It’s been 10 months since we arrived, three seasons completed, and into the fourth — summer, which is the rainy season. Mexico City is not Mexico, as New York City is not the United States. It is its own world, at the head of but distinct from the body of its country. Many of the clichés widely known about this city have a clear basis in reality; many do not. This is what it feels like from the presence of one aging Gringo who has never been much interested in Latin America in the first place, but finds himself living in the premier example of it.
Everyone who’s been here for many years says the pollution levels are diminishing. Maybe so. I haven’t been here for years and have no means of comparison. I just know what it looks like outside right now. It looks like this most days.
The air (and the water) are seriously polluted in Mexico City. Apparently great efforts are underway to improve the air (while I think Mexican officials have officially given up ever having clean water), and these efforts should be applauded. Public transportation is expanding and improving on a consistent basis; cheap bicycle rental stands have mushroomed all over the city, often seeming to be on every corner. You see people riding these bicycles all over the place, and even designated bike lanes are starting to appear. I think it is a suicidal act to ride a bicycle in Mexico City’s notorious traffic, among some of the worst drivers in the world, but at least they’re trying. From the balcony of our apartment, which looks out over the eastern edge of the massive Chapultapec Park, I can see airliners on approach to the international airport, close enough to landing that the gear and flaps are down. Early in the morning, before the pollution haze rises, I can make out the logo on the tails, see the colors. By midday, these planes are only a gray movement, and by mid-afternoon, they are a shadow. The following photo of Air Force One approaching Mexico City’s international airport a few weeks ago was taken from my balcony mid-morning. The blue of the sky was gone by then, but at least it was still clear enough to see the plane’s colors.
I should digress here and confess that in all my life I have never been much interested in Latin America. I am, at heart, a European. My interests are there. Many people are frankly fascinated with the history, culture, and society of Latin America, and I know such people — they are blatantly in love with Mexico, without also being blind to the problems and faults. I can see the source of this affection, even though I do not share it. I understand it. There is much to love about Mexico. Typically, like people in most places I visit and live, I am constantly asked if I like Mexico and what I like about it. I think it is impolite in the extreme to tell residents of any country that you are not interested in their country and do not especially like it. My standard response to that question in Mexico is: Me gusta mucho México, en especial el tequila, la cerveza, la comida, el clima, y, por supuesto, las mujeres hermosas. That is not untrue. Well, the last category is too rarely encountered. (There are a lot of very short and very fat women wearing very tight clothes here.)
The standard clichés about not drinking the water and staying away from uncooked fruits and vegetables are true. I have come to fully appreciate the typical phrases “Montezuma’s Revenge,” and “The Aztec Two-Step.” In 10 months, I have had “gastric distress” on eight separate occasions, a couple of times lasting longer than a week. Trying to stay within two steps of a toilet for a week is not easy. I take probiotic pills daily. I don’t even rinse my toothbrush in tap water. I have never eaten street food. Yet … . These discomforting experiences have put me off my love of Mexican food. Although, living in Mexico, I have come to understand that the “Mexican food” I loved so much in the States, was not actually Mexican food. The Mexican food I love is the US version; it’s the one I became used to over the years. Actually “real” Mexican cuisine is vastly superior in quality, innovation, and flavor than the TexMex, or CalMex, version I am used to; it is just what I am used to.
There is a great café / bookstore in my neighborhood. I am an aficionado of café culture, and was happy to find it exists here. There are many places in the world, including the United States, where café culture does not exist, certainly not in the European sense. Mine is called El Péndulo (the Pendulum), and is the Polanco branch of a three, or four, chain called El Péndulo in Mexico City. It has a good, though typical, restaurant, a café section, and tons of books. On Saturdays and Sundays there is live music, usually chamber music or a classical duo. There are regular readings, lectures, and exhibitions. It is virtually a perfect example of what one desires in a café / bookstore. It looks like this, and this, and this, and this.
El Péndulo is where I write most every morning. It is my salvation.
In spite of the common reputation that Mexico is a violent country — and of course there is no denying that — I have found on a personal basis, Mexicans are some of the most friendly, most open and accepting, and least pretentious people I have lived among. (Virtually the opposite of Porteños, the people of Buenos Aires, where we lived before here.) This is not to say they will not blithely rip you off if you are a stranger, because street hustling and ripping people off anyway possible is as common here as dirty air. But once you are no longer a stranger, you are almost like a member of the family.
I do not feel threatened living here. I feel essentially safe, especially considering that this is one of the largest megalopolises on the planet. On the other hand, my lifestyle does not include hanging out in lowlife bars ’till four in the morning. My life outside is lived mostly in the daylight hours. Dinner out in evenings is usually somewhere in the neighborhood, which is comfortably wealthy and well-patrolled by both public and private police. This impression arises from a distinctly privileged position. I cannot speak for life in the notoriously rough colonias. I do believe that the violence for which Mexico has a bad reputation is concentrated along the northern border, and the rest of Mexico is no worse, and in many cases better, than any other part of Latin America. Mexico City’s murder rate is much lower than Detroit or Chicago.
We live a short stroll into Chapultapec from one of the finest anthropological museums in the world. This one.
One of our favorite restaurants, although it happens to be French.
Mexico has the second largest economy in Latin America, after Brazil, and one of the fastest growing Middle Classes. It is sad that as a country, a nation, it cannot resolve the horrific problems with narco-violence, and overcome a culture so accepting of rampant petty crime. It is not the crime itself, it is how openly criminal acts are simply accepted as normal. The chronic rip-offs, the petty thieving, seem to be inherent. Before Mexico realizes its full (and amazing) potential, some aspects of culture must be changed. An excellent and revealing source for these problems is found in Jorge Castañeda’s fine book: “Mañana Forever? — Mexico and the Mexicans.”
Meanwhile, we are just passing through. We are not going to make a home here. Ten months into a twenty-four month stay. And we have it easy. Our apartment is large and well-protected. We live beside the largest urban park in the Americas — Chapultapec, which is a pretty good air-cleaner, as well as a beautiful place to stroll in nature within a massive city. I enjoy Mexico City more than it may seem from what I’ve written about it here. If I had not had “gastric issues,” so often here, I believe I would like it even more. Montezuma’s Revenge handicaps one’s impressions.
I believe that if the water were drinkable and the Narcos disappeared, Mexico would probably own the hemisphere.
Finally, a statue of Abraham Lincoln in the park named for him in Polanco, across from my café .