Mexico City: Earthquakes, pyramids, and birthdays
Warning: We spent a lot of time in the Ciudad, so this post is unusually long.
Queretaro exits stage left. Mexico Ciudad enters. The massiveness that is city limits of Mexico City can’t really be described without seeing it, driving in it, walking through it, and roaming around it’s subway system. The suburban expansion seemed to have swallowed the mountainous landscape to it’s northwest as the bus inched closer to the Mexico Norte bus terminal. The slums and outskirts of the city are mainly grey block buildings in grey urban neighborhoods and reach out far beyond the city lines up and around mountains along the highway.
After the bus arrived we waited by the main entrance where my old pal Santiago picked us up. He brought us to his apartment located in Las Palmas, one of the more affluent and posh parts of the city. The city is divided up into many zones that each have some unique draw or characteristic to them, and I believe this one was business and real estate. Floor to ceiling windows covered his 3 bath, 3 bed apartment with hardwood floors throughout. It was a far reach from the hostels we’ve been staying at until this point and upgraded our traveling status from copper to platinum. Santi hadn’t quite moved in yet so the oversized apartment felt even larger. He gave us his entire place to ourselves for the duration of the stay, which wound up being 10 days instead of the 5 or 6 planned. Elissa and I gravitated towards doing what we do best and started cleaning the place up like it was our apartment, and even convinced Santiago to start buying living necessities like pots and pans to try and nudge him into finally moving in.
Santi’s aunt and uncle invited us to their ranch in the Pachuca area north of the city. Once outside of the influence of the metropolis the terrain is very flat and sparsely decorated with small towns and roadside taco stands. The Ranch turned out to be a massive, beautiful chunk of land in the valley of a national forest complete with a horse stable, a house for the groundskeeper and his family, and three houses tucked away in the back depths of the property. We were thoroughly entertained by his Uncle’s humor and fed very well. They ran a very successful archeology magazine and sports newspaper in the city and have full-time maids taking care of all the chores. It was my first experience having dinner served inside a home with maids and it felt a little awkward. This was a normalcy to them and a lot of other wealthy Mexico City citizens who partake in the service-based industry. With Elissa’s background experience in the restaurant industry it took all she could to not help clean up the dishes and settings. We stayed up late talking about Mexico City, different must see places to visit in Mexico, and philosophy with his uncle. They gave us a room with king sized bed to sleep in and Elissa and I became lost in both it’s size and comfort. The next day we hiked to the top of the nearby mountain peak and explored a small mining village for some Pastes, a pastry filled with anything from meats and cheeses to fruit and rice pudding. Verdict: delicious.
Our new apartment was a far cry from the convenience of public transportation. The nearest metro station was about a 30 minute walk and the nearest bus stop was about 20. The subway system and Mexico City in general has been portrayed as full of pick pocketing, petty theft, and elaborate money extraction schemes in literature but the truth is we didn’t feel unsafe or threatened for even a minute. The subway system, just like buses, are full of people that try to sell you things from candy, super loud dance music, to earphones between almost every stop. Since we both lived in Boston the subway and bus system was rather easy to get used to (a few mishaps here and there) and brought us into the city for about 25 cents a trip. We found that the biggest danger in the city was car traffic. Drivers here were absolutely mad and crossing the street felt like a real life game of Frogger. Drivers licenses are given without an exam (I was told) which I believe to be true based on our daily roulette game of crossing the road.
On Tuesday morning we experienced our first big earthquake! Being on the 8th floor may have amplified the effects as the building began bouncing for several seconds then swaying back and forth. We looked outside, saw people gathering outside of buildings, and figured we should too. The quake was fairly large and made headlines although I didn’t really see any damage anywhere we went. A lot of older buildings and churches here are listing, sinking into the fill and clay soils they were constructed on from years of earthquakes and just the weight of the structures themselves. Some were not noticeable until pointed out, with massive churches almost leaning over you at the entrance.
We visited the Zocalo one afternoon to check out the street markets and historic center of town to see how much free stuff we could find in the city. Numerous street markets were selling (once again) anything you could possibly imagine from food to fake purses to super glue (our big purchase of the day) all watching for the anti-piracy police to come around the corner. As soon as they saw them, they quickly gathered up their goods and dashed into stores or began walking away, only to return minutes later to set up their shop again. We went into a museum, checked out the cathedral, and wandered into the National Palace to check out some murals. While inside this monstrous complex a troop from the Mexican Army entered the palace with a marching band. We went outside and watched the daily lowering of the flag ceremony in the Zocalo, where the discipline of the marching troops vanished while they scrambled to catch the enormous flag before it touched the ground. We ventured down a walking street swollen with people in the crisp night taking in the night lights of the city.
A few days later we found ourselves in Bellas Artes, a modern museum containing large paintings, murals, and an architectural exhibit. Afterward we hunted down the largest, busiest bakery we’ve ever had the pleasure of being in on the same day after seeing countless Mexicans carrying pastry boxes and wondering where they were coming from. The place was teeming with people and sweets, and after you self-served a small mountain of unexplored items onto your metal plate a boxing and wrapping station was nearby where 20 or so workers packed the goods in a mechanical fashion. We walked over to the Zocalo and ate the entire bag amidst people of all ages flying kites and made a new memory in the process.
Eager to finally check out the pyramids we hopped on a bus to Teohuatican early one morning. We had missed the solstice there, which may have been a good thing because it was very empty when we arrived a few days later. My best descriptive language could never do this place justice and wouldn’t accurately describe the sense of wonderment that you feel when you see what man is capable of creating without modern tools. The amount of effort put into building this city was astounding. Everthing seemed to be flush and squarely oriented astronomically. There were an endless amount of men and women selling the all of the same touristy stuff there at every step of the way. The annoyance of conveying “No thank you” to endless obsidian stones, fake bobcat mouth noisemakers, and necklaces was probably nothing compared to the toil they go through everyday trying to peddle these items. Everything worth seeing in Mexico has some sort of undertone of money extraction in some way, shape, or form and can take away from the experience while being part of it at the same time. But I digress. We climbed the huge Pyramid of the Sun, hung out with our Pyramid of the Moon, and walked around the backside of the pyramid for a view without the drones of people climbing up the overly steep steps. I imagined what this monster must have looked like in it’s time, painted red with hand carved sculptures everywhere, with thousands of devoted natives milling about on this hot, hot day. The view from the top was breathtaking. We saw a mini cyclone pass through swirling up dust several hundred feet in the air before disappearing into the hot afternoon. En route back to the city we checked out the old and beautiful Villa de Guadelupe, as well as the new rock concert-esque stadium built in her honor in the 70’s that can house up to 40,000 devout Christians. After walking up beautiful Spanish style stairs with flower covered archways the peak had some of the best skyline views of the city.
Since our laundry bag was bursting at the seams we killed an entire afternoon and a lot of energy trying to find a Laundromat. Protip: If you want to start a successful business in Mexico City run a functional Laundromat. They seem to be non-existent here mainly because people either have their own machines, know someone who does, or tend to pay someone to do it for them. After several hours we found one and were told our small bag would be ready in 3 days. 3 days is a long time to go without fresh underwear. Luckily one of Santiago’s cousins brought us into his house and we did a load of laundry there while we went to see a documentary at the Auditorio on Leonardo Da Vinci’s exhibit at the National Gallery in London. Culture points.
A day trip to Xochimilco brought us to a yet another massive and amazing street market. We sought out this area to take a trip on one of the many gondolas that leave from several embarcaderos and take you through irrigation channels still present. The city was originally comprised of these waterways fed by a large lake that slowly became filled in as the city grew. We bartered the price down for a 1 hour trip at an embarcadero that was filled with hundreds of brightly painted gondolas, each complete with tables and chairs for it’s passengers. To get to your boat you would walk through several others tied together, kind of like a floating dock comprised of jumbled boats. Once we got onto the water we cruised along watching large families with 2 or 3 boats linked together with rope blasting music, drinking, and eating food they had brought. There were gondolas full of Mariachis trying to sell you songs. Vendors were also out on the water selling everything from beer, food, ponchos, toys, you name it. Elissa and I joked and grinned as we took in all the sights of this cool and unique version of a family get together and wished we could share it with ours. The shores were decorated with flower and plant shops alongside food businesses and homefronts. Romantico.
The next few days were dedicated to the birthdays. Santiago’s college buddy Mike flew in from NYC and both his and Santiago’s birthdays were the previous week. He was a true fish out of water here and seemed to be stuck in the upper west side bubble in life in general, so interacting with Mexican culture was almost non-existent for him. Santiago’s pal from the city also had a birthday, so we spent 2 straight nights in birthday party mode. Mexicans (at least these ones) tend to go right for the hard liquor and drink that all night long. The language barrier is broken by alcohol during the later portion of the night as our interactions were spent laughing a lot more and trying to talk a lot less. Physical humor prevails. After getting to bed around 6 AM we woke up and spent all day setting up Santiago’s apartment for his celebration. We utilized his projector to create a slideshow of pictures I’ve taken of Mexico thus far onto his ceiling, arranged his living room, and set up food and drinking stations. After eating tons of food, playing an intense game of marbles (I’m sure the neighbors were delighted by this), and drinking plenty of libations we found ourselves still awake at 6AM again, and we were thoroughly wiped out now. We needed a full day of recovery before leaving the scene. Monday I was sitting on his couch reflecting over the past week and felt completely content. Mexico City gave us opposing perspectives on life here. We saw the cushy, upscale kind of living in this part of town and hanging out with Santiago’s relatives. We also saw the poorer walks of life here getting by in their day to day shuffle scrounging for pesos. The classes established in this city, and in this country, seem well defined and hard to break out of. It’s a busy city to find yourself in with a more than enough to see and do. I can’t thank Santiago enough for his hospitality and making our Mexico City experience awesome. More than anything our stay in the city brought Mexican hospitality to light. It was stressed to me that Mexicans truly want you to have a good time in their country and that “mi casa es su casa”. This was truly conveyed.