The articles below were commissioned by the Guardian and were all originally published there. They appear here by the kind permission of Guardian Unlimited Media.
Let me start with a confession. I love Mexico City. I also hate Mexico City. When I arrive in the Federal District of Mexico (el D.F.) I always feel conflicted. Half of me feels excitement at being immersed in a unique and fascinating culture. The other half of me feels like a rich widow stepping off the stagecoach into Dodge City.
The reason for this is the level of crime. Crime is everywhere in el D.F. yet it’s something which guidebooks gloss over: “Mexico City is no more dangerous than most Northern European cities,” says one well-known travel guide, “as long as you take the appropriate precautions you won’t have any problems.” In my experience, unless the appropriate precautions include driving the bat-mobile and wearing a Kevlar body-stocking, you are unlikely to find that Mexico City has much in common with Stockholm.
Fear and Loathing in Mexico City
I moved to Mexico City seven years ago, lured there by my friend Jon and his tales of endless summers and the good life. Telephone conversations between Jon and I typically went like this:
“How are you?” I would ask.
“I’m up on the roof, drinking a margarita and soaking up the sun. Life is good. How about you?” he’d reply.
“I’m cold.” I’d say. “It’s damp and cold. I’m damp and cold.”
It was only after I moved to Mexico that I discovered that Jon conducted these conversations from the dank confines of his lounge, wearing a roll-neck sweater and wrapped in a blanket. Mexico City in summer is wet and the houses are dark. It feels like it rains every afternoon. And if it doesn’t rain, the pollution is so bad you wish that it would. The air is thick with heavy metals, car exhaust and best of all, something which experts refer to as “fecal dust”. Yes, that’s poo in powder form.
Life on a Mars
Last year, after living in Latin America for eight years, I packed my bags and moved back to the United Kingdom. This experience proved that if migrating to another country can create culture shock, then coming back to the metropolis can be just as traumatic.
I arrived in the middle of summer. England was weird. The place was all bright plastic surfaces and post world-cup disappointment. I marvelled at the cleanliness of the train I rode into Woking, and made a quick mental comparison between the train services available in Chile and Britain. It was a very quick comparison because there aren’t many rail services left in Chile at all. (E.F.E. the Chilean national rail service runs to eleven, count ‘em, eleven stations.)