So too, with cities.
It seems it is easier to write about a place that you just pass through. When you’re a visitor (and one could argue about how long it takes to shed the ‘visitor’ status – a week? a year?) you collect a handful of specific, vivid, vignettes from a place, prime for recounting. When you hang around, it becomes easier to perceive a place’s layers; the stories for retelling begin to accumulate, intertwine and blur. This is neither good nor bad, but it has made writing about our month in Mexico City hard.
And, neither Drew nor I have been quite as excited about a place since our respective arrivals in Berlin and New York City, about a decade ago. As urbanists who both came to the profession from a deeply emotional connection to the ‘sidewalk ballet’ of cities, Mexico City moved us. For this reason, no single or sequence of blog posts could possibly convey all we absorbed and relished, nor do justice to the entirety of the place and our slice of experiences in it.
But I do remember our first morning. We stumbled back into North America the night before, dry mouthed and bleary eyed, with the awe of Machu Picchu on our backs. We took a short taxi ride to our lodging, where our mom-of-a-host greeted us warmly and without complaint at 2:09 a.m. She demonstrated how to use the purified water dispenser, warned us not to look at our phones on the street, told us to have fun, and said goodnight.
We crashed and awoke a heavenly nine hours later to a Mexico City morning.
Outside our yellow building on a dead-end street, we greeted a sun-drenched day in Roma Sur. A leap away from our front door, a bursting jacaranda tree released a handful of its endless purple petals onto the sleepy intersection below. The air was dry, clear, and cool, though the sun had warmed it in patches. We walked towards breakfast in silence, taking in this new home.
The buildings in this part of the city are colorful and old, charmed with wrought iron and a largely pastel palette. Roma Sur has all of the easy charm of its neighbors Roma Norte and Condesa to the north and west, but less of the polish. Parts have a colonial feel, while a strong art deco theme also makes its mark. Cars move slowly and the abundant, leaf-heavy trees have been leaning over the sidewalks with wisdom for decades.
Our first meal consisted of several different components (my favorite way of eating), including panqué de elote (a kind of dense, cake-y corn bread), café de olla (coffee with cinnamon, a little cane sugar and other spices, traditionally prepared in special ceramic pots), fresh squeezed orange juice, enchiladas, chilaquiles, and fresh bread (because why not?). We lingered over it, smiling, and smiling again.
Having nothing to do with the morning’s meal whatsoever, later that afternoon we went for a run. Our destination was the public office of Ecobici, the city’s bikeshare system. There, we took a brief digital road test to confirm we understood CDMX traffic safety laws (we both proudly passed the test – in Spanish – with 100% scores) and paid our $25 USD for an annual bikeshare membership, allowing us to freely zoom around the city on two wheels.
That is about where, more than a month later, my memory begins to blur (though I’m fairly sure our next stop was tacos). So, in no particular order and again, without anything close to completeness, a few other things from the next 27 days that blew our minds:
In the end, the best thing about this city was everything about it. We were fattened, stirred and inspired.
Certainly, Mexico City is not without flaws. Like any big city, poverty abounds outside the well-trodden corridors. Sanitation and lack of clean drinking water are major issues, and income/employment inequality – particularly for indigenous populations – are very real issues, as is a fragile judicial system and rampant corruption (we might someday share our tale of paying off a cop to avoid a night in prison for a minor infraction in a public park).
And I would be remiss not to acknowledge the many ways in which our brief life here did not, could not, mirror that of true residents. For one, most of the time, we had nowhere to be. We could wander, sleep late, avoid traffic, act on impulse. For another, we were treated as visitors, all the more welcomed for our earnest attempts to crack jokes in Spanish and our goofy and constant excitement for everything we saw, ate, and experienced. This kind of enthusiasm tends to endear oneself to others, and we were largely rewarded with treatment that typical residents may not enjoy from the average street vendor or subway station attendant.
Concessions and admissions duly noted and fully factored in, it is still the case that we fell in love. And we’ll be savoring these memories and this rare thrill as long as it takes to return (which we hope, is not long at all).
p.s. Our initial explorations of CDMX were guided by a handful of helpful resources shared by various friends who had come before us. Building from a great map created by our planning school classmate, friend, and Mexico City native, Ulises, we tracked a lot of our destinations – food-based and otherwise – in the map below! For anyone who’s planning their own visit (or just curious) feel free to peruse for more insights on what we did and where we went, including some personalized commentary within each pin.