I am partial to beauty that needs to be searched for. Beauty that colorfully stands out in the middle of grays and grittiness and grime. Beauty that surprises those who look out for it and is made more beautiful by the surroundings it contrasts. Mexico City, a prime purveyor of beautiful-ugly, suits this partiality.
The neighborhood called Coyoacan where I stayed in Mexico City was charming and artsy, but underground is where Mexico City really drew me in. Coyoacan is far from the center of the city and I spent much time riding the through the massive sprawl, enchanted by the cultural fishbowl that is Mexico City’s subway system.
There were a few people I talked to prior to my trip who discussed their love for Mexico City with a sparkle in their eyes, but many more who described it as a place to get in and out of as quickly as possible on your way to somewhere else. And of course you can’t escape the safety warnings and abundance of stories about crime there.
So I was surprised when I rode the Metro that more than anywhere else I’ve ever been, I felt taken care of. Patient attendants. Confusion met with help without even having to ask. People giving me their Metro maps. People insisting that I take their seats rather than stand on crowded cars.
My first trip to the Coyoacan station was with an older couple from New Zealand who I’d met at my hostel. In hindsight, they were probably not the best companions for figuring out the Metro. For them, everything was a big effing deal.
“What does SALIDA mean?” they ask. “We see it everywhere!”
“It means exit.”
“Wow, we learned a new word!” Later, at the hostel, they would tell everyone about the new word they learned earlier that day. Well-meaning people, for sure, but just a tad clueless.
I walked with them to subway station but beyond knowing how to get there, they were a stressful burden. The stress must have emanated beyond our trio and someone approached us to offer help. He told us which station to transfer at, gave us instructions for riding the Metro in general, and insisted that I keep his subway map. There were more Kiwi panic attacks later, but everything was quickly resolved by patient people who were willing to take a bit of time to lead us in the right direction. Once we found the Zocalo, I took off so I could do my own thing in a drama-free style.
It seems like entries and exits for Mexico City’s Metro have been deemed optimal locations for language learning. More than once, I was approached by groups of school kids in uniform with, “Parlez vous Francais?” or “You speak English?”
“Yes, I speak English.”
Big smiles. “You can help us with our homework!” One student whips out a cell phone video camera while another asks a stream of questions in English. I get a sense that their English doesn’t go beyond the generic questions they ask, and I am amused by the exchange. Several people I met on my trip had similar experiences with school kids in Mexico.
What intrigued me about it was that teachers were not only encouraging hands-on learning, they were also encouraging these young kids to talk to strangers. In the distrust and fear that pervades America, we send our kids off with warnings to not do exactly that. Teaching and learning are often confined to the presumptive safety and limits of a room and strangers have the potential to harm until proven otherwise. And there, in a city with a notorious reputation for crime, to these kids, strangers were potential specialists in a language who could help them get an assignment done.
I failed to get back on the subway to Coyoacan before the sweaty, sticky and crowded rush hour affair people had warned me about. Luckily, there was entertainment in the form of vendors. At each stop, a vendor entered the car selling something. My favorites were the ones with music for sale who promoted it by blaring the tunes from boom box backpacks. A sample of Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller, Pink Floyd. At the next stop, the classic rock CD salesman exited and was replaced by someone in the car behind us who sells a CD of classic Mexican tunes. I was surprised at the amount of people who bought from the vendors—CDs or snacks or little puzzle toys to keep them busy on their ride home.
At the time, I knew I’d fallen for Mexico City, but I couldn’t figure out exactly why. Later, the word came to me—humanity. Genuine humanity. Acknowledgment did not appear to be put on by cultural expectations and was not driven by making money. It was not overt or saccharin. I wasn’t like as a tourist, I was receiving an extra special warm welcome from everyone I saw. It was simply a very real sense of people generously acknowledging the humanity in others, whether it was witnessing a woman being a wonderfully aware and attentive mother or having a businessman who’d probably worked a hard day repeatedly urge me, the obvious tourist, to take his seat.
As the train got insanely packed, I held on to my bag a little tighter. The trickles of sweat accumulating on my body became steady streams. It was gross and uncomfortable on the train, but fascinating. I know my few days in Mexico City were not enough time to fully get to know it and there’s a lot that I didn’t explore. And yes, the city has a reputation that is not completely unfounded. But I am never attached to the mainstream images places are given, that’s one reason why I travel. So I kept my eyes open in Mexico City and found an abundance of beauty in people who’ve found a way to retain the ability to see value and possibilities in the both the known and unknown people who surround them.