la ciudad cover image la ciudad
32 pages

mexico city, df - los angeles, ca


six: mexico city

up in the morning at seven a.m., once again without the aid of an alarm clock, i shower, without slipping on the way out. i wake my bedmate, suggesting that he drink all the bottled water, which the hotel provides, and filling it from the bathroom tap, so that our third roommate will get sick. i take the elevator to the ground and exit the hotel sevilla. the outside air immediately assaults me; it freezes my skin, burns my nose, stings my eyes and cracks my lips. i cross the streets and plazas between my hotel and the villa in which i am supposed to meet my instructor and my fellow studio members for breakfast. i pass a few stands which tempt me with their colorful glasses of fruit juice, but dissuade me with their fruit's blackened peels and rinds.

only one wrong turn invades my progress; i sit down for three cups of coffee and a plate of frutas de la estacion. the meeting is useless in the sense that it does not change my outlook on the day's planning, but relaxing in that i get to spend an hour listening to and putting out gossip on the various persons who were part of last night's events with my morning's table mates. the waiter points at the head of the table and says something about 'por todos...' i take that to mean that someone else is paying for all of our meals, so i grab my books and get ready to go back into the streets so i can buy some agua and jugo before the buses leave me. as soon as i stand, of course, someone announces that the buses are here. regardless, i run down the street to a little shop between two identical little shops and buy a can of jumex mango nectar and a bottle of electropura for twice the price that it would cost at the bodega across from my temporary home at the hotel sevilla. only an hour has passed since i first came outdoors, and the day is already unbearably hot; my jacket is off my back before i reach the bus which takes us to the plaza of the three cultures so that we can spend twenty minutes looking at aztec ruins next to colonial ruins next to modern ruins. it is a nice gesture to mark this area, but it seems trite compared to the fact that the entire city is a mixture of these three ingredients in various degrees of measurement and manifestation. the oldest ruins are always the best, but it is difficult to get a handle on how they look or what they mean when they are sunken below a ring of worthless concrete buildings by which i have been surrounded for my entire life, a phenomenon which has the effect of not motivating me to cross the country to see more of them.

all of this leads to more bus riding which this time at least takes place on the highway or freeway or autoroute or whatever it is called in the federal district, so we can get a look behind the city walls to see that they contain the same patchworks of corrugated metal and plastic tarps and wooden planks which make up the ring of squats around the city. the highway leads us to a pink home by luis barragan, the architect made possible by mies van der rohe. the entranceway is so thick, it makes me question our intent to even look at it. houses have been this heavy for centuries; i start to wonder if we would accept this house if we had been given the opportunity to examine the houses around us - for all i know, they all look and feel just like this one. my thoughts are altered, though, by the discovery at the end of a yellow tunnel of light. when i enter a dim room with a glowing floor, i wonder how they cut a single piece of stone so large. after i see where it meets the wall, i perceive that there is a room below us with a glass ceiling. i barely realize that it is actually a pool of water in time to stop myself from stepping over the edge. i wish that he had been more generous with the light, but barragan wins this one.

my group drops its twenty-pesos-per-person on the stairs and returns to the sidewalk to wait. everyone is sketching the box or photographing the pink; i walk past them all and mosey through about thirty blocks of the surrounding neighborhood to search for a bathroom. after making the rounds through the quietest and most desolate barrio in mexico city, i end up back at the same scene which i left; half the studio is sitting on the curb and sketching, while the other half is walking to the corner store to help the owner make a mint by moving more bags of chips and cans of cola than he has ever sold in his life. i sit on a doorstep and watch the kids flow in and out of the home until i get the word that we are free to go until two o'clock in the afternoon, at which point we need to be back at the house to begin a bus ride across the city to see and 'alternative city' known as neza.

the story is that there is a park across the street, and there is a string of museums and cafes across the park. so we follow our leader around corners and across our previous paths until we enter a little green gate into an enormous green park. i take a look at the map to see if there is anything of interest; the words 'museo de arte moderno' excite my interest, so i try to commit to memory the route from the sign to the icon of the building and begin walking. i am heading in the same general direction as the other eight people in my group, so i tag along with them until i see a path which leads to my vision of the museum. i leave others behind me for about ten seconds, after which a woman from the group calls my name and asks what i am doing. i tell her about my plans to find the modern art museum. she convinces me to continue following the group, as that is where our leader is trying to take us. after i rejoin them, the woman pulls me aside and asks how i am liking sci-arc. it is a pretty common question to hear - everyone asks this to a fellow student at sometime - but for some reason it comes across to me as a little odd, as it is pretty serious considering that i have never really had a conversation with this woman before, and it is the first thing that she asks me, even though we have all of mexico city to consider. after a few false starts, in which i confuse the both of us as to what i think, i finally explain that i can not take sci-arc sometimes, due to the fact that not enough people there seem to care about the capabilities of what they are doing. i am struggling to find a link between my bleeding heart ideals and the conservative realities of the profession; the general apathetic character of many of the spoiled dilettantes at sci-arc sometimes makes me think that i will never make my own connection and that i am in the wrong place. she agrees a little, and she mentions her distress at the inability for many people at school to take a stand or position on something or anything. i admit that those thoughts are echoed in this trip; sci-arc is supposed to foster an individual approach to solutions, but most people on the trip are complaining about the lack of direction or guidance on the project. they do not know what to do, and they are afraid to do anything which might not fit in with the desires of their instructors.

we make a brief stop for directions at an official-looking building. there is no one available to answer our questions, so we just take advantage of their restrooms. when we come out, we are chastised for a few minutes, as the restrooms are not intended for public use. we take the abuse from the suits for a few moments, then rejoin the members of our group who not only escaped the lecture from the restroom attendants, but also procured directions for the archeological museum. when we arrive at the plaza in front of the building, a trio of girls runs up to me and asks if they can ask a few questions; they produce a sheet of paper and a tape recorder.

'no, thanks,' i tell them senselessly and insensitively, 'but thanks for asking.' they run after another obvious group of tourists, and i feel a bit of remorse for blowing them off. they are probably just school kids trying to do their research, just like me. i promise that i will answer the questions the next time i am asked. as i suspected, we split up as soon as we get into the museum. i go through the maya and toltec exhibits; everyone else heads to the cafeteria. i hope to find a key or piece of inspiration towards my goal of fixing up our theoretical mexico city, but i do not gain a clue. i think that my information lies in the plazas on each side of the entrance, so i tell the lunch gang that i will see them back at the bus. i walk through the lobby, stopping in the gift shop for a couple of gifts for a couple of friends.

feeling like i just wasted one-hundred-eighty pesos, i leave the archeological museum behind me and cross the plaza to get to the path which leads towards the buses. while i debate the usefulness of photographing the plaza, the same girls who first accosted me approach again and ask me if i would agree to some questioning. in honor of the promise which i made to myself, i tell them to ask me two questions. they appear confused, but they still hold the tape recorder under my face. 'where are you from?'
'los angeles.' why lie?
'do you like mexico city?'
'very much.' why not lie?
'where are you going in mexico?'
'just the city. i'm an architect who just wants to see the city.' why stop lying?
'do you like mexican food?'
'no...i'm a's hard.' not too much lying, after all. 'okay, thank you.'
'no problem.' i do not give them any hell for exceeding the amount of questions allowed.
i'm alone in the city again, with the reemergence of the irrational fear of the crowd which surrounds me. i wander through the tents and tables which envelope every street and sidewalk of this town. i need to hustle in order to make it back to the bus on time, but, of course, i still take a side route through a market which holds the prospect of spider-man stuff. the people get thicker as i move into the market; for the first time in mexico city, i feel confined. on all sides, there are people pressing against me; beyond them is the layer of stalls and stores; beyond them is the wall of trees that extends to the city. only inches above my head hangs the patchwork of ropes and sheets of plastic which make up the quilt of reds and greens and blues and tiny yellows which denote the limits of the area of commerce; above that, the canopy of branches and leaves darkens the sky. the usual noise of sirens and roaring engines is replaced by the droning buzz of hundreds of voices calling out the advantages and qualities and economies of their wares.

none of them are calling out with the promise of spider-man souvenirs, however, so there is nothing appealing enough to slow me down as i burst free of the market and reenter the thin trails which weed their way through the forest. after crossing the main intersection of the market streets, i am not completely positive as to which street upon which i was travelling when i came through the park in the opposite direction. i had not been paying attention, as i was busy telling a classmate about my crises of faith which can be partially attributed to the selfish attitudes of most sci-arc students; i was so wrapped up in telling her that it is difficult to convince myself that architectural intervention and social obligation can be reconciled when i am in an environment of ignorance and denial of its own privilege, my own included, that i did not notice that dozens, if not hundreds, of trails were crisscrossing the one we were walking. now that i have returned, i try to take the most familiar one, but, in all honesty, they all look exactly the same...

the trail i pick passes by a small outhouse which i sort of recognize, but it is also full of horses and burros which i can not remember seeing earlier in the afternoon. by the time i get to the end of the path and see that it splits into three directions, i know that i am on the wrong path. since i do not know which way of the three paths leads in the most correct direction, i take the middle one, as, no matter what, it should only put me half of the way off my course, in the likely event that it turns out to be the wrong one. i follow it to the most dark and secluded area of the park that could be manifested during daylight hours. there are no vendors or performers or children or burros here; there are only couples making out behind the trees and drunks lying unconscious in the grass. the path terminates into a large road; i tell myself that it is familiar and that the exit from the park is 'just over there'. i walk 'over there' and come no closer to the exit. nothing around me is remotely recognizable; there is no hope that i am anything but lost. the only hope that remains possible is that everyone behind me is equally lost; as long as i get to the bus before them, i will still be okay. i can hear the rumbling and roaring of the cars as they scream down the busy road on which the bus is parked, so i give up on trying to see the previously traveled trails and concentrate instead on moving in the direction which increases the volume of the highway. unfortunately, the sound is not coming from a direction in which any of the 'formal' paths lead; it is coming through the trees through which i am unable to see. there are a number of 'informal' trails scratched from the dirt floor of the forest, but there is no assurance about where they go or what they contain, so the best plan is to stick to the main trail until it reaches the limits of the park on one side or the other.

eventually, i see the green gate which marks the boundary shared by the park and the city. i take a little side route to my right; it definitely leads to a gate of some sort. a little relieved that i am getting out of the park and a little worried about where i am getting out, a man in a blue vinyl uniform rushes past me as he shouts into his walkie-talkie. he only clears about ten feet before he slows his pace and lets me pass him. with the local crumb bums out of my way, i get a better view of the gate to which i am heading. there is a concrete wall on either side of the path; through the narrow gap between them, i glimpse a few spots of green and red and white. i immediately recognize this at the rear of a flower market by which the bus passed on the way to the way to the barragan house. i remember it vividly, not for the purity of the colors which are the most cherished in a city which is smothering in greys, but rather for the resemblance of the semi-elliptical form of the market to a certain monument in berlin to the soviet soldiers who died in the european war against the nazis. as the bus passed it; i ran my eyes across the market, hoping to see a stone member of the proletariat pointing frozenly towards freedom and the future; now that i examine it more leisurely, i can see that it holds nothing but white and black wreaths for the newlywed and the newly dead.

nevertheless, now that i have found someplace which is a little familiar, i get an idea about how far i am from the bus. i have a great deal of walking to do, but if i subtract the time which the group against which i am racing had to spend on their sandwiches and tamales plus the time they will have to waste on bickering after they too become lost, then i should still have plenty of time left with which i can beat them back to the bus. though the stroll turns out to be much longer and much more sense shattering than i had anticipated, i manage to accelerate the time in my mind by imagining myself shouting and leaping and waving as the bus tears past me on the road to its next tour stop. life does not come to this, thankfully; the corner of the bus is soon peeking at me from around a house behind which it hides until i arrive and find a dozen or so bored and disgruntled students sitting on the curb. i join them and engage in their conversation, eating papas fritas and remorsefully admitting that the stuff in my bag is not at all of a spider-man nature. minutes after my arrival, a taxi pulls up and unloads the lunch crowd onto the sidewalk. if this does not make me feel lucky enough that i was able to run back before their car arrived, then the moment the bus pulls away despite my protests that one of our group is still missing certainly does.

as usual, the bus ride is a complete mystery as to in which direction we are heading or in which part of the city we are roaming; the only clue to our whereabouts is the airport, which is surrounded by a shoddy fence which seems to beg for someone to cross it. the bus driver seems confused as to the correct destination, which is understandable, concerning the oddity of a tourist bus going into neza, a site in which i refuse to take photos and is so frightfully absorbing that it only allowed me to jot down a few images as i encountered them:

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published by the angry red planet, 1999