Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mexico 2010

I know this is old hat for some folks who've been to Latin America a million times, but besides border towns, this was a first for me. I was warned by some that Mexico was dangerous. My understanding is that the major violence right now is mostly in the North and particularly along the border with the U.S., such as in Ciudad Juarez. Of course Mexico City is a large city with far more poverty than most American cities, that just makes certain kinds of crime more likely. Hell, if I were living in a Mexico City slum I'd try to rob Americans too (I may be kidding, but at any rate it makes some sense, regardless I would never physically hurt anyone (indeed, I doubt I could physically hurt anyone since I'm an enormous wimp)).


AeroMexico was awful. First, they moved my flight from an early morning flight arriving in the afternoon to an overnight flight arriving early in the morning. I somehow managed to sleep on the way down despite the fact that I was in a row, in front of the emergency exit row, that did now have reclining seats. I slumped over sometime after the awful movie and woke up after 90 minutes or so with a back ache and a crick in my neck. They fed us at 2 AM. Honestly, I'd give up the in-flight meal for a more comfortable flight. Give me a bag of peanuts and a pillow - I'm good to go. Then on the way back, the flight was hot. You know how sometimes the passenger cabin is hot while you're on the ground, but once you take off the air starts flowing and it actually gets cold? Bring on the blankets and all. But, for some reason, it stayed about 85 degrees the whole way home. I mean we were thousands of feet above the surface and it was probably freezing outside, what with hardly any atmosphere and everything. The only way it could have been so hot is if they were blowing in air from the engines or the heater was stuck in the "on" position. The only good thing about AeroMexico? Free booze. After our meal (a ham sandwich by the way), a cart with bottles of whiskey, tequila, rum, wine and I think beer came down the aisle. If you asked, you could get seconds too. Come to think of it, that was probably the only way I managed to sleep on the way out there.

Another couple of notes about the flights to and from Mexico. First, why do neither the Mexican nor the American immigration and customs areas have pens available? Cheap pens or pens connected with chains, like they have at the post office? I did not think to pack a pen on my trip and there were forms we had to fill out. The forms were passed out in the plane and of course the AeroMexico crew didn't have pens either (at least not for passengers; I find it hard to believe there wasn't a pen on the plane). Luckily I was able to convince some fellow immigrants to loan me a writing instrument, or I might have been stuck in the airport forever.

Second, a lot of the people I was traveling with, in fact most of the people who looked like American tourists, were simply going through the Mexico City airport on their way to beach resorts. I can't imagine how tired and frustrated those poor souls were with all the hassle of travel and AeroMexico.

When I arrived in Mexico, I was tired and wasn't interested in attempting to brave the subway during morning rush hour. So I went with an official airport taxi with a fixed rate - I think it was $125 pesos. Cheap by American standards and fairly fast - it helps to have a courageous taxi driver, though the lack of available seat belt in the rear seat was a bit of a concern.

Generally I found taxi drivers were eager to find ways to get extra pesos out of amateur tourists - whether by not using their meter or by using the meter but going in a roundabout way to your destination - this last technique is particularly helpful during off-peak hours. Still, 40 pesos versus 80 pesos versus 100 pesos really comes down to 4 American dollars versus 8 American dollars, versus 10 American dollars for a ride through the city (on one occasion we had 5 people sitting on top of each other on a cab ride) somewhat difficult to complain about for an American who throws down 2 to 4 bucks for coffee and 8 to 12 bucks for lunch in the states.

To avoid the taxi drivers trying to squeeze out an extra 2 dollars from Americans, the subway is a good alternative.  A ride is always a flat rate of 3 pesos (like 30 cents) with unlimited transfers. The trains come every few minutes; I never had to wait longer than 5 minutes. Peak hours, however, are way too crowded and hot for anyone who has the slightest bit of claustrophobia or anxiety. Pick pockets, gropers, and people shoving their way into and out of trains are also problematic at these times. But all other times, if you are heading to one of the many places the metro goes, it is by far the best, cheapest and easiest way to get there; just ignore the people selling pirated software, music and movies.

Hotel Isabel

We stayed at Hotel Isabel the first few nights. I had reservations to stay in the very hotel 3 years prior, but tragic circumstances forced me to cancel my trip. I was excited to make it this time, and the fact that I had just learned that John Ross - the author of El Monstruo - had been living there since the 1985 earthquake made it all the more meaningful. And it was a cool hotel. There was a great bar, a decent restaurant, a nice and comfortable lobby, helpful staff, and nice plants/gardens/courtyard. The main problem was with the actual rooms. I could care less that they were small, that the lighting was crappy and the shower floor was also the bathroom floor. I could forgive the fact that there were mosquitos and it was hot with no airconditioning and the shower was a mere trickle. But I could not live with the uncomfortable mattresses, and worse, the thin, single, pillow on each bed. Perhaps I've grown needy and difficult to please in the years since I slept on the floor of the University of Texas tower during a 48-hour protest, but I need at least a Wal-Mart-grade pillow these days. So after a few days we moved out of the Hotel Isabel and into a new, more comfortable place away from the city center. We still went back to the bar to enjoy karaoke, Cuban rum and the Centro Historico - which I found to be the most interesting part of the city.

The City

The oldest and best part of the city is the Centro Historico - the oldest, central part of the city surrounding the main Zocalo. Rough around the edges, but the most down-to-earth, lively part of the city, full of monuments, history, and cobble-stone streets. It is also the political center of the entire nation. The president's official home is there, though I think he is generally out in the Chupultepec at a place called "Los Pinos;" and the legislative body is there.  The Palacio Nacional is where the law-making happens and we found it to be a really beautiful structure, full of soldiers and, for some reason, tons of kitties.
The Zocalo is also a common place of protest. While I was in town teachers and electrical workers were on strike and camping out in the Zocalo.

A number of streets around the Zocalo are closed off to vehicle traffic, so wandering about on foot is super easy. Though, it isn't clear that jaywalking is a crime in Mexico, whether a particular road is open or closed to vehicle traffic.

The city center also includes a number of old buildings now housing cafes, Sanborn's, and other retail outlets and restaurants.  One of the cool things about a really old city like this is how modern spaces take over fairly ancient edifices.  I didn't go into any of the American chains, but there were plenty around - Burger King and Starbucks to name just two.  To all the moron Americans complaining about immigrants coming to the U.S. to take jobs and resources - you do know that we live in a global economy right?

There are cops everywhere in the city center and beyond. It was actually difficult to tell the difference between cops, soldiers, private security and accordion players. Law enforcement/militaristic uniforms were fairly ubiquitous, whether the individuals wearing them had any authority or not.

There are gay couples in the the city center and beyond. I actually saw more same sex couples holding hands on Mexico City streets than I normally see in San Francisco. The concentration was like the Castro in SF, but the area was much greater.

Food & Drink

I was only slightly weary of eating the food in Mexico. For the most part I didn't think about the common myth that illness is inevitable. In fact I ate plenty of tacos, huaraches, birilla, gorditas and plenty of other meaty, cheesy, fried foods that you can get from street carts and small holes-in-the-wall. I never got sick once and the food was super-good. There was even one stand where the guy had goat heads right out in front that he would bash open to get meat from upon request and toss the brains or whatever on a hot surface for tacos - very fresh I guess, but that was a bit much for me.

One reason for how tasty and non ill-making the food was, as many more seasoned travelers told me, was that Mexico doesn't really have the factory farms that dominate the U.S. food markets. The goats, cows and chickens come from smaller farms where animals roam about, don't get injected full of hormones and antibiotics, and aren't slaughtered in dingy rooms where the entrails of thousands of other animals rot away on the floor. That makes sense. The entrails, by the way, were also in a lot of the tacos in Mexico.

I also got to taste pulque, which my fellow travelers attempted to explain to me tasted like a liquid fart. I actually found it to be far more enjoyable. A little like liquid yogurt, with plenty of flavors, or plain if you like. In case you weren't aware, pulque was the precursor to tequila and does have alcohol, though far less than tequila.

Art, Churches, Museums and Everything Else

I couldn't stop going into churches. The murals and statues and mystery of these enormous Christian temples amazed me. I grew up Catholic, and that is part of my attraction, but I also feel like Catholic churches in Latin America are often some of the most beautiful, elaborate buildings in otherwise poor communities. The fact that in Latin America there is more mythology around various saints and legends is a bonus.

I was pining to see some mummies while down in Mexico also, but went to the museum at San Angel on the one day it was closed. I still got to check out a couple of churches there and also got to see a plaque dedicated to some Irish soldiers who defected to Mexico from the U.S. during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 and were supposedly executed in the village (now part of Mexico City) of San Angel by some filthy American gringos.

El Museo Nacional de AntropologĂ­a is a standard tourist stop, but not at all a tourist trap. It is definitely worth it. The Aztec and Mayan parts of the museum are pretty incredible, in particular the enormous Mayan heads and equally enormous Aztec calendar that may not actually be a calendar are very much worth a visit. Those heads are like the size of 1000 human heads.

Also at Chupultepec Park is Chupultepec Castle. A fairly fancy structure that was once the scene of children jumping to their deaths rather than surrendering to the filthy Americans during the Mexican American war. 

The castle is also the place where Maximilian and his wife lived like European royalty back in the 1860s. The Castle includes a lot of exhibits including a small number of murals - the one with the kids who jumped to their death is pretty incredible.

The pyramids were huge, but in retrospect I think I liked the town nearby and the bus ride to and fro more than the pyramids themselves.   The pyramids were great, don't get me wrong, but they felt a bit touristy, and that watered down their authenticity - at least their feel of authenticity.  The constant sound of jaguars - actually jaguar whistles that dozens of people were trying to sell the tourists - was part of it.

I was also pretty anxious to see some famous murals by Diego Rivera - murals I'd seen in books and online many times before. The huge murals at the Palacio Nacional were pretty incredible, featuring Karl Marx, Frida Kahlo, the Aztecs and a lot of other people. The great thing about murals is that they generally have a lot of people busy doing fairly mundane, yet significant acts. Rather than simply a moment in time, they often represent a great swath of time and even a grand history.

The David Siqueiros murals we saw certainly represented a story of time and history. Siqueiros, who tried to kill Leon Trotsky, has a more demented vision it seemed. We found his murals in a few locations - a random piece guarded by two men near Tlatelolco, a couple more at Chupultepec Castle and a giant, 360 degrees, cavernous project at something called the Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros at the Mexico City World Trade Center. I found his art to be the type you appreciate more the more you stare at it.  I also imagined that he did a lot of drugs.

Speaking of Leon Trotsky, the last tourist thing I did was go to the Trotsky museum - located at the home where he was eventually murdered. I felt oddly calm there, despite the fact that I wasn't sure how I was going to get my stuff and make it to the airport on my own, as my more experienced traveler friend had already left for the military outpost of San Diego.

The Trotsky museum was the sight of a tragedy, but it reminded me of the old friend who suffered his own tragedy and for whom Trotsky was such a role model.

Tragedies - as gut wrenching as they can be - require those who go on in this world to find peace and hope. And Trotsky's museum was both peaceful and hopeful. Peaceful because it was quiet and full of beautiful flora growing about a serene brick and mortar home. Hopeful because it was full of revolutionary history, yet almost everyone I saw there was younger than me and really curious, perhaps wondering what the future of politics, revolution and creativity would bring humanity.

I took a bunch of other pictures while I was in and around Mexico City.  You can find them by clicking here.

I enjoyed spending time with my friend David and meeting his brother, his co-worker and their fellow musicians/family-members.  We got lost once or twice and chased down a party in Coyoacán that seemed to be a near riot of 15-year-old Chilangos by the time we showed up with a bottle of tequila.  So we left, but we still had a good time in the lobby of the Hotel Isabel.