Friday, July 23, 2010

Jesus Saves (Mexico City, Mexico)

I'm on my way to Salon H. It's 5:30 pm and I figure that I'll be back in the hotel by 9 or so. There's no one in the kiosk to buy a metro ticket from, so the guard comps me through to the train. A good start to the evening.

I reach my stop and am surprised to see a crowd amassed at the exit. As I elbow my way through, I realize why nobody is leaving. It is pouring. I go up the stairs, anyway, and quickly take cover under the nearest awning. The rain is torrential. And it keeps getting worse.

The awning protects me, but a river is running over my feet. I rest one foot on the rung of a nearby stool while I try to figure out how to get to the Salon. I don't quite know exactly where I am in relation to it, and the sheets of water don't allow me a clear view of my surroundings.

People are huddled under every overhang offered by every vendor in the area. Some bravely venture out and run, often shrieking, through the rain and to the subway steps or to wherever they need to go. Some have thought to carry umbrellas, but the wind is strong and the rain whipping at them from all angles; they get soaked anyway. Someone is selling flimsy little rain capes and making a fortune. Those that have bought them get soaked anyway.

Over the 20 or so minutes that I am outside and not drowning, I recall that the dance hall is across the street from a huge church. The church is barely visible from where I am standing. I determine that it will take me approximately 10 minutes to swim there. (I'm not a particularly strong swimmer.) A better alternative, I tell myself, is to wade back to the subway and try to find my way, underground, to the proper exit.

I am drenched by the time I reach the bottom of the subway staircase. I thread my way through all the people who were smart enough not to leave the station. My contact lenses seem to be operating at 40 percent capacity -- or perhaps they've been washed off my eyeballs by the storm -- because I can't read the signs in the metro and am wandering around, accompanied only by my lousy sense of direction, trying to find my way out.

When I reach what I believe to be my target exit, I find a mere handful of people waiting for the rain to let up. I wait with them. As we watch the pounding precipitation, I smile at a woman standing next to me. I turn to see if we are becoming a crowd and catch the eye of the man behind me. We both shrug and smile.

I ask the woman if she knows where Salon H is. "It's just upstairs and down the block," she replies. We decide to brave our way out, under the shelter of her umbrella. In the meantime, the man behind me has offered to lend me his umbrella, an offer I politely decline.

The woman and I giggle over the man's offer of the umbrella. "When would you give it back to him?" she says. She tells me she is going to attend Mass in the church. I thank her for keeping me more or less dry and assure her that the rain will neither melt me nor cause me to grow taller.

As I cross the street, Umbrella Man is at my side, insisting that I can keep his umbrella. I thank him again and tell him that I don't need it; I'm a few feet away from my destination. He says that he would like to accompany me but has a prior obligation, and I encourage him to hurry on to where he must go.

With all this rain, I wonder if anyone will be at the salon tonight and if anybody will ask me to dance. I pay my 25 pesos (approx. $2.25) and go upstairs. The big hall is emptier than I've ever seen it, but there are plenty of people dancing and sitting at tables.

A waiter ushers me to a table in the back. I change into my dancing shoes. Then I walk to the front of the hall to see if my dance friends, Jesus and Enrique, might be around. The only person I recognize is a woman from the park with whom I've never shared a word.

As soon as I return to my seat, a man asks me to dance. I'm not warmed up and/or he's not as good a lead as he thinks he is. I don't follow one of his attempts to turn me, and he rolls his eyes. A bad sign, which probably means that no man who has seen my blunder will request a dance. I sit down again and hope that I will not spend the rest of the evening achair.

A Bud Clampett look-alike holds out his hand. I tell him I'm a beginner, and he tells me it's no problem. He leads well, and I acquit myself without stepping on his feet or my own. I thank him and return to my table.

No one asks me for the next dance, however, Mr. Clampett returns and we hit the floor again. When I sit down, I see him hovering nearby. He is getting a little too friendly for my taste, so when he approaches again, I tell him that I would like to dance with others. As he walks away, I imagine that I'm in for a long sit.

I'm wrong.

A short, trim man with a triangular-shaped head, dressed in a suit (his body, not his head), and looking as if he had been left out in the desert for years, asks me to dance, and I accept. His skin is tanned to the point that he could serve as a human model for a prune. Too late, I notice that he smells strongly of cigarettes and slightly of urine. We dance, and he will not loosen his hold of my hand until I yank it and myself away.

Several other men dance with me, and I notice that there is a sort of ring forming around me; Prune Guy, Bud Clampett, and others have taken seats at neighboring tables, trying to move closer so they can dance or sit with me.

Next up: a fellow dressed in a shirt so bright it practically blinds me, invites me on to the floor. I say I'm not a very good dancer. "Neither am I," he replies. This doesn't bode well, but the band starts up, and so do we.

I wouldn't exactly say that the man I will refer to as "Agent Orange" can't dance, but rather that his movements don't quite translate into any I've seen outside of sci-fi or fantasy films. His head weaves back and forth in jerky a-rhythm and seems to dart towards me at odd moments, like the snakes writhing atop Medusa's head. He hops and turns up behind me, and I realize that my shaky steps probably resemble an infant's startle reflex. The song goes on forever. Agent Orange is smiling fixedly at me, as if I were prey; I am afraid that I will be bitten or turned to stone before I can escape.

Jesus saves me.

My friend, Jesus, with whom I danced so well two years ago, shows up in the nick of time. He whisks me onto the floor and asks why I didn't call him to let him know I was back in town. I tell him I saw a friend of his in the park and sent my regards via him. There's obviously no communication between the two of them, either.

After several dances, Jesus has to go home, but he was there when I needed him. Agent Orange is scaring the spit out of someone else. The other men have drifted away.

I walk over to the bartender; I recognize him from last year and we've been nodding and smiling at each other since I entered. "This year you didn't have to ask your cousins to dance with me," I say.

"No," he replies. "This year, you're doing pretty well on your own." With a little help from Jesus....

Me, Myself, and I. And Others (Mexico City)

I arrive in Mexico City in the late afternoon, tired and a bit out of sorts. I haven't been sleeping well, usually waking up at the pre-crack of dawn and unable to fall back asleep.

While checking into the hotel, my friend I., a German-as-a-second language teacher who spends summers here, pops up behind me, welcoming me back and admiring my handbag (made of yellow and apricot colored oil cloth imprinted with brightly colored kiwis, pineapples and watermelons).
An hour later, I join I., and her friends B. and R., at a table in the lobby. B. is a psychotherapist who owns an apartment in the same building as I. (Not me, but I.)I (not I.)am afraid that I will have to monitor what I say around her in order not to be psychoanalyzed and found psychotic or something; B. assures me that she doesn't work when she's not working. I am relieved.

R. is a Canadian who lives in Mexico City, proctors exams, teaches English, and trains English teachers. I. introduced me to him last year, but this time I find him more droll, ascerbic, and witty.

The others go to the hotel restaurant for dinner, but I need to stretch my legs. I wander around the neighborhood, checking to see that my old haunts still remain in business. I'm greeted and briefly flirted with by the rotisserie man from whom I often purchase chicken that I take to my hotel room for a late-evening, succulent dinner (the chicken, not the man). I pass the funky bars and restaurants teeming with university students and the tiny holes in the walls from which people sell tacos stuffed with shredded or chunked cow heads or feet or turkey sandwiches on big white rolls or cubes of papaya, pineapple, and mango, and more.

I finally settle on a restaurant located on a pedestrian street near my hotel. When I ask the waiter for a suggestion, he says that I should order the fish quesadillas. I take his advice, forgetting that I'd eaten fantastic fish quesadillas only yesterday, when I took H. out to lunch in Cuernavaca, and we ordered them as the prelude to our huge and delicious bowls of shrimp and octopus ceviche.

The first part of my evening meal is a tasty shrimp soup, featuring two huge shrimp and a potato chunk that looks as if it has grown a goatee; I don't eat the hair-sprouting potato. A plate of steamed green and yellow squash, green beans, cauliflower, and broccoli follows and gets a bit of oomph from a spritz of lime. The quesadillas are disappointing, even when I undo their toothpick sutures to blanket the fish with lime and hot sauce. They are greasy and heavy and I wish that I had bought a quarter of of a roasted chicken from my flirtor, instead.

But I have plenty of time to savor that and other delights. I'll be here for another four days.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dancing Fool (Cuernavaca, Mexico)

My salsa and cumbia teacher (I'll call him "Rubber Legs" because that's what I call him)in Cuernavaca is nowhere to be found. The studio where he used to teach has been taken over by others, none of whom can tell me his whereabouts.

Okay, I tell myself. I'll take classes at this new school. After all, they offer not only salsa and cumbia, but a whole line-up of different types of dance instruction, so I can try even belly dancing, should I be so inclined.

The problem is that the schedule hanging on the door is wrong. And nobody seems to know when which classes will take place. I stop in for salsa and they're doing jazz. I try for cumbia, and it's capoeira. I show up for belly dancing and wait for an hour and a half, along with three students and the teacher, for the studio door to be unlocked. We wait in vain.

I end up taking not one, but two belly dancing lessons. Another name for this artform might be "looking like a fool, while sweating like a pig." Whatever you want to call it, I enjoy myself. I love the music, and when I can mimic the hip, belly, shoulder, chest, and whole-body rolls, I feel pleased. It's only later that every part of me hurts.

After the second belly dancing session, I stay to watch the jazz class. The music is fabulous, bluesy and driving. The teacher is adorable and charismatic and, from the looks of things, has trained in classical ballet. He leads his students through an hour and a half of torturous stretches that cause the floor to be slick with the the sweat streaming off their noses and other parts of their anatomy. They moan and groan as they attempt the body twisting movements that the teacher executes with a smile, with ease, with aplomb, and without any apparent discomfort. The routine that they practice for the next half hour challenges and delights the dancers. I am happy to be their audience.

I can't say no to the invitation to join the salsa class that follows. The main teacher leads us, a group of about 50, through a short routine which I am able to follow without much difficulty. Then we divide ourselves into three groups -- beginners, intermediates, and advanced -- for the remaining hour of instruction.

Confident that I already know the basics, I join the intermediate group. We couple up, switching partners every few minutes. By the end of the session, I almost understand how I am supposed to move. I am grateful that I didn't have the nerve to choose the more advanced group, as I watch the women do multiple spins that would have landed me on a chiropractor's or a mortician's table. Even minus such spins, I am tired and achy and happy to be able to walk home without keeling over.

Eventually, because I run into a former student of Rubber Legs, I find out where the missing instructor has set up shop. His new studio is a quarter the size of and about 10 feet away from the old location. I attend a dance there, partnering several times with a young man who knows his way around the dance floor. Big and tall, he whisks me around as if I were a rag doll. A very wet and exhausted rag doll. I actually am panting by the time I sit down. I have to rest through at least two numbers before I can work up the energy to dance again. This is what I call a good time.

I take a two hour class later in the week and dance several times with a talented young dancer (whom I've tried to imitate, without much success, over the years). This 20-something reminds me of a Mexican version of Michael Jackson, only cuter and alive.

Now I am looking forward to dancing more in Mexico City.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What´s Cooking in Cuernavaca (Cuernavaca, Mexico)

Back in Cuernavaca, a city I´m coming to know quite well. This time I´m staying with my friend, H. (name has been abbreviated because changing it would be a waste of time). The house is part of a complex, owned by his grandmother, which includes several rented-out rooms and accompanying outhouses, grandmother´s house, and what seem to be a couple of apartments. All this behind a gate; it´s true that you never know what lies behind the fences and walls of Cuernavaca.

In exchange for almost two weeks of free room, I´ve been paying for groceries and preparing meals (pastas with different sauces, big salads, Middle Eastern stuff) for H. and me. Although I´ve never felt very comfortable cooking in other people´s kitchens, this has been working out quite well. After shopping at the Mega (a huge department-like store, part of which is a supermarket) or at the mercado (a lot more fun and cheaper, H. washes, disinfects, slices and dices the produce. I direct, stir, and monitor.

In previous years, I´ve met many members of H.´s family. I´ve been invited to his mom´s and stepfather´s house, along with my son, to have lunch. My friend A. and I traveled to Tepotzlan with his mother and one of his brothers, where they treated us to a lovely meal.

I finally meet H.´s father and stepmom, who own a hole in the wall restaurant with excellent home cooking. I lunch there twice with H. and enjoy chicken with chimichurri (an Argentine sauce that combines parsley and garlic and whose results are so much more delicious than the sum of their parts sounds) and tortillas with cactus paddles or nopales. I take my teacher to eat there one day, and dad whips up a steamed fish with a side of red peppers, onions, and garlic that I might request as my last meal on earth or as a constant menu item in heaven.

I see a movie (The Man Who Loved Women, by Fellini) at the Brady Museum and go to Los Arcos, a restaurant-bar in the zocalo or main square, with H.´s grandmother. At 80 plus, she is young and vibrant, and although she doesn´t venture onto the dance floor, she does put away four small bottles of beer without my having to sling her over my shoulder and carry her home.

I dance at Los Arcos with an older gent, who cuts quite a rug. He invites me to join him at his nearby table, where he is surrounded by five women of a more certain age than mine. He tells me they are all his danzon partners and friends, but that he would like to be more than that with me. I tell him that I am happy to join his circle of friends, thank you very much.

As I do every time I´m in town, I tour the Brady Museum. While there, I run into the curator and restorer, the classically Mayan-profiled S. (name is abbreviated to prevent every woman I do and do not know from rushing out to find him). He shows me works that I´ve previously missed (intricate collages of native bird feathers) and his favorite piece, an anonymously painted portrait of a nobleman circa 1600, which he meticuously restored. He also promises to take me on a tour of art in the houses across from the museum next year.

I attend Spanish language classes (9am to 1pm every day) the first week with a priest and a Spanish teacher, and the second week, with the priest, a young German woman working on her thesis (topic is immigration), and a Spanish teacher I met last year. The first session´s topic is immigration, and our guest speaker, a three-time undocumented worker in the US, shares his stories of sacrifice, loss, and courage with us. We talk with one of the founders of a human rights group at his cafe, a communal effort that serves to fund the group´s work and feed the group´s members. Topics during the second week range from politics to cinema. We watch an old movie (The Golden Rooster)based on a story by Pedro Paramo, with a screenplay by literary greats Gabriel Garcia Marcos and Carlos Fuentes. We stop by the sites where environmentalists (including the school director´s wife) won struggles against corporate goliaths (such as WalMart), where the land will continue to be home to trees instead of malls and big box stores.

The class is taught by my favorite teacher, G. (name has been abbreviated to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome). Afterwards one day, he and I take a dance class together. I learn some basic cumbia steps and a type of salsa that I haven´t ever seen or engaged in before (lots of hops and big steps). We are the only students until a smelly, rhythm-challenged man with two left feet shows up. I have to partner with him for a while. Next time I think I´ll take a class in belly dancing...

Friday, July 9, 2010

Full Dance Card (Mexico City)

Saturday and the band is playing. Live. In the park. The music is son cubano, so I have no idea how to dance to it, but I´ll try.

The first gentleman to lead me onto the cement is two very long heads shorter than me and, possibly, four times older. Although fearing he´ll drop dead on the spot (or worse) on me, I try to follow him. I don´t think that I do a very good job, but I must be wrong because, apparently, I´ve become his last dying wish. Others are asking me to dance, and I take them up on their offers, but each time I leave the floor, this diminuitive dapper don re-appears at my elbow, like a shadow cut off at the knees.

Speaking of leg parts, I have left my belongings under the feet of several people seated on the rim of a huge, empty fountain. When there´s a lull between dances, I chat with a woman who bears an uncanny and somewhat disturbing resemblence to the Katerinas or skeletal figures popular here in Mexico. A young couple asks where I am from, and I ask if it´s the color of my eyes or the way I speak Spanish that has given me away.

"Ït´s that you can´t dance," replies the young man.

I am squashed but not crushed.

Meanwhile, out of the middle of my eye, I see my wizened admirer moving stealthily towards me. I neither want to hurt his feelings nor encourage him, so I ask my new acquaintances to rescue me from a situation that they are finding rather amusing. The young man who just insulted me takes my hand.

We dance. Quite well. So there!

I dance with the emcee, a hippiesque guy whom I´d met the year before. I had danced with him (here) only yesterday. When my foot started aching, I´d told him I couldn´t continue dancing with him or with anyone else. He suggested a foot massage. In a jacuzzi. With him. Now he asks if I´ve read the pamphlet he wrote about the park´s history and which he´d given me yesterday, prejacuzzi offer turndown. I haven´t.

I dance with my friend Jose. He´s the macaroni-shaped man I danced with frequently last year. He makes me look better than I am, which is the role of a male lead.

Everytime I go to sit down by my newly fountain friends, someone else requests a dance.

As he´s turning me, a man I recognize from last summer tells me I´ve improved. Compliments always challenge me to disprove what the person has just told me. So, naturally, I mess up. I´m the bella donna of the ball.

When the band winds down, I follow a woman I´ve gotten to know over the last couple of days, a livewire from Veracruz, to another part of the park. We do a couple of zumba routines, led by an energetic teacher and his many talented fellow-minions. It´s raining a bit, so when we meet up with some of her friends, we all decide that we´d prefer to dance someplace where we won´t get wet.

Everyone´s debating where we should go (Romo? The Convention Center?), even as we pull into a parking lot. The Convention Center it is. Live band, lively crowd. As soon as we sit down, those of us who haven´t come accompanied by husbands or partners are whisked onto the dance floor.

Three men keep coming back for me, pretty good dancers all. It´s early, but I have to pack. Leaving tomorrow for Cuernavaca. Ciao for now.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Art and Artistry (Mexico City, Mexico)

At 11 a.m., I meet my friend Art (name has been changed to show that he´s an artist) for coffee. Although Art is quite worldly, he has never been to a Starbucks, so that´s where I take him. He orders a medium latte with caramel syrup. I order a tall shade-grown Mexican (coffee). He samples the raspberry cheesecake and I buy him a slice. I start to tease him about being a Starbucks exvirgin, telling him that I will still respect him in the morning and that it will be better next time. He says it was pretty damned good the first time. We leave, satisfied.

(Note: I am not promoting Starbucks, nor do I suggest that anyone go to another country and eat or drink at any chain restaurant, cafe or fast food outlet from your home country when you should really be eating and drinking at local places, And I don´t even frequent Starbucks that often at home, although I do have a gold card, which I got by going there more often than I care to admit. Anyway, sometimes you just do stuff for friends.)

We go to the Museum of the City of Mexico, one of my favorites. A Mexican impressionist painter, Clausel, had a studio in the attic and painted thousands of tiny portraits, landscapes, monsters, Madonnas and Christs, and animals on the walls, rather than lose or destroy the paint left on his brushes. This time the museum is also displaying the works of French painter (whose name has been omitted because I can´t remember it and) who works in basic and not so basic black.

At first I am, at best, disinterested in the abstract work, but after much discussion with Art (Rule Numero Tres: Always take an articulate, patient, thoughtful artist with you to art exhibits), I start to appreciate the textures, plays of light, and the objects or creatures that my mind conjures up when I gaze at the pieces on display. I end up deciding that I would actually like to add several of the canvases to my imaginary art collection.

Art has to attend a family post-funeral gathering to say goodby to some aunts, who are not the dead people but the people whom he sees every 15 years or so and who are going back home until there´s another death in the family, I guess.

I contnue on to the park where I take my annual dance lesson. But the only instruction is in danzon. I wander around, searching for old friends and finally run into Jose (name remains unchanged for no apparent reason), who gives me the Saturday dance schedule.

I´m baaaaack!

Buenos Dias! (Mexico City, Mexico)

Be forewarned. A living creature has actually died -- but was not intentionally killed (not by me, anyway)-- in the making of this blog entry. Those of you with strong ties to PETA or weak stomachs may wish to skip to whatever comes next and wonder, for the rest of your lives, what you missed....

I´m breakfasting at my usual eatery. This time, however, there´s a surprise in my soup. I´m relieved that the roach I fish out is not missing any parts. (Rule Numero Dos: Always examine your food before you eat it.) I place it on the side of my bowl and continue eating. Note: I´ve eaten lots of insects over the years, so not eating one is no big deal.

I do call over my waitress, however, and report that I´ve found some fresh meat in my soup. I point out the cucaracha. She smiles.

I say,¨Ït didn´t eat too much.¨

Obviously delighted that I would be able to enjoy my full portion, she gives me an even wider smile and walks away.

I finish the soup.

And so, a beautiful day begins.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

En route to Mexico (Somewhere, Overhead)

I'm at the airport, boarding pass in hand, my quart-sized plastic bag bulging with more teeny bottles, tubes, and 3-oz. or less containers of creams, conditioners, contact lens solutions, toothpaste, and everything but shampoo (which I forgot) than anyone else could ever cram in. I remove my shoes, jacket, and hat and place them in one bin, manage to lift my suitcase without giving myself a hernia, add my laptop case (no laptop, but lots of room for my stuff) to the conveyer belt, and breeze through the security check. Except I don't breeze through.

The guard is talking through his headset and asks me to wait, while two female security guards approach. They explain that they will escort my belongings and me into a screened area. There's something on my person that is suspicious.

Lesson Numero Uno: Do not wear your money belt when you go through security.

"It's my money belt," I say, as the two exchange glances. I start to lift my shirt (a little, just to prove it), but they caution me (whether out of fear of my drawing a weapon or fear of my doing a striptease, I don't know), "Not here!"

We enter the roomlet, they close the door, and they pat my middle. They are actually quite polite and we joke around and it's not terrible or scary for me -- or for them.

I wait to board the plane. And wait. And wait.

We take off on time. The airplane is crammed to the gills (yes, I know that planes don't have gills....)with humans. The one seated next to me is an unhappy camper. He wants to change seats, but there are none available. He's critical of everything to do with the airline, our fellow passengersand life in general: the pilot is speaking too loudly when he announces our route, somebody crushed his jacket under their bag, the seats are too small, blah blah blah. He calms down when we start talking about what he does, his travels, how he should have learned Spanish instead of French, and so on.

We arrive in Charlotte and, after grabbing a coffee and bagel with cheddar and egg, I'm really off to Mexico.

Due to a hurricane, we take a round-about route, which will bring us in to Mexico City about an hour later than planned.

I'm seated next to two lovely Mexican women. One works in a plum processing plant and shows me a thousand pictures of her workplace and the plum assembly line. She also shows me photos of her family, and we find common ground in discussing the wonders of yard sales. The other woman is a white-knuckled seat gripper. Her body is so tense that she looks as if she'll break every time we hit an air bump. She snagged the window seat but refuses to open the shade because she's afraid to look out. (I hate to fly, too, but I have handed my fate over to the pilot and my prayers; I become religious when I fly.) The other woman and I finally insist that White Knuckles close her eyes and open the shade. The two of us watch as Mexico City sprawls out into forever and ever.

No problem with Customs. I'm here!