This article is from the November 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Undercover Tourist

by Karen Kressin 

A long-time Mexico File subscriber and contributor, Karen Kressin hails from Kansas.  

It was one in the morning. The desk clerk told me there was no record of my request for adjoining rooms. In fact, the hotel was almost full, and the only rooms he could offer us were widely separated. I was just getting my dander up when the desk phone rang. “Yes, ma'am,” the clerk said into the receiver.  

“Your room is flooding?” I showed him the notes of my telephone conversation when I was making the reservation. His walkie‑talkie crackled. 

“There's water flowing down the hall on Two,” the voice reported. “And it smells like a sewer.” I pointed out that the whole reason I picked that hotel was because of the adjoining rooms. Crackle. “Hey, Bob, you got any rubber boots down there?” I pressed on: Just what were we supposed to do about a place to stay at this late hour? Crackle. “Should we start knocking on doors and evacuate people?” 

Response: “No, let's let the firefighters make that decision.” 

The man sighed and offered us three rooms for the price of two. I countered for two rooms for the price of one. He gave us keys to adjacent, but not adjoining, rooms on the eighth floor and caved to my demand for a free breakfast ticket for each of us, instead of the two per room normally given. Figuring the water would start to leak out of the hotel before it could rise to the eighth floor, we shuffled off to bed. 

Welcome back to the USA. (It was St. Louis). We were on our way home after two weeks in Mexico. As always, Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Guanajuato were great, but this trip was an especially good time. The secret? Teenagers! 

There were five teenagers – Mike and Rosemary, their friends Eli and Juliet, and Alex, the daughter of my friend Diana from El Paso. The kids ranged in age from 13 to 18, and we all got along well, enduring good natured teasing from each other with grace. For the first week, I was the only adult. For the second week, we were joined by my husband, Jim, and also by Juliet's parents, Bill and Ruth, for a total of nine. 

Teenagers can make excellent traveling companions for several reasons..They’re strong and can keep up on a “death march” when the guide (me) wants to go see her old haunts – on foot. They can explore pyramids all day after spending the night on a bus. They get really hungry, so they don't complain much about the food, even peculiar food like corn “mushrooms” (known to U.S. farmers as corn smut), roast kid (that's goat, not child) and papaya. They’re sophisticated enough to appreciate why Guanajuato's ghoulish mummy museum is entirely consistent with the Mexican psyche. And they have a wonderful sense of fun. I have never laughed so much. 

A shy, self‑conscious girl might be put off by the frank attention routinely showered on females on the streets in Mexico. Our three laughed openly at the whistles and at comments like, “Hey, hey, hey, pretty girl,” and even the mispronounced “Hey, you! Fock!” 

The girls joked that the catcalls were really for the boys. I insisted they were for me. Then, one morning when I was out by myself doing research for the day's activities, an older man murmured a sweet nothing in my direction.

Duh, Karen! Of course, it would be geezers who would notice me! He was possibly one of the same young machos who used to lean out of buses back in '66, whistling and calling to me: “Hey bay‑bee! You wanna go for a riiiiiide?” The years have been unkind to us all. For their part, Eli and Mike agree with Jim’s observation that there are no flat‑chested Mexican women. 

July isn’t rodeo or bullfight season, but the weekly “events” magazine offered something else –  lucha libre, Mexican professional wrestling. I considered this with some trepidation, because I don’t know anyone who has been to a match, and the hood‑like masks the wrestlers wear look pretty sinister. The lady at the tourist kiosk thought it would be all right for me and the girls – no problema. So off we went. 

The little boys running around outside the arena wearing souvenir masks their parents bought for them didn’t look sinister. (So far so good.) Our program listed “Centurion Azteca,” “Frayle de la Muerte,” (Monk of Death), “Damian 666,” “Infierno” (Hell), and “Mr. Mexico” among the night’s contestants. The crowd turned out to consist mostly of middle class men, accompanied by girlfriends, wives, or young sons. In fact, it seemed to be a popular father‑son activity. The violence was entirely fake, like pro wrestling here. One contestant repeatedly told the referee to Shut Up! with no consequence other than comic effect. 

Mr. Mexico was muscled like a body builder and, like about half of the wrestlers, wore no mask. He had movie‑star, Latin‑lover good looks, and his hair was slicked back into a classic pompadour. All the other wrestlers’ hair ended up dripping with sweat, flopping around freely. But Mr. Mexico somehow remained perfectly coifed throughout. 

The men hopped, leaped, sprang off the ropes, rolled, were flung out of the ring, threw fake punches, tumbled gymnastically with each other, and, most important, postured for the crowd. Later, a taxi driver confirmed my suspicion that crowd reaction determines who won. A history professor of Jim's once told the class that pro wrestling is the last of the great archaic spectacles. 

The six years I have been away from Mexico have put me out of practice negotiating city traffic as a pedestrian. Eventually, I remembered my old trick of selecting someone going my way across a street, then stepping out right behind him, sticking to my man like a running back following his blockers in a zigzag line down the field. 

City buses in Guadalajara must be the best 40‑cent thrill ride on the planet. When traffic clears out sufficiently, they bump and careen along, weaving and braking just enough to avoid contact with road hazards such as horse‑drawn carriages, other buses, and pedestrians. The challenge on board is to maintain balance while standing – an activity we came to call “bus surfing.” Cowabunga! 

At the market, we bought the usual – embroidered dresses and blouses, soccer jerseys, counterfeit designer sunglasses, and a whip (well, not everything was “usual”). Jim was tempted by a framed print of the Virgin of Guadalupe welcoming Pope John Paul II to heaven, but it was too large to bring home.

Because of the traditional stall format, it is easy to assume that these are informal operations. They are not. Every time I requested a business card, I got one, even at a place that could have been called – but of course wasn't – “Dried Bats R Us.” (They're somehow medicinal, and, no, we didn't buy any.)

Because I knew we would stay in a youth hostel in Mexico City, I was carrying two packages of Ace Hardware‑brand padlocks. At the hostel, the shanks turned out to be too thick for the lockers, and from then on they were just excess baggage. I hatched a plan to pawn them at the big pawn shop, “Monte de Piedad” in the center of Mexico City. That turned out to be impossible because we only had about ten minutes before catching our ride to the bus station, and the pawn line was too long. Also, the departments seemed to be limited to jewelry and antiques. 

Back in Guadalajara, I decided to try to sell my locks (one package was unopened) to a streetside vendor, or perhaps in the market. To make a very long story short, I was unsuccessful, getting answers like, “The boss isn't in,” and, from the boss, “I don't carry that brand.” They are probably still shaking their heads, wondering why a middle‑aged, obviously North‑American woman was working an undercover sting operation to nab buyers of hot padlocks. 

Instead of his customary calaveras (skeletons engaged in the activities of daily living) or the Guadalupe and John Paul picture, Jim's souvenir du jour this time was paraphernalia from a Guadalajara soccer team called Las Chivas (roughly, “the goats”). They have been national champions ten times. The mascot is a cute little guy with curved golden horns, a tuft of white fur on his forehead, arms out for balance, sporting a red and white striped team shirt, and his big intense eyes focused on the ball he is about to kick. 

I've often thought that restaurants in Mexico should hire native speakers of English to edit menus. We didn't see “bosom of chicken,” thank goodness, but one menu item was characteristically long on entertainment and short on enlightenment –  Beef Fillet with "Achiote" Sauce: Thick beef fillet bath [sic] with an enjoyable “achiote” sauce and little bit of zucchini blossoms sauce, garnished with mashed potatoes. ¡¡¡A delicious election!!! 

On a store shelf just before we left, I spotted a product the world may not yet be ready for – hair gel, brand‑named “Moco de Gorila” (Gorilla snot). The levels of hold translate as “punk,” “rock star,” and “ladies man." 

I wonder which one Mr. Mexico uses.

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