Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sundays with Steve - Mexico City

Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve”, I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family is really a classic, all-American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in along with some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career many years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together

Spring Equinox and the Power of the Universe

I held my hands toward the sky on that March morning, allowing the powers of the universe to be funneled into my body, as promised by the ancient Aztecs. Daughter, Stephanie, and Son, Chris, did the same. We stood atop a 350-foot high stone pyramid with our arms stretched over our heads, reaching higher for the promise of good fortune, high energy, and a long life.

A rain drop splashed in my eye. So much for good fortune. We waited, winded from the climb to the top. There were hundreds more people gathering at the base, preparing to climb the 300 tall steps to the top, but for that moment, we had the top of the ancient pyramid to ourselves.

Sunshine briefly illuminated the Pyramid of the Sun on which we were perched, in the ancient ruins of the city of Teotihuacan. The view from the top was spectacular looking across the plains of the central Mexico highlands and surrounded by towering mountains in the distance. The sun’s rays poked through the heavy clouds that spread across the horizon, lighting the green farm fields and pastures. Rain showers could be seen nearby. We shed our light jackets when we reached the top, in concession to the steep climb.

We were 30-miles north of my home in Mexico City, Mexico. We were up early that morning to beat the crowds I knew would be heading for the pyramid. Stephanie and Chris were visiting from the States on spring break. The pyramids were always on the one-day tour I gave visiting Gringos from the States, usually as the first stop of the day.

This day was special. The Aztecs occupied the city Teotihuacan before Christ was born, but the city’s original builders, in about 1000 BC, were unknown. Many buildings still stand, all made of stone, and erected to exacting standards. There are apartment buildings, stores, churches, and other pyramids all laid out along multiple streets and boulevards. The city has been empty of inhabitants for over 1,500 years now. The Aztec’s 200,000 occupants believed that the powers of the universe were concentrated on the Pyramid of the Sun on this special day, the Spring Equinox. That date is the dividing line between winter and summer as the sun moves north. The Aztec legend was that If you climbed to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun on the Spring Equinox and hold your hands to the sky, you will be blessed with abundant energy, good fortune or luck, and long life. The legend further decreed that the Fall, Summer and Winter solstices did not have this particular power. That day we were going to beat the crowds, and find the universal energy jolt for ourselves.

I raised my arms to the gods. I reached for the sky. I stood there for several minutes. I felt like a fool. But Stephanie and Chris, aged about 14 and 12 then, stood with me with arms outstretched. More pilgrims arrived from their climb to the top. They reached for the clouds as well. Before long, there were 30 or 40 people standing on the top, arms all sky-high. And then…




Nope, not a thing. No energy of the universe concentrated here today, sorry sir, try again next year.

I had been in Mexico City for two of what became a five-year stint in the city, long enough to be comfortable in what was then the largest city on Earth. When I thought about it, I was amazed by my journey: I had moved from Eagle, Idaho, population 2,600, to Mexico City, population 26 million. And I loved it.

I was comfortable in the city, I knew my way around, and I could navigate well using the ubiquitous green Volkswagen bug taxis or an occasional borrowed car. The best navigation, when I was super lucky, was a borrowed car with a driver. My Spanish was non-existent when I arrived, and didn’t get much better over the next five years but I spoke enough Spanish to survive and thrive.

That week when the kids visited, I borrowed a 10-year old Oldsmobile from good friends Archi & Clementina Lopez, a car that fit into the city just fine. There were continuous complaints in the city about traffic with 3 million cars, trucks and buses clogging the streets every day. But I always thought of a comparison, that if that were an American city with 26 million people in it, there would be 15 million vehicles in the streets, not the measly three million that were in Mexico City.

After descending the pyramid, a task much harder that climbing up, due to the steepness of the steps that were often 3-feet and 4-feet tall, we drove back to the city for the rest of my Gringo day tour. We stopped at the Zocolo that day, the main square in the heart of the historic center of the city, that is surrounded by museums and the national cathedral of Mexico (where the story that the Spanish taking all the gold out of Mexico is debunked, with huge amounts adorning the walls and ceiling of that church); we visited the National Museum of Archeology, one of the finest on earth, and crossed the street to visited Chapultepec Castle, home of Emperor Maximilian in the early 1800s. (Did you know that France conquered Mexico in the 1800s? Napoleon installed the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian as the country’s ruler. I’ve always said that any country with a gun has invaded Mexico at least once in its history.)

I loved Chapultepec castle with its ornate European 17th and 18th century designs that were unique to the Americas. This is where the Gringo story was born; you can find it on one of the walls of the castle which is now a museum. I have to warn you that Mrs. Jenny now hates the story, having heard it at least 10,000 times over the last decade, particularly my 30-minute version that must be accompanied by fine tequila. I offer you here the non-tequila, extremely abbreviated version: In a warm-up to the American civil war, in 1847 General George Pershing and his army of U.S. Marines had surrounded the castle after invading the country and laying siege to the capitol. He gave the Mexican government holed-up inside an ultimatum: Sell that worthless cactus and scorpion infested lands of what would become California, Arizona, New Mexico and other states, to the U.S. government for the princely sum $47 million, or be killed -- your choice. The Mexican government sold it, which amounted to about one-third of the country’s land mass. When the General Pershing led his troops out of the city later, the residents ridiculed their green Marine uniforms, and cried at them in English: ‘Green go home’. Gringo is what the troops heard.

Stephanie, Chris and I ended the Gringo tour day at a fancy restaurant in the historic part of the city where we met friends Archi and Clementina. Archi insisted we all part take in the particular delicacy of fried worms. The kids refused, and made rather unpleasant gagging noises when I tried one on the firm insistence of my friend. Some friend: It was awful, at least in my mind, and the one bite was quite enough, thank you. Pass the tequila please. I also passed on the fried grasshopper appetizer that came next.

The future Mrs. Steve (Jenny to most of you) became a frequent visitor in years ahead, and we continued to explore the city and the country together, finding a fascinating culture far removed from the beach towns and border cities most Americans associate with Mexico. These were the days before the drug wars and frequent kidnappings, days when Gringos could safely and easily drive through the city and the country without fear. And we did.

Then there was the summer day when I took the future Mrs. Jenny to Teotihuacan to visit the pyramids. It was a warm afternoon, although it never got “hot” at that 7,000 altitude. That afternoon we looked up the steep stairs, 300 of them to the top, and said, “Nah, let’s pass.” We found a nice place to perch. We reclined on the warm stone, mellowing in the sun on the neighboring Pyramid to the Moon where we watched the visitors sweat their way to the top, looking for good fortune on the wrong day of the year.

In retrospect, thinking back over the 15 years to my first trip to find the energy of the universe on the single day each year that it was concentrated on that one spot… well, actually my life has had wonderful energy, it has had good fortune, and I have been blessed with good health. I wonder… do you suppose? Nah. Well, maybe.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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Anonymous said...

Steve I think you soaked up enough of that energy 15 years ago to have the life you now have...
Did you ever hear of casualties where people fell on the way down? I would think that there'd have been some, especially with the size of those steps...
Thanks for taking us on another interesting journey, Gringo :D


Tonia Lee Smith said...

I'm sure this was an inspirational trip for your. It sounds like it was.

I'm sorry that I hadn't been by in a while.

Betty said...

Mrs. Steve sounds like a high energy person herself, so I think it worked. You'd have to have that abundant energy to keep up with her.

Pondside said...

No doubt about it - that energy entered you and stayed with you. How else have you been able to keep up with Jenny all these years?
Oh - and a wonderful visit to Mexico City - thank you!

Judie said...

I have always loved visiting the ruins in Mexico. I could see myself where you were, asking for that same energy. I need to go back and ask for a little more, though.

H said...

Mexico has always sounded like a fascinating place to visit, but kidnap and drug wars don't sound so appealing!

Ironically, one of the classes I teach is learning all about the Aztecs at the moment. It's an extremely interesting topic (as long as you can wrap your tongue round some of those names!!)