Monday, July 6, 2009

Transition Journal: Back to the City

Is this place for real? We lived here for nearly five months last fall; I thought I’d remember how it is. But I was wrong.

We left Lagos before dawn and almost immediately fell asleep on the bus. When we awoke, it was light out, but the greater change was in the landscape. No longer were we surrounded by the dry brown land dotted with arid spindly trees and cactus-like maguey plants. Instead we looked out the window and saw one color: Green. We were definitely heading south.

Soon we approached the city. Smaller homes and businesses began appearing outside the window, the poorest areas of the city ringing the wealthy interior. The buildings grew in number, and grew, and grew. The city went on and on and on, and still we were not at the bus station. We had forgotten just how big the city is, a population center of 25 million people that makes the population of 100,000 in Lagos de Moreno seem even smaller than it really is. (This, I realize, is why I always thought of Lagos as “a small town.”)

We drag our luggage out of the bus to a taxi and take off. The first thing we notice are the billboards, billboards that tower over you advertising all manner of movie, cell phone, and political candidate – and the political advertisements in the city, we notice, are very different, with very different emphases, from the political ads in rural Los Altos. And, now that we are back in the city, we spend an unfortunate chunk of our taxi ride haggling with the taxi driver over the price of the ride and the admittedly heavy weight of our stuff. He expects a big tip, and we give it to him. Welcome to the city.

The whole place feels like another planet. People have asked me about culture shock going back and forth between the US and Mexico twice this year. But the real culture shock is not crossing some arbitrary border; the real culture shock is going between the monster of Mexico City to the sunny SoCal feel of Guadalajara to the dry rural ranchlands of Los Altos and then coming full circle by returning to the Mexico City monster that eats you alive as you enter it. That, my friends, is culture shock.

But for all the culture shock of our taxi ride, arriving at the Lutheran Center feels, oddly, like coming home, or at least coming to a kind of home. We’ve been here before. We’ve lived here before. The maintenance man on duty opens the door for us; he’s a familiar face, and we greet him by name. They’ve repainted the buildings in the Lutheran center to a bright yellow; that’s a change, but a good one – it looks great. We drag our stuff up the stairs into what will be our room for the next week, our final home in Mexico, and then we head out to find some food.

On Sunday we sleep in – we were exhausted – and then have breakfast at our favorite restaurant in San Angel; the food is cheap and good and plentiful. We walk to Coyoacan, our favorite neighborhood in Mexico City. The leafy streets that lead to it are even leafier than we remember; the sun dapples down through the trees throughout our walk on this beautiful Sunday afternoon.

When we visited Coyoacan in the fall its main plaza was torn up and fenced off; the neighborhood was still cool but a giant chain-link fence blocking your way at every other turn brings the prettiness level down significantly. But now we find – wonder of wonders! – that the fences are gone, people fill the plaza, and at the plaza’s center a fountain shoots water over a sculpture of two bronze coyotes at play. Did we mention this is our favorite neighborhood?

And to walk through Coyoacan’s market stands… San Juan de Los Lagos is full of merchants selling their wares, too, but San Juan’s wares are principally religious or bedding-related; lots of shiny rosaries and Chivas blankets abound. But there is not a rosary to be seen in Coyoacan. No, this market is more affected by the massive university of the UNAM a few blocks from here than by any Catholic basilica; its wares are made by who Luis would call los jipis (Spanish for hippies) and political activists and indigenous artisans selling all manner of colorful arts and crafts. Chris finds a scarf – so popular at the UNAM – and I find a magazine full of guitar chords for Café Tacuba songs. Then we stop at an unpretentious taco place on the main square to watch Mexico take on Nicaragua in the Gold Cup soccer tournament.

Ah, Mexico City. For all your craziness, we’d forgotten how much we liked you.

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