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Independence Day and a Night on the Street in Mexico City

It takes some guts to sleep outside in D.F.

I sat down on my foam mat in the desolation of the nearly empty Zocalo, Mexico City’s central square. I shared my concrete bed with half a dozen Mexican bums and a sea of trash left over from the mad crowd of tens of thousands of Mexicans who had just left the plaza. The journey to get here had been so easy, but the hard part was yet to come. A night sleeping rough in the center of the world’s largest city was a new experience, though of questionable comfort and safety…

Walking down the street in the small city of Guanajuato earlier in the day, I had met one of my co-workers, a slim, cute, hippy-ish girl from Utah. She and one of her female friends had decided to go to Mexico City for the Independence Day ceremony scheduled for that night. I had been up most of the night making love to a young Mexican woman, and felt that I had a great current of good fortune behind me. I believed in signs and omens, and was certain this was a good one.

“I’ll go too, if you want…” I declared.

“Really?!… Just like that…? Well, alright, it would definitely be safer with a guy…” she responded. Turning to her friend she asked, “What do you think?”

“Yeah, of course!” her friend said happily. “But… are you ready?”

They were already wearing their packs and were on their way to get a juice from the market. I told them that I would meet them in 15 minutes, and sprinted up the side of the mountain to my apartment, perched high above the city. I swung the steel door open like a drunk and rifled through my possessions, quickly sorting the gear that I would need. Realizing that I had no money for a hotel, even if one was available, I figured on sleeping rough. My greatest hope was to sleep in the airport, a meager two pesos by metro from the center of the city. Lacking even a blanket, I packed several layers of clothes and a foam mat. Eyeing a pile of old newspapers that I had brought from home in the hope of using them as teaching aids, I decided to take them as well, just in case…

Prepared in this way, I left my hovel, scurried down the infinite steps to the bottom of the city, and cut my way through the dense pedestrian traffic to our meeting point.

“Jeez, I thought you were just gonna bring a little pack…” Rachel, my co-worker, remarked.

“Be ready for anything…” I remarked, struggling to catch my breath. “Anyway, are you ready? I could grab a quick bite, too…”

We ate quickly and took a bus to the outskirts of the city. It was already midday, and Mexico City was hours away. I had a mild suspicion that we wouldn’t make it, having never before hitched in Mexico, but with two attractive girls, our odds were improved. Surprisingly, almost miraculously, it was the easiest hitching experience of my life. We were immediately picked up by a single man and driven for a hundred miles before stopping and almost instantly getting another ride. This incredible stroke of luck continued all the way to our last ride, a man who dropped us near the center of the city on the metro line. Giddy at our good fortune, we took the subway directly into the Zocalo.

As we departed the metro and emerged from underground, we came into a world of utter insanity. Tens of thousands of people pushed forward in a sea of bodies. I became transfixed by this weird spectacle. Latin music burst from every street corner, and thousands of people were dancing, drinking, and waving little Mexican flags.

“Let’s go!” Rachel commanded, she was actually my “boss,” though I didn’t see her as more than an equal.

I nodded approval and began following her, quickly falling behind as I had to move through the dense crowd with my big 75-liter exterior-frame pack. I was constantly hitting people with it and hearing things like, “Cabron,” or “Mierda,” behind me. I was starting to understand Spanish, but couldn’t give a damn what people thought of me.

Rachel, sensing that we would probably get separated, shouted that if we got separated we should meet at the… I forgot… or didn’t listen. Regardless, it didn’t matter. I expected to sleep on the street, and had my own plans. They disappeared soon after, absorbed into the mass of bodies. I simply moved forward, slowly making my way toward a stage with a live rock concert. Arriving near the middle of the square, I dropped my pack to look around.

Tens of thousands of people had crowded into the plaza, and feverish cries of “Me-xi-co! Me-xi-co!” mixed with the pounding Latin rock. Everyone was drinking, and the plaza was quickly filling with bottles and cans of booze. The music went on for about half an hour until, quite suddenly, it stopped. The crowd broke into a mad cheer, and I tried to understand what was going on.

“Ob-re-dor! Ob-re-dor! Ob-re-dor!” the shouts broke out from behind me. Obredor was the leader of the left wing party who had recently lost a highly contested election for the Mexican presidency. Protestors had filled the center of the city for more than a month, and the city level government, being of the same party, had made no effort to stop them.

Responding to these cries, nearly half of the crowd began booing and shouting, “Cal-de-ron! Cal-de-ron!” in reference to the conservative candidate that had formally won. Shouts and cheers seemed to rise up like waves, and I had no idea as to why. One such wave of hysterical cheering lasted longer than the others, and I could see in the distance a man taking the stage where the performance had been. Not being able to clearly understand him in my limited Spanish, I merely watched.

He spoke for several minutes, and the crowd calmed down considerably. When he finished speaking, a new band struck up from somewhere else in the plaza, playing the national anthem, followed by a fireworks show. Being from the United States, where nearly every small community has a $100,000 fireworks show on the fourth of July, I was less than impressed by the display.

Afterward, the ceremony seemed to be at an end. A forceful wave of human bodies forced me to pick up my bag and go with it. It’s an odd feeling to be in a massive crowd of Mexicans. Their society is not necessarily a rude one, but politeness in the North American sense is non-existent. Bumping and pushing is quite acceptable, and a big gringo with a massive backpack is an easy target. I pushed back happily. It didn’t take long to finally filter out of the square, and I found myself suddenly in the open, able to breathe again. I wandered around for awhile, hungry, and found a stall selling fresh tacos.

A good Mexican taco is probably the world’s best fast food. Within a minute I was holding three of them, dripping with salsa verde. I munched on them as I quickly made my way toward the subway station, hoping to get a train to the airport. My mouth burning and my hands covered in meat fat and salsa, I arrived at the subway. I was shocked to see it closed. I asked around at the people who were standing around, and they waved their fingers at me. It was too late.

I stood there for a minute, unable to decide my next move. I was tired. I had slept for only a few hours the night before, and had been hitching all day. I suddenly felt the burden of the situation fall heavily on me. There was nowhere to go. I found myself wandering through back alleys, looking for a place to hide and hopefully catch a few hours of sleep. Every time I found a place, I considered what I would do as a robber or gangster seeing a gringo passed out on the street and reconsidered. It was always a difficult situation in Mexico, making the decision to sleep rough in a public area or try to hide, and either one could go horribly wrong.

Eventually, I arrived at the Zocalo again. Most of the revelers had left, and I noticed that there was a small area with half a dozen Mexicans sleeping under a yellow street lamp. There were police around, so I decided to join them, much to their surprise.

“Vas a dormir aqui, gringo?” one man asked me as I threw down my pack.

“Is it okay with you if I sleep here?” I asked, much to his pleasure.

“Claro! No problem! Hey, where are you from?”

We launched into a long discussion, during which I learned that nearly everyone around me had been to the United States to work in the fruit fields at some point. As I organized my gear, several of them complimented my things. Their interest was less than welcome, and I took extreme care to make sure it would all be there when I woke up. I tied my shoes as tight as a could, with half a dozen knots, expecting that someone would try to steal them. Already feeling cold, I put on all of my clothes, and began to stuff them with the newspaper that I had brought.

At this point, several wealthier Mexicans began to take a grinning interest in me, snapping off pictures like I was a zoo animal. I glared back at them, then rolled over to my side in the hope of getting some sleep. Everything tightly secured, and feeling moderately safe and comfortable, I finally drifted off.

When I awoke just before sunrise, thousands of soldiers had filled the plaza. I stood up and felt for my things, fortunately, they were all still there. My feet ached from lack of blood flow, so I retied my shoes. The soldiers seemed to be milling around aimlessly, and some of them grinned and pointed at me. I rolled my foam mat back up feeling incredibly groggy, and had a sudden desire to fall flat on my face. I threw my things together in haste and stepped out of the Zocalo.

A couple of hours later, as I sipped on a cup of tea and ate a muffin, my stomach reeled, probably from the tacos of the night before. Acid boiled up to my throat, and I nearly vomited as I sat at a smaller plaza, waiting for the strength to move on. Eventually, the soldiers marched through the city, accompanied by tanks, missiles, and other impressive weapons of war. I watched for awhile then, exhausted and sick, I took the metro to the northern bus station and got a bus up the highway to the north of the city. I had intended to hitchhike, but as no one forced me off the bus, and no one checked my ticket, I stayed on for several hours, eventually sneaking off an hour from Guanajuato without paying. Happy at my continuing good fortune, I hopped another bus home.

M.J. Lloyd

James Tramplefoot has been, and will continue to be on the road indefinitely, for years and probably decades.