Living in the Spirit of Ecstasy

Dateline: The Terrain Between Luxury and Decay

As I sit here writing this blog post, not thirty feet from me sit not only one, but two parked Rolls Royces. This is curious for fairly obvious reasons. I’m in a nice neighborhood, but not a super-rich one. In my neighborhood in Boston, a far wealthier place, no one has a Rolls. And I seldom see anyone driving one in Boston, though it’s not uncommon to see Bentley Continental GTs, Ferraris, Maseratis, and other super-expensive cars. But the Rolls Royces, if they exist there (and they surely do) are remarkably shy about showing their Spirts of Ecstasy. And here? I’ve never once seen one on the street anywhere in Mexico.

One of the Rolls Royces here, an ’87 Silver Spirit, belongs to my landlord Rafael, and is parked in the courtyard. I pass by it every day. The other one, an early 70’s Silver Cloud II belongs to his friend, Tony, and is parked on the street, where it has sat unbothered for a couple of weeks now. Rafael borrowed it a while ago, because for a spell he had no working cars, and needed something to get around in.

At the time he borrowed his friend’s Roller, Rafael was in possession of approximately five, non-functioning vehicles: the Rolls; a Pontiac Fiero in the workshop that’s in the process of being converted into a Testarossa lookalike; a late 90’s Range Rover, which is his daily driver and most recent casualty to mechanical failure; a Lamborghini Murcielago parked out front, which lacks an engine among other critical parts; and a large, graffiti-covered van/bread truck, also parked on the street. The bread truck looks abandoned, but it’s not.

Tony's Rolls Royce

Tony’s Rolls Royce

Of the bunch, the Rolls is the most interesting, or at least the most storied. When I first rented the place, I noted the Rolls’ presence. It was covered with dust and apparently not working, a sad testimony to bygone better times. As I got to know Rafael, I came to learn the Roller’s colorful history.

He bought it six years ago in Miami and drove it from there to Mexico City. With an EPA-rated 10 MPG highway mileage, I’m sure it was an expensive trip. Gasoline at the time was fetching around $4 USD/gallon. I marveled at the sheer chutzpah of such a trip and asked him if he wasn’t nervous about crossing the border in a Rolls. At the time, sometime in 2010, the northern states of Mexico were a virtual battleground between various drug gangs and other criminals, the police, and the Mexican military. Ciudad Juarez was more dangerous than Baghdad, and large parts of it had been deserted. The border area didn’t seem like an auspicious place to drive through in a Rolls Royce, even if it wasn’t new. But Rafael was undeterred and sailed through with nary a problem. Hearing this only made me feel a little ridiculous remembering my own fears about such a border crossing. In the spring of 2014, a much calmer time, I also crossed the border, only I was in a rusty 1989 Toyota pickup. Ha!

The Spirit of Ecstasy

The Spirit of Ecstasy

For a few years, life with the Rolls was automotive bliss. Rafael drove it around Mexico City without incident, either mechanical or otherwise, though he did have a few adventures. One day he was out in the Rolls with one of my predecessors, a Swiss guy who had rented one of his units. As they were driving around one late afternoon, Rafael got lost. I’m not quite sure how this happened as Rafael is a Mexico City native and seems to know all the backroads. But they ended up in some iffy neighborhoods, and the Swiss guy began to get nervous. After all, there are plenty of places in the USA where you probably wouldn’t want to take your Rolls. A questionable barrio in Mexico City? Yeah, I’d be nervous too, especially given the danger of being stopped for long periods in the ever-present traffic. But apparently Rafael laughed off any notion of danger, much to the Swiss guy’s chagrin.

One of the more notorious iffy barrios here is Tepito, just North of the Centro Historico. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been warned by people, especially my ex, “F,” not to go anywhere near Tepito. “They’ll rob you down to your underwear there, and you’ll leave nearly naked. That is if you’re still alive.” Those were the kind of anecdotes F loved regaling me with. As a result, I’ve always steered clear of Tepito.

Well, Tepito is exactly where Rafael and the Swiss guy ended up in the Rolls. At this point, according to Rafael, the Swiss guy was in a state of near-panic. But of course he couldn’t abandon ship, because that would only have been falling out of a very plush frying pan and into the fire. And then a very strange thing happened. People started making way for the Rolls, pushing pedestrians out of the street, saluting Rafael and the Swiss guy, and cheering. Apparently they thought he was one of the BIG bosses, come to check up on his network of pirated DVD sellers or some such errand. And soon Rafael found his bearings, and he and the Swiss guy floated to safety without so much as a scuff to the Rolls.

For years Rafael has driven the Rolls all over the city with nary a problem, something that still amazes this Gringo every time he thinks of it. Sadly, this automotively blessed state of affairs ended about two years ago. The Rolls fell under some kind of mysterious mechanical malaise and stopped working. Rafael was forced back into the relative penury of his Range Rover.

Elegant Decay

Elegant Decay

As you might imagine, finding a competent Rolls mechanic in Mexico City is even harder than finding some oddball type of Gringo convenience food. And to put it politely, Rafael tends to bargain hard when he buys things, which ruled out taking it to the Rolls Royce dealership in Polanco. So the Rolls then spent months and months and months shuttling between various incompetent mechanics, losing bits and pieces along the way, but never regaining its ability to elegantly glide over the potholed streets of Mexico City. After several mechanics who could not deliver the goods of functionality, it was finally towed back here where it sat for a maybe another year before I rented my unit.

Sad, dust-covered, and dejected is how I came to know Rafael’s Rolls. But little did I know that I was to become a player in the Rolls Royce Resuscitation Project. But that’s a tale for another post. For now, saludos and thanks for stopping by.


Penthouse Fantasy

Home Sweet Mexico City_MG_3898 Low ResDateline: From Fantasy to Reality?

I have a weakness for real estate. No matter where I go, I want to see what’s for sale, for how much, what kind of style, and what kind of amenities are available. Here in Mexico City, I’ve literally been window-shopping real estate for years. OK, make that a decade. And given what prices have done, I should probably have stopped fantasizing and actually bought something when I first had the idea. But as some of you know, I’m not the kind of person to come to big decisions quickly.

But I’ve now lived here for six months, and I’m loving it. The city is constantly pulsing with life, and there’s a ton of stuff to do. The climate remains close to perfect, though it has been quite rainy of late. But only in the afternoons. And I’ve met someone (Luis) who I’ve been seeing pretty steadily for the past three months. (Part of the reason there’s been a dearth of posts here, haha.) And I’ve also discovered that my Bostonian friends, who were formerly begging me not to leave, mostly seem to have quietly gotten on with their lives without me.

So I’m getting a bit more focused about actually buying a place here. And I’ve found a place perfect enough to really make me start to seriously consider taking the plunge. The object of my fantasy is an eleventh floor penthouse, located basically right behind the US Embassy, a terrific spot in many ways. It’s on a quiet street, but nearby there are tons of restaurants, bars, theaters, and a couple blocks away, across Avenida de la Reforma, lies the Zona Rosa, Mexico City’s gay central. There’s a Superama, Mexico’s upscale supermarket a couple blocks away, and various other shopping options also near to hand. The Insurgentes subway stop is 5 blocks away, and there’s a Metrobús stop about equidistant, though I could pretty much walk to wherever I’d want to go.  In short, the place is ubicadísimo, fabulously located.

The neighborhood, Colonia Cuauhtémoc, is a mix of houses and apartments mostly from the 1920’s and 30’s, with a few tall buildings, and increasing numbers of newer 3-6 story condo/apartment buildings. According to my sources, there’s now a height limitation on new buildings of 6 stories, so my view would never be obstructed.  In terms of quiet, aside from Río Lerma, which is full of bars and restaurants, there are not a lot of stores or businesses.  The neighborhood is safe, and the presence of the US and many other embassies probably helps that too.  So it’s a great place to live, quiet, but close to everything you’d want.

Colonia Cuauhtémoc in Red

Colonia Cuauhtémoc in Red

The penthouse itself is 220 square meters or about 2,400 square feet, the only unit on the floor, with three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, and a maid’s quarters with its own bath. So I suppose you could call it four bedrooms and 3.5 baths. The kitchen is fully enclosed (no open plan here, thank God!), decent sized, and has a spot with plumbing where I could put a dishwasher. (Since I have no desire to use the maid’s quarters for its intended purpose.) The kitchen and baths were remodeled within the last couple of years, and are fairly nice. The building was built in the 1970s, which is why the apartment is so large and why it has an enclosed kitchen. Most of the apartments that are being built today are about half the size and not nearly as nice. Oh, and it has two covered parking spaces inside the building, behind a security gate. (Though I’ve been living quite nicely without a car these last six months, it’d be nice to at least have the option.)

The drawbacks? The building, while in decent shape, needs to be painted, and it needs a little exterior plasterwork. Nothing major, but it does look a smidgen dowdy. I don’t know if the other owners have paid their monthly dues, which is apparently a common problem in Mexican condos. And there are a few other things I need to research.

A smidgen tired, but OK.

A smidgen tired, but OK.

Alas, the biggest drawback is me. I’m having a very hard time pulling the trigger. My biggest worry is the exchange rate. Though the peso is almost back to all-time lows, I can easily envision it going lower, especially if Donald Trump wins in November. But in all fairness, when I first saw the place in late April the peso was in the low-to-mid 17’s; now it’s pushing 19 to the USD, a nearly 10% move. Meanwhile they dropped the price of the apartment from 6.5 million pesos to now 6.3. This means that without any further negotiation, the USD price has seen a 12% drop, from about $377K to $334K USD. And per square meter, the price is quite reasonable.

I’ve been told by a few agents that real estate here tends to keep pace with the USD and whenever there’s a big drop in the peso, foreigners rush in to buy. I’m a little skeptical about that, and have wondered if most of them have already blown their wads. But current prices for places comparable to some of the properties I’ve looked at in the past in Condesa or Roma Norte do seem to mostly bear that out. And the location of this penthouse should be fantastic for appreciation. The pace of tower construction on Reforma, 2 blocks away, continues apace, and there seems to be no further development of either roads or public transit. Which means that the premium for living close to work can only increase.

I guess the other thing is that while this place is close to perfect, it’s not 100% perfect. I’d still like a roof deck or some kind of outdoor space. But I’ve wondered about buying the cuartos de servicio on the roof, knocking them down, and building a roof deck. I need to investigate this.

But I’m happy in Mexico City. Even if I don’t give up my Boston home, I love it here. I’ve spent enough time over the last ten years, and now having lived here for six months, I can truly say this is a place I could happily live a long time.

So maybe I should just take the plunge. What do you think? Please tell me in the comment section. Thanks

Here’s a video of the interior the realtor put on YouTube. I downloaded it and replaced the Spanish narration with my own.


The Plumbing is Out to Get Me!

leaky-faucet-290Dateline: at the junction of two leaky pipes.

I’ve discovered the secret purpose of the various bits of infrastructure in my apartment here in Mexico City: it’s to make me look like a fool. This only dawned on me yesterday, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that I’m right. And I’m feeling pretty foolish right about now. Circumstances are making me look bad. Not merely bad, but kind of high-maintenance, whiny bad. If you’re a guy who considers himself pretty handy around the house, this isn’t a good thing.

By infrastructure, I really mean plumbing and electricity. Shockingly, electricity was the first to ambush me. Shortly after moving in, the power went out early one morning. Noting that the electricity was on elsewhere in the building, I went to the breaker box to reset it. It didn’t appear to have been tripped, but I flipped the switch anyway. Nothing happened. I tried a couple of more times, again with the same result. So I broke down and called Rafael, my landlord and explained the situation. He came out in his pajamas, flipped the circuit breaker on and off once, and Lo! There was electricity. I was mortified and apologized while simultaneously re-explaining that I had done the very same thing.

Some months later, after more power failures, and some alarming sizzling sounds coming from the breaker box, we found out what the problem was. The circuit breaker itself had a loose connection inside the box. Once replaced, it has worked fine ever since. Though I was indeed vindicated, the fact of the matter is that impressions of idiocy don’t really wear off that fast. Especially when they keep getting refreshed.

So once the electricity left off tormenting me, the plumbing took over. Take the water supply, for example. In my apartment it stops with alarming regularity. Of course it’s the typical, failure-prone Mexican system, where water slowly flows from the city pipes into a cistern under the patio. From there it’s pumped up to a tinaco on the roof from where it flows leisurely into the pipes via gravity. The whole setup runs on electricity and a set of cantankerous float valves, electrical sensors, and relays, all of which suffer from the same “Transylvanian” maintenance schedule. Which is to say that they are replaced or serviced only after they fail. Of course when there’s no electricity, the whole system runs on borrowed time anyway.

Only a few weeks after my electrical run-in, the water stopped and I called Rafael: “I don’t have any water.”

“Don’t worry; the system is back on. You should have water in 20 minutes,” he replied confidently. I was relieved he was already onto the problem. Twenty minutes later, I tried the faucets.  No water. I merely heard a gentle sucking sound. The system was pulling in air as water somewhere below me flowed out. I tried all the faucets. Same result. I waited another five minutes and tried again. Same result again. So I went downstairs to talk to Rafael, who happened to be in his shop.

“It’s working,” he insisted.

“No, it’s not,” I replied. “I just tried it before I came down here. There’s no water.”

“Let me show you,” he said, walking toward the sink in his shop. He turned the valve and to my horror, water flowed out exuberantly.

“Yeah,” I said, “but that’s just water that’s already in the pipes. There’s no water in my apartment.”

“It’s fine,” he insisted. “Go back and check it again.” Meanwhile the water kept flowing out of the faucet. I could feel my embarrassment rising and hoped I wasn’t blushing.

Sure enough, I returned to my apartment and the water flowed almost as if nothing had happened. I felt foolish and could almost hear the pipes quietly snickering to themselves, “foolish gringo, hahaha!” It’s nasty when plumbing makes fun of you,  but I figured this was to be my last insult. After all, how many times can this kind of weird, intermittent problem occur? And to me, who normally has such good mechanical Karma?

Ah, if only! Recently, my toilet flush valve started leaking. Intermittently, of course. Again I notified Rafael, who sent up his handyman, Arturo. Since I couldn’t see anything wrong with the valve, I persuaded myself and Arturo that the problem was the flush handle getting stuck against the tank lid. He duly replaced it. That was about six weeks ago. But it turns out that wasn’t the problem. So Arturo came back and looked again, and we both decided it really must be the valve. I felt rather foolish at having misdiagnosed the problem initially, but Arturo was too polite to comment. But he did go buy a valve. Meanwhile, actually installing the valve seems to have fallen by the wayside, and guess what? Now the toilet appeared to have fixed itself. But don’t tell anyone as they still think the valve needs to be replaced, and my plumbing credibility is hanging by a thread.

Oh, and I had an intermittent problem with the hot water too. Like in the middle of a shower, suddenly the hot water would slow to a trickle. Mind you, the cold still worked fine. That was such a weird problem even I couldn’t imagine what was wrong. Later, after my cold shower, I’d check the hot water and it’d be fine again. But now when I told Rafael, he didn’t believe me. “Maybe the hot water doesn’t like you,” he said, chuckling. It took me a week of hot/cold/hot showers to persuade him that I wasn’t imagining this problem. When he finally looked into it, he apologized and said I was right. That particular problem now seems to be fixed.

Then about a month ago, my shower started leaking. Not a lot, but definitely leaking. So, figuring I’d give Rafael all the facts and let him decide what to do, I stuck a bucket under it to measure the flow and then sent Rafael an e-mail: “my shower is leaking about 1.5 liters a day. I personally don’t really care if you fix it or not, but I’m letting you know.” I never heard back from him, figured he didn’t care about a small leak, so I resigned myself to a leaky shower.

Since I don’t particularly like to waste water, I left the bucket under the leak and started to use it to flush the toilet. But the sound of the dripping water began to annoy me, especially as the bucket in the shower stall created an odd sort of resonance, making the sound MUCH louder than anyone might imagine. And then, perhaps fortunately, the shower began to leak in earnest earlier this week. Now it was leaking 3 liters an hour, and even using the captured water to flush the toilet, a lot of it was ending up going down the drain. So this time I messaged Rafael on WhatsApp, and he agreed to send Arturo around on Monday.

So what’s happened since? Yesterday the shower fixed itself, and now it’s not leaking at all.

As for me, I’m busy looking for a hole to crawl into.

I Am a Vampire

¡Bite Me!

My Mexican Buddy

Dateline: An EnCRYPTed Part of the City

I am a vampire. I’m sure this is something you never suspected, and of course, I’ve never given you any reason to be suspicious either. Because I’m really good at passing. But I can’t take living a lie any more, and Mexico City has proven surprisingly supportive of my true nature. I’ve decided that it’s time to come out of the casket and live my life openly as the blood-sucking immortal that I really am.

Well, ok, I exaggerate. I’m really only half-vampire. You see, my father is a vampire, while my mother is mortal. So as I’m fond of telling my Mexican friends, I can take the sunlight, but not very much. When I’m out and about in Mexico City, I wear sunblock and a wide-brimmed hat, and I cling to the shadows. In fact, I always cross the street to get to the shadowy side, even if that means I have to cross back again to get to where I’m going. I seldom go out at high noon, and I try to avoid the sun as much as possible. When I go out to exercise, I jog wearing a wide-brimmed hat and dark sunglasses. It’s a bit of an odd sight, but it beats being reduced to a pile of ash on the sidewalk.

There are other challenges, too. This is a very catholic country, and there’s a church seemingly on every other block, festooned with crosses. I’m usually ok if I don’t touch them, but I have to confess they give me heartburn whenever I walk by. People think I’m crossing myself, but I’m really just gagging. It’s better if I’m wearing sunglasses, but being only half-vampire, I can look at them from a distance, though my vampire friends warn me about getting too close.


It’s buried deep underground for a reason

The real problem here is all the crucifixes people wear. And I’m not just referring to the availability of fresh blood. It’s ok when you can see the crucifix and steer clear. But lots of times people wear them under their clothes. And that’s where the trouble starts. Last Thursday I decided to go to the Centro Histórico at rush hour. Bad idea. The metro was mobbed. And wouldn’t you know it? I ended up in a car, pressed up against someone whom I can only assume was wearing a crucifix under his shirt. The burning sensation was excruciating. I kept trying to pull away, but I could only get little breathers before the person pressed up against me again. I nearly fainted. Fortunately I got off the train before things got really ugly, but I’ve still got a nasty burn mark on my left arm. Remind me to just turn into a bat and fly next time.

Crosses and crucifixes aren’t the only problem, at least for a half-vampire. Since I’m not a full vampire, I don’t strictly need to drink the blood of mortals, though it’s refreshing when I do. But I try to keep it to a minimum. Peer pressure from hanging out mostly with humans? Who knows? Mainly I survive on regular human food. When in restaurants ordering meat, that’s when my true nature starts to really show, especially here. In the USA, you can order a rare steak, and no one blinks an eye. Here in Mexico, nearly everyone cooks meat really well done. So I spend a lot of time explaining to waiters that I want my meat rare, just seared, nearly raw. I usually explain this in great detail, in a slightly fanatic tone of voice, saying I’d like the center to be a bit bloody. Then I repeat my order and instructions, with my best vampire smile, revealing just enough fang to show that I really mean it.

El Gringo Suelto had Vampire Orthodontia in his 40's

Rare! I’m not kidding!

Usually I’m met with incredulous stares. Most waiters simply refuse to believe me. Rare meat! Say it isn’t so! Not possible! Just bring him the usual! But when I send overdone meat back to the kitchen, they start to suspect that maybe there is something more than a little odd about this deathly pale foreigner with his sharp teeth and a taste for something just a little bloody.

Perfectly Cooked!

Perfectly Cooked!

As for my Mexican friends, they’re totally cool, and make the drawbacks worth it. They’ve seen my fangs, noticed my habits of avoiding the sun, and politely overlook my bloody steaks. Due to my ambiguous accent, many guess that I’m from Eastern Europe anyway. And of course when I talk fondly of Transylvania, you can see the light bulbs going off in their heads. Fortunately, they have all been very accepting. Indeed it’s become something of a running joke with Luis, my new flame. He’s very vampire-positive, and I love that about him.

Where I live is the perfect place for a vampire. Well, except for the lack of a moat and towers, which might draw unwanted attention. The house is pretty old. But more importantly, the maintenance is a little, uh, “Transylvanian.” So the doors creak VERY mysteriously when opened. And when visitors come (never to leave), I have to go downstairs, cross the patio, and open an enormous, old, creaky front door to the street. The last time Luis came to visit, I didn’t hold back. I descended, unlatched the lock, stood invisibly behind the door and let it swing slowly open with a long, drawn-out creak. As he entered, I leapt out of the shadows, grabbed him, and kissed his neck.

He greeted me with laughter and a big smile. He knows I won’t eat him (though I occasionally do nibble) and he’s one of the biggest supporters of my “vampire-ness.” He’s also a big part of the reason I feel I can come out in the open now. Heck, everyone here has been very supportive. Most of my friends know, and they’re all incredibly cool. I could never do this at home; Boston has much less tolerance for the undead or semi-undead. Here? There’s much more of a “live-and-let-live-forever” attitude. As a foreigner in Mexico, you really get an amazing amount of freedom and leeway, no matter how eccentric you are. It’s a perfect place for a half-breed vampire who can survive the light of day.

I might just stay here for eternity.

The Mysterious Stranger

Mysterious Stranger_MG_2671Dateline: Colonia Roma Sur on a Sunny Afternoon

“Hey! Remember me?” I’m walking down the sidewalk in my barrio, not far from home, taking a little break from my daily routine. A young man stands looking at me.

“I’m the son of the carpenter. Remember me? Diego.” Now I’ve stopped, and I’m puzzled and looking at the guy closely. He’s about 24, 5’6”or so, dark, reasonably good-looking in a somewhat tough kind of way, someone I think I’d remember. “You remember, I’m the son of the carpenter who installed the floor and built the closet.”

Now I’m even more puzzled. There’s been some (very) minor plumbing work done on my apartment by Arturo, my landlord’s handyman, but this guy doesn’t look anything like Arturo. And the closet and floor were already there and haven’t been touched since I moved in. And I know all the folks who have been around here doing other stuff. This guy wasn’t one of them. “Closet? Floor? Uh, I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” I reply.

“He also did the tar job on the roof.”

“You mean next door?” I ask, remembering that the neighbor had his roof recently re-tarred. But I’m starting to wonder about this guy’s memory, as I seriously have no clue as to who he is. And why would he care who I was if his dad was working next door?

“Yeah, next door. That one.” There were indeed some guys working on the roof next door about six weeks ago. But this young man wasn’t one of them, and neither of the roof workers were old enough to have a son this guy’s age.

“What street was that on?” I asked. The guy paused. “I don’t think I’m who you think I am,” I added. “What street was the work on?” The bar to answering this particular answer was pretty low, as we were about a half block from my street and all the guy would have to do was point down the block. But he had no answer.

“What was the street where all this work took place?” I asked again. The guy said nothing and started to back away. “What street?” I repeated. Now he turned and walked across the street without another word and then disappeared. And that was it.

I’m not sure what it means, though I wonder if it wasn’t the opening act for some kind of scam. I was looking even more like a foreigner than usual that day, dressed in shorts, a t-shirt, sandals, a panama hat, and sunglasses. Definitely not a local. And I don’t normally forget 24-year old Mexican guys, especially ones who look like him.

In fact, I’m certain I’ve never met the guy. And I’m equally sure he’s not gay and trying to pick me up. If it was a scam, what might it have been? And if not, what was he after?

These are just some of the small mysteries of living in this country.