The patient people.
“Grace under pressure” are the words author David Lida uses to describe the calmness with which the people of this great metropolis tolerate the long lines and delays they experience daily. Whether it’s waiting in line for voter registration, motor vehicle verification, or a bus, they demonstrate absolute tranquility. No one is huffing and puffing, complaining, or peeking over the heads of the people in front of them to see if the line is moving. If anything, there’s simply a shrug of the shoulders and a quiet ni modo (what can you do?). If you’re late for an appointment, no one chastises you. They wait patiently. If a business isn’t open during designated hours, patrons return at a later time. Remember, mañana means more than just tomorrow (or morning)–it refers to a time somewhere in the future. A favorite word of advice heard on the streets is tranquilo, or be calm. Why not?
The word I hear most often in the city is gracias. Not only does it mean thank you, it’s used to say “no thank you.” If someone offers you something you don’t want, just say gracias, implying “thanks for asking but no thanks.” When you visit, don’t think it unusual to be greeted by strangers. With a nod of the head and a buenos días, Méxicans all over the city acknowledge each other daily, whether they’re acquainted or not. A single “achoo!” and the entire bus will mutter salud in response. Don’t be taken aback if strangers ask you personal questions. They’re just curious. Neither will you be ill-regarded or snubbed in this city for not speaking Spanish. In fact, many people will make the effort to speak your language, especially if it’s English. If they don’t succeed, they’ll use hand signals to get the message through. Don’t hesitate to ask for directions, but be aware that Mexicans are so eager to please that they may not give you correct ones, not wanting to disappoint you by acknowledging that they don’t know. It is best to ask two or three different people.
The old and the new.
From buildings and people to music and transportation, the old and the new are in perfect harmony. The colonial buildings of centro complement the high-rise structures on Reforma. Young people with earphones and tattoos smile at old women dressed in aprons carrying cloth bags, the young always making way for the old. Everywhere the city is a study in contrasts: Voices of opera stars and sounds of violins illuminate Bellas Artes while bands like U2 and Paul McCartney fill Foro Sol. The rickety peseros (small buses) in disrepair alongside the sleek Metrobus with its own lane of travel down the major avenues of the city. As you walk, concrete avenues cross cobblestone streets.
The culture and fun of it all.
What do you like to do? It’s here for you in DF, whether you’re a spectator or participant. From baseball, soccer, and bullfights to opera, ballet, theater, pop concerts, chamber music, and museums. Yes, even ice skating in December (see The Bargains, below). Many parks, too, for running, biking, and walking your dog.
The public transportation
Where in the world can you ride all over a metropolitan area for 25 cents US and gratis if you’re over 60? The underground Metro costs 3 pesos (25 cents USD), the big red Metrobus 5 pesos (40 cents USD), and most other buses 5 pesos or less. Transportation is clean, efficient, dependable, reliable, and safe. If you’re a tourist and have the luxury of making your own schedule for the day, avoid rush hours as you would in any major city. As of this writing, the Metrobus has added a new route through the city center to and from the airport (to both terminals), providing a convenient and cheap mode of transportation for citizens and tourists at 30 pesos (2.50 USD). The Metrobus occupies its own lane on the main avenues of the city, therefore never being a victim of traffic jams. Here’s a fun twist: A big pink bus runs down Reforma, and, as you might have guessed, it’s just for women. In addition, the first cars of the Metro and Metrobus are designated for women, children, and senior citizens only.
The government of DF takes care of its own as well as its visitors. No other city can boast the variety and number of free events offered to its citizens. To name a few: All public museums are free on Sundays and on other days a considerable discount is given to students, seniors, and teachers. During Semana Santa, the two weeks before Easter, Mayor Marcelo Ebrard creates little beaches throughout the city for those who can’t get away to the luxurious splendor of Puerto Vallarta or Huatulco. And in December there’s a free ice skating rink (and skates), toboggans, and snowman-making as part of the month-long Christmas festivities in the Zocalo. Pop concerts throughout the city are often free. On New Year’s Eve the most popular artists perform at one of the monuments, free to all. Both Britney Spears and Plácido Domingo have performed gratis in the open-air venues in the city. World cup games were shown free on big screens in the Zócalo in 2010. And photographic exhibits adorn Reforma Avenue all year long, changing frequently. The zoo is free too. Admission to the Diablos Rojos, México City’s baseball team, costs between 10 and 70 pesos (90 cents to $6.00 USD). You will find that most events in the city offer seats in all price ranges, making them affordable to everyone. It sometimes feels as if the city can’t stop giving.
As in most big cities, neighborhoods form the core. Here, however, the city isn’t divided by ethnic groups, but rather by social status and history. Some neighborhoods (or colonias, as they are called here) are ideal for strolling, stopping for a coffee, or window shopping (Roma, Condesa, Coyoacan, San Ángel are good examples). Centro Historico is ideal for sightseeing and museums. San Rafael is full of theaters. Visit Polanco for upscale shopping, Jewish deli items, and fine restaurants.
The street action
Smells and sounds and colors: You can make your way by following them! Tianguis, the hub and heart of the city, are found in every neighborhood. The word tianguis originates from the Náhuatl word for market. Here you’ll find vendors hawking fresh fruits and vegetables, car parts, flowers and plants, DVDs and CDs, and clothing , plus food courts that put to shame the shopping mall version. This is the place to bargain (not in stores). The citizens of this grand city are highly innovative. If they don’t have a job they create their own work. That’s the reason you see so many people in the street selling items, washing windshields, shining shoes or entertaining the crowds that gather around them. From Mariachis to manifestaciones (demonstrations), every time you step out your door you’ll find something new going on in the street.
“The safest city in the country,” so the saying goes. Although there are the usual dangers of any big city, DF seems to have escaped the narco scares other parts of the country are experiencing. Like any large metropolis, knowledge is key to safety. Know where you’re going, study your map, and be aware. Taxis in front of hotels or in sitios (taxi stands) are a bit more expensive and supposedly safer than street taxis, though this writer doesn’t hesitate to hail a taxi on the corner, day or night. You’ll find the many police, especially prominent in the tourist areas, willing to help with directions and any questions you have. Public transport is safe.
Last, but far from least, I love the people of Mexico City, affectionately (or not!) referred to as chilangos, meaning someone who lives in México City, probably derived from a Náhuatl word. They’ll talk to you on the bus or a street corner. They show compassion and respect for the elderly and adoration for their mothers. They are braggarts, aggressive, full of advice and witty chatter, yet at the same time they’re humble and polite. They embrace foreigners and are curious about them. And although you’ll hear them complain profusely about the problems of the big city, they wouldn’t live anywhere else. Nor would I.
Carole Reedy, after living 10 years in a town of 250 people on the Oaxacan Coast, now lives in México City. She would be happy to answer any question