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Way beyond tourist

Times Staff Writer

How many times have you picked up a memoir by some American or European nomad living the good life abroad, and wanted to toss the entire volume out the window after about, oh, two paragraphs?

You know the type of book: a self-congratulatory saga of how the middle-aged author, suffering from chronic First World malaise, cashed in his tech stocks, fled the L.A. or New York rat race and escaped to some exquisite little corner of Provence or Marrakech to raise organic squash, commune with natives and find Enlightenment.

Thankfully, “First Stop in the New World,” David Lida’s engaging and sanguine tour of the economic, social, cultural, political, culinary and sexual boulevards and back alleys of Mexico City, isn’t that kind of book.

An American journalist whose work has appeared in The Times, Lida has lived on and off in the hemisphere’s largest metropolis (population 8.6 million for the city proper, 22 million metro area) since 1990. He’s a perceptive, empathetic observer of his adopted home, and in non-showy, unflinching prose he sketches a charmingly idiosyncratic, yet remarkably comprehensive portrait of one of the planet’s most misinterpreted urban spaces.

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Although “First Stop” is streetwise and up-to-date enough to serve as a tourist handbook, it’s much more than that. Lida has produced a veritable Guia Roja (as the local version of the Thomas Guide is called) of the city’s inner life, its pleasures, pathologies and beguiling habits.

But what distinguishes this book is the author’s way of unobtrusively but insistently looping back to the grim social realities that occasionally taint even the nicest aspects of living in Mexico City: widespread poverty, intractable corruption and multipronged discrimination -- by gender, ethnicity and, above all, class. Lida never lets his First World readers forget that the economic advantages (cheap labor, low rents) that make Mexico City appeal to foreigners as a substitute for Manhattan or Madrid are achieved at the expense of the capital’s impoverished masses, about 65% of whom live near, at or below the poverty line.

An ancient hub comprising multiple strata of civilizations (pre-Columbian, colonial, postmodern), Mexico City has an old soul and a pulsing Aztec heart. Lida dispenses in a few brisk paragraphs with the first 700 years of the city’s history.

Readers curious about Cortes’ conquest of the beautiful lake-bed city of Tenochtitlan, the equal in its day of Byzantium or Florence, are advised to turn to Jonathan Kandell’s indispensable “La Capital.”

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Lida instead trains his gaze on the contemporary city. We hop aboard a toxin-spewing pesero (micro bus) in a superb chapter on transportation, “Getting Around,” and get a feel for the city’s vida cotidiana, the daily life that Mexicans experience but many visitors miss.

Along the way we meet such memorable chilangos (Mexico City dwellers) as Raul the philandering cab driver; Paty, the pragmatic fichera (ficheras are “closer to geishas than prostitutes,” Lida assures us); and Anabel Ochoa, the radio sex talk-show host who “could be a character in an Almodovar movie.”

If you’re sensing an erotic subtext here, you’re not wrong. But Lida uses his frequent excursions into Mexico City’s collective libido to make a bigger, more subtle point about identity.

Unlike their Yankee neighbors, Mexicans don’t routinely strip their souls in public, and rarely even in private. The “masks” that Mexicans wear to disguise their true feelings, famously analyzed decades ago by Octavio Paz in “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” are still an essential fashion accessory. The tension between exuberance and reserve, warmth and wariness, defines a capital where it’s customary for complete strangers to salute each other in the street with buenos dias and to declare themselves to be a sus ordenes (“at your command”), but who will blast their horn if you enter a crosswalk in the path of their oncoming SUV.

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Rather than rose- or azul-colored, Lida’s vision of Mexico City runs more toward film noir. You won’t read anything here about Diego Rivera’s murals, the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe or other postcard locales. When Lida writes about the capital’s high-end and tourist hot spots, he can seem a bit dismissive.

He’s much more fun and authoritative when writing about the capital’s demimonde than its de moda districts. So we loiter with him at a pulqueria, where groggy patrons imbibe the ancient Aztec drink made of fermented agave juice, with “a foamy viscous texture somewhere between spit and sperm.”

We visit a Wal-Mart near the ruined pyramids of Teotihuacan, about 50 minutes north of the capital. (Wal-Mart is Mexico’s largest private employer.)

We catch a whiff of migas soup at the Tepito market near the historic center, where every conceivable pirated consumer good is sold (jeans, perfume, porn, drugs), usually under the watchful eyes of the complicit police force. Lida knows about crime first-hand, having been the victim of a so-called “express kidnapping,” in which assailants typically hold their victims captive for several hours while forcing them to withdraw money from an ATM.

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Yet he sets the alarming anecdotes in context, pointing out that in 2004 there were 710 homicides in Mexico City and 218 in Washington, D.C., a city with less than a tenth of the population of the former.

A wonderful chapter on “Eating on the Street and Elsewhere,” like many in the book, harvests a tremendous amount of sociological insight from its seemingly limited theme. “The sidewalk is a chilango’s pit stop, his permanent picnic,” Lida writes. “He likes to eat standing up, the aroma of sizzling meat mingling with those of exhaust, fumes, putrefying garbage, dust, and sweat.”

Lida’s tone is skeptical-celebratory, but rarely sardonic, and never merely cynical. He wears his erudition lightly, making an apt reference here to Italo Calvino, a timely allusion there to Walter Benjamin.

In a brief epilogue, he considers two possible scenarios for Mexico City’s future: the “Philip K. Dick” model and the “Disney version,” but rejects both as overly simplistic. “What gives the city its dynamism today is the resilience, ingenuity, and talent for improvisation of its residents,” he concludes.

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I’d agree. And I would second this book’s implication that until Mexico’s ruling elites get serious about reforming the criminal justice system and busting up government-aided monopolies that favor Jurassic institutions and well-connected billionaires, the country won’t reach its potential and is likely to fall behind emerging rivals such as India and Brazil.

For all of Mexico City’s pluck, grit and charm, deftly captured in this wonderful book, the Aztec capital’s fate, as in the days of the Spanish Conquest, hinges on many forces beyond its control.

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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Reed Johnson is a Times correspondent based in Mexico City.


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