I arrived in Mexico City just over a week ago. Since seeing the city from the plane, nearly everything has been a surprise to me. The place is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. Before I came I suppose I had developed an image of Mexico City as a European city. Its history is marked at every stage by European (and also American) intervention. But after experiencing the city and in particular after listening to the view of a particularly amiable elderly Mexican woman, it has become clear that Mexico has developed its very own, unique, hopeful culture. From the brief experience I have had so far, I am more than pleased that I chose to come here. Each day I become more excited at the prospect of spending a year in this country.
Mexico City is one of the biggest cities on the planet. They call it ‘The Beast’. I had my first impression of the city from the aeroplane. From the air, waves of houses, towers and industrial site appear, built over rolling hills. Some of the city appeared very green. But a large section was simply grey. A bewildering array of houses built without order, packed as close together as possible. Perhaps this was the first indication of the massive amount of poverty in the city.
From the drive home from the airport, going on public transport and going around the city at whatever time, I have been startled by the amount of poverty, all in plain view. The number of beggars and street sellers is distressing, but I found the families begging particularly heartbreaking. Children of no more than 6 years go along the packed Mexico City metro without shoes, occasionally given one or two pesos (less than ten pence), but mostly ignored.
The high-gated walls and barbed wire outside every property also struck me. If this amount of security is to make the residents feel safer, it certainly does not make an observer feel that way.
However, I do not want to give the idea that Mexico is a completely dangerous, poverty-stricken place. It is well known that the country has these aspects. But a country comprised of so many different elements has many other exciting and positive sides to it.
No doubt I was inclined to be more surprised and ill-humoured the first few days was because of my jetlag and because my caffeine intake was far below normal level. I spent much of the first week searching Mexico City for an Italian espresso maker and was frequently disheartened when the people I spoke to either had no idea what I was talking about or doubted I would ever find it in Mexico.
The lack of coffee and jetlag made the meeting with the university the morning after I arrived difficult to say the least. However, I was not too tired not to be impressed by the University. The Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico is awe-inspiring. The area it is located in is called ‘Ciudad Universitaria’ – City of the University- and rightly so, the university is massive. It includes its very own Olympic stadium and Olympic sized swimming pool in the shape of Mexico- impressive, if a little pointless.
At the university I got to meet a number of fellow international students. The international community at UNAM is diverse and each person I met was enthusiastic, open-minded and had an amazing amount of experiences and stories to share. Many had already been across the world many times over.
I was forced to reflect upon my own upbringing later on when a large group of internationals went out dancing. It became painfully clear that the British, and indeed many Europeans, do not hold a candle to Latin Americans when it comes to dancing. I thought I was not a bad dancer until I saw the Latin Americans bewildered at my ungraceful shapes on the dance floor. I found myself on the phone to my parents the day after blaming them for my lack of Salsa moves. But, this year is about challenges and learning. So my first challenge will be to improve my Salsa dancing to a passable level.
Whilst choosing preliminary courses online before getting to Mexico the only list of history courses I could find was from 1998, so half the courses I chose were refused. Once at UNAM I received a comprehensive list of the classes offered. I have chosen the classes: Economic History of the World, the Political and Economic History of Mexico, History of Thought in the 20th Century, Methodology of Economic History, Philosophy of History and Theory of History. These courses are exactly what I wanted to study, and better than those offered at Edinburgh. My academic concerns have been consolidated and now I am very excited to start classes. The university also offers free foreign language classes, so as well as my history courses I have 10 hours a week of German. I should mention that strictly speaking the language courses aren’t free- they cost one peso for the year. However, this is only about five pence so it seems UNAM has quite considerable value for money.
Leaving the university, I experienced this value for money once again, whilst weaving through the food stands and book stalls around the university, I found a shop window selling Americanos for about 30p. My desire for coffee was briefly but quenched also served to hasten my quest for an espresso maker.
I was told that some of the large department stores might sell the espresso maker I wanted. So I made my way to Sears. On this journey I had the pleasure of experiencing Mexico City’s notorious ‘peseros’, the very cheap bus-type transport service. Essentially glorified minivans, the drivers attempt to get as many people into the vehicles as possible, before speeding off like lunatics down busy roads and ignoring the street signs. You can get on and off as you please -meaning some particularly bold Mexicans nonchalantly jump off while the cars are going near full speed down main roads. The Peseros are very intimate experiences although can be a bit stressful for the first week in a very foreign country. Luckily I survived the journey, and was elated to discover, only after asking everyone I in the shop, that they did have an espresso maker. So I can say that my first week has been a success, in that I have just about settled in and have strong coffee on hand to ease any fears that may arise.
Not that I have too many fears. The Mexican people have a tremendous optimism about them, which makes the encounters with the locals a truly rewarding experience. One such encounter changed my perspective on the country completely. I had previously thought of Mexico’s history as a sad account, marked at most points by invasions and impositions by other cultures. After sharing this opinion with a very sociable elderly woman, she told me that Mexican history is anything but sad. Each one of these ‘impositions’ was incorporated to make Mexico what it is today. Unlike America, the Señorita argued, Mexico is a mix of everything. And for that reason Mexican culture is incredibly open-minded and hopeful. Mexico has taken all the elements that comprise it to become something completely unique.
My final impression from my first week is that I have experienced very little so far in my life. Seeing the enormity of the city, meeting such a range of people and sharing experiences of the world has reminded me how unbelievably big the world is. These things I’ve witnessed have made me think about all the places I’ll never go, the people I’ll never meet and the experiences I won’t have. But I don’t mean this in a pessimistic way. Trying to see as much as possible, meeting as many people as possible and doing as many things as possible is rewarding enough. To be reminded that I’m a small part of such an amazing world makes me feel better. If is far better than not knowing; far better than to be left in some small corner of the world without any idea of what surrounds you. I’m not sure what I’m looking for here, but it feels like searching for a needle in a haystack. You know you can’t search everywhere for what you’re looking for, and you may never find it, but that’s unimportant. It is the search that matters. Unless it is a coffee maker you are searching for, in wh ich case, finding it is the only thing that matters.