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Futbal Diaries, Part 6: Arrival in Mexico City

June 15th, 2017 · No Comments · Football, Road trip, soccer, Sports Journalism, World Cup

I am perversely proud of driving from Tijuana to Mexico City for the 2006 World Cup qualifying match of March 2005, at the Estadio Azteca.

The report, below, recounts the final leg — from Guadalajara to the distrito federale.

As it turned out, co-pilot Damian Secore and I encountered just about zero problems across a stretch of country that, in the 12 years since, has come to be associated with drug cartels and the violence between (or among) those cartels.

But going south of the border not all that long ago was considered a fairly safe event.

I remember that one of my uncles, who must have been in his 50s, at the time, drove right through Mexico and then into Central America via the Pan-American Highway, which took him through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras … and he came back with a slide show to narrate for the family. This would have been in the middle 1960s.

Now, whether it is unreasonable alarmism or demonstrated danger, it is easy to find U.S. sources (such as U.S. Department of State advisories) arguing strongly against doing what we did, back in 2005. Especially driving at night, which we did in the mostly empty desert the first night out of TJ.

Landon Donovan’s reaction (below) to seeing us in the team hotel perhaps sums up the U.S. attitude toward the road system of it southern neighbor.

So, here we go: Guadalajara to Mexico City.

MEXICO CITY — We needed all 150-or-so cubic inches of raw muscle from our ”hecho en Mexico” budget rental Chevrolet Chevy to sputter over the last peak, a full 10,000 feet above sea level.

And there before us, in a giant bowl as brown and opaque as bean soup, sat Mexico City. Sprawling home to more than 18 million people- as well as today’s highly anticipated (here, anyway) 2006 World Cup qualifying match between soccer arch-rivals Mexico and the United States.

Your first look down at Mexico City is both awe-inspiring and alarming. The enormity of the metropolis, overflowing the Valle de Mexico and crawling up the slopes of extinct volcanoes … makes you go “whoa.”

But the pollution and density of the humanity? Makes you go “uh-oh”.

Driving here heightens the impact.

From Guadalajara, itself not exactly sea level (at 5,000 feet), you forge almost directly east, often driving past fields of agave, from which tequila is made.

Each chain of mountains seems a bit higher than the last, as do the increasingly dry and denuded mesas between. This part of the country seems almost empty and almost ill. We’re not ecologists, but some environmental damage seems evident. Deforestation, probably, and erosion. Not much green to look at.

Regular folks poured out of their vehicles, in places like Zinapecuaro and Maravatio, to gawk at pathetic copses of fir trees. As if they were endangered species. Perhaps they are.

By the time we reached gritty, despoiled Toluca, a few hills west of the capital, we and the gasping Chevy were ready for the big city. Or to stop motoring, anyway.

Unfortunately, finding a specific address — like that of your hotel — in a city this big is a neat trick. Even with four maps in our laps. One’s scale was too small. One’s was too big. None were just right.

After stopping no less than four times and receiving well-intentioned “you can’t miss it” directions from “Capitalinos”, we had covered most of the western half of the city, including the Bosque de Chapultepec and driven almost the length of broad Avenida Insurgentes.

Finally, almost miraculously (it is Holy Week) we spotted the U.S. team hotel, a chi-chi Radisson on the south side of town, only a few miles from Estadio Azteca.

There, the marvelously arrogant hotel staff did us the supreme favor of checking us in and parking our car, and showing us to our room.

(In the space of two days we had gone from valued American tourists in homey San Blas to under-dressed, semi-sketchy gringo vagabonds in a four-star hotel in the often-pretentious capital.)

After considering collapse in the room, we instead crossed a pedestrian walkway over the Periferico Freeway to the Perisur Mall, looking for affordable food. Compadre Damian Secore had tamales. I had a round cheese enchilada drowned in a red sauce. Nice. And we bought a couple of local papers heavy with news on today’s match.

As we straggled back into the enormous hotel lobby, flashing bulbs were our first hint someone worthy of being photographed was around, and there was Landon Donovan, Redlands home boy, U.S. star midfielder, posing with locals who may be shouting curses at him this morning.

“You look shattered,” he said to us, by way of hello.

“We just got here; we drove,” we said.

Said Donovan: “From California? Are you nuts?”

Well, he had us there. “Been talking to Mexicans all week about the game,” we said. Anything you’d like to know about their team?”

Back at the mall, we spent 16 pesos (about $1.40) at Radio Shack on an electrical adapter (yeah, 100 pounds of luggage, but not the critical one-ounce piece of plastic) and chatted with salesman Dario Toledo.

He knew the U.S. team was holed up across the freeway, and he is keyed up for the game. Sadly, he will be working at kickoff, Easter Sunday or no. “Mexico will win,” he promised. “Two-to-1.”

One of his co-workers noted, “everyone is saying 2-1.” Which is what we were thinking; we had heard “dos-a-uno” practically from Tijuana, five days before.

Damian, whose high school Spanish rallied as the trip wore on, asked Dario what would happen if the U.S. actually won the match. “We will applaud the Americans,” blurted a middle-aged woman customer who was eavesdropping. And we all laughed at that preposterous notion.

The mall was packed. Lots of shoppers, but mostly just people strolling. Lovers, families with strollers, clots of teens. It seems as if the mall has become the place for the middle-evening promenade, a great Latin tradition.

Where else to go in a city of 18 million? Can’t fit everyone in the central plaza.

So, here we are. Nearly 2,000 miles from Tijuana, having seen lots and lots of Mexico. We are fairly thrashed, yes, mostly from the tension of the roads, which ranged from wide, nice and new to narrow, old and scary.

We are not ill from accidentally consuming Mexican water or finding bad food. No altitude sickness. No assaults by lawless banditos.

Our Chevy is a bit worse for wear. As are the masses of butterflies who hurled themselves at us from Tijuana forward. The grill of the car is a stunning rainbow of insect parts — blue, red, orange …

I decided we should name the car “the Mariposa Mauler.” Damian preferred “Straight-out Killaz.” Kids these days …

So, it was all downhill from that last peak. We are ready for some futbol.

Next: The match.


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