Excerpt: 'Down & Delirious in Mexico City' by Daniel Hernandez
You can’t really appreciate the enormity of Mexico City until you leave it on the ground. Merely landing at or departing from Benito Juárez International Airport belies the city’s physical contours, the ranges of mountains that ring its basin. Flying in or out conceals what you’re really dealing with. You must experience Mexico City’s hugeness as a journey of distance, inch by inch, mile by mile, traffic allowing.
On a late afternoon, nearing sunset, during the smoggiest season of the year, winter, your bus or car is climbing the mountains to the east. The road curves and pitches. You can feel the air outside get colder and colder. The mountains in every direction are suddenly covered in brilliant green trees. To the west the sun disappears behind a dark cloud hanging over the enormous valley. It is not a rain cloud. It is a blanket of pollution permanently fixed over the city. A nasty thick black cloud, so dark in the shrinking light of dusk that you cannot see anything underneath it. The only way you can tell the city exists below is because from miles away you can still feel its hum. It’s almost impossible to believe, like a vision of some futuristic hell. People live there?
I survive my first smoggy winter in Mexico City by applying a gee-whiz sort of awe to it. I hack up alien-looking green phlegm in the mornings for weeks at a time, but I can’t really comprehend just how toxic the city gets around Christmas and the New Year. In my second winter, I have moved to the Centro, to a second-floor apartment facing a street choked constantly in the daytime with traffic. It is a Saturday in late January when I wake up with a violent cough. Throughout the day the air feels as if it is sagging on my back. By Sunday I have a nagging headache. It is cold at night, but it still feels hot out somehow. Something on the skin, a stickiness, a barely perceptible unnatural film.