The Year of Living Differently #28: I-Wonder-Where-Land – Buenos Aires, Argentina to Mexico City, Mexico

Next Stop: I-Wonder-Where-Land

I bid silent good-byes to Plaza San Martin, Puerto Madero and other places in Buenos Aires as the airport bus pulled out of the centre and headed to the airport. I felt strangely empty now as I was leaving South America. Maybe I found it difficult to accept that I was really leaving this wonderful continent. I just did not know what to think anymore. Hmm… perhaps the reason why many airports look clinical and charmless was to make parting easier for us. Hasta luego

I finally arrived at Mexico City that night. I had been to Mexico two years ago. I know for sure Mexico is not safe at night. I had stayed in a hostel near the centre that time. At 6pm or so, when the sky still had a light blue tinge, there were throngs of people on the streets, selling wares, shopping, eating from taco stalls, etc… I had ducked into a cafe for dinner and upon emerging from the cafe at 8pm, the entire streets were cleared of everyone. If the locals knew they had to disappear by night-fall, it surely was not safe there. As I walked nervously back to my hostel, I would see policemen frisking someone down this street and hear car-alarms down the other street. It had been unnerving.

Well, this time, I would try and get an airport-taxi. I was unable to find the airport-taxi booth and after making several inquiries, I was led to a booth which read: GUIA DE TURISMO (Tourist Guide). It didn’t look right. And the guy said the price to the centre was 250 pesos (US$25). No, that’s too much money! I could not believe my ears. I insisted on just 100 pesos. After a long time of haggling, they reduced it to 180 pesos. It was still too much money to pay for a taxi-ride but I gave in finally.

The drive tried to interest me in another hostel, instead of the one in the centre I wanted to return to. OK, this one was located in Zona Rosa and from my memory of Mexico City, I recalled many embassies were around the Zona Rosa, Paseo de la Reforma and Chapultepec area. Perhaps, it was better to stay in that region in order to track down Guatemala Embassy tomorrow.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – 28 March, 2003
I headed to Paseo de la Reforma, one of the most famous avenues of Mexico City to try and catch a bus to Lomas de Chapultepec, where the Guatemala Embassy was located. I was unable to find a bus-stop and asked a Senor whether we could just flag down the buses anywhere. He nodded and asked where exactly I was heading. He then told me I needed to catch a bus that read REFORMA KM13. I had a 10-peso coin and checked with him if the buses provided change. No, he informed me, I needed exact change for buses. But micros would provide change. OK, I would take a micro then.

A bus with REFORMA KM13 soon arrived. The Senor turned to me, and proffered 2 pesos, insisting that I took them. My goodness, this guy was trying to GIVE me money. “No, Senor, I cannot take your money!” I replied in Spanish. But he was very insistent and practically dragged me up the bus. The reason he wanted me to be on the bus was so that he could show me where to get off and exactly where to walk thereafter. Oh, thank you very much. Barely 24 hours in Mexico, Mexicans are already wonderful to me.

To my utter disappointment, the Guatemala Embassy informed me that I would need to wait three weeks for the processing of my visa. I only have four weeks left of my RTW trip. I could not wait three weeks for a visa. Sigh… another setback. I could not go to Guatemala.

I fell into a state of mourning not unlike the one I had when I realised my Bolivian visa was rejected. I was suddenly directionless. I had no idea what to do next. I had been so sure of getting my visa.

I have a friend from Singapore who was working in Mexico City for several years. I actually had not been in contact with him for eight years. It was through our common Spanish teacher in Singapore that I knew about his assignment to Mexico City. I actually had no idea if his contract had ended or not. Perhaps he was not in Mexico City anymore. Still, I tried my luck and emailed to him.

Upon returning to my hostel, my friend Ming had called and left a message. Great! We then made arrangements to meet for dinner. This was wonderful, wonderful news.

Meanwhile, I turned things over in the my head and wondered where I should head off next. I decided to forget about visas and stuff and visit the north of Mexico this time. The last time I was here, I spent six weeks doing the south.

I had a flight from Mexico City to Cancun leaving 1 April. I had charmed Sergei in the Mexicana office in Buenos Aires to grant me a few days’ stay here in Mexico City to await my Guatemala visa. I figured, if I visit the north of Mexico, then I would need to delay this Mexico City to Cancun flight til perhaps three weeks later. So, I headed to Mexicana and conned them into changing my flight to 16 April.

That evening, Ming and his wife met me at my hostel. A beaming Ming walked towards me, proffering his hand for a hand-shake. A HAND-SHAKE?!!?? Sorry, six and a half months in South America, I had been somewhat Latinized (on the contrary, three years here, Ming and his wife still had not) and I ignored the proffered hand and went up to hug him and his wife and give them kissies-on-the-right-cheek.

Off we went to a Japanese Restaurant. I had not eaten Japanese food since way before I left Singapore. It was an excellent choice. As we chatted and caught up with one another’s lives excitedly, I found it amusing to listen to the Singaporean accent now and our very own Singlish, after eleven months of travels.

I told Ming about my Guatemala visa saga. As his job was to establish trade links between Singapore and Mexico, and some South American countries, he mentioned he might be able to help place a call on Monday to see if he could sort out this issue. Really? Gosh, while this was no promise, I was delighted at the news and decided to stay in Mexico City for a few more days.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – 29 March, 2003
My room-mates, Ally and George from England, had just arrived and asked me several queries about Mexico City. To my surprise, I found that I could tell them which metro station to get off to visit the Mercado de Artesanias de La Ciudadela (a huge market that sold Mexican souvenirs) and how exactly to go to Teotihuacan (an amazing group of pyramids near Mexico City), based on pure memory from my recollection of Mexico. Not bad, not bad.

Meanwhile, I headed to Coyoacan to visit Museo Frida Kahlo. Two years ago, I did not get the chance to visit it. When I was here in Mexico City then, Salma Hayek had been here at the same time to film the movie ‘Frida’, which I watched in December in Buenos Aires. It would be interesting now to visit ‘The Blue House’ where Frida Kahlo was born and where she died.

Indeed, it was wonderful. There were displays of some of her talented artwork and Diego Rivera’s (her husband). There were numerous other art collections from other artists as well as pre-Colombian artefacts. Her studio seemed to be left as it was, with stains of paint everywhere, her wheel-chair set poignantly in front of an incomplete portrait of Stalin. There were photos of other Communist leaders like Mao, Lenin, Marx, too.

But what was interesting were the personal letters and diaries on display. Her love for her womanizing husband was really strong (although she was bisexual and had extra-marital affairs herself), as could be seen from the notes she wrote him. Her pillows were embroidered ‘DOS CORAZONS FELICES’ (Two happy hearts) and ‘NO ME OLVIDES MI AMOR’ (Do not forget me, my love). In a way, it was rather heart rending. Even her body-cast which she had to tortuously wear to heal her body sat proudly on the bed. Her kitchen and furniture with the loud colours, her ostentatious jewellery and colourful clothes, her collection of paper-mache ‘Day of the Dead’ skeletons were all very Mexican. She was truly an amazing and extremely talented woman of her times.

That evening, I met up with my other friend in Mexico City, Mauricio and his wife, Liliana. We met two years ago and it was really nice to catch up with them again.

When I returned to my hostel, I learnt that Ally and George were both pick-pocketed today at the metro. Gosh! There was a huge crowd at the door and the system was beeping, signalling that the door was about to shut. Suddenly, there was a shove and all squeezed into the metro at the last minute. They both knew this was the perfect pick-pocket moment and checked their pockets. Indeed, both their wallets were gone. They looked around them and some Mexicans were actually grinning at them. George asked one guy if he was the pick-pocket. The guy happily showed George his plastic bag. Right, like he would show him where he hid the wallet. Sigh…there was nothing either could do.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – 30 March, 2003
I was picked up by Ming and his wife Hong today to go to Xochimilco. With them, was another Singaporean lady, Sue, who had come to Mexico City for work so often they had became friends and she was now staying at their apartment.

Xochimilco is down south in Mexico City. In this area, pre-Hispanic inhabitants had piled up vegetation and lake mud to make fertile gardens called chinampas and this was an economic region for the Aztec empire. Now, with many chinampas, there was a series of canals between them. Loads of colourful ‘trajineras’ (or gondolas) cruise down the canals with parties of happily drunk locals and tourists, especially on weekends. Amongst these ‘trajineras’, there were mariachi and marimba bands, hawkers of food and handicrafts and photographers with Mexican ‘sombreros’ (hats) ready for tourists. It was classic Mexican kitsch.

Two years ago, I had gone all the way to Xochimilco and as it was a Monday, it was very quiet. The punters had tried to coax me to hire the boat myself. I had imagined the mariachi bands serenading love songs to me and me only and goose-pimples had emerged rapidly. I then made a 180-degrees U-turn and fled the scene.

Now, I am back. With Sue as a fellow tourist, I did not feel that out-of-place. Ming and Hong brought along snacks like chips, strawberries and fried chicken-wings (a Singaporean favourite!). Yippee!!

Actually, as it turned out, Xochimilco was more over-run by locals than I had thought. To them, this was a perfect Sunday get-together with families and friends. Some were dancing to the mariachi or marimba music. Others were feasting on sweet-corns. Yet more were getting drunk on tequila. It had a very festive and delightful atmosphere.

Some of the chinampas now sold flowers and plants. Actually, Xochimilco means ‘place where flowers grow’ in the Nahuatl language used by the Aztec. We stopped at one and Sue bought several pots of flowers. She was going to move to Mexico City soon and had started buying plants for her apartment, even before she had a chance to look for an apartment.

From conversations with Ming, Hong and Sue, I simply could not believe my ears at the various Singlish words used by them. It was as if I was transported back to Singapore one month ahead in time. It already felt like I had come home.

As Sue examined a flower pot, she commented the plant looked ‘seng gnek’ (lop-sided). Then, to her, another pot of flowers looked ‘lau hong’ (deflated). We brushed by some flowers accidentally and one poor thing ‘kar lout’ (fell down).

Various people had asked me, upon learning that I was from Singapore, if we spoke an exotic language of our own. They had been disappointed to learn that we speak English. Well, actually, we do have a ‘language’ of our own – Singlish. Singlish is bad English; it is English spoken with Mandarin grammar; it is extremely rich in words from a mixture of our Chinese dialects, Mandarin and Malay. In one sentence, we can have a mixture of English, Mandarin, dialects or Malay words in it. We love to add useless sounds like ‘lah’, ‘lor’, ‘leh’, ‘meh?’, ‘izit?’, ‘hor’ behind our sentences. No one else would understand us.

We returned to Ming and Hong’s apartment. I nearly fainted upon seeing it. It was enormous and very ostentatiously furnished, thanks to their rich and generous land-lady. The rich Mexicans are profanely rich. It was perhaps six times the size of the apartment Pablo and I had shared for two months in Buenos Aires. I could hold a ballet performance here. If I were a dog, I would not know where to begin running. The sofas, there were several of them, all looked super comfortable. I shamelessly requested if I could also crash at their apartment, so that I could save some money for accommodations (Mexico City is not cheap). Sue had taken the luxurious guest-room but to me, the sofa in the living room was already paradise itself. Sue and I had gotten along splendidly since this morning and she suggested that I share the bed in the guest-room with her. And so, it was set. I would move into the palace tomorrow.

That evening, Hong prepared many typical Singaporean dishes, like ‘bak kut teh’ (a sort of peppery brown soup with pork spare-ribs), ‘chye por nerng’ (egg fried with little pieces of turnips) and steamed fish. Real food, at last.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – 31 March, 2003
I chatted with my two other room-mates at my hostel, Hilda and Sofie, and found they wanted to go to Palmas 735 to try and hunt down the KLM airline office. Ming’s apartment was near there and his chauffeur would pick me up in a few minutes’ time. But as it was not MY chauffeur (imagine that!), I did not offer them a ride.

Later, however, from the car I spotted them on the street and hurriedly asked Ming’s chauffeur, Javier, if he could ferry them to Palmas 735, which was along the way. He was agreeable and so I called out and beckoned to the girls. When they entered, they were impressed. “What sort of friend do you have in Mexico City?”, they joked. Yeah, I agreed. Having been a backpacker for more than eleven months, scrimping and saving as much as possible, to be now in a chauffeur-driven car, on the way to where the rich and famous lived… I felt extremely odd.

Ming had placed the call to the Guatemala Embassy this morning. He then informed me that the embassy recently changed their processing policy for Asians and Africans because a huge number had entered Guatemala and disappeared. That was why it would take such a long time to process visas for Singaporeans. I assured Ming I had absolutely no intention to open up a Chinese Supermarket in Guatemala but Ming said there was nothing he could do. He promised to try and meet up with the Ambassador sometime in the future to help secure better links and relationship between Singapore and Guatemala. And Bolivia too?, I hazarded. One at a time, one at a time, he replied. OK, perhaps I was pushing it.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – 1 April, 2003
So, where do I go next? North of Mexico frankly did not appeal to me whole-heartedly. I started tossing around the idea of going to Cuba from Cancun. I trawled the internet for cheap flights to La Habana and finally found one for US$205. OK, it was a lot of money to me, especially at this point of my travels when my funds are running out. But, what were my odds of going to Cuba again before it changes (that is, before a certain Castro character dies)?

Ming checked with the Cuban Embassy and told me we did not need visas, we just needed air-tickets and a tourist card. OK, Cuba then.

I selected to go to La Habana on 5 April and to return on 19 April. The website announced that someone would revert to me the availability of flights within 48 hours.

Sue wanted to go apartment-hunting today. When Ming’s chauffeur was available for a few hours, Hong, Sue and I took a spin around the Lomas de Chapultepec and Polanco area. We stuck our heads out from each window to search for ‘SE RENTA’ or ‘SE AQUILA’ (For rent) signs pasted on the windows of apartments and note down their numbers. Then, we returned and Hong helped Sue place several phone calls to the agents. One agent wanted to show us some apartments right away. Hong had to cook lunch. So, I went with Sue to be her translator, ahem.

We were picked up by Mario in a grotty car whose back doors would not open. I had to crawl in from the front-passenger’s door. We hoped the apartments he would show us would be better. The first apartment was actually a house, sectioned out from the main house, and within walking distance from Sue’s office in Mexico City. Mario assured us this was perfect.

Indeed, it was perfect. It had a wonderful Mexican flavour. The floor was painted orange, the kitchen was lined with the famous talavera tiles from Puebla and had a sky-light, making it bright and cheery. The bedroom was lovely white, the dining room chairs looked like cacti (without the spikes). I loved it!! Oh, in my mind, I already knew how I wanted to decorate it. I had to remind myself I was not the one apartment-hunting. Well, it was perfect… except for the price. US$1500 per month.

Sue also had her heart set on this house. She was not keen to look at others. We’ll see whether Mario could get the price lower.

Being surrounded by Singaporeans these two days meant that the hot topic among us was the SARS virus problem in Singapore and Asia. The number of infected kept rising and rising. The stories of how the people got infected were scary and how the authorities were trying to track down certain people who might be in close contact with the infected, like missing taxi-drivers or whatever. Gosh… my friends at home were also saying that no one wanted to go out of their house unnecessarily, all wanted to avoid crowded places and air-conditioned places (which means every building and public transport in Singapore). Face masks and Chinese herbs were all sold out. I could not imagine how the panic was like back home.

I called my mom that night. She works in a Chinese clinic which meant people with flu-symptoms might show up. And my dad drives a taxi. I was worried for them but basically, they could only try to be careful.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – 2 April, 2003
I was really grateful to Ming and Hong for cooking Singaporean food the last few days. Gosh, it had been a long time. For a while now, I had wondered what I would stuff into the gap in my face upon arrival in Singapore. There had been too many delicious foods which I had missed and it would be difficult to queue them. But now, at least, with some cravings satisfied, when I got home I would tackle those not consumed here in Mexico City.

But, seriously, when in Mexico City, I should eat some Mexican food. So, I headed out to town today on an empty stomach.

Tortilla: Mexican’s staple food. Enchiladas, gorditas, quesadillas, tlayudas, entomatadas, tamales, tostadas, chilaquiles, tacos, burritas, sincronizadas, papadzules… All variants of Mexican cuisine using tortillas, corn or wheat.

Tortilla, folded.
Tortilla, rolled.
Tortilla, pan-fried.

Tortilla, pan-fried, greenish-black and gross-looking.
Tortilla, folded and sealed at the sides.
Tortilla, steamed.
Tortilla, crisp and open like a pizza.
Tortilla, small and round, order of 3 or 4.
Tortilla, folded in triplets, covered in ‘salsa rojo’ (red sauce).
Tortilla, folded in triplets, covered in ‘salsa verde’ (green sauce).
Tortilla, folded in triplets, covered in mole.
Tortilla, stuffed with eyes, tongue, brain.

Told you they love tortillas.

Two years ago, I had not liked the taste of tortilla. I had felt so stupid to discover this only after arrival in Mexico.

But this time round, I was alright with tacos from the street-side stalls. Perhaps the fillings-to-tortilla ratio was bigger, so I tasted less of the tortilla. Perhaps I was very distracted by the spicy-hot chili, a long time since I had had anything spicy.

Sprinkled with chopped jalapeno chilies, onions and tomatoes (green, white and red, representing the Mexican flag) or guacamole (avocado) and eaten with fingers, it was a cheap and great way to have your stomach filled. Some locals could eat the tacos expertly without spilling the contents out on the other side. Well, I couldn’t. I was a mess.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – 3 April, 2003
A guy called Sam from the website replied that there was availability on CUBANA flights on the days I wanted. He said he would make reservations and send me the invoice and some information about a Mario (yet another) so that we would not miss each other at the airport.

I was confused. He had not asked me for my full name. How was he to make reservations? Send me the invoice? I would be leaving in two days’ time. I emailed him back to request more information.

With the Cancun-La Habana flight set, I returned to Mexicana to bully them into changing my Mexico City-Cancun flight again… this time to put forward to 5 April. The lady requested a charge when done. I told her I was not charged the last time I had it changed. So, she left it as it was. Phew.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – 4 April, 2003
Sue and I went to La Ciudadela, a huge artesan market, to shop. She was already dreaming about how to decorate her house. I bought a rug and some talavera tiles, which I loved from two years ago but never bought. As this was my second time here, I could not bear NOT to buy them again. But with not enough money to post things home, I would have to carry everything now.

I visited Mauricio and Liliana at their apartment, located at the south of Mexico City. They offered nopales (a kind of cactus) for dinner. I had never tasted this before. It actually tasted pretty good. And they gave me a present… a porcelain plate, the shape of a fish and larger than a keyboard. I loved it but I would have to be really careful to carry this all the way home. Wish me luck.

By mid-night, I still had not received any email from Sam about how I was to meet Mario at the airport to collect my air-ticket to La Habana and pay up. Gosh, I was flying off tomorrow morning to Cancun but I had no idea if I would make the connecting flight to La Habana.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – 5 April, 2003
I arrived at Cancun, hoping to see a ‘TRISHA’ sign held by someone at the arrival hall. No, no and no. There were only signs for people staying in 5-star hotels and being driven by limousines.

I had no idea what to do now. I spent about half a week in Mexico City, arranging this and all for nothing. Sheesh… OK, there were actually three hours to go before the CUBANA flight departed. I decided to head to town, to see if I could locate an internet cafe and check if Sam had replied.

Nothing in my mailbox. Well, at least I did not make any payments. So, it was not too bad.

I decided I would go to Belize. I did not need a visa, so why not just take a bus to Chetumal, the border town in Mexico, stay a night and cross into Belize tomorrow. I finally made up my mind.

But when I was on the street, still carrying my backpack, I came across a travel agency and wandered in. I made inquiries for the price to La Habana and asked, as a joke, whether I could leave for Cuba today. Jose told me, it was 1pm now, the flight would leave in 1 hour… but tomorrow, I could go. Seriously?? The price was even better than the one on the internet. Gosh, I should have just come to Cancun to sort things out, instead of waiting for that stupid website to handle my flight. Actually, it is stupid me! And so I paid up and would fly to Cuba tomorrow.

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