A Long Week-End in Mexico

I took a trip to Mexico City over the long weekend — it was my first time there, and I absolutely loved it. The city surprised me in many ways, and didn’t match at all the picture in my mind. I was expecting dry landscapes scattered with cacti, and instead I saw what was undoubtedly the most green and lush city I’ve ever visited. Almost every street is bordered with a continuous line of tall, luxuriant trees, and there are potted plants  in every shop, café and restaurant.

The general mood in the streets is calm, peaceful, and at the same time vibrant, joyful, and insouciant. People don’t hurry around or push each other like they do in New York City. They smile easily and don’t get impatient if you take too long to decide what you’ll order, or if you don’t speak their language. There is a general feeling of dolce vita: people stroll, kids play, and there is often music playing from storefronts and balconies… The street is a place of life, instead of a mere corridor used to get from A to B, like in the US. To be fair, the amazing climate certainly helps.

(As an aside, there is something to be said about this insouciance, inside a country reputed to be dangerous. In America this is contrasted with downright paranoia and over-caution. A friend recently told me the story of an acquaintance of his, who got arrested by the police for leaving his 9-years old child unattended for a couple of minutes in a public park in SF. Compare this to the many groups of kids who were safely playing football in squares in Mexico City, with minimal adult supervision. Coming to America, I was expecting to meet reckless cowboys chewing tobacco. Instead, I saw skinny-jeans wearers who will never jaywalk, leave their kids unattended, or go to work if it’s raining outside — though that last one might be specific to California.)

To my embarrassment, I was also expecting a dangerous city. I wasn’t exactly thinking I’d get mugged in just 3 days, but we can all be nervous when our only exposure to a new place has been through network news outlets. Even in the most cosmopolitan cities one can always feel when they’ve wandered into the wrong neighborhoods. I felt none of that in Mexico City, even walking in small dark alleys at night — I certainly felt a lot safer there than I do in San Francisco. I also saw much fewer homeless people, and the few I encountered did not seem as terribly mentally ill, or drug addicted to as an extreme degree. 

Speaking of not speaking their language, this was one thing that disappointed me: almost everybody there whom I encountered speak absolutely no English — and by that I mean, are unable to count up to five.  I don’t mean to sound elitist, rather I’m genuinely curious as to why this is. You would assume a relatively poor country (their GDP per capita is $9k, one sixth that of the US), sharing a border with two of the most wealthy states of the wealthiest country on earth, would deem it useful to learn their language — especially when it’s so grammatically simple, and shares the same alphabet as them. Incidentally, this English illiteracy also exists in Spain, the only European country I’ve visited where people did not commonly speak English. I speak almost no Spanish myself (although a huge percentage of words are cognates in French), which made it quite hard to communicate with them. This hindered my trip, cutting me off from any meaningful exchange with locals — next time, I’ll try going with a Spanish-speaking friend. I enjoyed the city so much that I’m considering learning some Spanish, just in case I decide to extend my stay there someday.

One thing that will certainly bring me back to Mexico is the food. There really aren’t that many Mexican restaurants where I grew up in France, and I’ve just learnt that what San Franciscans call Mexican food is, indeed, very different from the real thing. First, the food in Mexico City is generally a lot less spicy than one would expect, and a lot less spicy than its Californian counterpart. Second, the ingredients are fresh, and of very good quality. The guacamole especially tastes completely different, probably as a result of using avocados of better provenance. 

A lot of these meals are consumed in Izakaya-like shops in the streets. Those abound, contributing to what seems to be a huge informal economy. One can buy just about anything from corner vendors, most of which don’t accept credit cards — I’d be surprised if much taxes were paid on these transactions. I couldn’t help but think of the inefficiency represented by all those vendors (about 2 per block!), standing all day next to their carts, only there to put cash in a leather pouch and hand a product to a customer who could easily have taken it themselves. Their omnipresence reminded me of Tokyo’s vending machines — I guess the reason they haven’t been automated yet is because their labor is just so cheap. In any case, they add a lot of charm and life to the streets.  

Despite the relative pleasingness of the city, some things are still there to remind you that you’re in a relatively poor country. Although the streets were extremely clean (much cleaner than SF’s), some neighborhoods right in the center of the city have a pungent stench of sewer throughout the day. Everybody warns you not to drink the tap water, huge construction machines are active right next to pedestrians, electric and phone cables installed in a hodgepodge manner, and, the unforgivable sin, the Internet connection was dreadful.

Despite any expectation I may have had, I had a blast, and I can’t wait to explore more of that beautiful country. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get there in the first place, especially when it’s a mere 5h flight away from SF. Next time, maybe Puerto Vallarta, or Cancún.

(all pictures by @ludoviclandry)