Grant McWilliams

Travel Trip Journals Central Mexico - 2010 Culture shock in Mexico City

Culture shock in Mexico City

Describe Mexico City in two words? Sensory overload! I'm very careful about recommending Mexico City to travellers because of the intensity of it all. I usually ask people where else they've traveled and if they enjoyed it. If they say they just loved Aculpulco, Cancun or PV then I'll probably tell them to keep going to those places. If they say they were in Istanbul and got a kick out of the Grand Bazaar then I'll recommend Mexico City to them. Note that I wouldn't recommend against Mexico City for any of the reasons that people think – crime, pollution or danger in getting sick. I'd recommend against it because it's full force sensory overload and a very foreign place. People get a little miffed when I tell them that Europe is a lot like America. My first trip to England I thought it was some really foreign country and I couldn't believe how hard it was to get around. Now I smile when I think of that because to me England's primary worth is to change airports to catch a plane to a destination with more punch. England outside of an accent difference and not driving on the same side of the road is very much like America. They have most of the same companies, cars, types of foods etc... France is a bit more intense because of the depth of their culture but still if you took a French person and dropped him in the middle of a major US city you'd not be able to find him until he spoke. Mexico City though is a very different story.

 

Where do I start with Mexico City? If it weren't for the basis in Catholicism and the Spanish colonial buildings we'd have no connection with this country and it's main city. For anyone who's been to the main four or five coastal resort towns I'm going to go out on a limb and say you've not seen anything of Mexico yet. I had a friend that said he really liked adventure so they went to PV (Puerto Vallarta) and one day they ventured outside their resorts gated area and into a “slum” and ate some tacos. If that's adventure I don't know what is! :-)

You might be wondering what makes Mexico City so intense then and that's what I'm about to attempt to answer. I'd relate the experience of going to Mexico City as being more like Istanbul or maybe Morocco than anywhere in Europe, the States or the 5 Mexican resort towns. When flying into Mexico City (or Day Effay as the locals call it – District Federal) at night you're blown away by how far this city goes. It's very difficult to measure a city when it has as many people as this so I'll refrain from throwing around numbers but it's one of the largest in the world along with Tokyo. As a rough comparison you could put New York City, Los Angeles and possibly Chicago in it, so as you can imagine it's immense. It has many social problems which you will no doubt encounter while you're here. I'll talk about those in a minute but for now to give you an impression of Mexico City I'll tell you about our own arrival.

Because of a massive ticket price reduction we flew from Portland Oregon to Atlanta Georgia and then to Mexico City. I love arriving in Mexico City after dark because it gives me a real sense of the size of the city by the lights. The MEX airport looks a lot like 70s concrete prison with wall to wall indoor/outdoor carpet and not much else. So we arrive not knowing if immigration will let us in because our passports are getting ready to expire. There are some countries that will turn you away if you have less than 6 months on them. When the immigration official scanned that first passport, stamped it and handed it back you could have seen all my muscles relax if you'd had your eyes trained on me for very long. He stamped the rest of them, took our immigration cards and welcomed us to Mexico. The next step was to pass through customs and play the “do you want customs officials to manually search your bags lottery” which is always fun. All bags go through giant scanners which to be honest probably aren't even turned on but they make the criminals a bit more nervous. Then after your bag is scanned you take it up to a stand an push a button – if the light turns green you go, if not you get searched. It's always fun and a bit nerve racking. No poker faces here, it's completely random.

After customs you walk out into a series of grand hallways all leading to different places none of which you have any interest in. Your main mission at this point is to get pesos and get a registered taxi. To combat taxi fraud which is rampant you buy your taxi ticket to your destination at a taxi booth and then take the ticket to a taxi. That way no money changes hands between you and the taxi driver. If you think this is just a Mexican problem you'd be very wrong – I wish most of the major cities in Europe would adopt this because it's a major problem there as well. The Mayer of Prague put on a disguise and took three taxis to see how bad it was and he got ripped off twice and the third guy recognized him. This is a problem everywhere and Mexico has found a decent solution for now. Mexico also had a problem with taxi drivers taking you to your ATM and helping you decide how much money you need to take out as well but that's a different story.

So we get our registered taxi which is a Chevy HHR – a definite improvement over last time which was a little rattle trap with a back door that wouldn't close all the way - I'm sure you can use your imagination. I have to take a break for a second just to mention that walking into Mexico City is like being drawn into a Roger Rabbit cartoon. Everything resembles reality but is just funnier than crap sometimes. I spend a lot of time smiling here and even writing this gives me chuckles. Back to the story. A couple of years ago we hired a driver to take us to Xochimilco – Fernando was his name. Fernando told us you needed two things in order to drive in Mexico City – first you needed a drivers license and second you needed to be crazy. I concur. Lanes are optional and traffic lights a mere suggestion. It's amazing that I've never seen a wreck in this city but I think they just get very good at defensive (and offensive) driving. My first point that lanes are optional is realized by the taxi only staying between the lines about 50% of the time. In Ecuador I'd say they're never between the lines so this is an improvement but a part of me says they're only between the lines when trying to avoid running into someone else who also happens to be between the lines in the next lane. As soon as that danger has passed they just drive wherever. The second point about traffic lights is true. Between the airport and our hotel near the Zocolo we ran EVERY red light! It wasn't like someone in America running a red light though by whizzing through it at the last moment but rather he'd slow down, look both ways and if there wasn't any traffic he'd just hit the gas again. This is not the only place in Mexico where I've seen this. I did however, see some cars sitting at red lights so I assume that not everyone runs them. If anyone has insight as to who gets to run the reds then I'm all ears. There's another thing I need to say about me not recommending people to come here – they don't speak English! We've encountered many people in shops and on the street and we've found two people that speak English, one at our hotel and a tourist guide at the Zocolo. We did encounter a kid that knew his numbers in English but that's it. If you need to be pampered and want someone to speak English to you then Italy or the resorts may be a better choice.

Another thing that people dwell on about Mexico is they ask if it's dirty. Well, yes I suppose it is. But then I can show you some pretty nasty areas of London or Paris as well and there are parts of Los Angeles that are trash dumps. I think in any country where the average yearly wage is roughly what I make in 4 days things are going to be a bit rough. There just isn't a lot of money to repaint buildings, fix sidewalks or clean streets. I will say this though that if Mexico can ever get to a point where they're making enough money to fix the place up they are sitting on a gold mine! You heard it here first. I will probably be going more into detail in the coming week or so but I this city is packed with so many beautiful colonial Spanish buildings and ancient ruins and in combination with the awesome culture and food it's crazy that people don't come here.  Since I have international readers I should quantify that by saying I don't know why more Americans don't come here. If you see a white person in Mexico City he/she is probably from Europe and I'd put money on it that they're German. But then Germans are everywhere. You could climb to the top of Mount Everest and there'd be a young German couple in their tan backpacker pants and the girls blond hair pulled back into a ponytail... Seriously.

Mexico in general is a gold mine. There are more ancient cities here than anywhere on earth including Greece, Italy and Egypt but there isn't enough money to excavate them or provide infrastructure. If they could uncover all the ruins and provide infrastructure these guys would be rolling in cash. National Geographic did an article on the Maya region and through satellite imaging they estimated there were about 250,000 covered cities in the Yukatan penninsula. This does not include the cities of the Aztecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs, Teotehaucanos and the many many other civilizations that have lived here. It's overwhelming to be honest. I have an Archaeological guide to Mexico and just when I get done reading about the history of some civilization I've heard of I get to the next chapter and they start talking about another one, and another one and another one. Mexico from 400 BC to 1500 AD wasn't that much different than Europe with many many different “countries” struggling for power and cultural dominance. The largest city on earth has been in the Valley of Mexico three times by three drastically different civilizations over the course of 1500 years. Tenochtitlan would have been the worlds greatest tourist attraction had the Spanish not been blinded by the hopes of finding gold so they razed the pyramids and palaces and filled in the canals in the lake that the city was built on. For those of you who don't know Tenochtitlan was practically a floating city with water for streets not unlike Venice Italy. The Spanish like most catholic countries wanted to assimilate the locals and steal their gold. Ancient temples and local culture had no value – idiots. What people will do in the name of religion.

Anyway Mexico = Goldmine. I'm in amazement just walking around Mexico City looking up at the buildings... This could be Vienna or Madrid or Paris in a lot of areas. It needs Paris' yearly budget though and that's not going to happen.

Just as a teaser I'm going to upload a few photos to get you by. Later I'll write about our first full day here.