Standards [part I]

“Hell is other people.”
– Jean-Paul Satre

It was winter in the northern hemisphere.  One morning, on just the short, 30 yard walk from the parking lot into my office, I was already frozen to the core. My legs felt as if they were supported by Minecraft blocks of ice instead of toes and feet.  Though the temperature loomed just above 0º F, the sharp wind dropped it well into the negatives and left my face lobster red.  The parking lot's asphalt was no longer charcoal-colored but caked white from the remnants of so much salt used to combat the voracious weather.  Outside my building, every space that was once green, healthy and thriving was either buried under snow or crunchy with frostbite.  Overhead was a gray cloud that swallowed the whole region, whose milky-ness never changed throughout the day.  By the time I exited the building at 17:00 it resembled – and felt like – midnight.  It was a typical December day in Ohio.

Even though Mexico neighbors my home country, it differs vastly. Thankfully, the days were longer and even after the sun set, the majority of cities were still aglow from urbanization, bodies in motion and Christmas decorations. Unlike December in Ohio, long-sleeved shirts sufficed for my evening strolls. During the day, I baked in t-shirts because my northern blood was maladjusted to this type of heat. You can imagine my shock passing people on the calles a.k.a. streets shrouded in scarves, bubble jackets and wool panchos, as I sweat through my tank top.

Although it was the middle of December, the heat was oppressive in the national capital. Aside from roasting me, the weather nearly spoilt the food I bought from a grocer in Xochimilco (pronounced “yo-shee-meel-ko”). As my mother and I sauntered back toward the Tren Liguero a.k.a. Light Train station – groceries in hand – we couldn’t stop but gawk at a roadside kiosk selling a variety of carnitas. Under a small awning, a middle-aged lady stood cooking. Inside a waist-high, scaled down version of a cauldron, she browned the meat as customers ordered. Of the parts of the pig we could choose to snack on were the entire head, jaw with teeth attached, nose and other hacked off, nondescript parts.

My mother and I observed in silent horror and kept track of all the American health codes this vendor violated. The pig parts were kept [thankfully] under a heat lamp inside a glass box that was doubtfully ever cleaned, as there were meat and human hand smears both inside and out. Who knew the last time those appendages had seen a refrigerator? Probably around 06:00. The lady at the stand had just one glove on and utilized it to retrieve a hunk of meat, then promptly touched the spatula, then the glass box’s door handle, then exchanged pesos. There was nothing securing her frizzy nor keeping it from sinking into the food near the cauldron. When the meat finished sautéeing, she grabbed a tortilla with bare hands. A bite of puerco a.k.a. pork rolled out of the shell so the woman put it back in its rightful place, again with naked fingers. The toppings 
– onions, jalapeños, salsas – were doled out with the same spoon (also touched by that gloved hand).

Similar health codes violations occurred throughout the country. In Tepoztlán, where mangy dogs roamed the sweltering, open-air market where meat sat out in the stalls. In Xochimilco I noticed a man grilling corn husks on a tiny trajinera a.k.a. stylized boat. In Bernal, a woman with long, black hair and deep, brown skin flattened out a white corn mixture by hand. I would bet my paycheck that none of the potted dishes were adequately warmed at 145ºF. The carne adobadas gorditas in Bernal -- a staple of the sleepy town -- were one of the best meals of my trip, costing 60 MXD a.k.a. $3 USD! In the heart of Mexico City, churrascarias selling tacos al pastor had uncovered meat browning on a spit in direct sunlight. In each case, not a single person complained about cross-contamination nor pointed out that the employees should be washing their hands. This was the standard of eating out in Mexico and it was no fuss. In Xochimilco, tantalized by the smoked smells wafting from the cauldron, while concurrently terrified of contracting Montezuma's revenge, my mom and I bravely took that first bite. For all the sanitation infringements, those carnitas smelled and tasted great!

The heat only intensified whilst traveling via public transportation throughout Distrito Federal. Though it was early on a Saturday morning, the Tren Liguero north to Mexico City from Xochimilco was already standing room only. As the capital woke up, the crowds worsened. The capital's metro -- in particular, the blue line -- was notoriously packed. With no seats available, arms entangled as everyone tried to find a support pole to clutch, though no one would really go anywhere in the event of a jarring stop due to the masses.  Often, I saw limbs disappearing into a sea of people on the metro so I wore my backpack on my chest to thwart pick-pocketers despite it trapping all my body heat. During the particularly long, toasty ride back, I continuously bumped into a woman seated near the door as the train jerked around bends and halted abruptly. Since I was essentially pinned by the crowd in my 10 inch spot, the poor lady had to stare at my crotch the entire voyage. Packed this tight, I really got to know the locals by stepping on feet, exchanging disculpas a.k.a. apologies and catching whiffs of pungent body odor.
On a separate occasion, returning to the centro historico a.k.a. historical center from Chapultepec, I was pressed against the metro’s support pole and watched in horror as passengers became hostages due to the crowd. I quickly surmised I needed to start shoving my way through the masses one or two stops prior to disembarking. Unfortunately, closer to las puertas a.k.a. the doors, passengers still were not guaranteed exit for two reasons. First, the doors remained open a scant amount of time; certainly not long enough for the amount of Mexicans swelling the metro.  Second, during this short window of opportunity, riders essentially had to swim upstream against those concurrently trying to board! The result was a pushing match and battle of wills. As soon as the train slowed at Zócalo a.k.a. city center station, I grabbed my mother and used my elbows to forcefully poke others out of our way. Near the door, I let her crawl over me to get out first. Now the caboose of our two-person train, I escaped in the nick of time and looked back to see the doors closing on a few stragglers. Las puertas collided with a Mexican’s left shoulder and leg, then thrusted again and sealed in finality.

Similarly, Avenida a.k.a. Avenue Francisco Madera swarmed. Since it was the sole pedestrian-only street stemming from the Zócalo, – one of the largest plazas in the world – it swarmed with locals – even at midnight – trying to visit to the ice rink at the plaza’s center. I thought, “you must be mad to enter into that sea of bodies” that engulfed the avenida. Then I had another thought, “you must be crazy to wait in that line.”  Although tickets to the ice rink were free from kiosks scattered around the Zócalo each line was a city block long! Tons of people, lines, and waiting. That sums up the pace of Mexico City.

Those same three traits, which drive Americans bonkers, didn’t seem to phase Mexicans much to my surprise! I suppose if you lived in a megalopolis, you’d have to learn patience, in the way Californians learn to deal with the traffic. There’s simply so many people in Mexico City that there’s literally no option other than waiting. Yet for all the acquiescence Mexicans exuded on foot, their behavior on the open road was downright chaotic!
Stay tuned for part II: The driving standards!