Mexico | Ringside

It knew it wouldn’t be easy to top the alebrijes/two museums/skyscraper/dead parade day, so I didn’t bother trying: I spent much of my third day in Mexico City lying around the hostel reading and vaping.*

*A note on vaping: it is actually banned in Mexico, it turns out. I have been vaping recently as a substitute for smoking cigarettes, and while it is certainly working, finding vapes in this country has proven difficult. You can sometimes buy them off weird people in the street who carry them around and show them off like watches in overcoats. Or you can go to dodgy shops, like I did in Oaxaca City: not realised it was banned, one morning I typed ‘vape’ into Google Maps and followed it way out of the city into some distant favela, where my map led me down an alleyway to a door with a doorbell that read simply ‘smoke’. I pressed the button and two minutes later a large man opened the door and said ‘come in’. I followed him inside thinking ‘shit’, and in some weird shop-room in his house he showed me a menu. I chose a device, then he went into another room – I suppose he didn’t want me to discover where his secret stash was – and came back with a black bin liner filled with vapes. He handed me mine and I paid him £20 and he said goodbye and I went into the street feeling like I’d just bought fucking black tar heroin, and then took my little toy pipe out of the box and puffed on it and enjoyed the blueberry flavoured mist.

Lauren came back in the evening. She’d been to explore some ruins outside the city with local guides, and she was all abuzz with information on Teotihuacán history and pre-hispanic foods, drinks and customs. After a couple of big days and nights neither of us had the funds to do anything outrageous with our evenings, so we went to a seafood place nearby and had ceviche – the lip-smackingly eye-rollingly delicious fish-cooked-in-the-acid-of-lemon-juice dish.

We talked about our lives as we wandered around the neighbourhood after, and in the evening we bought a couple of drinks and changed into PJs to watch Coco on my laptop in the hostel common room. Lauren guessed the twist about 15 minutes into the film – bitch – but she still cried at the end so I was happy. Went to bed early and feeling grounded and cosy.

*****

The next day I spent the morning lying in various locations around the hostel, honking on my vape and drinking coffee, while Lauren went outside to stroll around and enjoy the morning. She’s one of those people who does a lot of things; she’s a doer. I like to be around those people, they motivate me. Left to my own devices I usually end up glued to the spot by a potent and sticky combination of indecision, confusion, generalised anxiety and bone idleness. I like people who prod me to do stuff. I need them in my life.

By the time Lauren returned I was on the verge of weeping from nicotine nausea and a monstrous caffeine overdose, and we went out for breakfast at the leafy roundabout café. We’d not been sat one minute when a man strode over with a boombox, placed it beside our table and started singing reggae, very very shitly. This happens a lot in Mexico; restaurants are a free-for-all. In the UK if a scrawny white guy in a tank top lugged a ghetto blaster into the foyer of Pizza Express and yelled ‘BIG UP BABYLON!’ into a karaoke mic, he’d be chinned by the head chef and dragged out face-down by the waiters faster than you can say ‘iree’.

In Mexico people just do what they like. You’ll be halfway through a salad in some mid-range restaurant and an old woman will wander through the entire dining area, weaving between plate-carrying waiters, to reach your table and ask if you want to buy some marzipan. And then when you say ‘no gracias’ she will change tack and say ‘look just give me some money regardless’, and then you have to say ‘no, lo siento’ and then she walks away and probably calls you a knobhead in Spanish, and you spend the rest of your meal feeling like some bastard tyrant Caligula for not coughing up.

It happens about 50% of the time when dining out in this city – at least in the more touristic areas. If it’s not one of the marzipan grandmas it’ll be a bloke in trackies who rocks up when you’re just tucking into your chilaquiles and starts bellowing ‘My Way’ with half the words wrong, because he doesn’t speak any English, he just listens to the track over and over and approximates the words:

“And now, de end issa near, and so high face, de final cartoon…”

And he sings so loud you can’t actually hold a conversation without shrieking at the person across from you, and things get very tense. After five minutes he finishes singing and walks around to collect money, and you pay him 20 pesos just so he will fuck off and leave you to eat in peace. And then another man in a ‘ganja <3’ t-shirt bounces over and goes ‘JAAAA!’ while the waiters don’t even bat an eyelid, and you curse silently curse all that is Mexican forever.

After breakfast, by which point I was of course filled with a venomous hatred for all mankind, we went to the anthropological museum in Chapultepec park. Lots of people I’d met on my trip so far have recommended it as one of the best things to do in the city – although they’d invariably warned me to clear the rest of my schedule for the day. They were right: the place is vast.

It’s terrifyingly dense, too. The museum chronicles the history of perhaps a dozen ancient civilisations in Mexico, going as far back as the arrival of homo sapiens on the American mega-continent. We read about Mayas and Teotihuacáns and Aztecs, and we looked at lots of cool statues and mosaics and little models reconstructing what Mexico City would have looked like a thousand years ago.

One thing that struck me like a slingshot to the ballbag was the fact that the Aztec empire was founded – founded – in 1428. And that’s wild right? Six hundred years ago people were doing full moon human sacrifices and building great temples to storm gods who demanded blood, and they fought with war clubs and headdresses made from the brightest peacock feathers, and they practised insanely accurate astronomy and agriculture. And at the same moment in history… the pub in my hometown was there. It’s a thousand years old. The Aztecs were doing their thing, and over in England the Bingley Arms was sitting on its little hill, with a gaggle of scruffy-haired peasants with names like Wodgit and Gunk sitting on bar stools sharing turnips and discussing women’s knockers. Just mad.

We left the museum after two hours. We saw less than 50% of the exhibits on offer, but our brains were fried and no new information was able to penetrate. Everybody I’ve met who’s been there has said the same thing: amazing but overwhelming. I found my eyes beginning to glaze over as I read each successive placard, and before long I found myself breezing through each exhibit, leaving every pot, pan, jar and bread knife in the dust in favour of only the biggest exhibits: a giant carving of the sun god, a huge stone demon – that sort of thing.

By the time we left the museum I was ready to cry from exhaustion, and while Lauren with her eternal vigour bounded away to explore the park, I shlepped home and draped myself over my bunkbed. I had one of those naps where you don’t really fall asleep but instead lie there with your eyes closed and hallucinate for thirty minutes then wake up groggier than you were to start with. At this point Lauren came home, ready for the next entertainment: Lucha Libre.

It was our last night together and Lauren’s last night in Mexico City; she was due to fly next morning to Baja California for a wedding. All week we’d talked about going, and as we got ready we recruited a couple of others: two French guys, Chris and Jerome, and a German girl, Yanna (sp???). The French guys had landed in Mexico that morning, and I felt the Lucha Libre would be a fun initiation to the country for them.

We took an Uber to the arena – you have to take Ubers here or book cabs, you can’t hail them on the street as there are many dodgy fake cabbies around who will just instantly fleece you when you get in – and bought tickets for 300 pesos. Good seat tickets, too. 300 pesos is about 15 quid, so it was really a bargain.

The arena is massive, and I got the same rush of excitement I’ve felt whenever I’ve entered a gig venue or a theatre over the years – electricity in the air. We took our seats on the second row – I felt a brief pang of concern over being spattered with blood or clobbered by a low flying folding chair – and an usher brought us beers. I got a tostada too; a sandwich crammed full of cheese, ham, avocado and jalapenos. It was a little soggy but delicious, and as I polished it off, two men in suits stepped into the ring and said a lot of Spanish into their microphones. Everybody cheered, so I did too. Then six dwarfs in spandex ran into the ring and started battering each other.

I say ‘dwarfs’ hesitantly; I Googled to check if it’s the right term, and I think it is, but I don’t want to upset anybody. I watched the six guys chuck each other about and slap each other, drinking my beer out of ambiguity over how I was supposed to react. There were two ways this could have been intended: as an inclusive wrestling match, where people with dwarfism are given the chance to compete fairly in their favourite sport. Or it might have been intended to be comical in a Phoenix Nights sort of way, which in 2022 of course feels rather uncool. I wasn’t sure, so I glugged my beer awkwardly and resigned myself politely golf-clapping whenever somebody did a good punch.

The next round was six wrestlers of whom the youngest was probably about 65. They all had grey chest hair and liver spots and they chucked each other about and pranged each other’s heads off the floor and all that stuff. One old man got leg dropped by a morbidly obese wrestler in a black gimp suit, and he didn’t get back up until he was stretchered off. Again, I wasn’t sure if this was a genuine injury, part of the show, or just a common risk of the job. I drank another beer to shut up my brain.

By the third round Lauren and I were pretty sauced and felt far more at ease enjoying the next bout: 10 young-ish wrestlers, none of them taller than 5 foot 6. They flipped and kicked and tossed one another out of the ring, but mostly they slapped each other; I suppose it’s safer and more percussive than punching. There was one really sexy wrestler with bulging tanned muscles that Lauren fell in love with initially, until he entered the ring and got helplessly ragged about for a full thirty minutes.

The final event was six enormous men aged between 35 and 60, built like gorillas. They wore masks and gave one another a proper make-believe thrashing. It’s all very obviously fake, but it makes no difference to the fun of it all. It’s not really about the combat anyway: I realised as I watched the show that wrestling is closer to figure skating than boxing. The throwing, the slams, the flying kicks – it’s all choreographed minutely, with miniscule margins for error. It doesn’t matter if you think the spandex and the theatre and the machismo of it all is lame: watching an 18-stone man launch himself ten feet across the ring before being grabbed in mid-air by another giant and flung twirling against the crowd barrier – and then seeing him get up and walk away from it without a scratch – is objectively impressive.

By the end Lauren and I were roaring drunk and hollering abuse at the wrestlers (it’s what you’re supposed to do – the Mexican couple sitting beside us were giving them lip), and it was only when I glanced sidelong down our row that I saw the two French guys, ashen faced, eyes wide, wondering what in Christ’s holy name they’d just paid to witness.

Welcome to Mexico, guys.

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