Dispatch Mexico City: First Time's the Charm
PHOTO: Sanborn's Restaurant in Mexico City. (Photo by David Cogswell)
Please forgive me if I ramble. I’m high.
No, I haven’t been drinking or consuming some controlled substance. I’m referring to the rush of euphoria and excitement of landing in a new place, where everything is fresh and novel and everywhere you look you see something you’ve never seen before, and maybe never even thought of before.
That feeling is especially delicious at the first moments of encounter when the days ahead in the new place seem to stretch out to infinity. Rationally I know the time will be short and I will be returning home in a few days. But right now that seems remote, as if it will never come.
I experience this thrill when I return to a place I’ve been before, because every place is new every time you go there. But the thrill is especially strong when you are visiting a place for the first time, a place that has inhabited your imagination for what seems forever.
Let me take a breath and a moment to explain. I have come to Mexico City to experience a four-day whirlwind tour called Art, Culture and Cuisine of Mexico City with Tia Stephanie Tours. I have been looking forward to this trip for a long time.
The tour was designed by Stephanie Schneiderman, the person behind Tia Stephanie Tours. There are two of us traveling and Stephanie will be guiding the tour herself. Stephanie will adjust her basic itinerary plan according to how the situation unfolds and the preferences of the travelers.
I love that feeling when the reality of a place smashes your preconceptions of it and surprises you with a broad spectrum of new things, experiences and ideas. A new place is never what you expect. It may partly conform to your expectations, but at most your preconceptions are a faint dream image compared to the full color live and in-person experience that unfolds every moment of your actual encounter.
One of the first preconceptions to be shattered when it collided with reality was about the weather. Looking at the map, Mexico City is far down into Central America. It’s only 18 degrees north of the equator. New York is 40 degrees latitude. It’s late July. It was oppressively hot in New York when I left. How much hotter must it be in Mexico City, I thought, much closer to the equator?
But no. When I went outside the airport to board my taxi, I discovered that it’s not hot. It’s much cooler than New York right now. I was waiting to get smacked with a heavy pocket of extreme heat, but it never materialized. Mexico City is not hot. It’s very mild, actually. Surprisingly to me, the weather is practically perfect for human habitation.
As I confronted the mild weather I remembered the word “plateau.” Mexico City is in a basin surrounded by mountains on the Central Plateau of Mexico. The 7,000 foot altitude moderates the effect of tropical sun and produces a mild, congenial climate.
There go my images of sweltering in Mexico City in July. Poof. Scratch that preconception. What next?
Stephanie, who spent her childhood years in Mexico, told me there are two seasons in Mexico City, the rainy season and the dry season. We are here in the rainy season, April through October.
The temperature is mild throughout the year. The daily highs range from the 60s Fahrenheit to the 80s, and the lows range from the 40s to the 60s. In the rainy season, it rains a little almost every day.
The storms don’t usually last long and people just wait them out and then resume their normal activities. Sometimes it’s just a sprinkle. But soon after my arrival when we were visiting with Alfredo the historian at Sanborn’s restaurant, we had a big one. The sound of the rain rose quickly from a patter to a roar. We just enjoyed our conversation over quesadillas and coffee and a few minutes later the rain was barely even a memory.
From the airport I picked up a cab from the authorized taxi companies and the ride was only $13 to the Maria Cristina Hotel, my home in Mexico City.
The trip from the airport was roughly 20 minutes of mostly expressway travel after which we entered a comfortable neighborhood with vintage houses and stores and the soft feeling of trees and healthy greenery. The area is called Cuauhtémoc, named after the last Aztec emperor.
Stephanie secured me a room overlooking a green, grassy courtyard lined with neatly manicured shrubs enclosing three sparsely spaced tables covered with green umbrellas. But there was no time to tarry at the hotel. We hit the ground running. We had only a few days in Mexico City and a lot to see and experience.
We began with a trip to the historic district where you can actually see part of the Aztec civilization’s Great Temple, which was part of the city underneath the Spanish colonial city that is the foundation of modern Mexico City.
Our historian guide told the mind-boggling story of how some traces of the Great Temple were discovered in the city under streets and houses. The magnitude of the discovery was so great that the government bought out the residents of the buildings, tore the buildings and roads away and turned the site into an archaeological dig.
What no one expected was that when the modern buildings were torn down, the old Aztec temple actually rose up out of the earth to a position above the ground it was previously below.
What literally gave rise to this real-life sci fi scenario is the fact that Mexico City was built over a lake. It started as an Aztec city that was later discovered by Hernan Cortez, the Spanish conquistador.
The Aztecs developed an ingenious system of landfill that has come to be called “Floating Islands.” The bundles of landfill that make up the land under Mexico City have been attached to the earth below by roots for centuries. The Spaniards drained the lake. But the land of Mexico City still has unusual properties because of its origin as an Aztec landfill project around an island on a huge lake.
The visit to the Historic Center was chosen as the starting point to begin to lay a foundation upon which to understand Mexico City, starting at its origins. But as is usually the case, the traveling involved was half the fun.
We walked through a lively commercial district that has been blocked off for automotive traffic and reserved for walking. The streets were humming with people. The streetlife was electric, with people of all ages walking around, talking, shopping or looking.
It’s almost embarrassing to say how much Mexico City exceeded my expectations from the moment I arrived. And I was one of the ones who were really enthralled by Mexico City. But having now experienced the real thing I realized my preconceptions were nowhere near the reality.
I don’t know why exactly Mexico City’s reputation has not risen to its rightful level. Now having met the city in person, I would say it offers essentially all of the same cultural richness that attracts Americans to Europe. But underlying its 500 years of colonial history is the rich native heritage of the Mesoamerican empires that were there before the Spanish arrived.
I look forward to the next few days hungrily.
More by David Cogswell
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