"Woh, Mexico, it sounds so simple, I just got to go. The sun's so hot I forgot to go home, guess I'll have to go now."
- James Taylor
Anthony Bourdain has never gotten it so wrong.
As a lover of food & travel, I have always enjoyed watching Bourdain’s programs. ‘No Reservations’ & ‘Parts Unkown’ are some of best shows on television IMHO. And as a producer of a show based in a sport which travels the globe, I’ve turned to these shows many times to draw inspiration.
When I learned we’d be filming our first 2015 episode of ‘Off the Grid’ at the Force India launch in Mexico City, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’d been to Mexico before, but only to the small resort town of Tulum, just south of Cancun. I knew Mexico City would be quite a different experience from lounging in hammocks by the turquoise sea, but could never have guessed what we were in for in the country's sprawling metropolis.
To add to my anxiety was the fact that this would be the first time we’d be filming in a location that was new to both myself and our hosts, Will Buxton & Jason Swales. Every other location where we've filmed the show thus far I’ve had the luxury of having these two as my trusty tour guides. Traveling with Formula One for so many years they’ve both come to know their way about town and have been an immense help in selecting filming locations & coordinating logistics. However this time, it was all on me...with just one week to figure it all out. Time brush up on that high school Spanish. Come se dice ‘fuuuuuuuuuuck’ in Espanol?!
So naturally, in doing research the week before we were to depart, I was thrilled to see that ‘Parts Unknown’ had produced an episode in Mexico City. ‘Fantastic!’ I thought, ‘Bourdain’s going to show us all the can’t miss local eateries and unique things to do throughout the city.' Consider my research done.
Or Not. Imagine my surprise when the episode began with Bourdain riding along with a photographer who made his living capturing portraits of the dead. Mexicans who had fallen victim to the violence of the drug cartels. The photographer described how each night he responded to numerous police radio calls notifying him of another murder, for him, it was just another shoot location. Snapping body after lifeless body lit only by the flashing lights of a police car.
‘Shit’ I thought. ‘Why the hell are we going to this place? Why the hell is Formula One returning to this place? This is a terrible idea.’
The episode continued with a brief stop in a black market selling pirated DVDs and oh, finally, FOOD! This is a travel show about food after all, right? But very quickly the conversation with Bourdain’s guest turned again to the danger of the city. And later profiled a journalist who writes about the cartel, and lives in hiding for fear of losing her life, just like her father did.
At this point I was wondering if we’d be able to film anything outside of Force India’s launch event at the Soumaya Museum and the circuit? Which pretty much moots the point of a show called ‘Off the Grid.’ Did we need to hire security? The only place I’ve ever needed to do that was for a documentary we filmed in Rio de Janeiro & Sao Paulo, Brazil for Bloomberg Television. I was nervous, and to be honest, a little afraid of what we were getting into with this one.
My colleague and I arrived in Mexico City without a clue of what we'd see once through the airport terminal gates. We went directly to the hotel and immediately felt a different vibe about this place than we had anticipated. We checked in, and both eager for a bit of exercise, asked the concierge if it was safe to run or walk outside. He smiled, let out a bit of a chuckle, and said ‘Of course! There are a lot of lovely running paths in the city.’
I wasn’t quite as brave as my male colleague and opted for the comfort of the hotel gym for my workout that first day. But after his run, he recommended we grab a drink at a bar he passed by, so we did. And we walked. Strolling down the boulevard of Paseo de la Reforma, modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris. And while it isn't the city of lights, it's certainly stunning in its own right.
We passed monuments & fountains lit up in vibrant colors. Palm trees blowing in the cool evening breeze. Lively sidestreets packed with restaurants, patrons dining outside, music bumping. The omnipresence of house music flowing from establishment to establishment gave Mexico City a clubby vibe, a happy vibe. A Starbucks spotted on nearly every corner. This all was a far cry from the Mexico City we toured with Mr. Bourdain.
The next day I had quite a lot planned, including a few surprises in store for our show’s hosts. But as it turned out, I was perhaps the most surprised by it all at how the day would unfold.
We began our day traveling about 90 minutes north of Mexico City to the ancient Aztec village of Teothihuacan. But in a city with Brazilian-style traffic, it could have taken much longer to travel the 51km to the ancient city. Our guide spent the entire ride answering our questions, pointing out landmarks along the way. The hilltops crowded with favela-like structures. Similar to Rio, the disparity between the haves and have-nots is stark in Mexico City. And during the ride you get a sense of just how large this city is, ranking 4th largest in the world behind only Tokyo, Delhi & Shanghai. It seemed to be never-ending.
By the time we arrived at Teothihuacan, it finally felt like we were well outside the city. A vast terrain speckled with Aztec ruins, sixteen or so massive structures dotting the landscape. 2500 year old pyramids in amazingly preserved condition. Wow. They looked just like the sugar cube model I built of the Pyramid of the Sun for a 5th form history project. Ok fine, they didn’t at all look like that. The cubes I used were nowhere near as steep as these steps. Will put it best when he said that for being touted as astute mathemeticians, the Aztecs certainly didn’t seem to get the height/width ratio for these steps quite right. Both the climb and the descent were equally terrifying, not helped by the high altitude and thinning oxygen levels. All I have to say is the Aztecs had to have been sporting some massive quads to climb the 218ft pyramid like that on the reg.
We visited a local artisan shop between our stops at two of the pyramids. A local woman proudly showing off the brilliance of her ancestors. Showing us a cactus plant which provided the Aztecs with everything from paper, and needle and thread to shampoo & medicine. She was also quite fond of their local tequila, as was I.
We finished filming our bits for the show at the pyramids and hopped back into the car for the long journey to the city of Xochimilco, about an hour south of Mexico City. Along the way we passed police in open bed trucks, uzis at the ready. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a bit alarming. We thought briefly to take a photo of this unusual scene but after pulling alongside the truck and staring the policemen in the eye, decided it was probably best not to go there. Perhaps Bourdain hadn’t gotten it all wrong after all.
We arrived in Xochimilco after several hours in traffic. The rain seemed to be rolling in overhead and I feared the surprise I had been looking forward to all day was going to be washed out. Thankfully the rain held off and we boarded our very own NBC – F1 named trajinera for a cruise along the canals.
Aside from the impromptu carnival that had popped up on shore, the trajinera ride was eerily tranquil. Our Mexican gondolier pushing our vessel through the shallow water, passing other boats filled with locals, tourists, mariachi bands, and tacos. Mmm, tacos. Thankfully we were met by a boat whipping up homemade tortillas on a tiny canoe, taco pirates of the best variety. We shared the tasty treats family style on our boat.
What a cool day thus far. I was happy it had all come together, but even happier to see my friends & colleagues enjoying it all. And there was still more to come. We had arranged for a cooking lesson with one of Mexico City’s brightest chef’s that evening. Maycoll Calderon, head chef of J&G Grill Mexico City.
Maycoll’s menu was a far cry from the simplistic Mexican most Americans have become accustomed to thanks to Chipotle. Some of our favorite menu items included avocado pizza, salmon sashimi with crispy rice, and grilled filet with a soy-caramel emulsion. Oh.My.God. And not to mention the insanely delicious ginger margaritas.
It had been just 1 day and already the sights & tastes of Mexico City had far exceeded my expectations.
The following days were filled with F1 activity. That is the basis of our show, after all. A stunning launch event for Force India’s VJM08 at the Museo de Soumaya. Billionaire Carlos Slim’s home for some of Mexico’s finest art. We had the opportunity to interview Mr. Slim following the presentation. Aside from being surprised at just how young he was, I was fascinated with how much passion he spoke not only about Formula One, but of motorsport in general. He was far more than an investor, he was a life-long fan. Which is why when hundreds of fans who had heard of the launch via social media arrived at the museum during the event, Slim opened the venue to the public. A queue out the front door with fans in team kit just waiting to get a glimpse of the new chariot.
Next up was a visit to the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, home to the Mexican Grand Prix from 1962-1970 and 1986-1992. This year F1 makes it’s return to the circuit for the first time in 23 years. As I’ve mentioned before, I am clearly not an expert on any form of racing. I can’t speak to the new circuit design, the flow of the esses, the placement of the pitlane, the runoff or lack thereof. But I can speak to the feel of the place, it almost seemed like stepping back in time. Cement barricades with Aztec-type engravings holding up fencing, faded numbers painted on cement belachers denoting seats in the baseball stadium, a Coca-Cola sign painted atop a building, all of this history in the midst of a massive new construction site. So much dust that by the end of our day of filming every camera, lens and tripod was absolutely covered.
It’s difficult to imagine that the circuit will look like when it’s completed, let alone if it will be completed by the time the Mexican Grand Prix occurs in ten months time. But everyone we spoke with assued all is on track (pun intended) and I can’t wait to see how it all comes together. The cars going through the middle of the grandstands of the baseball stadium is going to be a special sight.
So, with filming wrapped, we went out for one last night with our new friend, chef Maycoll. He guided us to a small local taco stand near the hotel. An award-winning chef of the highest order revealing his love & passion for even the most simplest of foods. We drank cervezas and ate local specialties to the tunes of a Mexican cover of the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun’ with our new friends. It couldn’t have been a more perfect ending to our journey.
I’m sure Bourdain didn’t get it all wrong. Mexico City is still a one fraught with many challenges. The vast socioeconomic divide perhaps most visible of all. On one street posh restaurants & Starbucks, a block over a closed off street housing a tent village. Police on nearly every corner. And while their presence is alarming at first, it’s quite comforting once you’re used to it.
I cannot think of another place I’ve traveled to in recent memory where the people have been as kind & welcoming, the food more mouth-watering, and the history & architecture more mind-blowing.
So please, give Mexico City a chance. You won’t be sorry you did. Until next time, Mexico City, con amor.