K's directions from the bus station are quite clear. I instruct the cabbie to drive straight through a tunnel, turn left, pass two sleeping policemen, then let me out. I am atop a hill and must enter a passageway tucked behind a storefront and wend my way down steep steps and slippery inclines, until I finally locate her house.
I ring the bell and wait; I am earlier than expected, so K is not yet home, and the Australian woman who is renting the apartment on the lower level opens the gate, lets me in, leads me through the lovely patio (filled with blooming container plants, a bench, chairs and a cafe table), and serves me pineapple juice. We relax in her living area. Chatty and nice, she fills me in on the essentials: where to go for salsa lessons and coffee.
K arrives and takes me upstairs to where I'll be staying. A designer, she bought her house in a working class neighborhood. Despite the appeals of her friends to save her time and her money, she renovated the space. And did a lovely job of it.
My bedroom is located immediately off the kitchen, where K leaves a bowl of lychees (!), a croissant and a sweet bread, and tea bags for my breakfast and snacks. A counter separates kitchen from dining area. A door leads to another bedroom. All rooms are simply furnished and uncluttered, with beautiful, jewel-toned linens, cushions, and fabrics.
Next to the dining area are a shower room and a (separate) half bath in which the toilet is topped by a Japanese style sink. Every time you flush the john, clean water exits the tap, allowing you to wash your hands before the water recycles into the tank. Brilliant!
The dining area's arched windows offer a view of the the surrounding rooftops and of the colorful houses situated on various hilltops, but it's even better to exit onto the cool, sheltered terrace to chat and enjoy a glass of wine. That's just what we do.
I never have a chance to see the upper floor, where K has her bedroom, a living room, and an even better view of the city and surrounding mountains.
Unfortunately, I have little time to spend with K, who has just returned from her own travels and whose schedule is full. But the Australian woman shows me the path into downtown, past the fetid river, over cobblestones, always wending downward. She leads me to the place where I will take a dance lesson, and that's where she leaves me.
Approximately 50 people populate the room. All the women are American students. The men comprise an even mix of Mexicans and Americans. The average age is probably 25, but that's only because I'm pulling it up.
After a warm-up, beginners are asked to move to the left, where they will work on the basics. As the teacher doesn't know me, he dances me for a minute to see which group I should be assigned to. I pass the test, remaining with the intermediate group. We learn a series of steps, which we practice for the rest of the hour, the men rotating so that we women always dance with different partners.
On my way back to the house, I stop at a little corner seafood place and order two tacos, one of shrimp and another of fish. I'm disappointed by the tastelessness of the uninspired and indistinguishable doughy blobs with which I am presented. I eat them because I am hungry, but I have the queasy feeling that I've stumbled into the hideout where exiled "Master Chefs" of Captain D's and Shoney's continue to churn out faux food, everything bland, breaded, and fried.
My stomach laden and leaden, I leave. It is raining, and the ground is slick and mossy. I lose my bearings amongst the sloping steps and high walls in the winding darkness leading up to K's house. Nobody else is out and about in this weather, in this warren, and I can't read the street signs or the house numbers. I am weary, sopping, and increasingly desperate, when finally I find the tiled step, the gate that I've been looking for. I slip my key in the lock, and after several tries, am home away-from-home.
Waking up to my full day here, I shower, polish off the lychees and a croissant, and head down the steps to town, searching for the recommended best cafe and hoping to be there sipping coffee, before a caffeine headache catches up with me. It's pouring.
I'm parked at a table overlooking the street. The coffee is strong enough to lure a parade of expats into the doorway. An American retiree searches for the baseball cap he might have left behind the last time he stopped here; he realizes that it's in his car, but he forgets the canvas bag he's brought with him. A Canadian student I strike up a conversation with an Australian couple, he a nurse, she an adult and art educator. She sits at another table and works at her laptop, while he joins me and spins some salty tales.
The rain lets up, so I get up and go.
First stop: the lovely, ornate Teatro Juarez, known as one of Mexico's most beautiful theaters. The highly embellished facade features angels, muses, lyres, garlands, and Doric columns, guarded by stone lions who might be related to those in front of the New York Public Library. The Art Nouveau foyer leads to the smoking room, populated with sculpted (dead)writers and musicians, among them Dante and Mozart, and an impressive staircase leading to the various levels of seating.
In the lobby, I talk with a Mexican man, a sports doctor from Monterey, and end up joining him, his psychologist wife, and their two high-school aged daughters, for the walk and a self (selves?) tour of the Diego Rivera House Museum. The muralist's birthplace and childhood home, it now showcases some of his artwork and other exhibits.
Taking my leave of this lovely family, I move on to the Mercado Hidalgo. I pass by the displays of vegetables and fruits, cheeses, spices, and animal innards and outards. I sit at a market stall and eat a 40-peso lunch of chicken sauteed with onions, green peppers, tomatoes and jalapenos, salad, and rice and beans, washing it all down with horchata.
I wander the charming streets and peek into a few churches. I spend about an hour in the museum dedicated to all things Don Quixote, home to sculptures, paintings, and decorative items based on the errant knight, his squire, and windmills, as interpreted by artists and artisans from many countries. I think about how little time I have to see this charming city and its treasures. My Mexican students will be crestfallen that I did not make time for the mummies.
The rain persists. The smell of my moldy shoes percolates up to my nose. Stopping into a shop that I passed on my way into the historic area, I buy a pair of black canvas shoes for under four dollars. They will not be mistaken for designer wear and will probably not last very long, but they will give my feet a fresh, new start. When I get back to K's house, I double-bag the old shoes and throw them into the trash.
The only way I can think to thank K. for her hospitality is to invite her out to breakfast on the day of my departure. We end up at the Holiday Inn buffet, on the road to the bus station.
When we enter, the host asks us for our room number. We have none, I say.
He asks if we're with a group. No, I tell him. We just want to eat breakfast.
He looks puzzled, as if I had ordered a turducken or a veinti skinny, double-shot frappuchino with no whipped cream.
"We'll pay," I say.
"It's 70 pesos each," he responds, looking less puzzled and rather pleased.
We help ourselves to chilaquiles, scrambled eggs in salsa, and papaya, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon.
The host comes over to me and whispers, conspiratorially, "If anyone should ask, can you tell them that you're with a group?"
"Which group?" I ask.
"Los alabastros." I don't know if I've heard him correctly or who they are or what they do, but I shake my head yes. Are we part of a group working with alabaster or albatrosses? K, a charming redhead and I, a sometimes charming but never a redhead, will willingly and proudly be alabastras, if that's what it takes to eat breakfast.
When we finish eating and pretending to be alabastras, I pay the host with a 500-peso note. He disappears for about half an hour, apparently trying to dig up change without churning up suspicions that he has allowed two women to crash breakfast for a price that will go directly into his pocket. K. leaves him a healthy tip; if we ever do this again, the wheels will certainly run more smoothly.