a tiny doorway. Dozens more have slipped into the covered sidewalk entrance of a convenience store. Everything slows – even traffic is at a near standstill – people just watching.

As the rainwater slides under my shoes, a bolt of lighting says tag! you’re it! with a concrete apartment building nearby. The thunder continues to grumble, and I feel a deep peace. Like someone is hugging me with soft cushions and pillows. The storm washes the day away, brings the temperature down, and traps the smog in its droplets. I am protected under this tent, and enjoy sitting still. Shh… listen.


            “I’m bored,” I remember telling my mother. It was always just nasal enough to be a whine, and she used to try and help me find ways to channel my energy into productive activities.

            “Have you tried drawing a picture?” she’d say. “How about playing 4-square?” “You can help me in the kitchen?” “Why don’t you find your sister and build a fort?”

            My mother used to tell me to enjoy being a kid, because soon enough the days would be too full. I didn’t like being told to enjoy boredom, and I never really understood what she meant.

            The days I’m talking about sometimes came toward the end of summer vacation, or on a Sunday evening. Days when, even as a child, you just somehow realized, through boredom or a momentary lack of imagination for play, that you were alone. Please don’t misunderstand. I grew up in the most perfectly loving, supportive family. They taught me to serve, to grow, to win and lose gracefully, and to enjoy the best cold weather picnic on earth (a styrofoam cup of hot soup in below freezing temps beats cold cuts on a warm summer afternoon any day).

            What I mean is that no one person could constantly entertain me or occupy my time and thoughts when I was little. Not even my parents. I didn’t know to call this fact loneliness at the time, but I think that’s what it was. A slow simmer inside, like neighbor Lindsay has dance class today, sister is sleeping, Mom’s cooking dinner, and Dad’s mowing the lawn.

            I remember sitting under a pine tree that grew just a few feet away from the outside brick wall of 110 Mitchell Drive in Pittsburgh. The trunk was surrounded by rhododendrons, but the bushes left just enough space around the base of the tree to create a perfect little spot for me between the bark and brick. I must have been playing hide-and-go-seek and was sure that no one was ever going to find me. Maybe because the seekers weren’t even playing anymore? I stuck one foot out from the bed of pine needles, and crack!

            Instant downpour. I don’t remember the bluish grey skies that predicted the storm, but I do remember the hard, eardrum trembling thunder. I probably should have been scared, but when the rain continued to fall, and I didn’t get wet surrounded by those waxy rhododendron leaves and long feathery pine needles, I felt that strange cushioned embrace for the first time.  Shh… listen.


            The problem is that, according to my calculations, the “I’m bored” stage never really goes away. We flit from job to job, country to country, friendship to relationship. But suddenly there’s a small hole, or a short lapse between the “finished that” and the “let’s move on to what’s next.”

            My days in Mexico City are filled with these lapses. It’s the freelancer’s curse, the entrepreneur’s destiny, and the retiree’s function to feel these brief moments of “now what?” To recognize that even in one of the largest cities in the world, surrounded by friends and people, and full of happy blessings, I’m mostly just alone. Me and my pick-up-sticks against a lifetime of Sunday evenings and waning summer vacations.

            Good Lord, this is getting depressing. I need to take a walk. I need to do something. I wish I could go hang out with my mom or my sister, or snuggle up next to my boyfriend. I wish I could talk all day with Bonnie. Something or anything to make playtime more productive, like kicking myself into gear with the radio report I’m here to produce.

            I look out the window of my apartment bedroom before heading nine flights down to the lobby. It’s definitely going to rain. I can actually see it coming from the other side of the city. A barely audible, slow thunder drumbeat announces the approaching storm.

            As I walk out of the lobby, Mr. Concierge says, “Señorita! It’s going to rain, a storm is coming!”

            “I know,” I say. A big smile builds inside of me.

            “And you’re going to walk to the café anyway? Like this? Without an umbrella?”

I hardly even turn around. “Absolutely,” I say. Before moving forward, sometimes it helps to just be still and reflect a little. Slow down now. Shh… and listen.


Monday, May 31, 2010

The Non-disorder

Mexico City

Every time I come to Mexico, I lose my identity. This time, I was at Sense nightclub in Santa Fe – the height of posh in Mexico City. Before getting into the club, I showed the bouncer my U.S. license. I was with a group of girls, friends of friends. Half of us got the thumbs up and were allowed to get on the glass and mirror elevator into Sense, while the guards wanted to keep the other half waiting outside. Exclusive clubs in Mexico are strange like this. Wear the right outfit, get in. Know someone, get in. Pay someone off, get in. Be racially profiled in the right category, get in. Otherwise, the bouncers love to exert the ounce of power they have to keep you in line all night long.  

In my case, the U.S. license almost always does the trick. Thank you Malinche. (She was the Nahua woman from the region that forms the state of Tabasco today, on the Gulf Coast, who betrayed her own tribe in favor of a relationship with the Spaniard, Hernan Cortes, Conquistador de Mexico! Ever since, Mexicans have called themselves, Malinchistas, because they often favor the foreign over the homemade.)

Once inside Sense, I found my best friend, Bonnie. She took me to her table right away.

“Put your bag here,” Bonnie said. “It’s no problem.” And she was right. The only people in there were hijos del papa. The rich kids. I wasn’t even allowed to bring my camera into the club – I had to check it in the coatroom. Upper class Mexico has responded quite seriously to the current security concerns across the country. God forbid I get a picture of some CEO’s kid, post it on Facebook, and let a DTO kingpin find out where his target was, when, and with whom.

In fact, many of these people’s bodyguards were already standing outside the club by the time I arrived. I could identify the bodyguards because they were wearing vests with lots of pockets, and many of them carried walkie talkie radios.

Back in the club, a glass roof over the dancing mass of people opened to reveal the Mexico City skyscrapers around us. Then, they started playing Taio Cruz’s song “Break Your Heart,” and I couldn’t resist any longer. I just had to start jumping on the velvet couches around our table. Some songs just have that effect. My foot quickly found my purse and kicked it to the floor. Contents dispersed. Almost everything recovered. License gone.


The standing joke when I’m in Mexico is that “La cigüeña se equivocó del país.” Meaning, the stork dropped me on the wrong side of the Rio Grande.  My friends love to call me one of the few American-Mexicans they’ve ever met. And after many years of legal residency in Mexico – first as a university student, then as a working professional, and now as an international journalist – it’s an identity crisis that I’m very proud to claim.

Throughout the past eight years, my life has seeped south of the border into Monterrey and now Mexico City. The friends I have here have become part of my extended family. And although I can’t claim any drop of indigenous blood as my own, I have become a mestizaje of culture, language, and customs – like the generations of Europeans and Native Americans mixed together before me. I blend my values and worldviews into something like the Coke and taco stands on every street corner – American and Mexican in one.

In 2008, CEMEX offered to help me attain Mexican citizenship on top of my U.S. passport while I was living in Monterrey. Although I chose not to pursue this option, the idea of claiming a second identity has always intrigued me. We do it all the time with our work attire, our inside voices, our best foot forward, and our hair let down.

Mexico is like this for me. For as much as I live the experience of being “the other” while I’m here (eh-hem, did you see that reddish haired white girl across the street yesterday?), I also feel that I’m part of this country in many of the details that define it. I’m in the $0.25 cents that it costs to travel from one side of Mexico City to the other via metro. I’m all over the fact that suadero tacos come from the meatiest part of the cow’s chest and that chicharron tacos are filled with fried pork fat. I’m in the million ways to use the word “chingar” and the knowledge that “el ultimo y nos vamos,” never refers to the last drink of the night.

I’m fascinated, for example, by Nellie Campobello’s childhood account of the Mexican Revolution in her novel Cartucho, and the fact that other writers of the Revolution like Mariano Azuela, Heriberto Frias, and Jose Vasconcelos ushered in a new cultural era and even helped to define the genre that has become Mexican literature today. 

Of course, I’ll always be a Gringa at heart. Come July 4 in Mexico, I celebrate my American independence with a good glass of Tequila Herradura Reposado. But then again, in the U.S. September 15 is also marked on my calendar for Mexico’s Independence Scream (the famous Grito – Viva Mexico Cabrones!) with a Sam Adams brew from Boston. I guess in the end, I’m both. Not really from here or there, but caught somewhere in between.

So it’s a good thing that when I lose one identity, it’s easy to find another. Forget the license. I’ll use my passport, or my expired Mexican work visa, or my university ID – one of the many me’s I’ve learned to appreciate during my time across the border. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

Learning the Steps by Heart

Mexico City

Across the street from Bellas Artes Museum in the heart of downtown Mexico City, there’s a nylon banner hanging from iron bars on the outside of a third-story window front. The sign says “Clases de Baile.” Dance Classes. Through the windows, I see men twirling other men. Women twirling women. And full smiles flashing between every turn.

At the bottom of the sign there’s a giant arrow pointing to a dark alleyway. Baile aqui. Dance here. No one in their right mind should enter dark alleyways in any city, but it’s early, lots of people are around, police officers surround Bellas Artes – one of Mexico City’s most iconic symbols of culture and fine arts – and frankly, I’ve had a bad day. I need to make some friends, feel one of those smiles that only la salsa can spin, and find a bit of balance amidst all of the work.


Completing a self-designed anything is tough. Start a business. Create a vision. Paint a picture. Succeed in a relationship. It all requires some effort to build something from nothing. And it’s what I was born to do. My passion, my OCD, is finding invisible patterns. And so, this summer I’m trying to build relationships between media organizations in three different countries. I’m trying to write reports and record stories from la calle. From the street. And I have no idea where to start.

My first week in Mexico City was spent largely walking in circles around el Angel. I tried calling the professional contacts I came here to meet, and quickly learned that they are no longer employed by the radio station I'm supposed to report for.  I looked at the streets and the people around the apartment where I’m staying and got all gargoyled up. Frozen atop a skyscraper apartment buttress.

I caught up with a number of friends here in D.F. but couldn’t quite get comfortable. Almost immediately, I started to breath heavy with anxiety (the pollution hasn’t helped) as I looked for some semblance of stability. When I couldn’t find it, I got frustrated and fiery. I wasn’t sure who to contact to get my project rolling, or where to find an open door within Mexico City’s immense media network. I even burned the person I care about most in this world by trying to force him to find the patterns for me, just as he was pushing to succeed in his own incredible journey to South Africa.

I was in the middle of some weird vortex, and it was taking me down fast. C’mon Christine! Levantate. Get up.


I drag my hand along the cold concrete wall in the dark alley to make sure I don’t fall if there’s a step or a puddle that I can’t see. To my left, I find a winding staircase. Baile aqui. I start climbing. At the top, I peek my head around the corner into a room full of ballet mirrors and bright sunlight.

“Ay, mi vida, you want to dance?” a tall, lanky teenage boy says. His name is Angel, and his teeth fold over one another in front. He pulls out a notebook and shows me how these Clases de Baile work. I can come whenever I want, from 10am to 8pm, and demand that an instructor spend one hour with me for $7.

“What do you want to learn?” Angel says. His hands flit like fairies as he speaks.

“Well,” I say, “I dance a lot of salsa with my boyfriend.” I’ve got the basics. “But I could use a little help with my styling. I’d like to be a princess instead of a block of mud when I dance,” I say.

And then Angel laughs like a little girl. It’s incredible. He’s straight out of the Zona Rosa, Mexico City’s thriving LGBT neighborhood, and I love him for it. He prances across the room and brings Octavio. The two are holding hands, and then they take my hands and say together, “Come over here, let’s get started right away.”

We begin with some intermediate steps. The hook. The cross-over. The susy-q. Right-turn, left-turn. After 20 minutes, I take a break and sit on the large concrete windowsill and drink from a 2-liter bottle of water. Across the street I see the orange-yellow roof of the Bellas Artes Museum on fire with color.

While I rest, Angel is playing the female part with a large-bellied man across the room. They’re dancing line salsa together and it’s sexy and smooth, even graceful. More people have come up from the street to watch them.

The room is full of obreros and muchachas. Mexico’s working poor. A new song comes on – like a kind of fox trot from the 1940’s, and a 60-something-year-old man appears. He’s small, dressed in brown, and missing at least two incisors, which only makes his smile look bigger. He’s jolting around all by himself, almost convulsing, with feet that move faster than Michael Johnson’s. This song is his, and he lives it as he practices. He spins and winks and yells across the room, “I’m practicing for my wife!” I notice at least three more teeth missing.

By the time my hour is up, the same vortex that was pulling me down in the morning is now pushing me through the roof. If you’re ever in a funk, I recommend spinning circles. If you just dance yourself senseless, or wait it out a bit, most consuming spirals will eventually change directions. My abs hurt from the suzy-q’s, I’m drenched with sweat, and when Angel asks if I’ll be back, the answer is simple.

“See you tomorrow!” I say, salsa steps closer to independence in Mexico City. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Princes and Paupers

Mexico City 

Yesterday I saw a butler walking seven poodles at the same time. It was only eight o’clock in the morning, but this guy was perfectly primped. He wore a short tuxedo jacket with tails, a grey vest underneath, and (get this!) a top hat. Watching him was like playing Clue, trying to figure out where this man fit on Mexico City’s oversized game board. And then I saw the building he’d just walked out of on Paseo de la Reforma. Ah-ha, I thought. The Butler did it! And he used a Bentley to escape from St. Regis.

St. Regis is part of an elite international hotel and resort chain – a picture of opulence and high society. The first one was opened in 1904 by the Astor family (think Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt) in New York City to entertain the East Coast’s booming class of industrial entrepreneurs. Colonel John Jacob Astor IV developed St. Regis’ unique and luxurious style, ushering in a “new era of lavish parties, balls, and suppers previously confined to the private homes of the elite,” just before sailing to his death on the Titanic in 1912.

St. Regis sweats wealth in every direction. The properties have a century-old butler service – as in, wave your wand and a butler comes calling. These sophisticated servants will walk your seven poodles, unpack your suitcase, mix your evening cocktail, and arrange a private tour of the Pope’s personal chapel (welcome to The Sistine) if you’re at the St. Regis in Rome. Oh, and did I mention that if you own an “apartment” at the St. Regis in Paris, for example, you can go to any other St. Regis around the world and stay for free? Sign me up! I want to meet my butler.

“Past and future, rare and refined, there is no address like St. Regis.”

I followed the dog-walking butler for three long blocks. The seven poodles were harnessed to Mr. Butler’s waist and arms with a less-than-graceful-looking apparatus. But the eight living beings managed to make forward progress anyway – one step and poodle march at a time.

Outside one of the seven Starbucks near Paseo de la Reforma, the dogs came to a halt. It was the strangest simultaneous bathroom break I’d ever seen. I almost expected the butler to squat down too.

I looked around and noticed a woman selling bubble gum and Tupperware lids on a bench just a few feet away. She was staring at the poodles too, and called for her children to do the same. Mother and kids started laughing, like a game of charades – can anyone guess what this butler is trying to say? Person, place, or thing? How many syllables? “Ace Ventura!” No. “When Nature Calls!”

The woman’s children were filthy. They had dirty faces and blackened little fingers, and wore tattered pants and shirts. The boy must have been around six years old. He was a head taller than his younger sister, and both seemed comfortable sitting and playing on the dusty concrete around their mother's bench.

I imagined this family in their home. Maybe somewhere near Chalco – one of Mexico City’s roughest slums on the highway toward Puebla. Like many pueblos on the outskirts of D.F., Chalco used to be its own town. But now, it’s been absorbed by the uncontrollable growth of the megalopolis. As Mexico’s rural poor continue to move to the cities, places like Chalco have become harder and harder to govern.

Crime is rampant, and sewage and electricity infrastructure is shaky at best. In fact, the expanding Chalco now even crawls atop one of the numerous landfills that surround Mexico City, making it difficult to breath fresh air.

It feels weird to be in both places at the same time – next to St. Regis and Chalco. And it feels even weirder knowing that I pretend to be more from one than the other, when the truth is that both are past and future, rare and refined. Playing dress up loses some of its charm when you realize you’re just a butler in the heart of Chalco.

And so I took off my top hat, and bought a piece of bubble gum.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

One in a Million – er, Make that Twenty

The Middle of Mexico

If you’re not afraid of Mexico City, you probably should be. Even the Mexicans tell me, “You can’t mess around in D.F. [Distrito Federal],” and I believe them.            

Mexico City is one of the largest urban centers in the world with more than 20 million inhabitants spread across what used to be a giant swamp. No walking alone after dark; no flashy clothes or jewelry; God forbid you wear shorts; don’t carry your debit card anywhere (express kidnappings land you at an ATM with some guy demanding that you empty your account on the spot); and never, ever hail a cab from the street.

I haven’t been able to find Mexico City on any published list of the world’s most dangerous places, but by the time my flight lands at the Benito Juarez International Airport, I’m feeling something like those poor exchange students who came to Mexico City from Europe in 2004 and were treated to the oh-so-appropriate in-flight entertainment, “Man on Fire,” with Denzel Washington.

            From the air, Mexico City looks like an enormous beached whale; only you can’t see where its mouth begins or where its tale ends. In fact, it’s so huge that you can get to Mexico City by flying to any one of four international airports. Benito Juarez International, however, is the only airport in the world located directly in the center of a major metropolis. Building, office building, restaurant, and oh! There’s a runway, apartment complex, oops! Another runway. This airport is Mexico’s largest and Latin America’s busiest, and has been the center of numerous drug trafficking investigations (see this 2008 Los Angeles Times article). The advantage of flying into Benito Juarez is that it helps travelers who are headed toward the city’s center avoid the brick wall of traffic on inbound thoroughfares.

            And oh, the traffic. In many ways, life in D.F. boils down to sentences and decisions that begin and end with the qualifier, “with or without traffic.” I know parents who live in the northern part of Mexico City with kids who live in the south, and they rarely see each other. The trip between north and south can take the better part of a day – up to five hours if you include the entire metropolitan area with traffic, a taxi driver tells me.

A few years ago I came to Mexico City for 48 hours on a cheap ticket whim from Monterrey and hired someone to take me along Mexico City’s north-south corridor, Insurgentes. I gave up on the challenge after just a short hour and a half of eyebrow tweezing progress.

One friend who works ten minutes away from where I’ll be staying without traffic says, “We can’t do lunch. It’ll take me over an hour to get to you. We’ll have to wait until after 8:30 or 9pm.” That’s why people here eat dinner sometime around 9:30 at night. And it’s why many employees don’t leave the office before 8pm – just waiting for the rush hour bustle to settle. As far as I can tell, though, it’s always rush hour here.

A white Suburban takes me from the airport into the heart of the largest web I’ve ever visited. We push 50 – 60 mph on roads that wouldn’t allow for more than 35 mph in the U.S. The Sunday night before Mother’s Day in Mexico is one of the few moments of relatively free movement in the city, and my taxi driver is having at it.

Faster than I can say “Bienvenidos a Mexico!” I’m surrounded. It’s an exhilarating feeling to be in the very middle of the Western Hemisphere – historically and culturally. Mexico City is the birthplace of an entire civilization that is as ancient as the Aztecs and as modern as the Torre Mayor, the city’s tallest skyscraper where Apple Computers, AIG, McKinsey, Deloitte, Hewlett Packard, Japan Airlines International, and IXE Financial Group all have offices. I’m in a time warp that is rich with tortilla recipes inherited from generations of maiz-loving grandmothers, and forward-thinking philosophers from some of Latin America’s most prestigious universities.

This taxi is a slingshot, and I’m about to be catapulted into space.

“Christine! You made it! Come in, come in,” my new roommate, Claudia says. She pulls my suitcase inside the door and shows me where I’ll be sleeping for the next month. It’s an awesome apartment with 9th story views toward Santa Fe and Polanco, a few steps from el Angel de la Independencia, and minutes from the U.S. Embassy.

“Tomorrow I’ll take you on a long walk to help you get situated,” she says. “And we’ll grab lunch with some friends from the office. Don’t worry about a thing,” she says. “You’re going to be just fine here, and we’re going to have a great time.”

If you’re not in love with Mexico City, you really should be. Even the Mexicans tell me, “There’s no place in the world like D.F.,” and I believe them. 

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Miles Between

Many miles have run between you and me since we shared our last adventure. I survived my 2009 trek across Europe and managed to travel from above the Arctic Circle to an island in the middle of the Mediterranean. The journey took me farther than I ever expected. In five months, I visited sixteen countries and forty cities across an entire continent. I got lost. Really, really lost. And then I found my way again. I met friends and thieves and saviors. I fell in love with an incredible man who continues to be an endless source of love and support in my life today. And now, I’ve just finished the first year of my Masters in Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. You might say that, “things have settled somewhat.”

But then again, you and I both know that things never stay put for long.

This summer I will spend one month in Mexico City, Mexico and two months in Johannesburg, South Africa as an international media intern and a de Zafra Leadership Fellow. The range is wide open, and I’m on the road to somewhere again. Welcome back to this collection of stories for people who are on their way to somewhere too. For people whose cars have broken down, and for others who are racing ahead. I hope you’ll find pieces of yourself here, between things old and new, near and far. It’s called being Caught in the Middle – and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a really fine place to be.