Tuesday, March 28, 2023
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About Those Two Nice Women Who Helped Me Wipe the Bird Poop Off My Shirt

We are walking on a tree-lined path through one of Mexico City’s spiffiest neighborhoods when I feel wetness on the back of my neck.

The liquid on my hand, on my hair, on my neck, and all over my shirt, is brown. This was either a large bird with serious gastrointestinal problems or the time has indeed arrived when pigs fly.

Two women come to our aid, proffering tissues and wipes. While my wife scrubs at my shirt, one of the women scrubs at my wife’s shirt, which has also been sullied. 

We thank the women profusely, shake our fists at the unseen pájaro and turn back toward our friends’ apartment to change clothes. En route, we stop for a coffee to go. 

At a market a couple of blocks later, my wife realizes her wallet is gone. We figure she left it at the café. While I go back to check, the bank notifies my wife that it has declined an attempt to use her credit card to buy a TV. 

Wow, first a bird poops on us, now someone has found my wife’s wallet and tried to use her card. This was not what we had in mind when we decided to spend spring break in Mexico City.  

My wife calls our friends to tell them what’s happened. A similar thing befell them in Buenos Aires: 1. A bird pooped on them; 2. a passerby helped clean them up; 3. they realized one of their wallets was gone.

Welcome to the Bird Poop Scam. 

Once you know about it, you can’t believe you fell for it. It all seems so obvious in hindsight: 

  • The liquid neither looked nor smelled like any bird poop I had encountered before. (On the other hand, this was my first visit to Mexico City. Ornithology is outside my areas of expertise. Maybe the birds in CDMX gorge themselves on brown berries.)
  • The women materialized immediately after our dousing. And what a coincidence, they had just the cleaning supplies we needed. (Maybe they were nannies, on their way to work.) 

If there was a bright side to the bird poop scam it was that instead of two bad things happening back-to-back – getting pooped on, then losing a wallet – there had been only one bad thing. The fake poop – probably some harmless concoction launched from a spray bottle – and the picking of my wife’s pocket while we were occupied with the clean-up were all one incident.
Lest you think this is a Mexico thing or a Latin America thing, when I got back to the apartment I googled “bird poop scam” and learned that getting “help” from friendly locals after a spattering is a staple of countless websites devoted to travel scam warnings around the world. 

Knowing how common this crime is should have made me feel better. It made me feel worse. As a native New Yorker and veteran traveler, I like to think of myself as streetwise. 

In Rome decades ago, two men tried to lure me into an elaborate scheme involving a fake diamond and real cash. I was 23 and traveling abroad for the first time but I knew, before I even understood what was happening, not to hand a wad of cash to a stranger. 

Maybe I’ve lived in State College too long.

The bird poop incident reinforced my belief that modern life everywhere, with its widening gaps between haves and have-nots and its screw-the-the-other-guy-before-the-other-guy-screws-you ethos, is the real culprit, not these two women, who probably have no good options. 

The next day, though, we visited the mighty Museo Nacional de Antropología, which chronicles wave after wave of warring and marauding peoples, culminating, of course, in the arrival of the Spaniards, who were even better at warring and marauding than the native population. We’re a bad lot, we humans, always have been.

But I still believe that if we tweaked our socioeconomic system so that housing cost a little less and the people with the lowest-paying jobs earned a little more, there would be less desperation, less envy and less reason to improve our lot at another person’s expense.  

Detail from Diego Rivera’s mural “Man, the Controller of the Universe” at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City

Seeing laborers and champagne drinkers juxtaposed in Diego Rivera’s “Man, Controller of the Universe” mural at the Palacio de Bellas Artes reinforced my view. 

The night of the bird poop scam was to be the last full moon of winter. To mark the occasion, we joined a group kayaking through the narrow waterways separating Mexico City’s chinampas, or floating islands. 

The festivities began with an ancient ceremony featuring three dancers in feathered headdresses who waved incense burners over each of us in a ritual of purification. After the day we had, we needed it. 

Then the moon rose red and fruity, we ate tamales on a flatboat, and floated through the dark back to glorious, ghastly civilization.