Apr 30, 2013

new digs in the df

New digs a la Casa Kay. I love the floor to ceiling windows everywhere, but it would be nice if there was something to see. Also, I need to find something to put my clothes in/on/around. Maybe a trip to the hardware store is in order…

Apr 27, 2013

working for the weekend

Got to sleep in an extra hour today. Had a relatively leisurely morning of making banana pancakes and listening to old American blues and soul music. There’s something about the combination which makes me happy and nostalgic for pancake breakfasts with friends and family, and makes me think of St. Louis.

Left for work a little after 9. One of the things I love about Mexico city is there’s such an intensity of street life. Walking to work, I passed through the usual hubub of the vendors and stalls around the metro entrance, and then past a huge neighborhood market of clothes and housewares. Also passes by a commercial being filmed at one of the local corner stores.

Got to work at 10:30 and worked until 8, at which point I was getting very worried if I was going to be able to catch a combi back, so I just left. Felt really bad since the team’s been working really late hours every day. What could I do? I might have been able to call Alejandro and figure out which combi gets close and then walk, but everything is a little more dangerous and is a little harder when you’re a gringo with a tentative grasp of the language. Ended up not having any problems catching a combi back. Actually, I felt so bad I wrote them an apology email when I got home.

And I’ll be able to apologize in person tomorrow, when I come back in for another full day of work.

comida familiar

Silvia made chicken tinga today, from her mom’s (Sal’s abuelita) recipe. Seriously, one of the best Mexican dishes I’ve had. Great to come home to after a long Saturday at the office. She also makes a pretty killer horchata.

Apr 26, 2013

reforma 222

Reforma 222- for people who think shopping in Mexico only means shouldering your way through tarp-covered stalls.

I stopped by the mall and ended up picking up a light windbreaker for rainy days and chilly mornings. I really hesitated to buy it because it was kind of expensive, but I felt I really needed it. From this point on, there isn’t really anything I can justify buying for myself (except, perhaps, for a bicycle).

city of besos

Forget Paris, Venice, and Rome. Mexico city is the most disgustingly amorous city I’ve ever seen. Public space is admirably egalitarian- young and old, straight and gay, Capitalianos make out everywhere, and its especially rampant on Paseo de la Reforma.

Dear Mexico City,
Get a room.

Apr 25, 2013

El Jefe

When I got home tonight, I was talking with Silvia about the days of the week in Spanish, and I was getting really confused. I thought my words for the days of the week were wrong, but it turns out that actually, I was completely confused about what day it is. I thought it was either tuesday or possibly wednesday, and was stunned to find out it’s already thursday night. Cray Mexican weeks with only five days in them.

Bought an umbrella from Sanborn’s after getting caught in a downpour a few days ago. Glad I had it today, been kind of a rainy last few days. Apparently as we get into spring and early summer, it will rain nearly daily in the afternoon/evenings.

Working at the office today, I saw a woman I hadn’t seen before, and with a second look, I realized it was Tatiana, the woman whose name is on the door, back from her trip to Europe. She came over and I introduced myself, and she seemed to know who I was and what I was doing. She made a short speech to the office, reporting on what is going on in Europe, how projects are going, etc, and apologized to me for talking in Spanish. That says a lot to me.

At any rate, I wish I’d known she was returning today and I might have worn something a little spiffier. As it was, I was wearing my usual office attire- black mid-top sneakers, slim jeans, tailored fit button down shirt, untucked. A shave wouldn’t have hurt. Or some freaking slacks. Shoes are a tricky issue considering I’m walking 3 miles a day through some really filthy and broken sidewalks and grungy streets.

From my office, I also got a great view of the marchers on Paseo de la Reforma. The federal government is attempting to institute some reforms in the public education system, and is meeting staunch opposition from the incredibly powerful teacher’s union. By “staunch opposition," I mean that in some southern Mexican states, the teachers are rioting, breaking windows of buildings, and setting things on fire.

Now, normally, I’m sympathetic to the left, but this state of affairs is criminal. 1) Mexico has one of the worst public education systems IN LATIN AMERICA. I’ve heard that in general, the schools focus on rote memorization and apparently there is very little in the way of problem-solving. UNAM, the country’s national university, made the list of the top 200 universities in the world. They are ranked #190. Mexico and Mexican children deserve better. They’re going to need better.

2) The teachers union is one of the most powerful unions in the country. This would be great if their teachers were worth a damn, but as it stands, they use their power to maintain the status quo and block reform and progress.

3) What’s so bad about the system? Why does it need reforming anyway? In Mexico, there are a limited number of spaces for teachers. Once you’re a teacher, you’re a teacher for life. It’s apparently damned near impossible to be fired. You can pass your teaching position along to your children, or you can sell it, very much like the British system of Lordships. As you can imagine, with no standard for qualifications, no required training or learning updates, and a guaranteed gravy train, you end up with a nation of teachers which are unqualified and unmotivated.

Apr 23, 2013


The downpour of rain cleared the air tonight, leaving the cool night full of mist. The clouds parted to reveal the full moon, and walking back to the house on the deserted street, I started singing
“‘Cause this is Chu-pa Cab-ra night! Ten cuidado muchachos, cause the beast is out tonight!"
And so on.

I worked about an extra hour tonight since I’m jumping on board a team designing a basilica, and they needed someone to make some diagrams. It started to pour rain, and of course, today I have my nice black leather shoes, no umbrella, no rain jacket.

So I hailed a cab on the street and had all my money, credit cards, and cell phone stolen. No, not really, I hailed a bus and rode it to my metro stop. Got a little wet in the waiting and walking into the metro.

Found a pseudo-Japanese place for take out lunch today since I was walking around the American Embassy. Pretty reasonably priced, actually. The name is Teikit ( get it? ), and the tagline is ridiculously “The Rico Sushi!" Quite a few gringos along with the Mexicans in business suits. They also sell Japanese beers. I picked up a bowl of fried rice with vegetables. It was M$36 which is not bad for lunch if you’re not starving although I think next time I’ll get it with a bowl of miso soup. Trying to keep things interesting (and on budget) for lunch.

Apr 22, 2013

K of Del Valle

I have a friend, TC, with whom I went to Buenos Aires many years ago in architecture school. TC’s best friend has a sister who lives in Mexico CIty, and seeing pictures of all of them together in Mexico City, I sent a note to TC who put me in contact with his friend’s sister, K.

I’ve been searching for housing on and off since I here (the city is really distracting- its hard to focus on an afternoon of apartment hunting when there’s Aztec pyramids calling me), and K offered to split her place with me which was incredibly generous of her.

I met her for coffee early this afternoon at Starbucks. It’s my first time at the Starbucks here, and looking at the menu, I was thinking, ok, for the price of a small frappuchino, I can get a full comida corrida meal with two dishes, rice and beans, and an agua del fruita. At any rate, we talked and drank coffee, and afterwards, we walked around the neighborhood before K showed me the apartment.

K’s lived in Mexico for ten years, in different neighborhoods, and she’s only been living in this apartment for less than a year. It was fascinating to get a perspective of a long-term American resident, and for her, its equally fascinating to see the city with fresh eyes.

For one, she was astounded by my daily commute. It sounds like most people avoid public transit if they have any alternative. She said she takes the metro once a month. She drives everywhere she can’t get to by walking, which astounded me, given the traffic, the anarchic road rules, and the fact that the most generous, warmest people turn into assholes when they get behind the wheel.

Anyway, the rent is dirt cheap, I get my own bedroom and bathroom, and it’s much, much closer to my office. It will also be a great opportunity to take advantage of K’s experience with the city, where to go, what to see, where to eat, etc. The neighborhood is called La Ville, and its next door to the expat, hipster, and old money enclave of Condesa (Countess) with a 15 minutes walk to the metro.

So at this point, I’m planning on moving over there next weekend. I’ll probably cab it since apparently taking large suitcases on the metro is kind of taboo.

I’m excited for the opportunities that this move will bring- a huge chunk of my day back, an ability to stay out after 8 pm, local restaurants and bars (which I, ironically, now that I’ll be paying rent, will probably not be able to afford).

But I will miss this house and the family who have been incredibly kind and hospitable to me.

I’d met some members of the family once before, at Sal’s graduation party in Rio Rico. Now imagine you have a family and a house, and your nephew calls you up and says, hey a friend of mine, who has a sketchy grasp of the local language and who will have trouble communicating with you is coming to Mexico, can he live with you for a while until he gets settled? This family said “of course, he is welcome to stay as long as he likes.” It’s humbling.

I can’t tell you the relief of arriving into Mexico into a family, who showed me how the city works, held my hand to show me how to get to work, how to take the combis, things to avoid, dangers and annoyances.
Their son Alejandro who bought me a metro card and took me around the city, the husband who drives Alejandro and I to the metro so we don’t have to take a combi, his wife, who leaves out food when I get back late and makes homemade jamaica and horchata, and who even does my laundry. I will miss them and the sheer comfort of their home, and I owe them so much.

city of combis

At first, I thought the thing I hated worst about the commute was the combi ride. But really, it was just because I was worried about paying and getting the driver to stop in the right spot and not being totally comfortable with the language. There is something kind of scary about getting in a small vehicle at the giant metro terminal, which has about a hundred other combi routes, trusting that you got into the right combi and that your driver isn’t going to get into an accident and kill you or rip you off or mug you. But actually, I came to realize that I actually kind of enjoyed taking the combi home every day.

The metro system experience sucks. You’re mashed into a system of tunnels and cars and platforms, jostling for space, claustrophic in the depths below Mexico City, you drown in the ghost of ancient vanished lake. You enter the system and it processes you, down one directional chutes, passageways, tunnels, always being carried with the herd. And finally, it spits you out at a terminal sometimes close to where you want to be. The metro is continuous, eternal, constantly gobbling the masses, digesting them through its innards, and depositing them, gasping for breath, at a dirty roadside. One always experiences the metro alone, anonymous and isolated as only a constantly changing faceless crowd can provide.

When you ride a combi, on the other hand, you travel with passengers. The number of passengers that can fit into a combi, 5-14, is just the right amount for a small play or musical. It takes no stretch of the imagination to assign roles to the cast. You can identify with and associate 15 people- you probably work closely with a group of about 15 people in your office. 15 people is a human number. The several hundred that can fit into a metro train, of which I can see at least a hundred, is a faceless crowd, are they even people?

On the metro, no one registers you other than to assess you for your looks, a short bit of surprise to see a gringo, perhaps a quick check of what you’re wearing and then the defensive glazed look is back. People greet the combi when they climb aboard, and everyone murmers an echo back. Who knows, you may all die together, might as well be pleasant traveling companions! There is something about the potential for disaster which make companions of us all.

To pay the driver, people hand their money to the next person and ask “will you pass this please?" and the money passes from person to person all the way to the driver, who will often hand back change, also passed person to person until it comes back to the original person. If there was one person between me and a friend on the metro, I don’t think I would try to pass as much as a peso.

And there is also the shared feeling- we are all people who have had long days, capped with a long metro ride, and now we are all heading home, filled with both the exhaustion or frustrations of the day and the anticipation of returning to home, perhaps family, perhaps a beer, at least to someplace where one can kick off ones shoes.

I guess that’s why I like it too- because it submerges the gringo status, at least temporarily. The way I ride the combi, the reasons I take it, my feelings aboard it, makes me a local, fellow tired passenger, and I get to see, perhaps, what a local sees.

No two people will experience the same city, but being a foreigner, a gringo, the city I experience is a standard deviation different than the Chilango walking down the street. We walk the same sidewalk, on the same street, but inhabit radically different cities.

There is no objective reality that is attainable for any city- I will never comprehend the ‘real’ Paris, Phoenix, Ponca City, Payson. However, there is a very hazy cloud with an even murkier, denser, core which consists of very similar cities as practiced and perceived by its truest inhabitants.

Apr 21, 2013

tacos al pastor

One starts with two small stacked corn tortillas, each roughly 5" in diameter. These are thrown on the frying pan just to fry them a little bit and heat them up.

The meat of an al pastor taco is pork which has been seasoned and cooked with pineapple and stacked on a spit to form an inverted cone about 2’ long. If you’ve ever seen gyro meat, its basically identical in the grilling and slicing fashion. The spit of al pastor meat, however, is topped with a pineapple.

The taquero, otherwise known as the Lord of the Tacos, uses a big knife to slice of bits of the rotating stack of meat, taking care to also slice off bits of the roasting pineapple.

The meat and the pineapple slices are places on top of the tortillas. Then, finely chopped fresh onion and fresh cilantro are added on top of the meat, just enough to make a full taco when you pick up the torillas.
The taco is then garnished with a bit of green (or red, if your prefer) chile sauce, you squeeze a small lime over the entire thing.

When done well, its incredible. The ulimate street food. Great for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Takes all of two minutes to fill an order. And dirt cheap. I can usually pick up three tacos al pastor for under $3.

The problem, however, is my diet before coming here was intensively grain and green based, and I’m now throwing in tons of fried stuff, meat, and carbohydrates. Its true I’m walking three miles a day on average, more on the weekends, but its still wreaking some havoc on my system.

I did find a salad place a few blocks from where I work, however.

San Ángel, UNAM, MUAC

Yesterday was a pretty busy day. I set out early after grabbing a bowl of cereal at the house and set out for San Angel and UNAM. I had intended to head all the way down to a smaller village not yet totally engulfed in the city, where there is a chapel designed by Luis Barragan, but I read it was closed, so I decided to start with San Angel. I took the MetroBus down avenida insurgentes from Revolucion. Insurgetes is an interesting street, a major through fare, with nice restaurants, office buildings, and a mix of everything. It took a long time to ride down, but it was interesting to ride on the street level and see a long section of the city. And because it was mid-morning on a weekend, it wasn’t too packed.

I jumped off at Bomberos, and from there it was a short walk west to the main square of San Angel, along streets lined with cobblestones. There are a series of a small squares, public spaces, and all the vendors were setting up for the day. Much more of a artisenal fair with native handicrafts, soaps, embroidery, and wooden masks. It seems San Angel is a hot tourist spot as well- lots of foreigners. Around the square were a few highly curated and highly expensive artisan craft stores for the upmarket tourist and expat, as well as a slew of smaller boutiques selling one-off clothes, designer jewelry, and higher quality craft goods and pottery.

Looked like some really nice cafes and shaded patio restaurants as well. I, on my short budget, opted for a smaller joint filled with locals and had ordered a plate of scrambled egg enchiladas with sweet green chili sauce, served with a roll, refried beans, coffee, and orange juice.

San Angel is one of Sal’s favorite neighborhoods, and I can see why- the market square is picturesque, but its nothing compared to the quiet, narrow cobblestone lanes and the giant old houses with massive old, wooden doors, colorful walls and the beautiful flowering trees. It’s just a lovely place to wander and get lost.
Also in San Angel, at the edge of the neighborhood, is the venerable church of El Carmen, an ancient church with a stark and empty churchyard. The church was kind of pretty, but the real prize is the monastery next door.

The sprawling monastery was run by a Carmelite order of nuns, and constitutes a huge complex of gardens, courtyards, cellars, halls, chapels, and cells. All the walls are whitewashed adobe 2’ thick, so windows are special moments of carving away the wall. There was a surprising amount of light and space, something very restful and serene about wandering through.

(The Carmelites, for reasons I have yet to discover, sold the monastary to the federal government, which turned it over to the INAH, basically the department of culture. They run most of the big museums in the capital, including the Museum of Anthropology)

Or, rather, would have been serene, had I not volunteered to photograph a gaggle of teenagers (there were a lot of teens and early 20-somethings in groups here, for some reason) who were trying to take a group shot. From then on, members of the group kept talking to me, asking me about where I was from, and what I thought of Mexico, and one of the more bold girls flatly asked me if I was single. After all of her friends started giggling, she turned to them and basically said “he’s cute!"

My grandmother warned me about “those flirty Mexican girls" (but really, 1 pass in 3 weeks is really not much. I’m sure people hit on Saori all the time.)

Anyway, the big draw to the monastery apart from the extensive collection of 17th century art and furniture is the mummies in the basement. They have about a dozen mummified bodies displayed in glassed-in coffins. Nobody really knows who they are, or why they were mummified in the church. Pretty spooky and gruesome, they look like what you expect mummies to look like, shriveled, eyeless, some with long hair, clothes turned ashen and tattered, slack jawed.

From San Angel, I walked to UNAM. The Universidad Nacional Automonous Mexico (more or less) is the second oldest university in the Americas. Apparently, it used to be located in the historic center, but the powers that be decided that a bunch of rambunctious students running around the old palaces was a bad idea, so they kicked them down to a massive complex south of the city.

But what a complex! The entire thing was planned and built in the 1960s by modern architects, so its a complex of buildings on pilotis, massive murals, an unbelievably huge field of a quad its difficult to see across. Surprisingly, there were two guys tossing an American football around. I walked around, took some photos, and continued on my way south.

I walked to MUAC (the university museum of contemporary art) which was a big mistake. It’s actually on a south campus, which is separated from the main campus by a massive lava field/nature preserve. To walk it, you’re on a sidewalk with a fence and a lava field wilderness on one side, and a freeway on the other. Not the most pleasant experience. Should have taken the metrobus. Anyway, I did make it to the museum, which is a great work of modern museum architecture. I wanted to shoot so many photos but my camera was out of batteries. They had a gift shop associated with the MoMa in New York, but also had some really cool Mexican designers work featured, including the work of a jewelry designer a friend of mine knew. The downstairs has a restaurant with glass floors over the native lava rocks. Pretty cool, need to go back again.
Sensibly took the metrobus back to the city center, and grabbed some tacos al pastor for dinner before heading back to the house


Bought a braclet today. Probably overpaid, it was $4, but its leather with a button clasp and I liked the design. The solidness of the dark leather against the pop of the neon pink threading. Bought it from an independent designer craft market in Pasaje American near the Zocaló.

df kids

One thing I like about DF kids- when they ride in a limo, they need to have everyone standing up and hanging out of the sun roof. The only reason there aren’t kids sitting on the edge of the passenger door windows is because those windows don’t roll down.

I've seen a lot of limos like this actually. I think its for a quincincera or birthday or something. Typically, its one girl in a giant formal dress, surrounded by a bunch of boys in rental tuxes.

Apr 20, 2013

quatro caminos: reprise

This is an important view for me. It is the relief of a cool evening sky and the stairwell framing the moon welcoming me as I finally emerge from the subterranean depths of the metro. The stairs are always pitch black, and I emerge into the world of late night vendors selling snacks and tacos, arcade games in tents.

I’ve looked around for the “4 roads" the metro refers to, but I can’t find them. This terminal station was named after the Toreo Quatro Caminos, a huge bullfighting ring which used to be nearby, which was located at the intersection of four roads. It was torn down several years ago, but the name stuck. Even the combi and busses which come and go from the station retain the shortened name to refer to the station: TOREO

interesting things I saw today

A stretch hummer limo with an open moon roof packed with young teenagers cruising paseo de la reforma.
One of the numerous poor people selling pirated MP3 CDs on the metro, this grungy young guy, backpack stereo blasting northern corridas, gets the attention of an old woman. He hands her one of the CDs and she gives him a ten peso coin. He puts the coin back in her withered hands and continues on. I don’t know if he did it from charity or to gain sympathy for the charitable act, or a mixture of both, but I was touched, as I often am, by the high levels of charity and compassion I see here in Mexico City.

I am tempted to theorize that poorer cities, especially those in developing countries, have inhabitants who are more compassionate to one another. This is not to say that everyone is an angel, there is more interpersonal brutality as well, but it seems as though these cities function largely based on interpersonal relationships and social networks, necessarily extending to strangers. Developed western cities with well-functioning bureaucratic and urban systems and generally high standards can afford to prioritize comfort and convenience to a certain extent. You can look the Starbucks up on your iPhone, and there’s always plenty of parking.

In the developing world, you have to ask for directions, and get tips about where its safe to park, or which areas are dangerous, or if you can bribe your way out of a parking ticket. The visitor is dependent upon the passer by, and the passer by releases this information because he knows he also will need the aid and knowledge of strangers to navigate the city.

It’s almost a kind of urban social contract- it allows an exchange of knowledge and ability to close the gaps in the official system, without which, the entire system of the city comes to a screeching halt.

Perhaps compassion is the wrong word, it’s a greater and more active understanding of how reliant the people of the city are on each other. When the lights go out in the city, do you know and can you rely on your neighbor? I worry about the US in this regard- and it is the utmost of folly to say, oh the grid will never fail. Resilient cities are those whose systems are not purely mechanical. Governments will fail, infrastructure will fail, disease, famine, drought, and war will come as they have throughout human history. Society underpins the City- the soft network is the real infrastructure holding the city together.

I guess that’s also why I find all the TV shows about post-apocalyptic American life so disturbing. The scenario for these shows is something happens to the physical structure of life in the cities and society collapses. There is an implicit understanding of civilization as contingent on a physical basis rather than on a social one. It’s an understanding of cities as a collection of buildings with people in them and the accompanying systems to maintain their well being. With this mentality, if the city stops ‘functioning’ in the mechanistic sense, then it’s the end of the city, i.e. the end of society, i.e. time to stock up on guns and ammo, every man for himself, motherfucker.

Cities are like streets and US dollars. No one thinks to blink at the idea of entrusting strangers with their lives and lives of their children. Every day, people place their trust in ten thousand other people not to speed and hit them or swerve into their lane from the opposite direction. How is it that we don’t trust a hundred pre-screened air travelers with a box cutter, but we are all totally fine with 10,000 people in control of multi-ton vehicles moving at high speed in our direction?

Similarly, there is nothing that backs the dollar. There’s no gold, no silver, no wagon wheels or salt or shells. It’s a currency, one of the strongest in the world, based purely on trust and agreement between people that it has value. The built environment is the paper to the currency of the city.

Apr 18, 2013

uno, dos, tres, OBENTO!

3 weeks in Mexico today, so I treated myself to Obento from the Japanese place near work. A (relatively) spendy $5.70. It’s been a while since I had Japanese food- made me really miss Saori.

aztec breakfast

Today on my walk to work, I bought a piece of cake from a cart vendor and pointed to the hot drink in the aluminum tureen, and the woman obligingly ladled some out for me. It’s called atole (ah-tol-ay), a kind of thick drinking gruel made from masa, a flour of ground hominy, and sweetened with crude cane sugar and cinnamon. Really good actually, people drink it in the mornings, usually with breads or tamales.

Tacos, incidentally, are available and eaten around the clock. Walking to work, I probably pass 50 taco stands, counters, and shops.

Anyway, I stopped to enjoy my breakfast at the Angel roundabout. A taxi pulled off to the side and the driver, getting out and looking around, accosted a group of pedestrians to ask directions. The back of the cab was filled with three passengers. Apparently the mob of pedestrians either didn’t give good directions, or I looked more trustworthy, because the driver hustled over to me and asked me.

I told him, “lo siento, no se" (sorry, I don't know) and he ran off in the other direction. Meanwhile one of the passengers got out and went to the police car parked nearby to ask himself. Then the driver ran over and assumably got hurried directions because the police car sped off suddenly, lights blazing.

Life without smartphones, I guess, although no telling if their destination would have been listed. This is the city at work- direct crowdsourcing.

gringo goes

Today I tried a new way back home, walking along reforma through the park Chapultapec. Not very pretty, bit once in the park it’s a straight shot to the metro station. However, it’s not very time-effective. Its apparently faster to simply take the metro closer top my office and change. When I stepped in the train, I heard someone say “Hey Gringo!"

(Note on the origin of ‘gringo’- apparently it stems from the US invasion of Mexico City in the Mexican-American war. People would shout at the green combat uniform clad American soldiers “Green-go!" So they say.)

It was the guy I sit next to at work. Apparently he had left 10-15 minutes after I left and had taken the metro directly. So despite my brisk walk, its still faster to metro it up going this direction. Maybe I need to enroll in the EcoBici rental bike program. Or buy some Rollerblades. Every day I see someone commuting on Rollerblades.

Apr 17, 2013

haircut, 200 pesos

why I'm here

  1. to gain experience working in a boutique firm setting. In essence, 
    1. getting a cool name for the resume to round out corporate experience
    2. actually learning what its like to be in a fast paced environment, the project flow, the clients, the colleagues, how projects are managed and how the office is run. 
    3. I really like the type of civic-public work the office does, and I’m here to learn how too make public space, and how to direct architecture and planning towards particular social and ecological goals.
  2. a break before leaping back into the depths of working in the us. A vacation of sorts, tropical weather, tourism, exotic locale, I’m here go out and enjoy myself in the city and country. To gorge myself on great Mexican food.
  3. research. I’m here to study the city, in particular the relation of the city to water and the vanished lake, the way the slums and the sprawl interface with the city, the urban form and evolution, a case study of a historic city which refuses to ossify but continually destroys itself and rebuilds
  4. to extend my network of friends, to meet interesting people and see what they think.
  5. to get really good at Spanish. It would be so great to be bilingual. If my ultimate goal is to be fluent in Japanese, Spanish, and Chinese, I’d be happy to cross one of those off my list.
  6. to make the mystic leap to professional, to leave behind petty tourism and interning, to be an architect, to experience the city as an architect, making this a part of my career, not some disposable summer. At 28, you don’t get disposable summers.

Apr 15, 2013


I saw my doppelganger on the metro today. It was one of my future selves, maybe 20-25 years from now. That weak chin, the glasses, the absorption in the book he was reading with one hand, as he stood grasping the rail with his other. He was lean, wiry, with a skin that had seen a lot of sun. His wild shock off wavy hair was shot with gray, a sharp contrast to the gelled black hair all around.

This future Alec never left Mexico, he became absorbed into the city, isolated into himself and his books. He got off a few stops before mine. I do not think I will follow him.

still learning

Things I learned today;
  1. never, ever get on the combi if there’s one seat left. Really, the seats are designed for people 12" wide. If theres one seat left, that means everyone can already feel their neighbors breathing. Wait the extra 3 minutes for the next combi.
  2. In stressful, crowded public transit situations, the best idea is to close your eyes and take a deep breath.
  3. unless you’re in mexico city, in which case it is inadvisable to breathe.

Apr 14, 2013

Welcome to Virginland!

I wanted to write about the massive complex that is the Cathedral of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

I wanted to say that it is a Latin American Catholic Disneyland, complete with over the top architecture, crowd control, themed signage, overpriced souvenir shops and food and drinks, and numerous staged photo opportunities where you can have your photo taken on a donkey with the Virgin. I would have added that the only thing missing would have been a lovable Virgin and Jesus in costume, strolling the immaculately maintained grounds and sculpted topiary. I wanted to write about the market next door, a sprawling labyrinth just outside the gates where you can find several trillion rosaries, statues, crucifixes, cards, and other religious paraphernalia mixed in with the comida corrida and liquados stands.

However, I have nothing to stand upon to make my critiques, so I will simply say the view from the topmost shrine was beathtaking and worth the climb up all the steps.

on wearing

About halfway through today, after failing to find the plaza of three cultures, I realized that I was just really tired. I pulled out my notebook where I’d written down the directions to a French tea salon in Zona Rosa, and headed thataway. The Zona Rosa is apparently a poser, but its still a nice, shady, quiet place to walk, pretense or no. Sitting back to enjoy my M$50 pot of sencha/oolong tea with the M$40 plate of cookies, I sat for over an hour in a quiet room overlooking the street and just read.

I’m going to bed too late, sleeping too poorly, getting up too early, walking too much, eating too little (especially greens!) and the city wears on you, si sabes?

One doesn’t ride the metro here as much as it rides you. Shouldering my way through another artisianal market crammed with stalls and people. The constant state of being On and Alert and Translating takes its toll.

Where was I this weekend, anyway? Saturday morning, I got a slow start, making a run to the grocery store down the street to pick up bananas and harina de hotcakes (pancake mix) and I whipped up a huge tower of banana pacakes while listening to old blues music. I was really missing some good old Americana. I also wanted to give something back to the family which has hosted me so generously. They enjoyed the pancakes.

I set out on a full stomach for the new Vasconcelos library. This is a national library which was opened within the past few years. The exterior is not that exciting- it’s a massive slab of building, with battered sides lined with horizontal fins to block the hard sunlight. In that sense, it is quite militaristic, a vast slatted bunker. But, oh, the inside.

I walked in and got butterflies in my stomach, I was giddy with excitement. There are few buildings which I’ve ever seen that fill me with such wonder and I have to restrain myself from grabbing a passer-by and asking “isn’t this amazing!?!" I ditched my bag at one of the numerous bag checks, and headed up into the stacks.

The massive shell of the building is that-a shell, containing a huge continuous vault of a space, six or seven floors high and a block long. This massive space is lined on both sides with floating bookshelves, suspended from the ceiling. long frosted glass catwalks run the length with numerous stairs running up the sides of the catwalks. Occationally, massive slabs stretch across the vault serving as media centers, reading areas, periodicals. I spent an hour running around, shooting photos, generally geeking out. If you can imagine a giant central branch library with seven floors of books, and then you took away the floors but the left the bookshelves intact, you have an idea of what this place is like.

On the lower level, kids practiced dance routines outside, facing the dark, reflective glass.

Myself outside now, I followed a crowd of younger people towards the start of one of the many informal markets of the city- identified by the crowds and the tarps and tents. Mexico City apparently has a major punk youth culture, and I stumbled into essentially one of their major markets catering to it. It was a fascinating niche market- skateboard decks, fedoras, goth coats with buckles, bags emblazoned with The Who, Led Zeppelin, Metalica, the Ramones, black tee shirts everywhere. Pirated DVDs, tons of CDs, looked like actual music CDs on the resale market. Black leather and studs, stalls which only sold mountains of thick-soled boots and Dr. Martins. Punk, Ska, Goth, even a few stalls of Reggae lifestyle wear. I saw a Mexican teenager wearing a full Edward Scissorhands getup including white face. People carrying black roses. It was packed, at the end of the market, a ska band was ska-ing out, or whatever they do.

Ready for something quiet, clean, and with considerably less people, I walked to the Franz-Mayer museum. This was a private home and private collection of European artwork, Mexican artwork, and religious silver objects. It was a nice respite from the market, although to be honest, my favorite part was the lovely courtyard in the center, with the fountains and trees. I ordered an expensive (for DF) sandwich and a coke and sat in the shade of the colonnade around the courtyard, and read more of my book. It was lovely and peaceful and sunny.

Afterwards, I walked into the historic center, browsing stores, people watching, photographing, and finally, behind the ruins of the pyramid, found my way onto a rooftop terrace bar. I ordered an $5 beer and sat back to enjoy the view of the surrounding area. This weekend has really been about finding places to chill out.

After paying my bill, I walked across the backside of the historic district, an altogether grungier place, but no less picturesque in its own way, especially in the late afternoon sun stretching out the shadows on the street.

the dirty city?

When I came here, I tried to be optimistic and open minded, but Mexico City reminded me a lot of pre-olympics Beijing. I thought it was a dirty, gritty, city. You glance around where you’re walking along the streets and its easy to say, yeah Mexico City is pretty dirty.

However, like most things in Mexico City, the truth seems to be more complicated once you start to really stop and look. Its just like the usage of “sketchy" as in neighborhoods- what is it, really, that you’re pointing to? So what is it about the city that makes me think dirty? Is it really?

Actually, the Capitalanos take great care in cleaning the city. Everywhere I go, people are sweeping sidewalks, washing things, picking up trash. There is such a vast army of manual laborers and cleaning people here that it is possible to have an army of garbage collectors, sweepers, recycling sorters, subway moppers etc.

The walls and floors of the metro stations here are immaculate. The most ghetto, rickety combi you climb into smells vaguely of antiseptic lemon cleaner, which I smell in the background of most places I go. Actually, I wonder if everyone in the city uses the same brand or knockoffs of the same.

Sometimes I find trash in the gutter. Seldom, contrary to Beijing, do I find trash on medians or in planters. There is a grit in the air though, a mix of the native dust (there’s no grass lawns in Mexico City that I’ve seen) and the particulates of the car exhaust, all of it carefully swept back into planters.

There is a lot of pollution and garbage in the canals (if you can find them) and the air quality here is some of the worst in the world. So there is some truth to that kind of dirtiness.

My impression is that I am visually substituting dirty for poor. The things here, the streets, the sidewalks, the buildings, peoples clothes, they are all clean. What they are NOT is well maintained. Clean shirts with holes and tears that would not take much to mend. Well swept sidewalks in desperate need of patching and re-leveling. Aging infrastructure and public transit systems in need of upgrades rather than a daily thorough scrub. Mexico City is a patent leather oxford, kept shined to a high glossy black even as the sole detaches.

travel kit

My Mexico City exploration kit: digital guidebook, city map, bottled water, notebook, pen, metro pass, sunglasses, and a good pair of walking shoes

Apr 13, 2013

foodie friday

Got to work over an hour early driving in with Alejandro and his father. I walked around looking for a place to grab a bite to eat and read my kindle, since I have downloaded a very interesting collection of essays and articles about this recent urban history of Mexico City. I feel better researching this city while I’m here, like its essentially a built it yourself study abroad. Which is actually not too far from how I actually think about it.
Ended up at a small place that looked promising (i.e. cheap) but homey. The woman working there basically told me the specials in the morning and I said basically, sure, I’ll take the chuletquilles. Coffee? Sure! Orange juice? Sure! It was a nice way to start the day- breakfast and reading about the city. They put cinnamon in the coffee which was pretty good actually. It complimented the chuletquilles.

I was one of the first people in the office, and Edward, our Scotsman, brought in a delicious pastry called milhojas (1000 sheets) which is basically a pastry of layering thin sheets of phylo dough with cream and topped with icing. It was a good day for eating.

For lunch, Jose and some other coworkeres asked me if I wanted to join them for lunch at the market. Claro que si! What market? We walked for a few blocks to where a street market had been set up, mostly selling food and drink items under green tents.

We started lunch with Tlacoyos. Tlacoyos start as a kind of corn tortilla dough mixed with bean powder which gives the dough a dark greenish blue tint. These are fried and stuffed with beans, cheese, or masa, what tamales are made of. Then, they are topped with whatever you like, although I got mine with nopales and green salsa (cooked prickly pear) and cheese and crema. They are pretty tasty. Less than a dollar each.

We skipped a few tents over to get some barbacoa tacos. I actually love barbacoa- its one my favorite Mexican meats apart from tinga and al pastor. Fresh squeezed lime, salsa, chopped onions, and cilantro to complete the taco. Delicious. Absolutely delicious. We sat on plastic stools under the tents while a street band played music. The aroma from the frying plantains filled the air and almost enticed me to buy some until I found out they’re actually served in tacos rather than on their own.

To finish lunch, we got some ice cream to eat while walking back to the office. It was a gorgeous day. Sunny, with warm breezes. The more I read about Mexico City, the more I find out how much visitors used to rave about it- the climate, the baroque splendor of its palaces, even the first conquistadors who set eyes on the city of lakes and canals of the Aztecs were rapt and amazed, describing it as a city which rivaled those of Europe.

Got off work early today and caught my boss David at the cafe downstairs. It turns out he’s heading to Europe for a few weeks of teaching. He just wanted to see how the project was going and to check in on how I’m doing.

I took the metro to the centro and walked along Eje central towards the historic center. The entire Eje is lined on both sides with all kinds of cheap stores, including a staggering number of electronics vendors. The are several massive warrens of nothing but narrow stalls selling cell phones, tablets, computers, game systems, and associated paraphernalia.

My goal, however, was skyward. I paid the $6 to go up to the observatory on the top of the Torre Latinoamericano, skyscraper of 43 floors, like a miniature Empire state building. The tower stands at the edge of the giant historic center, with great views of the center- including a view down into the Zocolo. You can see the airport in the distance. Around to the south, the mountains fade into the haze, growing larger even as they become less clear in the smog. To the west, you can see the towers and the commercial centers along Paseo de la Reforma. It’s a big city, but it doesn’t look as big as Tokyo or Sao Paolo did from up on high.

Perhaps its because the smog conceals the stretch of the city. Perhaps its because the towers are so few and concentrated. Mexico City really is a low-rise, high density city, paradoxically as that sounds. Far in the distance, I could see the silhouettes of the towers in the business and financial new masterplanned suburb of Santa Fe, built on an old massive landfill.

I used their bathrooms and free internet, and for me, that alone was worth the price of admission.
After departing, I wandered down paseo Moreno, the pedestrian shopping street, and looped back along another street when I hit the Zocalo. I was looking for a light rain jacket, but I think actually, I’m pretty good with what I have. Decided to save my money to spend on other things.

I finally found Churreria el Moro. As the name implies, this is a cafe devoted solely to churros, coffee, and hot chocolate. Tons of tables. The curving churros are made right up front, and the rich, thick drinking chocolate is ladled out of massive cauldrons. I ordered four churros and a chocolate. I have a new addition to my list of favorite places in Mexico City.

In other, sadder news, Alejandro’s cat, Tita is not doing well. The vet thinks her kidneys and liver are failing. Apparently she is having trouble walking and tumbles around. They took her to the vet today and tomorow they’ll hear about their options. It makes me really sad because Tita has been their family cat for 14 years, the same age as Suki, and there’s a strong resemblance between the two cats. It makes me worry about Suki’s health and I really, really hope that my brother won’t have to deal with any issues of Suki’s health. He’s already made a lot of sacrifices to take care of her while I’m gone.

Tomorrow- back to the centro for museums!!

Apr 12, 2013

gay mexico

One of the more unexpected things I’ve seen here in Mexico, heavily Catholic, heavily macho, is a very open gay culture. Or at least, open in the places I’ve spent most of my time downtown, on Paseo de la Reforma. Actually, thinking about it now, it makes sense that there would be a strong gay community in Mexico city, probably the most liberal and tolerant place in the country. So I’m basically working next door to Provincetown, RI, and should definitely not mistake it for the whole county.

Still, I was interested to see rainbow colored posters in the metro system, created by the city government, calling for and highlighting “diversidad sexual” and reminding people that the LGBTTII (what even IS intersex?) are entitled to tolerance and equal rights.

Actually, I was amazed to learn Mexico City recognizes gay marriage and allows abortions, which is a lot more progressive than most US states. Sometimes I feel like I’m from a country which thinks of itself as the London of the World, when in fact, its more Azerbaijan than its willing to admit.

There is an upscale mall and a stretch of Paseo de la Reforma which is flooded with gay and a few lesbian couples of all ages, kissing, holding hands, walking, and just hanging out.

I’ve been told that the back of the metro trains here are kind of gay meeting places, especially late at night, but so far I’ve avoided being out late as a general safety measure.

Apr 11, 2013

the long road to work

Yesterday, it took me an hour and ten minutes to get to work. Today, it took me the same amount of time to get to the metro station.

Walking out of Alejandro’s street, I just missed one combi, but less than a minute later an empty combi picked me up. Traffic was horrendous. We inched forward and finally confirming that my destination was the metro, the driver left his usual route to take me on a wild, roundabout ride in Nuacalpan, an area of steep valleys and ridges completely covered with apparently informal housing and businesses. The impromptu and casual architecture made me think it was all slum, but I passed frequent houses on the road which had official looking signage naming the address and the owner of the building. From the road along the ridge, the view was spectacular of the dense city spreading over the hills.

I don’t want to have a 70 minute ride every day, but I wasn’t even irritated. Charged the usual 50 cents fare at the station, the driver seemed apologetic. I felt bad for the guy considering he basically made 50 cents for over an hours worth of work. I don’t think that would even cover the cost of the gas.

Anyway, got off at Revolution and decided to try to save some time by taking the metrobus. I swiped my fare card, got on the platform, and watched four busses go by. The busses come every few minutes, and they’re huge. The problem is they so pincha packed with people, people have to slide around and reorganize just to let the doors open. Its literally more packed than the subway. I gave up and walked the 30 minutes to the office. Only would have saved me 10 to 15 minutes anyway.

Delicious guisados for lunch, chicken molé was particularly good, with chuletquilles and crema, and washed down with fresh guava juice.

Coming home: much faster.

Apr 10, 2013

the sims

It´s been a little difficult to eat lately. Usually, I’ll grab a pastry from a street vendor on my brisk walk to work, bit the last two lunches I’ve been too busy trying to get daily living logistical stuff organized to make it the hearty home cooking kitchen. Today for example, I spent my lunch mostly walking around looking for a WiFi hotspot to Skype my bank. I did manage to grab a sandwich from a cart on my way back in. (By the way, people in mexico city put avocado on everything- its wonderful).

The upshot of today was that I did finally get a new Sim card and successfully identified the correct template to cut it down, so now with Tay’s x-iphone, I have a mexiphone! ¿Que onda guay?

Today riding the combi back, I was surprised to hear two young Mexican guys conversing mostly in English with some Spanish thrown in. Not sure if its a status thing (English = educated = privileged), or if it was for my benefit as the obvious gringo, or if they just enjoy it as something kind of cool and interesting.

Ate a huge dinner of black beans and Alejandro’s mom cooked lentil soup with turkey chorizo which was pretty good. Also some oranges I picked up at the grocery store down the street. Tired and stuffed now.
Found out today that Alejandro had once been mugged out at one of the places I probably frequent daily and at night. He didnt want to freak me out by telling me where it happened, but he did give me some good advice:

Wallets frequently don’t have much money in them, backpacks are difficult to take off quickly (since thieves operate on time crunch) so the first thing they demand is a cell phone since there’s always a demand at least for spare parts. He recommended I keep my crappy phone always handy to immediately surrender to muggers, and the iPhone in my bag. I expect I will get mugged at some point here, but I feel prepared for it. Its not like I’m carrying my passport, large sums, or computer tablet around.

Apr 9, 2013

the alternate route to work

  • Sleep in extra 30 minutes
  • Only have to ride one train
  • Don’t have to make any train changes or mash through jam packed subway stations
  • Built in daily exercise
  • Lovely walking views of Paseo de la Reforma and Monument to the Revolution
  • Saves 20 minutes off my evening commute.
  • Have to pay for morning combi ride
  • Starting the day in the back of an old dingy microbus
  • Having to walk a mile and half every day, twice a day.
Paseo de la Reforma is beautiful at night. The city is really interesting and captivating after dark, with the lit sidewalk stalls, the bustle of late commuters, people stopping in to counter service taco cafes for a late supper. Neon and fluorescents, the blue lighting on the monuments which bathes the surroundings in blue light, even the couples everywhere making out on the benches lining the street.

There’s nothing like sitting down at a quiet corner taco shop and getting three tacos al pastor and a sprite. The tortillas are so fried that they don’t separate, but you dont care because they’re amazing and delicious. The piping hot fried seasoned pork meat with pineapple, the fresh onions and cilantro, the lime you just squeezed over it all. To prepare a really authentic mexico city taco, you first have to get a job in Mexico City…

Apr 7, 2013


Coyoacan was a separate little town until it was swallowed by the city. If Disneyland ever wants to make Mexicoland, they need to come to Coyoacan. It’s got picturesque squares with and old cathedral, its surprisingly clean, brightly colored, several markets, tons of ice cream shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, and public fountains and benches beneath shady trees to eat your ice cream. It is a beautiful neighborhood.

I got a cappuchino first at Cafe El Jarito which was a really nice little coffee shop tucked into the corner of a triangular building. They roast their own beans so the aroma fills the air, and you enjoy your coffee sitting under the awnings on both sides on the sidewalk.

The markets were clean, nice, and had some seriously interesting things I havn’t seen at tourist markets so far. Ended up buying a simple leather band bracelet for $3. I’ll have to return sometime for souvenir shopping.

Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul is nearby. While not the place she lived with Diego, it was a house she was born in, returned to often, worked in, and died in. Her cremated remains are there in an urn. It was a really beautiful house with a lot of love for color, light, earth, plants, and indigenous culture. Her studio on the second floor is apparently just as she left it when she died. It’s also just a beautiful example of a house from the time period, with vibrant blue walls throughout the exterior.

The ticket was also good for her sometime husband Diego Rivera’s museum, so I decided to take a train down and see that too. Diego Rivera was an interesting man, a designer of many ambitions and talents. The way the museum describes it, he amassed a huge collection of pre-Hispanic native cultural artifacts, pottery, and sculpture to keep in from falling into the hands of foreigners. Most of it is very old, some pieces from 400 BC or older. He designed a museum on a hilltop to display it, based heavily on both indigenous pyramid temples and a bit of 1930s modernism. It’s an ugly building, built heavily and omnimously of volcanic rock.

The first floor feels like a tomb- it was designed to feel like the spiritual underworld. The good news is as you climb, the spaces become lighter and less oppressive until you emerge onto the roof terrace, which has jaw droppig views around and to the south, where you can see the hills and ridges and volcanos which arc around the southern edge of the city.

viveros de coyoacán

I got up early this morning and quietly slipped out to head down to Coyoacan, recommended by Sal as one of his favorite neighborhoods. The metro drops you off a good ways off from Coyoacan, on the opposite side of a huge park, the Viveros de Coyoacan. You can’t actually access it from the metro side. You have to walk about a half mile along the perimeter fence to get to one of the three entrances. It was really irritating to me at first having to walk all the way around along a miserable divided thoroughfare, but I understood once I got inside.

A Viveros is a tree nursery as well as a public park. This is where the trees are grown and nurtured for the city’s use in landscaping and parks around the metropolitan region. You want people to respect that and the plants and to preserve it as a destination rather than a access corridor. People have to want to go here. And they do. It was an amazingly beautiful morning, and the park was filled with runners and walkers on the soft paths, and also surprisingly, tons of other activities. There were several clearings filled with groups of martial artists, everything from fully kitted Kendo fighters, to jujistu, to karate lessons. Tons of people in their karate uniforms practicing and fighting and stretching among the trees. There were people doing yoga, calisthenics, even European broadsword.

In the middle of the park is a circular clearing where there were several baseball cap toreadors. They were older gentlemen, casually dressed except practicing the movements of their capes. Another guy wielding a pair of horns, played the part of the bull. They didn’t sadistically stab him with swords, but it was actually pretty fun to watch the “charge” and the swirls of the cape.

Oddly, the squirrels that run around the park are black, or really dark brown.

The park had a wide variety of species and densities and the air smelled wonderful with all the oxygen from the new plants. It’s easily one of my favorite places in Mexico City now.

a lot of walking saturday

I took the metro from Chapultapec to the edge of the historic center. Floods of pedestrians, like I havn’t seen since Tokyo. I was searching for a recommended place to get coffee and churros, the Churroria del Moro, which was somewhere along the street. It started to rain, so I abandoned my search and ducked into a taco restaurant. I squeezed in to an empty spot and ordered three tacos de suadero (pork (I think)) and a pepsi.

The difficulty with trying to avoid drinking the water directly is that it tends to push me towards sugary soft drinks. I need to learn to ask for bottled water.

Tacos were good, a bit fatty though. Quick quick quick. By the time I was done, the rain had passed and I continued on north along Eje (major axis street) 1. Walking along through some less picturesque parts of the city, I passed a bunch of Mariachis standing around. And then another group of Mariachis. There were mariachis eating food from carts and Mariachis talking and walking, and then there was a break in the urban wall and I was silver-spangled hip deep in Mariachis. I had made it, I realized, to plaza Garibaldi.

Plaza Garibaldi is a large plaza on the periphery of the historic center surrounded by cantinas and filled with pavilions and roving bands of Mariachis. They are there for hire, to either play for tourists who wander by, for all the bars around the square, or to be solicited directly for gigs elsewhere by motorists passing by the square. I roamed the square for awhile, trying simultaneously to take photos and listen but not make myself an attractive target for an entire band of mariachis to come play.

Sometime I want to go back and just take pictures of the Mariachi costume, which were fantastic.

Walking back though the historic center, I was drawn to drumming and I came across a huge square with people formed into massive concentric dancing circles with drummers at the center. The dancers were mixed in age, dress, gender, but almost all of them wore a red sash around their waists, and wore anklets of rattles that rang when they stepped. I’m not sure if they represented a particular tribe, a religious sect (they were dancing with a pendant of the virgin of Guadalupe) or what. The dance was very interesting. It looked like the there were a few set steps that were frequently repeated, and the entire group just watched each other to see what the circle was doing.

Sometimes, the dancing would peter out and they would shuffle to the beat and a few individuals would simultaneously start to do a set of movements, and very quickly one of them would be picked up and the entire group would be dancing again, almost in a distributed hive-like fashion.

quatros caminos

After finally getting a chance to Skype with Saori, I hopped a combi and headed into town. As it was early saturday afternoon, there were roadside markets everywhere that had instantaneously set up in the side drive lanes. Our combi driver also let us off at a different part of Quatro Caminos station.

Quatro Caminos, if I haven’t mentioned it before, is much more than a mere metro station. It’s a major transit hub where all the busses and combis from the suburbs and cities beyond the western city limits come in to drop off and pick up passengers. There’s about a dozen bus platforms and each platform has at least two or three route pick ups.

It’s also a serious clusterfuck of traffic engineering. There’s two ways in and out of the station as far as I can tell, and no apparent organization or rules of right of way. The big busses are jammed in with the more nimble combis, and it usually takes ten minutes just to leave the parking lot. The parking lot empties conveniently into a major divided avenue where either there arent any traffic signals or nobody follows them, AND several freeway entrances and exits.

Quatro Caminos is also a major market center. Every platform filled with vendors and stalls selling everything from food to drinks to toys, backpacks, leather goods, shoes, hats, video game arcades, snacks, breads, toiletries, anything and everything can be found here, pushing the pedestrian space of the platforms to 2’ wide strip along the edge of the platform. There are also market pavilions, enclosed strips of markets immediately adjacent to the the station. On top of all the stalls are the vendors with carts or portable tables selling peanuts, churros, bread, and other quick take-aways.

It’s always packed, worse at night. It’s an incredibly vibrant and active labrynth of public spaces with the train platform at the center. People always on the move, lining up for tickets, lining up to get into the station, eating, begging, selling, hanging out, playing games, socializing. Never a dull moment. It’s such a warren I still can’t figure it out even with the aid of Google maps. There’s such a minute grain to it that an aerial photo can’t capture.

So when I got off the bus, I was lost. Even though I was at the metro, I had no clue where I was or where to go. People were generally going two directions. One lead me to the street which was wrong, and the other flow crossed several platforms, threaded its way through several covered market pavilions before finally diving into the Metro station itself.

That’s one major complaint. The metros can be so thickly surrounded by stalls and hawkers you could walk right be and miss the entrance.

museum of anthropology

The museum of anthropology is worth visiting just for the architecture. It was built in the 1960s by a prominent Mexican architect whose name escapes me, but its a fantastic example of Latin American mid-century modernism. It’s a huge but simple complex based around a massive courtyard. After you pass through the entry/ticketing area, you step into the immense courtyard and immediately you are under an immense unbrella held up with a giant column which is surrounded by a waterfall. It’s an incredible space.

The halls are arranged somewhat chronologically. They have a wide variety of permanent exhibitions, focusing naturally on the pre-hispanic cultures of Mexico. It’s no secret that the Mexica (aka Aztecs) is the highlight of the museum. The exhibition hall is the largest, marked at the entry by a white marble plinth, at the end of the axis of the museum opposite the entrance the umbrella. They have some amazing pieces of sculpture and carvings and pottery, as well as the massive Sun Stone, the 20’ wide round slab inscribed with the Aztec calendar which was used in ritual combat and human sacrifice.

I’m very curious about how contemporary Mexicans view themselves in the context of both Cortes and the Aztecs. It’s seems as though there is a very strong identification with Aztecs- the major stadium here is the Azteca, and Aztec signs and symbols are everywhere, not to mention the adoption of the language of the Aztecs for place names, streets, and cities. The flag and coins of Mexico feature the iconography of the Aztec mythology.

What little I know of the Aztecs seems hardly commendable. While they were adept city builders, they were also cunning and shrewd strategians, both in war and commerce. Most admired and vernerated were the warrirors who were most bloodthirsty and self-sacrificial. I just can’t lionize a society which was based on regular and frequent human and child sacrifice. It’s easy for me, a contemporary American, to condem the Aztec culture…. but it seems like all the other tribes of the area were pretty horrified too by thier bloodlust.

And then along come Cortes, a paragon of decency, humility, and humanity, if ever there was one. (Heavy sarcasm). ‘m still looking for a good book on Cortes and the fall of the Aztec empire.

Chapultapec park

Chapultapec is the sprawling city park at the end of Paseo de la Reforma. It’s at least a mile long and contains some major institutions such as the National Auditorium, the presidential houses, and the massive museum of Anthropology as well as the Mexico City Zoo and some lakes. There’s also some smaller museums, national memorials, and in the middle is a giant castle on a hill.

It’s a lovely place to walk. The scale of the places means that there are parts where you can stroll by yourself in the trees, and also major pedestrian paths filled with vendors and carts. This is a major weekend spot for families apparently, lots of kids and facepainting and cotton candy and toys. It’s incredibly active as you might imagine, although the space means that if you ever feel overwhelmed, you can step off into a side path and get some breathing space.

Apr 6, 2013


Last night, coming home from work on the metro, the lights went out in the carriage, although the tunnel was still occasionally lit by florescents. It was dark for a few minutes until the lights came back on. I asked my friend who was riding with me, “has this ever happened to you before?” he said, “no, not ever.” Apparently, that was my first earthquake in Mexico City. Apparently it registered a 5 on the richter scale. Didn’t even know it at the time.

I realize that living someplace new, especially in developing countries, that there’s a lot of frustrations, especially in the first week. Today was one of those days that presented me with a lot of frustrations.

Yesterday during lunch, I bought a SIM card for my iphone so I can make calls without running up a ridiculous tab on my US phone. This was no small feat in itself. I went to several convenience stores which sell cheap cell phones only to eventually be directed to a Sanborne store where I eventually bought one for M$150. The problem is that the iphone, because Apple hates everything outside of their system, uses a mini-sim card. So mine is too big. Now, the only difference between a sim card and a microsim is the sim card has more inert plastic around the chip. That’s it. You can buy little handheld devices that are basically a specialized paper hole punch, except they punch microsim cards from sim cards. Unfortunately I don’t have one here.

But I was hoping that Sanborne would since they cater to a higher income clientele, who might have iphones. So today before work, I went to see if they could help me. I coudn’t actually find any employees. The store was open, but no one would help me, so I took a deep breath, shrugged it off as something in Mexico (sure, it does kind of make sense to open your store but not have all the counters staffed) and bought some good coffee to go.

Today, if you didn’t notice, is friday. My standard work day goes something like this:
  • 6:30am wake up
  • 7:00am leave house with Alejandro and his dad
  • 7:15am get dropped at Metro station
  • 7:45am exit metro and hunt for breakfast pastries
  • 8:15am go to work
  • 7:15pm get off work. Walk to metro.
  • 8:40 arrive back at house. Shower, eat something light, chat with Alejandro and Silvia, update blog, check facebook, etc.
  • 11:00pm go to bed.
So you can see why I would be excited to get off work at 4:30. It’s actually pretty nice considering we only return from lunch at 3.

Anyway, I was considering going to buy some tea (hard to find good tea in Mexico City, surprisingly) and go to the grocery store, but Saori had texted me saying she was available to Skype tonight, so I arranged to meet her at midnight her time, thinking Germany was six hours ahead of me in Mexico City. First mistake of the day. If it took me the usual hour and a half to get home, I would be right on time, I thought.

I should back up by saying that I haven’t spoken with Saori in over a week, not since before I left Houston. She’s been buried with a brutal competition until wednesday, and my weekdays are solid packed. It’s the one thing I’ve really wanted to do since I got here, and it’s killing me. I want to tell her about Mexico City, and I want to hear about her work, and how the competition went, and what she’s going to be working on next. So of course I cleared my schedule for her.

I calculated that by walking 30 minutes to a station on the 2 line, I could save at least fifteen minutes, not to mention changing trains twice and being smashed in with 3 million commuters. Leaving the office at 4:30, I thought I had ample time to ask if they had a sim punch at Sanborne along the way and still make it back to the house by six.

Second mistake, maybe. It’s a simple question. Can they punch my card? Si or No? After having to wait for another fifteen minutes to get service, they tell me no, I have to go to the local Telcel customer service center and exchange my sim card for a microsim. That doesn’t sound like it involves any waiting or lines at all. Fuck that.

So I walk to the metro at Revolucion monument. It’s a long walk along a major avenue which probably doesn’t get the tourist sightseeing buses. The monument was cool. Thousands of teenagers hanging out, playing in the fountains, skateboarding. The monument was interesting until some genius decided to put an elevator in the middle, up through the center of the dome.

Couldn’t find the metro. I found a big area under construction which I thought was the metro. I asked around: is the metro closed? I thought they me that it closed at 12:30. So I decided to walk to the next metro along the line. Got lost because where I thought I was and where I actually was were two blocks apart. I was two blocks, maybe five minutes walking, from the metro at the monument. Pincha gringo.

Asked for directions and finally found the station. Rode it back to the end of the line, and then sat back for the 30 minute ride in the privacy of a luxury sedan crammed into a microbus with padded benches and 15 other people to rattle and bounce our way though gridlock, and dust and exhaust. The combis are rendered much safer by the fact that in gridlock traffic it’s tough to get above 20 miles an hour, and frankly, I’m not sure a loaded combi could even get above 30 miles an hour, even on an open straightaway.

Finally made it back to the house a little after seven, or 2 and a half hours after I got off work, and just after 3 am Germany time. No sim card, no tea, and way too late for Skype. Fuck, fuck, and fuck.

Apr 5, 2013

lunchtime conversation

Scotsman: I probably shouldn' be eatin' this hamburger, knowin' that tonight I'm gonna get a knee in th' stomach.

me: what? what are you planning on doing tonight?

Scotsman: oh, going to a bar, probably get drunk, get into a fight.

me: what?

Scotsman: I've got jujitsu practice.


Survived the first week! Didn’t even get kidnapped, shot, beheaded, or blown up once! Feeling a lot better than when I arrived.

Also, Mexico City sits at an altitude of nearly 8000 feet, higher than Machu Picchu. No wonder I get easily winded running around the metro and climbing stairs for work.

Apr 4, 2013

things I learned about mexico today

They have churros here. You can buy them regular or stuffed with vanilla or fruit jams. They’re best served with hot chocolate or coffee, or dipped into cajeta, which is basically a kind of soft milk caramel traditionally made with goat’s milk. Churros are traditionally a late night snack, although I bought mine for breakfast from a guy with a cart outside the metro near my office.

I’ve been warned against street food, but come on, its fried dough and sugar. Nothing is going to survive the deep-fat frying. Plus, its churros. Who among you can resist hot churros?

Saying goodbye to my friend Moises on the train, he said “hasta luego, gringo.” and I replied “hasta luego, chilango” and he laughed and shook his head. (Chilangos are Mexico City dwellers- people from the city who live there). “If I was a Chilango, I’d have to kill myself. Actually, they would kill me first.”

There’s a Chilango accent apparently, and a certain way of stressing vowels in words. It seems as thought theres a certain tension between the Chilangos and the people from the rest of the country, maybe its like how New Yorkers are.

I really feel bad for the combi drivers. they have a hard life. There are dozens of routes that begin and end at the cuatro caminos metro station. There are no official records of the routes, so I have no idea how people navigate the system if they’re never taken it before. Only fifty combis are allowed to work a route on a particular day, so they have to be the first fifty of the day in order to work. The ones that don’t make it, don’t make any money that day.

The drivers have to hit checkpoints along the route. What happens is they pull over, pick up passengers, get a pass card from a route manager and the they have to wait for the next combi to come up behind. This is to prevent drivers from pulling a u turn and picking up a lot of passengers on the other side of the street when one direction is slow.They can’t be making much. My fare is about 50 cents.

The other thing I’ve noticed is Mexicans really take great pains with their hair, gelling it and styling it. Lots of cream and gel. Maybe I just don’t put that much care in mine.

Apr 2, 2013

day 2: see day 1

Today was a lot like yesterday, although Alejandro’s father drove the two of us to a metro station down the line so that saved us about 30 minutes and me a combi ride. Cuatro caminos is nuts during rush hour.

Pastries for breakfast, I need to see if I can buy some tea someplace for the office. Got to office early, but it probably not a bad thing. Guisados for lunch, a spicy beef in chile sauce. The guy dishing out the food knew some English, asked me if I wanted it with cream and cheese, and if I wanted rice and beans. Ate with Moises today, and took the metro back with him tonight as far as my second transfer. I’m still stunned inside the metro with the sheer mass of humanity on the move. However, it sounds like the metro is under-utilized.

In a city of 22 million, only 3 million use the system on a given day. If you assume that only a third of the populace is mobile, and has transit needs, then you’re still looking at less than half of that group
In other news, allergies are still killing me. Hope I’m not allergic to the jacarandas.

Apr 1, 2013

first day at work

They say that there’s 22 million people living in Mexico City, and they all decided to ride the metro with me today.

My tablet clock was set to the wrong time zone, so I woke up and left an hour earlier than I’d planned on leaving. It was a good thing I did. It took me about an hour 15 to get to work this morning. And I have a feeling that’s typical.

The combi got into gridlock traffic in front of the metro station. If you imagine a triangle where each side is actually four lanes of one-way traffic, this is the gridlock that was created. Over the weekend, I noticed the metro station had huge pedestrian barricades, likes the winding lines they use to corral people at Disneyland. I wondered if they were a vestige of the old bullring that used to be here, when thousands of people would simultaneously depart.

Apparently, its used for weekdays. The line to buy TICKETS stretched across the vast hall, and the line to put your ticket into the turnstile took awhile to get through. The metros were Tokyo packed, people smashed up against the glass windows in the doors. Of course, I need to take three trains to get to my destination, so I fought my way though masses of people the likes I’ve never seen in the underground flows. I got to the office around 8:30, and stopped at the coffee shop on the first floor for a bagel. A european guy with a close haircut came in and ordered a coffee- he was wearing jeans, a white tee shirt with a gray blazer. and he had worn leather messenger bag. Definately an architect. And he was smoking, which clinched the deal.

I approached him and said “perdon, eres un architecto?” He said “oh, you must be Alec!” It was one of the two bosses of the office, David.

He finished his cigarette and brought me upstairs. He kind of indicated that I should find a desk and I took it on myself to introduce myself to the people sitting near me. The office is small, really only one main room with a few small conference rooms. It has gorgeous floor to ceiling windows which look out onto the canopies of the trees on the Paseo de la Reforma, with all of the Jacaranda’s blooming. Besides David, who is German (or Swiss?) there was also a red-haired Scottsman who, when I asked him how long he’d been working there, replied “too long, man, too long!” There may be some other internationals. I havn’t met everyone yet.

Anyway, I got to know the people at my desk pretty well, and the next desk over had two women, one of whom walked me through a proposal she was working on, and the other who was my direct supervisor and basically told me what I’d be working on and who I should be talking with.

I got to know the three people at my table. All of them speak English relatively well, and they’ve all studied or worked abroad. I was surprised to find that one of my colleagues studied under Angelo Bucci while in Brazil. Architecture is a small world. Another guy studied in Albuquerque (I love the people there man, they’re all so nice!) and also worked in Japan.

The guy I’m working with on this project took me out to lunch at a “comida corrida” a kind of food stall which sold “guisados” (country dishes). I ordered spicy pork with nopales (prickly pear) and steamed squash with other vegitables. It came with rice and beans and a fruit water and tons of tortillas. M$40, which is less than $4. We ate, squeezed into a plastic picnic table along with a bunch of other office workers.
We actually ran into my boss David, across the street, munching on some quesadillas at a standing room stall which sold tacos.

The office hours run basically from 8:30 to 7pm. We get a coffee break at 11, and lunch from 2-3. It’s a long day, but it went surprisingly fast.

Another colleague lives in my direction, so we walked to the metro together and rode it for two lines and chatted before I split off. After another switch, I finally got back to my station and seizing a short ticket line, asked if I could by one of the reloadable cards used for the subway. The ticket seller seemed to be making up her mind about whether she wanted to be bothered helping a pincha gringo (American), but she finally pulled out the cards and loaded some money on it.

Did better getting home this time via the combi. Got dropped off only one street off this time.
I am pretty wiped. Enduring public transport in Mexico City for an hour will take a lot out of you. I am very happy to have made a few friends at the office so far.

first day on my own

Today I decided to do a dry run on my own, to make sure I really knew how to get around the city. Catching the combi from the street was easy, it took me straight to the metro station.

Actually, it bounced us around, sped, and slammed on brakes while blasting techno music and I thought, you know, this is kind of a fun city. There’s only one train to take the metro, so I jumped aboard and took the trains around to finally jump out at my destination.

However, as I approached Paseo de la Reforma, I saw a bicycle pass, then a small group, then a flood of bicyclists. In fact, the entire Paseo de la Reforma had been blocked off to traffic and in its place were thousands of bicyclists, rollerbladers, skateboarders. Not competitively, but casually, for the enjoyment. Actually, most of the places I walked today were along the closed routes, so I was always in the serene presence of bicylists passing by, like koi in a pond.

Mexico city has also instituted a rentalbike system common in many other cities around the world. These are called Metrobici, and they were everywhere in Contesa and near la Reforma.

I picked up a Mexican design and architecture magazine at the Sanborns store by the Angel. These are fairly ubiquitous stores which are kind of like mini-Macy’s: a reduced selection of high brand products like top of the line digital cameras, brand purses and travel gear, a small bookstore, a small pharmacy, and a restaurant which are supposed to be pretty good.

I walked to Condesa which was a neighborhood developed for the wife of the Emperor Maximillian. It’s pretty and old and really laid back. I enjoyed it a lot actually. Ate an ice cream cone at store which turning a frantic business with all the bicyclists and the pedestrans who were out enjoying the beautiful day. I was sorely tempted by an Argentine restaurant selling empanadas and choripan sandwiches.

Catching the metro to Polanco, the hippest neighborhood in the city, I had to admit there were a lot of high end international stores. Condesa had an apple store, Polanco had one too, next to the Porche dealership.
Everywhere in the city, the jacarandas are blooming. These trees flower with amazing lavender canopies and produce a rich purple carpet below.

Walking around a roundabout in Polanco, I spotted a La Parilla Suisa, which has stores in Mexico city and a few other places, including Phoenix. We used to go there back when we were all living in Phoenix. The one in Phoenix was a realatively nice sit down restaurant, not a splurge, but definitalely nicer than your Chuy’s. The ones here are more taco oriented, more casual and straightforward with specials in the window. Today, 2 for 1 tacos al pastor (marinated pork with pineapple), so I ordered 2x2 and a coke. The total came to less than $5.

Also in Polanco, I visited a luxury chocolate shop to buy a gift for my host family of the next week or so. Apparently I was off of my own map, having taken a wrong turn, so I was directed back to the station. Actually, she also gave me bus directions, but the state of my spanish is still useless in that regard.

Coming back to the house was less successful. I took the right train in the wrong direction and went three stations too far before realizing my mistake. I found the right combi but didn’t tell the driver the stop early enough, so I had to hike an extra five minutes uphill.

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to Medium.com, a more writing-centric website. medium.com/@wende...