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Meditations on Mexico City
As I begin writing this, I am on a flight back from Mexico City to New York (I finished the next morning back in the city). It has been a good one-week trip. Most of the time outside of the hotel was spent walking around the city, until either me or my wife Laura could walk no further, or at least had less than no interest in doing so. While it is still fresh, I figured I would write down my impressions.
If I had to summarize my take in one word, it would be healthy.
By that I certainly do not mean sanitary. Yes, even without drinking the water (aside from the ice they give you with your bottled water in restaurants, which seems like someone made a grave mistake somewhere), by the end Montezuma had his revenge, and it is not hard to see why given how the food is prepared and sold. We have rules about such things for a reason.
I also do not mean the economy, which is almost invisible in much of the city. We did try to check out the stock exchange, which is an adorable tiny circular building with a price scroll on top of it, but the guards were not interested in letting us take a closer look. I didn’t press the issue. The scroll seemed out of place, like someone was trying to be a symbolic version of a stock exchange building. I would be surprised if one person per hour who did not work there looked at the prices. The spirit of commerce was alive, but on a human scale. There were not taco trucks on every corner, because they don’t believe in trucks, but oh boy were they selling tacos.
We also checked out the markets. Walmart seems to be the place people go when they want an American-style supermarket, or an electronics department and so forth. When I lived in Renton I was very happy to have access to one, and in Mexico City it felt like the store was providing access to a variety of manufactured goods rather than offering goods on the cheap. Instead you got standardized, reliable goods and an American experience at a moderate additional cost. Context is everything.
The alternative was open air markets. They always make me smile, even if I don’t see them as that useful, and Laura loved seeing what they had to offer. The problem with such places is that a few things sell much, much better than other things. As a result, you see the same few things over and over, and they aren’t typically things I want. This is a problem markets are bad at, where offering something unique provides a lot more consumer surplus but you can make more money fighting for your share of the essentially fixed sale-of-staples pie. It is an underappreciated problem.
A few fast food chains did scatter the landscape, although not too many beyond Oxxo, which seems to be the 7-Eleven of Mexico. I did utilize two American restaurant locations, Maison Kaiser and Fogo de Chao, both of which should be welcome anywhere, but most of the American places were utter junk. Often when I saw an outlet, it felt profane. This seems odd, because I very much did not get the sacredness vibe from the city, but it still seemed to want to scream: We are good, decent people, and you are not welcome here. It is clear that when we send our commerce to Mexico, we are not sending our best.
That is what I mean by healthy. People seemed grounded in reality, in the now. Everything was practical. Those on their phones seemed like they had a purpose, rather than doing it to kill time. No one was in a rush to get anywhere. Which is good, and not only because the traffic was terrible around our hotel. I love that it is rude to get the check without asking for it, letting people relax, and also making it not rude to ask for the check either. Despite being relaxed, service was good everywhere, which is not what I am used to in other relaxed places – in my experience, if it is all right to spend two hours in a place, truly all right rather than tolerated, they are not about to let you spend much less. I still dread trying to get anyone I don’t know in Curacao to do anything.
We stayed at the hotel Marqis Reforma. It was a work of art in places and had a lovely little spa (once we found it, you had to go through the gym to get there). The place did everything a hotel is supposed to do, and that was a welcome refuge when we needed down time. Without a nice base, there is a lot of pressure to constantly be rushing off somewhere, whereas both of us needed some time to relax more than anything else. The first thing Laura said when she walked in was that if we spent the whole vacation at the hotel, that would be completely fine.
No question that it was nice, but now that I look back on it, there was something about it that didn’t belong in Mexico City. The vibe was different. Every day we would walk into our room to see infinite pillows. They were at least five deep. The first thing we had to do was toss the majority of them onto the floor. Somehow I feel like that just shouldn’t happen here. No one would do something actively impractical like that. The hotel offered free bottled water, with two little bottles that got restocked, and more available at the front desk, and prominently displayed two giant bottles of water for absurd amounts of money – not just mini-bar levels, we are all numb to the mini-bar by now, the level above that. Which is hard to do with a straight face, out in the open like that. People constantly jumped to help us even when there was obviously zero need for it.
It had that hotel vibe of we are trying to ‘get’ you. All of it was easy to avoid, but harder to quite put fully out of my mind, and the rest of the city said very clearly to me that, aside from assuming you want bottled water rather than the free filtered water we never quite figured out how to successfully ask for, we are NOT trying to ‘get’ you.
The exchange rate helps a lot, too, since even if someone does manage to get us, it barely even matters. It took the better part of the week for my brain to stop having momentary sticker shock at every price, because Mexico uses the dollar sign for pesos. It is remarkable how much I was wishing they would use any other symbol! Aside from that moment, and worrying a little about the language barrier, we could relax, really relax.
That is such a relief. Modern life is full of people and things trying to get you – I’ve been semi-forced to look at Facebook lately to see the comments people are making on my posts (yes I see them, probably, but if you want me to respond to them, post them here), and it is impossible for me not to see that the entire site is out to get us. Netflix used to feel like an ally in my entertainment quest, now it feels like an enemy. I gave up playing mobile games not only to be more productive with my time, but also because they are completely focused on getting you. It isn’t always money, often it is time, which if anything is worse. I feel like I’m on lookout all the time, and making choices to make that not quite as true as it might otherwise be. Even then, it is hard to understand how big a disutility this is until you get to witness its absence.
An even bigger relief is that Uber worked, and allowed us to use cabs across the language barrier. Laura speaks a bit of Spanish, and I speak almost none. There were some problems with the location sensor, but once we started entering our address manually, that problem too was solved.
The city is also gorgeous. If there is one thing I learned from Cities: Skylines it is that roundabouts are terrible, and being a pedestrian trying to cross them drove that point home even more, but Mexico City views them as opportunities to put up fountains and monuments. There are monuments everywhere, and they were cool, varied and joyous. Fountains were common. Having seen this done, it seems obviously correct, but such a thing is hard to fix once the damage is done. I love Central Park but it does feel like New York spent too many of its pleasantry points on the place.
Our one day trip was to the Pyramid of the Sun. It was big. The ancients knew how to build a giant pyramid out of rock. I bought a two dollar sombrero to block out the sun, and we climbed up the whole way. After we came back, the phone said we had climbed twenty floors. The view at the top was magnificent, including the Pyramid of the Moon, which seemed like it was in the worst possible location. Anywhere else it would have been damn impressive, here it was just the moderately smaller side show.
Outside advertising was mostly contained to billboards. There were a lot of billboards, but the market for their content does not clear. The result is that about half of all billboards contain eight numbers and nothing else. We quickly figured out these were phone numbers, but it took a while to realize the numbers were so people could rent the billboard. My first guess was that they were selling something else. Part of me still hopes they are all a giant spy operation, or an augmented reality game of some kind.
The first day, both Laura and I had the same thought: that if we were so inclined we could live here. It was a happy place, a healthy place. By the end of the week, we realized that wasn’t true, because Laura is allergic to the sun, and what I loved about the place wouldn’t really sustain me for months or years even if I did learn Spanish, but if a community was looking for a place to go en masse, you could do a lot worse. More than anything, it inspired me to hold onto as much of the positive vibe as possible now that I am back. I am quite glad we came.