It’s a typical day for me in Mexico City. I’m walking around in the afternoon summer downpour and I’m lost. Along the way, I stop to ask anyone who doesn’t look like they’re in a hurry for directions. I eventually find the building I’m looking for with the help of two Mexico City transplants, a couple originally from the Midwest of the United States.
I’ve come to this building because of a recommendation from a new friend I made in Oaxaca. Originally from New York, she is now a teacher at an international school and she’s given me the contact info of her masseuse in Mexico City. A ninety minute massage is a fraction of what it would cost me at home. After over three weeks of carrying my too-heavy backpack and sleeping in hostel beds of varying quality, it’s an opportunity I don’t want to pass up.
I use the building’s phone system to dial the apartment number I have written down for the masseuse. I try again and again, but no one answers. Finally, a man walking out of the building holds the door open and lets me in. I go up to the apartment and knock on the door. No one is there.
Next door, a group of people exit an apartment. “Who are you looking for?” one of them asks me. She tells me she is not sure who who lives there, as she has just recently moved into the building. “Wait here,” she says. “We’re going to the store, we’ll be right back.” Confused, I agree to wait.
The group returns with refreshments and they proceed to invite me to join them. I’m hesitant at first, but my intuition tells me it’s okay. And it is.
They are a fun trio of mid to late twenty somethings. Two of them are coworkers at a tech company and another is the cousin of the woman who lives there. They are unwinding on Friday afternoon before they go out later that night to a Cuban club. It’s a happy hour of sorts. More friends and family come in and out the apartment and I am introduced, no big deal that there’s a random stranger hanging out.
They want to know if I like Mexican music. They pull up Los Tigres del Norte on iTunes so I can hear a bit of norteno music while we chat about our lives and work and San Francisco and Mexico City and Colonia Roma and how neighborhoods and cities evolve.
Eventually we find the person and the apartment I was looking for. I’d written the apartment number down wrong. I reschedule for the following morning with the masseuse, silently grateful about the great evening my mix up has led to.
It’s hard to believe that a solid friendship could evolve from a brief encounter on a crowded Mexico City Metro car, but in summer 2010, that’s what happened.
It was my first full day in Mexico City and I was with two New Zealanders from my hostel and we weren’t quite sure where we were going. A kind soul saw us looking confused and stepped in to help us out. Along with some exceptionally friendly locals I’d met the night before at the hostel, he set the tone for my exploration of a Mexico City that was so different from what you tend to see in the headlines.
We are both travelers, musicians, and fans of each other’s cities. We became friends and kept in touch and our paths have crossed a few more times in both Mexico City and San Francisco since that initial introduction on the metro. The day after the apartment gathering, we met up again to go to a memorial event for the grandmother of one of his friends.
The idea of attending the event sounded preposterous at first, but he assured me that it was completely fine for me to go along. And again, it was no big deal to be an unmistakable stranger at this family function.
It’s a yearly party they host to celebrate the life of a family matriarch who’s passed on, around the birthday of her patron saint. Apparently in her day, she was a beautiful and social woman, so they like to commemorate her in this way.
They are musical family, and they began by performing songs along with some members of local orchestra that plays traditional Mexican songs. There was a short mass and more music and a sit down lunch underneath a canopy to protect us from the daily summer storm. Some of the kids practiced their English with me, some with a bit of encouragement from their parents while others were more outgoing.
One of the adults wanted to know if it was strange for me to travel in Mexico for a length of time and constantly hear people speaking Spanish around me. I explained that in California, it’s typical to hear many different languages being spoken and Spanish is one of the most common. And it’s just an aspect of travel that you get eventually get used to.
The strangeness of being surrounded by foreign language hadn’t occurred to me before they asked. What really struck me was the feeling that there was something extraordinary in how ordinary it felt to be there; a stray traveler taken in for the afternoon by a lovely family of strangers.
I read extreme stories reporting from Mexico City almost daily. There doesn’t seem to be a place for the everyday happenings of the city’s 21 million people in that kind of forum. I may have only encountered a miniscule portion of those people, but time after time, I’ve seen a kind of hospitality that you don’t find everywhere, a subtle kindness that’s almost mind boggling in its genuineness. In the vast range of things that Mexico City is, the people I’ve encountered there are a large part of why it shines so brightly amongst my various virtual pins on the globe.