Mexico City is big (D.F. es grande)

At customs, I often respond to interrogation, trying not to appear glib about it, Q: Purpose of trip?  A: Fun.  As long as it doesn’t anger the interrogator, it can sometimes deflate the atmosphere.  It can also backfire.  But the pleasure of gambling lies in the stake, and in the possibility of watching it disappear, of losing.  The American border security official checking my passport this time offered a small warning about my carefree attitude towards travelling in Mexico.  “Be careful,” he said.  “Isn’t it mainly in the north?” I asked him, “it” referring to the drug-related murderfest that has become the only thing that anyone knows on the subject of Mexico anymore.  “No, it’s everywhere,” he corrected me firmly after verifying my identity and sending me on my way.  This incident capped off weeks of concerned looks on the faces of friends asking, “You’re going to Mexico now?”

So waking up the next morning in Mexico City, the usual sense of anticipation and joy I associate with travel was mixed with a mild dose of paranoia and dread.  Wandering the urbane, beautiful, tree-lined streets of the Zona Rosa, the only hint of the violence that had been vexing the nation was distilled into the tabloid imagery of corpses twisted into unnatural positions and the mute faces of murder victims staring out from lurid Weegee-style photos plastered over ubiquitous newsstands.  I ordered an espresso at a sidewalk café and began to map out my day.  Later on, while I ate a plate of tacos at one of the many excellent sidewalk food stalls that are omnipresent in the city, birdsong permeated the flower-scented air, and I settled in to the relaxed overload that constitutes the rhythm of the Distrito Federal (D.F. for short, and not pronounced “Dee Eff” but “Day Eff-ay”).  Hawkers of merchandise along the pedestrian thoroughfare of Génova called out as I ambled towards the Insurgentes Metro station, where a man sat getting his shoes polished in the bright sunshine amidst the throng of pedestrians in the circular plaza.  Menace could very well have been lurking everywhere.  It never once tapped me on the shoulder during my time in Mexico.  Lots of people did ask if they could shine my shoes.  I said, “Sure,” once, without much incident.

There was a moment, on the third day, after attending the flea market at Lagunilla, a vast hub of inexpensive goods, clothing and food, and then wandering aimlessly for a few minutes outside of its territory, that I sensed a sketchy atmosphere.  For these occasions, the Metro exists.  If you’re feeling even a little wary and the “M” sign is visible to you, follow the stairs down into the immediate safety of the subway.  The Metro sign that caught my eye and offered me a retreat on this day was labelled Tepito.  Later, I met an American full-time resident who confirmed my wariness.  “I’ve never been to Tepito,” he said.  “I just don’t need to deal with it.”  Not only is the Metro clean and ostentatiously staffed by police carrying light artillery, it is also easy to use and reliable, and covers more or less the entire city, including stops at the airport and bus stations, including Tasqueña in the south of the city, which was the terminal I would need in order to get to Cuernavaca at the mid-point of my trip.  The Metro also costs the incredible sum of three pesos, not even a fraction of a gringo quarter.  For female travellers who crave segregated transport, there are women-only cars in the Metro system, as well as pink taxis driven by women and women-only buses.

On the Metro, hawkers stroll up and down each subway car, pacing their shouts so as not to compete with fellow hawkers.  On each subway journey, you will be propositioned by men selling small hammers, CDs, chewing gum, pictures of wrestlers, etc.  Anything that can be bought and sold and carried on your back is bought and sold in transit by people monotonously shouting their pitches at you.  Consider it a small price to pay for an inexpensive and otherwise immaculate journey.

To begin with, Mexico City is big.  I have the feeling that I’m not even really scratching the surface of the place.  There are many neighbourhoods I meant to explore and specific things I wanted to do but never got around to.  The good news, after all the wariness imposed on me by the voices who regard Mexico City as a frightening and violent place, is that I wouldn’t hesitate a moment if the opportunity to return presented itself.  I already miss the place.

Hemmed in by the sprawling boulevard Paseo de la Reforma, the Zona Rosa is tourist-friendly enough to feature high-end shops and nightclubs without the congestion of the Centro Historico.  By night, the Zona Rosa is also renowned as a hub of gay life.  Wander down Ameres between Paseo de la Reforma and Chapultepec as the sun is going down, and the entire street has become an open-air pleasure dome, dedicated to trance music, necklaces, and tank tops.

The Centro Historico, however, shouldn’t be avoided.  Here you’ll find the excellent 150-year-old Tardan hat shop, which is as effective a means to acquiring proper streetwear in the form of a tasteful, inexpensive Panama hat as you’re ever likely to find.  You will then likely notice, walking out into the sunshine with your new hat, that you’re on the Zócalo, the enormous public square that represents the heart of the city and contains at its centre the largest flag that has probably ever existed.  You won’t be alone, either, in that many men still do wear hats in Mexico.

Nearby, you will probably never mail a postcard from as memorable or beautiful a location as the golden interior of the post office on Tacuba Street.  Wandering down that same street, you’ll notice a concentration of perfume shops, where the scents are made to order.  Nearby is Sanborn’s, a chain restaurant started by a couple of Californian brothers a century ago, the flagship location of which, here in the Centro Historico, is covered with beautiful blue tiles and looks almost vaguely like the exterior of a Middle Eastern bathhouse in this context.

One Sunday morning, in the tangle of streets adjoining the Templo Mayor I witnessed vendors engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase with police, their goods spread out on blankets which they could quickly and easily bundle up and run away with when cries from vendors farther down the street warned that the cops were on their way to sweep them out.  For a while, I was surrounded by vendors shouting and running and then by police, trying to sort out who in the crowd they could nab.  Obviously, vendors who had been used to claiming the open streets of Centro Historico as an overhead-free place of business were being made to shove off by a concerted municipal effort.  Your attitude to Mexico City’s politics is probably nonexistent, but that goes to show how completely overshadowed such issues are by our media’s depiction of the Guns and Gangs problem, at the expense of all other aspects of life.  Several years ago, I read a story about a literacy program for the city’s police force.  The idea of training up semi-literate police officers with the goal of instilling the qualities of empathy and openness to humanity that one gets from reading fiction, absorbing the dynamic of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, for example, and then employing those skills on the street would be ridiculed in almost all North American cities as hopelessly pie-in-the-sky.  And so it’s to be applauded where it exists.

Several people remarked to me that during the previous decade, the air in Mexico City was oppressively polluted.  I was impressed by how clear it was in 2011, and what a change that must represent in the lives of residents.  You can’t help but notice the recent appearance of light-rail projects, the Metrobús, and the Ecobici bicycle share program and then associate those with a certain lightness in the life of the city.  While the program mainly exists in the Centro, Roma and Condesa neighbourhoods, Mexico City has plans to triple the size of Ecobici in 2012.  The city’s traffic is still vicious and impossible, but there appears to be a municipal appetite to curb the sheer quantity and lawlessness of motorists (policy that would be characterized as a “war on cars” elsewhere).  Reputation is difficult to shake, however.  I was told explicitly, for example, never to approach a police officer, which I did several times in my naïveté, asking for directions.  They’re widely regarded as corrupt by residents.  Personally, I found them nice enough, but they may have simply been taken aback at being approached by a gringo holding a map.  And all told, although I think very highly of making any city easier to navigate on a bicycle, riding one in Mexico City strikes me as recklessly dangerous.  Gambling when the stake is death is a little outside my comfort zone.

On the road in front of Plaza Garibaldi, Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas, I witnessed (without actually seeing) a woman struck by a car.  Facing away from the street, I heard the screech of brakes followed by an impact, and whirled around to see her body fly into the air (“like a ragdoll” is the cliché, but that is exactly what it looked like) and then land heavily on the pavement.  It was one of those heart-stopping, adrenaline-producing moments.  Slowly, in the middle of the road, onlookers roused her to consciousness.  The police arrived and began stopping traffic in preparation for an ambulance’s arrival.  I stood on the side of the road beside a group of mariachis and watched.  A couple hours later, the police had dragged the woman onto the sidewalk, standing over her and chatting on walkie-talkies.

Walking along Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas between Plaza Garibaldi and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, there is a string of sketchy cantinas, the male clientele of which are drunk well before noon and the women are either willfully garish or decked out for work.  I wasn’t sure that this would be the best introduction to cantina life that I could have hoped for.  I ended up wandering into a place called La Mascota, at Mesones N° 20, at the intersection with Bolivar, in the Centro Historico.  It was agreeable looking from the outside, and I was in need of a place to sit and collect myself over a meal and a drink.  The atmosphere inside didn’t disappoint.  I still haven’t figured out how cantinas work (my Spanish is no good), but the menu hangs on a chalkboard from which you can order food in small portions, which are served along with your drinks.  The trick being that as long as you have a fresh drink in front of you, the food is gratis.  So I ordered a mescal, and then a dish of sautéed crevettes (which were large, like crayfish).  A father and son walked in and looked so familiar and easy with the ritual of the place and each other, that it seemed like a pleasant family habit.  At the end, the bartender made it clear I should leave a little something for the guy who brought the food.  Or at least that’s how I interpreted it.  I didn’t get the sense that I was being shook down meaninglessly for extra cash.  I left extremely happy and full.

You can splurge on food in Mexico, but the quality of the average taqueria (which are abundant all through the city) is excellent.  A plate full of tacos filled with various meats, often of the al pastor or pork variety, runs anywhere from 30 to 70 pesos, depending.  Lime wedges are served on the side for squeezing over top, followed by a sprinkle of salt, and either a red or green chilli sauce.  I wish I could eat this way every day.

Plaza Garibaldi is a large, open square, hemmed in street side by the white-cubish architecture of the recently opened Tequila and Mescal MuseumThere are stray dogs all over Mexico City.  I was entranced by several regulars who make their home at Plaza Garibaldi.  The square is also home to a school for mariachis and is filled with idle players wandering around, occasionally strumming their guitars.  They play with slightly more conviction at the bars on the square during the evening, when they serenade tourists.  I saw one standing on the side of the road trying to hail a taxi.  One of the dogs recognized the mariachi’s plight and sprung into action, stepping out into traffic and herding a taxi, gently nosing the fender and positioning it towards the curb.  A young pair of dogs pranced together through the square, ears and tails happily up, begging from people sitting on benches and occasionally intimidated by a lone, hierarchically superior dog.  There’s possibly a worthwhile project in investigating the social dynamics of stray dogs in Mexico City.

At 69 Allende Street, nearby the Lagunilla Market, is Café Allende, established in 1957 and rather beautifully frozen in that year.  When my server asked if I wanted my coffee “con leche”, I thought he was just asking if I’d like milk with it, a couple of tiny plastic cream containers thrown at you, as you would get in North America.  I said, “Sure,” and thus had my first “café con leche”, discovering quickly enough that it’s a whole other kind of drink, sort of a coffee and milk prepared separately from each other and then united in a single cup which will likely have a hot-milk skin plastered over top.  This was a pleasant and fun discovery, which marked out Mexican coffee custom as distinct.

One of the great places to enjoy both a coffee and a view in Mexico City, funnily enough, is on the eighth floor of the Sears Tower, which faces the western edge of Alameda Central, the huge park which contains the Palacio de Bellas Artes.  It feels like bad advice, but trust me; enter Sears, take the escalator to the eighth floor, find the café, and then take a seat on the outdoor terrace overlooking the golden domed Palacio de Bellas Artes, with the city and mountains sprawled out behind.

Eventually, I got the impression that the city is simply too large to explore fully, that even if I lived here for years I’d never see it all.  I’m not sure if there are informally circumscribed areas that out-of-towners and wealthy locals frequent (Centro, Zona Rosa, Condesa, Roma).  Then again, I’m not going to try and figure out why it’s okay to venture as far as Lagunilla, but not okay to keep walking into Tepito.

Back in Roma, walking down boulevard Jalapa, I came across a large record store called Retroactivo.  Meandering the stacks, and seeing a lot of the usual pop music suspects, I asked the guy behind the counter if he had any recommendations for local music.  He put forward a 45 by a local garage rock group called Los Explosivos.  I discovered later, after looking it up online, that the shop has a large record press in the back room and that this 45 was one of the records cut there.  It’s excellent.  He also sold me an LP of songs by various artists from Chiapas.  It’s a bit heavy rock for my liking, but great to hear that the young folks of that region are keeping themselves culturally occupied.

All told, I ended up spending a lot of quality time in Colonia Roma and came away convinced that this was a neighbourhood I would actually enjoy living in, if push came to shove.  Grant Cogswell opened D.F.’s only English-language bookstore, Under the Volcano books, in October of 2011 in Roma Norte, and I dropped in on him to see if he had a better sense of the lay of the land.

“Nobody really knows how many native English speakers there are here.  I think the best guess is probably about 20,000.  They’re not concentrated.  They’re spread all over the place.  And as this store starts to penetrate, I’m starting to pick up information from different parts of the city that I didn’t even know about, you know, things that are going on out there because people are sort of coming and explaining it in English, where I can pick up the subtleties.  So I think this is going to develop into something really fascinating.”

It must be interesting, I suggest, discovering the city through this particular cross-section.  “We have these Friday nights where people come over,” he explains, “and I wouldn’t call it an expat clubhouse, but there is that element.”

I’m also eager to hear from an outsider who’s lived here long enough to settle in.  I’m still walking around in the enchantment phase, not yet able to imagine how the place might feel after an extended period of time.  I ask how he came to live here.  “In the U.S. there’s a reputation of this city, partially justified, over the last 30 years of it being dangerous:  you get kidnapped, there’s crime everywhere, it’s dirty, the smog is really heavy, it’s chaotic, blah, blah, blah, blah.  Over the years, I’d run into people, knowing what Americans know about D.F., and somebody would be like, ‘Oh, I just spent six months in Mexico City,’ and I’d be like, ‘Whoa, you’re hardcore!’  And they’re like, ‘Oh, no, it’s the greatest place in the world.’  And I kept hearing this again and again and again.  And I just got fascinated, and I proposed to a friend of mine that we go.  And over the course of a couple days of extreme paranoia I realized it was completely unjustified, and settled in and relaxed and just totally fell in love with it.”

I mention that I’ve fallen a little in love, too, and suggest to him that the city often reminded me of Paris, albeit a much less expensive version with much more insistent traffic.  In fact, the resemblance is often striking, right down to the blue street corner signs on the sides of buildings in the Centro.  In fact, beside the Palacio de Bellas Artes, there’s a Parisian Metropolitain archway.  I’m pretty sure the only other city in North America that has one of these over the entrance of a functioning Metro is Montreal, so it’s nice to connect the two.  (There is a third Metropolitain sign in the sculpure garden at MoMA, standing uselessly over no subway entrance.) But it’s really in the relaxed cosmopolitan neighbourhoods like Colonia Roma, envisioning your own life transposed here, that the likeness really opens up.  My assessment is that Mexico City is like a post-apocalyptic Paris, if Paris was relaxed and fun and didn’t close at 11:00 every night.  Paris could, in fact, take a note from Mexico City on joie de vivre.

“It’s kind of uncanny,” Cogswell says.  “I think a lot of people come here for the same reason that people went to Paris in the ‘50s.  It’s a cultural escape hatch.  This city has absorbed refugees and expats for a century, and is so friendly.  I mean, you’re bringing a sort of cultural privilege here, as a North American, that is something people are hungry for.”

Before suggesting that his shop could become the Shakespeare & Co. of D.F. if things really were to pan out, I ask whether he’s travelled much outside of the city, since I’m about to head for Cuernavaca.  “You’re so close to so much mind-blowing natural splendour.  It’s unbelievable.  I’ve been places, San Luis Potosí, which isn’t even in the Fodor’s guide, it’s amazing.  It’s not even an internationally acknowledged destination.  People in the city go up there camping and stuff.  You get close to the U.S. border, the quality and the attitude of people definitely goes down.”

I tell him that the Roma neighbourhood appeals to me immensely and ask for an assessment, “Roma is kind of a down-market Condesa.  Condesa can get a little Richie Rich on the weekends.  I tend not to drink there.”  The shelves in his shop are lined with English-language classics, so I grab an anthology of Mexican poetry compiled by Octavio Paz and translated by Samuel Beckett, thank him very much and wander back out along Orizaba boulevard.  It’s a beautiful street, packed with bars and idyllic parks.

I end up drinking later that night at Pulqueria Insurgentes, which has some association with the excellent local arts magazine Generacion.  It’s easily recognizable with its distinctive sign featuring a bell in red.  A man steps forward as I approach the entrance to pat me down and speaks to me in Spanish.  Upon realizing that I speak no Spanish, he summons his fellow security guy who does a perfunctory frisk, asks where I’m from, pats me on the shoulder and then ushers me inside.  “Enjoy yourself.  Drink some pulque and have a good time.”

Pulque, which I really knew nothing about prior to this trip, was the sacred beverage of the Aztecs, that they only gave to sacrifices and priests who were in need of a ritual tranquilizer to make their mutual roles bearable.  I already knew plenty about mescal and tequila, but had been woefully ignorant on this drink.  I managed to do a lot of catching up on my education in sampling every variety of pulque that was available in the bar (there are several different flavours), and exited the bar quite late and satisfied.

At the risk of suggesting that I preferred Colonia Roma to the point that I shunned Condesa, I did find many quality things to do in that neighbourhood.  For brunch, I went to the absolutely great El Pendulo, at 115 Neuvo Léon, which has an excellent bookstore on its ground floor with a restaurant upstairs.  If you’re lucky, you can score a seat on their beautiful terrace looking down onto the wide boulevard below.

Nearby, walking along avenida Mazatlán, I came across Nevería Roxy, a neighbourhood time machine that looks straight out of the mid-20th century.  Mexican ice creams are called nieves. I had a flavour called mamey, which had a kind of earthy berry quality about it.

In the nearby Parque México, you can find, depending on the day, outdoor stalls selling goods ranging from clothing by upscale local designers to quality bags, shoes and art supplies.  There’s a small train for the children and the place overall has a relaxed, green air of timeless beauty about it.  Grant Cogswell says that if you can catch this park around dusk, “I think it’s the most beautiful place in the world.  I really do.”

Continuing on from Condesa into the vast Bosqe de Chapultepec park, I wander in the direction of the vast and extremely worth visiting Museo Nacional de Antropología.  On the way, I pass through the Jardín Botánico, with representative plant species from all over Mexico laid out over beautiful grounds and several expansive greenhouses.

The National Anthropology Museum is a thing unto itself, and if I were to recommend one mandatory thing to experience (aside from eating the street food), it would be to visit this museum, in which you can position yourself first with the Aztec natives of this land and then wander through the history of each region, well represented with informative dioramas, through the Spanish conquest, absorb the Aztec frescoes out in the courtyard, to be confronted at the end with the justly famous Aztec sun stone, unearthed from under the present-day Zócalo.  This is a world-class museum, well worth reserving an afternoon for, especially since it might help smooth the edge of bewilderment you no doubt feel over how Mexico came to be the way it is now, this insane swirl of people, music, food, history.  I hesitate to use a word like “madness” to describe life here because it sounds like I’m trumping up a charge of groundless exoticism.  However, you wouldn’t need to be told that the city is built on top of the soft, pliant soil of a dried out lakebed and that it is gradually sinking to know that life feels exhilaratingly temporary and immediate here.  And while I didn’t experience any overt huffing and puffing because of high altitude that many people report, I wonder if the thin air didn’t feed into a certain light-headedness on my part.

Also in this park, on the recommendation of a friend, I walked through the Zoológico de Chapultepec.  Admission is free, and if you have children to entertain, better to book out a couple extra hours to explore this exhibit of exotic animals.  The pandas are obviously very popular.  There are giraffes, monkeys, birds of various types and a nice aquarium.  Myself, I toughed it out for about an hour.  It is a very good zoo, as zoos go.  But as an adult, seeing animals cooped up for public display seems a vaguely depressing pastime, both for them and a little for me.  Watching children react to these creatures, though, seemed at least to redeem the time spent wandering the grounds.  You could definitely find worse things to do with an afternoon.

Back in the Centro Historico, I went shopping for a typical Mexican shirt, hoping to score decent Christmas presents for my brother-in-law and his son, my nephew, in the form of identical guayaberas shirts.  These are popularly referred to as Mexican wedding shirts, and the prominent pockets on the front are apparently designed to contain a guava fruit, “guaya” meaning “guava”.  At 13 Lopez is Guayaberas Carr, seemingly a family-run business.  An adorable elderly woman calls the shots here.  No English is spoken, but somehow we signal our intentions to each other.  She has shirts and I would like to buy two of them.  Having guessed the right sizes and then having to choose among three colours, I find myself asking out loud (in German, I think, which makes no sense at all, but at this point in the trip my language faculties are completely mixed up), “Hmm, which colour will I take?”  She replies, without missing a beat, “Todo.”  It’s just about my first good laugh in a normal conversation with a native of Mexico City during my entire time here.  I want to buy both sizes in all three colours, exactly as she demands.  Hell, I’d like to be her grandson at this rate.  I choose blue, pay and move along.

Also in the Centro are several bakeries that are worth visiting, both for a snack and for staring at golden art deco interiors.  Really good bakeries are all over the city, but they’re especially magnificent in this neighbourhood.  Dulcería de Celaya, at 39 Cinco de Mayo, or Pastelería Ideal, at 18 avenida 16 de Septiembre, are both gorgeous examples of these shops out of time.  On the second floor of Pastelería Ideal is a surreal display of wedding cakes.  The more quotidian baked goods are downstairs.

The next morning, I head out to the Coyoacán neighbourhood, getting off at the Viveros Metro stop, in order to visit both the Frida Kahlo museum and then the Trotsky museum.  Trotsky was killed here, after at least one unsuccessful attempt on his life by a gang of gun-wielding mercenaries.  Finally, the famous ice-pick, on order from Stalin himself, struck the even more famous eyeglasses of Leon Trotsky, here in this compound that he lived in with his family.  In the Joseph Losey film The Assassination of Leon Trotsky, you can gauge how vastly the city has changed.  It was shot here, on location, and the view over the wall depicts practically a rural scene in the film.  Now it’s hemmed in on its north side by the avenida Río Churubusco, which is basically a highway, and the city has expanded outward to surround everything out here.  On the day Trotsky was killed, he had an appointment with Saul Bellow, making Bellow the last person who arrived at the compound expecting a cordial meeting, only to discover that Trotsky was unable to lunch.

Coyoacán is a very beautiful neighbourhood, and I’d like to explore it a little more fully on my next visit.  While this part of town is a little more scenic and restful than in the centre, anyone who’s used to the pace of traffic in North America will still be absolutely shocked by the persistence and recklessness of traffic in Mexico.  If I had to name a drawback to life in Mexico, that would be the one.

Speaking of traffic, I should mention that I walked past the Frida Kahlo museum and would probably have gone in if the line hadn’t been out the door.  I predicted this would be the case, and anyway wasn’t so crushed, as I’m not completely taken with her work but would have been curious to at least see the place.  Luckily, the Trotsky museum is just a couple blocks away and is a whole lot less busy.  Staffed by Marxists, there’s a small gallery space in the entrance building, but the main attraction is the house where he lived.  No attempt has been made to plaster over the bullet holes in the walls from the previous attempt on his and his family’s life.  Everything remains just as it was left, books on the shelf and a writing desk ready to be used, as if the owner had been sitting there the day previous.  Outside in the courtyard is his and his wife’s grave, with a Soviet flag hung overhead.

On my final evening, I attended a show at the incredibly beautiful Palacio de Bellas Artes, a vast art deco complex with an architecture exhibit on the fifth floor and a lovely gift shop downstairs.  Shows that are staged in the theatre often feature folkloric dancers, which might be an ideal experience for a tourist.  I was lucky that I was able to catch a show by Laurie Anderson, who was touring her latest show, called Delusion, a kaleidoscopic work on the subjects of life, death, family and the imaginary glue that holds these things together.  To see such a modern and multi-faceted work in such an ornate and gorgeous theatre was just about as appropriate a note as I could have hoped for to close out my journey.

View the full photoalbum here:

If you go:

Tardan hat shop, Plaza de la Constitución No. 7, on the west side of the Zócalo

Post office (Palacio Postal), corner of Tacuba and Eje Central Lazaro Cardenas

-La Mascota cantina, Mesones N° 20, corner of Bolivar

Tequila and Mezcal Museum, Plaza Garibaldi

-Café Allende, 69 Allende Street

-Lagunilla Market, Libertad (between República de Chile & Calle Allende)

-Café on 8th floor of Sears tower (for the view), Av. Juárez 14, Centro

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Avenida Hidalgo 1, Centro

Retroactivo Records, Jalapa N° 125, Colonia Roma Norte

Under the Volcano Books, Celaya 25, Col. Hipódromo Condesa

Pulqueria Insurgentes, Insurgentes Sur N° 226, Colonia Roma

El Péndulo (bookstore with great brunch upstairs), 115 Neuvo León

Nevería Roxy ice cream stand, Mazatlan 80, Colonia Condesa

Parque México

Jardín Botánico, Chapultepec Park (slightly east of the Anthropology Museum)

Museo Nacional de Antropología, Chapultepec Park

Zoológico de Chapultepec (Zoo in Chapultepec Park)

Guayaberas Carr (shirt shop), 13 Lopez, Centro

Dulcería de Celaya (bakery), 39 Cinco de Mayo, Centro

Pastelería Ideal, 18 avenida 16 de Septiembre, Centro

Leon Trotsky Museum, Rio Churubusco 410 Del Carmen, Coyoacán

The Olfactory Floor: Perfume Mixologists of Calle Tacuba

You’ll inevitably notice scattered around the Centro Historico in Mexico City a lot of perfume shops.  While this is hardly a remarkable feature in a city of any size, these shops distinguish themselves from your average scent counters in that they are more hands-on affairs.  In a typical perfume shop, you walk in demanding a brand name scent in a box with a logo on it, pay and get out.  In Mexico City, you can ask for a scent by name (even by brand name), but what happens next is that the alchemists behind the counter consult their recipe books and custom build something for you.  It would be unkind to think of these places as knock-off shops.  Whereas an imitation product will boldly print a lookalike label with a subtly different name on it (Chamel No. 5 or something) and sell it as if it were the real deal, the shops in Mexico City will custom mix a bottle of perfume, cologne, eau de toilette or whatever you request, put it in an unremarkable bottle with a plain sticker for a label and your mixologist’s handwriting on the front.  Naturally, this costs a fraction of buying brand-name product from a perfume counter.

When you first begin to notice these places, you’ll likely think to yourself, “Wow, Mexicans are really into perfume.”  But it’s really on Calle Tacuba walking past a string of these shops, their window displays looking more like chemistry sets than displays of luxury goods, that you begin to realise the uniqueness of this enterprise to Mexico City.

I wandered in to a shop called Perfumes (No. 13 Tacuba), attracted by the Art Deco entrance and the window display, which looks more like it’s selling to home darkroom enthusiasts than perfume addicts.  The place was crowded.  Each customer looked to be on a mission, engaged in deep discussion with the women behind the counter who would take their orders and retreat to their mixing stations and return with their goods in small bottles.  My meagre Spanish skills and the long queues intimidated me into exploring other shops on the street, convinced that even if I managed to reach the counter and speak to someone, the conversation would be meaningless.

So I crossed the street to No. 14 Tacuba, otherwise known as Alquimia Perfumes Y Esencias S.A. de C.V.  Much less busy, there was no trouble getting the attention of an employee, and then several employees as my inability to communicate became a group decoding project.  I would have liked to ask them questions about their lives and the nature of their trade, but ended up just pointing at things and mostly being met with a kindly shake of the head.  I’ve really got to learn Spanish.  All the same, they handed me a binder full of brand names and it became clear that I could pretty much pick something out and ask them to replicate it.  So I chose a certain French brand of men’s fragrance.  The women went away and performed their magic, measuring out substances from a variety of bottles, weighing things on scales and putting the final product into a bottle that would easily cost, oh, I don’t know, a couple hundred bucks standard retail for the size I was getting.  A sticker was slapped on the front, and the word “Hombre” (a literal translation of the French brand name I had asked for) written on it by hand.

As the lady rang up my purchase, she showed me on a calculator the amount I’d be paying: 460.0000-something pesos.  I nodded.  “Well, that’s still a pretty good bargain, I guess.  Not bad.  Well done,”  I thought to myself as I walked over to the cash register, where I was then asked to pay 46 pesos and change.  I must have looked confused.  I’ve paid more for a cup of coffee.  I took my bottle home and compared the Mexican version done up by the alchemists with the real deal which I had a very small quantity of already.  If there’s a difference, my untutored nostrils can’t detect it.

So, while I’m not so sure a hand-made imitation brand perfume from the D.F. would be the ideal gift for that special someone you’re trying to impress (because nothing says “I love you” like handwriting on a sticker slapped on a bottle), this should certainly cause some kind of excitement for the perfume fancier in your life who is kept from her/his favourite scent by a lack of cash.  We all know someone who fetishizes brand names to the point where the bottles on display in their bathroom are mainly intended to intimidate visitors.  The forces of marketing press the vulnerable into a perverse rationalisation that equivocates an “I’m worth it” message with the kind of phantom value that can only be redeemed by a coreless persona.  If that’s where you’re at, then Calle Tacuba, and Mexico in general, can do nothing for you, for it is by and large an off-brand way of life.  Otherwise, I can recommend a street full of alchemists in Mexico City who will happily provide you with a lifetime supply of your favourite odour for pocket change.  One more item on the long list of things to love about this metropolis.

Drinks Tourism: Mexico City’s Tequila and Mezcal Museum

Opened in December 2010, Mexico City’s Tequila and Mezcal Museum is based in Plaza Garibaldi, a large public square with something of a reputation for fun, being the headquarters for Mexico City’s mariachis and generally a hangout for dancers, loiterers, stray dogs and other sorts of night-time denizens of this colourful neighbourhood.  A friend of mine who knew it before the construction of the museum describes an incident that occurred in the midst of a large crowd of people dancing at night during which, for whatever reason, a knife was drawn.  He describes the crowd splitting like a school of fish sensing danger, instantly creating an empty space around the threat where a moment earlier existed a multitude.

The building itself is essentially a frosted glass cube decorated with silhouettes of the distinctive maguey plant.  The admission and gift shop are on the ground floor, with the main exhibit on the second.  Among other things, the museum displays pages from the official diary of the 30th session of the World Heritage Committee’s meeting, held in Vilnius on August 23, 2006, which secured the tequila producing region’s place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, granting it the same cultural privileges enjoyed by Gros Morne National Park, the banks of the Seine, and the Great Wall of China.  While the museum itself is disappointingly small, the exhibit is basically complete, explicating the stages of harvesting the maguey plant and its processing into either tequila or mezcal.  The exhibit makes an important distinction: that the distillation process was introduced to Mexico by Spaniards, overshadowing pulque, the predominant beverage produced before the Spanish arrival, which to my shame I had never tasted or much thought about before my arrival in Mexico City, obsessed as I was (as a result of my worship of the novel Under The Volcano) with mezcal.  Grant Cogswell, owner of the Under the Volcano bookstore in Colonia Roma, insisted to me that tequila and mezcal are “less serious beverages” compared to pulque.

Pulque was, indeed, serious as a heart attack, given that its primary role in Aztec culture was as the facilitator of ritual sacrifice, equally taking the edge off the extremely unpleasant acts engaged in by both killer priests and victims offered up to please the gods.  The Aztec goddess Mayahuel, closely associated with the maguey plant, and also incidentally regarded as the giver of life, was regarded as an endless supply of mexcalli, aguamiel (honey water) and pulque.  Really, what these colonial processes of distillation amount to is the cooking of the maguey heart, either steam-cooked or earth-roasted.  Tequila is made using only the blue variety of the maguey.  Mezcal takes its name from the nahuatl word for “cooked maguey”, or mexcalli.  Archaeologists know from finding maguey fibres around Mesoamerican settlements and in period feces that the plant is intimately affiliated with the goings on of the earliest human settlements in this part of the world, which corroborates the unsurprising fact that humans will ferment any substance at all other than rocks and drink the result.

The trick in harvesting maguey plants for tequila or mezcal production is to get the mature plant immediately before its flower stalk (quiote) blooms, so that the fuel that would have been used to produce flowers becomes the source of mezcal.  Jimadores, workers who harvest the plant, can also spot when the heart of the plant (cogollo) is thinning.  The stalks are cut with a machete, exposing the stem, which is then cut either with a machete or chainsaw.  The plant is taken out of the ground, the remaining stems removed, exposing the heart of the maguey, the piña.  This maguey can be left to sit for a couple of years, thus concentrating its sugars.

Cooking the agave hearts breaks down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, allowing for fermentation.  Cooking techniques vary by region and era.  During the Industrial Revolution, tequila making involved steaming the hearts in brick kilns.  The only difference between then and now is that the agave can be steam-cooked in a mere 12 hours in gas-heated stainless steel autoclaves.  As pure tasting a result as this produces for tequila, the characteristic smokiness of mezcal would be lost without the traditional method of cooking over several days in hermetically sealed, cone-shaped earth pits for ovens.  Agave hearts are placed on heated stones, covered with palm leaves, straw mats (or simply grass or canvas).  Then the pulp must be separated from the fermenting juices and sugars.  This can be done industrially or by stone, axe, mallet, or whatever means can be employed to grind the cooked maguey.

On the third floor of the museum is a lovely open-air bar, where with your ticket you can claim a free sampler of both tequila and mezcal and chat up the staff about product.  On the ground floor, the gift shop sells an extensive array of both tequila and mezcal, from well-marketed high-end brands like Los Danzantes and Patrón, to much more obscure, less expensive and equally high-quality marks.  The gift shop employee I quizzed not only spoke excellent English, but also had some highly specific opinions about her wares.  I believe that she steered me right in the end, the heartbreaker being that you have to make a choice at all, owing to draconian laws for “importing” alcohol depending on your home country.  Canada allows something punitive, slightly more than a litre of spirits.  This really must change.  Write your MP.

I couldn’t resist two days later further burdening my luggage buying a true mom-and-pop make of both mezcal and tequila at the Jardin Borda in Cuernavaca on the Day of the Dead.  More on that to come.



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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965