4. Lost in translation, or just plain lost?

Trip Start Jul 13, 2012
Trip End Jul 20, 2012

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Flag of Mexico  , Central Mexico and Gulf Coast,
Friday, July 13, 2012

I never check my bags when I travel. If it doesn’t fit in a carry-on, I don’t need it, or I buy it at my destination. On this trip, I was carrying one knapsack and needed to buy sunscreen since the three ounces the TSA would allow me to bring on board the plane wasn’t enough for four days at the beach. I also needed water. I took the threats of water-borne illness and sunstroke very seriously, more seriously than I did the some other threats I was warned about. I never would have come if I’d actually believed I’d be kidnapped or murdered. Montezuma’s Revenge was another matter....
Once I checked in, I talked to the concierge. He told me, more or less, where to buy water and sunscreen, who had the best tacos, and that he could not help me buy my bus ticket. I’d thought perhaps he could call the station and help me buy the ticket over the phone or online, but he insisted they didn’t have a system for that. But there was a travel agency that might be able to help. He gave me their address, marked on a map.
My room was tasteful and modern, with frosted glass doors on the shower and toilet stalls. But the lights didn’t work. I peed in the dark, then futzed with the lights some more. Eventually, I noticed a card reader right by the door. When I put my keycard in, the lights magically came on, as did the air conditioner. An interesting way to conserve energy. 
I found the safe, put my valuables inside, and, map in hand, ventured out into the streets of Mexico City. 
It was like walking into a hurricane of people. The sidewalks were swarming. My hotel was located in the Centro Historico district, which, according to Wikipedia, is where the Spaniards first started building Mexico City atop the ruins of the conquered Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. The narrow streets and tall buildings blocked out the light, so even though it was only early afternoon, it looked much later. Cars stood bumper to bumper on the cobblestone streets. Surprisingly, there was little honking, despite the congestion.  
The travel agency was located behind the Basilica, which stood on one end of Zócalo, the city’s main plaza, which is apparently the second largest in the world after Red Square in Moscow. Though the hotel was only two blocks from the plaza, I was exhausted from battling pedestrian traffic trying to reach it (and keeping my eyes open for kidnappers and pickpockets).
Zócalo was a vast plain of pavement, more than a city block in area, the only adornment a pole from which an enormous Mexican flag hung limply in the heat. There were no benches, no plantings, no statues. It was so barren and unwelcoming that pigeons didn’t even bother to visit. (For a photograph, visit the Wikipedia page for Zócalo).
There was a large yellow tent set up on the plaza near the Basilica with many brightly colored posters around it. It looked like a political protest, so I steered clear, especially after catching a glimpse of what look like soldiers patrolling across the street. These were the Policia Federal, and they were wearing bulletproof vests, riot helmets, and carrying automatic weapons. I steered clear of them, too.
There was a cultural event going on around the Basilica. A group of three men with painted faces, headdresses and loincloths performed some kind of Native dance. I passed an elderly woman wearing a poncho chanting and waving burning sage around a young woman in a jogging suit. A trio of acrobats were jumping rope. I watched them long enough to determine they weren’t very good and crossed the street to the travel agency.
I had been planning how to ask in Spanish if they could help me buy  a bus ticket (¿Pueda ayudarme comprar un boleto de autobus?), but I chickened out and asked “¿Habla ingles?” instead. I’d just had the one term of Spanish so I only knew how to speak in the present tense, and my vocabulary was pretty small. I’d already noticed that Mexicans couldn’t understand me, and if they did, they responded in rapid-fire Spanish which I couldn’t understand at all.  
Like most Mexicans I asked in Mexico City, the agent, a friendly woman in her twenties, did speak some English, and told me that you have to buy the bus ticket at the station. I thanked her, disappointed. I’d been hoping to get the ticket today so I would feel secure in the knowledge I had a seat on the bus. But taking a taxi to the station and back would cost around $25 US. I decided I didn’t need that much security and would just have to take my chances tomorrow.
Still needing to buy water and sunscreen, I plunged back into the dark streets of the Historic district. I found water readily enough. There were plenty of OXXO and 7-Eleven convenience stores scattered around. But I could not find a farmacia, even though the concierge had said there were two right near the hotel. I walked and walked and walked down the gloomy, grimy streets. There were no trees, there were no birds. Just people, people, people. And none of them looked like they were from the US. Surrounded by strangeness, I suddenly started feeling lost. Then I realized I really was lost. For some reason I could not make sense of my map. I wanted to stop and think, but just slowing down meant being jostled (and maybe pick-pocketed), so I kept moving until I saw a policeman at a corner (a regular policeman, not the Policia Federal). I showed him my map and pointed to where I wanted to go, and he told me to turn around and go back two blocks. 
He said it in Spanish, and I really only understood part of what he said, but the funny thing is that I remember the conversation, and all of my feeble attempts at communicating in Spanish, as if they were in English. 
Back in my hotel room, I laid in bed and shook. I thought I’d been handling things pretty well, up until I got lost. That really freaked me out. I never wanted to leave the room again. 
Unfortunately, I still needed sunscreen and dinner.

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