The Other Mexico City

I’m in Mexico City for a few days, here for a friend’s wedding. I’m staying in an area of DF (Distrito Federal) called the Condesa, which is peaceful and full of bars and restaurants and boutiques and unlike any part of Mexico City I’ve visited before. It’s nowhere near as scary as I’ve always imagined the city…and least not this neighborhood.

My few experiences with DF have, in fact, been pretty scary. The first time my family visited I was ten years old. I liked Chapultapec Park and the anthropology museum, but I got a bad case of la turista. We were staying in a hotel that was being fumigated during the day, so even though I was in desperate need of staying near a bed and a bathroom, I had to be evacuated along with everyone else. We had tickets for a bullfight that day. I don’t think the sight of the picadors poking spears into the bulls, spewing blood, made my stomach feel any better. There was a very drunk Mexican guy next to me, who was trying to explain the game to me in beery breath, which also didn’t help.

My impression of DF since has been one of chaos and pollution. About ten years ago I had a 5-hour layover from Huatulco, so my ex-husband and I decided to go to the museum, which involved spending about four hours of the layover in traffic, and one hour looking at anthropology relics. I spent another night in DF on the way to San Miguel before I realized there was a bus from the airport that could get you to Queretaro, 45 minutes from SMA, without going through DF. That time I got a cheap hotel in the historic center; not having done my homework, I figured that would be the nice part of town, but it’s the part of town that has a lot of stalls that sell loose batteries and cell phone chargers and pirated CDs and where you really don’t want to be out walking alone late at night. At least that’s what the waitress implied after I finished dinner and wondered whether it was safe to walk the three blocks back to my hotel. “That depends,” she said. “Do you believe?” Meaning, do I believe in God and would Jesus guide my way back to the hotel.


One other time I came through DF for the night I went to a dermatologist in the morning, who suggested a chemical peel, Botox, and a little lift of the skin around my chin. As I said, scary.

This time, as I mentioned, I’m in the Condesa, which has tree-lined streets, bars, French bistros, and a few boutiques. It’s very pleasant and safe to walk around. I’ve stayed in two charming B&Bs: the Condesahaus, and the Red Tree House. I particularly love my room in the Red Tree House, because it’s tiny but with lovely design and a strong shower and a terrace all my own overlooking a courtyard, for $70 a night. It’s a cozy place to read a book when you’re tired of wandering around outside.

Yesterday I went to Chaultapec Park, but it being a Monday, the museums were closed. I wandered around with all the stalls selling cotton candy and luchero masks and then found a few trails that resembled nature. The place has nothing on Golden Gate Park, but it’s nice. I walked there from the Condesa, and aside from a scary crossing involving hundreds of buses and taxis and no pedestrian lights, it was fun.

My friend had her small wedding in a lovely art apartment. Her new husband is related to one of the richest families in Mexico, and she’s in fashion design, so people were definitely well-dressed. I’m not sure why older Mexican women of a certain age and demographic think the tight skin and pulled lips looks good, but whatever. I was feeling wrinkly for my relatively young years. Maybe have to go back to the dermatologist.

I chatted for awhile with the second richest man in Mexico, talking about books, which he collects, even though he doesn’t read novels. He seemed charmed by my efforts to talk up my friend and her great merits entering the family when out of the blue he asked me whether I was Jewish and then said “because I’m anti-Semitic.” What about being the second richest guy in Mexico that allows you to go around announcing that you’re anti-Semitic? I was tempted to say more than a few impolite replies, but had to remember this was my friend’s wedding and it would do to just get up and leave.

After a wonderful dinner at the Bistrot Rojo, one of the bodyguards took me back to my B&B. That was a little bit of a thrill, to be shuttled around by a Mexican bodyguard.

The next day, to make up for that evening, I took the Metro around town. The Metro was high on my list of things that could be scary in Mexico City, but I left my money and credit cards and passport in the room and checked it out. The DF subway is a wonder: it costs TWO PESOS to go anywhere in town. That is 15.3 cents. If you want people to take public transportation, make it clean and cost 15 cents. It was crowded, but not much more so than New York City or Paris. The Metro was easy; I went to the artisan market and the San Juan food market (disappointing in its lack of variety and splendor, very far down on my list of excellent food markets in the world), and then walked through the bathroom-parts part of town to the Belles Artes. There, I’d just missed the El Greco exhibit by a few days, which made me glad that I’d been at the Hermitage a few weeks ago where I got my fill.

Then I took the Metro back to Chapultapec Park to the modern art museum, where I especially enjoyed the Tamayos and a sculpture made completely out of pantyhose. I admit I took a cab back to the Condesa because I couldn’t face crossing that crazy place where all the busses and taxis randomly converged. I had some really good mushroom soup at a place called La Gloria Café in the Condesa, and okay res with chili sauce and walked back to the Red Tree House.

The air in DF seems cleaner than it used to be. The traffic is still miserable, though. The Condesa is a little oasis in this town, but I’m not sure I’m going to be falling in love with DF anytime soon. You never know, though. There seems to be a migration of people I know from San Miguel de Allende to DF. I don’t know whether they’re craving culture or restaurants or just a lot more people. And of course, I’ve barely tasted this huge, great city.

Back on my bicycle in San Francisco

Bicycling, European-style

One of the things that impressed me most when I was traveling in northern Europe was the widespread respect for bicycles. I rented bikes in Stockholm, Brugge, St. Rochelle, and watched riders in Copenhagen and Amsterdam (where they pull 1000 bikes out of the canals per year). Unlike here, bicycles aren’t considered a sort of cute way to get around. The cities run on bicycles; they’re a time- and energy-saving alternative in crowded cities. They aren’t even an alternative—they’re the main form of transportation. There are separate lanes for bicycles, with barriers between them and the traffic. Bicycles are the perfect way to get around crowded towns.
In San Francisco, bicycles have been getting a lot of press lately. The city recently found that bicycle ridership is up 53% since 2006. Instead of this being a cause for cheer, among all of us recycling, Prius-buying Green San Franciscans, it’s a cause for a concern. Bicyclists are running red lights. Critical Mass is running amok.
I’m a long-time cyclist, and used to ride my bike to work all the time. It’s a fast way to get around, and you build exercise into your day, even if your fashion options are a bit limited. When my office moved from near Van Ness and Market to South Park, near the ballpark, I tried the ride from my flat in the Haight, which is considerably more challenging, having to cross downtown and South of Market. The first time I did it, I broke my finger. A Muni bus was headed my way, I jumped the curve, and fell so I wouldn’t hit a pedestrian. So I stopped riding my bike to work. I didn’t want to die commuting.
After two years, I recently tried again. Now Market Street is supposed to be more bicycle-friendly, with fewer private cars. There are more bicycles painted on the street delineating lanes. But the way it’s set up is ridiculous. The bicycle lanes disappear into Muni lanes, meaning that supposedly you, the bicyclist, are supposed to squeeze into a small lane with a Muni bus. At 8th Street on Market, private cars turn right, leaving bicyclists nowhere to go, no room, constantly in danger of being hit. At other intersections, people don’t use their turn signals when turning right. On streets where there are supposed to be bicycle lanes—Folsom—trucks use them to double-park while they’re delivering, and cars use them as right-hand turn lanes. It’s really dangerous out there.
I sympathize with people who think bicyclists should follow traffic laws. If you want cars to respect you, you have to stop at stop signs and not just breeze through. You can’t assume you have the right of way when you arrive at an intersection after a car. But there needs to a much more serious effort to encourage bicycling in San Francisco (not to mention the rest of the country), and to make it safe.
Copenhagen was a nirvana for bikes (oh, and for health care). San Francisco could be. But every time I leave the house with my helmet I’m afraid I’m going to break another finger, or worse.