There is something to be said of waking up in the morning in a city other than your own. I find the experience to be a bit transcendental, if only for the duration of our stay; The same person waking up in someone else’s shoes. The location which we choose to live greatly affects the experience.
When we were planning our trip to Mexico City, we teeter-tottered between a standard hotel in the heart of Roma, where we would have a view of the Angel de Independencia and be surrounded by other extranjeros eager to walk to streets, equally unfamiliar with the rules, and an AirBNB apartment located in the Guerrero, slightly away from the main road. I am extremely happy we went with the latter.
The perks of AirBNB are known to many, and the world over too. It was significantly cheaper to rent this apartment for $40 per night, than it was to rent a single hotel room for upwards of $150 a night. This apartment is huge, big enough for Mike and I to permanently move into and be happy living in, and just as tempting an idea. It’s got a bit of history, being the home of a passed away father whose son wanted to dedicate the space to the man he loved. It is a mix between a modern renovation with recessed lighting and white walls, and a vintage memory, housing original kitchen tiles and a retro oven. An original brick wall acts as a beautiful backdrop in the small dining room, its corner intersecting with a contrasting black granite countertop and new wooden shelving. The shower is tall and modern, exhibiting good temperature and strong pressure as water falls onto a cobblestone floor on the opposite side of a thick pane of glass. The furnishings of the place is functional, and minimal, just our cup of tea.
But what I love most about choosing AirBNB is the way in which it helps us feel a bit more dissociated with our identity as foreigners. Admission into the apartment required meeting up with Chacha, a friendly man with afro hair and a big smile, who happens to own the tienda downstairs and slightly next door. After guiding us into the gated alleyway, painted yellow, a perfect signature of the surrounding buildings, he dropped us off in front of a bright blue door atop red marbled stairs. After a quick explanation of how to access the keys, and with an invitation to pop by his shop for any of our daily needs, off he went to leave us feeling completely displaced, but interestingly, happy to be so.
Light floods into the heavily windowed apartment, but even more so do the sounds, floating in through a broken window sill in the living room. Sounds of automobiles honking in the traffic of surronding busy streets, as expected in a city as populous as this. Sounds of a neighboring gal saying Buenas Tardes to Chacha as she bicycles her way into the gated alley across the street. The sound of mothers urging their ninos to walk just a bit faster as they hurry off to school. The sound of kids playing in the streets as the sun sets, and as the smells of neighboring kitchens slowly waft into our own.
Our location is close enough to the main street, La Reforma, that we can walk to it and be a straight shot away from the rest of the more affluent, tall, buildings and restuarant-laden streets (albeit a few miles down the way), where we and all the other visitors of Mexico may spend on the things we take for granted. But the location is remote enough from downtown that one turn in the opposite direction, and we see the people who live through their day to day on the streets, selling whatever they can, wearing clothes with holes and worn down shoes, sitting under plastic tents made of sticks to shield from both rain and sun.
From my window, I stare at graffiti walls on a chipping blue paint, and trash on the streets. Discarded crates left on their sides to rot. Cars dented, chipped, fading. It smells of city streets when it gets warm in the afternoons. It’s enough to keep one grounded. A beautiful reminder that although there is a small part of this city dedicated to entertaining people with some of the Top 50 restaurants in the world and historic sites and museums that contain so much beauty, there is a larger part that is just trying to get by one day at at time.
This is part of the feeling of being displaced. Taking part in the glamor and the glitz of what geoarbitrage can afford any American visiting Mexico, and also taking part in the reality of the people who live in it. Just as I feel in limbo with which language to speak, responding in whichever language they choose to speak with me, and not realizing when I make the switch, regardless of which person I am talking to. And for this I am grateful. I don’t think I would have ever experienced Mexico City in this way if, like many visitors, we decided to stay in the heart of it all, where every site was walkable, the streets are kept clean, and people speak English. And to hear Mike say, “I love this city”, after we just walked through an alleyway of streets filled with rubble and reeking of piss and filled with mostly men outdoors breaking down their home-made tiendas in the middle of the narrow street, it really makes me think that we could live here a few months to learn more about the culture and the people. I could get used to saying Buenos Dias to Chacha every morning, just as I could get used to the broken window sill, and the sounds of traffic, eating great food, and being surrounded by a friendly population of cuidadanos.
With that, I would highly recommend AirBNB in an attempt to integrate with the foreigners less and the locals more. I know it may throw some out of their comfort zone, but for what reasons do we really travel and can we really understand the lifestyles of fellow humans in other countries if we purposefully blind ourselves to it? Mike and I mostly travel to understand, to get some grasp of the larger world view, and to slowly put the pieces of a grand and complicated puzzle together. We will likely spend our lives doing it and never get close, except for little decisions such as these that help us get just a little bit closer.