Yesterday marked my last day of classes as an English teacher in Mexico City. I have just two weeks remaining as an honorary Chilango before it’s time to return to the U.S., where I face an uncertain future.
Deciding to leave here was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. But I can’t stay, even if I wanted to.
Background: Lost Love
I have called Mexico City home for not quite two years. I first discovered el Distrito Federal in 2002, during a whirlwind Thanksgiving weekend trip, and have been enamored of the place ever since. I met a local girl while traveling in another Mexican city – Guadalajara – in 2011, and decided to move here – for her and for myself both – not quite one year later.
That turned out to be a mistake.
She never loved me. We shared some nice moments together, and fun travels to various ports of call around the world. But it wasn’t until several months after we broke up (read: she dumped me) that I realized that she saw me as little more than a travel buddy.
If you’ve been following this blog all along, you’ll know who I’m talking about. At any rate, I made two crucial mistakes that doomed my chances with her almost from the start. The first was that I started having money problems (more on that later). The second was that I dared to confront her about the waning feelings she clearly had for me. As if!
She insisted that she would always have love in her heart for me (a blatant lie), that our split was largely because of cultural reasons (a half-truth at best), and that she really hoped we could be friends (an exaggeration). I resisted at first, in the interest of self-preservation. She was one of my only acquaintances down here, however, so ultimately I decided to take her up on her offer of friendship. It was fine for awhile – we went to bars, to museums, and to the cinema together, same as before – and I even described her as my “best friend” once to a couple of students who asked if I had any close friends down here. There was no “awkwardness.” In hindsight, it probably wasn’t healthy to spend so much time with an ex, but at the time I didn’t know any better. Nor did I want to hate her.
Eventually, though, all good things come to an end. One day last fall, she decided she was done with me. She came to a party that I threw but she showed up late, left early, and barely said one word to me the whole time. I complimented her on a new sweater she was wearing, and when she merely rolled her eyes at me in embarrassed response, I said “What the fuck?! I just complimented you; a ‘thank you’ would be nice.” She sighed – that deep, annoyed kind of sigh that anyone who’s been in a difficult relationship knows all too well – and replied, with considerable disgust I might add, “What’s the point?!”
What. The fuck. Indeed.
I would be lying if I said that I missed her, but all the same, I can’t get her out of my head. The girl I met in Guadalajara and fell in love with soon after was not only book-smart and impossibly beautiful but also funny and full of life. She was younger than me – still working on her undergraduate thesis in fact – but from a culture in which age difference is not the relationship barrier that it can often be in the U.S. She was fascinated by my amateur screenwriting, supportive of my new career as a teacher, and patient with my photography. She was kind to animals and encouraged others to be the same. In other words: she was a fine catch. For awhile.
I can’t get her out of my head because I honestly don’t understand why she changed – so much – in such a short period of time. The last real interaction I had with her was via Facebook in late January. I learned that she met a new guy – another foreigner, which suggests that she took zero blame for the dissolution of our own relationship for supposed “cultural” differences – and that she believed them to be soul mates (her words, and not pleasant ones to hear). “We’ll probably get married in the fall,” she told me, knowingly or unknowingly rubbing salt in the wound. Really?! I knew her for over two years and I never even met her father!
With that, I defriended her from Facebook, and from my life. To the best of my ability, anyway. She is a nasty piece of work, and although a part of me will always wonder why the hell things went so terribly wrong, ultimately I’m glad to be rid of her. I know I’ll never find the closure that I seek, and with time, I hope I can accept that. For now, I guess I’m still angry.
“The best way to over someone,” my sister told me several months ago, “is to get under someone new.”
Man, truer words have seldom been spoken.
I don’t know the official city limits of Mexico DF, but there are roughly 21 million people here and that means a lot of fish in the proverbial pond. Last fall I decided to stop wallowing in my misery and find a new girlfriend. I like the culture down here; most people here are good-humored, appreciative of their culture, and close to their families, if a bit reserved. A lot of options. Literally a million women to choose from.
In general, however – and with only a few exceptions, as least in my experience – Chilangos are flakes. I can’t tell you how many dates I would schedule where the other person would arrive one hour late – or more – and with nary an apology. Contacting them over email or SMS is even worse – it’ll take 24 hours for them to respond, even though the service shows “message read” within minutes of my having sent it.
In my almost two years of living here, I learned that Mexicans don’t like to say “no” – especially when it comes to meeting people. That cute girl at the coffee shop may not actually like me, but she’ll give me her phone number nonetheless and, 24-to-72 hours after I text her, she’ll reply, “Thanks for the message and let’s be in contact,” only to never, ever pick up the phone when I actually do call.
Last summer, I interviewed a Chilanga who grew up in northern Mexico and moved here as a journalist. She had some interesting stories to tell from her time covering the nota rota (dreadnought) in Monterrey. I shouldn’t call her out here, as she ultimately gave me enough material for one of my more interesting blog articles; you may remember reading it. (I won’t post the link here.) Hear me out. She was 75 minutes late to the interview. A few weeks later, we were supposed to meet (as friends and nothing more) for an afternoon at one of Mexico City’s archaeological sites. She never showed up.
A few weeks later still, she apologized to me over FB and confessed that this time it was she who wanted to interview me. She was producing a documentary about expats living in Mexico. I was to feature prominently in it. We scheduled a time to meet, at which time she would introduce me to her cameraman and walk me through the process. She was an hour late, of course, but it was a pleasant meeting. She even gave me a tour of the studio and introduced me to her network’s Human Resources director so that I could bring in my boss and pitch our English teaching product to their company.
Afternoon of the interview: she never shows up. No call, no text, no email, nothing. I texted her: “Hey what happened?” No response. She was also supposed to email me the HR director’s contact info for my sales meeting. She didn’t do this (I only had a first name), so I couldn’t email him the presentation in advance. My boss and I went into the meeting blind. Suffice to say, we didn’t win the account.
Last October, I was invited to a Halloween party. One of the guests was dressed as Frida Kahlo, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. We struck up a conversation and there was definite chemistry. She was young – just 21, which probably factors into the story – but again, from a culture in which age is just a number, nothing more. She lived with her parents (who were not much older than I was as it happens), and imagined that they would disapprove of her seeing me. This is common, even with girls in their thirties. It usually goes something like this: “Ay, gringo, you’re very handsome and I want to date you, but I live with my parents and it’s just hard!”
Funny thing is, I met her parents, too, at the same party in fact, and they were great! But to appease her, we met in secret – twice – and seemed to hit it off. Our first date was a bit rushed, as I met her at her school while we were both between classes. Madre de fucking Dios, she looked incredible. An 11 on a 10 scale! I bought her lunch, she complimented me on my wardrobe (always a good sign), and we promptly scheduled our next date.
Second date comes and she’s late of course, but only by a few minutes. It is Friday night this time and we do the same as so many other young couples, strolling through the lovely Alameda Central and down pedestrianized Madero Street until we find a place for drinks. We hold hands…we kiss…it’s lovely. I see her safely home…and never hear from her again.
This past March, I sat next to a girl on the bus, or I should say that she sat next to me. We struck up a conversation and it seemed that we had quite a connection. We lived in the same city, we had similar commutes, we were both single, etc. Jackpot…
…except she canceled two dates in a row, and flat-out didn’t show up for the third date. She later offered some kind of excuse, something having to do with her mom, or with the bus, or with her job…but it didn’t really matter at that point.
Late last year, I started playing Whatsapp-tag with a college friend of mine who grew up in Mexico City and, in fact, still lives here. We have never actually gotten together in my two years here. He has kids and that seems to always be the excuse. I can humor the “kids” excuse once, twice, even three times…but really – in two years he couldn’t find one free hour to meet up for a coffee? Really?
Allow me to conclude this part of the story by confessing: I probably sound bitter. But the truth is, this downright inability to simply say “no” happens constantly here, more than in any other city or town in which I have ever lived. It is disheartening…and it happens in non-dating/friendship environments, too! A restaurant manager in DF may not have the item that is listed on the restaurant menu, but rather than say he doesn’t have it, he’ll simply offer up other suggestions, or explain that if I can wait an hour, he’ll send somebody to the market right now to buy the necessary ingredients. It is part of the culture, I suppose, but I have never gotten used to it.
Background: No Mucho Dinero
From an emotional perspective, my relationship and friendship troubles are the main reasons I am leaving. From a practical perspective, however, it is money – or the lack thereof – that has forced me to pack up and flee back to the U.S. with my tail between my legs.
The truth is, I’m bleeding money.
Mexico is a cheap country, but Mexico City is a big city, and all big cities are expensive. I found a wonderful job teaching English to working professionals. My boss seems happy with my performance, and in fact has offered me more classes than I can even handle. The wage for this type of job is fair. But – as it goes with the territory down here – I only get paid for the hours that I teach. If classes are cancelled because a student is on vacation or there is a holiday…I don’t get paid. If I get sick and can’t make it to class…I don’t get paid. During the five-week hiatus from mid-December to mid-January…I didn’t get paid.
I accept all of this, and I mostly knew what I was getting into when I took the job. Still, it’s easier to understand something in theory than in reality. Further complicating matters is that when I decided to move here in 2012, my savings had dwindled down to almost nothing. Call it a casualty of the traveler’s life. Every night spent on the road costs money. Every airline ticket costs money, even the ones purchased as mileage redemptions. (Taxes and fees can be triple digits, yo.)
I knew I had to find a job upon landing here, and I accomplished exactly that. I found a great one, with a great boss, but I’ve never been good at financial planning, and to “vaguebook” if you will, it all seems to have been too little, too late. Any unplanned extra expenses – like a doctor’s bill following a bus accident, or a broken computer, or a mugging on payday, perhaps – were financially devastating. For the first time in my life, several months ago I was late with just a single credit card payment. The next month, I failed to pay it altogether, and the whole deck of cards collapsed. That was all it took.
In all fairness, when I look at things that matter-of-factly, it’s hard for me to even blame my ex-girlfriend for bailing on me. Now I, too, have to go while the getting is good.
With 21 million people (mas o menos) in el DF, there’s seldom a moment’s peace, unless you can escape to one of the city’s green lungs, such as the UNAM-managed Jardín Botánico in the south of the city (a place I go every chance I get). Traffic is a nightmare – as bad as if not worse than Los Angeles in some aspects, not to mention that half of the drivers on the road (and half of the bus drivers, for that matter) don’t even have driver licenses! The metro, which for my money is safer, is underfunded and subject to too-frequent delays. The fare nearly doubled in January, from three pesos to five, and yet the service is worse than ever. During the dry season, air pollution can reach noxious levels, turning the blue sky brown. During the wet season, it’ll rain 97 days out of 100. People – as I’ve illustrated above – can be notorious flakes.
But it’s a funny place, this Mexico City. It enchants me, more than any other city on the planet. Each neighborhood is so different from the one next to it – different in some ways bad but in most ways good. El Centro, Santa Fe, Coyoacán, San Ángel, Pedregal, la Condesa, Iztapalapa, even Tepito…I love them all, and yet each one has its own distinct personality.
Take el Centro, for example. The entire colonia was built on soft soil, atop the ruins of an abandoned Aztec city. That, in turn, was built atop an ancient lake bed, so the whole place is slowly sinking. Mexico City is home to over 150 museums – more than anywhere else in the world – and it seems like half of them are located in el Centro. Even the most dedicated museum-goer will likely die without ever seeing them all. (I halfheartedly tried.) Many days, el Centro has what I call “that smell,” suggestive of what would happen if all its residents took a shit at the same time.
Speaking of shit, did you know that Santa Fe – a ritzy business district in the western edge of the city – was built over the city’s main garbage dump? What did they do with all that trash, I wonder? Santa Fe has a skyline of Dubai-like proportions, and real estate prices to match. It is also several hundred feet higher in elevation than the rest of already-high Mexico City, which makes Santa Fe cold most of the year.
Coyoacán, further south, is perhaps my favorite part of the city. It was once a village in its own right, but like so many other communities it was ultimately swallowed up by the capital. Although their art can be found all over Mexico City, Coyo (for short) was where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera spent the most time, and I can think of far worse things to do on a sunny Sunday than to trace their footsteps through the neighborhood.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give at least cursory mention to Tepito. One of my Facebook friends described it as “da hood,” and that’s as apropos a description as anything I could come up with. Tepito is a blue-collar market district due north of el Centro. Everyone I know says that Tepito is dangerous, and the neighborhood is well known as a center of drugs, contraband, and counterfeit goods, but I enjoyed myself during the two or three urban adventures that took me there. Tepito has its own language, and deserves a blog entry all its own. Soon, Loyal Reader, soon.
The point of these last few paragraphs is to say that Mexico City is – warts and all – a special place. Each of these neighborhoods comprise the Mexico City of today, just as each pre-Colombian tribe that settled in the Valle de México so many centuries ago (only to be pillaged and conquered by the Spaniards, the Americans, and so on…) comprise the socio-ethnic “mestizo” melting pot that, again, is the Mexico City of today. Latin America’s largest city is not a perfect place, but if you know the informal system, if you have a bit of money and – perhaps most important of all – if you have infinite patience, you can make a decent life here.
What are my next plans, you ask? Return to the U.S. to move back in with my parents. I hope it won’t be for long, as I fear I might go stir crazy trading in a city of 21 million for a town of 21 thousand. Ugh. At least my parents live in a beautiful part of the United States. My first priority is to find a non-Walmart job. But secondary on the list is to reconnect with nature. Maybe I’ll even hike the Appalachian Trail.
And my parents are good people. My dad is a sort of kindred spirit in many ways, and I suspect that if he never had children he might have pursued a more nomadic lifestyle, something similar to my own. My mom and I don’t have nearly as much in common. I know that causes her some discontent, but truly, a more generous person in this world you will not meet.
I spent several weeks with my parents over Christmas break, relaxing, bonding with the family dog, and stuffing my face. But that long trip was also a litmus test, for even then, I knew my days in Mexico City were numbered. It isn’t my intention for this to sound mean, but I haven’t lived at “home” in almost 15 years, and I wanted to see if I could still stomach it. I could. I can. I am grateful for having these people in my life, and I know other people my own age who don’t have this kind of security blanket. For as much as I sometimes feel that I’ve failed in certain aspects of life, I know that with family to break my fall, I can catch my breath, wipe the slate clean, and – ever so slowly – rebuild my savings, my travel dreams, and my pride.
As for Mexico, I have two weeks remaining and I’m gonna enjoy every one of those 14 days. I do have friends here – they just need a nudge or two – and I still have a few items to check off my bucket list (and a lot more goddamn museums to visit!). I have never even been to a soccer game here! I suppose I can come back in a year or two; I’m sure my old job will be waiting for me. If I do return, it’ll be with more wisdom, savings, and life experience.
I sure am gonna miss this crazy place.
Fuck it, I’m staying.