Tuesday 27 March 2012

Cess in the City

Mexico City spread out before us like its own galaxy, valley after valley filled with the flickering gold lights from the homes of its whopping 21 million inhabitants. This was by far the biggest place we have ever set foot in, and Dan and I were a little nervous about this giant city’s notoriety for kidnappings, muggings and taxi crime (never read the Lonely Planet’s “Dangers and Annoyances” section on the way into a place!)

It was 11pm by the time we got into a cab. The driver quickly locked the doors as we passed through low-lit neighbourhoods, where locals lurked amidst crumbling buildings, and piles of rubbish littered the streets.“Peligroso?” I asked. Yes, he nodded, it’s dangerous. Ten minutes later he pulled up at a road block and pointed us down a street so dark Satan himself would get lost. Road works had knocked out every light. “No way,” Dan said. But with no choice, we hitched our packs up and ran for the hostel door.  We braved a trip to a nearby 7/11, where stoned locals eyed us up. The place was robbed soon after we left.

It was with some surprise come daylight that we found a city that was, in many parts, very beautiful, with European style plazas, colonial buildings, and a government who’d decorated as many walls as possible with elaborate murals. For the rest of our time there, we also felt very safe. Some countries have travel warnings out for Mexico City, but it would be a shame to miss these highlights:

·         MURALS :  So prized are the murals of the legendary Diego Rivera that we were stripped of any pens we had on entering the presidential palace – I guess on the chance we were so inspired by his storey-high work charting Mexico’s history that we felt obliged to add our own doodles?  Many more murals by him and other artists also lined the top floors of the Palacio de Belles Artes – not really my cup of tea, but impressive none-the-less.

·         FRIDA:  There was a long queue outside the Blue House in Coyoacan where Frida Kahlo was born, lived, and died – with just as many Mexicans as international travellers waiting in line. I expected to be enormously touristy, but it was a beautiful place, full of incredible indigenous art and sculpture that she and Diego had collected.  There was something quite affecting about seeing her possessions:  her wheelchair still in her studio, beside paintbrushes dried hard. Her hated back brace in her bedroom, her death mask on her bed. Well worth a visit.

·         MUSEUMS:  Even though we’d visited half a dozen ruins and their onsite museums, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia was still breath-taking, with a fricking overwhelming collection of Mayan and Aztec art. Upstairs, its selection of indigenous art from various villages made us realise how much more of the country there is to see. Less worthy but just as fun was the Museo de Arte Moderno, particularly its design section where I had to be stopped from taking photos of cool bits of furniture that I was inclined to steal...



·         THE TUBE:  Mexico City’s metro is a pretty efficient way to get around, and a tourist attraction in itself. This is not a place English commuters hoping to read their books in silence would tolerate. It is loud: every carriage has at least one local with a backpack on, and a stereo inside, blaring inevitably rubbish tunes from the CD they are selling. Others sell chocolate, chewing gum, books. They hand them out for every to take a look at, and then collect them up again from everyone who doesn’t want to buy. Some are supposedly blind, though most navigated the trains with spectacular ease behind their very dark glasses. Good people watching.

      NIGHTLIFE:  Extremes of wealth abound here. We found ourselves partying with the city’s loaded youth in Condensa on a Saturday night. They rocked up in spanking new cars, handed the keys to the valet, and disappeared into a range of funky European-style bars, many inspired by English pubs.  The number of iphones on display at a bar pumping out Western hits was unbelievable: we slunk home when we got kicked off our table for not purchasing a bottle of spirits to sit there. A surreal experience – we could have been anywhere in the world.

·         LUCHA LIBRE WRESTLING: Yes, it’s all fake, yes, it’s cheesy, and yes, there are dwarves involved: but we decided to head to Arena Mexico on a Friday night to check out the luchadores battling it out. And Mascara Dorada, Tiger, Blue Panther and their friends put on an unexpectedly good show.  For a start, there were very few tourists there – but a load of enthusiastic Mexicans treating each fight like it was un-choreographed, and anyone could win. Through their Lucha Libre masks, the cheered, boo-ed, ate popcorn and drunk copious amounts of beer. A group behind us pounded bongo drums, particularly when their favourite female wrestler, the Barbie-styled Estrellita, came on. The wrestlers themselves were pretty darn talented: sure, it’s scripted, but it takes a bit of skill to be thrown out of a wrestling ring and land in the front row of the crowd without injuring yourself or your fans (thought the security sprinting past on a few occasions indicated this didn’t always go to plan.) There were no photos allowed inside, but we re-enacted a little for you:

We were pretty sad to leave Mexico: a month wasn’t enough to do this big country justice. But we’ll definitely be back – after all it was the place we got engaged. Despite all the talk of how dangerous the country is, the parts we travelled to felt very safe. (And the police presence was enormous…. not to mention the guy with the shotgun somewhat unnecessarily guarding Burger King.) The people were awesome: aside from one crazy taxi driver (see earlier post), most Mexicans were very humble, keen to engage, and incredibly kind.

We caught a taxi to the airport with a girl from San Francisco. Her mother had made her call her every single day of her holiday to make sure she was safe. Our taxi driver cracked up laughing. Yes, you need to pick your destinations within Mexico very carefully. But don’t let events in a few places stop you from visiting the rest of this vast, incredibly diverse, beautiful country.

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