Mexico City: the fabled land of beans and tortillas and mariachi music; the capstone of Mexican culture; the backdrop to the Mexican revolution in 1910. Finally, after years of hearing and fantasizing about it, I can say that I too have experienced the rich culture of the historical city.
On Friday, we arrived at the Primera bus station five and a half hours after leaving Guanajuato and hopped into two taxis that took us to our house in the neighborhood La Condesa: a bohemian area of the city bordering one of the largest parks in the world, Chapultepec Park. Although there are many upscale neighborhoods scattered around, I highly recommend La Condesa as a beautiful, hip area enclosed by Chapultepec Park and quaint coffee shops, while still offering an amazing real-life experience of urban Mexico City. The wide streets are split down the middle by cobblestone walkways, flanked by an abundantly diverse display of local plants. Jungle trees soar above the sidewalk and shade it from the intense sun. At seven-thousand feet above sea-level, the concentrated sol can be brutal, despite the cool, San-Fransican atmosphere.
All the museums in Mexico City are closed on Monday, so the next day we drove to Xochimilco, a town surrounding the soupy remains of central Mexico’s once abundant water supply. It is famous for the gondola-style boats that drift down the lake, loaded with passengers, trinkets, dolls, succulents, enchiladas, handmade potato chips, and best of all: corn. This is not just any corn: held in steaming iron pots, grilled over coals, and slathered with buttery mayonnaise (definitely not vegan), the salty, warm, comfort food is manna sent straight from The Lord himself. As I buried my face in the cob, a cool rain drizzled over the lake and thick forrest crouched around the basin. We hollered for some local boys as they dove off the crotch of a tree into the pitter-patter lake. Our boat, the Maria Bonita, glided among the candy-like assortment of other boats, between nurseries and scraggly vegetation, as our conductor dug his pole into the depths of the lake and threw his weight on the top of it to push us along. We spent the day dragging our fingers in the lazy lake, singing with the mariachis who periodically floated by, and marveling at the otherworldly Xochimilco, where the passing of the days is only dictated by the rising and falling of the sun over the weather-beaten boats.
Tuesday we explored the mall in Santa Fe, shopped, and went ice-skating at the rink there. Typically, mall shopping is not something we would be interested in, but Mexico City is a place that, juxtaposed, is uncannily similar to Los Angeles. What I have learned is that, historical aspect aside, the large cities of the world are really not that different. Since there are no malls in Guanajuato- except for the little one with the shop that sells motorcycles on the second floor and the Cineplex- it was nice to able to have as many options and stores as there are in the States. Ice-skating was a fun change to the daily grind as well; my brothers zipped by, wrestled each other, slipped and slid, did acrobats, and in general caused a ruckus. We ate at Italianni’s that night, a nice chain restaurant that boasted a beautiful interior and the most delectable garlic bread I have ever tasted. In all, the mall was like a bite of chocolate after months in Guanajuato and relative seclusion from the modern world. But it also made me realize that Guanajuato has grown on me, and the paved roads and big stores of Mexico City are nothing compared to the winding, uneven roads in GTO that hold so much character.
On Wednesday morning, Pop and I took off for a run around the city. The crisp air pricked my skin at first touch, but the moment my legs started pumping, the breeze dried the beads of sweat on my body and cooled the back of my neck. We hopped over sidewalks uprooted by strong and sure trees, raced across buzzing intersections, and sped into the park a few blocks from the house. Dogs had infiltrated the area. Dogs on leashes with running-shoe owners, street dogs, stray dogs, frayed-collar dogs, every kind of dog. Fortunately, you learn after living in Mexico for so long that the dogs aren’t that bad. It’s fun to guess at their breeds and marvel at their long-legged, bony frames, and the truth is that if you keep to one side of the road, they’ll keep to the other. In the middle of the park was perhaps the most genius investment of the world’s number one country in obesity: workout machines made of simple iron bars and plastic molds to sit and lay on and so forth. We completed the circuit: spinning, pull-ups, sit-ups, leg-lifts, and a certain arm workout in which one pulls a weighted bar down to their chest.
What I didn’t know was that Mexico City periodically shuts off their water supply, so you have to be very careful about how much you use. Additionally, the water in heated in a tank, so it is possible to run out of warm water. I can stay anywhere and anyplace in the world as long as I can have a hot shower, so you can imagine that after the morning workout in the weather, I was not happy to shiver in the water.
The Museo de Antropologia is the home of the “aztec calendar”, which is not actually the aztec calendar but a ritualistic talisman for religious ceremony. It is the grand symbol of Mexico that adorns key chains in tourist shops throughout the country. Inside is a plethora of Aztec, Toltec, and Mayan stone carvings, household items, clothing, paintings, woven baskets, dried out bones and shrunken animals in temperate glass boxes under sterile lighting. Outside are replicas of jungle temples like the real ones I’ve seen in Palenque, except on a much smaller scale. Trees and succulents transport visitors to the museo to the deep jungle of the riviera, and lead to the discreet temples in subtle ways that make one feel like Indiana Jones. The museo features the art and culture of each region of pre-colonial Mexico, and is a must-see, if only to say you’ve been there, because it is so popular.
As always, taxis are the way to get around the city. The traffic is more convoluted and backed up than even LA (it may possibly compare to New York, if New York threw out all their road signs and let trees grow in the middle of the road; typical Mexico). However, if you chose to visit Mexico City, you must take the subway at least once. Entry fee is cheap, and you only pay once, no matter how many subways you take. For example, you pay to enter the terminal, hop onto the bus from Insurgentes and ride it all the way to La Paz through connecting terminals. The Metro System Map is a bird’s eye view of the routes. The underground subways are a world unto themselves: suits and secretaries hustle-bustle through the terminals in click-clack dress shoes and swinging briefcases, short Toltec couples in traditional dress and cowboy hats shuffle underneath the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, students with backpacks lean against the railings and share paletas. However, the subways are a cholostrophobic’s nightmare; I have never been in such a crowd as the one crabbing up the stairs by the Coyoacan terminal.
Thursday, we rode the metro to Coyoacan, a peaceful outskirt of Mexico City where none other than my Frida Kahlo was born. La Casa Azul, the house she was born and lived in for much of her life, was a dream to finally be able to see in person. The house is rancho style, with a large garden and winding walkways you can almost get lost on. Although the museo does offer an audio tour, we found that our knowledge of Frida sufficed for the tour- and it was much better to contemplate what I was seeing as if I was with Frida. Each of the salons boasted the treasures of her tragically brief life: canvases that made one uncomfortable if one stared too long for the candid brutality of life that Frida brushed on them. I stared for ages and tried to block out the crowds behind me as I rudely stood dead in front of each one in succession. In the last salon, a temporary exhibit sponsored by Vogue displayed Frida’s clothes and medical apparatuses neatly behind glass. I saw the doll-like fixture for her polio leg and realized that that day was the closest I would ever physically get to my greatest inspiration and first love. It was Frida who first understood me, cloaked me in her wings while I carried her on my feet, forward, forward, hopefully to some tomorrow of the past that she molded.
After visiting Frida’s birthplace, we caught two taxis to the house Leon Trotsky built a few miles away, converted into a seriously underrated museum. Relics of Trotsky’s and his wife, Natalia’s, personal belongings were displayed under a glass case in the main room, built onto the original house. On the walls hung photographs of Leon and Natalia, their family, newspapers, political posters, propaganda, and plaques narrating the photos in chronological order (most were in spanish, but a few had english translations). In case you don’t know anything about Trotsky, he was born in 1879 and became a Marxist, politician, and founder and leader of the Red Army (and much more) until his assassination in 1940. Leon was proceeded in death by his brother, sister, first wife, son Lev (all shot); daughter Zinaida to suicide, younger daughter Nina to tuberculosis, and Nina’s husband who was shot as well. The fate of his grandchildren is unknown. We left the museum and stepped into yet another Spanish-style courtyard. The house Leon had built during his asylum in Mexico was untouched- complete with chalky bullet holes in the cement walls. We toured the house alone, save for one other man. The Trotskys had lived dismally and frugally in the cold, stone square rooms. The kitchen window had been bricked up for safety, animal skins hugged the small, metal frame beds, and their meagre belongings hung neatly in closets. The one thing they did not lack in was hundreds of books- in Russian, Chinese, English, and Spanish- that sat dusty on almost every shelf in the house and were piled on the desk of Leon’s study. Two heavy iron doors with militant hatch locks like on a submarine dictated their grandson’s room the “safe room”. Back outside, we surveyed the lovely garden, disintegrating feces littering the rabbit cages and chicken coop, and Trotsky’s monument, which held his remains in the back. A red flag fluttered in the canopy above. It was a beautiful, secluded place that I think Trotsky would have been pleased to rest in, although as a radical, intellectual, and philosopher that helped sculpt the face of politics in the first forty years of the 21st century, it seemed to me that he should deserve something more grand than a cheap room adjoining the home where he was killed.
Finally, we ended the day with a trip to San Angel, the location of Frida and Diego’s famous homes adjoined by a bridge through the middle. Most of Frida’s art is installed in the permanent collection at her parents’ home, so local artists are displayed in the house. Diego’s collection of Aztec sculptures are arranged in shelves in his studio and all of his utensils- paint, brushes, paper, ect.- are scattered around the large room as if he will walk back in at any second. I rubbed my finger in a drop of dried oil paint on Diego’s desk, next to a portrait of Dolores Del Rio and a photograph of Dolores modeling in the chair right under the spot where it hangs on the wall.
Saturday, we met back up with our friend who lives in the city and drove to the Teotihucan pyramids. The temple of the sun has over 1,000 steps that take you to a breath-taking panoramic of the valley and a birds’ eye view of the entire site. Scanning the area, it is easy to identify triangle-shaped mounds dotting the countryside that are pyramids yet to be uncovered. The ancient city is so expansive and the pyramids are so gigantic- larger than Palenque- that we couldn’t walk the whole thing in a day- however, we climbed the Piramida del Sol and the Piramida de la Luna, walked in the reconstructed Templo de El Jaguar, walked through the stage humans and animals were sacrificed, and crawled through the small pipeline that was the Aztecs’ sewage system. The day was like a wet rag, and as soon as we reached the summit of the tallest pyramid, violent winds and rain tossed the crowds together. Although it drizzled the whole day, we still enjoyed our time and returned to La Condesa for a delicious vegan meal at La Buena Tierra that night.
On our last day in Mexico City, we rushed off to Chapultepec Castle in the space before we had to catch the Primera bus home. The taxis dropped us off all the way on the other side of Chapultepec Park, so with the little twins on our backs we Olympic power-walked it all the way to the castle. And I’m glad we did- it is not something you can miss. Overlooking the undeveloped jungle-forrest of Chapultepec, the massive edifice sprawls across the tallest hill within eyesight and turns the city into beetles and ants. The castle served as the government building for all of Mexico from its construction in 1780 until Presidente Lazaro Cardenas donated it as a national museo in 1940. Its interior- decked out in intricate molding, hand painted furniture, silken walls, stained-glass windows a la art nouveau, massive murals and paintings, decadent doorways, plush chairs, and every piece of European porcelain-ware ever created- was the most luxurious thing I have witnessed. Each room had a different color tone and was more unique than the last. One bedroom boasted a wide bed draped in thick, blue silks and hand-sewn detail throw pillows, shrouded by a gauzy canopy sprouting from carved oak on the wall. Adjacent to the bed was a marble-topped nightstand on which rested a ceramic decor pot, like an urn, with a gold encrusted handle. On the rich wooden floor rested an oriental carpet, worn from the hundreds of years it had been there, which made it even more charming. The entire ceiling disappeared into the universe painted on it, the bluest blues catching the shimmer of the fabric on the walls and bedspread and the darkest corners reflecting the dull sfumato portraits adorning the walls. Architecturally, one of the most interesting concepts retained by the castle was the way the doorways were situated. One can stand on one side of the castle and walk straight through every room to the other side without stepping to the side, because the square rooms are arranged in a line (with the exception of multiple double staircases and top-level, enclosed bridges). Despite all the glamour, my favorite part of the castle was the rooftop garden. Long panels of naked women in art nouveau decorated the covered walkways between thick pillars. European sculptures of cupid and David sprang from bushes of hydrangeas. Molded stone fountains drizzled misty water in the fog of the morning around a large mausoleum situated around trim roses, marigolds, and pear-shaped cacti with small buds the soft pink of a pearl.
Unravelling your life is important from time to time. It is crucial to step back from your perspective in situations that are desensitized because you live them everyday. In Mexico City, I was able to step away from Guanajuato- the place I am living and used to despise- and look back on it in retrospect. La ciudad de Mexico not only brought much needed change from life in a small, colonial city, it made me realize how much Guanajuato has grown on me. Although I didn’t eat beans like I thought I would in the stereotypical “home of beans”- I actually ate a lot of sushi- Mexico City was full of modernized Latin culture and an urban, busy feel that excited us with its opportunities and excursions it had to offer.