travelog 79

Mexico City

Ten-lane highways and chaotic traffic, skyscrapers next to huge green parks, a world-famous museum, slums that crawl up the hills, colonial architecture next to Aztec palaces in ruins, labyrinths of markets and expensive shopping arcades; all that and much more is Mexico City.

Varying with various criteria and measuring methods, Mexico City is something from the second to the tenth largest cities of the world. At an altitude of 2240m (7350 feet) above sea level it is also one of the highest country capitals of the world. The Zocalo, the famous main square in the center of the city, has an area of 57,600 square meters (14.2 acres) and is one of the largest public squares in the world. In October 2006, 13,446 chess players established another record for the Guiness Book of Records, playing chess at the same time on the Zocalo. On May 6, 2007, the American photographer Spencer Tunick took pictures of approximately 18,000 naked Mexicans in the Zocalo. Who would have thought it? It was a record for the photographer who's maximum had been 7000 naked people in Barcelona, but certainly an even bigger record for the ultra-catholic Mexico.

We really detest large cities, but if you have such an important visitor from Switzerland (our bridesmaid!), you try to fulfill her wishes. Since Maggie would be visiting around Easter time, it was clear from the beginning that we wouldn't, under any circumstance, go to the beach. Around that time of the year, particularly in the Semana Santa, all Mexicans who can afford it, drive to the beach with their whole clan. That's exactly the time when big cities like Mexico City are supposedly "empty". At least according to what was told us by Mexican friends. Of course it's impossible that a city with about 20 million inhabitants would ever be empty, but we content ourselves with half empty. For people experiencing Mexico City day in, day out, Semana Santa in this city must feel like heaven with almost no cars in the streets and almost no people in the metro, but we still feel pretty restricted by the crowds. Although we don't have the visual feeling of an empty city, we can certainly feel it physically. In the four days we're strolling through Mexico City, we don't experience the normally omnipresent smog. No burning eyes; no itching mucous membranes; no troubles breathing. It certainly feels like some millions must have left the city with their cars.

We start our visit in the center of town, on the Zocalo, a huge square that was already used in the Aztecs time. Zocalo means base. In Mexico, the main square of a town is often called Zocalo, and here's the story behind this one. In 1843, the then president Santa Anna wanted to erect a monument to Mexico's independence. After the base of the zocalo was built, they ran out of money. The monument was never finished but the people started to arrange to meet at the base and finally the name Zocalo stuck and since then almost everybody in Mexico knows where the Zocalo is. There's something going on here every single day. Groups of tourists in shorts purposefully march over the huge square. Aztec chiefs dance with feather head-dresses for a pittance. Tarot readers attract customers. Lopez Obrador's followers proclaim their message. Street traders sell colorful balloons, batteries, kitschy souvenirs, and fruits with salt, chile and lime juice in plastic bags. Photographers offer their services. And twice a day you can observe the hoisting up and lowering of the Mexican flag. Soldiers are brought in on big trucks. In strict order, they march to military music to the center of the square where they slowly lower the huge Mexican flag. Then they march back and disappear in the National Palace and life continues as before. On this square you can experience the colorful bustle of Latin American life up close.

The Zocalo is surrounded by many impressive buildings. For example, there's the cathedral with its clearly crooked facade. That's because Hernan Cortes built Mexico City on the ruins of the Aztec city Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan was built on islands in a large lake and water problems were regulated with an elaborate system of channels. The first European visitors to Cortes's newly erected city called it the Venice of the New World. In the course of time, the canals were filled up, the lake bed was drained and more buildings erected. Water was, and still is in some neighborhoods, pumped up from aquifers. Now these dried up aquifers collapse and Mexico City sinks. In the center of town it's about 2.5cm (1 inch) per year. In areas with many wells from which water is pumped it can be up to 50cm (20 inches). In the 20th century, Mexico City sank about 10m (33 feet)! That not only makes facades look crooked but also causes streets to break up. Estimates are that about 40% of the water used in Mexico City seeps away from leaky pipes. To get into the cathedral, you first have to fight your way through street vendors selling catholic souvenirs and beggars, although there's a huge sign saying that the cathedrals atrium is no flea market. As so common in Mexico, everybody thinks that these signs are meant for someone else.

The National Palace, erected in the place of Moctezuma's palace, is open daily and can be visited with a valid passport or an identity card. Particularly interesting are the murals by Diego Rivera in the staircase to the upper floor. Between 1929 and 1945, Rivera painted the history of Mexico on these walls. Aztec rulers; the landing of the Spaniards in Veracruz; famous presidents; different indigenous tribes; the legend of Quetzalcoatl; typical crafts and markets; the eagle with the snake in his beak sitting on an Opuntia cactus, the symbol of Mexico; even Frida Kahlo can be spotted in a crowd of people. In a large patio away from the main entrance, we find the botanical garden that was announced on a sign. Agaves and yucca trees are huge. Crassulaceae and a few cacti grow in between. Aloes are flowering and Kalanchoe daigremontiana reproduces unstoppable. The gardener is fascinated when we tell him that most of the plants growing in his garden are from Africa and no real Mexicans!

The streets behind the National Palace are lined with tall buildings. Street traders convert them into one huge flea market where you can find everything from socks to underwear, pirated CD's and DVD's, Chinese calculators, plastic flower arrangements, batteries, nail clippers, cook books, sex magazines and much more. When the city was excavating for a new metro station in 1978, remains of the Great Temple that was distroyed by Cortes were discovered on the north side of the Zocalo. This is another attraction in the center of town. High-end stores are located on the other side of the Zocalo, particularly along Avenida Madero. We're very fond of the bookshop Madero that has an excellent collection of natural history books and works on Mexican and Mesoamerican culture. The owner and his employees seem to know every single book in the store and bring more treasures from dark back rooms. Here, you can spend hours leafing through beautifully illustrated books. Unfortunately books are still a luxury article in Mexico and extremely expensive. If you're tired from all the strolling around you can relax in one of the little street cafes and restaurants in that area. You'll always find a bargain and it's a perfect place for people-watching.

It's no problem at all to spend an entire day in one of the many public markets in Mexico City. We decide on the Mercado Merced, a market easily reachable by metro. By the way, riding the metro is a very interesting and recommendable way of getting around in Mexico City. The city's metro, thanks to subsidies, is not only the cheapest worldwide, you also get around with it really fast. On average about 4 million passengers are transported daily on its 180km (112 miles) long network. The metro was the first in the world to mark the stations with colors and symbols to enable the many illiterates to use it too. The first two cars are often reserved for women and children during rush hour. This really is enforced by guards and gates. Not a bad idea considering that one sometimes gets into unpleasantly close contact with other passengers. The subterranean passageways are organized like highways for people. Signs show in what direction to walk and which side of the tunnel to use. Another part of the metro is the vendors and musicians. It's mostly kids selling chewing gum or pens. The latest, though, seem to be young people who get into the car wearing a small backpack droning out their sermon. Then they start a CD player and from a small loudspeaker that is integrated in the backpack booms the worst music you can imagine. Ok, it's probably not really bad but because the vendors always stand right beside us we have to put our hands over the ears to survive the noise. The CD's, of course all pirated, can be bought for 10 Pesos. We're often tempted to give the vendors 10 Pesos to keep them out of our car! It's the same with the old men, too, who accompany their cacophony and romantic songs with guitar music. It would be best to pay them to make them stay away from your car.

Back to our visit to the Mercado Merced. Merced is a metro station conveniently located beneath the market and when you climb the stairs you stand in the center of this huge market and are surrounded by a constant noise and exotic scents. Vendors shout after you, recommend their goods, offer a small sample. Young men cut and fold banana leaves into squares. In one row countless varieties of dried chiles are offered from large baskets. Garlic and onions in all sizes and colors can be bought next door. Orange mangos tempt us but the price per kilo doubles if we want to choose the fruits ourselves. Huitlacoche, corn smut, a fungus growing on corn cobs, is a delicacy in Mexico. The translation of huitlacoche, raven excrement, is not very appetizing but we can assure you that this Mexican truffle, as the black fungus was called before, is very tasty in quesadillas, tacos or scrambled eggs. The fungus, seen as a pest in the US, has been eradicated there a long time ago but in Mexico huitlacoche obtains much higher prices than corn itself. Another stall tempts with colorful sturdy plastic bags in which you can bring home your purchases. Hundreds of those bags in all sizes and colors hang from the ceiling and you're overloaded with choice because the woman selling them insists on showing you her entire stock. Then white cheeses are stacked one on top of the other. Pig heads and feet hang from thick hooks. Intestines lie on a counter. Halved cattle are manoeuvred through the crowd on wheelbarrows. Fruits are stacked high to colorful pyramids that threaten to collapse with one wrong reach. You'll smell the cooked food sections from far away. Here, the noise and the shouting are louder because the waitresses in the many fondas recommend their daily menu all at the same time and in loud voices. They recognize hungry tourists at first glance and we're besieged by all of them. Chiles rellenos, deep-fried chiles with a cheese stuffing are appetizingly arranged on green leaves. Differend stews and soups simmer in large beautiful ceramic bowls. Even the coke bottles and the other colorful sugary waters are lovingly arranged. Aguas frescas are offered from huge glass jars. It's mostly horchata, sweet rice water with cinnamon, or hibiscus, melon, lime or guava flavored water. All of them taste extremely refreshing after a shopping spree through the market.

Later, we stroll past colorfully patterned plastic fabrics. Maggie carries around a purse on her travels that she once bought for a lot of money in Berlin. Exactly this same fabric is offered here for peanuts. We get some differently patterend fabric for Maggie so that she'll be able to sew her own purses and pouches in the future. Again and again we stop to look at interesting and unknown fruits and vegetables. The vendors are always very helpful and explain what we're looking at. The pungent smell of fish and a cleaning agent announces the seafood section. Squid and octopus lie between ice. There's huachinango, red snapper, and other fish in various sizes, and shrimp too. Then we pass more fruits and vegetables and if you've finally seen enough of all of this, you simply walk over the pedestrian bridge over an 8-lane street and disappear on the other side in the Mercado Sonora. First you come through the medicinal herb and the witchcraft section. For every little complaint and every illness there's an herb, a root, or a bark to cure it. If you have personal enemies or are even lovesick, all that is easily remedied here with dolls, black magic, bewitched candles, garlic cloves and other witchcraft. Next you come to the live animals. You'll pass shops where bird cages hang up to the ceiling. Unhappy parrots squawk while other colorful birds flutter around in too small cages. Reptiles and tropical fish are sold. Kittens and puppies are irresistible with their huge eyes. Chickens and turkeys sit in the dark. Colorful spray-painted chicks in a cardboard box are bagged in paper bags and offered to children. Everything's for sale here, only taking pictures seems to be forbidden. This place is no real fun, not for our eyes and the consciences, but also not for our noses.

If you have finally had enough of the noise, the bright colors and the exotic smells, there's still another place with a huge craftswork market. Systematically we walk all along the many rows of shops in the Mercado Ciudadela where everything from colorful ceramics from Guadalajara and Dolores Hidalgo to bright bead embroidery of the Huichol, ornately painted pumpkins from Guerrero, blown glass from Jalisco, black ceramic from Oaxaca, textiles and clothes from southern Mexico and Guatemala, onyx and alabaster Aztec heads, salad servers and mortars from granadillo wood, shell key chains and much more Mexican craftswork is for sale. Bargaining is considered good form!

Of course Mexico City has much to offer in the nightlife department too. We recommend the Plaza Garibaldi with its mariachi musicians. The quarter around the Plaza Garibaldi is run down but the small square is nicely done with a big fountain in the center and statues of mariachi players on the columns surrounding it. After you've survived running the gauntlet past the various restaurants around the square and sit at a table with a cold beer, the next commotion starts. It seems to us that there's an uninterrupted stream of musicians parading before us and offering their services. Politely, as we copied from other Mexicans, we put them off until later but somehow we have the feeling that they take it literally and after the first round stand in line at our table again. We stay and watch the pushy waiters running after potential customers rattling off their menu. The English version of the menu of our Taqueria La Simpatia is very amusing too. Pozole, a traditional soup from Jalisco, is described as NO HOT. Tortillas de harina, flour tortillas, are phonetically correctly written down as flower tortillas. Another specialty is Roast Hoof. We assume that they mean a pork knuckle. Now back to our musicians. As soon as they find a victim, often a large group of young people or a couple in romantic mood, they try to outdo each other at fiddling. That's how we enjoy the mariachi music for free although it's at times a little loud when you have to listen to three groups on three sides playing different songs. On our stroll around the plaza we later linger a little and listen to the various bands.

Another popular area is the Zona Rosa, the hotel and tourist zone. Bars and restaurants line a pedestrian promenade. At night loud music booms from loudspeakers. Young people sip colorful drinks from tall glasses. Here, the beer can easily cost up to 35 Pesos, triple the usual price. You can buy pirated CD's but also jewelry and woven bracelets in Rasta colors. Particularly conspicuous are the many homosexual couples, only males as we note, who stroll around hand in hand, kissing and cuddling.

Another evening excursion brings us to Coyoacan, famous for having been Frida Kahlos place of residence. The small streets are overflowing with people. They sit and chat in front of cafes, or lick an ice cream. There's absolutely no getting through the main square on this mild Sunday evening. Crowds of people throng over the square in their Sunday best. Vendors sense business and clowns enchant families. We fight our way through a small craftsmarket where everything is for sale that we have seen in the other market though a little more expensive. The jacaranda trees have bright purple flowers and the air is pleasantly mild and warm. We finally find a small restaurant where we can sit outside and where we're almost the last customers being served food. Of course this is an excellent place to go about our favorite activity: people watching. Returning back to the hotel turns out to be very adventurous. We push and shove our way into one of the many overloaded buses that service a metro station. When we finally get there we're told that we have to get into another bus because the metro on this stretch isn't running right now. At least we're transported for free. Unfortunately we're not the only ones on this bus and we have to endure more pushing and shoveing. At least they closed one of the lanes for exclusive use by the busses and we make progress fast. After an eternity and umpteen kilometers later we're finally let out of the bus. We have to walk around 20 corners and then change metros twice. There's always something going on in a big city!

To enjoy Coyoacan by day too and without all the commotion, we spend another morning there. At 10 AM we're in front of the blue house at Londres 247 with a few other people. Through the door we get into a beautiful shady garden with huge flowering jacaranda trees. Everything is green and overgrown. Stone benches and antique sculptures break up the greenery. The rooms of Frida Kahlo's house are all colorfully painted. Postcards, her own paintings and works of famous artists and friends adorn the walls. The kitchen is decorated with Mexican ceramic. You pass Frida's bed with the mirror above and her studio. In the back you climb down some stairs from a small balcony passing a cooling fountain. By now bus loads of German and French tourists have arrived. A reporter looks for visitors who can and want to explain in Spanish what Frida Kahlo personally means to them. We have a quick look at the souvenir shop and leave soon for the main square where we sit pleasantly in a cafe. Hernan Cortes's former palace and residence now serve as municipal offices. Along a side road the house in which allegedly lived La Malinche, Cortes's lover, slowly falls into disrepair. It's still a tranquil place on a normal weekday.

After four days on foot through this mega-city, we have had enough of all the trudging and leave the Moloch on its southern end towards Cuernavaca to see the archaeological site of Xochicalco. After Teotihuacan these are the second largest ruins of prehispanic origins around Mexico City. We'll tell you about them another time. It's impossible to visit Mexico City when it's "empty" but the Semana Santa is an ideal time. The Moloch feels emptier than usual, museums and shops are open, the Zocalo overflows with life. In a few words; you don't have to do without anything and are able to enjoy all the sights at your leisure.

May 2007

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen