A clear day, two years ago.
Mexico City's air quality has improved in the last two decades, but it is not exactly good. On clear days, the view from our hotel room included the mountains in the distance, but during this particular stay, that was an exception.
A typical recent day.
The city is at 7,000 feet, and fills the Valley of Mexico: once surely one of the most beautiful places on earth, surrounded by mountains including active volcanoes more than 17,000 feet tall.
Above, The Valley of Mexico from Del Rey Mill, by Jose Maria Velasco, painted in 1900. The Chapultepec castle is in the middle and the city itself is the small white expanse in front of the lake. Today the castle and its woods are a park, with the city extended all around them, over all the green space you can see in the picture above. Popocatepetl, on the right, erupted recently and has no snow cover at the present time.
Looking in the same direction on a pretty clear day, from the Torre Latinoamericana: nothing but city fills the entire valley.
For the first couple of days, travelers from lower altitudes, like us, generally experience some breathlessness, especially when walking fast, carrying luggage, climbing stairs. I don't usually have too much of a problem with that. But I was very aware of discomfort in my lungs, and found myself coughing. After a week, I came down with a respiratory flu. Whether it's something I picked up on the airplane, or in the crowded metro, I'll never know, but I'm convinced that my lungs were already struggling from the pollution. Now at home, a week later, I'm still ill but gradually getting better. Yesterday when I looked out of the airplane at the frozen fields of Quebec, I wasn't shuddering like many of my fellow passengers: I couldn't wait to take a breath of that cold, clean air.
I was on the street every day, both as a cyclist and pedestrian. Every day, trucks passed us belching black smoke, buses filled the air with diesel fumes, the highways were choked with car traffic. In our neighborhood and all through the city, many people work outside or in spaces that are open to the outdoors - there's no way they can avoid exposure to the air. The effects on everyday health must be devastating. I don't think I couldn't survive there, but for the 22 million citizens of Mexico City, there's no choice. What about all the people who live in the Maximum Cities of the world, and can't fly away to places with better air, let alone water and sanitation? I have a close friend in Beijing. She has no options in that very polluted city.
What I observed, and the fact of my own fragility, have made me think a lot this week about us as biological organisms, with simple needs for air, water, and nutrition: things the earth naturally provides in abundance. Most of the time, we don't even think of ourselves in this way - like a plant or a bird or a goldfish - so dependent are we on our technologies and the ways they keep us removed from and oblivious to the cycles of life. I've thought about what we are doing to ourselves and all the living things, and it's been more appalling to me than ever. Air to breathe: the most basic requirement of all, and yet for millions and millions of human beings, even this is impossible.
What do the indigenous people think? First the Spanish came and violently took away their land, massacred thousands of people, decimated their rich and highly-developed native culture, and converted the people to Christianity; then industrialization destroyed much of the natural world with which they had always lived in harmony. And now, many of the indigenous people are forced to come into the city for work, to sell their foods or handcrafts on the street, or worse yet, to beg. In Mexico as nearly everywhere, the darker one's skin, the more discrimination there is, the more menial the jobs, and the fewer chances for education and economic advancement. There's more than one way to suffocate, and unfortunately the people with the least power are always the ones who suffer the most.
As I hope is obvious, I love Mexico, and I don't mean to be negative - simply realistic about some of the very real problems that became even more obvious to me during this trip. The legacy of colonialism continues, and we have to look it in the face if there is ever to be a hope of addressing what we've wrought.