‘Let’s drink Mescal.It’ll be fun!’they said.

Aketzali and Stefan, two film students and my first ever Airbnb hosts have been part of an amazing beginning here in Mexico City. Even though they are half my age, we are from the same tribe and have been enjoying hanging out, listening to music, chatting about films and drinking wine. Civilized city sort of stuff.

They have provided me with a safe, plant-filled creative space to write and gather my thoughts for this next adventure which has already been so life-affirming and positive and incredibly intense in parts that I am still trying to put it all into words.

But I will tell you about my last night, ‘out out’ in Mexico City.

As we have all got on so well, its suggested that we go to a couple of the places which Aketzali and Stefan like, near the centre. We are going to eat some veggie food at a small cinema and bar they know and then after they will take me to Bosphoro, an artisan mezcal bar. Sounds great.

I’ve been eating street food all week and doing lots of cheap stuff like just walking around markets, gardens and museums, so it’s a bit of a splash out for me. The same, new sort of hipster bars you can see all over Brighton and everywhere are happening here. The place looks cool and the wine is delicious but pricey so after some tiny poncey food we jump on the sweaty metro again for a few stops. It’s a clement night so we are happy to walk a few blocks to the mescal bar

In a back street, we pause at a nondescript shopfront. I’m momentarily confused but then I realise there are thick curtains covering the doorway. They muffle the noise and there is only a small chink of light.  Stefan tugs one to the side and a cosy lamplit space reveals itself. Inside, the place is tiny, not much more than the width of a garage. At the back are some narrow wooden steps which leads to a mezzanine and I can see it’s full of people. At the far end of the bar I notice two stools so I head straight there.

There is a thick stone bar with a hand-written blackboard on the wall behind. It is barely legible in the gloom and I’m realising with a slight sigh that I am going to have to start wearing glasses soon. It’s pretty much meaningless anyway. Under a few names of states that I recognise, like Oaxaca and Guerrero, are the names of small artisan producers.

There are around twenty -five different types of mezcal in a cluster behind the bar. All the bottles are the same- chunky and handmade. Respectful.

The waiter came to help me decide. I told him that my favourite flavours are chocolate, spinach and red wine so if there was anything like that, I’d be happy. He nodded. It came in a chunky shot glass, on a saucer with some thick wedges of orange and a dish of spicy peanuts. At almost £3 a shot, it’s not for slamming-they say It’s the sort of drink you give little kisses to. Mine was chosen perfectly for me, smooth and smoky, incredible. I tried them all. Stefan’s was hot and fruity-too much like the Portuguese aguadente for my taste but Aketzali s was balanced halfway between our two. 

After a few rounds of cheers and peanuts and more mescal, they teach me my new favourite saying- Para todo mal, Mescal. Para todo bien, tambien!’  For everything bad, mescal. For everything good, also mescal!  That will take me a long way on my travels.

Just then, the guy sitting on my other side, is given his food from the woman behind the bar. He turns to me, and asks, in English, if I want the chipulines (grasshoppers), he hadn’t asked for them on his quesadilla. I say, I’m OK, I’m a vegetarian and we have a little chat about insects as future food and then about our reasons to be here. He is Isaac, an artist and gallery owner from New York – I lived in the same neighbourhood, Park Slope, for a while. He is here setting up a big art show, which opens locally on Thursday. I’m invited but unfortunately, I’ve already booked my bus ticket out of the city and I’m kind of ready to make a move too. He shows me pictures of a massive warehouse space all being divided into booths with flats and lights etc. he explains that New York is too expensive these days to be truly creative while Mexico City is still really affordable. He finishes his Mescal, pays up and leaves, as I wish him good luck.

Compared to when I was here 20 years ago, I’ve definitely noticed some changes.

There is a palpable creative energy here, but it is getting developed fast, like everywhere in the world

When we walk home arm in arm later, we pass a massive development. Stefan says it’s a new type of apartment, gaining popularity in the city. Hundreds of expensive tiny rooms but the complex contains everything -shops, services, gyms, all the tech. It’s like a resort, they will never have to step outside again.

We buy a couple of bottles of wine at the seven-eleven near the apartment. On the way back, we pass shabby wooden gates, some are open and inside you can see courtyards surrounded by shacks. These places fill in all the little areas between the swanky high-rise apartment blocks. There is less and less of them around here.

We stay up late, smoke, drink and chat. It was one of those nights’ worth having a hangover for.

I’ve not been sleeping past 5 am since I got here so when I do finally emerge at 10, Stefan is in the kitchen, making his guaranteed hangover cure, a michelada. It’s an extra spicy bloody mary made with beer. He gets a tall glass, squeezes half a lime, a teaspoon of ‘worm salt’, and a long glug of prepared chili sauce from a big glass bottle. Then he half fills the cup with clamato juice – tomato and clam juice, then tops it up with beer. Swears by it.

I just found that half a vegeburger under my pillow, must have been starving after the miniscule portions of food. It’s time to pack my bag as I have an early start tomorrow, a 6-hour bus ride into the mountains. Off to one of Mexico’s magic towns, a special place, Cuetzalan, but that will be another story.

Bye bye, Distrito Federale, it’s been a blast-I did drink mezcal, and it was fun!

Amigos

A visit to the temple

white for Keef, green for Little Bear

This is the main reason I came to Mexico City. The young tattooed artist who runs the airbnb in the middle-class suburb of Coyoacan warned me of the danger of kidnappers. I take my jewellery off on the way and pull my hat down low. It’s in a rough neighbourhood, on a par with many of the shitpits of India I’ve visited. An hour on the metro and I come out to the cacophony that is Tepito. There’s a massive market going on, crowds of people pushing & shouting, blaring music, unrecognisable meaty smells. Very few tourists come this way. ‘Where’s the temple of the skinny lady?’ I ask one man, ‘Where does the bony lady live?’ I have to ask another. I’m glad I can speak enough Spanish not to sound too green. ‘ Psst, psst guerrita’, I hear from dark doorways. In the quieter back streets, shabby stalls cook up big chunks of meat in vast pans of hot fat on the pavement. A cowboy with extra shiny boots, sunglasses and a cowboy hat, spits out a lump of gristle as I go past. No time for photos, I walk quickly, feeling incredibly conspicuous and slightly vulnerable. It’s a densely populated poor area, a shanty town where every doorway reveals a scabby courtyard surrounded by a maze of flats and washing lines, inevitably fronted by a giant glass box containing statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Santa Muerte is still an underground figure, even though over the past twenty years she has become the symbol of the fastest growing religion in the Americas. I’ve waited a long time to see her. Mangy dogs jump up at the open-air butchers, flies buzz around the slabs of meat. Down one side street, then another, the buildings, shabby-chic bright colours emblazoned with hand-painted adverts, look desperate. A group of evangelists on the corner eye me suspiciously, the Catholic church still doesn’t approve. Past abandoned warehouses, burnt out buses, a truckload of chavos hiss, ‘Guerra, smoke, smoke?’ They know I’m only here for one thing. Then I see the temple, just a shopfront really with loads of bunches of flowers piled up outside. The altar already has candles burning, along with fruit, lit cigarettes, cans of coke for offerings. There’s a couple of tables full of resin sculptures of varying colours and sizes, along with different trinkets, necklaces, spell bags. I tell the woman behind the counter I’m here to light a candle for Little Bear, my missing cat and, more importantly, one for my dead husband. So it’s a green one for the cat and a white one for Keef. That’s £2.50 then. I’m feeling pretty emotional. The sculpture of Santissima Muerte is behind glass, life-size, a skull face with shiny gold robes and hung with beads and jewellery. She is surrounded by goblets, mirrors, fruit, knick-knacks, trinkets and gifts. It’s a powerful moment as I light my candles and place them there. As I think of my lost loves, other people come in, touch their chests with the sign of the cross, mutter and add to the altar. People stream in constantly, wheeling babies, supporting their sick family members. I give them space and focus on the shop. A few people are suspicious, give me side eyes so I feel uncomfortable waving a camera around. As usual, there are keyrings, necklaces, candles of all colours and huge old-fashioned cans of spray, each claiming special powers for a certain use. I’m travelling with a rucksack so I pick the smallest things I can find, two 3 cm images of the skinny lady herself. The woman behind the counter says they’ve been dipped in holy water. She turns her attention to some new arrivals as I slip back to the hot dusty street, past a concrete construction on the corner filled with religious icons and back to the bustle of the market.