More than tragic, it turns out intriguing the way life sometimes weaves a surrounding cobweb that renders you helpless, left in a desperate situation without any sign of relief, drowned in an incredible number of adverse factors that force you to bow your head with resignation and humbly accept your destiny. Far was I from suspecting, and even farther from imagining the harrowing experience awaiting me that afternoon and the upcoming night when a schoolmate merrily invited me to make music at his place. Immediately, pictured a studio with a piano, some guitars, microphones, and various instruments that would be scattered casually and invitingly for whomever wanted to play them.
The campus was near Castillo de Chapultepec, so we had to ride the metro to get to the highway leading to Puebla, and to the incipient (and unknown by me) Ciudad Netzahualcoyotl, or Ciudad Neza. The urban landscape changed gradually from beautiful Paseo de la Reforma, and well-manicured Chapultepec Avenue (Metro Chapultepec), to the decaying urban sprawl first, and then into suburban zones, converted into dangerous turfs ever more dubious, disorderly, and overcrowded, to finally reach the gigantic lost city where misery was all the more widespread and shocking.
The idea of a safe place in which to do homework, or compositions, or just go over the school orchestra score was now ebbing fast. And of course, my bewilderment grew in sync with the ugliness and danger of these new surroundings. We exited metro's last station (Zaragoza) and leaped onto a Chimeco bus heading for the Xochiaca Boulder, taking us even farther away from the familiar urban area. Once on foot, we made our way among scattered shacks made of waste cardboard, plastic sheets, wooden sticks, and discarded tires. One million people lived in that dusty desert, with no sewage, water, or services of any kind, let alone paved streets.
At this stage, I was asking myself how on earth could a refuge for studying be amid such abandoned and precarious living conditions. But even then, with the joy and the carelessness of the youth, we endeavored to playfully traverse the horrid turf, while sorting out, amused, street obstacles. I made the blunder of flying over open trenches where sewage pipes would be laid soon. They were two meters deep and their beds were a green, stinking slosh polluted with trash, organic waste, and feces. Soon enough, the joy became anguish the moment I slipped in to land on my bottom over the bed of one of those pits. Mind you, the worst part was not the trouble of getting out, but the incredibly nauseating pestilence coming out of my clothing!
Desperate, I asked my host for his bath to shower with clothes on for a thorough wash. Sunset was near and I knew right away that no public transportation service would allow me in. Being far away from home, I had already lost all hopes of sleeping in my bed that night. Ashamed and visibly upset, my friend declared that no shower, nor faucets, nor containers, and nor even pipes existed anywhere in a two-kilometer range where one million people coexisted. Not even a glass of water was available anywhere near! There also was no electricity, nor sewage, nor services of any kind. The neighbors survived almost by a miracle in the worst imaginable conditions. There also was not a single tree, or plant, or anything green in sight. Everything was sandstorms, and silence, anguish, filth, crime and despair.
The families lived in the most extreme and unhealthy conditions of poverty that I had ever seen. The little children had their faces covered with charcoal-like filth, dressed in shapeless, colorless rags; everything looked black-and-white. Nobody played in those streets and nobody walked them. I was paralyzed, not knowing what to do next while the stars were already appearing in the sky. My friend disappeared, and I remained alone in an unfinished room lacking every amenity or window, or furniture. Crouching, braced for the worst night ever. Decided to keep calm and patiently bide my time until sunrise to find a solution to my predicament.
The stench made me vomit, and the wet clothes made for a chill factor in the cool air of the Valley of Mexico. Tired of the crouching position, often switched to a horizontal one, slouched on the bare floor without giving my clothing a second thought. Feeling sorry for myself, I became aware that nothing could be done for the time being. It was the longest night of my life. Every minute was like an hour, and when at last dawn came I was frozen, extenuated, sore, and anguished for not knowing what I was to do, without water, to solve my problem.
Having overcome the sense of doom while still dark, I started to roam the dangerous area, scanning for water at every place. Some dirt-poor ladies, already busy lighting up their samovars, ran inside, scared by the monster passing by their homes in search of water. I had walked many blocks when I finally saw two 200-liter blue plastic bins filled with brown water in the middle of a makeshift corral made with wires, rock, and junk. The water looked dirty and unhealthy, but hey, that was not a deterrent for me to hopefully knock dutifully at their door.
After having insisted for some minutes, still sleepy, a lady peeked out the door. “What do you want?” she harshly inquired, between being upset and bewildered. I tried to present the most pathetic scenario (as in fact it was), and my overwhelming need for water. After having observed me in detail and wordless, she next disappeared into her shack. Next, a mature man peered out with an unfriendly face. “We have no water here, so you better look somewhere else” he said. Aware that there was no other sign of water anywhere near, I proceeded in a few words to explain the dire situation I was in, and what had happened the previous afternoon.
When he could focus a bit better aided by the cold sun rays, he took in my anguished plight and became persuaded, though I had read on his face a mix of surprise, curiosity, horror, and I don't know what else. He then stated that he could give me just one bucket of water since it was all they had for cooking, bathing, drinking, and so on. Feeling greatly excited by that vital gift, I immediately took my pants off to scrape them using a small stone shaped as a blade against a bigger rock, pouring just enough water to wash the mud down the legs until I was rid of most of the filth. Almost done, I lifted my gaze to find the entire family intently staring at me from their windows and door. Many small children and young women witnessed in awe how a stranger washed his stinking pants on the patio at sunrise with just a bucket of water; an odd sight to say the least!
Once finished and overjoyed, I knew I was ready to board any public vehicle to go back to where I had come from, and hurried to thank them all for their kindness and to get out of there as soon as possible! I was halfway through my farewell speech when I got interrupted by the man's booming voice… “Breakfast's ready!” Frankly I thought ‘oh, no!’ My first impulse was to say no, and so I did. But they took it as if I was being modest (which I wasn't). All I wanted was to get the hell out of there and never come back. But the lady kindly insisted, as well as many other members of their family, so in the end, I had no other choice but to play along, lest I would insult them.
I knew had no option but to proceed into the shack that functioned as a kitchen, to accept with the utmost grace possible their gesture of true support and compassion. The first thing I saw was a petrol stove that produced asphyxiating black smoke. It was set on top of a broken table sustained by rocks at the base. The walls, made out of cardboard and plastic sheets were completely smoked black. The ‘dining room’ table was 40 centimeters high and the chairs were too tall. The entire family gathered to see me eat. The very last thing I would have done that morning was to sit down to have breakfast. However, I had to say thanks and sit before a plate of Mexican-style eggs with a strong smell of petrol.
But, being aware that everything had been washed with the water from the bins outside made my stomach do a backflip in protest. Still, stoic as I had been for the entire last night, I decided to pass this test as well, if that was my passport to get away, out of that living hell. Right after the first mouthfuls, the repulsive petrol reek, combined with the picture I had of the dirty water in the bins outside, made the vomit rush up but not out. I had to swallow it back, concealing the whole action from the onlookers, namely the entire family, mainly kids, who had their stare set on my every move!
Meanwhile, the head of the family proudly and nonchalantly told me that his oldest son was a pick-pocketer, the second one an assailant, and the third a petty robber on buses and trains. He referred to them as if they were an engineer, a lawyer, and a doctor as if trying to elicit awe or admiration on my part. All the while, I kept swallowing vomit and smiling from the teeth out.
All of a sudden, the entire family had become my best buddies. They were able to read my sincere appreciation. And maybe the notion of having been able to help out a strange outsider entitled them to treat me with familiarity and affection, as if I were one of them. When I was finally able to stand from the breakfast table, everyone started saying goodbyes most effusively while promising a never-ending friendship and a permanent invitation to visit them every time I wanted. They were the friendliest people so far, and also the poorest and most forgotten of them all.
Getting out of that tiny makeshift kitchen full of petrol smoke to step outside in the cold morning felt like being reborn. The man, the lady, the children, and the youngsters had ear-to-ear smiles while waving their arms in the best display of friendliness, solidarity, and emotion. I maintained my smile for the duration of the farewell act, where promises of eternal friendship abounded, and (now) smiles from the children. Loud laughter on the part of the mama and blessings from all of them accompanied me to the exit and onto the street.
Only at that moment did I turn my face away to walk the six or seven blocks separating me from the main road and break into the saddest crying fit I had ever experienced. I didn't want to turn my head back, as I felt the stares of the entire family set on my nape while listening to their laughter and blessings. I didn't want them to see my face drenched in tears. Only when I reached a prudent distance, sick with the most excruciating pain and sorrow, did I let out a howling shriek that resounded in the deepest part of my heart.