Saturday, December 5, 2009


Getting the attention of a chilango is no easy task. In Mexico City, one's senses are quickly filled to overflowing (it's one of the highs we urbanites are addicted to). So you need something to make yourself stand out. Parking lot attendants wave red flannel flags to entice you in, a giant fuzzy dragon hands out flyers for a discount pharmacy, twin girls in hot pants and sequined cowboy boots shimmy in front of a car repair shop. I once heard a mariachi group celebrating the opening of a street stall selling piles of raw chicken parts.

By my prize goes to this group of young performers promoting vegetable oil on a street corner near the metro stop Hospital General. They're working 4 hours a day, three days a week--at least for now. Luckily there were no free samples. I stayed for a few minutes and watched. Everyone else just walked on by.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Day of the Dead in Mexico (November 1 and 2) is one of the most moving, culturally significant, and visually impressive events of the year. As opposed to the United States, where death is usually a hidden, private affair, in Mexico the entire country engages in a communal exercise of observing and remembering those who have died. It is a defining element of the culture, an expression of a world view that is distinctly Mexican. It is also one of the best times to visit, observe, and learn.

Places such as Oaxaca and Patzcuaro are famed for their Day of the Dead celebrations, but in Mexico City you will perhaps find even more going on. For those interested, here is the link to the article I wrote last year for The News. Most of the information therein will apply this year, too.

Monday, September 14, 2009


If you missed the radio broadcast of Rick Steve's interview with me and David Lida, you can hear it any time on your computer. Click here for the link.

Friday, September 11, 2009


(This is an old post erroneously sent out by my blog on its own volition.
If you're interested in this interview, click here for the link.)

Please join me and author David Lida on 'Travel with Rick Steves' this Saturday, September 12. We'll be talking about--what else--Mexico City. Click here to search for the public radio station near you.

Friday, July 24, 2009


If you've been upset that you missed the Vampire and Werewolf Exhibition at the Police Museum here in Mexico City, take heart--it's been extended indefinitely.

Although it's a bit disheartening that this is one of two blockbuster museum shows of the year (the other was a History of the Barbie Doll), it's another example of the surrealism that makes life in Mexico so exciting. Where else do you find the combination of vampires, police, and happy familes?

Click here to read my review from The News or read the text below.


Day of the Dead and Haloween have come and gone, but fascination with the macabre, violent, and gory aspects of life can be found all over Mexico year-round. The Mummy Museum in Guanajuato, The National Museum of Death in Aguascalientes, and the Museum of Instruments of Torture and Capital Punishment here in el DF are all popular destinations for family outings. Even in church you’ll find paintings and statues whose graphic depiction of the passion of Christ or the saints can make many foreigners shiver.
So when I saw the announcement of a new show at the Police Museum here in Mexico City, my curiosity was aroused. “Vampiros y Hombres Lobos: Mitos y Realidades” (“Vampires and Werewolves: Myths and Realities”) is the follow-up to last year’s blockbuster show “Serial Killers”, which was seen by more than a quarter of a million people. If first week attendance is any indication, the current show will be another mega-hit.
The exhibition consists of a dozen small rooms filled with stage-like diaoramas, videos, maps, and explanatory texts. Mixing legend and fact, the show seeks to educate as well as to thrill. Much of it would have American parents up in arms as overly violent and gory, but the people I spoke to seemed to enjoy it. Yadira and Eunice, both 17, particularly liked the room full of caskets. Manuel and Daniela, a young couple out on a date preferred the vampire babies. Six-year old Maria Carmen hid behind her mother and shyly giggled ‘Si’ when I asked her if she liked the show, leaving me with the feeling that a big old gringo was far more frightening to her than the vampires.
Special attention is given to Mexican vampires, including several from Aztec and Mayan myths, and the famed ‘chupacabras’, that half-man, half-animal bloodsucker that often appears in Mexican newspapers. Perhaps the most shocking display, however, is a full-scale recreation of the kitchen of Richard Trenton Chase, ‘The Vampire of Sacramento’, who was convicted of six murders in 1979. He’s shown eviscerating a female victim, while behind him, the open refrigerator shows grizzly evidence that he didn’t shop at the local supermarket.
The show is largely the work of the family-run Morphix Group, a Mexico City-based special effects company that has worked on many films (among them Mel Gibson’s ‘Apocalypse’ and ‘The Labyrinth of the Faun’). I spoke with Abraham and David Gomez, and their uncle José. “We’re known as ‘the horror family’”, David told me gleefully, “We eat, breathe and sleep horror.” Aside from their special effects work, the company also produces masks and novelty items for Haloween. Two years of research and fabrication went into the current exhibit, and the Gomez family is clearly proud of their work.
“A few people have fainted—mostly adults—and a couple of people came out after seeing half the show, but in general people really like it,” José explained.
“The real monsters are out there,” said Abraham, pointing to the street. “A lot of politicians are using fear these days to control people. We think fear belongs in places like this or in the movies, not out in the real world.”
Luckily, the curators tell us several time-honored ways of warding off vampires, beyond the usual ones of holy water, silver bullets, and a wooden stake through the heart. Wearing red, sleeping in reverse (your head where your feet would normally be), or hiding near a flowing stream will help, and be sure not to answer the door unless you hear three knocks—vampires can’t count beyond two. Once bitten, a vampire’s victim can be purified by drinking the ashes of a dead vampire mixed with a little water. And did you know that Saturday is the best day to catch a vampire? Werewolves can be warded off by salt or frogs, or by hanging a colander on your front door—they’re forced to stop and count all the holes.
There is even a little gift counter out front where you can buy a catalog, or a key chain sporting a bloody, severed fingertip (“they’re hand-made” the salesgirl assured me).
The 55 peso admission (35 for children) makes this the most expensive museum show in town, but it doesn’t seem to have scared away the crowds.
The Police Museum is located at Victoria 82 (near Revillagigedo, metro Juarez). The show is open 7 days a week from 10am to 6pm.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


Frida Kahlo would have done a painting of this news story, although she might have added knives and spurting blood (death by drug overdose lacks her visual punch).
We've been through earthquakes, epidemics, drug wars---and now dead midget wrestlers. Life in Mexico City is never dull.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Mexico City felt very much alive and well last night at Casa Lamm, where 3 new shows were presented. The art was lame (as one often finds here) but the openings are a fabulous look at the world of upper class and art-concious chilangos. The shoes alone make these events worthwhile.

Afterwards at Bar Covadonga, no one in the large, varied crowd was sporting their mascarilla. A group of Spanish-looking older men clacked their dominos in one corner, body-pierced hipsters greeted one another with lots of kissing
as an academic looking middle-aged couple snuck through the noisy crowd. It felt like a big party, and everybody seemed completely at ease.

And we all loved the thoughtful paper placemats (seen above). Where else in the world would the word diarhea appear on your dinner table?

I hear lots of scepticism about why the government closed everything, causing the loss of millions of pesos to workers all over the country. We may never know if sensational journalism created a sense of panic about nothing, or if Mexico's agressive anti-influenza campaign really worked to prevent an epidemic, as some international health officials have asserted. In either case, the cost to Mexico has been staggering.

The New York Times ran a travel article about Mexico that should be passed around the internet as much as possible. Please send it along to everyone you know. The Mexican tourist industry needs help.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


"An image of Christ on the cross -- known as the “Lord of Health” -- was removed from its spot in the cathedral for the first time since 1850 and carried in a procession around central Mexico City. The “Cristo,” as the image is known, has been credited with past miracles, including intervention in an 1850 cholera outbreak."

I took the garbage out last night and decided to take a walk around the block. The usually busy commercial strip across the street was eerily quiet. The newsstand, the juice vendor, the taco and torta stands, the restaurants--all closed. The OXXO convenience store was the only thing open.

I normally greet peace and quiet in the city with pleasure. Semana Santa, Christmas and New Year's Day--these rare moments of urban repose are a real treat. But last night was something else. There was a palpable sadness to it all, knowing that once again during a catastrophe, those who already have the least are the hardest hit.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Here's a tip for the Thai-food-deprived out there--something we just discovered today. Lunch at Thai Spice (Sonora 49, near Durango in La Condesa) had us thinking we were back in Bangkok for a moment. The tom yum soup and the green curry were definite winners, and the lemon grass tea was a perfect beverage. The young Thai chef told us that it's an uphill battle with many Mexicans, who are naturally unfamiliar with the food. So, if you like it truly Thai-style (very hot) be sure and mention it to the waiter. Go for lunch--they close at 8 PM.

The photo is of the Thai House outside of Bangkok, where we stayed for a few days on our last trip to Thailand. They have great cooking classes.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


As you may have read, there's a water shortage here in Mexico City. Taking advantage of the fact that many residents are away on vacation, officials have closed the taps in many areas of the city until tomorrow.
I live in a relatively small building (12 apartments) and I'd guess half of my neighbors are away, so we expect our tinaco (rooftop water tank) to last until tomorrow.
Back in the 1970's there was a water shortage in New York City. I remember mayor Ed Koch on TV, teaching me how to shave. "Don't let the water run. Just turn it on for a second to clean your razor." I still shave that way today.
In the past few days I've noticed a distinct change in my attitude about the stuff flowing out of the taps in my kitchen and bathroom. It suddenly feels precious.
Mexico lacks effective education on environmental issues. I just yelled at my neighbor who was washing his patio, the water flowing heedlessly over the floor. Last week I saw workers in my local park watering the dirt (no plants!). We need Ed Koch, although I think our own Marcelo Ebrard could do the job.
Today Mexico City is in the news. Tomorrow it might be your home town.
Conserve Water. Click here for some tips.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


From an earlier blog post you may already know that my mother has joined the Peace Corps. The following is an article that appears in this week's Atención San Miguel newspaper that will tell you more.

What do you want to do when you’re all grown up?
By Jim Johnston

"Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other."—from Barack Obama’s election-night speech

You’re retired. Your kids are all grown up and have their own lives. Your grandchildren have reached an age where they don’t want to be around you so much any more. Your brain still works just fine and you’ve got too much energy to just sit around playing bridge.

So what do you do?

In the case of my mother, who turned 84 last September, the answer was simple: join the Peace Corps.

It started with a magazine article my sister Eileen noticed and passed on to our mother. The Peace Corps, primarily an option for young college graduates, was looking for older volunteers. I doubt they were thinking of 84-year-olds, but it turns out there is no age limit. So mom went through the slow and rigorous application process and was accepted. She left for Morocco on March first.

She is now in a 3-month training period. Afterwards, she’ll work at a health care center, traveling to nearby villages to educate people about healthy living, pre-and post-natal care, and other related topics. “A glorified mother,” is how she described her new job to me, “I’ll be teaching young people how to take care of themselves. I’ve had a lot of practice at that.”

My mother, Muriel Gluck Johnston, was a wife and mother in New York’s suburbia in the 1950's. She raised six children, buried one, divorced a husband, worked at various office jobs, got her college degree at 65, then moved to Florida some years ago, supposedly to “retire.” She enjoys excellent health, which she attributes to good genes, exercise and a vegetarian diet. Her passion the past several years has been to travel, but something was missing: the need to be needed, a desire to be useful. After a life filled with responsibility, travel and leisure was simply not enough.

“When I was in college one of my friends entered the diplomatic corps and went to Rome. I was envious then and I guess I never got over it. I had passing thoughts of doing something exotic, like joining the WACS during World War Two, or signing with Aramco to work in Saudi Arabia after my youngest daughter entered law school. I filled out a few applications, but I was never motivated enough to mail them.”

My mother was raised to be an independent woman and had role models of strong older relatives. “My paternal grandfather taught me to change a tire and lots of other practical thing girls my age weren’t supposed to know,” she said. “I have a photo of my grandmother Emilie in her hiking outfit: knickers, boots laced to the knee and a bomber jacket. The neighbors were scandalized by her bicycle-riding..."at her age!" they said. This was in the thirties when women, especially elderly ones, were expected to sit in rocking chairs and knit. Emilie was 88 when she died of a stroke, supposedly brought on by altitude change while mountain climbing.”

While there are not many octogenarian Peace Corp volunteers, she’s not the only one. Recently an 84-year-old science teacher was sent to Ghana, and a woman in her eighties is in China. The Peace Corps has realized that mature volunteers are a good balance to the newly hatched college grads who make up the base group. As noted on their website, “Many volunteers find their age to be an asset, as people of developing nations respect and appreciate the decades of work and wisdom older volunteers bring to their communities.”

My youngest sister thinks she is out of her mind, but otherwise mom’s gotten nothing but praise and support. All of her kids get the pleasure of seeing people’s reaction when we tell the news. Pure inspiration is a rare and powerful thing.

While others may have some doubts or fears about such an undertaking, my mother does not. “It’s never occurred to me to be fearful, or to worry about being sick or alone. In all my travels, concern for my safety never entered the picture. My only reservation is the ability to learn the language. I’m still not sure what it will be, probably some tribal dialect of Arabic. Memorization has never been my strong point, so I hope it won’t hamper my efforts. But in general, I’m thrilled. I wake up in the middle of the night lately giddy with excitement.”

Go to / to catch up with Muriel in Morocco.

Jim Johnston, artist and writer, is author of Mexico City: an Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler. He has written articles for the Christian Science Monitor and the The News (Mexico City) on food, travel, vampires and opera. He lives in Mexico City with his partner Nick Gilman. His blog is; his website is

The Peace Corps

To learn more about the Peace Corps, visit

The website has general information and even online applications, but the links to videos and hundreds of volunteer journals are perhaps most interesting.

The Peace Corps traces its roots to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged University of Michigan students to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship. Since that time, more than 195,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in 139 host countries to work on issues ranging from AIDS education to information technology and environmental preservation. Today’s Peace Corps works in emerging and essential areas such as information technology and business development, and committing more than 1,000 new Volunteers as a part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Peace Corps Volunteers continue to help countless individuals who want to build a better life for themselves, their children and their communities.

Notable former volunteers include Paul Theroux, author of Mosquito Coast (Malawi 1963–65), musician and novelist Richard “Kinky” Friedman, (Malaysia 1967–69), Taylor Hackford, producer An Officer and a Gentleman (Bolivia 1968-69) and Chris Matthews, host of NBC’s Hardball (Swaziland 1968-70).

Thursday, March 26, 2009


I was asked by the folks at to comment about safety in Mexico City.
Click here to read the article.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


This article in today's New York Times by prominent Mexican intellectual Enrique Krauze is well worth reading:

Saturday, March 14, 2009


By coincidence, two blogger friends recently wrote about their favorite Mexico City hotels. I'm often asked to recommend a hotel ('buy my book' is the quick answer), but here are tips from some folks-in-the-know about where they like to stay in the city.

Click here for Deb Hall's advice on her great travel blog.

Click here for David Lida's tip--one of many on his intriguing DF blog.

I asked my friend Patrice Wynne who leads tours to Mexico City. She offered options in the centro histórico at three price categories, low to high--

The old stand-by Hotel Isabel, The reliable Tulip Inn, and the elegant
Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico

I've also had thumbs-up reports on the following places: NHHotel (centro histórico),
The Stanza Hotel (Colonia Roma), and
The Red Tree House (Colonia Condesa)--it gets booked up fast these days.

Check this link for a list of cheap hotels in Mexico City.

Be aware, especially in older hotels, that rooms can vary greatly in terms of street noise and ventilation. Ask to see more than one room if you're not happy with the first.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I'm blogging twice today as I've received requests on this topic several times lately.

For anyone living outside Mexico, relying solely on newspaper coverage for your impressions of daily life here, the situation looks dire.

While news of drug violence may reflect a certain truth about Mexico, it does not reflect the whole truth. In fact, for me and just about everyone I know here, it greatly distorts the truth.
I live my life without fear in Mexico City. Friends who have visited have been pleasantly surprised at how delightful it can be. I receive frequent emails from people who have used my book or read my blog telling of positive experiences.

The following two blog entries say it even better. Read on:


My career as a writer has taken a new direction--freelance writer for 'The News', Mexico's English language daily newspaper. I've been writing about whatever catches my interest, mostly cultural topics related to Mexico City. I'm scanning my published articles and putting them on my website, or you can click the links below to go directly to some of my recent articles.
(You may need to use the plus or minus signs on the toolbar to make it a legible size.)
Book Review Interview with a singer Writers in San Miguel de Allende An apartment in Colonia Roma Architects in San Miguel

Monday, March 2, 2009


The Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo is the hottest new thing on the art scene here. But I'm going to take a break and let another Mexico City blogger tell you about it.
Here's the link. (the link may not work from an email message--click onto my blog)

Catherine's blog, 'Small Fish in the Big Taco' is also great for anyone interested in traveling in Mexico. She goes to some smaller, lesser known places, takes great photos, and
has infectious enthusiasm and detailed insights into where she goes--check it out.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


The monthly magazine INSIDE MEXICO calls itself the 'The English speakers' guide to living in Mexico'. It's been around for a few years now in paper format, but just this week launched it's on-line version. Even if you don't live in Mexico, you're bound to find something interesting here. You can sign up and get it delivered on-line for free.

Take a look at my favorite segment of the current issue. Yes, I'm biased, but I think the
guy in this video is pretty cute--

Thursday, February 19, 2009


One attraction of living in Mexico City is its constant capacity to surprise me.

El Distrito Federal has just registered the first birth certificate for an adult who has changed sexual identity.

In August of 2008, the city government passed legislation making it legal for transsexuals to request a new birth certificate showing their new sex.

This, along with recent laws liberalizing abortion and providing legal rights for non-married and gay couples, puts Mexico in the vanguard of world opinion about personal freedoms of expression, belief and sexual orientation.

Next time you find yourself in a conversation about how backward and third-world Mexico is, think of this.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Being an ex-New Yorker, I'm used to travelling by subway. Mexico City's metro system is smaller than New York's, but cleaner, quieter, faster, and cheaper (2 pesos or about 14 cents at current the exchange rate). I do find that most riders are a few inches shorter than me and a few shades darker. 'Gente nice' generally don't ride the metro here--their loss in my estimation.
One of the joys of a metro ride is the non-stop action of passing musicians and vendors. All sorts of things are for sale, from gum and candy to pirate cd's and dvd's, sewing kits, tools, socks--almost all of it selling for either 5 or 10 pesos. I got a great compilation of marimba music recently, which I'm sure will come in handy for a party one day. Last week I got a little envelope of 10 band-aids, perfect for tucking into my tote bag.
Today I bought a tiny book entitled 'Correspondencia Comercial, Oficial, Social y Familiar' which explains how to write letters correctly in Spanish.
My friend Erika once told me that there is no such thing as a one-page business letter in Mexico. You need most of the first page for the 'saludos', and most of the second for the 'despedidas'--any real concern gets buried somewhere in the middle.
Etiquette plays an important role here in Mexico--thank God! The US seems frigid to me now--even 'sir' or 'madame' have become outdated. Here you can choose from distinguido, estimado, apreciado, muy estimado, señor, señora....and muy señor mio or muy señora nuestra. And don't forget maestro or licenciado for anyone with a college degree or high professional position. You know where you stand on the social ladder more easily here, which makes balancing on it less difficult.
If I hadn't taken the metro I would not know (as I now do) the correct form to request a patent, how to get a permit to install a motor to run my corn mill, or one to set up a carousel at the next Tres Reyes festival. And all that for just two pesos!

Thursday, February 5, 2009


I had an interesting conversation last night with my friend Veronica who works as an economist for Luz y Fuerza, Mexico's mammoth, beaurocratic utility company.
"We find it funny how Americans are so shocked by the economic crisis. Mexicans just respond with "oh, another one?" We grew up with a crisis every few years, so we've learned to roll with the punches. Suddenly everything costs more, so you buy less, you have fewer things, you're in debt again. Ni modo! The sun still shines and you can always afford fresh tortillas."

Ni modo is a phrase one hears often in Mexico, which roughly translates as 'Whatever', or
'There's nothing I can do about it, so why get upset?'. If you live here for even a short while, you'll find yourself using it frequently. Here's a link to a blog that discusses the pros and cons of this oh-so-Mexican attitude toward life.

Monday, January 26, 2009


One of the most intriguing things you see in Burma (or Myanmar, if you prefer--I don't) is the use of thanaka,
a paste made from ground tree bark that is used by women and children (rarely by men) as a combination make-up and sun screen. Sometimes it's just a dot on the nose, an imprint of a leaf on the cheek, or a more elaborate design. Sometimes it's just smeared on haphazardly. Here are a few images of our trip last month.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


The Wall Street Journal has just published an article about Mexico City entitled

The World's Greatest Food City?

The author Stan Sesser was shown around town by our good friend Ruth Alegria, who
gives customized culinary tours of Mexico City. Check out her website (
and her blog for more information.

(And, of course, don't forget Nick's book and blog).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Click here to see Nick's list of The Top 10 Mexican Food Blogs.

It comes from an interesting site that has a long list of Top Ten
blogs, including Top Ten Pregnancy Blogs, Top Ten Blogs That Will Boost Your Happiness,
and Top Ten Britney Spears Blogs.

Click here to see their whole Top Ten list.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


Click here to read my review in 'The News' about an unusual show that opened last month.