KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Everything we had read and heard about Mexico City had warned us of the pollution, the traffic congestion and the high crime rate. We weren’t at all sure we even wanted to subject ourselves to the worst Mexico has to offer, but we needed to go to the capital in order to get a direct, and reasonably affordable flight to South America. The Lonely Planet had warned us of all the serious problems awaiting visitors to Mexico City, but also said ‘its bark is worse than its bite’.
We allowed ourselves five days to see the art of Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera and to book our flight to Santiago, Chile, and then we planned to get out in one piece with our lungs and wallets intact.
I may have mentioned that we met a young Frenchman staying at the same B&B in Guanajuato that we stayed for our first two nights there. When we mentioned to the Pita, of Casa de Pita, that we were heading to Mexico City eventually, she told us that Thomas operated a Casa of his own in La Condessa, a trendy part of the city. We spoke to him briefly and got the web site address of Casa Comtesse in order to see if it would suit our needs. Thomas speaks very good English and is fluent in Spanish, so he seemed like a good bet. The website was only in Spanish and French, but we liked the looks of the Casa and wrote to book five nights there. The price was within our budget, although we would have to share the bathroom with the guests in one other room.
Once again, we boarded an ETN bus and settled in for a comfortable four-hour ride from Morelia to the capital. It’s great to see the scenery, and I was looking forward to entering the city as I did know that it was situated in the middle of a large ring of mountains, a sprawling metropolis of over twenty million people, I couldn’t imagine how such a large city could function in such a compressed area. We arrived from the west, and climbed over some low mountains, with a fair amount of trees and other greenery covering them. I expected to see shanty towns climbing up the sides of the hills, but didn’t realize that we were approaching the city from the best possible side and in actuality, we were passing through some of the better suburbs where the upper classes live.
When you travel independently, there are always glitches that present challenges many others would not be prepared to face. I handed the taxi driver the address in La Condessa, written out on a small file card, and he nodded and loaded our luggage without a moment’s hesitation. We set off through wide, leafy streets that reminded me very much of the French Concession in Shanghai. It was just after noon and the air was warm, but not hot and the sky was blue above us. We had seen a brown haze of pollution as we entered the city, but it wasn’t an alarming sight, no more that we’ve seen in Toronto, New York or Mumbai. We were at our destination before we knew it and we looked for a sign for Casa Comtesse to no avail. I finally saw an intercom on the building we were standing in front of, with the name ‘Thomas’ beside the number eight button. It was then I remembered that Thomas lived in a large three-bedroom apartment and was really just renting out the extra bedrooms to guests, so of course there was no official sign. No problem.
Actually, there was a slight problem, no one answered when we rang the buzzer. What to do? I did have Thomas’ mobile number, but no phone. These are some of the obstacles we face when we move from one place to another. We did have the mobile we bought in India with us, hoping that although it couldn’t be used in Canada or the US, it might work in Mexico. No such luck. We had been able to use it in Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, but not North America. We stood outside the door wondering what to do when at last an elderly resident took pity on us and let us into the building. We arrived at the door of Thomas’ suite but no one answered our knock. A minute later, a family arrived for the apartment next door and we greeted them with big smiles and friendly hellos. I boldly asked if I could use their mobile to call Thomas, and they kindly agreed.
Thomas answered immediately and apologized for not being home. He thought we would arrive in the early evening, even he had not heard of Morelia and thought it was hours away from Mexico City. He sent the maid, Anna, over and she helped us to settle into our large comfortable room. Once again, a major hurdle was overcome. In planning our own travel details, we find the challenges difficult at times, but in the end we usually land in a great situation. Staying at Thomas’ home and getting to know this wonderful young man was another of our great experiences. The next five days were delightful and so was the city we were about to discover.
While I did know that Mexico City was situated in a ‘bowl’ and that this was one of the reasons that the air pollution had reached fearful levels in the late 1990s, what I didn’t understand was that the original inhabitants of the region had built their capital on a small island in the middle of a shallow lake. The Mexica-Tenochtitlan peoples (Aztecs) believed the center of the universe was located here, after seeing an eagle with a snake clutched in its beak. They built a temple on the island and over the course of many years, expanded it several times, after it was damaged by flooding and earthquakes. The temple became a magnificent site, with the main pyramid structure topped with one altar to the god of agriculture and the other to the god of war.
In order to accommodate an ever-expanding population, they sunk wooden beams into the soft mud of the lake bottom and using the beams to support soil deposited on top of the beams, they enlarged the small island and created a virtual garden dedicated to food production. They were expert astronomers, and the major streets were centered on the north-south and east-west axes’. Small canals between the growing areas, aligned along a grid pattern, provided access to the fields. It is believed that there was a population of over two hundred thousand people living in the region when the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s.
Much has been written about the defeat of the Aztecs by the Spanish, about how this was carried out by just over five hundred men with sixteen horses. I won’t go into all the gory details here, but I will note that the Spanish aligned themselves with many of the indigenous peoples that the Aztecs had trampled on and had the added benefit of the fact that the Aztec chief thought Cortez to be a god, long felt to be due to appear about that time, and welcomed him into the heart of the city. Cortez made short work of slaughtering the citizens and conquering the region. The temple of Tenochtitlan was demolished, and its stones were used to construct many of the colonial buildings standing in the historical district today.
Now, the reason that I described to you how the Aztecs enlarged the island was so that you would understand what has happened to the city because of this unusual construction style. When the Spanish took over the city, they filled in the canals to make streets for their horses, drained the lake, and continued to build their city outwards. The bedrock lies far beneath the sandy soil and there was little support for the huge stone buildings they constructed. The buildings have been sinking for centuries, as much as ten metres in the last hundred years alone, and many of the historical structures lean at the most peculiar of angles. Some have been abandoned, while others are at serious risk of collapse. Because of the inconsistencies in the underlying soil, the buildings are not sinking evenly. One program has been undertaken to remove soil under parts of buildings that have not sunken, in hopes that the building will gradually level out.
Many of the mountains around Mexico City are volcanic. The unstable base for the city has meant that earthquakes have caused catastrophic damage in the past. Instead of just heaving up and down, the ground tends to roll and buckle making it impossible for buildings to withstand. The neighbourhood where we were staying, La Condessa, used to be considered one of the best regions of the city until a massive earthquake damaged a large part of it in 1987. Those who were wealthy enough to leave, moved further west up into the surrounding hills, leaving the district largely abandoned. It is only recently that people are returning and renovating the buildings, opening charming restaurants and nightclubs. There are few if any hotels in the area, and this means we didn’t bump into other foreign tourists every time we turned a corner.
One of our first tasks was to find a foreign language bookstore where we could buy a copy of Lonely Planet Chile, so after a brief rest in the afternoon, we set off on foot towards the centre of the city. Anil didn’t think it was too very far to walk, so we followed the map in our guidebook and passed through some of the most beautiful parts of the city. As we neared the historical center, we walked along a huge thoroughfare, lined with trees and sculptures of the heroes of Mexico’s past. The distance was much, much further that we had thought and we were exhausted by the time we arrived at the bookshop, only to find that they were all sold out of the book we were looking for. We enjoyed the cool evening air and the lights of the city but decided to take the metro home. We had been very much warned of the dangers of taking a taxi at night.
Now, I was getting pretty cocky about taking the metros in new cities, after all, we had held our own in Shanghai, Tokyo and New York. New York had been quite a challenge and we had survived to tell the tale. I wasn’t even too put off by the fact it was the busiest time for commuters to be travelling home. We just walked up, purchased a ticket and passed through the turnstiles liked we were locals. I find that metro maps are pretty easy to follow, once you have seen a few, and we quickly figured out which train to catch, and which platform to stand on. As we came down the stairs, we saw a train was at the platform so we hurried towards the first car in order not to have to wait for the next train.
As we rushed to enter the open door of the first car, a guard let me pass, but stopped Anil and directed him into the second car. I turned to join him, but the guard pushed me back towards the first car and shouted at me to hurry. I jumped aboard just as the door started to close. I was fine, but I worried that Anil would panic at the separation. He doesn’t usually read the maps or pay attention to what’s going on, he just leaves the details to me and follows along confident that I know what I’m doing.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Now just a minute… who handles the foreign money and does the mental math to pay the bills? Who makes our flight bookings and does the research for places to stay? I guess we are a team!!
Luckily, there was a window in the back of the metro car and I could see him standing looking at me, with a grin on his face. I waved and indicated he should watch me and I would signal him when it was time to get off. It was going to be a little complicated as we had to switch lines part way along, but if he got off when I did, there should be no problem.
As we travelled along, I noticed that there were only women in the car I was in and reasoned that perhaps the Mexico City metro had segregated cars for men and women to prevent harassment and discourage petty theft. Who knew? At last we arrived at our station, and I let Anil know we were to get off. When the train stopped, the door opposite the one I entered was the one that opened, but I wasn’t too alarmed, as I had seen this before elsewhere. In some metros, this is done to reduce congestion on the platforms. I got off and looked for Anil but couldn’t see him. When the train pulled away, I saw him standing on the opposite platform, he’d gotten off the train on the same side that he got on. Now this was a puzzle.
Looking around, I could see that I was on a platform between the lines going in opposite directions. There was no overhead walkway, but there were stairs going down. I spotted a guard standing nearby and mimed to him that I needed to get over to where ‘mi esposo’ (my husband) was standing. I pointed to the staircase with the sign over it ‘salida’ (exit) and he shook his head. Then he mimed to me that I would have to wait for the next train and cross over by passing through the carriage. Was I humbled, or what? I thought that I had seen every oddity that a metro could throw at me, but this was a new one. At last, the next train arrived, my door opened first and I entered the train. The door shut behind me and I almost panicked that the train would depart with Anil still standing looking at me through the window.
The panic must have shown on my face, because a nice young woman touched my arm and indicated that the door I was facing would open shortly, and indeed it did. There was Anil, standing before me, looking quite unperturbed. We had a great laugh and turned to leave the platform. I explained to Anil that my car was for women only, but then he told me his was co-ed. It was only later that we noticed, and deciphered a large sign that indicated that certain cars were for women only during peak hours. I make sense, but that combined with exit only platforms in the middle of train lines was a new experience, one we will not soon forget. I guess we’ll just have to keep travelling the world to see what else metro designers can come up with. Bring it on!
By now you have probably realized that we don’t usually take city tours, but the one offered in Mexico City interested us enough to give it a try. The buses used are double-decker with an open-air upper level. Headphones are provided with commentary in six languages and a route that travels far afield and lasts over three hours. Better still, it is a hop on, hop off bus and the route passed very close to our B&B. The weather was perfect for sitting outside on the top level and once we boarded, we realized that we could do the circuit from late morning till early afternoon and then after a light lunch and a small rest, we could board again at sunset and do the loop at night to see the lights of the city without having to buy an additional ticket. All went according to plan but what we didn’t know was that the streets of the old historic district are closed off to traffic on Saturday nights and the tourist bus route is shortened as a result. No problem. We got off just at the edge of the now-pedestrian streets and walked into the city centre and the famous ‘Zocalo’, having seen it earlier in the day from the vantage point high in the bus.
It was a great time to arrive. During the afternoon, we had seen that a huge skating rink had been constructed in the centre of the large square, one of the biggest open plazas in the world. Anil had read in the paper that Friday night had been the last day of public skating and that the rink was soon to be dismantled. It had been a big hit with the people during the entire Christmas season. I was surprised to see a skating rink in the middle of a city where the afternoon temperatures are in the mid-twenties. However, when we arrived that evening, we found the Zocalo alive with people there to watch a figure-skating show. We could only get glimpses of the skaters on the ice but there were huge screens set up around the square so that the thousands of spectators could see. You need a ticket to sit in the grandstands.
We made a complete circuit of the Zocalo, taking in all the Christmas lights on the massive buildings facing the square and then decided to head for home. We noticed a metro entrance at the corner near the Cathedral, and descended into the station, confident that we could manage our way home even though this was a different line that we’d travelled earlier. All went well, and we were even surprised to find that this new line actually surfaced once it was out of the central neighbourhoods. When we reached our transfer point, we had to take a couple of escalators down back into the underground to reach our connecting train. It was now getting into the late evening and the trains were almost empty. Everyone travelling looked tired and ready for a Sunday off from the rigors of a busy week.
There was one last thing to learn about Mexico City’s metro. When we boarded the train, so did a young man with a backpack converted into a powerful stereo system. The minute the doors closed, he turned on the music full blast. The sound was deafening. I stuck my fingers in my ears and looked around at the other passengers. No one moved, made a face or seemed in the least concerned about the noise. The walking ghetto blaster starting shouting above the music promoting the sale of the CD he was playing. To my surprise, a couple of young adults actually pulled out some pesos and bought the CD. When the doors opened the music disappeared and at the far end of the car, another one-man band got on with a different blast of sound. This continued, unabated until we reached our station, and the relative quiet of the night traffic on the streets as we walked the short distance to Casa Comtesse.
We woke to our second of five full days we had at our disposal in Mexico City. We were beginning to realize that there was a lot to see and do and so little time to do it in. We booked our flight to Chile, but the fact that it was a two-way ticket meant that we would be back and could leave some of the destinations for our return. We were still tired from the pace that we had set ourselves during our last week in Morelia, so we planned an adventure for the day, Sunday, and decided to have a rest day on Monday when most of the museums were closed. Then it would be two full days of museums before we said adios to Mexico and launched ourselves to South America for the first time.
Sunday seemed to be a good day to head to Coyoacan a neighbourhood south of La Condessa, where Frida Khalo had been raised and where she lived and worked with Diego Rivera for much of their married life. Coyoacan had been a sleepy village when they settled in the house of Frida’s parents and she had it painted a brilliant blue to match her vibrant Mexican spirit. If you haven’t seen the movie Frida, starring Salma Hayek, and you are an admirer of strong women, I highly recommend it. I have wanted to see her paintings, and visit her home ever since. Luckily for us, the infamous metro has a line that goes all the way to Coyoacan and beyond. We followed the suggestion in our guidebook and walked through the vast plant nursery that lies adjacent to the station. At first it appears as a large park, but it is really the place where much of the trees and shrubs that adorn the city’s public spaces, get their start. We had set out early for a full day and found the nursery’s lanes filled with walkers, joggers and the elderly out for a stroll. Luckily Anil wasn’t wearing his running shoes or I might have lost him to the crowd.
A very clever family had set up a fresh fruit juice stand at the exit to the nursery and we stopped along with many others for a glass of the finest. Anil had ‘naranja’ (orange) and I had grapefruit. Refreshing! It was a short walk to the ‘Casa Azul’ (The Blue House), Khalo’s home and we spent a couple of hours there enjoying the home and its artifacts until we were chased out by the arrival of a tour bus full of foreigners. How would learn more Spanish if we are surrounded by English speakers? We walked along the tree-lined streets towards the centre of the Coyoacan and into the hustle and bustle of the Sunday street market. It was a perfect afternoon, temperature in the low twenties, sunny with a light breeze. We poked around through the handicraft stalls and admired all the beautiful items for sale. So sad we have to continue to travel light.
I fell in love with this district in greater Mexico City. It was hard to believe that we were in the huge, fearsome place we had heard so many negative things about. I could see why Khalo and Rivera had chosen this place for their home together, and that was before all the development that has taken place since they died in the late 1950s. The walk from the plaza that has a beautiful statue of two coyotes, cavorting in the water, that gives the town its name, was one of the most pleasant walks we’ve taken anywhere. All along Avenue Francisco Sosa, we passed colonial homes, none of them massive, but each with a distinctive entry gate to admire. There was very little traffic that Sunday afternoon and we enjoyed ourselves to the fullest. The metro kindly delivered us back to our home away from home, and we ate a delicious meal in a bustling café across the street. We loved our room in La Comtesse and enjoyed chatting with Thomas about the city he has come to love.
As planned, we took Monday off and stayed home to enjoy the Casa while the other guests came and went. I finished writing about our time in Morelia and we had lunch at a market stall eatery on the corner of our street. As delicious as anything you could have anywhere, and we enjoyed the atmosphere more that if we’d been at a fine restaurant with white tablecloths and silver cutlery. A siesta and an evening walk capped the day off perfectly. We were rested and refreshed to take on the massive Museum of Anthropology the next day.
I could go on and on about the world-class Museum of Anthropology but there’s no way I can covey what a fabulous museum it is. You will just have to see it yourself. We knew we would be back in Mexico City in May, so we decided to make our first visit an overview and didn’t rent the audio guide. As it was, we were only able to see the pre-Columbian exhibits, and that took up almost a whole day. I was thrilled that they allowed no-flash photos and I captured my favorite artifacts for viewing later. We were overwhelmed by the beauty of the ancient arts and decided to leave the exhibits showing dioramas of indigenous peoples for our second visit. When we return, I think we will be ready to tour the pre-Columbian galleries with the audio guide now that the first awe-inspiring visit is under our belts.
For our last day, we travelled once again to the Zocalo to visit the ruins of the Templo Mayor, the huge structure that had been built by the Aztecs in the heart of the city and later destroyed and buried by the Spanish invaders. I didn’t expect there to be much to see, and we were blown away by the excavated site and the adjacent museum. The destruction of this major temple complex, found only by accident when electricians were digging in the foundation of a colonial building in 1976, and the discovery of some amazing works of art only begins to sink in when you visit the ruins. As you walk through what little is left, the colonial buildings tower around you in every direction. The museum is so incredibly well designed; I couldn’t imagine it being improved in any way. It vies with the Museum of Anthropology for top place in my mind for the best I’ve seen anywhere. Only the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ranks higher, but then it covers the art of the world, and is much broader in scope.
It had been a very full day, topping off a very full week, but we were still eager to pay a visit to Thomas’ new pride and joy. With investment from his parents and a Mexican partner, he has recently purchased an early 20th century building just a few blocks from his rented apartment. Work has been underway to convert this former home (it housed the family’s fourteen children) into the new Casa Comtesse. Once completed, there will be eight guest suites, each with its own bathroom as well as rooms for Thomas and the maid, Anna. The living and dining rooms are massive, as you can well imagine for a family of sixteen. There is a well-treed back garden and the street in front hosts a nearby above-ground metro station. It’s a perfect place for guests from all over the world. Needless to say, we picked out the room we liked the best and made a reservation for the middle of May when we plan to return from South America.
So once again, we are incredulous to find ourselves loving a city we almost dreaded visiting. We are surely looking forward to exploring the sights and delights of Santiago and Buenos Aires, but we have Mexico City waiting in the wings. We have only just begun to explore all that this huge metropolis has to offer, and then there are the pyramid temples to the sun and moon at Teotihuacan, just thirty kilometers away becoming as well. Oh, the pressures of the road…
EDITOR’S NOTE: Can you believe it? Two months in Mexico and Montezuma didn’t manage to take revenge on either of us!