Several nights before I flew to Mexico City, I was shaken up by a disturbing nightmare. In the dream, there was a cloud on the ground and I stepped onto it; the cloud was then magically transformed into a glacier. Walking on the glacier, I fell into a hidden crevasse and started plummeting for what would certainly be hundreds of feet. Even if I survived the fall, I knew I would end up too far below the surface to ever climb out or be found by rescuers. And I thought to myself, “This is what it feels like to know I’m about to die.” Then I woke up.
One year ago this weekend — Memorial Day weekend in the United States — I flew to Mexico City because I’d never been to Mexico, and that city was geographically close enough (roughly a four hour flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to Benito Juarez International Airport near Mexico City) that it would be easy to jet down there for a long weekend and check off another country on my World Karaoke Tour. The concept here was similar to the reasoning I’d employed when I added Canada to the tour via a weekend jaunt to Montreal in August 2010. I’m constantly looking to increase the tally of countries in which I’ve sung; and while I understandably get enthused over exotic locales like Easter Island, there’s no reason for me to overlook the “easy” destinations (especially those that are immediately adjacent to my home country). Still, as I headed to the airport, my excitement was tempered by a sense of disquiet. I wondered whether my nightmare portended a tragic outcome for this journey. My initial reaction was to associate the dream with my fear of flying, and to interpret it as a premonition of a plane crash (This speculation was heightened as a result of bad weather in New York on the day of my departure; I become especially nervous when there’s a predicted risk of thunderstorms around the time of takeoff). But did the dream serve as a more generalized warning regarding my impending travel? In the dream, stepping onto the cloud seemed innocuous enough at the time; but it became the type of fateful and irreversible decision that would inexorably lead to my demise.
Saturday morning and afternoon: sightseeing
Things started out innocently enough. I arrived in Mexico’s capital city on a Friday night. On Saturday morning, I headed out to Mexico City’s newest museum: El Museo Soumaya (see photo, above right), which had just opened about two months prior to my visit.
This museum displays the art collection of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú, who according to Forbes is the wealthiest man in the world. The emphasis of the Soumaya’s holdings is on European and Mexican art. Among the highlights is a large trove of Rodin sculptures, including a copy of “Le Penseur” (“The Thinker”). Also included are works by such artists as Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh, Dali, Miró, El Greco, Tintoretto, and (as you would expect in a Mexican museum) Diego Rivera. Moreover, the Soumaya is one of those museums whose architecture is as notable as the treasures it houses. As shown here, the interior of the Soumaya is evocative of New York City’s Guggenheim, with the focal point a gently sloping ramp that curves upward and gradually ascends to the top level. The concept may not be original, but it’s well-executed.
After getting some culture in the museum, I explored Mexican history at the Palacio Nacional (National Palace). One of the signature attractions of the palace is its murals by Diego Rivera that vividly dramatize his country’s past.
Then I had a stop to make outside the city. I made an excursion to the suburb of Naucalpan, to experience a very distinctive-looking house. That home is known unofficially as the “Nautilus house,” due to its resemblance to the sea creature of that name. I’d come across a photo of the Nautilus house on the internet, while perusing a website that showed examples of unusual architecture from around the world. When I realized that this unique home was located in the vicinity of Mexico City, and that I would be visiting that very metropolis, I knew I had to see such an architectural gem in person. Only one problem: despite my formidable googling skills, I couldn’t find an address for the Nautilus house. What to do?
I took a chance and emailed the architect who had designed the Nautilus house. I didn’t even expect to hear back. But his firm responded and contacted the house’s owners (yes, there’s a family that enjoys the enviable distinction of living in this remarkable abode!). The result: I was invited to visit the Nautilus house as a special guest of the owners.
So on the Saturday afternoon of my weekend in Mexico, I ventured out to Naucalpan (my mode of transportation was a private car service arranged by my hotel, and that was a good choice because even with detailed directions, the house was hard to find. My driver, however, was able to telephone the house and converse with the residents in Spanish to obtain the necessary navigational assistance). The Nautilus house is situated in a gated enclave that abounds with elegant homes, but those other residences are attractive in a much more conventional way. I could only imagine what the neighbors think of this bizarre habitation in their midst.
Upon my arrival at the Nautilus house, I was treated to outstanding hospitality by the occupants. They welcomed me inside and gave me a full tour. As you can see in the photo on the left, the interior was just as spectacular as the exterior. (More photos taken inside the Nautilus house can be seen in the full album of photos from my Mexico City weekend, which you can view here.) The patriarch of the household and his son then took me for a walk around the neighborhood. By the way, it turned out that conversing with the family was not a problem, as its members spoke English fluently.
Saturday night: karaoke
I’d already had a full day and seen some cool stuff; but after I circled back to Mexico City, it was time for the activity that supplied the principal purpose of my trip. I was off to sing karaoke! Based on my research, I’d selected a venue called “Pedro Infante no ha Muerto.” To get there from my hotel, I took a car service; my driver was the same person who’d ferried me to the Nautilus house earlier in the day. When he dropped me off he handed me a business card inscribed with his telephone number, and told me to call him when I was ready for him to retrieve me at the end of the evening.
The karaoke show at “Pedro Infante no ha Muerto” on May 28, 2011 was outstanding. The place was packed. For my opening song I went with an H-Bomb classic: “True” by Spandau Ballet. And I got a warm welcome from the local crowd. But the highlight of my appearance was undoubtedly my rendition of “La Bamba.” I was intent on singing it because it was the only Spanish-language song I knew (plus, it’s one of the songs on my A-list, so I feel comfortable performing it in unfamiliar venues). As soon as the song title appeared on the video monitors, the crowd cheered. It always helps when the audience is into a song before I even launch into the first note. And my rendition of the song brought down the house. I think the audience was appreciative that a gringo like me had made the effort to perform a Spanish-language song.
When I stepped off the stage after “La Bamba,” the bar staff gave me a complimentary shot of tequila. I remember thinking at that point that of all the stops on my World Karaoke Tour, Mexico (which had just become country no. 23 on the tour) had been among the most successful and fun. Factoring in my sightseeing excursions (including my visit to the Nautilus house), I’d had a really awesome day.
Unfortunately, the tequila shot enhanced my growing inebriation; and my impaired judgment may have been a factor in what would shortly occur. Facing danger is hard enough when you’re sober.
Late Saturday night: a wild ride
By about 1:30 a.m., I was feeling quite tired (my alcohol intake had undoubtedly contributed to the onset of my fatigue). I thought of telephoning the driver who’d taken me to the bar several hours earlier. But that journey from my hotel had taken 20 or 25 minutes. I didn’t feel like waiting that long for him to retrieve me. The bar was on a major thoroughfare, near a number of other hot nightspots; surely, finding a taxi on the spur of the moment would not be hard.
After paying my bill, I asked a bar employee if he could help me get a taxi. He walked outside with me but then quickly lost interest in assisting me, as he started chatting with other employees who were taking cigarette breaks (Mexico City bars and restaurants, like their counterparts in an increasing portion of the rest of the civilized world, are smoke-free). I pleaded with him (“Yo necessito taxi!”) but I was on my own.
I flagged down the first cab that I saw cruising down the street. I would not have hailed a random cab had I reviewed the United States Department of State’s website before my trip. The page on Mexico, under the heading “CRIME” and the subheading “Taxis,” contains the following warning: “Robberies and assaults on passengers in ‘libre’ taxis (that is, taxis not affiliated with a taxi stand) are frequent and violent in Mexico, with passengers subjected to beating, shooting, and sexual assault. U.S. citizens visiting Mexico should avoid taking any taxi not summoned by telephone or contacted in advance.” (emphasis added). In fact, the website notes that U.S. embassy employees in Mexico City are prohibited from hailing taxis on the street. But I hadn’t seen the State Department’s advisory, so I was unaware of the risk I was taking.
The driver motioned to me to sit beside him, in the suicide seat. I thought nothing of that request at the time; in my experience, riding in the front passenger seat had been standard procedure for taxi passengers in Morocco (a country I’d visited just a few months earlier, and where all of my taxi rides were uneventful). Even here in Mexico City, the private car service driver, when he’d driven me to the karaoke venue, had offered me a choice similar to the dilemma that famously confronted Rebecca Black (“Kickin’ in the front seat, Sittin’ in the back seat, Gotta make my mind up, Which seat can I ta-ake?” 🙂 ). So I readily agreed to ride shotgun in this late-night taxi.
Often when I find myself in a country where most locals don’t speak English, I will obtain from my hotel’s front desk a card with the hotel’s address on it; at the end of an evening on the town, I can show that card to a taxi driver so he’ll know where to take me. On this particular evening, rushing out the door in my eagerness to get to karaoke, I’d forgotten to procure such a card. Not a problem — I had my shiny new Droid 2 Global smartphone with me. I was able to retrieve the confirmation email from my hotel using my global roaming internet access, and I showed the address to the driver directly on the screen of my phone.
I engaged in desultory, halting conversation with the cabbie, stymied as usual by the language barrier. After maybe 10 minutes, he asked me some question that had the word “hacienda” in it. Well, a “hacienda” is a kind of house, right? I figured he was asking me again where my hotel was. “Hampton Inn!” I exclaimed. I tried showing him once more my hotel’s address on the display of my phone, but he waved me off; I figured this was because he was focused on his driving. Then he pulled off the freeway that we’d been traversing and brought the cab to a stop on a quiet street. I assumed that he’d done this so that he could pause and figure out a route to the address I’d given him. As if to confirm my supposition, he finally looked at the display of my phone; but he did not then restart the car. Instead, all of a sudden, he uttered a single word, in a menacing tone: “Credenciales!”
Why was this guy demanding my credentials? I said, “No comprendo.” He responded by repeating that solitary word, “credenciales.” Once again, I had to say “No comprendo.” (or maybe I said “No comprends,” as sometimes I confuse the Spanish and French languages). I’m pretty sure that at some point I also said, “You’re the one who should be showing me your credentials,” although he would not have understood what I was saying.
I then did something stupid: I produced my passport from my backpack and showed it to the driver, hoping that this gesture at least would placate his mysterious demand for “credenciales.” He grabbed the passport, examined it, and then returned it to me. In retrospect, I’m lucky that the driver didn’t steal my passport. The U.S. embassy would later admonish me that when traveling abroad, I should never carry my passport on my person; I should secure it in a hotel safe, and carry a copy with me in case I needed to show identification in an emergency situation or something like that. This was one of many lessons that I would learn from my disastrous cab ride.
Although the driver did not feel the need to pilfer my passport, his demand for “credenciales” had not been sated; and he repeated that word yet again. Did he doubt that I had the means to pay for my journey? So now I did another stupid thing: I showed him the Mexican peso banknotes in my wallet. He helped himself to some of them, which were worth a total of about $50 US. At another point during this rapidly-unfolding sequence of events, he grabbed my smartphone.
(You may fairly ask why I was still holding my smartphone in my hand, instead of having stashed it in my backpack where it would have been less vulnerable to being snatched away from me. When evaluating some of the dumb things I was doing as my ordeal unfolded, please keep in mind that I was under the influence of alcohol, as are many taxi riders late at night on a Saturday night; and that I was also confused and increasingly nervous, and I just wanted to get back to the safety of my hotel. And of course, the driver could easily have taken the backpack itself, which he might well have done if he hadn’t scored so easily with my cash and phone).
Suddenly the driver directed me to get out of the vehicle (Despite the language barrier, there was no doubt as to what he was ordering me to do). Now I was truly terrified. Had the driver arranged to meet with co-conspirators at this location? If so, what plans did they have for me? Was I about to be brought into one of the rowhouse-type residences that lined this street? Would I wake up the next morning with one fewer kidney than I started with? Or maybe I was simply going to to get shot in the head.
Instead, once I had exited the taxi, the driver got back in (still clutching my phone) and closed his door. “Hey!” I started yelling. “Mi teléfono!” He drove off, still in possession of my telephone and the cash that he’d removed from my wallet. Well, at least I wasn’t about to undergo involuntary surgery. But that hardly came as much of a relief; I was alone on a dark and desolate street in a strange city, at roughly 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday night. And I was at least several miles away from my hotel, with no clue how to get there. There were additional concerns, too: was I in a bad neighborhood? I had no idea, but I knew that I was a sitting duck for any muggers or other violent criminals who might happen upon me.
Wondering how I would extricate myself from this situation, I walked down the block. Fortunately, there was a pub on the otherwise-deserted block that was still open. I walked inside, yelling “Necessito Ayuda!” (my signal, in broken Spanish, that I needed help). No one inside the pub spoke English, but somehow I managed to convey to a few of the bargoers that I needed another taxi to get back to my hotel. (At some point I finally tried dialing the telephone number that the driver from the private car service had left with me several hours earlier. I was able to call him because although I’d been divested of my Droid 2 global smartphone, I still had, in my backpack, the Blackberry that I carry around for work. The Blackberry lacks all the bells and whistles of the Droid, but its phone works just about anywhere in the world. Anyway, when I tried phoning the driver whom I should have called in the first place to pick me up from the karaoke bar, I only reached his voice-mail. For all I know, I would also have been greeted by his voice-mail if I’d tried calling him from the karaoke bar at the relatively late hour of 1:30 a.m. But that, of course, is unknowable).
It just so happened that when these kindly folks accompanied me outside, there was a taxi parked across the street from the bar (If it had been there when I entered the bar, I hadn’t noticed it). They indicated to me that I should get into that taxi, and one of them said a few words to the driver (fortunately, the rogue cabdriver who’d abandoned me on this street had left me with what I calculated was enough money to still get back to my hotel. If he’d simply taken my wallet and left me without money or an ATM card, my predicament would have been much more challenging).
Naturally, after what I’d just been through, it was with some trepidation that I boarded another taxi. But I still had no idea where in the sprawling city I was, and I realized that if I wanted to reach my hotel, I really had no choice. The driver of cab no. 2 was an older gentleman, so that helped allay my fears. Additionally, I was comforted to notice pictures of Jesus affixed to the dashboard. Would this new driver really commit a crime against me with the Savior looking on? Still, I wasn’t able to fully relax until the taxi turned on to the street on which my hotel was located. Never have I been so glad to make it back to a hotel as I was on that night in May 2011.
I was lucky that at least my robbery had not involved the use of deadly force; the U.S. embassy later told me that a number of American tourists in Mexico City have reported getting robbed at gunpoint by their cabdrivers. And as unsettling as armed robbery would have been, the worst-case scenario for me after ending up in a rogue taxi was even more terrifying: in some parts of the world, including Mexico, taxi drivers have been reported to commit “express kidnappings” against their unsuspecting passengers. While the details of these incidents vary, the gist is that your cabdriver makes an unscheduled stop to pick up some confederates, and then you’re driven to an undisclosed location where you’re coerced (sometimes with the assistance of drugs) into revealing the PIN for your ATM card. Your kidnappers then make withdrawals from your account (often over a period of time, due to single-day withdrawal limits). Typically, after your bank account has been emptied, the abductors will release you. But many of these episodes end badly, with the victims dead. Sometimes their bodies are never found.
Fortunately, my particular fate was not to be “express kidnapped.” I was lucky that the worst that happened to me was that I was deprived of a few possessions and delayed in returning to my hotel.
When you board a taxi, you expect safe transportation to your chosen destination (and, if you are truly blessed, your ride will include some on-board karaoke). A taxi bereft of karaoke is bad enough; but it’s especially pernicious when your cab driver ends up being a criminal, because as a passenger you’re completely vulnerable — especially if you’re traveling alone. You have no control over where the driver will guide the vehicle. Living in Manhattan where I ride taxis frequently (and where, 100% of the time, I hail those taxis on the street), I just wasn’t conditioned to anticipate that my driver might do anything other than transport me where I asked him to — or that flagging down a taxi on the street could present a hazard. So what happened to me in Mexico City was eye-opening. And had fortune smiled upon me just a little bit less, my entry into the taxi of doom might have become the real-life actualization of my stepping onto the cloud in my pre-trip nightmare.
As it was, as I lay in bed in my hotel room after calling Verizon and canceling the service on my stolen smartphone, I began to feel shell-shocked. Had I actually survived my experience? Or had I been murdered a couple of hours earlier? If I went to sleep, would I ever wake up? But I did allow myself to succumb to my drowsiness, and I did awaken later that morning.
The vacation concludes
Let it not be said that I don’t bounce back from adversity; the day after my terrifying cab ride, I kept my previous plans to take a day-trip to Teotihuacan. An archaeological site dating back to the first century A.D., Teotihuacan was, in ancient times, the largest city in the Americas. Today it’s probably best known for its two gigantic pyramids, known as the Pyramid of the Sun (see photo at the top of this blog post) and the Pyramid of the Moon. It was awe-inspiring to see those massive structures that were constructed well over a millennium ago. They may not be as large or as old as the far more celebrated pyramids in Egypt; but they were quite impressive in their own right.
The following day, I flew back to New York. Mexico was in the books as the 23rd country on my World Karaoke Tour. More importantly, I’d survived a perilous situation, and would live to continue my international singing adventures.