It is February, and winter’s chilly grip on the coast of British Columbia seems, after months of indecision, to be complete. Wind howls, naked trees quiver, and a clear, dry, bluishness pervades everything. Snow occasionally falls to the valley floor.
Its cold, so I’d like to invite you to join me on a walk around Mexico City; a city of twenty-two million people, sitting on a lake-bed 2,240 meters above the sea; a city that has seen empires rise and fall, where it is much warmer, if for no other reason than because of the collective heat of all of those bodies.
Henry David Thoreau, the naturalist and philosopher who famously penned Walden, celebrated the act of walking in an early essay published by The Atlantic:
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.
I love this notion of sauntering as both active and idle — propelling oneself across physical space with enough deliberation and presence that there is time to notice, to appreciate, to thoughtfully consider. Even more so when the end-points and mid-points are loosely defined. There is a plethora of benefits to such locomotion, chief amongst them the invitation of unexpected encounters that can educate, delight, or entertain. Put simply: if you always know where you are going, you’ll never be surprised at where you end up.
In December, I traveled to Mexico City alone to walk, eat tacos, think, and work on a rather ambitious new creative project. It was a somber time, as a few weeks earlier I had unceremoniously lost my job and then shattered my elbow in short order, requiring invasive surgery and leaving me, in my darker moments, feeling physically broken and rudderless.
The project was intended to be a real-time, unfiltered photo-and-text chronicle of Mexico City, its inhabitants, its food, and its culture, told in opinionated documentary-style through the narrative of a multi-day walkabout and delivered through the device of a pop-up newsletter; sort of like a limited-episode Netflix series that would exist only for the duration of the walk.
While I love the idea of such limited-life content delivered in real time, I had almost no familiarity with Mexico, and it quickly became too demanding to route-plan, navigate, take notes, photograph, collate, edit, publish, and deliver content from a new city in which I had no bearings, command of the language, or experience with local customs.
So in the spirit of Thoreau’s “saunter”, I opted to defer most of the production work and simply focus on walking, with as much deliberation, thoughtfulness, and presence as I could muster.
Even this was challenging. Presence proved difficult as my mind was preoccupied with events of the past months, and navigating the cultural, spatial, and linguistic complexities of the sprawling metropolis did not leave much time to capture notes, observations, or photographs in any detailed or consistent way.
I stuck with it all the same, and managed to eke out roughly 65,000 steps over seventy kilometres of walking around central Mexico City in five days, mostly alone, although I was joined by a friend who lives in the Cuauhtémoc borough for some afternoon/evening outings.
What follows is part-travelogue, part photo-essay, with little bits of exposition sprinkled in. It is more a series of moments and impressions than a cohesive travel narrative, paired with whatever photographs I could retroactively dredge from my hasty pointing-and-shooting on whatever device I had handy.
It is inconsistent, and the concept is rough, but despite the salvaged and slightly slapshod nature of the whole affair, I like what came out of it. In some ways, the result is more surprising than it would have been, had I had more time to plan and and more raw material to work with. Each capsule of words and photos is not chosen from a large bank of available material in order to construct a particular narrative, but rather, chosen by virtue of its very existence. Put another way, each of the moments that naturally captured my attention or lodged themselves in memory were included — and what emerged from this process was a narrative that composed itself; a meritocratic vision of place more accidental than intentional, but probably also more honest.
I would like to return in the future and do more of these, with a little more time and space for production, having now completed an initial foray. There are thousands of words to be written about the many curiosities and idiosyncrasies of Mexico City. If I have one regret about the whole thing, it is that in order to keep the scope narrow enough that it was completable, I had to avoid ruminating on so many wonderfully interesting subjects: the history of taquerias; the unspoken customs of street-food; mezcal; the intermingling of indigenous and Latin cultures; the intensely vibrant experimental arts and design scene; the contradiction of such a modern, beautifully manicured city within a country reputed and often feared for violence, lawlessness and crime.
The chaotic splendour of it all is nearly too dazzling to comprehend. If you are considering Mexico City or ever have a chance to visit, I highly recommend doing so.
And so, without further adieu, I give you: A Gringo in Mexico City — five days of wandering stitched together into a series of tableaux; propelled by curiosity and fuelled by Mexico City’s many taquerias, packaged into a short pop-up newsletter, delivered daily, each edition containing one image and a bite-sized paragraph or two of text. It will begin on March 3rd, and end on March 24th, after which time the email list will be deleted forever.
I hope you enjoy, and as always — don’t be a stranger.