Your leaking thatched hut during the restoration of a pre-Enlightenment state.


Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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Irving housing

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Tuesday, February 27 2024

location: suite 301, Hotel Parque Mexico Boutique, La Condesa, Mexico City

This morning Gretchen and I would be picked up by a tour guide and driven to the ruins of Teotihuacan, a large pre-Aztec city located 25 miles to the northeast of Mexico City. But Gretchen's cellphone was for some reason still on New York Time (Mexico City is on Chicago Time), so the alarm she set went off a whole hour early. She treats such things as tragedy, but for me, an extra hour to fart around before having to leave is a gift. Unfortunately, there was no coffee whatsoever in our suite, and, though calls Gretchen placed to the front desk promised to bring us some, none ever came. This was part of the general pattern we'd been noticing of Mexican customer service not being anywhere near American expectations.
At the correct time, we met our car out in front. It contained two people: a driver, and a guide with training in pre-Columbian art history. We would be spending the whole Teotihuacan experience together, just the four of us for about four hours. You might think it would be expensive to take all four hours of a tour guide's and a driver's time, but Gretchen later told me today's outing only cost about $200 (plus tip). Most of our communication would be in English, an option Gretchen chose out of consideration for me (and also because her Duolingo-honed Spanish skills, even after well over a year of it, do not yet make her completely fluent.)
On the drive through Mexico City's notorious traffic, showed us some slides on a tablet to give us the basics of pre-Columbian Mexico City. The city lies in a basin, one with no natural outlet to the sea, and had once been occupied by a series of lakes that have since mostly disappeared (doing my own research, I later learned that the Spanish and the Mexican authorities dug tunnels through the mountains in order to drain the lake and prevent flooding). Our guide also told about the various cultures and where they fell in time. The Aztecs (Nahuatls) were the last indigenous people to arrive in Mexico City before the Spanish, and their culture only lasted for a couple hundred years. The place we were going to, Teotihuacan, had been built by a much earlier culture that began around 100 BCE and collapsed around 500 CE. Nobody is sure what people actually built Teotihuacan or what language they spoke, but genetic evidence from the many skeletons found in the ruins suggest that it was a multi-ethnic society with people from, for example, the Mayan Yucatan as well as from the nearby lowlands.
With those basics out of the way, Gretchen was craving some more contemporary cultural information, which our guide and his driver were happy to give. We learned a little about how Mexico City is governed, that it had been a federal district with limited rights for its population (like Washington DC now is) but that recently it got more autonomy, sort of as if it had been allowed to become a state. (Later, though, I would learn that the Mexican constitution had prevented it from becoming a full-fledge state, though that may have changed.) We also learned about some of the messy local politics. La Condesa, the part of the city our hotel is in, is run by someone our guide labeled a "fascist." His evidence for this was her campaign of painting over a great many murals. We'd found Condesa to be a hip, if perhaps a bit gentrified, so this came as something of a surprise. For the most part, though, the politics of Mexico City (as it does in large American cities) leans leftward. There's also a strong influence from drug cartels, the kingpins of which are the true centers of power. They like to exercise their power behind the scenes and not draw attention to themselves, and most tourists are never aware of their ubiquity. Indeed, cartels exercise particular restraint in touristy areas so as not to kill that important golden goose.
By then we were in the northwest of the city and I could see an amazing thing: a system of overhead cables powering ski-lift-like pods carrying people over the congestion. Since such cables must continue to move, there's no getting stuck in traffic. So if you have a destination that is along one of the cable car (it's actually called CableBus) routes, you're definitely going to get there in a timely fashion. It seems like a fairly inexpensive way to build reliable mass-transit, since the only things you really need to build are support poles and stations; connecting them is done on the cheap with cable. Some of the stations, though, were elaborate and looked to be the tallest structures in their environments, since they had to reach up to the height of the cable. Our guide told us that the CableBus pods only seat six people each, and I surmised that if they were any bigger then the infrastructure would have to be a lot more expensive.
After we made it to the Teotihuacan entrance, we could occasionally see one of the pyramids looming over a nearby horizon. At this point our driver went off by himself for the next several hours, leaving Gretchen and me with just our guide.
There are lots of little businesses trying to sell things at the entrance, and since neither Gretchen nor I had brought hats, it was hats that they mostly wanted to sell. Gretchen eventually succumbed to the pressure and bought herself a hat, figuring she'd be better off with one. I'd slathered myself with plenty of sunscreen, so I figured I wouldn't need one. But even here in the tropics, the winter sun was a little low in the sky, and kept getting in my eyes, forcing me to use one of my hands as a makeshift hat brim. Of course, the thing I wanted more than anything was coffee, but, strangely, nobody was trying to capitalize on that opportunity. One little shop had Red Bull, but I didn't like the idea of being the guy who drinks a Red Bull at a World Heritage site. Gretchen was worried about me, knowing how I get when I don't have my caffeine. But I decided to power through without it. I didn't have much energy, but I could put one foot in front of the other and occasionally even ask an appropriate question.
Initially we looked at some small buidlings that had been restored somewhat from the rubble piles they'd been. In the lower parts of some of the buildings, protected beneath the rubble and soil, were occasional frescoes depicting religious or ceremonial imagery in the highly-stylized manner fashionable in Teotihuacan when it was done. They had a number of problems they needed to solve when representing the three dimensional world in two dimensions. One solution was to render the image from the side (such as an image of someone playing a horn) while, just above it, show the same scene when viewed from the front. Such horns were made to look like a four-petal flower from that angle, which was an important symbol to their culture. Another recurring theme was drops of water, either looking like droplets as might hang from beneath an object or falling as tiny globes from the sky. Evidently water was extremely important, and their society either thrived or suffered depending on whether the rains came.
Other interesting features were more practical, such as evidence of an extensive sewer system that depended on constantly-flowing water brought by aqueducts. That's Roman-level engineering, which was apparently a prerequisite for a city of the scale of Teotihuacan. It may have housed as many as 300,000 people and been the among the sixth largest cities in the entire world at the time.
Some of the excavations of deeper layers revealed frescoes from earlier times when styles were different. Earlier imagery tended to be more colorful and somewhat more naturalistic, whereas later imagery tended to be more stylized and have less color, ultimately becoming monochromatic. A recurring theme was a rattle snake lying on its back. Highly-stylized such snakes were used along the sides of staircases up to the tops of temples, though the only heavily-sculptured parts of such depictions were the heads and rattles.
Next our guide led us out into the open, where we could marvel at the massive pyramids, the first being the so-called "Pyramid of the Moon" at the north end of a great ancient walkway called the "Avenue of the Dead." Our guide told us it had taken 80 years to build and pointed out that the pyramid's punctuated slopes imitated that of the mountain behind it, Cerro Gordo-Tonantépetl. People are no longer allowed to climb the two biggest pyramids, and we never even walked up to its base. Instead, our guide had us separate so that we could try out a whispering gallery effect across a distance of about 180 feet (it was much less impressive than the whispering gallery effect under the capitol dome in Washington, DC).
From there, we walked southward down the Avenue of the Dead, past the much more massive so-called Pyramid of the Sun (which took 120 years to build). (All these names were given to these structures by modern people, and nobody knows what they were originally called.) Along the way, we stopped to admire a large fresco of a cougar that had been unearthed. And the we continued gradually downhill, periodically having to climb up over stepped walls built at regular intervals. I asked the guide about these, since they made moving on the avenue much more taxing than it otherwise would've been, and he said that these walls were designed to make the city easier to defend.
At some point Gretchen got our guide to talk about something other than the ancient city of Teotihuacan. She asked him how long he'd known the driver, and the guide evidently felt comfortable with Gretchen because he said the driver, a man, was his ex-partner, and it was clear from later context that he meant romantic partner. The driver had lost his job recently and called the guide to ask if he had any jobs available. The guide said he needed a driver, and so he was hired. Now, though, the driver's new boyfriend is jealous of the guide because of course. The guide was a very fat little man and Gretchen had difficulty imagining anyone being jealous because of him, but I was already noticing that beauty standards in Mexico are a little unusual. How, for example, did Frida Kahlo end up with Diego Rivera? I'd also been noticing women on the street giving me the eye in a way that hasn't happened in ten years back in the United States, suggesting grey-haired gringos aren't exactly invisible to Mexican women.
Though our politics were generally aligned with those of our guide, there were some differences. For example, the guide didn't seem to think Vladimir Putin is anywhere near as bad as we believe him to be. Indeed, his dismissed his evil as no worse than that of Angela Merkel, a statement I found borderline offensive. As for the ongoing crisis in Gaza engineered by Netanyahu's government, our guide was surprised to hear that Gretchen wasn't fully in support of Isræl. He said he'd yet to meet a single American who felt that what they were doing in Gaza as anything but completely appropriate.
After walking some distance down the Avenue of the Dead, we took a break in the shade of a pepper tree (our guide showed us the pink pepper corns, which tasted exactly like black pepper). There Gretchen and I snacked on some bread Gretchen had bought at a bakery last evening. Onto that we spread that truffle cheese dip we'd bought at a health food store. A large tawny German-shepherd-style dog came over and lay down nearby, seemingly interested in our food without being an obnoxious beggar. I saved him a little lump of bread that I covertly gave him as we got up to leave. But he had no interest in it at all. He was hoping we'd give him meat. It reminded me of that time Gretchen and I tried to give delicious pici to a stray cat in Montepulciano.
Further down the avenue, there was a spectacular excavation that showed a temple staircase that had been partly-swallowed by additional soil and then re-done as a shorter flight with new rattlesnake heads in a newer, more-modern style. The excavation showed us both the old, longer staircase, and the truncated one with the new snake head sculptures. And, like most excavations we were seeing, there were no ropes to keep people from falling into the hole.
By then we were at the bottom of a gentle grade and could cross the Rio San Juan, which had been redirected by the ancients to pass beneath the avenue where it did. It was a tiny creek containing a few pools of stinking water. Beyond it was a pyramid that we were allowed to climb, the Pyramid of Quetzalcóatl. Since this was the last thing to see on the tour, the vendors were clustered especially thick down there, accosting us and trying to get us to buy artifacts such as whistles that sounded like birds or jaguars or chunks of carved obsidian (one of the chief exports of the Teotihuacan people). We had no interest in any of that stuff, which was proabably a little disappointing for our guide, who seemed to have ad hoc business relationships with some of the vendors.
But we did climb the pyramid. The part we climbed was really just a very high stepped wall in front of an actual pyramid that we were not allowed to climb. But it was the fanciest one we'd seen so far, studded with numerous sculpted heads of various monsters and abstract beasts.
And then the tour was over, and we were taken to a touristy area west of the ruins where the next activity, a mezcal tasting, would take place. Gretchen had only wanted to tour Teotihuacan and had no interest in the mezcal tasting, but apparently all tours of Teotihuacan feature something additional at the end, and the mezcal tasting was the cheapest option. We were turned over to a skinny young man who gave us a crash course on first agave (it sap, which is the basis for mezcal, as well as its incredibly tough fibers, integrated sewing needle, and even a kind of paper that can be made with its skin) and then obsidian. With obsidian, we were encouraged to look at the sun through black disks of it, which dimmed it down enough to look upon its firey surface. Next came the tasting, which was more interesting than expected, as there were several steps along the process from agave syrup to mezcal. Supposedly the syrup comes out of the agave plant already somewhat fermented, and then various aging and distillation processes produce a wide variety of flavors. Gretchen has hated tequila and mezcal ever since some bad experience in college, but she was game to taste all of this stuff, though I ended up drinking most of her little portions as well as all of my own, so I ended up a little tipsier than people at such tasting normally get. After that, the skinny young man shepherded us into a store and then followed us around as we browsed, which was highly unpleasant. Clearly, we were expected to buy stuff at this point. But, partly because there was nothing we wanted and partly because we were offended to be treatedly like an ATM machine, we bought nothing and went to join our guide and driver out front.
On the ride back to our hotel, Gretchen revealed that she loved the music of Ha Ash, an American duo who mostly sing in Spanish and are huige in Latin America but mostly unknown in mainstream American culture. So the driver played some Ha Ash from his Spotify or Apple Music account, and Gretchen sang right along, knowing all the words and melodies. This astounded and delighted both the guide and the driver, and made for a joyous ending to our Teotihuacan tour. Later, back in our hotel, Gretchen sent our guide a tip via PayPal so as to conserve our pesos.

After a fairly short siesta, the plan was to go have dinner at a vegan restaurant that our Palenville friends Justin and Erica had recommended called Los Loosers. (It's spelled "loosers" but means "losers.") Shortly into the walk there, Gretchen suddenly realized she didn't know where her phone was. She thought she'd put it in her pocket, but it wasn't there, and it wasn't in the backpack she was wearing either. Had she put it down when we stopped briefly to watch the dogs in the dog park? She started freaking out, not just because everything is on her phone, but also because what it implied about her memory. I talked her down, saying that, worst case, we could transform my phone into her phone to be able to, for example, access our plane tickets. But I also thought that if she had laid her phone down, it was almost certainly gone. It wasn't that it was worth anything (it's a beat up old Motorola with a lots of cracks on the glass plate covering its screen), it was that it represented "an opportunity." But, based on what Gretchen was saying, I was thinking it most likely that the phone was still back in our hotel room. When we got there, sure enough, it was lying on the bed. As for Gretchen's memory, I really don't think it's all that bad. Her problem is that she over-multitasks, and this leads to all kinds of little errors, particularly when she's cooking.
This time with the phone, we again set out for Los Loosers, stopping along the way to buy more of the delicious bread we'd just eat at the ruins of Teotihuacan.
When we got to Los Loosers, we were waited on by an affable middle-aged gentleman who really seemed to love the restaurant. When I said I wanted a cappuccino, he assured me that the coffee there was excellent, and it turned out he wasn't wrong. After finishing that, I switched to a stout that had been made with a process that somehow involved mushrooms. Los Loosers claims to be a "mushroom-forward" vegan restaurant, and, since I'm a mushroom-forward vegan, it was looking like we were finally going to be having an unambiguously great meal. Gretchen ordered a whole bunch of things, including a burger, a big bowl of yuba noodles flavored with mushrooms, and two tacos, one of which had a faux fish flavor (that was for me!). I thought everything except the burger was amazing (I found the burger kind of gross, mostly because of something yellow that might've been faux egg). But Gretchen loved the burger and was delighted that our last night in Mexico City ended on such a high note. She and I both thanked our waiter at the end and assured him we'd be coming back and that we'd be telling all our friends. He genuinely seemed touched to hear this.

Back in our hotel room, I hooked up my laptop to the room's flatscreen again so we could watch the final episode of season four of True Detective, which finally (and satisfyingly) wrapped up the loose ends with respect to the corpsicle.

I stayed up late drinking beer (I'd bought a six pack of Negra Modelo last night when we'd briefly stopped at a supermarket that turned out to be a Walmart) and researching human sacrifice in Mesoamerica. Our guide had mentioned that all the pyramids and temples had been used to perform human sacrifice, and I wanted to get my head around how such a practice could develop. Does somebody accidentally kill someone and then, coincidentally, the much-needed rains arive? Or did (as some anthropologists think) the canibalism aspect help with nutritional needs of a population with few large animals to slaughter? There was probably some survival advantage for societies that practiced human sacrifice, since all of the larger ones did, but I can't quite understand what it would be. It's also hard to understand the bureaucracy of human sacrifice: the obtaining of people to be sacrificed, the fattening of the people to be sacrificed, and then the actual performance of the sacrifices. It all seems so alien from my perspective in 2024, but maybe we're one Trump administration away from our society doing things that are nearly as insane.

The CableBus pods. Click to enlarge.

Our particularly rotund guide. Click to make even bigger.

Depictions of Jaguars. Click to enlarge.

Monochrome wall art from late in the settlement of Teotihuacan. Click to enlarge.

Colorful wall art from early in the settlement of Teotihuacan. Click to enlarge.

Gretchen and me in front of the Pyramid of the Moon, taken by our guide. Click to enlarge.

Pyramid of the Moon. Click to enlarge.

A depiction of a cougar. Click to enlarge.

Pyramid of the Moon. Click to enlarge.

Pyramid of the Sun viewed from the southwest. Click to enlarge.

Pyramid of the Sun, looking south. Click to enlarge.

Pyramid of the Moon (left) and Sun. Click to enlarge.

A temple with the part of the stairs that had been lost beneath the soil excavated out. In the half-buried state, new snake-heads had been added to the truncated stairs. Click to enlarge.

The Pyramid of Quetzalcóatl. Click to enlarge.

Pyramid of Quetzalcóatl Click to enlarge.

Houses climbing up the side of a steep hill in Mexico City. Click to enlarge.

Houses climbing up the side of another steep hill in Mexico City. Click to enlarge.

Gretchen at Los Loosers with the phone she'd feared she'd lost earlier. Click to enlarge.

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