Chapter 1. Flying In

Armchair traveller-1 JFK is designed like a maze. If you choose the right fork, getting to the Long Term Parking lot is a breeze, as it was the first time I'd used it. This time, we went wrong somewhere, and even when we were back onto the right track, they had enough ambiguously pointing arrows to mislead us. With all that eating into our brains, by the time we'd checked in there wasnt too much time left, and Revathi discovered her purse was not with her. Her guess was she'd not put it back in her pocket after paying the extortionist at Whitestone Bridge, so it ought to be in the car, but we could take no chances; Citibank had to be called up to invalidate the credit and ATM cards. Here's where JFK really comes into its own - phones, phones everywhere, not a quarter to be found. The soda lady said she couldnt open the till unless you made a purchase and all her items were worth $x.95. The silver lining was that in the meantime, I'd managed to locate a money-changing counter and was able to obtain some Mexican pesos; this job had been left to the last moment; they charged some absurd fee, but the prospect of landing up at midnight like a greenback-loaded gringo at the mercy of the notorious Mexico City taxi driver was not a pleasing one. I have a dark, subcontinental skin, but would there be any concessions for that?

Well, we did manage to buy a phone card, and Revathi managed to recall her ATM card number (would you know of anything more absurd? - they cant invalidate your card unless you tell them the number; are you supposed to tattoo or brand yourself 6218 8083.... in case you lose the card).

Phew! all that behind us, we got into the plane; it was Delta Airlines taking us to Mexico City on the eve of Thanksgiving - with Monday off we had five days to explore a bit of this vast, complicated country. Our bible for the trip was the Lonely Planet guide to Mexico. We had considered Baja California, the peninsular pinkie of Mexico hanging tenuously off California: to its west the Pacific; to its east, Gulf of California (also known as Sea of Cortez) separating it from mainland Mexico. Baja is known for its isolated beaches, for deserts and oases, and ancient cave art; down south along it, at La Paz we could take an overnight ferry across the Sea of Cortez to land in Los Mochis the next morning. The legendary Copper Canyon railway runs from there to Chihuahua through 20 canyons in Tarahumara Indian land. However, we rejected this plan as too full of uncertainties for the limited time we had; besides, the whales wouldnt be back till January, and what's Baja California without whales, we knowledgably told ourselves. Cancun and Acapulco then being dismissed as too resortish, Mexico City, interesting enough for Lonely Planet to devote an entire volume to it, was the automatic choice.

Next to us was a Chilean gentleman - 68 years old, 34 spent in Chile, 34 in the US, business-travelling all over the Americas. What did he think of General Pinochet, who was in the limelight with his arrest in London. Well, businesses did well then, at the cost of a few thousand disappearances. All my brothers did well, I am the poor one. If someone from your family disappeared, you hate Pinochet; if you made money, you like his regime - it's as simple as that. My mother came over to the US to live with me when she got sick of the long lines for bread (how that was consistent with the economy doing well, wasnt clear).

Armchair traveller-2 He tested my knowledge of the language with a Spanish edition Readers Digest (have you ever wondered - how a magazine can have such wonderful back-covers with such lousy content?), which had already been put to the test of booking a room in Hotel San Diego over phone from New York. It remained to be seen whether that room would be really there for us, or communication had been entirely garbled and we'd be looking for the local Salvation Army at midnight.

Mexico City looked really teeming from the air. In the profusion of lights, there were mysterious scattered islands of darkness, which we would later discover to be uninhabited hills, with towers flashing red lights in the middle of them. Officially, the city is called Districto Federal, or D.F.

Immigration, customs, pre-paid taxi (BTW, the booth inside the customs area has the same charges as that in the Domestic Area, in case you're as paranoid as me about being fleeced by foreigners), all went smoothly, and Hotel San Diego turned out to be extremely helpful, trustworthy and good value for money. They'd dropped a letter from my name, but it was still identifiable. The sheet had a few eyelets on it, but the room was big and clean; the bath had a shower, though no tub; a bottle of agua purificada had been provided; at $11, royal.

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