So why Mexico City? “Why not?” would be a great reply to that oft-asked question, but of course there’s a bit more to it than that.
I took my first trip to Mexico City over Thanksgiving of 2002. Ten years ago. Though not my first international trip (I’d previously set foot in Europe, Canad-ia, and Brazil), nor my first trip to Mexico (that would be a drunken 1998 road trip from San Diego to Tijuana; is there any other kind?), I now know that my 2002 Mexico City trip/holiday/vacation was the trip to change the course of my life to include more travel than anyone I’ve known. This was the trip because it was my first international trip alone, to a place just four hours from my former homes of LA and Chicago by plane, yet whole worlds apart.
I knew bits and pieces about Mexico City in part because of a fraternity brother (we’ll call him “Luis”) who grew up in el Distrito Federal, in part because LA has such a large Hispanic – predominantly Mexican – population, and in part because I spent a good part of my childhood reading my dad’s National Geographic magazines. In between articles featuring pictures of topless African natives there were substantive articles about such places as Teotihuacán, that great abandoned pre-Colombian citadel housing some of the world’s tallest pyramids; about Xochimilco and its magical “floating gardens” (they don’t float but they are magical); or about the city’s enormous Zócalo (main square) and the similarly-gigantic cathedral that fronts it. Studying maps, buying Lonely Planet Mexico, and worrying way too much about the safety situation in Mexico City, I bought a plane ticket on now-defunct Mexicana Airlines.
Best decision I’ve ever made.
Turkey Day arrives and I’m off on my red-eye flight, leaving LAX something like 12:30 a.m. and arriving MEX at something like 6:00 a.m. Everything goes right. No taxi robberies. No metro pickpocketings. Minimal Moctezuma’s Revenge. I meet a local girl….
Fast forward to 2004. I’m single once more but perhaps the wiser for it. I’ve visited Mexico City at least three more times since that first exhilarating visit, and have now decided to focus on other regions within Mexico. I take a week-long trip (all by bus) from Mexico City to Oaxaca, from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido (seated next to an old lady with a huge bag of chiles in her lap), from Puerto Escondido to Acapulco (next to a Mexican cowboy with a too-large machete), and from Acapulco back to Mexico City. Each place seems better than the one before. I meet so many backpackers, all so friendly, yet strangely none of them are Americans. I know, Americans are closer to the “dangers” of Mexico and its sleazy border towns, but if they can manage safe, annual packaged vacations to Cancun, Cabo, or Puerto Vallarta without incident – all of which are far from Mexico’s border violence – why won’t they take the chance on places like Oaxaca, or Cuernavaca, or Taxco, some of the most charming cities and towns on the continent?
But that’s a blog article for another day. As for me, my love affair with Mexico continued. In 2006 I finally met up with “Luis” from college (remember him?), and it was as if nary a year had passed (it was actually nine years!). I hung out with Luis, with my new Eurotrek friend Jester, and with co-workers from my company’s Mexico City office. I visited the ruins of Tula (north of Mexico City and worth the trip, IMHO), and even managed to make it to Villahermosa and Chiapas, both of which are closer to Guatemala City than they are to Mexico City.
Reality set in. I exceeded my alloted vacation time every year running, yet I hadn’t been back to Europe since 2000. I set off to new places in both Europe and SE Asia, and all was better. I somehow snuck in a mini-vacation to Cancun in 2007, but Mexico City was never further from my mind. Turning the clock ahead again, it’s now late 2011 and I’ve added 714 new countries to my travel map. After a literal round-the-world trip that included my first (long overdue) visit to India – to me Old Delhi is the only place besides Mexico City and maybe Cairo where you’ll find millions upon millions of people walking everywhere, all the time – I wanted a short Thanksgiving trip somewhere not so far away.
No, not Mexico City. Guadalajara. Mexico’s saner “Second City” (my own moniker for the place, with apologies to my native Chicago), GDL nevertheless bustles with charm and excitement. It’s farther away than Mexico City from the pre-Colombian ruins the country is famous for, its metro is limited in distance covered when compared to Mexico City, and unlike Mexico City it isn’t surrounded by smog-trapping volcanoes. But it’ll have to do. And it does. I meet another girl of the Mexican persuasion….
2012 arrives and with the new year comes a new relationship. I’m in Mexico City and Valle de Bravo one month; Mexico City and Querétaro the next; Mexico City and Guanajuato the next. These are short trips, long enough for us she and I to get to know each other, yet never more than 12 days. We’re falling in love but taking it slow, and are coping (for the most part) with the distance factor. It’s probably too soon for anyone to move in with anyone.
On a semi-related note, I’ve somehow convinced myself over the years that despite my love of travel, I’d much rather have a “base” to come back to every few weeks, rather than continually live out of a suitcase. With a base I have a place to store all the crap I’ve accumulated from years of buying space-hogging travel souvenirs. With a base I have a permanent address to put on resumes for the occasional job interview. But this “base” of mine, this apartment, is falling apart; there are new cracks on the ceiling every month and mold is growing in strange places. And this resume of mine, this piece of paper, is so outdated I’m starting to think I’m unhireable; job interviews are few and far between. It’s time for a change. I can’t get into all the specifics – and I’m not even sure I know all the specifics, at least not on a conscious level – but it’s time for a change and I know it. There’s simply nothing tying me down.
“Hey baby, how ’bout I move down to Mexico for a little while, give it a try?” I ask my girlfriend of increasing patience and good looks. She seems pleased with the idea, so I fly down for a long weekend to go apartment hunting. Note that we don’t plan on living together initially; after things ended badly with my LA roommate it’s probably best that I live alone for awhile anyway. But now we’re separated by neighborhoods, not countries. By bus rides, not airplane flights. I decide on a square-shaped apartment that has enough space for guests to visit yet remains in my price range. The neighborhood is quiet – and safe – and although it’s strange for me to not have access to any of my things save this computer, my camera, my guitar, and a few articles of clothing, I’m no longer in “travel mode,” and am looking forward to sitting back and taking in my new (but also familiar) surroundings. It feels right.
To modify a favorite quote from the movie Jerry Maguire: “I’m 37 years old. I’ve started my life.” Yes.