Prologue: From the Center Outwards

The idea to do this project started two years before I first set foot from San Francisco Tecozpa in Milpa Alta November 1st 2009. I was 37-years-old. I had just resigned my job as investigative reporter of a Mexican business magazine where I had worked for 3 ½ years. I had a wife and two children and a pleasant apartment in an increasingly fashionable neighborhood. I had used part of my severance fee to buy a big wall map of Mexico City. Though I felt pretty confident that by now I knew pretty much how the Mexican business world and media worked, I had done little what might be called social reporting. Reality was still eluding me. I felt I was living in a bubble, which is surprisingly easy for a journalist to do.

I had been in Mexico City for seven years and returning to the megalopolis from some trip and seeing the city lights from the windows of a plane or bus I felt that I was arriving home. And so the edge of the city took on a special significance for me, as the frontier marking that sense of belonging.

I first toyed with the idea of doing an artistic project on parts of the edge of the megacity. I would collect some very ordinary objects, bottle caps, shards of broken glass and perhaps a brick or two from the edge of the city, map with great precision where I had found them, put them in a glass case and be a conceptual artist. I would naturally write about them in detail, ask photographers friends to make glossy pictures of them and so I would put the skills I had learned in corporate journalism to use, inflating the importance of something so insignificant that it always remained unnoticed. But somehow I felt that something was lacking.

By the time I went to an exposition of the artists Stefan Demming (Germany) and Wonne Ickx (Belgium), who between them did an exposition on the edge of the city in the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City in 2007, I had already decided that nothing would do justice to the topic but covering the whole edge and not just the cardinal points. And though I was at first jarred that somebody had already done a conceptual artwork on the edge of Mexico City, after a while I saw these coincidences as affirming rather than competing. I felt that something on a greater scale and more journalistic in its focus was still valid. Beyond that I was still steeped in corporate media culture and felt that a mass audience should be reached, sponsors should be found and a brand should be created. I decided that what I wanted to do was a 19th century expedition on foot around the circumference of what I felt at the time might well be the world’s largest city (though I soon discovered that Tokyo had since superseded Mexico City in size).

In November 2007 I took a compass to my wall map of Mexico City and made a rough calculation of the distance – 400 kilometers – though I would later realize that all the zigs and zags of the city’s edge greatly increased its length. I invented and copyrighted a name for the project which I thought was catchy – Mexpedicion. I asked the head of graphic design of the magazine I worked for to design a snappy logo. I had a photographer partner on the project, Adán Gutiérrez, and we’d go out into the field and report and take pictures.

We printed Mexpedicion t-shirts in what we supposed were fashionable colors, sold them to our friends and spent the money on beer, taxis and tacos. We sought out corporate sponsors reasoning that our business bona fides were solid after working for this business magazine. The enormous size of the market represented by Mexico City and the unique opportunity for identifying one’s corporate logo with the identity of the capital of country should have been irresistible.

We had some success. Coca-Cola de México gave us a donation, which was wisely invested in a trailer for the documentary to be made by Mexico City filmmaker Alan González and his team at Mariachi Films so we could get even more sponsors. The remainder was spent paying crew who had been working for free. Thank you for that Coca-Cola de México. I also visited Agustín Roji of the canonical Guía Roji maps of Mexico City. After hearing me out this businessmen explorer kindly let me choose what I wanted from his map shop. I used the Guía Roji on my walk around the city and I can assure the reading public that it is very accurate and strikingly detailed.

Íñigo Barandiaran, a Basque sound engineer who would record sounds during the walk, participated in the project. We had a policeman who would arrange logistics and security. My promotional efforts took me from the glistening corporate offices of soft drink companies, to the consideration of vaccination campaigns with health consultants, to the television channel of the State of Mexico to government offices, to architects and galleries.

By 2009 Mexpedicion’s budget had swollen to 4 million pesos and the Mexican economy collapsed. The whole project became impossible.

So finally I had to do it by myself, without photographer or camera crew or head of logistics and security. A friend in the police force sent me a list of 52 high-risk colonias on my route. Nonetheless my previous visits had somewhat reassured that things might not be as bad as rumor would seem to indicate.

By 2009 my uncle Vianney de Jong had kindly donated a part of his inheritance to me with the assistance of my father Bernard de Jong.

I had prepared the project by interviewing academics, doing stories and going to places on the edge of Mexico City. I made the 100-kilometer pilgrimage with the people of San Francisco Tecoxpa in Milpa Alta. I arranged for my mother Trude Smoor to visit and help take care of my children, Kepler and Chandra, and help my wife Alma López. I calculated that it would take about 40 days to walk around the city.

Over the course of the rainy season 2009 I chose a date and place for departure. My trip would start when the rains ended. I chose the Day of the Dead, the 1st of November, when I was pretty much guaranteed a rainless walk. I also wanted to start in a place that I felt was safe so that I would also be returning to an area I felt was safe.

San Francisco Tecoxpa is a small village of the indigenous Nahuatl people, the last of the Mexica of the Valley of Mexico in the southwest quadrant of Mexico City behind the volcano Teuctli with its high terraces of cactus plantations. I made arrangements with Odilón Jiménez, “El Chorri”, leader of the bearers of the church images in the pilgrimage from San Francisco Tecoxpa to Chalma, for a place to stay at the beginning of the walk.

I decided to start from San Francisco Tecoxpa in Milpa Alta, walk over the shoulder of the small Teuctli volcano along the flat wetlands of the astern edge of Tláhuac. Then I would curve into the 6 volcanoes comprising the Sierra de Santa Catarina between Tláhuac and Iztapalapa and from there onwards to Valle de Chalco in the State of Mexico.

The 31st of October I said goodbye to my family and left my home in the late afternoon to go to San Francisco. I walked to a local bookstore to buy a children’s book for Odilón’s children. By coincidence I met my good friend Lonely Planet writer John Hecht, who did me the favor of driving me out to Xochimilco. I saw it as a favorable omen. I carried with me nothing but one small grey single-strap backpack with a laptop, a change of clothes, some memory cards and copies of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino and The Narrow Road to the Interior by the 16th century Japanese poet Bashu.

As night fell over the city a taxi brought me down the long dark urban corridors of Xochimilco, amid the glimmering streetlights, winding through the hills over into the rural cluster of villages Milpa Alta. We listened to tropical music on the radio and discussed local customs. Finally, through half-lit streets the taxi passed the freshly painted colonial church of San Francisco Tecoxpa, a village that in Aztec times was known for its nahuales or shape-changers.

I paid the taxi driver and stepped out by the floodlit church in the empty dark streets around the village center, with its painted facades and signage. From there I walked to a house with a large metal gate, built up against a hillside with a few lights glimmering up in the windows and a paper lantern model of the village church hanging over the courtyard.

The bearers of the images on the village pilgrimage to Chalma over the mountains and volcanoes of the southern valley of Mexico every third of January – all young strong men – are like the village’s militia. Odilón “El Chorri” Jiménez, also known as “El Bárbaro” in the Toluca wholesale market where he sells his crop of nopales, is the sergeant-at-arms, the leader of this militia.

In his early forties with bristly black hair and fierce slitted eyes and built like volcanic rock, El Chorri is a proud, funny, vain, immensely strong, devoted, capricious, cruel, clever and hospitable Mexican. He and his wife are intensely devoted to each other and share a playful ferocity. A simmering aggression and commanding presence make him a fearsome leader of bearers of the church images, as he manages discipline in the organization of their column over the 100-kilometer march to Chalma. And the only people who do not seem secretly afraid of him are his wife and children.

On the pilgrimage to Chalma a novice participant has to stop and dance around a huge old willow tree with a spring below it before reaching the village. Hence the Mexican expression that if you are really in trouble not even dancing in Chalma will help. Before the dance the novice must be crowned with a garland of flowers. El Chorri was padrino of my crown on my first pilgrimage to Chalma in January 2009. He gave me my nickname in San Francisco, Mister James, and I don’t think he knows my real name.

He was to be my host on the first night of this expedition.

The steel gate creaked open in the quiet of the village night. I heard the voice of a woman in the dark above.

“Mister James.”

Under this lantern and black night sky my voyage had begun.