Mexico – Land of a million speed bumps

View the photos for Patzcuaro, Uruapan and Mexico City.

I have sympathy for people who get lost in Mexico City.  It’s the kind of place where every street seems to look familiar, there is sketchy sign posting and confusing street layout.  The procedure when arriving at the airport is to go to an official taxi counter, tell them where you’re going and pay in advance.  At least by doing this you know that your driver isn’t going to drive around in circles running up the meter and in theory you have less chance of being robbed.  Mexico City taxi drivers are renowned for robbery which must be like taking candy from altitude sickness affected babies.

To be fair to our taxi driver we were going to an address on the outskirts of the city, a fair way out, but it’s not a good sign when you get in the taxi, tell the taxi driver where you’re going, and he gets out to ask the other taxi drivers where the hell it is.  Despite getting directions our young driver got lost fairly early in our journey before getting himself back on track, but gut instinct will only get you so far in a city as gargantuan as this one.  He must have asked for directions about half a dozen times, most memorably from a ghost.  A large part of our reason for going back to Mexico from Cuba was for the Day of the Dead celebrations which coincide with Halloween so it wasn’t a surprise to see a lot of people dressed up, but when your taxi driver is asking directions from a ghost, and the ghost is gesticulating wildly in a manner that suggests you’re not very close to where you’re trying to get to, it’s discouraging to say the least.  Eventually we stopped at a payphone and rang Isaac at the Gonzalez family home where we were staying and got him to talk to the taxi driver.  Even so he had to stop and ask directions once more as well as reverse the wrong way up a freeway.  We must have been in the car for well over two hours before we finally arrived.  We couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for the driver who was probably going to get into a heap of trouble for taking so long delivering us when he could have been picking up other customers.  His boss rang from time to time and the driver had to admit to being very lost.

Altitude sickness is a strange beast.  No-one can predict who will be afflicted.  It doesn’t matter how fit you are, what gender or what age.  We took it easy the day after we got into Mexico City and had a much needed internet chore day which was very productive but by the time night rolled around Sarah was feeling very unwell.  She was cold (which is not highly unusual) but also had aching bones and started to feel nauseous.  We didn’t even think of it flying in but Mexico City is higher than the highest mountain in Australia.  Admittedly Australia is not famous for high mountains but even so, this is a really high city.  Altitude sickness is much like getting a really bad flu.  In the time Sarah was struck down her symptoms included nausea, vomiting, lethargy, sleeplessness, aches, sneezing, runny nose, diarrhoea, fever, throbbing headache, loss of appetite and a cough.  Individually these symptoms are annoying but add them altogether and it’s pretty miserable.

Sarah threw up for a lot of that night and then gamely got in the taxi we had booked the following morning to take us to the bus station.  This was not going to be a pleasant 20 minute taxi ride but a journey through Mexico City, which in our experience is never simple.  Sarah got in the passenger seat, put the seat all the way back with a coat over her and a scarf over her eyes.  We then went over a million speed bumps.  Mexico is addicted to the speed bump and I tend to think it’s a very necessary traffic control device.  Without them the traffic would be even more insane.  But when you’re not feeling well the last thing you need is constant accelerating and braking over a million of them.  The taxi driver also had a compulsion for changing lanes as though he would find the magical path through all this traffic.  Instead he just found a bus pulling out or some other slowdown.  Undaunted by the way the traffic crept forward, every time there was five metres of space he zoomed into second gear before finding to his shock that he had to slam his brakes on again when the traffic inevitably slowed down again.  This was annoying for me and I didn’t feel to bad.  Sarah just lay quietly being jiggled around in her seat, I’m sure wishing she was anywhere else in the world.

When we finally arrived after about 90 minutes of this Sarah dragged herself to a bench outside the station and lay down with her head on a bad and coat covering her while I went off to sort out the tickets.  We were off to Patzcuaro, a small town to the west of Mexico City famed for its day of the dead celebrations.  It is a little lower in altitude which we hoped in vain would help with Sarah’s altitude sickness.  In the end Sarah spent virtually all of our week in Mexico lying in bed.  Fortunately the hotel room in Patzcuaro had a spectacular view and an open fireplace, so if you had to be sick this was a great place to do it.

We had a pretty quiet time but did drag ourselves out of bed at 11pm on the night of the Day of the Dead to go to a couple of cemeteries.  Day of the Dead has echoes of Halloween but has different roots.  Day of the Dead dates back to before the arrival of Spaniards in the Americas.  The Indian belief is that on this one day of the year their relatives come back from the dead to visit and have a bit of a yarn.  People set up shrines for their dead relatives with something to drink (spirits are thirsty after the long journey from the underworld) and all their favourite foods.  The graves are also elaborately decorated with orange marygold flowers and candles.  Everyone gathers down at the cemetery and spends the night by the grave with a fire going and some warm drinks.  The atmosphere is fantastic.  There are lots of kids running around and at the entrance to one of the cemeteries we visited there were food stalls and trampolines set up for the kids.  To me it felt like mystical camping.  I think it would be a great tradition to have in Australia.  It’s very peaceful and warm-spirited.

In the coming days we went to Uruapan simply because it was 500 metres lower and descending is the only sure-fire cure for altitude sickness.  It was a more industrial and lived in city than Patzcuaro and had a lovely huge park near the centre of town with a river running through it and sculpted waterfalls. On the way there in a taxi we were stopped by the Federales.  These guys don’t mess around.  This guy was standing in the middle of the road packing heat as he waved us down.  As soon as we stopped he questioned the driver, hand on gun the whole time.  Where are you coming from, where are you going, and where are you going after that.  There is a big police presence in Mexico for obvious reasons.  The drug cartels cause a lot of violence.  Luckily we didn’t even see a hint of it but it’s was a sad reminder of the violence plaguing this otherwise wonderful country.

As I took an orientating walk in Uruapan on the first night, in other words, got lost, I noticed lots of political posters for an upcoming election.  Not only were there cars driving by blaring music and voting encouragement, a light plane flew overhead with loudspeakers blaring.  I wonder why they never thought of that in the Blues Brothers.

We got the bus back to Mexico City without incident and are now waiting for our flight to Newark where we will gratefully suck in the oxygen rich atmosphere of a sea level city.

View the photos for PatzcuaroUruapan and Mexico City.

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