Bob Dylan Performs — and Boxes — in Mexico City

Earlier this week, mi esposo and I joined a couple of friends and headed over to the 10,000 seat-capacity Auditorio Nacional to see the one and only Bob Dylan play before a packed house. It was a great show – we had eighth row seats! He played a good combo of old and new songs, and unlike previous times I’ve watched him in concert, he seemed really energetic. The man can jam, in other words. Turns out there’s probably a good reason for that….

The next morning, we noticed a photo of Bob on the cover of El Universal, and we flipped to the full article to see what the paper had to say about the performance. Through our pidgin Spanish, we were able to discern that the article was not about his musical performance, but about his adventures earlier in the day. Unbelievably, Bob had apparently taken the metro (or at least went down into a station) and was spotted at a gymnasium in a rough part of town. “Gymnasium?” we wondered. It’s not exactly the word that comes to mind when you think of Mexico City tourist destinations.

Thankfully, our fluent friend Jeremy has the 411 on Bob Dylan’s Mexico City adventure. Turns out he did more than visit the gymnasium, he boxed. Which goes a long way to explaining his energetic performance — he may be 66, and look ancient, but turns out he’s become quite the pugilist. He even apparently owns a secret boxing ring in LA.

I Smell Bad Data: Mexico City Ranked 5th Dirtiest City

The “Mercer Human Resource Consulting’s 2007 Health and Sanitation Rankings” put Mexico City 5th on their list of the world’s dirtiest cities.

This might be a fair ranking among giant mega-cities (as in the world’s top 20 most populated cities). But as I flipped through the slideshow on Forbes.com, and read the facts/figures of the other cities, I’ve grown extremely skeptical of this ranking, and suspect that if I traveled to any of the other cities on this list, I’d see conditions far worse than here in Mexico City.

Take Luanda, Angola: A “portion of the population lives in settlements called musseques built on hardened waste.”

Or Niamey, Niger: “Niamey is a cesspool of pollution and waste. In a country with a total population just under 14 million, the healthy life expectancy at birth is 35 for males and 36 for females, thanks in part to poor sanitation and drinkable water. About one in four children raised here will die before age 5, the World Health Organization says.”

And Baghdad, Iraq: “Fatal outbreaks of cholera struck several provinces of the country, including Baghdad from August 2007 to December 2007.”

About Mexico City, Forbes says: “Mexico City, Mexico, ranks No. 5 on this year’s list. Residents can thank industrial and automobile emissions for air quality so bad that city ozone levels fail to meet World Health Organization standards an estimated 300 days of the year. But things could be worse.

“Mexico City has actually seen great improvement recently in terms of air pollution,” says Dave Calkins, founder of the Sierra Nevada Air Quality Group and former chief of the Air Planning Branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco. “So much so that the government actually has to campaign to let everyone know that pollution is still a problem.”

I agree. The blue skies here are deceiving since they don’t scream ozone alert, but when I moved here, I expected far worse air. In New York, I was already acquainted with layers of black soot on my windowsills — and in my lungs. You’d think if things were so god-awful as to be the 5th dirtiest city in the word we’d all be keeling over before middle-age. But no: The life expectancy in New York is 77, in Mexico City it’s 70. By comparison, in “cesspool” Niamey, it’s 35.5.

But what is Niamey’s ranking? 21!

I Can’t Decide How to Feel

Every once in a while, there are several women and children sitting outside our local grocery store. They beg for money. As is usual for beggars in Mexico, the family is, and I hate using this word…”indigenous.” I have no idea, but I don’t think they are homeless. This particular family simply begs, whereas some families try to sell little dolls or other hand-made trinkets.

This is a common thing in Mexico City: The desperate and sometimes creative effort to make money. I’ve seen it all — roving bands of musicians, torch-fire swallowers performing in lanes of traffic, men who do somersaults onto broken shards of glass in the subways, door-to-door salesmen who sell – of all things – shoelaces. In the U.S., you see far less of these gestures, although I have to say, you do see far more straight-up homeless people, drug addicts and aggressive beggars walking in say, Harlem, or downtown Corpus Christi, than you do in Mexico City.

Anyway, as I was about to pass the family, I was fraught with the usual internal struggle: Do I throw them a few pesos? Or do I ignore them, like most people do?

Then I walked by, and heard them talking. It was not Spanish. It was some fierce-sounding ancient language, which, somehow made me feel even more conflicted. What does this mean, that they’re speaking a rare and likely dying language?

Initially, I assumed they were speaking Nahuatl, one of the more common languages spoken in Mexico (there are dozens of native languages struggling to survive here; only a few of which are spoken by more than a million or so people). Last night, though, after I explained what the words sounded like to my Spanish tutor, she said “Oh, that’s not Nahuatl, that’s probably Otomi.”

Otomi? Otomi? I’ve never even heard of that, and once I started to research it, my pangs of guilt returned: I realized I have traditional Otomi embroidery hanging in my house. I bought it a few months ago because it’s pretty, vividly colorful and portrays animal symbolism in Mexico. I guess, in hindsight, buying embroidery was a better way of supporting their dying culture, rather than tossing a few pesos into a cup. But since I bought it at a large market, and not direct from them, I doubt my money supported any Otomi families. Perhaps, perhaps not.

Still, though, I’m left with that internal struggle: What do I do when I walk by them? Give them money? Food? A smile? Or nothing? In New York, I turned away, ignored it. Here, however, I can’t turn away so fast. I am guessing it’s partly because in Mexico City I am considered upper-class, as opposed to middle-class, as I was in NYC….and I don’t quite know how to process this new social status of mine.

But, I have to admit, it also was hearing them speak an unknown-but-local language that made me give pause, made me pay attention to them, made me wonder about their history ….and since then, has made me wonder, over and over, why this simple moment — hearing Otomi — was more powerful than hearing Spanish.

I Love It, I Hate It: Making Meals in Mexico

Moving to a foreign country has its good points and its bad points. And while this is a pretty dumb observation, and is true with just about anything life dishes out (from “waking up in the morning” to “eating a candy bar”), I try to keep this balance in mind, especially if I’m feeling particularly frustrated with my ex-pat life.

Here, in Mexico City, the fine art of food preparation definitely falls into this good/bad, thrilling/frustrating conundrum.

Good: The amazing abundance of perfectly ripe, delicious fruits and vegetables, some of which appear to come from outer space.

Bad: You can’t just sink your teeth into these puppies without first soaking them in water, adding anti-bacterial drops, stirring, and letting them sit for 20 minutes. (We’ve been told we’re a bit overly cautious with this, but I’ve twice had another “bad” food experience with absolutely no “good” counterpart — lengthy, gut-wrenching food poisoning — so I’m not yet ready to dial it back.)

This means that for every meal you make with fresh ingredients (delicious, ripe ingredients), you have to add at least 20 minutes to the time it will take to prepare. You frequently have giant bowls of this sitting on your counter, which is pretty, but a giant hassle, if you’re a Type A personality like me, and just want to get on with it already….

veggies

(Waiting to be soaked and devoured: Tomatillos, tomatoes, limes, cilantro and flor de calabaza)

Mexico City’s Constantly Perfect Weather Is a Little Insane

sky in the df

(Actual and untouched photo of the sky in Mexico City. As it appears every single day.)

There is perhaps no better climate on the planet than right here in Mexico City. And the endless days of not-a-cloud-in-the-sky 10% humidity, 73-degree weather is becoming a little absurd for me.

For you to truly understand, it requires hyperbole (or a visit to La Capital — right Martie and Bob?). But first let me set something straight: I am not complaining. It’s the opposite: I’m getting hopelessly spoiled. So here we go….

It’s like I live in one of those biosphere domes, a la The Simpsons Movie. I often think: Someone must be controlling this climate, because it’s as climate controlled as any non-controlled climate possibly could be.

Every few weeks, when you think “some rain might be nice,” someone turns up the moisture dial, and a breezy little shower sprinkles down. And every few months, when you think “a real thunderstorm would be cool, if only so I don’t forget what those are like” you’ll hear a little rustle and rain, and a thunderclap, and the trees shake, and you’re pleased. But before you get too annoyed, the dials are promptly turned back to absolute perfection.

Ahhhhhh…..we never, ever need an air conditioner — nor a heater. I can walk around in flip-flops, jeans and a sweatshirt and feel neither hot nor cold. The sun is always shining, but because of all the trees (which are alive year-round) not too much. I rarely sweat. And now that “winter” is over here, I rarely shiver. (My chief complaint a few weeks ago was that it was 64 degrees.) Some people still find something to complain about: the pollution. It can be bad, but it is not any worse than New York City, which was f’ing gross in the summer.

Rather, the skies here are some of the bluest and most beautiful I have ever seen (one of my travel books agrees, noting “now that smog-measure control are in force, the city once again can claim weeks with some of the most azure skies in the world). Yeah, azure. So azure they look fake.

Here’s an explanation why it’s so perfectly pleasant down here, even though we’re past the Tropic of Cancer, and in a country more often associated with balmy, tropical weather. (If I want that weather, I can have that, with a four-hour bus ride to Acapulco.)

I am not the first to photograph the pure blueness.

And now I really, really understand this song:

Who Knew That Churros Could Be So Bad?

churros

I recently visited one of Mexico City’s best churrerias: El Moro, which specializes in two things: hot chocolate and churros. Churros are popular the world over, and have been totally bastardized by places like Taco Bell — they sell “cinnamon twists” in many stores. While cinnamon twists are not half-bad, traditional churros are not that airy or cinnamon-y. They are long, thin, crispy donut-like pastries best served hot and coated in sugar. They’re a lot like the beignets of New Orleans fame, but the dough is a bit more dense.

A long time ago, after a visit to New Orleans, I made beignets at home from a mix sold at the local grocery store. They were a success. Inspired by this (and my love of all things fried, crispy and covered in sugar), I decided to make churros at home, following the same idea: I bought a box of churro mix at the grocery store. It’s pretty simple. You boil some water, add in the flour mix and stir until spongy. Then you squeeze out the dough through a pastry tube into a pan full of hot oil.

All went well, until my pastry tube (included free in the box) broke. So I hand-rolled almost all of my churros. I fried them until brown, drained them and covered them in sugar, just like the box’s directions.

And the first bite? Crispy, but bland, bland, bland. I thought anything tasted good when fried, but this was so not the case. My poor churros — they went straight to la basura. Perhaps the key to good churros is not using perfectly clean vegetable oil? I dunno.

Like Orchids, Cacti Also Have Illegal Poachers

My friend and reporter Jeremy Schwartz wrote an interesting article over the weekend about the increase in cacti poaching in the Mexican desert. Of course, this poaching is driven by demand from our neighbors to the north, particularly by those who practice xeriscaping in their yards. In water-scarce cities like Atlanta and El Paso, many people have replaced green grass with rocks, yucca and cacti. It’s a great idea, from a conservation standpoint. But, as Jeremy points out, some people take this idea a bit too far:

“The trade is fueled by private collectors and the burgeoning xeriscape movement in the U.S. South and Southwest. Rare cacti species can fetch hundreds of dollars on black markets from the United States to Japan. Mexico’s deserts are so ravaged by cactus poachers that researchers no longer publish the location of new species they find, lest eager collectors plunder the newfound cacti.”

The lesson? Ask where your rare plant comes from; don’t turn a deaf ear.

Love It: NYT Article on How Dumb Americans Are

My Spanish tutor has a habit of frequently asking me if I miss New York City or the U.S.

Each time, my answer is the same: not really.

While I certainly miss bits and pieces of my former American life — my friends and family, the wide open sky of Texas, the wackiness of Astoria, Queens — overall I am quite happy in Mexico City. A lot of this has to do with one easy fact: It’s not America. Not only is Mexico City a fascinating place, it is almost 100 percent blessedly free of the stereotypical American. (Yes, we have tourists, but the American tourists who come here are quite different than the sort of tourists who visit Cancun).

Who is this stereotypical American that so bothers me? It’s the sort mentioned in this fantastic piece from The New York Times, “Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?”

“A popular video on YouTube shows Kellie Pickler, the adorable platinum blonde from “American Idol,” appearing on the Fox game show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” during celebrity week. Selected from a third-grade geography curriculum, the $25,000 question asked: “Budapest is the capital of what European country?”

Ms. Pickler threw up both hands and looked at the large blackboard perplexed. “I thought Europe was a country,” she said. Playing it safe, she chose to copy the answer offered by one of the genuine fifth graders: Hungary. “Hungry?” she said, eyes widening in disbelief. “That’s a country? I’ve heard of Turkey. But Hungry? I’ve never heard of it.”

There is so much about this two-paragraph passage that reveals Dumb America: The obsession with a vapid show like American Idol (who is more vapid: the judges, the contestants or the audience?), the existence of a game show involving intelligence comparisons between adults and grade-school students (for the sake of my argument here, please ignore my previous post), and the inability of a semi-famous young American woman to recite basic geography facts.

It also reminded me of the last time I was back home in Corpus Christi, Texas, (pop: 280,000) during the Christmas holidays. I was getting my hair cut, and the hairstylist asked me where I lived. When I replied Mexico City, she blinked and innocently asked me “How many people live there? Is it about the same size as Corpus?”

Sigh.

It also reminded me of every time I read my hometown newspaper, The Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Readers can leave comments on the stories online, and the the comments always follow a pattern: First someone makes a joke, then someone else makes a joke, someone posts something inflammatory, and then someone else gets offended, and this pattern goes on indefinitely, until it ends with a giant fight bordering on complete, absurd stupidity. For example, a smattering of comments from a recent article on a fire that damaged a local Mexican restaurant:

“awe dang, I was on my way over there to get my morning taquito.”

“The roaches were probably hungry and decided on a late night snack.”

“stingy people they deserve it. they didnt even want to sponsor our youth!!! i know first hand”

“Why are you looking for a hand out? I have an idea…why don’t YOU sponsor your kid! Lazy people feeling that everyone owes them something are IDIOTS.”

“Fight, Fight, Fight looks like 3:30 behind the cafeteria…….. This is funny all from a simple fire. POOP HAPPENS”