Buenas tardes from the tropics! Or the rainy tropics, I should say. At over 7000ft, in July Mexico City is a rainy, thunderstorming megalopolis. Like clockwork, at 8pm the drizzle, then the thunder, then the downpour arrives. It miraculously misses rush hour every day, although it tends to interrupt the nightly excursion for dinner and cerveza. Our best Mexican purchase so far—a ginormous paragua, an umbrella perfect for protecting both of us from the rain, but also sending little old ladies off the sidewalk in fear of its stadium shadow.
I am astounded at how little Mexico City is what I expected. A city of over 18 million (the third largest in the world, I think), Mexico City is not the seething, crowded version of North Clark St. I was expecting. Although the metro is shoulder-to-shoulder in rush hour, the rest of the city is, well, relaxed. Everyone but the hawkers meanders slowly through Spanish-era streets, and there always seems to be room on the sidewalk. Traffic is calm, smog is not too bad, and most street noise is the latest dance or son music blaring from a stereo shop. Much of the central city is a fusion of American, European, and indigenous influences—the clothing stores and architecture are Spanish, the cars and t-shirts American, and the music and dancers decidedly Mexican.
I had heard horror stories about Mexico City before coming here. I heard about poverty, pollution, and crime. So far I have seen little of that myself. Most notably missing is the abject poverty I had been warned about. Perhaps I am jaded from travel in India and South Africa, but even the slums on the outskirts of the city are not that bad—families have houses! with walls and ceilings! garbage is actually collected! sewage is properly drained! What’s more, the city center seems to evenly and fairly mix with everyone who lives in the city. The grand Catholic (and therefore Spanish) Catedral Metropolitan is built atop the ruins of the Templo Mayor, the site where the Aztecs saw the eagle noting the center of the universe. The Palacio National (where President Vicente Fox reports to work every day) rubs shoulders with a miles-long market, where street vendors sell freshly made tacos and young men peddle underwear and sunglasses. The fancy Gran Hotel de Mexico looks out across the Zocalo, where protestors and proteges of Zapata demonstrate for their cause du jour.
Mexico City is downright fabulous! The mole verde lures me in for dinner, the mothers and daughters out for evening strolls make me giggle, and the ease of haggling makes it nigh impossible to stick to a budget. Although I think Ross and I are safe from spending our precious pesos in bars. Our first night, we ventured into the bar beneath our hotel, lured by friendly locals and an accordian player. We were greeted by a voluptuous girl insisting that Ross and I chug our cervezas (she force-fed him), then insisting that I was Spring Break and must therefore go topless. After numerous denials of her request, she then proceeded to sidle herself between Ross and I, and began asking me if there were programas infideles in Chicago like there are in Mexico. Thinking she meant that people cheat, I said yes to infideles, no to programas. What do you know, that wasn’t what she meant. Apparently, this girl (and her older male friends periodically declaring their love for me) wanted to swing. Once her intentions were made clear by her groping (of me and Ross), we got the hell out of there.
Bienvenidos a Mexico!
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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