Color, noise, congestion, traffic, smells, uneven walking surfaces, chilis, contrasts and juxtapositions, the very old and the brand new: this is definitely an intense city, but immersing ourselves in such a place seems to be our idea of a vacation. People always ask me about the dangers and problems that most of us (and the news media) associate with Mexico City, so I want to write a little about our impressions.
Mostly it's been pretty clear, though today there is a lot more smog -- as you can see in the photo above, the mountains have disappeared. I've been OK except for some stuffiness at night and an occasional slight sore throat during the day. In the mornings I use eye drops.
Mexico City is also quite high - over 7,000 feet --remember the athletes complaining at the Mexico City Olympics? But in my experience the effect of the altitude is even more vague - I had a very slight headache the first few days and felt a bit more out-of-breath than usual when climbing many flights of stairs (which you do have to do in the metro.) I walk a lot anyway, but we are both in better shape than when we arrived because we have been walking pretty much all day, every day.
Then there is the fact of it being a mega-city of 21 million people. There are more people here than any place I've ever been, but the physical spaces are large, too -- I think I've been more crowded on Oxford Street in London. Yesterday we were in the metro during rush hour. The trains come every two minutes or less, and are very full, but what's remarkable to me is the way the empty platform simply fills right up again after a train leaves. The people move not in waves but in a steady flow; it's hard to imagine, let along describe: the collective action of filling, emptying, and immediately refilling is like water. But during less busy times in the metro and on the streets, the sheer size of the system and the city seem to absorb the population so that it's not as congested; you certainly aren't banging up against other people all the time.
I like being one of so many; it's a lesson in humility and world reality. And the people are absolutely beautiful: warm, friendly, helpful, eager to make us feel comfortable and welcome, and even seem happy for our brief encounters. I feel so, so white - Jonathan at least looks a little more brown! People notice, but they're polite about it. Children are more likely to stare, and then look shyly pleased when I smile at them. One little girl toddler was flirting with me when we shared a bench with her mother at a museum, but wouldn't speak; finally when I was turned away I felt a little touch - she had come over and patted my leg and was looking at me with big eyes. Her mother thought this was all pretty funny. And there is a constant level of genuineness and politeness -- during one busy time, a young man immediately offered me his seat in the metro; I declines but thanked him, and eventually seats opened up nearby. We were both on the train for a while, and he was talking to a companion, but when he got up to get off, he made a point of catching my eye and saying "buenas dias." It's that sort of unnecessary warmth and desire for connection that I really appreciate -- in such a large city it could so easily be the other way.
Then there's the question of safety. I don't worry about the natural dangers, but the people who live here are always aware of the possibilities -- as his sign in the subway makes clear.
As for the personal stuff, we have pretty good danger antennas (knock on wood) and try hard tobe careful and prudent, but I've never felt frightened here. Tourists do get ripped off in various ways and you have to be alert. Taking certain kinds of taxis, for instance, can be risky. You shouldnt' go out late at night in certain neighborhoods. But so far as the drug violence goes, Mexico City is not as dangerous a place as some of the provinces. I think physical dangers are more prevalent: you have to watch your step - the sidewalks are notoriously uneven, the curbs high, there are holes and hidden dangers everywhere, and you have to be especially careful about the traffic when crossing any street, even the small ones in a local neighborhood. As for the food and "Montezuma's Revenge," we don't eat anything raw that we haven't peeled or prepared ourselves, we're careful about street food, don't drink fruit waters or anything with ice in it, and we take acidophilus tablets all the time we're here. We bring precautionary prescriptions of Cipro, and thsi time we brought a water-purification system (two types of drops that react together and are added to tap water) that kills anything and makes water safe to use for washing vegetables, brushing teeth, or even drinking (though we just drink bottled water.)
Getting around in such a huge metropolis is daunting too, but the metro is extremly clean and easy to figure out, and we've also been using the Metrobus system, a relatively new network of buses that have their own dedicated lanes. We like learning cities, and use OpenSource maps and Google maps and the Lonely Planet guide to do that. It's easier with two people, but even in a mammoth place like this, when you learn sections of the city, exploring by foot and consulting a good map, then you can begin to put those sections together spacially and gradually it all starts to make sense.
Language is the final hurdle. Jonathan knows some Spanish; I have a basic vocabulary gained by online study using Babbel, but don't know much grammar yet except for some basic verb conjugations. French helps tremendously; I can usually get the sense of what I'm reading or work out a menu, street signs, ads and posters. If we keep coming back I definitely want to study and improve, though, because people want to talk, and so do I!
Being here reminds me, oddly perhaps, of steep downhill skiing or sight-reading music. You just have to be fully engaged, and to like that feeling of intensity, concentration, and sensory fullness. If you like being completely in the moment, then Mexico City is a good place for you -- but as I'll try to show you later, it's also a place where you can find relative solitude, quiet, and a lot of beauty.