Hello you. I am in Mexico City now. Hoooooooooooo! But first: we must wrap up Oaxaca.
I stayed in Oaxaca too long – or maybe I just wasn’t social enough. I’m not sure, but regardless I ended up feeling very floaty and lost and weird in the city. In part I blame the hostel: the owners, who lived there, there didn’t do much beyond blast music and smoke all day around a table in the centre of the common area, which made me feel a bit like I was paying to live in some sesh-head’s dining room.
In addition, I didn’t want to party or eat at restaurants in order to save money, and as I’d already visited the city’s museums, this meant I ended spending about four consecutive days doing not much of anything beyond eating bananas and lying on my bunk feeling guilty about not making the most of every moment.
Oh, and one last reason to leave the hostel: Juan never stopped drinking. Since our odd rendezvous in the hidden bar, he continued to drink mezcal and beer at all hours. His bender lasted three days and showed no signs of stopping; I don’t understand the chemistry of the man. Each morning I would come downstairs and find him sat, perfectly composed except for slightly red eyes, with a bottle of mezcal which he poured into a teacup to sip. He offered me some every time I walked past, and each time I said no thank you with a shudder.
What was also weird about Juan was that he wasn’t called Juan. The day after our weird bender together, I spoke to another backpacker about the curious man.
“Oh, you mean Luiz?” they replied.
“No. Juan. What?”
It turns out he gave a different name to everybody he spoke to. To me he was Juan, to my roommate (who Juan replaced me with as his go-to drinking buddy) he was Luiz. To another girl he was Jorje. I have no idea what his deal was. I got such an ominous vibe from him – that gut feeling that says ‘leave this oddball, pronto’ – but he didn’t actually do anything untoward. Well, besides drinking constantly. He didn’t even seem to get drunk though. I’ve a sneaking suspicion he had a penchant for the old marching powder – no way could he have stayed standing that long otherwise.
But enough of Juan. He is in the past now. I am in Mexico City.
My last night in Oaxaca was speaking eating vegan food with four German girls, after which I hopped on a night bus to the big smoke. I’ve dreamed of Mexican City for a very long time, and I’ve dreamed of witnessing the Day of the Dead even longer. I’ve always been fascinated by it: by the flowers, the brass bands, the legions of skeletons roaming the streets. I didn’t know much about the festival at all, but the imagery of it always gave me a thrill. For years I’ve told myself I would one day witness it firsthand.
The night bus to Mexico City (or CDMX as the locals call it – Cuidad de Mexico) was 7 hours and uneventful. No weird men with guns checking my passport this time. I arrived at 6am in the city’s central bus station, delirious with tiredness, wondering how the hell I would find my hostel in the dark without a SIM card. After a brief ten minute panic, during which I paced around the busy station going ‘SHIIIT’ under my breath, I calmed down and took a prepaid taxi which I booked from a little booth.
I expected the sun would be up by the time of my arrival, but no: my driver wheeled through the sleeping city, its quiet streets illuminated spookily by the amber glow of streetlamps. It took him an age to find the street my hostel is on. He was like a London cabbie – no map, no apps. I offered to show him where to go on my phone but he batted the screen away. Instead we drove in very slow exploratory circles for a good half hour while he struggled to locate ‘Tabasco 303’. I tried to direct him verbally instead – perhaps he would find it more agreeable, I thought – but I don’t know the words for ‘left’ and ‘right’ in Spanish yet, so I was reduced to saying ‘aqui’ over and over again, each time leaning forward from the backseat to point at the street we should take.
When finally we found the right area, my driver dropped me off and cruised away into the dark morning. I stood in a very quiet street with parked cars and telephone wires and no lights on in any windows. I felt a little spooked, so I hurried down the street to find 303. I rang the doorbell a couple of times and finally a tired young woman opened it and beckoned me to come in. The hostel inside looks like somebody’s home: not the den of a boozy techno collaborative, like my last hostel, but instead a wealthy Mexican home. The living room has two of those fancy sofas with velvety cushions and carved wooden backs, and a glass double door opens to offer views of the leafy street below. Two guitars propped in the corner told me I had found somewhere to belong, for a little while.
Check-in wasn’t until 3pm, so I drank two coffees sitting at a long wooden dining table, then set out once the sun was up to explore. It was bizarre: for the last six weeks I’d explored lazy beach towns, Mayan ruins, and little colonial market towns with cobbled streets. Suddenly I found myself gazing at a skyline of skyscrapers. High skyscrapers: the city sits at an altitude of 2,200 metres. Despite the altitude, the weather was sunny and warm as I sauntered around.
The area I’m staying in is called Roma. It’s one of two districts I was recommended, which sit side-by-side: Roma and Condessa. These trendy, hipster boroughs are considered two safer parts of the city; you can walk around at night without fear. Other areas – Doctores and Tepito – I was warned never to visit, even during the day. Nobody gave me specifics as to why – only to avoid them. This scared me at first, because on a map they look very close. I vastly underestimated the size of the city, however. When browsing the map of this place on my phone ahead of arriving here, I’d counted only several city blocks between districts. However, if you zoom in, these ‘blocks’ are themselves divided up into dozens more, meaning that between the touristic green and red zones there are many miles of road: hours of walking. You can’t wind up in the bad spots by accident.
My intention with my first morning’s wandering was to find a vast park named Chapultepec. I floated through the park, idly watching the hundreds of black squirrels that leap around in the trees. I saw people doing karate classes in sunny clearings, I saw families walking their dogs, I watched an old woman meditating in a bush, and a small plaza of women following the lead of a yoga instructor. After twenty minutes I saw signs for an ‘audio-rama’ and followed them to find a shady alcove in which you can sit on benches and listen to classical music played from an array of speakers surrounding you.
After a few hours I was shattered, and I headed back to the hostel to nap and catch up on sleep lost on the night bus. Before long it was food time. I barely seem to eat in Mexico, always leaving it to the eleventh hour when I’m shaky and weak and grumpy. I went to a spot the hostel recommended but it was heaving, so I crossed the road and ate at a cheap, cheerful place with a dozen terrapins in a little pool outside. I had something called Pozole, which was a delicious soupy dish with pulled pork, chicken, diced onion, lettuce, crunchy radish, and limes on the side. The waiter had to show me how to eat it, because there were so many sauces and tortillas accompanying the dish that I was initially bewildered and didn’t dare eat anything.
Back at the hostel, buzzing from my delicious lunch and the friendly waiters, I made a friend: Lauren. She’s the same age as me and lives in a small town called Durango in Colorado – which, weirdly enough, I spent a day in way back in 2014. We got chatting in the dorm and I recommended the restaurant I’d just eaten at to her. She invited me to join her for food, so despite having just eaten I accompanied her and drank a beer while she ate.
We were both keen to explore the nighttime city, so after food we sauntered around and found a bar to drink at. It was a dark, grungy place with walls made out of rows of skulls – skulls that looked disconcertingly realistic. We sat outside so I could honk on my vape while we drank, and one beer soon turned into five. We talked about travel and relationships and the mad politics of our countries, and as the hour grew late we noticed that the clientele of the bar, excepting ourselves, consisted entirely of goths. And I mean goths: leather, studded, hair-dye-and-face-paint goths. With red eye contacts.
We looked very out of place; a feeling that was apparently shared by the bar’s bouncer, who requested that we move to sit inside after an hour – presumably so I wouldn’t extinguish the appeal of the place with my blond sheep’s wool hair and my ‘ho ho, hello there old chum!’ English demeanour.
After a couple of hours Lauren and I were laughing like old pals, and I felt happy to have found someone with whom I could explore the city for the next few days. We headed to another bar after and had some awful hot-chocolate mezcal drink, then briefly ducked into a nightclub only to flee minutes later because the music was rubbish.
I flopped onto my bunk exhausted but jovial. It hadn’t even been 24 hours in Mexico City, but I felt I’d found somewhere special: the place looks to me like a Mesoamerican Berlin. The air in this city hums with potential; on every corner are art galleries, vintage shops, second-hand stores, cafes, taquerias, restaurants, museums, gig venues, bars, street food stalls, towering murals and historic monuments. And all of this crowded by beautiful faded architecture and tangled powerlines, with streets grown over with gnarled jungle. It looks and feels better than I ever imagined. More than once the thought crossed my mind on that first evening: I could live here.