Mexico City – Day 2: Unwelcome solicitations

November 23rd, 2011

Deciding to sleep in, I had to miss more of Guille’s excellent breakfast specials. Stepping out for the day, I sampled the fares of the unnamed taqueria serving tacos de guisado (tacos of the stew). Working out of a garage, this place is apparently a popular lunch spot.

No they don't own that Twitter handle.

A local woman who spoke some English helped me pick out from one of the about 15 stews on display. The tacos themselves were mediocre but the experience was fun.

The plan for the day was to explore the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology), to which a metro ride and a short walk brought me. In the lawns outside the Museum, there was an interesting performance by street performers.

I’ll spare you the history lesson and let the pictures do the talking but this museum is huge!!! In the 4-5 hours I spent there, I was able to cover about 60% of the Anthropology section (12 halls) and they had an equally large section on Ethnography. The museum is full of unearthed relics from the Aztec, Mayan and pre-Mayan eras and some fantastic reproductions (including one of an Aztec temple).

The Aztec CalendarAztec caste/social pyramidLife-size reproduction of the Meso-american Ball Game courtShaman sculptureLife size reproduction of a tomb

[More pictures from the Museum of Anthropology]

[Tip: If you’re visiting the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, get the audio tour equipment.It’s totally worth it, though sometimes wonky.]
[Tip 2: I was quite pleasantly surprised by the quality of food/coffee at the Museum’s Cafeteria. The shrimp tacos I ate there were well presented and muy delicioso! ]

Leaving the museum, I wanted to go see the monument to Gandhi, that I’d seen on the map. It took me a little bit of a walk along the dark streets (with a lot of peak hour traffic, though) to reach it. On my way there, though, I discovered a series of massive coffee mugs, chartered by Nescafe for designers to work on.

[More Grande Coffee Mug Art]

I was staying the night at the Hotel Del Principado in the Zona Rosa neighborhood, a hotel that was highly recommended on a number of travel sites, though I really can’t second the recommendation.

I stepped out to grab a bite and get a feel for the neighborhood. The concierge gave me directions to a pedestrian only street (Genova), which was full of temporary stalls selling food, trinkets etc. and throbbing with people. Zona Rosa was once the bohemian neighborhood which has now transformed to  the clubby district with a high density of gay bars, so I expected something similar in vibe to Capitol Hill.

What I did not expect was being solicited so crudely, first by ‘over made-up women’ with sentences consisting of amigo and diversión (fun), then by a couple of guys with a ‘¿que pasión?’  in a tone and with a look that left nothing to imagination (think Joey in Friends with his ‘How you doin’?’) Managing to ignore all the “tempting” offers, I grabbed a bite and headed back to my hotel.

I let the hotel know I would not be staying another night, but heading back to the Red Tree House, where I had managed to get an unlisted room for the rest of my stay. I also reserved a spot on a tour to the Piramides the next day and little did I know, my trip was about to get extremely social….

Mexico City – Day 1: El Turista (The Tourist)

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….

Mexico City: Day 0 – Skepticism and welcome!

November 21st, 2011 2:30 PM

I landed in Mexico City after the six and a half hour flight from Seattle, skeptical but full of excitement about the experience I was about to undertake. I was in a strange land, known to the outside world for its high crime rates, tourist kidnappings and Montezuma’s Revenge, the stomach condition a lot of tourists faced from the ‘interesting’ food in the city. That, however, was only a small part of my skepticism.

I had only once before in my life, traveled with as little planning as this trip and that was in my home country, with three other people. This was different. I was on my own for a week, in a country whose language I barely spoke and where I knew no one (well, it turned out that I did know someone there, a friend of the family whom I’d met but once in my life) and intentionally without a plan. All the planning I had was 2 night’s reservation at a bed and breakfast that did not have rooms for the rest of my stay. It was exciting!!!

After clearing immigration and customs, which were a breeze, I took my first steps into Mexico City, expecting to be immediately mugged or kidnapped (as much as I hated and defended against the warnings against traveling there and as much as I knew them to be exaggerated, they had got to me somewhat). I walked to the pre-paid taxi booths to hear people soliciting my business. This was nothing new to me having lived most of my life in and traveled to India dozens of times, but it was (mostly because of the kidnapping scare). Anyway, I paid for a Yellow cab and was told to proceed outside.

I changed some currency and stepped outside the airport, welcoming the warm weather. I took off my jacket and waited a few minutes soaking in my environment. It seemed familiar yet not.

I walked over to the queue for taxis and got into the one assigned to me. A couple of sentences exchanged with my driver were enough to realize how limited my knowledge of Spanish was. When the cab driver asked if it was ok to stop for some gas, my kidnapping fears surfaced again and I was looking at everyone at the gas station as an accomplice, part of a ‘gang’ (which made me think of Angoor and how everyone was part of the ‘gaaang!’). Well, they weren’t :).

Twenty minutes later, I found myself at The Red Tree House, with its unassuming entrance (before dusk it was just a house with a small tree in its driveway, the red lights weren’t turned on yet of course), which was to be my home for the next two days. Victtor greeted me at the gate, asking me by name in English. I instantly felt welcome. He showed me into the house with its welcoming living room, through the dining rooms and at the kitchen, asked me if I’d like some coconut water, which was waiting in a dispenser by the kitchen. Accepting some (muy delicioso!), we walked through the courtyard to the extremely well furnished room.

Victtor left me to freshen up and after a long hot shower I stepped out to the voices in the courtyard. At the table in the courtyard, sat three women, two next to each other and one across the table from them. The two, I found out were a mother and daughter from Orange County, traveling together exploring their roots. Adina*, the mom, had Mexican parents, but had never traveled back to Mexico City out of fear, even though she always lived a couple hours aways. The daughter had taken two months off the previous year traveling through Central/South America and had brought her mother back. The woman across the table from them was probably in her 50s, English, but now lived in Sri Lanka. She was visiting her son who now lived in Mexico City with his Mexican girlfriend.

We sat there chatting for a couple of hours about our experiences, what we hoped to experience in Mexico City and our respective cultures. The Englishwoman, whose name I forget, had gone visiting Sri Lanka and decided to stay, bought a house, sold it, bought another and soon was in the real estate business in a country she had just been on a short trip to. How her son landed up in Mexico City, I never found out.

The topic of conversation was traveling to India and I was sharing my views with the daughter, who wanted to travel there some day when we were joined by a girl named Marisa, who was just checking in. Apparently, she lived in a suburb, 20 minutes away and was just staying the night, ‘touring her own country’. She seemed very intrigued by India and the festival of Holi. We sat chatting for a little while after the others had left, I practicing my Espanol and she, her English. She was a student and also learning the Odissi dance form from India. I found that a little surprising (Bharatnatyam dancers, I know a few of, but hadn’t run into anyone learning Odissi before then).

I asked her if she had recommendations for food around the neighborhood and she suggested a place called El Tizoncito, which was seconded by Victtor. She had to get some homework done, so I ventured out by myself to grab a bite. I did not understand why someone would travel for one night, only to sit indoors and work, but I was trying not to judge. I guess it was similar to my working from a coffee shop :).

Victtor gave me directions to get there and assured me that the neighborhood was safe to walk around in alone. As I walked out into the dark, barely lit streets, I found my fears again. Using the map Victtor provided me and my phone, I arrived at El Tizoncito and (with some difficulty with the language) ordered myself some awesome tacos and a cerveza (beer).

After a satisfying meal, I walked back, taking short detours to get comfortable with the neighborhood, reached back to RTH and called it an early night.

Lying in bed, before I fell asleep, by force of habit, I couldn’t help thinking I had no clue what I was doing the next day. I appeased myself and decided I would go exploring the touristy sights in the Centro Historico, the historic center of Mexico City, full of museums, monuments and lots of people….

*Some names have been changed.