November 22, 2011
I woke up well rested and after getting ready, stepped out into the courtyard where I encountered a few people already at breakfast in the dining room. As I walked in, there was a round of Buenos dias greetings. I met a few people who were departing that day and, to be honest, I don’t remember their names. I did also meet Jorge and Craig who own and run The Red Tree House, both wonderful, very social people. I was greeted by Ernesto, who was the manager on duty (Victtor, Ernesto and Naoki took shifts to ensure there was someone around 24 hours a day) and asked if I would like some enchiladas in addition to the continental breakfast that was already laid out.
I met Guille, the chef extraordinaire at this point and with some help from Ernesto, managed to say:
“Guille, quiero enchiladas por favor” [Guille, I'd like some enchiladas, please].
They turned out to be the best enchiladas I’d ever had!
I was also introduced to the darling of the entire house, Abril, a beautiful golden labrador. The story goes, that when Jorge and Craig, the owners, who used to live in the red tree house, moved across the street to their new place and tried to take Abril with them, she just kept coming back, till they had to give up and let her live in her old home.
Having finished devouring the enchiladas, I asked Ernesto how I could get to the Centro Historico and to suggest a broad itinerary around the area. Armed with directions to the nearest Metro station, tips on using the metro and four places I was to cover that day, I set out, Lonely Planet in my backpack. The LP had recommended a coffee shop in Condesa (the neighborhood my temporary abode lay in) named Bola de Oro which I really wanted to try. I stopped by and, once again, using my limited Spanish (supplemented with key phrases from the LP), I ordered a cappucino para lleva (to go).
I walked over to the Chilpancingo metro station and bought a ticket for Bellas Artes. “Un boleto a Bellas Artes, por favor”. It took me a few days to realize that the fare between any two metro stations is 3 pesos (approx. a quarter US dollar or INR 11), so I was being quite redundant. I don’t remember the folks in line behind me being upset, which in retrospect, is not surprising, considering how chilled out the general vibe of the city is.
A note on the Mexico City Metro is deserved here. It is the second largest metro system in North America after the New York City Subway and has the 8th highest ridership in the world. The thing I found most interesting was that each metro station, in addition to having a name, had a logo which was derived from either the name itself of from attributes of the area around it. This is because when the metro was started, the illiteracy rate was extremely high and the color (based on the metro line) and visual cues made it easier for people to guide themselves around.
For example: the logo of the Chilpancingo station is a wasp since Chilpancingo translated to “the land of wasps” in the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs.My copy of the metro system map was to be intensely used in the next few days.
I was supposed to change trains at Chabacano which is the third station from Chilpancingo, but at the third stop when I looked out of the window, the signs said “Salida”.
“WTF, how did I land up at Salida? Oh wait, it just means Exit.”
In this case, I didn’t take the salida, but went through the Correspondencia (Transfer) to take my connecting train. Walking down the transfer path, I overheard (not intentionally, of course, I’d never do that :) ) a conversation between an Asian guy and a girl who seemed British-Indian about the Indian socio-economic classes. As tempted as I was to jump into the conversation, I had a train to catch.
I reached the Bellas Artes station without further linguistic gotchas and walked across the street to the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), a majestic building completed in 1934, that houses some amazing murals by most of the famous names of Mexican muralism.
The one below is El Hombre En El Cruce de Caminos (Man at the Crossroads) by Diego Rivera, originally commissioned for New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1933. Apparently, the Rockefellers were not happy with the communist theme of the painting and had it painted over and destroyed. Rivera recreated it here in 1934.
[More pictures here]
After spending a few hours there, I started walking towards the Zócalo, the massive city square in the heart of the Centro Historico. The walk was full of interesting, vivid sights and people, little shops selling Tacos al pastor, tourists trying to figure out the way, locals going about their routine (the Centro Historico is the functioning downtown hub of government and business of Mexico City). Interestingly there were a lot of police and army personnel on and around the Zocalo.
I spent a little bit of time walking in the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, the largest and oldest cathedral in the Americas. The cathedral has four facades which contain portals flanked with columns and statues. The two bell towers contain a total of 25 bells. There are two large, ornate altars, a sacristy, and a choir in the cathedral. Fourteen of the cathedral’s sixteen chapels are open to the public. Each chapel is dedicated to a different saint or saints, and each was sponsored by a religious guild.
Next stop, after milling around with the crowd some, was the Palacio Nacional. The street outside the National Palace was milling with locals and tourists with some interesting eats (Tlacoyos, Hot Dogs – 3 for MXN 15), trinkets and souvenirs. There were some pretty interesting looking rickshaw like things too, although I didn’t get a ride in one.
The National Palace has a lot of history attached to it. Even though the original palace, belonging to Aztec ruler Moctezuma, was destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors, much of the building material was recycled for the current palace. The years of playing Age of Empires made the history of the place seem extremely familiar and made pronouncing the names pretty easy.
Initially having declined the offer of a guide for the murals in the palace, I went back and accepted the services of the gentleman offering the service (he was on crutches, I feel bad about forgetting his name). I’m really glad I did. If not for him, I would have looked at the pretty murals for 10 minutes and walked on. This guy, however, gave me a 2.5 hour account for each character in all the murals, especially Rivera’s monumental work in the stairway depicting the entire Mexican history. [Here's a brief version if you're interested.]
I was starving by the time I got done at the Palacio Nacional and decided to try out one of Lonely Planet’s recommendations in the area – El Cardenal. A fantastic recommendation, I must say. Very old world fine dining.
I barely managed to ask for recommendations and place my order. It was fun watching people hanging out for long late lunches (this was at about 3:30 PM).
- Sopa seca de elote
Sopa seca de elote (Dry corn soup)
This insanely delicious ‘soup’ initially surprised me with its appearance but soon had me shoveling mouthfuls.
Chile relleno a la Oaxaqueña (Chile relleno – Oaxaca style)
Una cerveza Negro Modelo
Having stuffed myself full of wonderful food, I moved on to my last stop, the Templo Mayor, only to discover it was shut for the day. Bummer, but I still had 6 more days to go and surely I’d find time to come back here (right?).
For the next hour of so, I roamed around the inner streets of the Centro Historico stopping to pick up a Mexican cappuccino at Cafe Jakemir, an old, extremely popular coffee shop run by a Lebanese family. Another fantastic recommendation.
Interestingly, I had discovered that a friend of the family worked at the Indian embassy in Mexico city. I had only met them once before many years ago, but the invitation was warm. I took the metro to their home in Polanco and after an evening of great home cooked Indian food and fun conversation, I took a cab back to my abode.
When I got back, I was greeted by Victtor, who informed me that they had a room open up for Day 2 of my trip. Unfortunately, though, I had already made a reservation at another hotel in Zona Rosa which couldn’t be cancelled at such short notice. I thought I might as well check out another neighborhood. Victtor, however, also mentioned that there was an ‘unlisted’ room that might be available there and if I wanted it, I should chat with Jorge. Interesting….
Exhausted from all the walking and content with the wonderful food resting in my stomach, I called it a night….