26.11.2012 - 02.12.2012
For those of you who dont know me, Nora is a well seasoned traveller. Outside Europe, she has at least 30 countries under her belt, spanning Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East. Despite the above, Nora was pretty scared at the prospect of spending time in Mexico City, home to a mere 20 million people. As they say, 'the fear of God' had been put into me. Any books I read, even the most moderate and non conservative of the travel guides, gave serious warnings about safety in Mexico City. Although the situation had improved considerably in recent years, in 2010 the crime statistic was 48 muggings, 2 homicides and 5 taxi hold up per day. Flippin hell. Given the above concerns, a 29 hour journey and an arrival time of 5am (in my mind, a time when all the baddies are out at play) I decided to play it safe and book myself a budget busting but cosy BnB in the Centro Historico. I reckoned I could barricade myself in the room until I felt able to go out and face the world. I remember arriving in Jordan, my first time in the Middle East. After a big sleep I spent a good few hours peeking out the window, taking in the view of a street full of women completely robed in black. After a while, courage started to pump through my veins, eventually moving to my head and feet. Then and only then was it time to hit the streets.
At 7am I arrived at my home for the week, eager to crawl into bed and sleep myself into oblivion. That was the plan. Unfortunately I got my dates wrong and screwed up the reservation. I wasn't booked in until later that day. So at 7.15am, dazed and confused, I was walking the mean streets of Mexico City. It was cold and foggy, not what I was expecting from tropical Mexico. Mexico doesn't really get going till after 9, so my gracious host David suggested I go for brekkie to the Padoga, a 24 hour diner. Although the Chinese community originally came to Mexico to build the roads, one of the gifts they left behind is the 24 hour diner. The Padoga was full on 1950's style, replete with waitresses in shapeless peach crimpolene uniforms, hairnets and flat white shoes. The outfit would look bad on 99.5% of the population. However these waitresses were something else. They seemed to have been recruited from an agency specialising in people gifted with unfortunate looks. Hmmmm, a Chinese run American diner, staffed by the aesthetically challenged in crimpolene. Not quite what I was expecting as my first cultural insight into Mexico. Oh how travel broadens the mind. Breakfast was duly consumed and it was time to get my arse into gear. Mexico city awaited me.
After a gloomy half hour people started to arrive on the streets, the sun came out, the fog evaporated leaving only the smog and a huge energy started to infect me. On every single street stood an amazing building, a food vendor cooking up a storm, a museum, a market. Something didn't seem right, I was supposed to be scared but instead I was buzzing with excited feelings. By 10.45 I was on my second meal of the day, this time at a makeshift street stall. I still don't know the name of what I ate. It was a big thick dough-ey tortilla thing, fried, with cheese on top, then a fried egg, then more what they call queso fresca and a sprinkiling of herbs. I sat on the kerb with 20 others, music blasting from the stall, drinking a bottle of coke and feeling wonderful. At that moment I knew I was going to love Mexico. As an aside, many travellers would never ever eat from a street stall. I think thay are just awesome. Despite having suffered from both dysentery (twice) and giardia, I remain an inteprid explorer of all things culinary. Other people might call me a gorb. You'll have to look in a Northern Irish dictionary for the meaning of that one.
What surprised me most about the city was the genuine loveliness of the people. I was greeted by constant smiles, big smiles. Sure, many of then were in response to my own big smile, but many were not. And they came from all sorts of people, wealthy and poor, dark and light skinned, people who work with tourists, people who did not. You just don't get that friendliness in cities, not even in Ireland. I was offered so much kindness. An old man who crossed the restaurant to offer me a tissue when I had a sneezing fit, a young boy who took the rucsac from my back to put into the hold of the bus, the policeman who approached me when I was lost and asked if he could help. It was strange to feel so welcome and safe, yet to know that bad things happen, all the time. The most constant reminder of danger were the police, thousands of them, everywhere. I thought the huge numbers were in response to some impending protest, but no, I was told this was a normal everyday presence. They looked like something from a futuristic action movie, clad in full body bullet proof gear, space age helmets and imposing machine guns. If Arnold Swartzanegar had come crashing down the street, I wouldn't have been surprised. Further evidence of the reality of everyday violence showed itself when I travelled to the famous pyramids at Teotihuacan, 50 km outside the city. A body search and metal detector scan was used before we even got on the bus and during the journey the police stopped and entered the bus on 3 occasions. I think the route had become infamous for armed robberies, the preferred technique being a passenger boarding the bus with a hidden gun and using it mid journey to hold up their fellow passengers. When I was reading about this in Ireland I was reasonably freaked, but somehow it felt ok now that I was in Mexico. I just carried very small amounts of money and no cash card, so if I was involved in a hold up the loss would be minimal.
Mexico City felt totally alive, like anything was possible. I think people talk about New York in the same way. I haven't been in New York since I was twenty, so I can't comment. Alive in the sense of people everywhere, walking, dancing, eating, shopping. Alive in the sense their was just so much to do and see and experience. Take my evening activity as an example. The evening after I arrived I went to see Lucha Libre. Lucha Libre is Mexican wrestling, a national obsession. For me, a novice in the wrestling world, it seems just like WWF, except it is acknowledged that the wrestling is choreographed. There are 6 fighters in the ring at the same time, all with pre-identified characters, ridiculous names and outrageous outfits. They all wear masks. Three of the 'Lucadores' are the goodies. They are called Technicos and play by the rules. The other three, called Rudos, break all the rules in the book. As a girl reporting on the experience I would describe the whole occasion as men in silly outfits fighting with each other until one of the teams wins, while an adoring audience works themselves up into a frenzy. Like a game show, key words or catch phrases of affectionate abuse are shouted out by the braying crowd. I cant remember the words in Spanish, in English they are motherfucker and gay, no creativity there eh? In between bouts, girls wearing very little clothes parade around the ring. Luca Libre is huge in Mexico, the venue I attended seats 17,000 and the Luchadoros are hero worshiped. I got to meet (at a price) Niebla Roja, in English Red Mist. What a shame I was taller than him.
The next night I decided to go more high brow. I attended a folk ballet in the most beautiful Art Deco theatre, the Palcio des Belles Artes. The building was phenomenal, again I felt like I was in some iconic building in New York, I don't know why. The ballet was a representation of a host of regional folk dances. It was spectacular; an utter utter feast for the eyes and ears, one of the most amazing shows I have ever seen. So yes, Mexico city is full of diverse things to do; but the joy of being there was just as much, if not more, about wandering the streets and taking it all in, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of its inhabitants. I have never ever been in a more crowded city. Even walking in the park means you are literally shoulder to shoulder with people. I now have a full understanding of what it might feel like to be a sardine who lives in a can. A polluted can I might add. Despite the smog, the crowds and the background threat of something bad happening, I was really sad to leave Mexico City. The place is such a contradiction. I was constantly aware of feeling happy and safe there, but needed to tell myself to watch out, be careful. As each day passed in a happy fashion I would wonder if anything might happen to burst the bubble of my romantic feelings about the place. It didn't.
My final destination in the city was the Terminal Sur long distance bus station. In my experience of travelling, the highest concentration of misery and threat in any place, small or large, is around the bus and train station. Maybe it was at Terminal Sur that my bubble about Mexico City would finally be burst. To my surprise I found it spacious and relaxed, the staff at the ticket counter were kind and courteous and went out of their way to help me. I sat outside for a bit, waiting for the departure time of my bus. Two dodgy looking characters sat down beside me. Aha I thought, maybe now is the time. After a minute or so we got talking. They were Mexicans, returning home by bus after 15 years of life in America. They told me they hadn't a clue about how things worked in Mexico anymore. I joked they could borrow my guidebook. We laughed together. We chatted some more and as I was leaving they wished me a wonderful journey, please have fun Senora they said, please make sure to have fun. My potential muggers were sweethearts. That says it all really