Mexico City – Part one

 View the full set of Mexico City photos here

My abiding memories of Mexico City will be traffic, food and amazing hospitality.  We stayed with the family of friends Sarah made on her year of exchange in Calgary.  The Gonzalez’s have a beautiful house in a gated estate on a golf course in the northern part of Mexico City.  Getting from the airport to their house is a bewildering course through Mexico City’s labyrinthine road network where the indistinct lanes are owned by whoever shoves their way in first.  It’s more like Formula 1 driving than what we know in Australia.  I don’t know how you would even begin to navigate your way through the city but luckily we were very kindly being driven by Adriana, Sarah’s friend from Calgary, to a dinner with the Gonzalez family at a local restaurant.

And what a dinner.  Kicked off with tequila for me served in a tall glass and accompanied by salt and cut lime and another glass filled with a piquante tomato drink.  Sarah and I then had muy typical soups based on tomato with shreds of tortilla and corn.  Next we had steak cooked on the bone served on sizzling plates, the idea being that you cut the meat from the bone, slice it and sear it on the super hot iron plates, much like what is used for sizzling Korean food in Sydney Chinatown’s food courts.  This seared meat is then used in tacos with super fresh tortillas, freshly made salsa (three varieties of different heats, one of which was pounded together in a mortar and pestle at the table), beans, guacamole, fresh lime.  It was very tasty especially with a nice Spanish red that Mr Gonzalez brought along.  Then for desert a very nice cheese flan for me and dulche de leche pancakes for Sarah.

Then it was back to the Gozalezes place for a bit of slow dancing to an old jukebox playing classic Mexican tunes in the bar.  We definitely were not slumming it.

The next day Adriana again kindly drove us, this time to Teotihuacan where ancient pyramids are located.  These pyramids were built from 100BC to 250BC.  They were used for ceremonies of an astrological nature, one linked with the sun and one with the moon, although they are starting to think that the sun temple might have been for water sacrifices.  These pyramids are grand structures, only excavated in any major way in the early 20th century.  Before that they were blending nicely into the landscape by disguising themselves as hills covered with dirt.  Mexico City is interesting in this respect. In the year 1500 it was four times bigger than London with a population around 200,000. It has a long history and could have been the Rome of the Americas if the conquistadors weren’t so thorough in burning cities to the ground.  The foundation myth of Mexico City is that the cities founders were told by the gods that they needed to build a city wherever they saw a eagle eating a snake on top of a nopal cactus.  If you ask me, an eagle eating a snake on a cactus in Mexico is not going to be all that rare.  Eagles must eat snakes while sitting on a cactus all the time.  Still, as foundation myths go it makes for a good tshirt.  Unfortunately for Mexico City the eagle they spotted eating a snake happened to choose a problematic location for building a city – a swamp.  Mexico City has a history of sinking and the original founders had to invent new construction techniques to cope with the tricky terrain, techniques which the Spanish later adopted when they started erecting buildings here.  The massive growth and expansion of Mexico City also caused problems when the slums started literally dragging the city down.  As you fly in to Mexico City you can see the slums climbing up every available hill.  It looks like spreading mould.

Back to the pyramids at Teotihuacan, people still climb up and try to draw energy from the sun at certain times of the day by holding their arms in the air.  I was drawing a fair bit of solar energy for the whole climb up.  The pyramids are ringed by a cobblestone road which you clatter around to get to your preferred parking lot.  On the way random men will throw themselves in front of your car with very serious looking “you must stop your car” body language.  These guys are touting the local restaurants and want to give you a flyer.  They honestly almost kill themselves to deliver this information, then as you inevitably clatter past their inauspicious restaurant more guys try to guide you in front of their place as though you’re navigating a jumbo jet in to dock.  Their dedication is admirable but we had lunch in a cave.

It seems very Mexican for there to be a restaurant in the sort of cave that in Australia could be a tourist attraction in its own right.  The poor waiters have to climb up and down stairs all day balancing a ridiculous number of plates on a tray held up in one hand while they use the other hand to balance themselves as they navigate the stairs.  It’s a high risk time saving strategy.  The kitchen must curse when they drop one of those trays.

The next day we visited the centre of Mexico City, which is an effort in itself.  You can either leave at 6am to beat the traffic (and that’s 6am sharp – any later and the roads start backing up) or try leaving much later at 10am as we did. Even at 10 it’s slow going as I guess happens in any city of 21 million or so people.  Mexico City is the largest Spanish speaking city in the world and in the top five cities population wise in the western world.  It’s not surprising that the roads are full.  A good trip from the Gonzalez’s to the city takes an hour.  In bad traffic you’re looking at two hours and in really bad traffic you probably give up and turn around.  Mexico City has more sites of interest than you can poke a stick at, but given our limited time (we were about to fly off to Cuba) we could only do a few things.  First on the list was walking up to the Zocalo which is a big-ass plaza flanked by the national palace, the cathedral and the very interesting Templo Mayor.  Templo Mayor is an ancient ruin which was only excavated to any serious degree in 1978, quite late to be digging up the major ancinet temple of this city, but as with many cities built on the remains of other cities, the practicalities of day to day living tend to override archaeological interest.  The ruin even has a relatively modern brick water tunnel running through the guts of it.  This building was too important to ignore any longer and, while they are still excavating it, the ruin has become a tourist attraction in its own right, slapped down in the heart of modern day Mexico City.  It’s quite creepy because at this temple they performed a lot of human sacrifice.  There are serpent statues and an enormous statue of skulls, just in case anyone was under a misapprehension about the place when the priests invited them around.  Sarah got an audio guide which repeated what was printed on all the information boards but in worse Spanglish, so we didn’t leave with a totally in depth understanding of the place which the subsequent museum with only Spanish signs didn’t help to illuminate.  I would suggest wikipedia is greater source of in depth knowledge than I will be.

We also missed a guide for the Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace but to my mind these amazing paintings do a good job of explaining themselves.  The murals take on the not insignificant task of depicting all of Mexican history. They are amazing artworks with a simple vibrant style, yet so detailed and rich with colour and stories.  They are all magnificently rendered but the centrepiece takes the cake by attempting to sum up the modern history of Mexico with one massive, jam packed mural extravaganza and it works wonderfully.

The Zocalo is a huge square garnished in spectacular Mexican fashion with giant golden bells made from glittery gold paper and oversized flags fashioned from the most glittery non-precious material money can buy.  All this was to celebrate 200 years of independence from the Spanish, 1810 – 2010.  I guess they’ve left the decorations up because they just look really good and cheer everyone up.  Either that or they cost a bomb and they want to get their money’s worth.  At some point they will have to stick that 12-foot high fake bell in the decorations box until the next big anniversary rolls around.

Mexico City is the first place that either Sarah or I have taken one of those open-air tour buses.  We were just too foot-sore for more wandering around looking at landmarks so the bus seemed like a better option, but by the time we got on the bus we really only had time to do one circuit, so no hopping on and hopping off.  The trip gave a good overview of the landmarks but perhaps our initial experience on this type of bus would have been better in a city not renowned for having some of the worst traffic in the world.  The bus crawled around in the hot sun with sparse and patchy commentary about what is a very lively and interesting city.  At least now we have an idea what we want to see next time, which is not so far away.  Our return flight from Cuba is returning to the Mexican capital.

At the end of the day we got a ride home (and it did feel like going home) to the Gonzalez’s house with their nephew who is living with them while he studies for his diplomatic credentials.  Isaac is a new breed of Mexican workaholic in a similar vein to the life we left behind in Sydney.  Isaac is working full time in the Mexican foreign ministry but to be posted abroad he needs to pass a test.  Most of his spare time is consumed with studying the broad range of information considered necessary to becoming a rounded diplomat.  At least he got to practice some English with us, but it was very kind of him to drive as home and take us to dinner, as his average day consists of leaving for work by car at 6am, which all being well with the traffic takes around an hour.  He then takes a French lesson from 7am to 9am, works a full day, and drives home at 7pm to study.  The fact that he was so generous with his time despite this workload is an indication of the kind hospitality we were shown.

Dinner was fantastic.  Just a little fast food taco joint where they whip up small chicken, meat or cactus filled tacos (soft shell of course) which you then fill with your choice of toppings and salsas which are permanently on the table.  It’s incredibly quick and tasty fast food.

Flying out we joined Isaac the next morning on his work run at 6am to beat the traffic and make it to the airport in plenty of time.  We also wanted to check on a missing checked bag that we totally forgot to pick up off the carousel (if it even made it that far).  It had some medicine and toiletries that we had planned to take to Cuba, but as an extra bag it got left behind in our efficient but zombie-like airport routine on arrival.  Getting back a bag lost from a Mexican budget airline, especially one full of lots of goodies, was always a slim chance, but they were very nice about it.  We stocked up on a few more donations at the airport pharmacy and settled in for the short flight to Cuba.

 View the full set of Mexico City photos here

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