A quiet neighborhood on the way into Mexico City from Benito Juarez Airport.
We returned to the snowy north from two weeks in Mexico City last night. As usual, it was a good trip, filled with color and warmth, a great deal of art, and the activity of a vast metropolis, but complicated this year by the fact that, at the end of the trip, we both had bike accidents. J. wrenched his knee when his bike slid out from under him on the rain-slick marble plaza in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and I took a more spectacular fall the following day when I tried to leave the bike path and hit a curb that was obscured by a deep puddle. J., ahead of me, had just exited safely in what I thought was the same place. My bike stopped and I kept going, landing on my face and smashing my right shin. It all happened so fast I can't tell exactly what happened, except that I tried to break my fall with my hands, and that it hurt quite magnificently when my nose hit the sidewalk. However, that nose didn't break, there wasn't a lot of blood, I was able to walk home with J.'s assistance (he was, of course, horrified), and except for a floor-burned face, fat lip, and impressive swelling and bruising on my leg, I'm OK and on the mend, and J. is too; his injury was in some ways worse but a lot less obvious.
Lying on a bed with ice packs for a day gave me some time to think. I guess some people would consider our style of travel too risky, or perhaps not age-appropriate, but the advantages of being willing to go off the beaten path have been tremendous for us. The surfaces in Mexico City are extremely irregular everywhere; you really have to watch out even when walking on the sidewalks, because there are holes, loose paving stones, bulges and dips, obstacles. The air quality is often terrible. The metro is extremely crowded, and could be - I suppose - scary and confusing, but it's also fast, efficient, and a way to share getting around the city with ordinary Mexicans that you would never experience otherwise. It's important to know what neighborhoods to avoid, and when; which cabs are safe and which aren't. You can buy all your food in fancy restaurants, or you can shop in the local mercados and street markets. If you do go onto the streets, poverty, helplessness, medical calamities, and desperation are going to be in your face, along with awareness of your own privilege and mobility. It helps to have a basic knowledge of the language, and to be able to communicate respectfully and personally with local people and ask for their help if necessary, when you yourself are vulnerable. In sum, we've found that we need to be extremely aware of our surroundings at all times: it reminds me of downhill skiing, where there is risk and real-time decision-making, to be sure, but also the reward of a different world of experience, with full attention in each moment. It only works if you are willing to be changed.
Crowds in the centro historico. There seemed to be few international tourists in the city while we were there.
So much travel has become a prepared and sanitized experience, which is why the unpredictability of global terrorism has kept many Americans, in particular, at home. It would be possibly to go to Mexico City and experience it entirely differently than we do, from luxury hotels to vetted cab rides and guided tours. Personally, I think each of us has to consider the statistics, our health and preparedness, and our own personal balance between risk and discomfort with uncertainty. I have never been afraid of flying; some people are. I regularly ride a bike in Montreal, where many people (especially my age) would not, and the paths are actually smaller, busier, and more dangerous than in Mexico City. We each make choices.
I grew up with a mother who was extremely risk-averse, especially about physical things, and a father who was much less so and determined to make me grow up unafraid. But, in general, people in my family did not travel much, or far: I've had to learn to do it. Part of that process has been learning to cope with some travel anxiety that came from my upbringing, and, ironically, that's been helped by occasionally getting sick or hurt or making a mistake, and finding out that I can survive. J. who was brought up by an international family and traveled a lot more than I did in his youth, has been a huge encouragement and help. I've discovered that if you're willing to travel the way we do way, you learn a great deal more than from taking cabs and staying in sanitized places that are prepared for western tourists. Interaction shows you how kind people are, and how willing they are to help. But it's not only that: I've learned a great deal about myself along the way, and gained a constantly shifting perspective rather than a fixed one. The stability in my life comes from an internal place, rather than external; I am grateful for that. I also realize that it's not what most people want, because at times I too find myself fighting with it, resisting, grasping for certainty and predictability. And then I step back, reconsider, and settle down.
I'll post some images of what we experienced over the next days, as we re-enter our life back home. One of the best aspects of this trip was staying in an apartment rather than the hotel we've used for the past four years; it allowed us to relax more and to cook our own food from the bountiful markets. And I found time to draw and paint; if we were to spend a longer period there I'd take better supplies and be even more intentional about it, because there is so much that calls to me.