Follow the adventure from the beginning

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

One in a Million – er, Make that Twenty

The Middle of Mexico

If you’re not afraid of Mexico City, you probably should be. Even the Mexicans tell me, “You can’t mess around in D.F. [Distrito Federal],” and I believe them.            

Mexico City is one of the largest urban centers in the world with more than 20 million inhabitants spread across what used to be a giant swamp. No walking alone after dark; no flashy clothes or jewelry; God forbid you wear shorts; don’t carry your debit card anywhere (express kidnappings land you at an ATM with some guy demanding that you empty your account on the spot); and never, ever hail a cab from the street.

I haven’t been able to find Mexico City on any published list of the world’s most dangerous places, but by the time my flight lands at the Benito Juarez International Airport, I’m feeling something like those poor exchange students who came to Mexico City from Europe in 2004 and were treated to the oh-so-appropriate in-flight entertainment, “Man on Fire,” with Denzel Washington.

            From the air, Mexico City looks like an enormous beached whale; only you can’t see where its mouth begins or where its tale ends. In fact, it’s so huge that you can get to Mexico City by flying to any one of four international airports. Benito Juarez International, however, is the only airport in the world located directly in the center of a major metropolis. Building, office building, restaurant, and oh! There’s a runway, apartment complex, oops! Another runway. This airport is Mexico’s largest and Latin America’s busiest, and has been the center of numerous drug trafficking investigations (see this 2008 Los Angeles Times article). The advantage of flying into Benito Juarez is that it helps travelers who are headed toward the city’s center avoid the brick wall of traffic on inbound thoroughfares.

            And oh, the traffic. In many ways, life in D.F. boils down to sentences and decisions that begin and end with the qualifier, “with or without traffic.” I know parents who live in the northern part of Mexico City with kids who live in the south, and they rarely see each other. The trip between north and south can take the better part of a day – up to five hours if you include the entire metropolitan area with traffic, a taxi driver tells me.

A few years ago I came to Mexico City for 48 hours on a cheap ticket whim from Monterrey and hired someone to take me along Mexico City’s north-south corridor, Insurgentes. I gave up on the challenge after just a short hour and a half of eyebrow tweezing progress.

One friend who works ten minutes away from where I’ll be staying without traffic says, “We can’t do lunch. It’ll take me over an hour to get to you. We’ll have to wait until after 8:30 or 9pm.” That’s why people here eat dinner sometime around 9:30 at night. And it’s why many employees don’t leave the office before 8pm – just waiting for the rush hour bustle to settle. As far as I can tell, though, it’s always rush hour here.

A white Suburban takes me from the airport into the heart of the largest web I’ve ever visited. We push 50 – 60 mph on roads that wouldn’t allow for more than 35 mph in the U.S. The Sunday night before Mother’s Day in Mexico is one of the few moments of relatively free movement in the city, and my taxi driver is having at it.

Faster than I can say “Bienvenidos a Mexico!” I’m surrounded. It’s an exhilarating feeling to be in the very middle of the Western Hemisphere – historically and culturally. Mexico City is the birthplace of an entire civilization that is as ancient as the Aztecs and as modern as the Torre Mayor, the city’s tallest skyscraper where Apple Computers, AIG, McKinsey, Deloitte, Hewlett Packard, Japan Airlines International, and IXE Financial Group all have offices. I’m in a time warp that is rich with tortilla recipes inherited from generations of maiz-loving grandmothers, and forward-thinking philosophers from some of Latin America’s most prestigious universities.

This taxi is a slingshot, and I’m about to be catapulted into space.

“Christine! You made it! Come in, come in,” my new roommate, Claudia says. She pulls my suitcase inside the door and shows me where I’ll be sleeping for the next month. It’s an awesome apartment with 9th story views toward Santa Fe and Polanco, a few steps from el Angel de la Independencia, and minutes from the U.S. Embassy.

“Tomorrow I’ll take you on a long walk to help you get situated,” she says. “And we’ll grab lunch with some friends from the office. Don’t worry about a thing,” she says. “You’re going to be just fine here, and we’re going to have a great time.”

If you’re not in love with Mexico City, you really should be. Even the Mexicans tell me, “There’s no place in the world like D.F.,” and I believe them. 


  1. Nice ending.

    Also DF seems like it'll get you ready for Jo'burg.

  2. Nice entry! I'm glad you ended on a positive note, because I promise, this city is truly amazing. (As long as you are not sitting in a car between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m., and 7:30 and 9 p.m.) I've lived here for about a year-and-a-half and have felt extremely safe the whole time -- I take public transportation, carry around my debit card, have walked by myself at night, and I've even hailed cabs off the street when no other option presented itself. (This is what happens at Christmas time when you live near Reforma... getting a sitio cab is next to impossible.) Hope you enjoy your stay here! And if you're interested in exploring any of the street food options in your 'hood -- it happens to be my 'hood, too -- let me know. There's a great burrito joint near Reforma 222 that you must try.

  3. Confession: I have read your blog before and it is phenomenal. You are a very talented and intelligent writer. We definitely went to the same high school and had the same English teachers!
    I will definitely keep up with your blog more often and post when I have something to say.

  4. Great entry. I haven't been to Mexico in awhile, but your words make me want to go back!

    Please keep writing, you definitely have a gift.