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Published: July 22nd 2016
Me, View from Torre Latinoamericana
Compare with similar photo taken 18 years ago in previous blog entry... A little older, less hair, and can't pull off that post-teen surly look anymore...!!
Greetings from Mexico City! Mexico City “revisited” as this is the second time I’ve been in this wonderful city, whose population of around 21 million people makes it the second largest in the world after Tokyo. In fact, and as mentioned in my last blog, I came here on my first backpacking trip 18 years ago, on my first trip also out of Europe. The place holds many memories for me, as this is pretty much where it all began, where I was bitten and forever smitten by the travelling bug, and it is just a sincere pleasure to be back here again. You could say I’ve come full-circle in my travels, but actually my plans include hopefully many more travel circles yet to come!
So I arrived here on Tuesday evening, in style actually as I was very gratefully upgraded to “World Traveller Class” from my usual economy class ticket – a lovely start to my trip indeed, with sparkling wine before take-off, sumptuous gourmet-style in-flight food, to include a beef steak around 2.5 inches thick, no kidding, and enough leg-space to spin a cat in – wonderful! I was also reminded whilst in this upgraded
class, of the sheer differences between the social classes in Mexico, and in pretty much most developing countries I’ve been to. The cabin was taken up by middle-class Mexicans, who by our standards are actually an extremely well-to-do and well-off group of people – the flight attendants seemed to spend more time attending to their duty free needs than serving food. Indeed, it was to be the first reminder of the great inequalities that exist within Mexico, and many a developing nation I’ve been to – the richer people here live a life way beyond the life of a typical well-off British person, live in huge mansions with swimming pools, travel in “World Traveller Class” to London for their holidays, and employ maids, gardeners and so on to look after their houses. And the distinction between the middle classes and the working classes is very visible, with the latter being composed of the mostly indigenous people, the former the descendants of the European colonialists. It makes for very interesting observations from a British traveller’s perspective, making me wonder if a country such as this will ever really achieve true social equality amongst its people.
Anyway, after a pleasant flight
with lots of good films and food, I touched down in Mexico City, and was greeted at the airport by my fantastic friend from 20 years ago, my university fresher days, whom I met at the Catholic Chaplaincy on Gower Street in London, “El Estimado Senor” Ernesto. What a blast from the past, he hasn’t seemed to have changed one bit, except with a few grey hairs along with my own receding hairline – it was wonderful to see him and his smiling, welcoming face greeting me and welcoming me to Mexico City once more.
I have been staying for the past three nights at Ernesto’s wonderful suburban house with a fantastic classic 70s retro feel, in the lovely leafy suburbs of Lomas de Tecamachalco to the west of the city. Houses here are huge, gated, and sprawl behind formidable-looking concrete front walls which give no indication as to the grandeur of the house beyond. Upon passing through such a concrete front, Ernesto’s house is a delight – huge, spacious, with four bedrooms, each with its own ensuite bathroom, plenty of living, dining and kitchen space, office and storage space, a little flat for the maid, a wonderful little
garden with blossoming trees and hummingbirds, a lovely rooftop view over the north of the City, and a couple of hand-made Star Wars murals (Ernesto is a fan…!). I have also been blessed by being able to meet Ernesto’s family: his wife Melba and two daughters, Faviola and Lorena, who have all been most welcoming to me here. It has been a wonderful way to begin my Central American sojourn, rather cushy I’m sure compared to what’s to come, but a lovely combination of comfort, welcome, and reminiscence of my previous visit.
So I have spent the last three days getting to know the city more intimately than during my last visit – last time I took in lots and lots of sights, including the Basilica de Guadalupe and the Pyramids of Teotihuacan, as well as travelling to Queretaro, Guadalajara and Acapulco. This time I have spent more time exploring the city itself, and one of its southern suburbs, which I’ll relate below. I have also rendez-voused once more with my old faithful non-friend of “jet-lag”, which tends to affect me quite badly, but touch wood and fingers crossed, I seem to be on track again today, having spent
the first day in my own little fudged-up world, and the first two nights battling with sleep.
On Wednesday I explored a bit of the Zona Rosa, a cute little bohemian neighbourhood lined with cafes and shops, before hightailing it to the Zocalo – Mexico City’s central square, and at 220m by 240m, one of the largest city squares in the world. It really is huge, but its vast scale unfortunately was concealed by a huge tented exhibition which took up most of it. What I didn’t do last time was take in the “Templo Mayor” to the north-east of the Zocalo, and what a wonderful treat this was for me.
In preparation for my trip, I’ve been reading up on Mexico’s pre-Hispanic origins, to include both the Aztecs and the Mayas. While I’m sure I’ll catch up on the Mayan part of Mexico’s history later on in my trip, a visit to the Templo Mayor enabled a wonderful exploration of the Aztec origins of Mexico City, and of Mexico itself. The site contains the remains of the main Aztec temple based in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, which itself was sited on an island in the middle of
a vast lake which used to cover the whole floor of the vale of Mexico City. The old legend goes that the previously-nomadic Aztec tribe interpreted the witnessing of an eagle standing atop a cactus eating a snake on the island as a sign that they were to build their soon-to-be powerful city of Tenochtitlan on that very island (the eagle/snake/cactus symbol actually adorns the middle of the modern Mexican flag, and has come to be an important symbol for the country). The lake was since filled in by the Spanish colonialists, meaning that the whole of Mexico City is actually built on quite unstable, marshy ground, causing it to sink at a rate of around 10cm per year – I find this fact amazing, and just wonder what will happen to the city in the future…?! In actual fact though, the site of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan was lain hidden underneath subsequently-built Spanish colonial buildings. It was not until 1978 when electricity workers happened upon Aztec remains during a dig, that the decision was made to demolish the colonial buildings and excavate the Aztec remains. What they have uncovered now is a wonderful series of extensions made by
the Aztecs to their original temple and shrine built around 1400, and which came to become the principal Aztec site of worship in their capital city of Tenochtitlan. In actual fact, much more remains to be discovered, since the city’s Metropolitan Cathedral on the north side of the Zocalo was also built upon Aztec remains, though I doubt very much that any plan will be put forward to have the Cathedral demolished…! Anyway, a wander around the ruins was wonderful, getting a feel for what life must have been like for the Aztecs, in particular their obsession with war, death and human sacrifice. There were quite a few walls covered with carved stone skulls, and a statue of what I find to be particularly forboding, Chacmool. A Chacmool is a reclining statue of a figure holding a bowl in his hands, ready to receive the heart of a human sacrificial victim. In fact, I find this aspect of Aztec life partly fascinating and partly extremely grim and sombre. Apologetics seem to compare the Aztec cult of death with contemporary accounts of religious atrocities committed in Europe during the time of the Reformation. However, I disagree with this, I think the
Aztec’s obsession with death formed a part of their very life and soul, and to my mind is actually morbid and quite scary. The objective of a man’s life appears to have been to die either in warfare or as a human sacrifice, sometimes made by a priestly other, sometimes made by oneself, as in the process of “self-sacrifice”. This appears to have been favourable to the gods for the afterlife. Human sacrifices were made of both captive soldiers from other tribes as well as the Aztec’s own soldiers, and mostly involved plunging a knife into the chest and ripping the victim’s heart out. The head was also then chopped off, and the headless body thrown down the stairs of the pyramid or temple at the top of which the sacrifice took place. Sacrifices were often made to appease the gods, and at one point in 1487, 20,000 human sacrifices were made over a period of four days, for a rededication of another of the Templo Mayor’s major reconstructions. I find this a very disturbing fact of history, the extent of which is pretty much unseen in any other ancient civilisations outside of Mesoamerica, this obsession with death over life.
Whilst morbid, it is also of course very fascinating, and I’m sure I’ll learn more about it during the rest of my travels in the lands of the Maya, who shared a similar interest in human sacrifice, though I don’t think to as great a scale as the Aztecs.
The second day I rambled through further parts of Mexico City centre, to include a trip up to the top of the Torre Latinoamericana, which when it was built in 1956 and at 204m high, was Latin America’s tallest skyscraper. As well as the wonderful views from the top, my intention was to find the exact same spot where I had a photo taken of me with a surly post-teen expression during my first visit. I tried to recreate the same photo, which is attached to this blog entry, and it was a wonderful experience doing so – just comparing myself 18 years ago to how I am today, both physically and within – lots has happened since then, and it’s great to see a before and after photo – to me I hardly look like the same person, but looking at the two pictures together, I see that I
am, just at different stages in my life. Who knows, maybe in another 18 years I’ll take another one, again at the top of the Torre Latinoamericana, when I’m 56 years old…!! The ramble also included a visit to the Mercado San Juan (I love local food markets, I just find them fascinating, particularly if there’s lots of photogenic, freshly-caught fish around…!), Mexico City’s Chinatown, and a wonderful souvenir market called “El Centro de Artesanias la Ciudadela”, where I bought a couple of light souvenirs – one of my great interests in travel is bringing back beautiful things from around the world to decorate my home with. Though whilst having a huge collection of such things back in my hobbit-hole, I’ve yet to start decorating it with them – project for when I get back, perhaps…?
And today, I spent a happy few hours in the delightful southern suburb of Coyoacan. Coyoacan comes from the Aztec word “Coyotl”, meaning Coyote, which is actually where we get our English word from. I mention this because the symbol for the Metro station of Coyoacan is a Coyote, which brings me on to the fascinating (for me at least!) subject of the
Mexican Metro system. I just love Metro systems, and another of my great travel pleasures is to explore the various city metro/underground systems from around the world. Mexico City’s is just unique in that the principal means for locating a particular station on the huge metro map is by looking for the station’s symbol, pictorial representations of the name itself (so for the metro station of “Camarones”, for example, which means “shrimps” or “prawns” in Mexican Spanish, the station symbol is of a shrimp). Apparently due to the large amount of illiterate Mexicans when the system was first built in 1969, they decided to have symbols for each station, with its name written out in letters underneath it and much smaller. This actually, I think, makes it easier for us literate people also, as I believe you can locate pictures much more easily than words, particularly when you’re on a crowded (very crowded here!) metro train and want to read the map which is a good distance away. I just love it!
Anyway, Coyoacan was a wonderful place to walk around. Although I didn’t make it to the suburb’s colonial heart, I did include a visit to the wonderful
Museo Frida Kahlo, located in the Mexican artist’s home where she was born, lived and died. It is painted blue, called “La Casa Azul”, and filled with beautiful flora – a peaceful enclave from the city surrounds, though not made too peaceful by the hordes of visitors there. It took around an hour to queue just to get in, but I believe it was worth it to find out more about this enigmatic and admirable artist who I actually know little about. Wandering around her house and garden gave me a sensitive glimpse into her depths and beauty, as well as her suffering and pain, and I definitely aim to watch “Frida” the film again once I return to London.
And so this brings me to this afternoon, writing my first proper blog entry on this Central American trip in Ernesto’s extremely comfortable spare room, with a huge ceiling-to-floor, wall-to-wall window overlooking the delightful garden, and a thunderstorm happening outside – wonderfully atmospheric and cosy at the same time.
Tomorrow my travels begin per se, as I take a flight to Guatemala City. Indeed, these first four days have been mainly about catching up with Ernesto, and Mexico
City again. Tomorrow begin the travels in earnest, so to speak (!). As I believe I mentioned, I’m flying to Guatemala City to avoid the political disturbances which are currently happening in the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. These are principally being caused by the teachers, and its powerful union, down there, in response and reaction to the government’s recent educational reforms, which aim to develop Mexico’s ageing education system and bring it in line with those of the modern world. One of the main requirements of the reform is to ensure Mexican teachers have a basic standard themselves in maths and other essential subjects, by testing them in these areas. If they fail, then the government provides them with training. Quite logical to my mind, that teachers need to have a certain level of education themselves to ensure that they are teaching the next generation what they need to know. The reforms also prohibit the antiquated tradition of passing on teacher’s jobs to members of the family, or selling them on – both quite common practices apparently. Unfortunately, the 1.5 million member-strong National Education Workers’ Union do not seem to have the same vision for the future
of the country, and have organised strikes and road blockades in protest since the reforms were pushed through in 2012, when current President Enrique Pena Nieto (great man to my mind) began his six-year presidential term. These particularly came to a head again around a month ago, when road blockades were put up on major highways in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. When one of the road blocks, in Nochixtlan, Oaxaca, was removed by police, violence erupted, nine people were killed and at least 100 injured. Since then, roadblocks have been removed and then put up again throughout both states.
Personally, I am very much in favour of these much-needed educational reforms, and hope the government will take a Thatcher-esque approach to the debilitating actions of the teachers down there : “no, no, no!”. It will be interesting to see what happens on that one. But practically speaking, it means that my travels through Oaxaca and Chiapas are not meant to be, and I am actually quite pleased to be flying over to Guatemala: firstly as it cuts out the potential for being stuck in some rather deep travelling water, and secondly as it gives me more time
in Guatemala and Belize, two countries I’ve yet to explore.
So it is here, as the rain continues to pour, the thunder continues to clap, and I continue to be cosy in this lovely house in Mexico City, that I will end this one for now. The plan is to spend two nights in Guatemala City, and then move on to Lake Atitlan and Antigua, both in the Guatemalan highlands, from there. Of course, I hope to write up another blog entry from there over the next few days.
Until then, gracias por leer, y muchos abrazos a todos!
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