It was dark on the narrow streets that night in downtown Puebla. We were walking through a rainstorm, headed south away from the zocalo towards less explored neighborhoods. Except for us, block after block was empty. As we turned a corner everything grew brighter and the wet pavement glistened with lights. Smoke from grilled tacos and sausages filled the air. Hundreds of people were huddled together on the sidewalks beneath roof overhangs to get out of the cold rain. There were street vendors selling masks; some were simple, others were decorated with neon colors, sequins, lightning bolts or even bull horns. It was fight night at the lucha libre arena; a Mexican wrestling match was about to start.
Of course we had planned on attending. Although I had been to a lucha libre match in Queretaro the year before, I didn't get to see anyone famous for the two dollar admission fee. Needless to say, I got what I paid for; several rounds of old, overweight men in spandex jump suits, running back and forth chasing each other as children in the audience taunted them and suggested they workout a little before the next match. This time we were spending twelve dollars to get in and were going to get to see some of Mexico's most famous - and hopefully most talented - luchadores. "La Sombra" and "La Mascara" were the main event. The Mask versus The Shaddow for the title.
I was with "El Gigante" - that's Andrew's stage name - and we were meeting up with a few of Andrew's Kiwi/Ausi/Austri (the last one is short for Austrian) friends that he had met on top of a mountain somewhere the day before. From the outside, the arena was small and non-descript, with the ambiance of a meat-packing warehouse. It felt like one of those mysterious secret clubs in New York City that have no signs advertising their location. Inside, the arena was dark with only the brightly lit the ring at the center proving that we had come to the right place. The arena looked like a large, deteriorating high school gym. The floor seats were separated from the second tier seats behind them by a chain-linked fence that went all the way to the ceiling high above. A balcony of the third tier seats hung directly above the second tier seats. I could make out the movement of people sitting above us while loud drums and horns blared away from behind hundreds of shadowy faces.
As we got settled into our seats, I decided I needed to eat something. Several vendors came and went, selling cemitas (sandwiches), brochetas de camaron (shrimp kabobs), churros (sugary fried dough sticks), and papas con salsa y limon (imagine a clear plastic bag of potato chips, soggy from lemon juice, drenched in a blood-like hot sauce). Finally I saw what I wanted; fried fish. I mean, what could be safer than eating some street fish at a Mexican wrestling match? My plate came with three strips of fish, a few slices of lemon, and yes, I poured the bloody salsa on top of it all. It cost 25 pesos. I handed the vendor 200 pesos, needing change. But he didn't have enough in his pocket. He said he would be back "ahorrita" with my change, which after nearly a year down here I think means either before, right now, or later, although at work it usually means never, not going to happen, or go away. As the man walked away, he turned around several times to reassure me that he would be back with my money. I couldn't help but think of my next blog title as he quickly made his way through the crowd, out the front doors of the arena and into the darkness beyond...
What else could I do other than sit back, get a kid to bring me a beer and "enjoy" the event. By the way, did I mention this was Andrew's idea? Then the fighting began; a group of three muscular, shaved, tanned men, wearing nothing more than brightly colored Speedos and full face masks ran from the dressing room - which doubled as the men's bathroom - under the stands. A second, similar looking group of three followed them. Each team was accompanied by a theme song, usually something from one of Tom Cruise's earlier works like Days of Thunder or Top Gun. The two teams taunted, then fought, then taunted each other again. I couldn't tell who was on who's team. The fighting consisted of punching, jumping, running, and strange grappling positions that looked more like something you might have to pay to see on the internet - or at least prove that you're over 18 to enter - especially given the attire.
And this continued for two hours. New matches between new teams started and ended the same way, with the same awkward, nearly naked hugging positions randomly placed in the middle. The fans loved it, even as they were hit with flying sweat and the occasional spitball from the luchadores. All the while I kept looking through the crowds for the man with my change, waiting anxiously for his return. Other fish vendors came and went. My beer had long since been dry. I was losing hope.
The final match began. La Sombra, dressed in a black cape and purple mask, ran with his team out into the ring. La Mascara, dressed in red spandex from head to toe, followed with his team (and a little person dressed in a psycho chicken costume). The match began, same as the others, although with a few more aerial acrobatics than before. Regardless of the improvements, the psycho chicken was still the most entertaining part.
And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man who had sold me the fried fish walk in through the front door of the arena. I could see that he had my change in his hands. I got out of my seat and started walking towards him to try to seal the deal. When I was right next to him I reached out my hand for my money. Suddenly, I saw a look of horror cross his face. He lunged towards me and shoved me to the floor. Just then, two massive luchadores flew from the ring crashing into the crowd right where I was just standing, crushing the empty chairs they fell on. From the cold concrete floor, I looked at the fish vendor who had pushed me out of the way of imminent doom lying next to me, saving me from the eternal hold of The Shaddow. He smiled as he handed me my change. In Mexico, not only can you trust a wrestling arena fish monger with your money, you can trust him with your life.
Disclaimer - This story is entirely, 100% factual... Except for the dramatic ending. When the vendor walked in through the front door, he immediately made his way towards me and gave me my change without incident. There was no close call, no near death experience. The wrestling match ended suddenly soon afterwards with an announcement over the arena loudspeakers whose meaning will forever remain a mystery to us non-Spanish speakers. Although the vendor didn't "actually" save my life, his fish didn't kill me, either.