Mexico City, Part II: A Panorama of Pickpockets and Palaces
Be sure to read the first part of my experiences in the Mexican capital, Mexico City, Part I: In the Shadows of Gods.
I was standing in a crowd of people getting ready to board the subway at Pino Suarez station. As soon as the doors opened, a surge of humanity pushed and jockeyed for a spot on the car. I was not accustomed to this, but I figured this was just the way of life in big cities.
Once aboard, I went to take out my phone. My hand fell flat against my thigh, my pocket empty. Some asshole had lifted my phone right off me, and I didn’t feel a thing.
I’m the type who can lose my temper in stupid day-to-day situations, but maintain my cool in a crisis. I tapped into that aspect of myself and immediately set about figuring what to do. At the next station, I started approaching police officers. Unfortunately, and to make a long story short: Mexico City police have much bigger fish to fry than stolen cell phones, or simply don’t care. Seemingly none of the payphones they directed me to actually worked. Also, while popular convenience store chain Oxxo might sell burner phones, they’re no good. Wasted 400 pesos right there.
I eventually found an officer who took pity on my plight and walked me over to an internet café. Still sore over the loss of my phone and all my data, I took some solace in the fact that I had never stepped into an internet café. Silver linings. For a pretty low hourly rate, I could get online to report my phone stolen, change all my passwords, and to tell my friends and family what happened.
The fact of the matter is that if you do a lot of traveling, something like this has the potential to happen to you. If you’re not used to taking public transportation, try to remember to put your phone and wallet into your backpack or bag and then hold your bag firmly in front of you. Especially when in a foreign country, you’re already going to stand out as a potential mark.
I would also highly recommend anyone learn a few phrases of the local language, wherever in the world you roam. Try to brainstorm about what situations you are likely to find yourself in, and which phrases would help you the most.
Just as important, don’t let any setbacks ruin your mood. I had burned up several hours and spent more money than I should have trying to get a replacement phone, but I was still determined to make the most of my day.
Palacio de Bellas Artes
I made a beeline for El Palacio de Bellas Artes, The Palace of Fine Arts. Constructed in 1934, work actually took three decades due to the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. However, the finished product was worth all those years, as it is a breathtaking structure both inside and out. Referred to as the “Cathedral of Mexican Art,” Bellas Artes is a massive cultural center. One half is a several-story art deco museum featuring murals by Mexican painters such as Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. The topmost floor housed a traveling exhibit on architecture.
The other half of the Palace of Fine Arts is a performance hall.
Waiting to cross the street, I found myself in a crowd of humanity, with an equally massive group on the other side. We were waiting for an inordinately long time for either the signal to change, or for one of the police officers to blow their loud whistle and wave us across (whenever I think of Mexico City, I think of car horns and police whistles). Eventually, both groups got sick of waiting, and just went. A bus braked to a halt, blaring its horn, but everybody crossed anyway. And then everyone started cheering. It was amazing.
I was headed to La Torre Latinoamericana, the Latin American Tower. Built in 1956, it was Mexico City’s tallest building for almost the next three decades. Standing at 597 feet, it is not overly imposing, but due to its location, the observation deck offers incredible views of the metropolis. I like to think of the Torre Latinoamericana as being to Mexico City what the Hancock Center is to Chicago; not the tallest, but definitely the best views.
I waited in line for a while to get to the top of the tower, but it was worth it. The views were incredible, and I could finally see just how huge Mexico City was. This was the biggest city I’d ever been to in my life, and the views from the open air observation deck bore that out. It seemed to have four different downtowns, and dense development spreading out in all directions. It seemed as though the city literally extended to the horizon. I could make out smog-clouded mountains in the distance, but up here the breeze was fresh. I had once heard the term “Ciudad Infinita” applied to Lima, Peru. That description seemed like a perfect description of Mexico City.
The people of Mexico City loved this tower. It even has a mascot: an anthropomorphic tower named “Torrencio.”
How to Find a New Phone in Mexico City
I stopped a guard in the lobby to ask for a phone store and immediately regretted it. As soon as he turned to face me, my first thought was, Yeah, this guy has tortured people in a prison somewhere. I asked him if there was a shop that sold phones nearby. He explained that just a few blocks down the street, there were stores where I could find phones.
Sure enough, just a few blocks down, I came across a small store that advertised discount electronics. There were four police officers standing in front of it, chatting. They didn’t seem to be investigating anything, so I walked in.
There were two guys running the narrow hallway that passed for a store. They were about my age. I told them that I was looking for a smartphone because someone had stolen mine earlier that day.
The two guys looked at each other, and visibly straightened.
“Cual parada?” One asked me, glancing back towards the cops. “Which stop?”
They looked at each other, almost suspiciously. I was getting an odd feeling.
One of them cleared his throat and showed me a few devices. They were all in bad shape, and some still had stickers on them.
“Aceptan tarjetas de credito?” I asked. “Do you accept credit cards?”
“No,” said one of the guys, quietly. “Efectivo.” Just cash.
I thanked them for their time and left. I had the feeling that if I were to return to that store tomorrow, I would find my phone in their display case.
Leaving absolutely nothing in my pockets, and holding my backpack in front of me, I boarded the metro and rode back to the hostel. I felt slightly jealous of the other people on the train who could listen to music on their phones without getting them snatched, but it is what it is.
Eventually I found a Mobo store and bought the cheapest smartphone they had, a used Motorola Moto C. Even in my hometown, my sense of direction sucked, so not having GPS was not an option. Luckily, all my photos were safe, having been uploaded into the cloud, as were my messages and contacts. The worst loss was my gigabytes of music.
I sat down at L’Ermitano for a pizza and a beer while I finished configuring my new phone. Daniel was playing some good music in the café: a lot of American pop, a lot of Raspberries, and a Spanish language chillhop. I love collecting new music so him and I talked about that while I ate. I told him about getting robbed on the train.
“Ni inventas!” He said with genuine concern, and told me about how he had gotten robbed on a Metrobus a while back. He added that I was now officially a tourist in Mexico.
Today I met David.
David was sitting by the front desk of the hostel, waiting for the receptionist to return. He was probably around 35, and going very bald. There was a sort of slow, awkward intensity about him that put me on edge as soon as I entered the room.
Staying true to my vow to be more extroverted when traveling, I got to talking with David. He told me he was British, of Persian descent, and generally vagabonding around the world. He constantly dropped the word “bro,” pronouncing it like “brew.” We got to chatting about things and such, which quickly turned into him telling me about his abusive upbringing and his divorce.
I did feel sympathy for him, but I had also come to be weary of people who brought up such personal things so quickly. Sure enough:
“So, you know that the Iranians were originally aliens, right, bro?”
“Yeah bro, nobody knows this, but Iran was originally founded by aliens. It’s true. And they foretold some shady stuff going on in America, like cataclysms, bro.”
And off I went.
I took the metro to Chapultepec, being very careful not to keep anything in my pockets that could be easily taken out. I walked through El Bosque (“The Forest”), a large city park that offers some surprisingly quiet and relaxing respite from the sounds of the metropolis. Making my way through the endless throng of food and trinket stalls that all sold the same five things, I began the long, uphill trek to the Castillo.
Chapultepec Castle is interesting, and notable for being the only palace in North America that ever housed a member of royalty (Maximilian I, of the Second Mexican Empire). As well as being a piece of history in and of itself, it also houses the National Museum of History. Replete with murals and exhibits, it’s a pleasure to stroll around. The hill that the castle sits was and is sacred to the Aztec people. With an elevation of 7,628 feet, it offers spectacular views of the surrounding city, particularly down Avenida La Reforma.
Museo Nacional de Antropologia
From there I walked on down to El Museo Nacional de Antropologia, the National Museum of Anthropology, which is massive. It’s devoted solely to pre-Columbian cultures: Aztecs, Mayans, Olmecs, Toltecs, and probably 10 other civilizations I never even knew existed.
Their largest exhibit hall was dedicated to the Aztecs (known more accurately as Mexicas or Tenochcas). In a large, dimly lit, black-walled exhibit hall, resided many, many well-preserved stone and obsidian statues. Presiding over everything, lit up like a mini Catedral Metropolitana, was the Piedra del Sol, the Sun Rock. It had to the be 15 or 20 feet across, and the level of detail was breathtaking. I felt like I was in a real life Uncharted video game.
I finished up at the museum early because I needed some food. Luckily, there was a food vendor not far from the place that sold elote, fried, buttered, and spiced corn on the cob. I forgot how delicious I found the stuff. As soon as I was finished with the elote I ordered a cup of esquites, which is basically the same thing but in loose form.
The night was young yet so I decided to walk through Downtown Mexico City, along El Paseo La Reforma. This is basically Mexico City’s main street, and it’s grand enough to be worthy of that name. La Reforma is a very wide street, with a large, tree-covered pedestrian walkway down the middle of it. Lining the walkway are bike lanes, lining the bike lanes are the car lanes, and lining the car lanes are the tallest skyscrapers in all of Mexico City. It’s a beautiful stroll.
The jacaranda trees, which are so prevalent in the city with their purple blooms, were lit up with blue and purple lights. Many of the skyscrapers were either clad in blue- or purple-tinted glass and steel. Purple is my favorite color and I walked among the steel and blossoms with mouth agape.
I walked as far as El Angel de la Independencia, which was also cast in a purple haze, topped with a golden angel wielding a skyward sword. Benito Juarez, as well as other leaders of modern Mexico were entombed within. I took panoramic videos from this vantage point. I can’t describe the majesty of this part of Mexico City.
As I sat atop the hill in the middle of the traffic circle, watching the gathering dark across the metropolis, watching the lights race across the lanes like airport landing strips, three young dudes, maybe high school age, approach me. They greeted me with a practiced introduction. They were selling candy to raise money for their school. I politely declined, but the kid anticipated this, and he said “Palomitas?” With a smile, producing a bag of popcorn. I gave in and handed him some pesos for a bag.
They asked me about America, and about Trump. I told them, emphatically, that I did not vote for Trump, and that things were getting tense in America, but that otherwise life was going on as it did before. They also started talking about Nieto, their president.
“Es muy tonto, no?” The youngest kid asked me. I told him that, unfortunately, I didn’t know too much about their president. I made a mental note to research him, and see why he might be controversial. I was sure that their tonto president was nothing compared to our tonto president. Whatever rapists and murderers that these people were supposedly sending to our country, I hadn’t come across any.
I thanked them for the popcorn and wished them good luck, and a good night.
Be sure to read the third and final installment of my Mexico City adventures, Exploring the Epic Ruins of Teotihuacan!
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