By Gus Wendel, MURP ‘17
I was asleep for most of my 4.5 hour flight to Mexico City. Of course, the night before I had waited until the last minute to pack my bags, clean my room for the subletter, and waste time checking email and Facebook. I arrived at Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez feeling refreshed, yet disoriented. I’d like to think I would have spent those long hours on the plane planning my next move: how to get from the airport to my apartment, where I should exchange dollars for pesos and how much, where I’m supposed to pick up the key to my apartment. But if I’m honest with myself I’ll know that some things about us never change, in this case my travel anxiety-induced procrastination.
It wasn’t the itinerant details of my trip that kept me up at night. After all, I was here just a few months ago with a class. You’ve done this before, I reassured myself. But this time was substantially different. Aside from working with a colleague for the first two weeks, I would be on my own for the remaining 8 weeks, without the support of a full classroom of students and instructors. It’s on me to see through this public space project developed in collaboration with Laboratorio Para La Ciudad, Mexico City’s Urban Laboratory. What if I really don’t know what I’m doing? What if my mediocre Spanish proves a burden to my colleagues? What does this gringo from rural Oregon know about youth’s experiences in urban public spaces in Mexico, much less in the context of one of the world’s largest mega-cities? What if I fail?
There is something to be said for plunging yourself into a situation for which you are filled with doubt. It’s akin to the feeling when you are kid, and you wait, and you wait, and you wait, to jump off the diving board. Better not to think about it too much. The water is safe, and it feels good once you’re in it, even satisfying. It’s as though our fears are our imagination at its best, our primal instincts working against us.
Taking the plunge was how I felt at my first day of work. The Laboratorio office is on the 2nd floor of an intimidatingly beautiful, historic building in El Centro. Like many buildings in the sinking city, its floors are slightly warped, the supporting columns tilted. The giant office was eerily silent, even though there was an employee at each of the 100 or so work stations. I suspiciously walked around until a tall man in a suit approached me. Que estas buscando (What are you looking for)? El Laboratorio para la Ciudad (The Laboratorio para la Ciudad). ¡Bienvenido! Este es el Laboratorio (This is the Laboratorio). Unsurprisingly, the lab staff were gracious and welcoming. I was encouraged by their patience with my stumbling Spanish and their enthusiasm for my project, which builds on the “Peatoniños” Play Street program for kids and adults to play and experience the city.
At one point I was asked by an intern where I was from. I said “America”. The intern nodded. It took me a moment to realize my mistake, “I mean, No. Yo soy de los Estados Unidos”. She smiled, then asked what I studied.
Taking the plunge seems accompanied by an increased likelihood of making mistakes, often at the risk of offending someone. I am reminded by the utility of luck in getting through life’s daily mishaps and mistakes. But I’m also reminded that humility and effort go a long way, and that to the degree that we are in control of our actions and beliefs, recognizing our positions takes constant work and awareness. The water feels good once you’re in it, yes, but at some point you have to get out and start all over again.
My first few days in CDMX have been simply amazing. There is so much to see and do I am almost overwhelmed. It’s one of those cities where you could spend a lifetime and not see, experience everything. Same goes for the food, which I’m having a love affair with and don’t expect will end until I must fly back to LA in September.
Some photos from my first few days: