user-inactivated is visiting CDMX and I remembered a draft trip report that never got published.
A three-day weekend with snow in the local forecast is ample excuse for a trip South. Plans for Miami were scrubbed when one in our party had a change of heart, so we two decided Thursday night to take the kid to Mexico City. We packed for 75° but would have to wear our coats to the 6 p.m. flight Friday.
We got the last three seats to Atlanta, where we had about thirty minutes to get from Terminal B to Terminal E while booking a hotel. The negotiator found us a room at the Hilton in Reforma for US$80 a night which worked out quite nicely.
The nighttime arrival into the airport nestled in the middle of a metropolis of 20 million (one of the world's four biggest agglomerations, I had read) was almost as spectacular as a nighttime arrival into LAX. We followed the guidebook advice and bought a $240 (US$20) taxi voucher in the airport.
Saturday was spent, or largely misspent, going from one recommended neighborhood to another: Condesa, San Ángel, Coyoacan. We were frustrated by the usual tourist troubles — not knowing which streets to explore, high walls that forced us to walk around rather than through a lovely park, and friendly directions that always seemed to get us only halfway there. An occasional unprotected wifi network provided an oasis of vital data, but didn't improve our scheduling. We arrived at a recommended coffeehouse in late afternoon when it was overcrowded, then a restaurant recommended for its mole too early, when it was still deserted. We were also frustrated by an oft-cited law that we could not sit outside to eat with our minor if anyone around was smoking.
By Saturday evening we abandoned our reservations about safety and cost and boarded random street taxis and roamed freely looking for food. We enjoyed tostadas con mango at a casual place in the posh Polanco district, then grabbed coffee and walked halfway back to Reforma before hailing another cab.
Sunday, after protracted and difficult negotiations with hotel staff, we arranged a driver to take us to las pyramidas in Teotihuacan for US$90 efectivo. We got about half off the going rate by declining the tour guide service and pretending not to be concerned by hints that a return taxi would leave us penniless and naked at the side of the road, or worse.
The drive north was interesting for the seemingly endless kilometers of poor-looking neighborhoods covering every available space. They are mostly gray concrete blocks, about one in ten painted a festive solid color, like M&Ms spilled in gravel. The driver, in lieu of providing tour-guide service, coughed and wheezed and cursed a motorcycle procession that closed the main highway. These mild oaths, in English, were very nearly the only curses I heard all weekend. I've spent years learning and practicing maldiciones, and was disappointed that reality did not live up to the promises of Mexican cinema. Like the colorful, plasticky, undervalued toy currency, the foreign curses seem fake and are easy to dispense.
Opportunities to spend came hard and fast once we passed the entrance gates at Teotihuacan. The grand Pyramida del Sol loomed in the distance behind a gauntlet of trinket stands. I picked up a swell straw hat, which even my halfhearted bargaining brought into the negligible range of petty cash. It was hard to refuse the sun-wizened meztizos, approaching with baubles and a sales pitch of "casi gratis" — indeed the starting price was often a dollar.
Bartering still makes me a little tense, and the added pressure of protecting pockets, keeping an eye on junior (who was clambering over every available stone construction, built by Aztecs [actually by an unknown people predating the Aztecs] with no concern for safety), and the thin air took a toll as I tried to trickle some tourist cash down. A graybeard held up a jailer's ring full of carved stone keychains and told me they cost "quince." I knew that meant fifteen or fifty, but blanked on which. I couldn't figure it out, so I asked him in Spanish how you write quince. No tengo letras, came the reply, making me feel the bigger fool. I finally got out of it by asking how much for two, then reflexively talking him down to 20 pesos for a pair. A lazy German tourist then took advantage of the same deal without sweating.
Already two thousand feet higher than Denver, the additional 216-foot climb to the top of the pyramid was occasion for more sweating and panting. My heart rate was never lower than 80 all weekend, and the stone steps, sometimes seemingly vertical, must be responsible for more human sacrifice in modern times than the ancients could arrange. It was worth the effort for the views, breeze, and to see a cluster of pilgrims at the top praying and grinning and crowding on hands and knees to touch a tiny silver button stuck in the center of the peak.
Back in the city, the kid had some kind of pants malfunction and I went out in search of a safety pin. I didn't know what they were called so I sketched a diagram and carried it from shop to shop. Someone told me it is called a "seguro" but that caused more confusion as it also means "insurance." While wandering around, I received one of those traveller-beware life lessons you read about in the guide books.
From travel notes: "dude spit on my shoes and got 15 off me"
He spotted his mark, an aimless tourist, and took advantage of the fact that shoes become dust-coated upon first contact with the Mexican street. He had a filthy rag and started rubbing my feet with it, inviting a firm kick. Instead I stood rooted and unable to interrupt the unrequested service-in-progress, all the more shocked when he applied a mild enzymatic solution to my shoe leather and began rubbing it in.
I marched off indignantly, hopefully intoning "No hay derecho" like the waiter in "The Butterfly and the Tank" PDF. But he followed and started badgering me about his shoeshine fee. I advertised the location of my wallet pocket by clamping a hand over it and tried to shake him off with random turns, looking for a market or cafe with witnesses. Finally I stopped at a snack stand with the excuse of making change and paid the guy to leave me alone. With the exchange rate at 12-to-1 it was a fair price for a story.
Arriving at the airport departures entrance, my wife asked "Did you get the passports?" My one-word response was not "no" but left no doubt about the passports; they were still in the hotel room safe. My brain switched into emergency mode — fight or miss-your-flight — and I turned off all the roaming safeties on my cell phone to call the front desk directly, no messing with calling cards. After agreeing to some number of stipulations including an additional round-trip taxi charge, I was assurred that the safe contents were en route to the airport. A tense quarter-hour later, the bellhop (botones for "buttons") arrived. He handed over the documents and I gave him a tip, and insisted that he keep the other item from the safe, a "Rolex" I had picked up in Bodrum.
Back story, September 2011: there was a whole street of fake watch sellers near our rental apartment by Gümbet Beach. I was not in a rush and planned to be deliberate in shopping for a silly souvenier. I would get the best price I could from the first shop, then see if the second shop could beat it, then continue on down the line.
The price at the first shop was so low I didn't bother moving on, and the vendor resized the band before I left. The quartz movement was still keeping time months later in Mexico, and may be running yet.