“The smell” of Mexico—the one I associate with happy family visits and late-night feasts of hot chocolate and churros—has always been, to me, the smell of burning garbage, filth and smog. Yes, even a bad smell can conjure happy memories. But it wasn’t there.
Instead I found a clean, thriving, hard-working—and very Americanized—city and countryside. In town and even in tiny, far-flung villages there’s a steady stream of business people bringing a bounty of goods and services to front doors or car windows. In the morning, men stroll the residential areas selling drinking water and other household staples. Out on main streets there are food or phone card vendors every 100 feet.
Traffic congestion is stunning, but while crawling at 11 mph you can get your windshield washed or buy any one of six daily newspapers, chilled drinks, fresh doughnuts or traditional sandwiches. For entertainment there are stilt-walkers, mimes, juggling clowns and fire-eaters.
Even hundreds of miles outside the city you’ll see tiny stands in crumbling buildings offering orthodontic and cell phone services next to huts piled high with freshly slaughtered chickens, next to tin shacks loaded with PCs and high-speed Internet access. And the bathrooms . . . people now tend them and for 3 pesos/30 cents you get a clean toilet, paper and soap.
The bonus: because President Felipe Calderon cracked down on lawlessness a few months ago, there are uniformed policemen everywhere—inside Burger Kings, walking down the streets in pairs, in six packs on trucks—it’s really safe to just walk around.