I remember the first time I flew into Ciudad de México (CDMX). Five am, September 2010. Below me all I could see were the stars and scattered patches of pueblos, slowly merging like frayed fabric into one single blanket of light, smothering the vast valle de México. And later in the yellow glow of afternoon sun, I was held close within the swirl and sway of a smokey Norteño in the heart of Alameda Central… I was smitten. I had fallen in love with this place. A love affair that would make me call its faded edificios ‘my home’.
I’d arrived with transport, my old Kona ’93. I knew that ‘to survive one needed to move’, and they were very prophetic words on more than one occasion. CDMX is vast and equally congested. Daily I needed to commute from apartment to office, a distance of eight km via that great formal avenue Paseo de la Reforma to Lomas de Chapultepec up on the ridgeline.
Racing a life and death slalom through three lanes of coaches, cars and chaos. Everyday living a very everyday life, with all its colour and unpredictable drama. I recall numerous times where I ended up either at the wrong end of a bus or worse, a gun barrel, but that was normal back then.
There wasn’t much in the way of cycling culture, but Ecobici (CDMX sponsored bike sharing programme) and Ciclovia changed all that. As every Sunday (since 2011) a network of major inner city avenidas are closed to traffic, so that Chilangos (CDMX natives) can ‘retake the streets’ on a bike, or on foot.
Over those few years I lived there, the expansion of Ciclovia was nothing short of explosive, where getting out amongst it on a Sunday became almost religious.
Any given Sunday
There’s waking with that fuming raw claw of last nights mescal and malboro, followed by a rolling morning tear as I stumble round and around stairs out into the world. That familiar ‘shlack shicker shicker’ of steal gate snapping closed behind me as I stare out into the warm mustard light of Plaza Luis Cabrerra . It’s said if you want to talk with God you speak Spanish. Well today is Sunday, Domingo, God’s chosen day.
I ride streets and passeos, a cross stitch of side roads and secret ways to where the formality of Reforma bows before the majesty of Bosque de Chapultepec. It’s there I join the rough river of Chilangos making their way down the broad avenida under a gentle rain of jacaranda flowers. The gutters awash in mauve, gently filled by the slow swoosh swoosh of barrenderos at broom.
It’s hard to describe Mexico City, you have to live it. Be taken and swollowed whole by it. Accept you are a mere flicker of flame for the briefest moment of time within its timelessness. You hate to love it, but you do.
You are drawn into the flow down to centro where old meets the very old. Where asphalt seal gives way to weathered cobble that have been worn huarache smooth over a millennia and more. Where congestion of the new is replaced with congestion of old – car with bike for bike with Trejo. All competing for space and relevance within the narrows of La Merced.
I stop at a corner and lean lazy against a sun warmed wall, setting light to another cigarette. It’s bright glow and ever so slight crackle audible above my first deep inhalation.
I’m alone, well beyond the boarder land where Emiliano Zapata meets Jesús María, down deep within the cacophony of the barrio. Where the street vendors banda competes with the bored beige clad organilleros leaning hard against their high-pitched and mildly mistuned street organs. And away beyond the Jesús in a rising smoulder of ashen covered corn I watch as one Zapoteco woman openly argues as the other eats the days profits.
I shove off in a haze of blue smoke towards the Iglisia of La Santisima and Calle Alhóndiga in search of fresh tamales. Jostling as I go through a thicket of small semi-coiffured indigenous woman fresh from the Callejón de los milagros beauty market towards my chosen tienda. Where inside an old matriarch leans out at me over her bottle ended horn rims, expectantly rubbing thumb against fingers. I nervously place an order and in a whip of street spanish and cuss, three generations rapidly replace my pesos for plastic plate and steaming corn husks.
I nod and slowly back off, making my way to the concrete partition between her and the world where I pull up a red plastic stool within a swarm of niños to unwrap my steaming tamale pollo con mole.
Stuffed full, it’s time I negotiate the mercados and rejoin the city peloton. It’s ‘los siete puentes’ or seven bridges (overpasses) on this given Sunday and a 40km inner city circuit. I make good my freedom and escape to the Avenidas.
We took back the streets. We the people flow with all the hydrological science of a river in flood. At times still, running deep and slow. Others like a rough wash of white water scouring through the narrows. And at its edge people bump, jostle and bruise in spiralling whirlpools against smokey Sunday street vendors.
The streams and lakes of old now replaced by these great rivers of humanity as they flow around the valle through Coyoacán to return again to the city’s colonial heart. And nothing seems to beat beating a gringo. As machismo boys not yet men throw provocative sideways glances and whip past me at pace. Ever so close I can clearly whiff their brill creamed quiffs. “Puta madre!” I mutter under my breath and gripping hard at my handles I give chase – the race has begun.
Two, three and at times four of us contesting the northbound of the Circuito Interior. I’m feeling like Gene Hackman in the French connection, as we whoop and weave our way through the mayhem of bicicletas, racing the three lanes and risking all to get through the intersections before the signals change. Sometimes successful and others not.
I pull up at one red light slightly ahead of one heavily panting bandito. He looks at me grinning, mouth agape and gulping down more polluted O2 from the thin city air. In the change we are both racing again, mad, mad, mad with winning. Then in the briefest of moments I loose him. He cuts a break and takes his chances, to squeeze through the apprehension of a yellow light and is gone. I see him away up in the dusty distance, twisting high in the saddle of his battered Benotto, peering back with that grin and an arm raised in triumph.
Finally we make Avenida Mazatlan in Colonia Condessa. Dismounting at Nevería Roxy, I lean into that familiar formica counter and order a single mandarin sorbet in a cone, then push my way east along sun cracked sidewalks towards where Avenida Tamaulipas meets Michoacán.
With a screech I drag a stool across the floor and pivot back against a weathered wall, before setting alight another cigarette. This local mescalaría supplies my favourite tribute as I spend the rest of Sunday, Gods day, making my offering. I drink mescal from vasos veladoras, or the glass of a disused church candle with its distinct base a reminder of my own mortality. Every sip preceded with a whisper of a prayer “gracias Jesús” and with it my soul is slowly intoxicated within its distinct and earthly aroma.
For me another Sundays circuito receives closure. “Otra mas por favour”.