12. Mexico City International Airport: the whale in the belly of the lake

The whale in the lake of Texcoco is Mexico City’s Benito Juárez International Airport. This federal zone blocks the growth of the city from Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl and the Distrito Federal’s Venustiano Carranza Delegation, marking the eastern border of the megalopolis. I walked along the outer rim of the airport as I left Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, along the wetlands of Texcoco and the runways with airplanes roaring just above me. I crossed towards the self-built neighborhoods along the eastern tip of the airport, with their weathered street-signs, sponsored by Coca-Cola. Then I turned left and reached the first warehouses, large white blocks behind tall metal fences, the airport’s freight operations.

I was particularly intrigued by the airport since I had once worked for a small freight forwarding company and maritime agent, Translogistic, in Mexico City. I had visited this area before for questions of freight. The airport was also a point from which I departed on trips and came home. But I never really got to know it. I decided to stay the night at the airport and make a night out of it.

I walked along the smooth asphalt of the avenues built for cargo towards the terminal. I looked like a vagabond, sunburnt, unshaven and dirty. I reached the terminal at sunset and entered the sliding glass doors. After walking for 16 days through dust of the edge of the city, the wide space, air conditioning and bustle of people were like entering another world. I decided to go for the best-located hotel possible with a view of the runways but the Hilton was too expensive even with the generous budget that I had allotted myself for this special moment of global communion. Still I lingered for a beer in the lobby. It was quiet and empty with leather chairs and low tables. There wasn’t much happening.

I left the Hilton to wander once more among the common travellers huddled in the food court. I was struck by how great the contrast was between the hushed lobby of the Hilton and the airport at large with its bleary groups of people huddled in the food court. The airport was like some encapsulated space-age city. I decided to give the Camino Real Hotel a shot. After walking the length of the terminals with their stewardesses and pilots, business travellers and families, I went up an escalator, crossed over an air-bridge, descended a stairwell and passed into the cavernous lobby of the hotel.

I enquired after the price of the room at the long reception table feeling somewhat out of place due to my ragged appearance. The staff paid no notice and politely handed me a key. I easily became just another odd American tourist. I walked up to my room over the stairwells overlooking the lobby. When I entered I was surprised how small the room was compared the comfortable motels of illicit assignation where I had been staying for the fraction of the price. I showered and shaved, put on a clean shirt that I carried in my bag and descended to the lobby.

The cool leather of the lobby seats felt strange on my skin while I had a beer at a low table. Quiet tourist in ones and twos looked at newspapers and waited. I quickly got bored and wandered into the tunnel leading to the airport. Though the airport itself was a strangely nightless place, life seemed to be winding down early, shops had closed and I was disheartened. Perhaps all the night birds in the airport were tourists around the food courts and everybody else just went to sleep.

Then a man stepped out of one of the tunnels and told me to go the Angus, asking for 200 pesos for this special tip in bad English. After having walked the edge of the poorest parts of the periphery of Mexico City I was being treated like a tourist just off the plane. And I was going that way anyway.

I refused, indignant, and descended a short distance through a tunnel to the entrance of the Angus steakhouse chain widely known for the beauty and exceedingly short skirts of its waitresses. A long-legged maître dressed like one of Santa’s elves showed me to the bar with haughty efficiency.

I sat down and looked around me. Various groups of mostly business people were sitting around tables with steaks in front of them. There was a podium with a musician playing synthesizer greatest hits. I had found the party in the airport. I saw two foreign businessmen guided in by a local affiliate walk in and visibly brighten at the sight of Santa’s elves. Steaks and chicks. This was their kind of place. Weariness and hauteur fell from their faces. The young local affiliate had played his cards well.

Pretty soon I figured out the dynamic of the groups of executives. The preferred number seemed to be three. The boss, his right-hand man and a younger gofer, whose job was to keep their majesties amused. The boss would sit silently contemplating his plans and looking a little impatient. The right-hand man was more open and involved in the situation, comfortable in the backing of his leader, without the burden of broadcasting charisma. The third man was in the position of proving himself in this unique opportunity. It was for him to keep the conversation going when silences became too noticeable, to be silent when called for, to go up and sing karaoke for the bosses’ amusement.

Of course not all groups were the same, beyond the fact that they were all company men and hence in hierarchies. The ones I liked best were a group of three men who had oil industry written all over them. Operational people who liked meat and had known each other for a long time. No games, simple dress and a dignified attitude towards Santa’s elves – Texan steak eaters.

The ones I liked least were a group of three perfectly groomed and suited executives who seemed to be celebrating something. When I tried to take a picture of them in my innocent guise of American tourist they covered their faces immediately. There was something shimmery and vain about the group consisting of the hatchet-faced soap opera-handsome CEO, a chubby big finance type with a portfolio and the sycophant third wheel keeping the celebration going.

If you want to see how the world works and the shallow currents moving it, seek out the steaks and elves of the airport Angus.