Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Letter from Mexico City

Photos by the author
Travel is the great cure for complacency. It´s also a decent way to shake off the stresses of the end of an academic year (the prior post was assignment-related, hence its likely oddness) and reacquire a taste for reality. How that taste is perceived and processed can be something else entirely, though.

So I´m sitting here in the D.F., sipping a (real) Coke and coming to terms with the last few days in the biggest and possibly most overwhelming city in the Western Hemisphere.

Oh my God you can´t be serious, the sensible folks say. Why would you ever want to go to Mexico City? It´s so dangerous and dirty and you can´t drink the water and it´s dangerous and so on, as if every step made by a tourist here was paced by pickpockets and drunk Emilio Zapata wannabes and toxic air and gastric distress.

Forget it all. The lot of it is nonsense, a bunch of outdated, borderline racist stereotypes. You do realize that you are in a VERY large and often confusing place (especially if you´re not a semi-competent Spanish speaker, which neither German-major I nor Russian-immigrant Wonderful One are), but Mexico City has almost completely outrun its bad reputation. The people here are wonderful, the air isn´t bad (it is thin; we are pretty high up here), I can´t openly endorse every tiny ramshackle taquerita you stroll past but the food situation has been pretty stable so far. Yes, everyone drinks bottled water. They do that in France too, by the way.

But it is insanely crowded and noisy and busy and often chaotic. If you´re not at ease in crowds, this is not your place. If you´ve ever been to Times Square, take that and multiply it by itself and spread it over several dozen square miles. That said, there are times of peace and beauty to be had on a regular basis. The Zocalo alone can be utterly beatific.

Also, if you´re from el Norte and need to find your bearings in the midst of it all, just watching the traffic go by can be very interesting.

The old rep for Mexico being little more than a hive of Beetles is as outdated as the rest of it all. Instead, modern Mexico City traffic is a charming mix of mostly modest wheels from around the globe: hatchbacks and small sedans, Fords and Nissans and Renaults, the occasional SUV or pony car or luxury ride. It´s a very pleasant break from the bigger-is-better/status-symbol subliminal anxiety of motorized American life. I´m sure there´s a flood of serious socioeconomic issues underpinning the prevalence of pretty basic transportation, but regardless it´s nice to be somewhere other than a place where a car must either have a highline German badge or take up more space than my hotel room.

Cars also last a long time here, which makes for an interesting mix. Those basic wheels often require little more than basic maintenance. Rust is nearly nonexistent owing to the desert-dry air. The streets can be rough but speeds are usually modest until you get on the highway, and even then high velocity usually isn´t a high priority. Personal favorite I´ve seen so far was a lovely cherry-red four-door Datsun 510 in impeccable shape with a very happy family out for a Sunday evening drive. I´m still trying to find a good classified listing to check price ranges.

Even if the Beetle hegemony has faded, there is plenty of intriguing stuff here for Wolfsburg partisans. There is still no shortage of Beetles and vans on the street. Past that is the presence of the smaller cars that VW never offered to us decadent oversized Yankees: the Pointer, the Gol, the Lupo. VW´s sexier Spanish sister Seat is also popular.

What is increasingly unpopular is the use of Beetles as taxis. There are still some puttering about, but people in general are encouraged to use the now more common four-door sedans done in traditional gold and red. The majority of those turn out to be Nissan B13 Sentras, here badged as Tsurus.

While we´re on the idea of slightly unexpected vehicle applications, the police car of choice here is the Dodge Avenger.

Go figure.

I´m sure the small-car mentality here is dictated at least in part by the close-quarters knife-fight nature of local driving, although at least the Aztecs had the great logic and foresight to use a grid plan for their cities which puts Mexico City far ahead of many later cities in the ease-of-navigation stakes (looking at you, Boston, although deep downtown NYC is no fun either). The same general size preference goes for motorcycles; there´s the occasional Harley or Open-class sportbike to be seen, but most two-wheelers have 100 to 150cc engines and handling to rival a mountain bike - much to their advantage. Punch the engine out to 250 or so and the Yamaha FZ-S would be a deeply compelling first bike for anyone, especially for its sub-$3000 asking price.

All the same, I´m in no hurry to try my chances in traffic here. The subway system isn´t bad (interesting note: the Bombardier-made subway cars run on tires) and there´s just so unbelievably much to take in that I don´t know if I´d be able to focus on safely navigating traffic. We´ll have four or so full days here and won´t come close to having a clue about what really goes on.

Off to Cancun in two days, back home to the known world after that. It won´t seem the same.

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