Aftershock: How a natural disaster made me find beauty in loss of control

Aftershock: How a natural disaster made me find beauty in loss of control

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In the name of food and travel research, this was to be my fifth visit to Mexico City.

I had an invitation to stay with my good friend Milton Estrada of Mexico City Urban Adventures. Nine years before, on my first trip to Mexico City, Milton had been my informative and fun guide through the Museo de Frida Kahlo, ‘Casa Azul.’ I was a Frida enthusiast, he a fan of the life and politics of Diego Riviera. And we both shared a love of tacos.

Needless to say, Casa Azul had been a great start to my friendship with this local who would end up being my advisor for years of travel throughout all of Mexico.

Best laid plans

Five trips to the same location will give anyone enough swagger to turn a two-week jaunt into a solid ‘to-do’ list with little room for variation. For me, this trip was a quest for further recipes and research for Pop Taco, my travel-inspired pop-up/gastroblog.

taco and green salsa

The spiciest sauce this writer has found | Photo by Kristal Smith

My pre-determined plans left only a few days in Mexico City with Milton and his family, and given that I was pretty comfortable claiming I had ‘been there done that,’ I was happy to go along with Milton’s two best local recommendations: a Reggae jam night in La Condesa and a taqueria nearby his house with a guacamole that Milton had decided was the best in the city. (Side note: I was way too proud to admit that the heat of this particular salsa came close to defeating me and my claims of being able to endure anything that a Mexican native can.)

But Mother Nature had other ideas

Little did I know my time with Milton and his familia would have me on the 7th floor of the Chapultepec Urban Adventures headquarters in the midst of a 7.1-magnitude earthquake.

Chapultepec is a busy area of the city, quite central and close to the popular La Condesa and Colonia Roma districts, both a hive of activity, with cafes, bars and concert venues attracting a cosmopolitan crowd to leafy terraced streets. These three areas were among some of the hardest hit in the earthquake; our vantage point in the two minutes that the building rocked and rolled provided us with an understanding that we were very lucky to be alive.

The long way home

In the hours we spent in the safety of a nearby park, it was hard to come across any information. But as helicopters flew over and sirens sounded, we knew there was tragedy within the structures we had seen crumble with our own eyes.

Once we had established that Milton’s family was safe, we started to move, making confused tracks through the affected areas in an impossible effort to go home. Hours in, while resting our feet amongst the now homeless residents of an avenue in Chapultepec, I referred to the absence of music, an eerie observation for Mexico City, which was always alive with the sounds of its cultural heritage.

The journey home ordinarily would take little over an hour, but on this day with services at a standstill and almost nine million people reaching for home and loved ones, the journey was a 12-hour quest — my first glimpse at the loss of control and the vulnerability that an event like this causes. My plans were now unimportant.

Volunteer groups were forming en masse at points in the city accepting, sorting and dispatching much-needed medical, food and hygiene supplies to thousands of people shaken from their homes.

Purchasing supplies to donate was the only thing we could do to feel right, and by being there at the university drop-off point I was able to see firsthand how, with so much solidarity, the people of CDMX were working to assist those in need. The energy of the sea of volunteers and donors, all cheering loudly at every single donation, was infectious and snapped us out of our shock and into action.

workers rushing by in Mexico City

Volunteer groups formed almost immediately after the quake | Photo by Kristal Smith

Into the no-go zone

There was a general understanding that the central areas should be avoided so as to make way for rescue workers, medics and engineers to move freely in the usually traffic-filled avenues. However, Milton had his own travellers caught up by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was growing restless at not having the information to update his passengers about delayed tours, etc.

I was given about 15 minutes to gather my camera and notepad as we swiftly embarked on a reconnaissance mission into the centre to assess the state of the heritage sites, murals and culture stops that feature in his carefully crafted Urban Adventures tours.

Assisting Milton gave me purpose. With only a few hours of daylight left we hurried between sights, museums and landmarks. I was diligently capturing all I could, with only time to stop briefly to take photos and make notes. I was fuelled by the belief that these efforts were for the benefit of fellow travellers everywhere struggling with unforeseen changes to their plans.

Milton’s mission was to gather re-opening information and checking for damage to important national features. I was looking for signs of the old chaotic Mexico City, and found encouragement in the presence of the overstocked balloon vendors, the music of the organilleros (organ musicians in the streets) or the groups of boys playing football in the parks and amongst the courtyard pillars of the stunning state buildings of El Centro.

Apart from the limited access to museums and national treasures, there were other reminders of the earthquake. Large cracks appeared in some buildings, others were taped off, and there was debris at curbsides. Metro buses shot down boulevards, delivering clusters of rescue volunteers identifiable by their shovels, helmets, torches and masks.

In a city known for its idiosyncratic colourful chaos rather than its attention to safety, I was observing that in her time of need, Mexico City had more sophistication in her approach to getting back on her feet than we can say for many other places in the world.

old building in Mexico City at night

Many of the city’s most beautiful buildings remained unharmed | Photo by Kristal Smith

We rushed past the impressive architecture of the Palacio de Bellas Artes and Palacio Postal. I was awkwardly trying to keep up while not revealing that I had actually never seen any of these buildings, silently a little disappointed that we were just checking for cracks and rushing by.

Frida was here

It wasn’t until Milton casually cast his arm out to the right while we tore around yet another grand city street corner and said, “That’s where Frida met Diego,” that I stopped still in my tracks. We were standing beside a large stone-walled building, which Milton explained, holds the most beautiful courtyards and central balconies, and is the birthplace of Mexico City’s most iconic and tumultuous love affair: that of Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo.

I had been a Frida enthusiast since long before visiting her blue house in Coyoacan. I had since been to her home with Diego in San Angel, and had probed Milton to educate me on the Diego Riviera murals both throughout the city and internationally.

The reminder that they had once walked these streets in such a poignant time for art and revolution in Mexico sent a tingle through my bones and made me realise there was clearly a lot I had yet to see in this ancient city, despite my nine years of pilgrimaging here and ‘been there, done that’ attitude.

We both knew what this realisation meant, we were now on tour! As Milton shape-shifted into his natural state of tour guide, a sense of responsibility took over to show me everything he knew. Teasing me at every corner over the things that I was about to see.

Aztec ruins and fake IDs

Just like that, I was standing in front of the most beautiful archeological ruins of them all. We were in the middle of Mexico City looking at a special piece of history. The Templo Mayor means Main Temple, the great twin temples of the Aztec Tenochtitlan, uncovered right there in the heart of the El Centro Historico.

Aztec ruins at night

The Templo Major of Mexico City | Photo by Kristal Smith

That evening, we visited the Santo Domingo square. With the Dominican church on one side and the Plaza de Domingo on the other, this square is beautiful. Eye-catching rows of ‘scribe boxes’ hold very old typewriters and printing presses — which nowadays is best known for printing fake IDs but in times gone by played host to writers and philosophers working away to print their stories.

Mariachi magic

Tired feet leading inspired hearts, our evening finished surrounded by mariachis in the Plaza Garibaldi. I just had to spend 100 pesos and be serenaded by one of my favourite Mexican traditions.

Choosing to eat at one of the many fondas within the plaza is entertainment in itself; the fonda staff are eager for your business and will stop at nothing to capture your attention. Their fun, flirtatious and comedic displays almost trump the effect of the square filled with hundreds of loud mariachi only a few feet from these traditional eateries.

Back home, with still so many sights to check in the following days. I drifted off to sleep buzzing at the exciting journey that had begun.

The Sun, the Moon and coffee served with ghosts

We departed early on day 2 to arrive at Teotihuacan, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Moon.

We were welcomed to the home of Eduardo and Dora, who host a real family style food experience for travellers on the Beyond Mexico City Tour. Dora’s cooking was a foodie dream, as was the much-needed Mexican coffee, served black and laced with cinnamon. Best of all, Eduardo kept it flowing.

We spent some time in leafy Coyocan, grabbing a great coffee (on my list), and not giving in to the lure of the panaderias (bakeries), and the many options for churros, chocolate and helados (ice cream). I encouraged a seemingly tipsy busking saxophonist by filming him playing to the disinterested latte-toting hipsters of Coyoacan.

street small in Mexico City

Street stalls still tempt in the neighbourhoods of Mexico City | Photo by Kristal Smith

Of course, we had to check in on Frida’s Museo — La Casa Azul, where a guard assured me that all was okay and they would re-open the following day.

As night fell, Milton told me of a local urban legend from behind the high walls of a historic Coyoacan home, scaring the fast pace back into my shoes.

Even the walls have stories in Mexico City

The final day started early as I woke to the frightening sound of a city-wide earthquake alarm. Shooting out of my bed in a panic, I ran down two flights of stairs to meet the rest of the family, where we waited for a tremor that never came. My heart was pounding — for some reason this was far more terrifying than the actual shake of three days before.

We recommenced our mission by visiting the vast range of markets from the Mexico City Markets and Food Tour. The first of the string of market places on the tour showed once again how in CDMX you can be doing something as regular as buying produce, but without a local in the know, you may not realise you are surrounded by the artworks of some of the world’s greatest. Here, Milton revealed, we were amongst more of more Frida and Diego legacy, with the scandalous story of the ever pre-occupied Diego leaving Frida space to take a lover in renowned Japanese-American sculpture artist Isamu Noguchi. Diego spent his time contributing to the murals of these very Mexico City market walls.

Having a beer with history

We finished our recon with a well-earned beer in a microbrewery, content that we had gathered so much firsthand information about the well-being of the city’s sites. Milton typed his findings into an immediate release, updating all of his staff.

I pondered how fitting it was to end our tour in such true Mexico City style, sipping agave-infused ale, only steps from the birthplace of Frida and Diego’s ever-present mark on history, blocks from Aztec temples, and not far from our location during the earthquake, where this adventure began.

I had been literally shaken out of the comfort of my lists and plans and into the beauty of living in the moment. Loss of control opens us up to the excitingly unexpected, but without my tour guide by my side, there was no chance I would have ever come to know all of these special details within a city I claimed to know.

I am reminded of how the best parts about travel are always in the unknown and least expected — and most of all in the people around you.

tour guide at pyramids in Mexico

Local guide Milton shows off the company motto | Photo by Kristal Smith

Mexico on the mend

In the 60 hours of our high-speed mission, Mexico City had steamrolled ahead in her recovery. She had dusted herself off and was beginning to buzz again, sites were all open in the following days. This city has seen it all, time and time again. Her cracks and scars are a part of her beauty, and the people of Mexico City give the fierce impression that they will never let a shake like that break her.

Here are a few tips for those who are planning a trip to CDMX in the coming months:

  • Many sights and museums were closed in the days that followed the earthquake. The ones included in the Mexico City Urban Adventures have all since re-opened.
  • Observe the safety tape and respect the barriers they create (there was much less of this than one would imagine).
  • Buildings in La Condesa and Colonia Roma suffered some damage. If you are concerned about a reservation in these areas, contact your host or reception staff. For those looking to book, consider areas like Polanco, Zona Rosa and Coyoacan.

My best tip, however: Never turn down a churro in Coyoacan.

A version of this article originally appeared on PopTaco.com and has been reproduced with permission.

About author
Profile photo of Kristal Smith

Kristal Smith

Storyteller on plates or paper, gastro blogger and cook. Often seen tripping over somewhere in the world while distracted by the sights (or street food).

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