Monday, October 23, 2006

Trip to Mexico City - A Journal Entry

A trip to Mexico City

I want to share with you my recent and pleasantly surprising trip to Mexico City. As always, travelling through the non-touristy way is much more enlightening, adventurous and enriching while also being cost-effective and safe.

Last August, I was at a loss where to go with my expiring Delta Airlines voucher and my daughter Charmaine suggested I should try Mexico City. I said I don’t like to go there. It’s like going to the Philippines: hot, humid, heavily polluted, dense with people, goons and corrupt, big-bellied policemen. She asked whether I was racist (she has several Latina friends). So for another $48, I booked a “red-eye” to Mexico City and then picked a Mexico City guidebook.

I went to SFO airport on the midnight of August 18 and immediately thought it would be a bad day. The airline clerk said I am allowed only one hand carry (I had two backpacks, the smaller one was filled with 5 lbs of grapes and other snacks). I told him I was never told at the ticketing office about this limitation. And I started getting irritated. I thought these people are just as bureaucratic as government workers. Any way, I argued my case and the clerk called his boss. They said that it was AeroMexico’s policy. I explained that I’ll have enough time to eat all the food on the flight to Dallas and put the daypack inside the large one. So I was let go.

All the way on the flight to Dallas I was still unsettled about going to Mexico City. I thought I should just stay in Dallas and drive down to Houston to see Charmz’s godfather. Or cut short my stay in Mexico by staying in Dallas for a day and spend the rest in Mexico City. At the Dallas airport, I went to AeroMexico’s waiting lounge and saw as expected mostly Mexicans. With all the stereotypes we have been hearing, seeing and reading about, I have all these preconceptions telling me not to go. Anyway, I finally went and joined them when the boarding call was made.

The flight was smooth and took about 2.5 hours. It was early morning. The city view from the plane showed a vast valley ala Los Angeles but bigger. I was expecting hassles upon arrival at the airport but nothing of the sort. It was quick. I guess my “buenas dias” with a smile worked with the immigration lady. Outside there were many people but not as crowded as back in our old country. I started using my forgotten Spanish words: “donde esta Zocalo”…”Quanto…” They worked! I asked about the taxi fare to the El Centro or Zocalo, about $20. I thought of walking but I asked a salesgirl how far Zocalo is, I was told 4 miles, so the cheap me walked to the metro station and took the train. To my surprise, the walkways and streets to the Metro were clean, the underground metro stations were neat; it seems you can lie down and sleep, really! Beats BART and downtown SFO or any Bay Area city.

The train ticket was 1.50 pesos (13 US cents). Wow, it’s exceedingly cheap. I asked the station police for direction and took the appropriate train. To my great surprise again, the train cars are clean, no graffiti, no trash, seats are clean, well lit. On a transfer station, I asked a guy for direction. Surprisingly, he went along and accompanied me through two transfers till the last one. I asked him “Como se llama usted ? “ Donde tu trabajar? Etc.” It was fun digging some Spanish words from my memory banks filled up during college. He is salesperson for Telemex. I gave him my box of cookies, there goes my snack-lunch and asked for his address so I can send him a 49er shirt. The Zocalo metro station underground is surprisingly clean.

Upon reaching the top of the stairs, one immediately sees Mexico City’s well-known “Catedral Metropolitana” –the largest in South America; and the vast Zocalo Square, said to be only smaller than Moscow’s Red Square (Zocalo is at the center of the city). I asked for the Hostal Monada –a youth hostel-and found it within a two blocks. It was full. The host told me to check out Hostal Catedral (that’s how it’s spelled) in which I was able to get in. It’s only within 100 feet from the back of the Cathedral. The 5-floor hostel is clean, modern interior, well lit with an internet cafĂ© and bar at the ground floor, a kitchen and veranda at the top floor! Great view -almost half the square and the rest of the surrounding streets and buildings are seen. Hostal Monada may have been quieter than Hostal Catedral but there was not much street noise, no honking of horns. The Aztec dancers started about noontime at the square.

After unloading my stuff in my room, I went for a walk but keeping within the four blocks from the square as recommended by the guidebook. The sights were filled with truly large, block-sized, quaint centuries-old buildings, a few dilapidated, apparently abandoned by their rich owners. Most of the buildings have retail or commercial businesses. I went to the city’s West side which was clean and walked into a couple of old churches. The streets were busy but not noisy, lots of small businesses, with peddlers at intersections roasting corn-on-the-cob or making what looks to me as “binatog” without the ground coconut as in our old country. On the sidewalks I checked the pictures and publications being sold and saw a lot of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Ended up in the East side public market and found it too crowded like any Philippine market place and turned back. The locals are physically built quite different from the Mexicans we see in the US. The locals are more like the Indians we see in the movies: shorter brown, with long and flowing black hair, etc. In comparison, Mexicans in the US, mainly from northern Mexico, are mestizos.

For dinner, I went for a rotisserie chicken, and got bread and orange juice from a large panaderia that sells baked goods, has an eatery on the side; dinner was 27 pesos ($3). Then I went to the hostel veranda and had my dinner. A white guy from New York introduced himself, and said he was a college instructor at a Black school in Georgia and was doing a paper about Latin America. We started to have a pretty interesting conversation about racism, rednecks, guns, etc. until the mosquitoes start bugging me. He was still talking. I excused myself.

Went back to my room and met my roommates: two Americans and a Dutch, all young guys in their 20s. After conversing about where, what, when and looking at maps we decided to go out altogether to eat (another dinner for me) to a 24-hr restaurant named “El Popular.” So we walked to El Popular. One of the us asked who are we all anyway? So he introduced himself as Mike, apparently Jewish and history teacher from New York. He has been throughout Mexico in the last 2 weeks; Dennis from Phoenix is a student and part-time adventurer –said he has been in fishing vessels from the bottom of the western hemisphere to Alaska, and plans to go down to Guatemala by Sunday. Michel the 6’4” Dutchman is working for his Masters (marketing) and will fly to Honduras thereafter. We had our orders brought in, I had a good, hot and spicy chicken soup and beer –all of us had beer. BTW, in ordering beer, I selected “Corona & Victoria” and they all laughed. Apparently, it’s either-or. I had Victoria then. Total bill for us four was 134 pesos; so we gave 150 ($17).

2200 hrs. The night was still young and so we headed for Plaza Garibaldi where all the mariachis are supposed to hang out. I haven’t seen mariachis except in a movie and CD covers. The plaza is past the 4 blocks mentioned in the book. Lazaro Cardenas is a main road to the Plaza and still busy. One starts seeing colorfully attired mariachis along the street negotiating with the car drivers and/or party goers. The mariachis are for rent for any shindig; about $200 a night or at the plaza, $10-15 a song. On the way, we looked at CDs that sell for 15 pesos, DVDs for 30 pesos. We bought fresh coconuts which were opened for us, drank its water to which a shot of local vodka was added, all for 10 pesos. The nuts were mature,not young ones so their meats are wasted.

The plaza was amazingly packed with mariachi groups and spectators or tourists. We estimate about 200-300 individuals belonging to several groups. A group can be 8-12 people. People approached us if we wanted to hear them play. Several bars lined the plaza, so we went to one mariachi bar. The bar was full and music was really loud as we watched people dance to the music. It was actually a family atmosphere. Apparently, that place did not have women-for-hire –nobody said we were looking for them anyway. Back at the hostel, we spent an hour talking and chasing mosquitoes, since we left a window open. Mike was headed back for New York early in the morning.

Saturday morning, I decided to check out the Palacio Nacional, the Catedral Metropolitana and others. They surround the Zocalo. The Palacio Nacional is huge, deep and occupies one full block. It was originally built by Hernan Cortes back in the 1500’s, destroyed by pro-church rioters in the 1624 and rebuilt four years later. It is the official presidential palace but recent presidents prefer the second residence at Chapultepec

This palace is heavily guarded by soldiers. In fact, one feels safe at Zocalo, with the numerous police in riot-gears and soldiers around the palace and the Zocalo and throughout the blocks I have walked. You need a photo-ID (driver’s license does) to leave with the soldiers guarding the entrance. On the walls of the second floor, Diego Rivera has painted murals showing Mexican history, from the Aztec times, through Spanish brutal conquest and exploitative colonization, the fight for independence from the Spaniards and the civil revolution of 1910-1920. The murals indicated the anti-Catholic (a priest ravishing a woman) and Marxist leanings of Rivera and if one spent some time studying them, they’re quite instructional about Mexican history, and impressive.

The big Cathedral was built out of materials from the ruins of an Aztec pyramid demolished by the conquerors then located at the now Zocalo plaza. It took two and a half centuries to finish it. The foundation is on soft soil (reminds one of Pisa or Venice) and the structure is sinking unevenly; so the government worked to prevent further deterioration. I still saw some structural support on the columns inside the cathedral. Inside, the sides has 14 chapels, a choir at the center separates the main altar from the naves. 

It’s remarkable that the main altar has a 25 meters high large wooden carvings background filled with saints, angels, etc and painted in gold. I noted even the small and old churches I visited have similar gold leaves. One of the chapels has a vase containing the remains of Emperor Agustin de Iturbide, who led the fight for independence against the Spaniards. The churches are similar to ours in the Philippines (expectedly since the Philippines and Mexico were former Spanish colonies).

I also went to visit a small church Iglesia y Hospital de Jesus Nazareno located south of the Zocalo. It was the first hospital built by the conquistador Hernan Cortes whose remains are on a wall at the altar. The church, as in the cathedral, has the Black Nazarene. Reminds one of Quiapo. All these churches/cathedral feature the “Virgin Lady of Guadalupe” who has apparently been fused with Mexican identity. A big deal every 12th of December throughout the city and country.

Sunday, I decided to see the famous Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan. I took a train to the central bus station. The North bus station is large, clean and not chaotic. The bus ride is about an hour and costs 21 pesos. It was quite a pleasant ride, not crowded and the bus was air-conditioned. It was Sunday and the museum is free! So I saved about 27 pesos (all museums are free on Sundays). At first sighting from the entrance to the site, one sees a site so vast and amazing and one immediately feels deep appreciation and admiration for the history and heritage of the Mexican people. They ought to be proud and I think they are.

The structures were supposedly built between 100 BC and 250 AD. North to South, the site is about a mile long and a quarter mile wide. The largest and tallest structure is the Pyramid of the Sun at about 70 meters high, bottom is about 220 meters square. It’s now a World Heritage Site and its maintenance and protection is supported by this international organization. It’s good it was not completely obliterated by the Spaniards. Conquerors, here, in Europe and elsewhere in the world tend to destroy the heritage and culture of the vanquished. The latest being the destruction of the Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan by the radical Islamic Talibans.

I started to walk towards the big Pyramid of the Sun which apparently was most popular since it has the most people, climbing up and down. The first level stairs were wide and easy but gets narrower from the second level and higher. The steep climb from the ground to the first level was easy. The next one to the second was steeper tough. I estimate a 35 degree or more slope. I felt my knees weakening fast and almost buckling and I had to reach for the rubber railings. Upon reaching I sat down for about 25 minutes and mulled whether I should continue. 

I was almost ready to go back down but I noticed much older people with infants continue up. So I said to myself: if they can do it, I should be able to. And I was already there, I might as well do the job. I took an aspirin (helps blood flow and prevents clotting)to improve breathing. The climb to the third and the top levels was slow because of their narrower, smaller steps and the large crowd of people. It was like an uphill, stop-and-go procession. Finally I made it and felt having accomplished something. I have pictures to prove it, hehe.

The view at the top was great. Seeing the vast ancient settlements, the architecture, the design concepts. One thinks of the genius of the Aztecs.I did not climb the other smaller, less ascended, pyramid. The Mexicans really ought to be proud of their ancestry. Apparently, they have some superstition about the pyramids and so they go there like pilgrims. On the bus ride back to the city, I noted the houses at the outskirts of the city were of concrete bricks, unpainted, indication of its share of poverty but apparently not as bad as back in the Philippines. No nipa huts so far.

Back in the city that Sunday night, I decided to catch and observe a Mariachi Mass at the Cathedral, that is, music provided by a mariachi group. And true enough it was and a bishop said the rites. It was pretty impressive. The cathedral was packed with lots of old and young people. I noted the religiosity and faith of the people from their active participation. One downside I felt was the way the bishop addressed the faithful each time: “Hermanos”, I thought that he was still macho, as the Latin culture still maintains, for not addressing the women folks. Anyway, the experience was memorable. I like that feeling of belonging when they have that “peace be with you” line.

The following day, I flew out of Mexico City thinking that I had a very pleasantly surprising vacation. I told Charmz when asked that I enjoyed my trip and she said, “See!” I brought her a couple of Indian-made necklaces. I have begun to have a different viewpoint about and better appreciation of Mexicans across the border. I surely will go back again to Mexico City and maybe stay a little longer.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

The Filipinos People and LAND MUST BE REUNITED With our Mother Country; Spain.

The Spanish united the islands! Gave us Religion! Took us out of the Stone Age!
Provide us with Technology! A REAL Culture!

The Filipino Islands is in shambles. The Filipino People CANNOT Govern themselves! WE NEED THE SPANISH TO RULE OVER US to provide much needed Stability.