We dive under a sturdy table in the lobby of the Hyatt House, Mexico City. Dust dances in the light streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows. My heart still pounds from the earthquake and the mad dash down the sixteen flights of stairs that separate our room from reception. Outside, cars honk, sirens wail, and police bark orders in a chorus of stress and urgency.
“I used to sleep nude. Until the earthquake.”
– Alyssa Milano
Just moments before, I was sitting at the desk in our cozy room overlooking the city below. I was jotting down trip notes for our upcoming stay in Merida, an itinerary of bus schedules and Mayan temples blooming on the hotel stationary. On top of each page, the words “Ideas Brillantes” were printed in blue. If only. Mine should have been personalized with “Senseless Scribbles of a Confused Tourist”.
Our history-buff friend is flying in from Europe and I want everything to be perfect.
We’ve been planning this trip for almost a year, exchanging excited emails across the Atlantic. Yet, the logistical labyrinth of renting a car in Mexico and squeezing all the adventures into a few days still felt like trying to cram a cenote into a shot glass.
Meanwhile, Mark was enjoying his daily espresso in the breakfast lounge. He’s not a planner. His idea of a perfectly executed day would be “Wander around aimlessly and hope for tacos.”
Comfort in Chaos
The pen screeched across my notes. A sudden tremor swayed the room like a drunken ship. The hotel siren started blaring, jolting me from my Mérida daydreams. Panicked, I jumped up and scrambled for the essentials: Passports, wallets, and… my pink inflatable pillow. Apparently, in the face of tectonic turmoil, my subconscious prioritizes rubberized comfort over all other earthly possessions. There I am, clutching my inflatable friend like a talisman against doom, ready to face crumbling buildings and impending Armageddon.
Just as I yanked the door open with my sweaty hands, Mark burst in, eyes wide, face flushed: “Are you ok?” Ignoring every safety warning and common sense, he took the elevator to reach me faster. Bless his foolish heart. Running down the eight stories to the lobby felt like years.
We found the sturdiest looking table away from the outer walls and any glass and ducked under. It had been quiet since that initial tremor.
Just 4 hours prior and a couple yards from where we were now crouching, we were stuffing our faces with yummy tamales, omelets, and fresh juicy fruits. I was glad I didn’t skip that lovely pain-au-chocolat.
I called my sister, making sure she heard my voice before the news reached her across the ocean: “No worries, I’m in one of the sturdiest buildings in Mexico City!”, I tried to calm her with a made-up fact. She said that the Twin Towers were once considered sturdy as well. “I love you”, we each said, the only thing to say at such a moment. I asked her to squeeze my niece for me, aching for hugs long overdue.
The hotel staff were all in the lobby, calm and composed, handing out words of reassurance. Slowly, they returned to their tasks as if nothing had happened. A sigh escaped my lips, mingling with the low murmur of chatter and the distant wail of sirens. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I wasn’t sure if it was out of fear, relief, or all the kindness that permeated the lobby.
In the hours after the Mexico City earthquake, time seemed to warp and stretch. Was this just a preamble to the main event? Was the worst just to come? The news warned about the possible aftershocks that may be “magnitudes more powerful than what we have just experienced”. Each creak of the building, each rumble of distant machinery, made my heart lurch. Finally, the sirens and honking faded. Waiters began preparing for an afternoon event, rushing back and forth across the lobby carrying tables and chairs, casting a comforting spell of normalcy.
Later that evening, sprawled on the bed, the city lights twinkling outside the window, peace finally washed over me. We still had a few days to explore Mexico City with its reputedly astonishing Museo de Antropologia, and all the taco stands that I pinned into my Google maps, and Mérida was also still standing, the ancient pyramids peeking out of the rainforest, the beacons of stability on the foundation of shifting plates that hinted at the glorious Mayan past.
Eckhart Tolle once said that as he was hiking in Malibu, California, he saw a sign by a country house destroyed by fire. It read: “Danger. All structures are unstable.” and came to a conclusion that it was actually a pretty profound statement. Once you realize and accept that everything is unstable, peace arises within you. “This is because the recognition of the impermanence of all forms awakens you to the dimension of the formless within yourself, that which is beyond death.”
The earthquake had shifted something, sharpening the edges of experience, showing how fragile life can be, how one moment passes and all your plans can crumble. I’m not yet “awakened to the dimensions beyond death”, but the veneer of permanence has definitely cracked. Carefully plotted plans felt more like sandcastles on the beach, one big wave and they’re gone. The only constant is change, as they say (whoever “they” might be).
Luckily, for the rest of today everything stayed the same, precariously balanced.
And no, I no longer sleep naked either.
A few days later, we got to explore a place that survived almost 2000 years of earthquakes, floods, and droughts, the mysterious ancient city of Teotihuacan. We know close to nothing of the civilization that built the magnificent pyramids, which makes the experience that much more intriguing.
For a more light-hearted read, have a look at our (mis)adventures in Cabo, where we bartered a few precious hours for instagramable adventures.