Mexico City is a World City. It’s in the same class as places like Tokyo, London, and New York. However, its reputation is somewhat sketchier than it’s brethren. Where a place like London is a combination of an elegant old lady sipping high tea and a strung-out punk wearing Union Jack pants and track marks on his arms, Mexico City’s reputation is a cross between a serious and stoic man with an impressive mustache and large sombrero, and a back-alley thug ready to relieve you of your possessions. If you believe what people say about it, it is large, polluted, old and dangerous, with an infrastructure that is falling apart, and a runaway growth rate that the city can’t support which leads to poverty, high crime, and a volatile city. You will think that this is not a place for the casual tourist.
If you believed all that hype, you’d be missing out in a major way. Mexico City (D. F. for those in Mexico, much in the same way that Washington City is called D.C.) has reportedly the most museums per capita of any large city. It has innumerable districts with their own flavor, style, and culture. It has a vibrant night life, amazing buildings rich with history, an archeological site in the dead center of the city, and is central to many amazing places like Teotihuacan. In addition, the people I met there are among the friendliest, welcoming, warm, and happy people I’ve met yet.
Ling and I arrived via plane. We flew from Tuxtla airport into Mexico City. The Tuxtla airport is a tiny affair – 2 ramps provide enough access to serve the traffic they get, which since there seems to be a flight going to D.F. every 1/2 hour, seems to be mostly as a quick way for people to get to D.F. After spending 1/2 hour in Tuxtla, I think this is a fine idea, not a town I see any need to spend any time in. The airport at D.F., however, is massive. Luckily I had Ling there or my pitiful grasp of Spanish would have probably resulted in me crying softly in a corner for most of my stay.
Now, we landed having just one bit of information: an address (of sorts) for a the brother of a friend of a friend of Ling’s brother. Or something complicated like that. Basically: Ling told her brother she wanted to go to DF, he talked to his friend, who knew somebody with a brother that lives in DF, and said “hey, you should go stay with him”. That seems to be enough of a plan for Ling, and since I chose to tag along with her on his trip through Chiapas and DF, I was basically luggage on the way for her as well.
Now I say “address of sorts” because it was unlike anything either of us had seen, and we could only hope the driver could parse it, because we had no idea which part of the multi-line description was the significant part. It listed a street name, and a “between such and such” street as well, and then listed other words that even Ling didn’t know, so we assumed they were neighborhood or block designations. They might have been hidden Mexican “screw with tourists” instructions to the taxi driver. We just didn’t know.
The trip from the airport to the address we were given was 40 minutes without traffic, over an hour or more with traffic. The entire way is city, there are no breaks of wide open vistas or country side, just solid buildings, bill-boards, crisscrossing bridges and overpasses, and cars. You can see hills sometimes and the hills crawl with concrete block houses, packed densely forming a grey mass that marches down the hills into the city. It is hot, the air is thick with smog, and the city seemed dingy at all turns for this drive.
The driver was far more savvy that we were and was able to take us more or less right to the front door where we faced the challenge of getting through a security gate. A short time and a few confusing attempts to call the wrong number connected us to our potential host. Worth noting: even though we had paid the taxi driver, he waited around for us to ensure we contact the person we were looking for. The cynic might think “sure, he might collect an extra fare from you if you need to go somewhere else”. Having experienced more of the people of Mexico, I’m pretty sure he was just making sure these two clueless visitors were going to be okay.
So we waited for our host to come down. Now, at this point you know as much as we did about them. We have no idea what kind of house they have, how much room they have, whether they like eating babies for dinner or go pedestrian hunting in their truck for a pastime. As luck would have it, he turns out to be a good looking, fit, soft-spoken professional man in his late 20’s with a new-born daughter (3 months old). In the tradition of not using real names without people’s permission, we’ll just call our hosts Padre and Madre. Padre showed us around their modern apartment while trying to soothe his daughter from whatever malady she was experiencing. Further note: he was expecting Ling. He was not expecting a large American to be coming along. I attempted to explain that I was just making sure Ling was settled and I would be getting a room in a hostel.
Padre would have none of this. He took us out for a walking tour of their neighborhood (a very hip and desirable place, he explained, with many cool little bars and restaurants) while pushing his baby in a stroller. It began to rain in earnest shortly after we left, so we ducked into a restaurant for dinner while we waited for his wife to join us. During this time he explained that their daughter was an unexpected arrival, and as such they were in the midst of moving into this new apartment from their old place, but he thought the old place would be ideal for the two of us to use for our stay.
Once Madre had arrived, they showed us the place which was perfect and quirky and charming. We each had our own room and a key to access the building and the apartment. In the morning Madre came and provided breakfast for us, then she not only went out to Teotihuacan with us, but got a driver to take us so she could pay attention to the baby! I’m hard pressed to think of the average person not only taking their entire day to entertain total strangers but also arrange for a driver and bring their 3 month old baby along as well. Teotihuacan is an hour outside of DF, so this is no small trip with an almost-newborn.
I’ve noted the trip to the ruins before, as well as the hijinks that ensued afterwards, so I’ll skip that. At night they took us out to dinner in “El Centro”, which is beautiful and active and alive. The buildings all just ooze age and history, and there are people everywhere dining, drinking, playing music on the street, selling and buying and just walking around.
We had dinner at the Corona Salon (where you can have Corona on draught, mmmm, tasty), then Madre went home with the baby and Padre took us for a walking tour of Centro. He explained that many neighborhoods are quite safe and enjoyable to walk around in, but there are a few that you really shouldn’t be in, even during the day, if you don’t look like you belong. Centro is perfectly safe, and we explored the Zocalo, admired the buildings, and ultimately stopped into a club set in the 2nd floor of a modern museum building for a drink.
Since it had been a very full day, we left for home a little after midnight. I was eager to take the Metro, as learning the subway system is something I love doing in new places. It affords you the ability to easily (and cheaply) travel, while forcing you to understand the city better. The Metro in DF costs 2 pesos per person, no matter where you are going. That’s about 16 cents, for perspective. Awesome.
Padre explained that it had been quite a while since he rode the Metro, but he was easily able to figure out the lines we would take: the primary blue line would take us to a junction where we would catch the orange line to his neighborhood. This went off without a hitch and I enjoyed the people watching of late-night riders. Disembarking to ride the 2nd line was a little more problematic. We waited for the train, only to have a man in an official uniform gesture wildly at us from across the platform, eventually communicating that no train would come tonight, it was shut down.
Hmm. Problematic. Not much for it but to go top-side and flag a taxi. As soon as we come up to street level, a couple things were apparent:
- This was one of those neighborhoods that you don’t want to be in as a foreigner. Or even as a Mexican, I think.
- There was no option but to try to get a cab ASAP.
Padre flagged down a cab on a busy street relatively quickly, but then let the cab go. I wondered why he would do such a thing, and he explained the cab driver was requesting an exorbitant sum to transport us out of there. Ling and I offered to hide while he flagged the next one so he wouldn’t be charged a “gringo tax”. He laughed. We were only party kidding. After three tries he got a taxi and we arrived home without incident, luckily.
The following day was terribly anticlimactic as I opted to stay in bed, close to the bathroom as I had developed my first case the Mexican Stomach Death that necessitated a toilet at close proximity at all times. Padre again went out of his way to help me out by bringing me Pepto and a bottle of Electrolyte solution, and also ordered me a cab when it was time to go to the airport and explained to the driver where I needed to go.
Summary: just like the guys who kidnapped Ling and I for a day, these people are amazingly hospitable, welcoming and gracious. Mexico has many amazing things, but I think the people are my favorite.