As a travel writer, I love reading quality writing about travel and places. Sadly, I’m disappointed by much of what I read today. I finish most stories wanting more. Not more words – the length of an article is unimportant if the writing is engaging – and not necessarily more of the same. What I want more of is insight, context, texture, and depth.
Yet frustratingly editors seem to increasingly value the ‘fresh’ eyes of a writer visiting a city for the first time, sending authors off on adventures to destinations they’ve never visited, places they know nothing about.
I’m rarely left satisfied by these stories, these tales of wide-eyed innocents, astonished at seeing things they didn’t know existed, things they could have known about had they have done a little reading on the plane.
What I want from travel writers are stories that are somewhere between an evocative travelogue and a quality piece of journalism, stories about places that are not simply observations, but are written by people who already know things about those destinations, stories that enquire and attempt to understand the places and the people that inhabit them.
The world is complex. I want to read the writings of authors who appreciate that, are intrigued by those complexities, and who attempt to make sense of them.
Sure I could find that kind of intelligent writing in academic texts, but what I’d be missing then would be personal accounts of everyday experiences, subjectivity, multiple perspectives, emotion and feeling, elements that fine travel writing can provide.
David Lida’s book First Stop in the New World: Mexico, the Capital of the 21st Century had been recommended to us by a number of people who knew we were heading to Mexico. We’d only been in our Mexico City apartment for an hour when Petra, the owner, sent a friend over with a copy.
When I did a masters degree on Latin America, I read widely on Mexico, everything from Oscar Lewis’ anthropological study Children of Sanchez to Nestor Garcia Canclini’s Popular Culture in Mexico. But that was 15 years ago. That was before NAFTA had time to have any real impact, before Mexico City Americanized, and before fear took hold of Mexicans.
I wanted to read a book about Mexico City that looked at those changes and their effect on the people and the place, a book by someone who had done research, was well-read, and yet remained curious; someone who could provide the insight, context, texture, and depth that every travel article I’d read recently about Mexico City had failed to do.
David Lida’s book did just that, so much so that I had to talk to the guy.
GT: Your book is sub-titled “capital of the 21st century”, which makes me think of audacious can-do cities like Dubai and Shanghai; postmodern, connected cities; global transport and trading hubs… I don’t think of Mexico City.
DL: More than half of the people in the world live in cities. Most of us do not live in neat orderly cities like Paris or Toronto, Sydney or New York. Most of us live in sprawling, chaotic megacities that have grown monstrously over the last few decades with next to nothing we would identify as urban planning. I’m talking about places like Shanghai, Mumbai, Sao Paolo, Istanbul, Cairo, etc. I am not saying that Mexico City is the most emblematic of these places. Each is different and each deserves its own books and chroniclers. But I believe that if you begin to understand how Mexico City works – how so many of its citizens survive in the underground economy, making up their lives as they go along – you can begin to understand how millions and millions of people around the world struggle to survive.
What do you most love about Mexico City?
The people. They inspire me with their grace under pressure; their ingeniousness at survival, improvisation and perseverance despite incredible obstacles; their perverse sense of humor.
The food. The raw material in Mexico City is incredibly fresh. And I love that so many people eat on the sidewalk.
This is hard to explain but there is a dynamic energy on the street that you feel in few cities. Some of it is just people working hard, getting from one place to another, but there is a sexy, libertine undercurrent that fascinates me.
Anything you loathe?
The traffic. Getting from one place to another is nearly always a challenge and sometimes a nightmare.
The bureaucracy. There is a certain kind of person in Mexico City, most frequently found behind a desk in a government office, who feels his only job duty is to say “no”.
The fear. Tt stresses and saddens me. You can feel that fear emanating from certain people. Still, I don’t think there is all that much to be afraid of in Mexico City, especially if you compare it these days with the border cities.
I love that you tell the stories of Mexico City through its people.
When I got to Mexico City I knew I had this quixotic idea that I wanted to get to know it. How do you get to know a city with five thousand neighborhoods, eighty-five thousand streets and twenty million people?
I began to get to know it – or what I know of it – by talking to people. There were people I saw on the streets every day or once in a while – street kids and shoeshine boys and dance-hall hostesses and crackhead taxi drivers. I wanted to know how they survive this monster of a city, which is so often identified only by its negative elements. One by one I asked them to tell me their stories, and many of them complied. This was especially gratifying for me, because they are mostly marginalized people whose stories aren’t told very often.
I couldn’t have put this into words until my two Mexico City books – First Stop in the New World and Las llaves de la ciudad – were done. But what I was trying to do all the time was write the books that I would have liked to read, the books that didn’t exist about Mexico City.
I admire the resourcefulness of Mexicans. I love that a tailor has set up a counter selling cigarettes, softdrinks and sweets at the front of his store.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Most people in Mexico City are up against it economically. They have no choice but to be resourceful about their survival. Creative initiative? How about a taxi driver who began to sing in his cab and then offered CDs that he had recorded? A pregnant topless dancer? A guy who sold DVDs, supposedly of hardcore porn, that turned out to be the latest Adam Sandler movie?
Tips for visitors who want to meet locals?
My first entry into Mexico City was the cantinas. I can guarantee that if a foreigner parks him or herself into a cantina he or she will find friends. A woman alone will get hassled, though. I’m not so sure I am great at offering practical tips but I would suggest that a traveler in Mexico should remember that he is a guest and behave with the inherent respect that status implies.
How can people get under the skin of Mexico City? What should they do, where should they go?
1. A cantina in the centro historic. They are as idiosyncratic as London pubs, New York City bars, or Paris cafes. I recommend La Mascota, at the corner of Bolivar and Mesones, if you are going at Mexican lunch hour (between 2 and 5 pm, more or less). Excellent food is free with the price of the drinks. For the twilight hour and later, my favorite is Tio Pepe at the corner of Independencia and Dolores.
2. An antro de ficheras. This is a place where you can pay a girl to dance with you, often with a live orchestra accompanying. The most well appointed is the Bar San Luis on Calle San Luis Potosi #124 in the Colonia Roma. You walk into this place and you feel as if it is still more or less 1969. I also like the Kit Kat on Calle Independencia, almost at the corner of Lopez, and the Villa Rica on Calle Lopez. My advice is to treat the ficheras with the utmost respect and buy them as many drinks as you can afford. That is how they make their living.
3. A Mexican market. I guess markets are similar throughout the world but the quality of the fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, are incredible here. You can also eat very well inside the markets at marisquerías, which sell fish and seafood. Go to La Lagunilla on Sundays. It’s Mexico City’s most important flea market.
4. The Hysteria discotheque. It’s ear the airport, on V Oceania and Norte 25, Colonia Moctezuma. See my blog entry about it. This place will give you an important clue about the fluidity of Mexican sexuality.
Is Mexico a safe city?
How do you measure safety? Like in any big city, people get robbed here, and once in a while murdered or kidnapped. I feel safe here. My advice is obvious: be aware of your surroundings, don’t wear flashy jewelry, be subtle about your camera. If you want to put a finer point on it, leave credit cards at home and only go out with the cash you think you will spend that day.
You have a chapter on “la penultima copa”. Do you have a favourite spot for a second last drink?
If I had to choose one it would be the Tio Pepe cantina at the corner of Independencia and Dolores. You can drink tequila, whiskey, beer, or whatever you like, really. You won’t find a decent glass of wine there.
I have never felt as much at home anywhere in the world as I do in Mexico City. What has most made me feel that way is the people here. I hope my work reads like a love letter to them.
Visit David Lida’s website and blog for more on Mexico City, buy his book First Stop in the New World: Mexico, the Capital of the 21st Century on Amazon, or, if you’re already in Mexico City, phone El Pendulo to see which of their five fantastic stores has copies in stock.