Monday, December 12, 2011

Metropolis on the move

Mexico City, known among Mexicans as "D.F." (for "Distrito Federal," a jurisdiction comparable to Washington, D.C.) or just plain "Mexico," is tantalizingly close to San Miguel, promising what Stew calls a "big-city fix."

"Angel of Independence" on Paseo de la Reforma.
Discounted fares for people over 60 are about 20 dollars round trip in luxury buses with two bathrooms, air-conditioning, sometimes a Wi-fi connection, plus lunch and a bottle of soda. Two American movies usually are shown, though the trip ends before the conclusion of the second feature, leaving passengers with an unsatisfying feeling of cinematus interruptus. So who really was the killer? people mutter as they claim their luggage.

Travel time is about three and half hours, relaxing enough until you get in a cab at the North Bus Station for the run to the hotel. This last leg can last anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes and provide amusement park-style kicks, depending on the temperament or mood of the driver. This past weekend we also found out that the seismic faults running through the city center's mushy subsoil can offer their own thrills.

As you approach the city its size is inescapable, a population mass of about 20 million give or take a million. Except for trolleys, Mexico City has every mode of mass transit known to man: trains underground, at street level and on elevated tracks, double- and triple-car articulated buses running on dedicated lanes, regular buses ranging from deluxe to belching rattletraps, plus some that run on electricity from overhead lines. Neither the abundance of mass transit or the ridiculously low fares, about 30 cents a ride, have an impact on the number of cars jerking in every direction like crazed ants.

Over the past decade air quality has either improved or that in competing cities like Beijing and Shanghai has worsened so much that Mexico City's looks pretty good by comparison. City officials say that the capital is no longer on the top ten of most polluted metropolises in the world. Residents add that on a really clear day you can actually make out the mountains that encircle the city, though I doubt it'll look anything like the Swiss Alps.

For its size, however, Mexico City lacks the ethnic and cultural variety so typical in places like Toronto, New York, Chicago, London and other large urban centers. No matter where you go, Mexico City seems and feels all-Mexican. In the streets, subways and buses you won't spot saris, turbans, Hasidic felt hats, or Muslim women wrapped in chadors like you see in Chicago or London, hear foreign languages or for that matter--except for tourists--see many African or Asian skin tones.

Lovers' altar on a park tree.
Economic differences evident in any major urban areas are much starker in Mexico City. We generally stay in a touristy area, near a Paris-like boulevard with imposing fountains called Paseo de La Reforma that was in fact designed to evoke the Champs Elysees. There's Fifth Avenue-style shopping in the Polanco neighborhood and walled mansions in various other areas. In the new Santa Fe area there's a huge shopping center surrounded by luxury high-rise condominium and office buildings that would fit right in Dallas or Houston.

Stew and I haven't even begun to explore all the different areas of the city but glimpses from the bus or the air tell us that La Reforma, Polanco or Lomas de Chapultepec are but tiny samples of a much vaster, almost impenetrable, urban expanse.

As you walk around the city constantly teases you. There's a neat little altar mounted on a tree on a park, with a spotless white lace cloth and a blue vase with flowers and the etching: "Juliana y Mauricio, 19 June 2003". A wedding memento? Did they die here? Who keeps this personal monument neat and tidy? Abandoned mansions, sooty and ominous yet still fabulous are also sprinkled on Reforma and the side streets. What happened to the rich people who lived here? Why were these mini palaces abandoned?

Jogger stretches on a street sculpture depicting
four electric chairs.
Still,  our searches for typical big-city ethnic neighborhoods--think Little Italy, Greek Town, Little Havana or Saigon--with their authentic, immigrant-run restaurants haven't turned up anything in Mexico City. There's a tiny Chinatown near the center, but hardly worth visiting. A large and very good Lebanese restaurant near the old colonial center hints at the sizable population of Lebanese descent in Mexico City that includes Carlos Slim Helu owner of most of the country's telephone system and one of or the richest man in the world, depending on the hiccups of the stock market. There's a large concentration of Jews in Polanco too but as far as we know, not a decent kosher deli serving an excellent pastrami sandwich on rye.

In front of the stock exchange, Mexico City's version 
of the Occupy Wall Street protests. 
Despite the occasional rancor Mexicans express toward gringos and anything American, the most significant foreign influences in Mexico City ironically come from the U.S. Mexicans love American movies, and just like in the U.S., the more lame-brained the better. American-designed clothing, genuine or rip-offs is ubiquitous, as are the stores selling it. A Mexican newspaper this weekend introduced me to the newest Spanglish terms, such as Twittear, Facebookear and Clickear.


During dinner on Saturday night, right about the time my flan con cajeta arrived, Mexico City pulled one of its scariest stunts: A 6.8 earth tremor that lasted for 40 seconds. Everyone at the restaurant dropped what they were doing and dashed for the door, with our Mexican dinner guest and the two of us not far behind. My last sight on the way to the parking lot was the Christmas tree in the lobby, decorated with garish blue lights, merrily swaying back and forth.

After ten minutes of nervous chatter and giggling on the spot in the parking lot designated as a gathering place in case of an earthquake, we headed back inside. We vacuumed our desserts and asked for the check right away.

Next day's Milenio newspaper reported a minor artistic panic at the Bellas Artes theater, a performing arts palace near the colonial center. A pianist was playing Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2, specifically the third movement titled "Funeral March." As the ground started to shake, the performer fled the stage and the audience headed for the doors. Tremors and funeral marches: That's a scary mix.

4 comments:

  1. Although I don't tune in very often (I forget to), I love your blogs. I'm particularly interested in this one, because my husband and I plan to visit Mexico City during our stay in SMA this coming February/March. I'm hoping that maybe nearer that time, you will share some suggestions about where to stay for a night or two.
    Oh...I just saw that I can subscribe by email. I'm going to do that right now. Thanks for sharing your interesting perspectives. Judy

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  2. Let me know when you're coming to DF and I'll be glad to share whatever I know. If you like big cities, Mexico City is great fun.

    al

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  3. Great blog! I am so happy to have discovered it via your comment on my post on Chia Seeds (much appreciated). I can tell I have to set aside some time to go back and read your various posts.

    This one was particularly interesting. I am so behind as to what is happening in DF--I welcome information like this. Thanks!

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  4. Great blog! I just discovered it via a much-appreciated comment you wrote on the post I did on Chia Seeds.

    I particularly welcome posts like this as I am woefully behind as to what is going on in D.F. Thanks! (I wrote this once, but it disappeared!)

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