Wednesday 27 June 2012

Mexico City in transit

June 27, Mexico City. The first time I visited Mexico City, in the late 1980s, the air scorched the back of my throat. In the mid-1990s a Mexico City resident I knew despaired that there always had been, and always would be, only one answer to the huge metropolis’s problem with contaminacion. Rain.

There was talk of seeding the air to create showers to cleanse the sky. The problem was dire. Old cars, diesel trucks, and industrial age factories spewed filth. At an altitude of 2240 metres (7350 feet), the city of ten million sits in a raised bowl. For decades the populous wheezed in the tangy, grey-orange soup that passed for air.

A Megabus on Insurgentes Sur, Mexico City

It was so bad flocks of birds fell out of the sky. This is no myth: when I was flying in to Mexico City yesterday, my seat-mate, who grew up in the capital, remembers once coming across a pile of dead birds on his way to school. Now, the air is much better. There are still bad days, even bad weeks, but the city is more livable than it used to be.

To help solve the problem the Mexican government didn’t change the weather. First, it got the old clunkers off the road, not a popular move in a poor country where for many an automobile – any automobile – is an important asset.

It also introduced unleaded gasoline. This was years after it was the norm in Canada and the United States. This slowness was an embarrassment to the oil producing nation, which lacked the appropriate refining capabilities, but that’s another story.

And, most importantly, it maintained and expanded its commitment to mass transit.

As an example of how all this works (or doesn’t) these days, the following is a summation of my arrival in Mexico City, and the relative merits of the various options.

I was to be picked up at the airport. The news here, of course, is that two days earlier there had been a shootout. Some cops attempted to arrest some other cops for drug trafficking. Two of the arresting officers died at the scene – the food court in Terminal 2 – with another later dying in hospital.

I was supposed to call for my ride. My Telcel was dead. I tried a credit card call on a landline. Only $25 for the first five minutes through an international operator! For real, but obviously not an option; a taxi downtown would have only cost me $10. Luckily, I found a shop where I could buy a Ladatel phone card, and I got through fine.

“I’ll be there in 20 to 40 minutes, depending on traffic.”

He arrived in under 30 minutes. We drove downtown. During our drive we talked about the election. He told me who he was voting for, and who he thought would win.

“That’s not what the polls are saying,” I said.

“The polls are fixed. No one I know is voting for Peña Nieto.”

I asked him about transit. The word is that you shouldn’t hail taxis, but that they are safe if you call from a ‘secure’ company.

“There are legal drivers in legal taxis, legal drivers in illegal taxis, and illegal drivers in illegal taxis. The illegal driver might be a great guy, and the legal driver might work for a kidnapping ring. You just don’t know. However, public transit is always safe.”

“Public transit is always safe?”

“Yes. The area might not be, but the system is safe. I would avoid the historical centre after dark. All the businesses are closed then. Even during the day pickpockets and petty thieves are out. Three months ago I had a gold chain yanked off my neck by some teenagers in the middle of the afternoon. However, Condesa, Zona Rosa, Roma, Culiacán, these are safe day and night.”

He had just described a huge swath of Mexico City as “safe day and night”, which might strike a casual observer of the Mexican scene as hard to believe.

It took about half an hour for us to get downtown – as good or better than any big North American city in the middle of the afternoon. As we rounded the last corner he got on his cellphone. A woman who works for him was out when we arrived, unlocking an improvised gate system that secures his parking spot on the street.

A lockable swing barrier to reserve street parking

I then had to head from where I was staying, in the Roma neighbourhood, to the historical centre of the city for a news conference. I walked five minutes to the subway, asking directions as I went. The subway cost three pesos, about 25 cents.

Four stops, switch, two more stops, and I was at Bellas Artes. Another five minute walk and I was at the press conference on time.

After the conference, which ended at 7pm, I had to book it to the “World Trade Center” complex at Insurgentes Sur. The subway map indicated I could get to either end of Insurgentes, but not where I believed I needed to go.

So, in the mass of commuting Mexicans, I asked directions of a man standing next to the subway map. He told me to go to the Insurgentes station and take the “Metrobus”. I had no idea what that was, but I took his advice, making the faux pas (briefly) of standing past a red wooden marker, at the top of the platform, which indicated the area reserved for women.

Yes, Mexico City has subway platforms and cars reserved exclusively for women and children, who appear completely relaxed: bejeweled, handbags at their sides, cellphones out.

En route to Insurgentes the subway stopped a few times. It was crowded and a little hot but not hellish. Folks were going about their daily business. The trains were on time. It all worked. People seemed pretty happy.

At Insurgentes I then proceeded to the Megabus platform after having been given directions by a man who probably would have walked me right there. (You have to be aware of who you talk to, and how it goes – no wandering down dark alleys – but to hell with smartphones: the best way to get anywhere, in my opinion, has always been to use that killingest of apps, the human).

The Megabus had me completely mystified. Apparently, it cost five pesos, but I couldn’t just put money in the machine. I had to buy a card, which then got charged. I got my card. The machine wanted more money. Some kid gave me five pesos. I put it in. The machine still wanted more money. I tried to pay the kid back, but only had 4 pesos in change. A woman smiled. The kid laughed. He took the card out of my hand. WTF?

But I figured it out. I was a “chipcard”, like they have in Amsterdam, but which Toronto, the big city in my home country, has yet to figure out. Yes, messed up violent third world Mexico City has a chip card system, and New York City run by the Swiss, as Peter Ustinov once called Toronto, does not.

A chipcard scanner - Mexico City yes, Toronto, no

The kid took the card and placed it on the sensor, so that he could pass, his 5 pesos automatically debited. He then handed the card back to me. I was being taught. My Spanish is ok, but this particular interaction was, at first, completely beyond me. We solved it with pantomime.

The woman had been telling me that if I didn’t want to buy and charge a card, I could just give someone 5 pesos, and then they would let me through on theirs.  Apparently Mexicans do this all the time. They give money to strangers, who then let them pass on their cards.

I was then booming down Insurgentes in a long accordion bus, complete with digital TVs. It had its own lane and raise platforms. I was still somewhat lost. I saw all the stops listed, but recognized none. I asked a man if he knew the “World Trade Center”, as well as the street corner I was looking for.

He proposed a stop. Then a young man at my left proposed another stop. Then they conferred, and agreed I should get off at “seh-are-es”. I had never heard of ““seh-are-es”, which surprised them.

Then the first man, who it turns out spoke excellent English, said, “You know, Sears, the department store”.

I found where I was going, and met up with an expert in organized crime, who was just back from The Hague working at the International Criminal Court. He talked my ear off for almost two hours.

Then I retraced my steps. It was 10 o’clock at night. I took the Megabus back to Insurgentes, making sure not to enter the car exclusively reserved for women, children, and the elderly, and walked to where I was staying.

I was hungry, so I had some tacos “al pastor” at a street corner. The vendor, Rosa, had no plastic seats out. I asked her why. Apparently, she had to pay the local “delegation” for this right. This is street tax, often run by corrupt officials, that is endemic in Mexico. She told me that just to have a steel basin for her drinks cost her 40 pesos (3 dollars) a week.

I wasn’t about to talk derecho de piso and extortion rackets with her, so I asked her about the election. She told me who she was voting for. I said, that’s not what the polls are saying. She just shrugged her shoulders.

“The polls? Who are they asking? There are more poor people than rich people in Mexico.”

The final poll is July 1. Stay tuned.

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

Twitter: @TimothyEWilson
Email: lapoliticaeslapolitica [at] gmail [dot] com

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