Livin’ la Vida Loca on Hamburg(er) Street, Mexico City

Mexico City hit me in the gut like the food poisoning did in Los Angeles: the altitude, the traffic, and, most unexpectedly, the cold.

At 7,300 feet Mexico City is higher than Denver or Santa Fe. Gasping as I stroll, I wonder how all those flatland Olympians managed to win any events back in 1968, the same year the Mexican government permanently “disappeared” hundreds of students a month before the Games began. And if the altitude doesn’t slow down my evening paseo the car race will. Each driver seems intent on gaining that crucial .0001 second over a competitor in the adjacent lane, causing me to idle for minutes before I can safely cross a street.

After seven years in the often-glorious Northwest, I thought I was finally avoiding the gray, dispiriting gloom of a Seattle winter. But I stepped off the plane in a city served on the rocks, where a (El Nino-driven?) cold snap was forcing bewildered citizens to bundle up like Kenny on South Park. Yesterday, my sixth day here, finally brought the sun and warmth my Vitamin D-starved body needed. I must say, it’s wonderful putting “short sleeves” and “January” in the same sentence!

I am staying in a studio apartment that I found on The place is tiny, tucked away in the courtyard of a safe apartment building on Calle Hamburgo, a residential street on the edge of the neighborhood called Zona Rosa. For a miraculously cheap $40 a night I get a hard double bed (which I soften by sleeping on top of the twice-folded-over down comforter), kitchen (with more trimmings than a persistent microwaver like me could ever use), bath, satellite TV and Wifi. The streets in my neighborhood bear the names of foreign cities. It delights me to learn these names in Spanish: Londres (London), Praga (Prague), Tokio (ok, that one was easy) and Varsovia (Warsaw, but had I figured it out because of the Polish dance called Varsovienne from The Merry Widow).

The best part about living on Calle Hamburgo (that’s pronounced KY-YAY, BTW, not CAL-LEE) is that it’s only two blocks away from Paseo de la Reforma, the Champs Elysées/Market Street/Fifth Avenue of Mexico City. Well, it’s actually more like the Pennsylvania Avenue of Mexico City, because the street was built in the 1860s by poor, doomed Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg to connect his country home in Chapultepec with his downtown office at the National Palace. I live right around the corner (and a million standard-of-living points) from the Four Seasons hotel and the American Embassy, a snarling pit bull of a building that any Ugly American would be proud of.

To ward off the possibility of loneliness I’ve been hanging out with new friends I got to know during my last visit: Raul, an opera singer who lives in Cuernavaca and whose Palace of Fine Arts recital I will attend in February; Adela, Jody’s friend who’s perhaps the most fun person in Latin America; Jorge and Craig, the guys who own the Red Tree House B&B I stayed in before (Craig: retired theater professor from Southern Oregon University in Ashland, of all imaginable backgrounds); and Jorge S, who picked me up at the airport, took me grocery shopping and to see Sherlock Holmes, recorded a CD of Mexican music for me and helped set up my own Mexican cell phone. You can call me now at: (+52) 55 25 20 08 07!

Mexico means to me…

…the ruins of ancient civilizations

…colonial cities

…country villages

…the beaches of your dreams

…certainly not the largest city in the world

…nor a place as complicated to visit as New York

…or as I imagine Tokio would be.

But it would by uber-romantic and misguided to think that I could know Mexico without knowing its capital – a place many Mexicans avoid like a case of food poisoning. I am only on a one-week visit now, but come February 10 – after I research travel in the state of Campeche and learn about the Caribbean Reef in Belize and Guatemala – I will return and spend one month in DF: the Distrito Federal, Mexico’s District of Columbia. I lived in DC for eleven years; who knows what four weeks in DF will turn into.


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