Underbelly of the Sinking City
To see what's below the surface, I head down long flights of steps, squeezing onto the metro at the tail end of rush hour. The cars come frequently, but the crowds come faster. I haven't been this close to a batch of my fellow humans since I last joined a mosh pit at a concert. I watch the other riders to get clued in to the strategy, which seems to involve pushing as far in as you can if you are going to the end of the line, but staying close to the door and pushing closer as your stop arrives if you are only going a few stops.
I come back onto the metro many more times during my ten days of exploration, but outside of rush hour when the ride is much easier. I'm fascinated by the signage, each station having its own logo so the illiterate can still navigate with ease. I find it helpful too though: it's easier to catch a depiction of an apricot on the wall through a tiny space between shoulders and heads than it is to read "Chabacano." Many of the stations follow a theme, with elaborate murals depicting a historic event or grand decorations to convey the neighborhood outside. I start taking the metro even when it will only shave 10 minutes off my travel time. After all, I'm paying two pesos a ride, which equates to 15 cents U.S.
When I mention to a hotel general manager that I've taken the metro to his establishment, he raises his eyebrows and then quickly changes the subject, like I've told him I have a Costa Rican girlfriend who is only 16. I get such a similar reaction from other upper–crust Mexico City residents that I start throwing this detail into conversations just to amuse myself, to test whether the reaction is universal. It is. Apparently these educated managers have never ventured underground themselves. To them the underground transportation system might as well be in Moscow or Tokyo: they're just as unlikely to ride any of them.
I mention this to my newfound friend Jim a few days later at lunch. Jim is an expat from New York who has written a great book on Mexico City, so I pummel him with cultural questions I know a real local probably wouldn't answer. "I ride the metro all the time," Jim says, "and so do most of the other expatriates. But to a wealthy person in Mexico City, that's a world they don't know and don't want to know. They would rather sit in traffic for two hours in their own car than ride 15 minutes with the masses."
Apparently they don't go downtown either. "You're staying where? " a local friend asks incredulously when I say I'm in a small hotel near the central plaza. She looks up aghast, fork in mid–air, with a mix of sympathy and befuddlement. I tell her I'm really enjoying the atmosphere there, but she can't reconcile that with her own assumptions. To her El Centro is a den of thieves, murderers, and low–lifes and always will be, no matter what has transpired over the past decade.
"But what do you do at night?" she asks. "Just eat in your hotel?" I chuckle and rhapsodize about the great torta sandwich stand I found, the Museo de la Cervesa (museum of beer) bar two blocks away, and the amazing meal I had at El Cardenal. "Oh yes, El Cardenal," she says with a nod. "There's a branch in the Sheraton across from Alameda Park. You don't have to go to the center to eat there."
Maya, Mestizo, or Model?
As is so often the case in Mexico, I don't notice the racial subtleties until they slap me in the face and then I start seeing them everywhere I look. Like the metro, the city center is, well, dark. The clothes and cars aren't as fancy, there are no blonde beauties, and the collective skin color is different than it is in the neighborhood of Bentleys and Prada.
I see this clearly as I move in the course of a few subway stops from the huge Zocalo in the center to where I'm having a fancy tasting menu lunch with my friend in ritzy Polanco. As I leave the restaurant later, my credit card crying out in pain, I wander down Presidente Masaryk Avenue, past the Bang & Olufsen store and the showroom of a business that installs bulletproof glass in limos. An electronics store has big–screen TVs in the window, broadcasting the talk shows. These shows are led by blonde female newscasters and European–looking male hosts with sharp noses. Around the corner walks a perfectly coiffed young woman who puts the models in the fashion billboards overhead to shame. I stare too long, mesmerized by her piercing blue eyes, and she hurries past me into the soft–lighted comfort of the Louis Vuitton store.
The next day my writing assignment takes me out to Santa Fe, a purpose–built suburban office park where many multinational companies have their headquarters. I feel I've been dropped into an alternate universe. It looks like Silicon Valley, with wide parking lots, boring glass and steel office buildings, and workers all wearing roughly the same outfit. No one gives me a second glance here because most of the men look like me, albeit with fuller heads of hair. It's as if someone built an alternate capital, one where there was little need to deal with Aztec blood, earthquakes, or transportation that involves sharing a seat with someone else. The overall effect, however, ends up being a town without a soul—or even a decent taco stand.
As soon as I can, I walk past the taxi line and join the janitors and waitresses on a minibus heading back to the sinking city. I spend 20 cents instead of 15 dollars and cross a line that no local with the means to do otherwise would cross. As a foreigner I can ignore the segregation and pretend the line doesn't exist. In a city where many of the buildings are off–balance, rigid lines don't seem consistent anyway. Perhaps if everyone follows the mayor's lead, the city's citizens can all ride down the street as one on bicycles, the racial lines becoming as crooked as the walls of a cathedral.
Editor Tim Leffel is author of the books Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and The World's Cheapest Destinations (now in its 3rd edition). He is co-author of Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America.
Fear on the Menu by Tim Leffel
Officially a Woman in Mexico by Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Ten Years to Tequila: On the Agave Trail in Mexico by Tim Leffel
Other Mexico and Central America travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author:
Buy Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler's Guide to Getting More for Less at your local bookstore, or get it online here: