The smell of Mexico City hits me as soon as my redeye flight from L.A. touches down. I imagine a putrefying grease, nauseatingly sweet and tangy to my nostrils. My mind doesn’t want to admit to a culinary attraction. The thick odor triggers both pangs of hunger and guttural convulsions of disgust.
We exit the Aeromexico 737 in fits of starts and stops. Walking through endless corridors, we all look waxy, paled by developing-world florescent lighting. It’s pre-dawn. As we move along, a cadre of airline and security personnel welcome us while suspiciously looking us up and down at the same time.
A few questions, a little bit of paperwork and I’m through customs and in a taxi heading for the Double Tree by Hilton. I look out the window into darkness. The driver speaks to me in Spanish. I understand nothing but agree to everything. Neither of us seems certain we’re going in the right direction but somehow we arrive. I check in. It’s nearly six a.m. but still no sun. I fall asleep, something I couldn’t do on the plane.
Two hours later, a beam of light floods my room from a small gap between two thick curtains. I walk over and pull them apart. The light is blinding. Outside, the architecture ranges from poor to “someone actually lives in that?”. Rusted and torn corrugated roofs are kept in place by large stones. City block after block of jumbled boxes spread out as far as the eye can see, and then vanish in an all engulfing thick, grey smog. Welcome to one of the most populated cities on earth. And the only one that’s actually sinking into the polluted water and mucky remains of an ancient civilization.
Mexico City was originally Tenochtitlan, built on an island in Lake Texcoco by the Aztecs in 1325. But thanks to Cortez, and some unruly neighbors, the city was almost completely destroyed in 1521. And then rebuilt in accordance with Spanish urban standards. The Spanish renamed it Mexico because Tenochtitlan was too hard to pronounce.
Missionaries took to saving souls, which included leveling Aztec shrines and then using them as foundations for catholic churches. The Aztecs’ tradition of cutting the hearts out of living humans and then barbecuing them, was no longer allowed. Of course the hearts weren’t the only things getting sacrificed. Spanish conquerors witnessed decapitations, dismemberment, disemboweling and even skinning. But the Aztecs had a good reason — keeping the cosmos in balance by bathing the earth in human blood.
I get dressed and head out to the lobby where I get the address for the National Anthropology Museum. I hand it to the taxi driver who is confused and tries to confirm the address with me. He speaks no English and simply looks at me and repeats something in Spanish. He does this repeatedly until he feels I have given some tacit approval, and then we’re off into Saturday traffic, hopefully heading for the museum.
We reach a busy, nicer area of the city with trees and space. There are people everywhere. The driver stops and motions to the large building across the street. I see a sign that says museum in English. We made it. I pay and get out.
The museum is huge: two large halls of artifacts. Nearly everything is in Spanish. Inside are entire Aztec temple walls and crypts. There is death and art in every corner. There are baby skeletons and rich grown up skeletons. And then there are countless clay figurines. Everything goes back thousands of years.
The Mexicans seem more at home with death then we are. It pervades their culture, as it should, I suppose. after all, it’s the flip side of life and just as apparent. The Mexicans have no problem with corpses, fresh or fetid. The poor who must rent cemetery space if they can’t afford to buy it, risk having their dearly departed kicked out of their eternal resting places. In fact, one cemetery puts the evicted into a museum where they are depicted in amusing scenes. It’s a popular tourist attraction. The national museum is a little classier.
I read a museum brochure. It explains Mexican history, and includes civilizations in Arizona, New Mexico and California. I am taken aback at first. Those belong to the United States, I think for a moment. But then remember the United States is a late comer, taking those lands in the 1800s. But to be fair, the Mexicans took them from the Spanish earlier. And the Spanish took them from the original inhabitants before that. My head swims. Even Los Angeles, the city where I live, belonged to three different national governments since its inception in 1781. And some people were alive for all three. I leave the museum with its details, dust and death for the airport.
The flight home is aboard Alaska Airlines. The attendants are playful and full of glee. The plane is only about half full so they are taking it easy. It’s a three-hour flight back and soon I am walking through another long hallway to get to U.S. customs and immigration. I make my way through, head out of the airport and hear a taxi driver talking to someone in Spanish. I realize that a line on a map can only change things so much.