A bit more than two years ago I sold all my stuff, rented my house, said my goodbyes and lit out for parts unknown. I was inspired to take a look back by a couple of events. The first is that a new friend, as he’s learned about what I’ve been doing he’s encouraged me to start writing again. The second was Dan Hough’s six-month retrospective of living by his own rules. Some good lessons in that piece.
So what is it that I’ve done over the past couple of years? In short I’ve lived on 3 continents, including Seoul, Mexico City, London, (and now NYC). Worked less than 1500 hours for pay, about the same for free, including advancing the I Am The Cavalry movement. Met dozens of great new people. Improved my career by taking only jobs that made me better. Read, researched, analyzed and honed new ideas and old. Collapsed a house of possessions I unquestioningly kept around me into what can fit in a couple of big backpacks…and even most of that is disposable. I’ve lived as my own master and couldn’t be happier about how it’s all come out.
But I recognize that I’m far from the norm. I’m the outlier. I work in a field that allows this kind of motility, pays well enough, and has enough offers for work that I could support myself financially. That isn’t true for everyone.
It is said that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. To take advantage of this kind of luck you must be both available and willing when the opportunity arises. When you are available you quickly find that the opportunities are everywhere.
I have a personality that lends itself to optimizing for opportunities that come up. In other words, I don’t set goals to achieve or things to attain I set ideals and behaviors to guide me.
To prepare myself I set a 5-year plan to learn skills and build my network. After a realization that I was only truly happy when I felt the freedom and self-determination of travel, I set about figuring out how to do that. The skills I had recently begun to develop were conducive to taking short-term work and working from anywhere. To get the kind of work I needed I’d need to build my skills and improve my connections to job opportunities. So I set about achieving that.
I took a new job, became more social and began publishing a blog. I sought, found and won a new job as a traveling consultant. I started going to security conferences, offering to speak at trade shows on behalf of my new company and organized get togethers of like minded folks. I wrote up my thoughts an published them, engaged with others and cultured dialogs on topics I was interested in. This boosted my skills, extended my reach, raised my credibility in the community and as a bonus it let me travel on others’ dime.
When the opportunity arose I took a new role in the same company on the business side. I was given the chance to work alongside my boss, helping to run and develop the consulting practice. This taught me valuable lessons that I wouldn’t have to figure out the hard way when out on my own. It was like a mentorship or apprenticeship program, learning and developing at full speed but with backup support and a safety net.
Finally it was time to go but a threshold of fear seemed to hold me back. One day I simply looked at the worst case scenario. If I failed and ran out of all my saved money I could borrow enough to get home, live with friends and family, get a new job in the same industry…probably making more than when I left and with a lot more wisdom. My worst case scenario was better than the life I was living!
So the decision was made and a date was set. I closed out projects, left my role better than is found it, trained my replacement at work.
And that gets me back to where we started. I sold all my stuff, rented my house, said my goodbyes and lit out for parts unknown. I left the known behind for the exciting. And I haven’t looked back. Except for this post.
I’ve been in Mexico City for a month now and I’ve had the chance to check out lots of great places. At night the city comes alive and Chilangos (residents of Mexico City) and travelers alike casually stroll around for a bite, a drink and a genial evening out with friends. The weather here is perfect for that – once the sun goes down the temperatures are just perfect for long pants and a light jacket. It’s really a nice lifestyle.
Of course being alone here most weekends I’m left to my own devices. Which suits me fine! I like nothing better than discovering a city by night. Strolling around, getting recommendations from people and the Internet and just going based on instinct. While I’ve marked most of the places below as bars, they all sell food as well so can make for a great stop after work or a dinner spot.
Crime in Mexico City
Mexico City has an undeserved reputation of being violent and unsafe at night. But I’ve never felt in danger here, day or night. While it’s not the safest place in the world, it’s a far cry from its reputation. As long as you take some basic travel safety precautions you’ll be just fine. The level of security and surveillance here (1 police officer per 100 people; 11,000 cameras) means the chances of committing a crime without anyone seeing it is low. The murder rate is lower than in Atlanta. (Crime statistics provided by Wikipedia.)
They say that with the first kiss of Mezcal you are introduced to it; with the third sip you fall in love. That’s true for me. Having never tried any type other than Tequila before arriving I both got to know and fell in love with the specialty drink. If you haven’t already, check out my short primer on Mezcal to find out why I like it so much.
Okupa 205 – This bar is located along a quiet street in the Colonia Roma area. It’s not well marked and inside it looks like somebody opened a bar in their studio apartment for their friends and forgot to close the door. Small and intimate, with a jukebox to hold in high regard, packed with surf, old hip hop, early punk, etc.
They have a variety of Mezcals and beers, as well as cocktails. This includes standards like mojitos and others, plus some Mezcal cocktails. It’s the only place I’ve seen a lassi cocktail, and it’s fantastic!
Phil is the guy to talk to here. He’s got a passion for Mezcal, music and movies. He learned to speak English by watching old VHS tapes and listening to the Beatles.
Thursday they have 3 for 2 Mezcal. Wednesday is 50 pesos for any drink. Tuesday 2 beers for 50 pesos.
La Clandestina – This may be one of the best bars in the world! It’s incredibly popular with hipsters and the well-dressed Chilango set both. The wall behind the bar is filled with glass jars of Mezcal, from which portions of various sizes are sold. You can also buy the ones that are bottled for retail sale. Unfortunately my favorite, the Mezcagnac, isn’t among those for sale. In fact, about half of the varieties here aren’t for sale – they’re simply not made in quantities large enough to bottle and sell.
I’d say more about this place, but you need to experience it for yourself. Look for the place with no sign that’s too busy to get into with patrons spilling out onto the sidewalk enjoying craft brews and sipping Mezcal and you’ve found it.
Mexico loves beer. That’s the conclusion I’ve drawn from the explosion over the last few years of craft breweries – up to 20+ now. And they turn out good beer with influence from around the world. This is increasingly replacing the giants like Corona and Modelo in bars and fridges around the country.
The Beer Box – “We wanted a place that doesn’t serve Corona,” the owner of the latest of the franchise store/bar told me. It has been very successful. Serving dozens of Mexican craft beers as well as about a hundred other beers from around the world, this place is a clean, modern spot to pick up some fine beers.
El Trappist – A beer bar for connoisseurs of Belgian style beers, as well as other fantastic brews from around the world. They also serve great meat and cheese platters.
More than just coffee shops, cafes in Mexico City are as likely to be open at 1AM as 8AM. Many sell beer and wine alongside pastries and java. They’re a nice, quiet place to be at the end of the night with friends talking and enjoying the cool night air. This lends the city an European feel. Mexico City has quite a few local chains, as well as many independent coffee shops.
Cielito Querido – A Mexican chain that’s quickly become my favorite place to go for a caffeine fix, these are springing up in quite a few places. They make excellent coffees, as well as horchata – a cold Mexican drink made from sweetened rice, milk and nuts that has a slight melon flavor.
Cafebria El Pendulo – A combination coffee shop and bookstore with a few locations. On weekends local musicians play soothing tunes for brunch. Very classy places that make Barnes and Noble feel like Walmart.
La Cervecería de Barrio – More restaurant than bar, this chain has decent Mexican food and is always popular at night.
La Casa de Toño – Cheap, tasty eats.
Cueva de Lobos – Cave of Wolves. It’s a loud rock and roll bar with live music upstairs and cheap beer buckets for sharing with friends.
Expendio de Pulques Finos – The jugs at the bar are some kind of fermented fruit drink. Don’t want to drink a lot of them but interesting nonetheless. 3 floors. Kinda reminds me of the places in Budapest that just take over an abandoned apartment and turn it into a bar.
Take a walk through the parks – Mexico city has many public parks. Why not have a nice stroll? Have a seat and watch others walking by, enjoy the cool breezes and chat with friends.
So I walked into a Telcel Mexico office and went through the 15 minute process of signing up. Great! Now I’ve got a SIM card and a phone number. This costs $150 Pesos and you get about $60 Pesos credit.
Next step is to add some money to it. You do that by buying prepaid cards for a certain value. You need to know the value of the package you want to buy first. In my case it was the 3GB of Internet for $399 Pesos. So I bought 2x$200 Peso cards (called “fichas”). They can’t apply these in the store or over the Internet, you have to call and apply them manually. The number is *333 and there are voice prompts in English to walk you through it. No problem, right?
Unless the service is down. For several days. Great, now you’ve got a couple of cards that are essentially worthless until somebody gets around to fixing the *333 service. That’s no fun. Internet to the rescue! There’s a way to bypass the system and enter the card codes directly! Here’s how to do it.
So if the code on the back of your card (what you just scratched off) is 1234 5678 90123 you will type: *134*1234567890123# and hit Call/Send.
Voila! You have now deposited the credit in your account. You can check that on your Mi Telcel account through the Internet. That’s also easy to sign up for, you give them your number and they send you a SMS with your temporary password.
To check your balance you can dial *133# but that seems to cost about $1 Peso each time, so use sparingly.
My biggest complaint is that the upload speeds are pretty low. Normally that wouldn’t have a big effect, but they’re so slow that it effectively means you can’t use data. 60 bytes per second is about my average upload speed. At that rate you make about one webpage request a minute and apps are all but unusable.
If you haven’t tried Mezcal recently, or at all, you’ll probably be surprised to hear and taste how great it is! Its undeserved reputation largely comes from mass produced and marketed junk that makes its way to the US market. Made the traditional way it can hold its own with any of the finest distilled spirits in the world. But very little of the quality stuff seems to be available north of the border.
That’s probably because the traditional methods of manufacture limit production. Here’s a good primer on the history and manufacture of Mezcal. In short, quality Mezcals are made by hand from several year old agave, and many are made from wild rather than farmed plants. This makes them expensive and somewhat rare. Many distillers make less than 1,000 liters per year and some as few as 200.
Mezcal has many different ways of manufacture. The liquid can be distilled 1-3 times, aged (rested for a short time, “reposado”, or for longer “anejo”) or unaged (“joven”). The location, type of ground and species gives a different flavor. The variety in flavor isn’t as great as in Scotch Malt Whisky, but a good Mezcal that has been aged for less than a year can easily match up against a good quality Whisky aged 15 years or more!
This is in contrast to the way Tequila is made. Tequila is mescal, made with blue agave, using a different process, and must be produced in the Tequila region. Typically the blue agave is only a couple of years before harvesting and production is cranked out in massive batches by machine. That doesn’t always make for a bad product, but most of the Tequilas and Mezcals you’re used to tasting in the US are definitely what you’ll get here.
Mezcal is served straight and with an orange slice to cleanse the pallet beforehand. First, eat the orange. Then take a small breath. Touch your lips to the liquid and take in just a bit – this is called a kiss. I’ts said that the first kiss is like a strange encounter. By the third you’re said to be in love.
This past weekend I took a walk downtown to the Zocalo. Past the modern and the Art Deco buildings. Past all the nice cafés with open seating and small patios. Past the weekend market and Alameda Central Park. Past the castles, churches and mansions. And into the main town square.
The weekend crowd was large and bustling. The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral looms over the Zocalo the way most of the churches I’ve run into in Europe can’t seem to impose themselves upon their square. The structure is massive and covers an area at least as large as the huge open area in front of it. Imposing buildings flanked the square, one monolith per side, making the space feel entombing for its openness. And the church here seems to be the center of gravity and attention, with the majority of the action and vibrance drawn towards it and a lesser amount of action orbiting the outline of the square.
There was a stage set up in the square this weekend. The site is often used for political demonstrations and protests so this was no surprise. But this weekend the stage was occupied by dancers and pop music. As I got closer I heard the distinct Psy style. Gangnam Style. Closer still, I saw t-shirts and posters in Korean. The song shifted to Psy’s more recent song, Gentleman. After a minute or so, back to Gangnam Style. The songs swapped back and forth with the people on stage apparently learning the different dance moves for each. Eventually it came to an end and the crowd, mostly Chilangitas (young women from Mexico City), cheered loudly. I’m not sure what this was but it’s clear that there’s a great love of K-Pop in Mexico City.
I continued walking around near the church, through the crowd. And through the buskers with their wares spread on tarps, pushed in carts and hawked with calls about the quality and cost of what was on offer. Hungry and curious I tried a snack I’d seen others eating. Onto a crispy blue corn tortilla was smothered refried beans, cilantro, sautéed peppers, queso fresco and some picante sauce. You eat it by breaking the chip-like tortilla and scooping some of the topping into your mouth. Kind of like nachos you can hold in your hand!
After finishing the snack I went inside the main entrance of the Zocalo church. (The church has many side chapels which seem to be for specific purposes: confession, baptism, etc.) It is as large inside as you would expect. But another difference between it and Northern European churches struck me. This is a pragmatic place, set to be used not just toured. Chairs were set up around the popular altars; a portrait of the Pope who had visited many years ago was an active area; a mass was being conducted. I was a visitor, and even in this touristic area, I was the exception. So I stopped being in the way and walked back into the bright sunlight.
I leaned in the shade and checked where to go next. Quickly I was set upon by a group of teenage girls. Likely many of the same from the K-Pop show. The lead one asked me in Spanish if I spoke English and if I wouldn’t mind answering some questions. I didn’t. So a quick scripted and recorded interview later I was on my way. Kids practicing English often want to speak with a native speaker so it’s not out of the ordinary.
But I was stopped several other times for interviews. At one point there was a line of groups of kids waiting to interview me. They all seemed to be doing this for the same school (I asked several groups)band were all about the same age. I can imagine the giggles as every student realizes that they spoke with me. And the stifled chuckles of the professor imagining how I’d spent my day at the Zocalo speaking with his/her class about my favorite sports, my name, age, favorite Mexican food, and whether I’d like to come back to Mexico some time.
Of all the interviews I gave today one stand out. The boy was alone, except for his videographer mother, in contrast to the groups of girls as most were. He had his questions printed out and carried a pen, rather than written long hand as others. He wore thick glasses and looked like McLovin’s younger Mexican brother. He also asked the most intelligent questions and noted everything on his script as it was being documented. I have the feeling he is going to be either a scientist or a reporter and I wish him luck in either endeavor (or in whatever he chooses).
As the sun dipped below the clouds in the afternoon I walked away. I realized my skin stayed warm even in the shade and that brought back the realization that Mexico City was close to the equator and high in altitude, making sunburn virtually guaranteed on my unscreened skin. So staying in the shade I walked to find a little cafe overlooking the Alameda Central Park. It was hard to find because you have to go through the nine-story Sears to get there. But it was worth it for the view and the coffee frappe. Sitting there (in the shade) overlooking the park and the Architecture Museum while the sun set was beyond just pleasant. The drink was emptied too quickly, as was my energy.
I headed back to the hotel tired but full of appreciation for the things I’d seen and the experiences I’d had. I told all the kids that I had Liked Mexico and would return. That wasn’t just a nicety for their sake, I meant it. Mexico City is a vibrant metropolis with many different sides. It feels both Latin and European at times, which is not surprising given its geography and history. But the two work well together, matching culture and insanity the way a merengue mixes a gas into a liquid with the help of a little sugar and lime juice. A pleasant treat.
“I’ve been one poor correspondent
I’ve been too too hard to find
But that doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind”
-America, Sister Golden Hair
I’ve been both busy and lazy but it’s no excuse for not writing more.
While I was in London everything was a bit too boring, normal and well-explored. And so was I. It wasn’t worth writing, let alone reading.
I’ve been living in Seoul, South Korea for a couple of months and that’s definitely worth writing about. From a Miguk (American) perspective there’s a lot of hilarity to be had resulting from expectation gaps and cultural differences. I’ve got some notes on that and, well, we’ll see how it goes with getting those hammered into reasonable posts.
And for the month of May I’m living and working in Mexico City. And this is what has got me back on the keyboard clackity-clacking out some new posts. A combination with some time on my hands alone and lots of things I want to capture have gotten the juices flowing again and that means new posts. Which is good.
Talk at you soon!