Saturday, December 13, 2008

La Noche de Guadalupe, Part II

Around 7:30 we leave the throngs at Tepeyec and head south to the Zocalo.

Neither of us have the Mexico City Metro memorized just yet, so we stop at one of the posted maps inside the station and figure out our route. We figure we can avoid a transfer if we just walk from a stop on the green line, so we get off at Hidalgo.

When we surface we immediately sense that we are in the central city now. The buildings all tower high above, the streets are wider and more like boulevards, and there is a giant digital Coke ad, plucked out of New York’s Times Square and dropped into Mexico City. Ah, la ciudad. How I've missed you! As city people who have been protected from the city all semester, we are…pleased.

Except that we don’t actually know where we are. I figured the Alameda Central, a giant public park, would be nearby, except that because it’s dark out I can’t really tell what’s a park and what’s, say, an empty parking lot. We walk to the nearest corner, thinking I could recognize the streets, but no dice. None of this looks familiar…until I suddenly see the Torre Latinoamerica, one of the tallest skyscrapers in the city, which, I remember from other visits, just happens to be right across the street from the Bellas Artes. “We just need to get to that tower…!”

We walk for a few blocks, and things start to look more familiar. The Alameda really is invisible at night, but the Bellas Artes is all lit up. It really is a beautiful building – and you’ll recall from earlier posts back in August, is best seen from the 5th floor of the Sears (here pronounced Say-ars) across the street. (Yes, Sears has five floors; this one is really more like the Michigan Avenue Macy’s than your typical Sears hardware store.) So we head for the Sears and gaze out at the Bellas Artes, the entire scene soundtracked by Sears’ shopping music: The Chipmunks singing Christmas carols en español. I didn’t know Alvin spoke Spanish…

We leave Sears and head down the street toward the Zocalo. Jen has never seen most of these buildings, but I am remembering the week Chris and I lived in the Centro Historico and all of the things that we learned, so tonight I get to play annoying tour guide. It is a fitting end to my time in Mexico City to be reminded of our first week, and of just how beautiful this city can be, even amidst its sprawling madness.

As we near the Zocalo we can see the brightly lit Christmas lights already. It is a narrow cobblestone road we are walking down, and the Zocalo is a massive space, so it’s like seeing the shaft of light through a window that is open just a crack. We are already getting excited. And when the side street finally spits us out, the wonders are well worth it.

I had only heard about the giant ice rink – that’s what the news reports on – but no, this is much, much more. It is a winter wonderland, full of massive constructions that are only meant to be temporary, like the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. There are several igloos, around which snake long lines of people waiting to get in. We peek inside – all that’s inside are those giant inflatable lawn Santas and snowmen. A little cabin with Santa’s name on the door is nearby…and inside is another giant inflatable lawn Santa. All around the igloos and cabin are street performers decked out in costume – Batman, Don Quixote, Santa Muerte…strangely, no Santa. (Though Guadalupe is present here, too – there are a few people with Guadalupe paintings strapped to their backs even here, and alittle girl, who probably just returned from a visit to the Basilica, stands with her family wearing an oversized Guadalupe t-shirt that reaches down to her feet.)

To help you pretend that you are actually in a wintry, snowy place, there are giant cutouts of snow mountains made of white cardboard. It’s as if we were walking around a stage play with its two-dimensional sets everywhere. There is a little hill set up for people to go sledding. And next to the hill: A Make-Your-Own-Snowman tent. There appears to be a giant repository of snow they have carted in from somewhere (there is no snow falling in Mexico City, that’s for sure), and on tables around this repository are little baby snowmen, clearly made from some kind of mold, and each one placed inside a little cardboard box. It’s like a snowman factory. We arrive just as they are closing up the snowman shop, and the last child is putting the finishing touches – a hat and scarf – on her little baby snowman.

And then, of course, there is the ice rink, which really is huge. It covers about half of the space in the Zocalo’s main central square. At the moment we cannot ice skate: Instead there is an ice ballet performance (the Nutcracker?), and people have packed the stands surrounding the ice rink to watch it. Those of us who didn’t get in watch for a few minutes on the giant video screens strategically placed around the square.

Most of the color of this winter wonderland comes from the tall buildings that serve as a kind of wall around the Zocalo. This building-wall is draped and decorated with huge red Christmas-light-Poinsettas (here called Nochebuenas), a huge multicolor Christmas-light-three-wise-men, and a huge multicolor Christmas-light-nativity scene.

I drag Jen up to one of the rooftop hotel restaurants that overlooks the Zocalo (I learned the rooftop terrace secret from Chris, who visited here when she studied abroad.). When we get to the top, we find that the terrace portion of the restaurant is closed for an event. Turned back again! So, we trudge back down and out onto the street. On our way toward the Metro, I notice the Hotel Majestic, which also has a rooftop terrace. We give it a shot. Success! We sip coffee and hot chocolate for awhile, then head over to the balcony to get the panoramic bird’s-eye view of the Zocalo in winter.

Exhausted and by now very hungry, we finally head home on the Metro. There is no Metro stop near the Lutheran Center, so we decide to go to Tasqueña and take a bus from there. We ride the Metro for the 40 minutes it takes to get to Tasqueña, trying to stay awake most of the time. There are lots of buses still running; that’s a good sign. Except that when we reach the place where our bus leaves from, our bus is nowhere to be seen. It appears to be the only bus that has stopped running for the night.

Fine. We decide to head for the street and hail a taxi. But on the way, we notice another bus going to San Angel. We take it. It gets us close, maybe eight blocks away from the Lutheran Center. Along the way, we encounter a nasty motorcycle accident that makes it nearly impossible for us to cross the street. Just before reaching home, we pass a little shrine the Virgin of Guadalupe. We have passed it a million times before, but tonight it is in its element. Maybe fifteen people are standing around it, and it looks like they’re preparing for a little ceremony. They’ve already decorated the virgin with red nochebuenas, Christmas lights, and balloons. She looks stunning.

Finally, at 10:45pm, nearly seven hours after we left the Lutheran Center, we stumble back through the gate. We are exhausted – the sooner we can find our beds the better. But there is one more obstacle.

One of the Lutheran Center staff is pacing outside Casa D with her cell phone at her ear. As we approach, she drops her cell phone and glares at us. “Cabrones. Where have you been?” she says with barely restrained anger. “You didn’t show up at the appointed time, we have been trying to call you for hours, I thought you were kidnapped…”

Taken aback, we explain. Our explanation seems to satisfy her, more or less. Feeling bad to have caused so much worry, we go inside the house as quickly as possible – only to be confronted by one after another person shocked to see us and wondering where the heck we were all night. We try telling the story, but now that everyone was worried all night and is now borderline angry with us, it’s not so much fun to tell anymore.

We recount our reasons for being late and staying out – they seem like reasonable ones. Both Jen and I have lived in a city before, and certainly neither of us was alone in the city at night, we stuck together. And it surely wasn’t our fault that the cell phone died. It was just a horrible – and now horribly awkward – situation, us getting stuck at the Basilica and everyone else being worried. And, just viscerally, a weird feeling: It’s as if we were 17 again, being chewed out for not coming home by curfew. I appreciate everyone’s concern, truly, but…I will not miss that part of living at the Lutheran Center. I suppose it’s one more kick-in-the-pants forward to the transition of this weekend. Thanks, Virgen, for that.

And Virgen, this was one crazy night, I’m sure you’ll agree. I don’t understand the meaning of everything I saw, from the sacred to the, well, “snowy” but, I suppose I don’t really understand what you mean, either, Virgen. I wish I knew more, had more time, had more anything, but the twilight of your feast is upon is. And so is the twilight of this semester program. And here at the end: A long night, a long goodbye, to a beautiful city, to a good friend.

Yet in only a few hours: another mañanita. Always another mañanita, for you, Virgen, and for us. Always.

Happy birthday, Virgencita – y gracias, para todos.

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