My driver, Jose Luis, laid on his horn, adding another angry beep to the chorus of honking as his black SUV inched along the gridlocked street toward the bus station. Finally, throwing up his hands in exasperation, he turned to me. “La estación de autobuses está aquí,” he said. I looked out the window in the direction he was pointing and saw a narrow gap between two chain link fences, and in the distance beyond it, a row of buses. Even though my knowledge of Spanish was virtually non-existent, I understood what he meant: in this traffic, this was as close as we were going to get.
“Get out here?” I asked. “La estación está aquí,” he repeated, looking at me like the dumb American I felt like. I didn’t need him to tell me again. I grabbed my bag and jumped out of the car, just before the vehicles that had been at a standstill in front of us began to move. “Hasta luego,” he called, delighted – I was sure – to be rid of me.
A half an hour later, after having hungrily scarfed down two chicken tacos my twenty-one-year-old niece, Nora, ordered for me from a street vendor, I settled into my seat in the back of a commuter bus and proceeded to recount the story of that morning’s harrowing Uber ride. Jose Luis, obviously confused as to why a Gringa like me would want to leave her fancy hotel in Polanco for the crowded Metro Observatorio bus station, called a friend for help. “English,” he insisted, thrusting the phone into my hand. But “Becky,” the woman on the other line, was not only unhelpful, she asked me such strangely personal questions that I began to wonder if this whole thing was a shakedown. And as the SUV pushed further into the sprawling, unfamiliar city, I alternated between frantically texting Nora and wondering if I should bail out of the car.
Nora, on the other hand, seemed completely unfazed by the series of events I described. “If you were looking for a relaxing vacation,” she quipped, in between making me a cheat sheet of common words and phrases she titled ‘Spanish for Dummies,’ “You came to the wrong place.”
No kidding, I thought. I had been in the Ciudad de Mexico for less than twenty-four hours and already I had wondered numerous times what I had gotten myself into. I wondered it after awkwardly stumbling through immigration and receiving a stern scolding from the customs agent for filling out my paperwork incorrectly. I wondered it after fending off a strange man at the airport who offered to “help” me with my luggage. I wondered it after I realized that my naïve (and lazy) assumption that traveling to a global, world city meant that everyone would speak English was acutely incorrect. And I wondered it the night before, when Nora casually informed me over dinner that a student from her university had just been kidnapped, shortly before my arrival.
And now here I was, wondering it again, as the city faded from view and our bus plunged deeper and deeper into the Mexican countryside. As the scenery grew more remote, my iPhone reported back that there was “No Service,” and I switched it into airplane mode to preserve the battery, silently cursing myself for leaving the charger behind at my hotel.
About two hours after departing the Metro Observatorio, we descended into the pueblo of Valle de Bravo, a picturesque town on the shore of Lake Avándaro. As the bus navigated through curving cobblestone streets, there was no denying the charm and beauty of the remote village. And as we pulled into the tiny depot and climbed out of the bus, there was also no denying that myself, Nora, and Nora’s two college friends – Americans and Canadians, all – were definitely, obviously, not from here.
There is a story I like to tell myself. The story is that I’m brave and fearless and a real badass. But that story is, sadly, untrue. What is actually true is that I’m afraid of everything, all of the time. More often than not, when I do something that other people consider to be brave, it’s only because I jump into it quickly, without thinking about the consequences, before my rational brain has a chance to talk me out of it.
Mexico City was like that. If I had taken the time to do my research, or had considered the size and scope of the city, with its population of twenty-two million (!!!) people, or had heeded the concerns voiced by friends and family about reports of foreigners being kidnapped, and drug trafficking, and police corruption, I probably never would have gone there. But all I really thought about was that my beloved niece was studying there on exchange from her university in Montreal, and visiting her sounded like a fun thing to do.
And now that I was in Mexico, I was along for the ride, and my travel companions to Valle de Bravo – as it turned out – were much braver than I was. Which I suppose is how I found myself, in spite of my tremendous fear of heights, saying yes when asked if I wanted to see “the best view in town.” An hour into a hike that was supposed to take “twenty minutes,” our foursome arrived at a small house at the base of a mountain, and was greeted by a man charging five pesos to climb to the summit of La Peña. So we paid him, and continued to climb stone steps along a densely forested pathway, ascending further and further, my body covered in sweat from the humidity and the exertion, my legs shaking with every view of Lake Avándaro, each one higher than the last.
I stopped just below the summit, knowing my limits, knowing that the open-air plateau high above the sea would trigger in me a near paralysis-inducing vertigo. So I hung back and sheltered in a cave just below the top, while the other girls clambered over boulders to reach La Peña’s highest point. And while I waited, keeping a careful eye on a giant spider spinning a web nearby, minutes feeling like hours, I suddenly heard a loud “Boom!” and looked up nervously toward the increasingly darkening sky. “Boom!” There it was again. There was no doubt about it: that was thunder, which meant that lightning couldn’t be far behind.
“Guys?” I called. I checked my phone: 6:00 PM. The last bus back to Mexico City left in one hour, but at this point, we had more important things to worry about. “Guys,” I called again, unsure if they could even hear me. “We really need to go.”
And go we did, a few minutes later, trudging down the hill as fast as our legs could carry us. And soon the lighting flashed and the rain came down in sheets, soaking us to the skin. We found shelter at a fruit stand at the base of the mountain, huddling beneath an umbrella while we waited for a taxi. And though taxis were strictly off limits for us foreign girls in Mexico City – because of, you know, kidnapping – we decided it would be OK here because we were in Valle de Bravo and there were four of us, and besides, we didn’t have a choice in the matter anyway, not if we wanted to make it back to the station in time to catch the last bus back to the city.
Seventy two hours after that rain storm in Valle de Bravo, feeling – there’s no other word for it – elated to be back in Los Angeles, I wheeled my suitcase up to a customs agent at LAX’s Tom Bradley International terminal and handed him my passport.
“And where are you coming from?” he asked.
“Mexico City,” I replied, surprising myself at the pride I heard coming through my voice.
“Welcome home,” he said, smiling, handing me back my passport. And I returned his smile with a genuine smile of my own. Because I was happy. Happy to be home, of course, but also happy that I taken the trip in the first place.
The scary moments during my trip to Mexico didn’t end after that day in Valle de Bravo. In fact, I could write an entire blog post about the madness of the metro: the crush of people and the constant pushing and shoving, the women-only subway cars (implemented for safety), the machine gun-toting police officers, the Saturday afternoon encounter with a man who was high as a kite, lurching and leering, the young Mexican girl – who couldn’t have been older than twelve – who warned Nora and I to “Be careful,” because the subway stop we were heading to was “Very dangerous.”
So yes, there were scary moments. But there were also great ones. And if I hadn’t gone to Mexico City, I never would have experienced them. I never would have marveled at the stunning turquoise waters of Lake Avándaro from high above Valle de Bravo. I never would have absorbed the art and culture and history of a nearly three-hour mural tour through the city center led by Nora’s employer, Street Art Chilango. I never would have met David, the charming artisan at Coyoacán market who sold me a beautiful leather journal made by his own hands, and who, when Nora told him that I was a writer, insisted that I write something for him (and I did!).
And most importantly, if I hadn’t gone to Mexico City, I never would have spent four amazing days with my niece. I never would have witnessed, first hand, the way that she’s thriving, both in her life and in her art, and the incredible woman she is becoming as she is immersing herself in a language and a culture that are both entirely new.
The story that I like to tell myself is that I’m a badass. The truth is, I’m not. I’m afraid of almost everything, almost all of the time. And there were many moments during my visit to Mexico City where I had a reason to be afraid. But I also had a reason to go there. Because life is worth experiencing. And adventures are worth having. And without a little fear, can we ever, truly, have either one?
Until next time, friends.