The Dangers of Mexico City
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“Beware the green taxis,” I read from the travel guide on Mexico that I picked up at the massive American bookstore. There are men driving those taxis who would just as soon kill you as look at you – after they take all your money, credit cards, and passport. This was all I knew about Mexico, other than the historical information I read in textbooks when I was a kid. But this wasn’t history. This was the here and now. I, a 23-year-old girl from Kentucky, was going to Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world.
I can’t say I was totally unprepared for the experience. I was going with a singing group from our church, and we had all been trained by the International Mission Board, so I knew that as long as I kept my wits about me, everything would be okay. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I ever got separated from the group. I would stay away from the green taxis; that was for sure!
Everything about the journey was stressful. We only had an hour lay-over in Houston – an hour to get from one side of the airport to the other, get all our luggage and musical equipment through customs, and get on the plane. Then there was the four-hour plane trip from Houston to Mexico City. I had never been on a plane that long before, and I was concerned about deep vein thrombosis until I found out that it was unlikely that you would get it from that short of a flight.
All my trepidation disappeared, however, when we landed on the runway in Mexico City. It was replaced with excitement. We went through Mexican customs in no time after telling them (breaking through the language barrier) that we were a singing group, and that there were actually guitars in the guitar cases. They didn’t even examine anything. I was relieved to see that the IMB missionaries we were going to be working with had come to meet us and take us to our hotel – in their own rented vans – no green taxis!
It was nearly 10 p.m. when we arrived, and we were all exhausted. It took us an hour to drive to our hotel – through the bumpy, crowded streets with the two-foot-high speed bumps they called topes. After a while, it seemed like we were going in circles, and we might have been, for all I knew. All the buildings looked the same – same shading, same height. The only one that was noticeably different was the little shop with all the commodes sitting out in front of it. We never did go inside, although some of our group got their pictures taken sitting on the commodes because they thought it was funny.
When we arrived at the Hotel Parque Satelite, we were amazed. It was much nicer than we were expecting for $20 a night per person. There was even a restaurant in the lobby, and that’s where we went for the first of our late night dinners. I was a little disappointed to find that the only thing on the menu that we Americans considered “Mexican food” was “fajitas con pollo.” I think we all ordered that for dinner that night. Then it was back to our leader’s room for a team meeting to discuss the next day’s events, and then we were finally allowed to go to bed.
The next morning, I woke up with a monstrous headache. I looked outside and saw the thick July haze setting on the buildings below like an opaque blanket. I could already tell that this weather was not going to be good for my sinuses, and they were expecting me to sing under these conditions? Little did I know that the conditions were about to get much worse.
After a morning and afternoon spent passing out flyers announcing the family life conference where we were going to be singing, we showered, changed clothes, and went to set up the equipment and do a sound check. We soon found out that our performance venue for that evening was going to be the upper level of a construction site, with big, gaping holes in the floor and one plug, into which we had to plug all our equipment - electric keyboard, bass guitar, microphones, and amplifiers. Somehow, our sound technician managed to wire everything together, so we assumed everything was going to be all right.
We sang our songs, and then the pastor of the local Baptist church stood up to preach, but before he preached, he prayed. He prayed for the people in attendance, and he prayed for us – the singing group from the United States. He thanked God for our presence there. Tears filled my eyes as I realized how ungrateful I was to be in this wonderful country, with this wonderful group of people who were so thankful for us. Our group had sung before at home – many times - and no one ever thanked us for it. It was just expected that we would perform for our own church. It was at this moment I became aware of one aspect of the huge gulf between Mexican and American thinking. Americans take everything for granted, but Mexicans definitely do not.
That evening, we were treated to the most wonderful food I had ever eaten. Some of the local women got together and cooked tamales – real Mexican food! – wrapped in corn husks, even. I was a little hesitant to take anything at first, worrying about Montezuma’s revenge. In the end, curiosity won out over caution, and I am forever grateful that it did. I would have missed out on the best meal of my life. The juicy shredded chicken blended perfectly with the cheese, onions, and spices. All of it – even the corn tortilla that surrounded the heavenly mixture – melted in my mouth and left me with an eternal remembrance of the taste of Mexico.
The next day, we were introduced to the open-air markets. The seemingly endless rows of leather goods, brightly-colored woven blankets and serapes, and silver jewelry made my head swim with delight. I was in a shop-a-holic’s heaven. I rushed from one booth to the next, scanning the items for suitable souvenirs for my family and myself. I finally stopped at a table overflowing with silver rings and bracelets. One bracelet – silver with three glass-covered opal cabochons – caught my eye. I picked it up and turned it in my hand, admiring the way it gleamed in the sunlight.
“Cuanto es?” I inquired.
The man behind the table stood up and grinned, revealing huge gaps in his big red mouth full of yellowed teeth. “Doscientos pesos.”
About twenty U.S. dollars. That’s how much it would cost in the U.S. Things in Mexico were supposed to cost less. I shook my head and set the bracelet back down on the table, a sick feeling settling in the pit of my stomach. I really didn’t want to let that bracelet go. As I turned to leave, I could hear the man calling me.
“Senora, senora! No es dos mil pesos. Five dollars. Five dollars!”
Yes! That was what I was waiting to hear! I turned back and picked up the bracelet again.
“Si. OK. Five dollars.”
I paid him, and walked away with the spoils of my first bargaining experience. I had never been one to haggle – but then, why would I be? In the U.S., you either paid what was on the price tag, or else you didn’t get anything. In less than five minutes, I learned the secret to bargaining: just pretend you’re not interested, and the seller will make sure you become interested.
I bought several other things that day – mostly jewelry – but that bracelet is what I remember the most. I remember how the hard, cool metal felt against my skin, almost as if it had always belonged there. I can still feel the sting of near loss, as I thought I was going to have to walk away without it, and the exultation that came when I realized that the vendor was going to bend to my will. This was Mexico – the land of cheap jewelry, the land of never paying full asking price for anything.
That evening, after we sang at the conference, we went up on the roof of the building and played games with the children. Each one of us had our own little group. We had pictures for them to color, and simple crafts. None of them spoke much English, and we didn’t speak much Spanish, but it didn’t really seem to matter. I tried to communicate with the little Spanish that I did know. Their shining eyes and broad smiles touched me in a way that made me want to communicate with them.
I held up a bottle of glitter and asked the little boy sitting next to me, “Que es en Espanol?”
“Brillantitas.” He smiled up at me. I think he was thrilled just because I wanted to try to speak his language.
“Brillantitas.” I repeated.
“En Ingles?” he questioned.
Glitter never has appeared the same to me since. The Spanish word seems so much more beautiful than the English word. So many things sound more beautiful in Spanish.
“Cual es tu nombre?” I asked him.
“Hola, Juan Carlos,” I said, and we laughed together.
Then it was time to sing the closing song and go back to the hotel. As I stood up to leave, Juan Carlos looked at me with those big, beautiful brown eyes.
“Tu vas?” His lower lip jutted out as he asked.
“Si, voy a cantar ahora.”
“Cuando vas a los Estados Unidos?”
“No! No! No vas!”
“Esta bien. Voy a regresar manana.”
A smile returned to his lips. “Si?”
“Hasta manana.” Juan Carlos ran off to play with his friends again.
“Hasta manana,” I replied, as I stood there, trying to force my feet to leave that rooftop where those beautiful children laughed and played. The rest of the group members were calling for me, so my body went back down to do its duty, even as my heart stayed up on the rooftop with Juan Carlos.
The next day, we went to the ancient city of Teotihuacán. We were there to see the pyramids, of course, but I was too handicapped by fear of falling to venture up to the top of one of them. I stood in the Ciudadela, watching as the rest of the group trudged up to the top of the Sun Pyramid. I told myself that being there in the ancient city of Teotihuacán was enough. I didn’t need the added exertion under the hot summer sun. In reality, I was afraid. I was afraid of falling down nearly 230 feet, trying to descend the steep steps, even though there was a rope to hold onto. To this day, I am not really sure why I was afraid. I have never been afraid of heights. There was just something incredibly intimidating about those 247 steps.
I deeply regret that I let my fear hold me back. I would have liked to see the breathtaking view of God’s creation from the top of that extraordinary man-made structure. I would have liked to have been one of the ones collapsing on the ground, exhausted from the exercise, but radiant from experiencing the power and grandeur of God’s presence in a new way.
My only consolation was that there was another open air market on the grounds of the ancient city. One of the missionaries went along with me as I searched for another great deal. Haggling was a bit harder at this market - I guess because there was more tourist business, so they were allowed to increase the prices - but I did find another bracelet that I fell in love with, silver and lapis lazuli.
The final night of our journey was the most memorable for many reasons, and it didn’t really seem like it was going to be much different at first. We sang our songs, and then sat down to try to understand what the pastor was saying to the people attending the conference. There were only two of us from the group sitting down in this one section of the room. The missionaries said it would be better if we didn’t sit all together in a clump, but spread out among the nationals. I was sitting in the same section with Brian, and it was in this section that the stranger came in halfway through the service.
It was not his coming in late that aroused my curiosity. I was used to that by now. The Mexican people are on a totally different time scale than Americans are. If you say something is going to start at 7 p.m., you can be sure that most of the people will not arrive until at least 7:30 p.m. What made me curious was the way he scanned the room, as if he was looking for something. He spotted me and Brian sitting there, and motioned for us to come over and talk to him.
“Ustedes son Americanos?” he asked.
“Si,” we replied.
And then he rattled off a lot of words in Spanish that I could only understand half of, and Brian could probably understand even less, although we were the only two in the group who had any knowledge of Spanish at all. How ironic is that? We were singing all our songs in Spanish, but none of us could really speak Spanish.
The man showed us some of his tattoos. There was a strange odor emanating from him that I couldn’t quite place at first. I sensed danger, but I couldn’t immediately explain why. He wasn’t pulling out a gun or a knife or anything. But then he started pulling something out a very long pocket in his torn, dirty jeans, and I was immediately grateful that Brian, the martial arts/self-defense instructor had placed himself in between me and the stranger.
'Beware the green taxis,' I remembered, as I stood there looking at the young man with the earnest, half-crazed expression in his eyes, holding the aerosol can that had just been in his pocket. That was the odor that I didn’t recognize at first, some sort of paint thinner or something. By this time, the green taxi had come to represent more than just the vehicle. It represented danger, in general – perceived or real. This was what all the travel guides warned about. I felt uneasy, but Brian’s presence helped to calm my fears significantly.
Some of the young man’s words that made sense filled me with an even greater sense of dread - something about his father killing his mother and being in jail, and something about being hooked on drugs, which is why he held the aerosol can. It was his inhalant. I only understood this because the young man held the can up to his nose and sniffed strongly. Brian understood this, too, for at this point, he said,
“Go get David.” David was one of the missionaries who was fluent in Spanish and would know better how to handle the situation.
I ran off to find David, and he came over to talk to the young man. It was then that we found out his whole story. He had no money for anything except the spray can - not even food or water. He hadn't had anything to eat or drink for several days, David said. His name was Gabriel, and he had been standing outside listening to the music for a long time. He came to the conference to steal some money, but the music stopped him - the songs about Jesus and God and "Al Mundo Dios Amo." And then he sought us out. Why me? Why Brian? What was the purpose? Was there a purpose? Maybe God's purpose, which we can’t possibly understand.
David gave him a religious tract and some money - a few pesos - for food. Who knows if he used it for food or drugs? But that didn’t really matter to any of us at the time. And I gave him my water. I hesitated at first - if I gave him my water, I would have none for myself for the rest of the evening, and I still had some singing to do. The thick, polluted air did nothing to help my vocal chords, and quite a bit to hurt them. Still, how could I deny this man – or he may have been a boy, it was hard to tell - water when he needed it so much more than I did? I had several bottles waiting for me back at the hotel.
He held out his hand, like he wanted me to just pour some water in them. That made me pause. I was going to just hand him the bottle and not even think another thing of it, but I started wondering if that was the right thing to do. Brian was standing next to me, now that the immediate danger was over.
“Just give him the bottle,” he encouraged.
So I handed Gabriel the bottle, and he walked away, never to be seen by us again. I returned to my seat, waiting for the pastor’s sermon to be over, weeping silently the entire time. I wept for Gabriel, and his need for food. And I wept for the other poverty-stricken people living in the city, who needed money for food more than they needed songs about Jesus. I wept at my own selfishness, for hesitating to give someone in need a drink of water because I was afraid I might get a little thirsty later. Most of all, I wept because my trip to Mexico was nearing an end, and Mexico was working its way into my soul.
Then it was time for us to sing the closing song. I was still bawling my eyes out. I couldn’t even choke out all the words to the song. It didn’t really matter, anyway. The precarious power situation we were faced with at the beginning of the trip finally failed us. There was a sudden spark, and then all the lights and sound system shut down. From out of the darkness, though, I could hear the voices of the nearly 100 Mexican men, women, and children in the room.
“Mas mi casa y yo, serviremos al Senor. Mas mi casa y yo, serviremos al Senor. Mas mi casa y yo, serviremos al Senor. Serviremos al Senor.”
This was the sound of Mexico. I can’t ever forget it, or anything about that trip. Everything still holds a special enchantment for me - the ladies with their homemade tamales and instant coffee, the open air market with its plethora of authentic Mexican goods, Juan Carlos’s brillantitas, and his brilliant little eyes to match, the majesty of the ancient pyramids, and the heart-wrenching needs of a nation underdeveloped in material wealth, but fully developed in the capacity to love. I can’t imagine any place on earth being more wonderful than Mexico City. Now when I think about that travel guide with its warnings about the green taxis and the various other dangers of Mexico City, I wonder why the guide didn’t mention all the wonderful things about Mexico City – all the things I discovered on my trip. Sometimes I think I should write my own travel guide, and maybe someday I will. And I will be sure to put in this warning: Beware leaving your heart in Mexico City.
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