The Artists of Mexico City
Mexico City, or CDMX, is a city for the senses: the vibrant colors of buildings, the scent of freshly made tortilla from the taco stand, a trio playing a lively song in front of diners, walls with murals that span half a block, and the delicious food. Oh, the food. CDMX is a total foodie town.
We went last week during our sabbatical to cap off celebrations for Becky’s 30th birthday. Our friend Andrew said such wonderful things about the city, and he encouraged us to visit. All I knew of Mexico were beaches and Spring Break. How ignorant I was.
Each experience we had, whether it was a restaurant, a tour, or an event, I kept noticing the artistry in the people we met and watched. There was a sense of pride in what they were doing, however small the task was. I kept thinking back to these letters I’ve been writing to you, and the art I’ve been talking about, and in a city of 23 million people, the people we met lived up to that definition. They were doing the generous work of creating change for the better, and connecting with the people they met.
Dan the Barber
We got to CDMX on Sunday evening, after we settled into our hotel, we had tacos around the corner and made our way to a speakeasy bar called Hanky Panky. It’s hidden, like a true speakeasy, in the back of a restaurant through a set of double doors. We would have never found it if there wasn’t someone outside guiding us in. Dan was the first person to greet us. He spoke English fluently, and when we asked him where he was from, he said he’s from Chicago and moved to CDMX 6 weeks ago. He was a bartender back home and he wanted to explore somewhere new. It made total sense. A dollar goes a long way in Mexico and if you wanted to explore somewhere for a few weeks, months, or years, Mexico was a great place to start.
He carefully maneuvered behind the bar as he made each drink, making sure his measurements were correct. I could watch bartenders make drinks all day. He had a sweet smile every time he talked, and made us and the others sitting there feel welcome. I didn’t get to ask him about why he moved to CMDX, he talked about how he missed Chicago already. But I could tell that he felt alive being there, in a great bar making, settling into the chance he took to do something that was generous and meaningful.
Javier, the Local Guide
The next day we visited Central de Abastos, the largest wholesale market in the world. It feeds 80% of Mexico City and handles 30,000 tons of merchandise daily. We met Javier through AirBnB Experiences. We were thinking about canceling the tour the day before we went, but I’m glad we didn’t. In preparation for the tour, Javier visited 20 different taco stands in the market and found the one that makes the best al pastor tacos. I had two that morning, and my mind couldn’t comprehend what was happening. It was the most delicious tacos I’ve ever had, and it’s ruined any tacos I could eat here in NYC.
He’s able to do tours full time thanks to AirBnb, and the job fits him well. He’s warm and open, and loves to share what he knows. And even though his friends tell him to find an office job before it’s too late, he has no plans of stopping. This is his craft and art, and he’s not in it for the security.
Odin, the Pilot
On Tuesday, we went out to Teotihuacán for a hot air balloon ride over the city. The name of our balloon was “Candy” and our pilot’s name was Odin. We asked him how many times he’s flown the balloon, and said he lost count a while back. No matter the number, he was bright-eyed as we were when we were up in the sky and saw the sunrise.
“Rojo, Rojo! Look how beautiful the sun is!”
He wasn’t just a pilot but a great host, and the balloon was his home. He made sure to slowly turn the balloon so each of us had a clear view of the sunrise, and the pyramids. He knew the best vantage points of the flight path, and when to go higher or lower.
At one point, we were near the Pyramid of the Sun, and saw a guy on top of it taking photos of us and the balloons. Noticing our excitement, Odin pulled on some rope and pumped the fire, maneuvering the balloon to make a flyover just above the pyramid. He flew so close I could’ve reach out my arm and bring the photographer into our basket.
The whole ride was filled with small acts like those. It didn’t seemed planned or rehearsed, a checklist of things to give tourists a fun time. He genuinely enjoyed the moments of spontaneity and was sharing with us what he was experiencing. After we landed, Odin surprised us with champagne to toast the end of the ride. In lieu of a conversation, there was a lot said in a “salud!” and a drink together at 8:30 in the morning.
The Chefs of Nom Polanco
The best meal I had in CDMX was at Nom. It’s a 12 seat restaurant that only serves twice a day, a brunch at 2PM and a dinner at 8:30PM. The menu for each meal and each season is different. There are three chef’s who started the place together, Alejandro, Jorges, and Charlie. It was a two and a half hour, eight course Omakase-style dinner. They made the dishes right in front of us and we were able to talk to Jorges throughout the meal. I’ll never forget the foie gras filled waffle with shaved white truffle on top.
As a freelancer, I admired the intentional constraint they put on themselves of serving, at most, 24 people in one day. Even as the menu changes every season, Jorges told me they meet together every morning to see what small things they can change or add to the menu. It reminded me of musicians improvising a show each night, not knowing if it will work, but always going with how they feel.
Inherent in the definition of art that I've been sharing about, is this idea it may not work. As beautiful and generous as our art may be, as much as we want to make a change and connection, our efforts may still fall flat on its face. That risk keeps many of us from ever trying, but tach person I met on the trip took that leap and did the best that they could do.
I don’t know if it’s because we took this trip as a sabbatical rather than a vacation, but it was their audacity that was the most inspiring for me about the trip. There is a universal language about making and receiving art in all its different forms. But I’m also going to learn some more Spanish before going back to Mexico.