I enjoyed Mexico City immensely. Despite the warnings from people telling me to avoid the city at all cost- that people are unfriendly, the police will harass you, you’ll get robbed, you’ll get murdered- none of these things were true, of course, and I had a ball. My Couchsurfing host was a 25 year old girl who lives in a rough-looking sort of tenement complex with two other girls. Their place is very near the Zocalo, the traditional plaza marking the center of the city, which made it was super handy to get around. I think Gaby was a little apprehensive about giving her address to me over the internet as many people in the city do seem a bit gun shy and protective. I don’t feel that this is at all surprising or unwarranted if you’re sharing a city with 21.2 million other citizens. This agglomeration makes Mexico City, DF (Distrito Federal) the largest population center in the western hemisphere and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. Still, it was a bit frustrating not to have been given an address beforehand so I could at least find the area on Google Map, but like most things, it worked out in the end. I came in on Hwy 57D from the city of Querétaro to the north. Following the signs to the Centro, the highway began getting wider and wider as more lanes of aggressively-driven vehicles began coming together like tributaries joining a great river. After riding towards the heart of the city for over an hour, I pulled over at a phone booth to give Gaby a call and get better more specific instructions (more specific than “near the center.”) I got her at work using the left over credit on a calling card purchased in Guadalajara. I had real trouble understanding her due to her accent and the incessant moaning of the titanic city around me. It was rush hour and the noise from the surrounding streets as well as from the elevated highway was thunderous. She must have repeated the name of the street at least 20 times. Even when she spelled it out, I didn’t really get it. We were both getting frustrated and I was definitely thinking, “Well it’s your damn fault for not just sending me the address over e-mail!” Now I was on the side of some super frenzied street, the sun starting to fade with only a phonetic sound of a street name and the tiny 2” square city inset map from my AAA highway atlas. Just as I pull out the atlas and lay it out on the seat of my bike, a dingy-looking couple, who at first take seem drunk or stoned walk up to me. I immediately get my back up and do my best to appear relaxed and effectual. The man opens by complimenting my bike and asks how many cc’s. My eyes move to his leather accented jean jacket and black bandana around his neck; very good indications that he is a rider as well. “Seis cientos ciquenta”, I respond. He makes a whistling noise suggesting his excitement and mock surprise; the usual acknowledgment I receive here considering the vast majority of bikes are between 125-150cc’s. He gestures towards the map and asks where I’m going. I fully realize that I’m stuffed to find the address on my own, so I decide to trust this shady-looking duo and see if they can get me on the right track. I turn my back on the woman and shepherd the guy over to the map. I keep repeating the name of the street that Gaby had given me, “Fraser Vandey, Fraser Vando, something like that.” Miraculously he knows the street and says the street we’re on currently, Chapultepec, actually turns into ‘Fray Servando’ about 20-30 blocks further on. I’m stoked! I give my sincere thanks and nose my bike back into the perilous stream of angry commuter traffic. Sure enough I find the street within ten minutes exactly where the man had directed. I never fail to realize how bias collected from extraneous sources can affect a situation due to some assumed endangerment or prejudice. I was extremely grateful for the help I received without any obvious motive from these strangers other than to simply be of assistance. People talk a lot about how friendly and approachable folks are in Canada. It’s interesting to me why other places don’t get a similar reputation. I’ve travelled to numerous countries and 98% of the time when I ask for directions, the local people are always more than happy to assist. Hell, in Vancouver, when I try to ask someone for directions or for the time, more often or not I get ignored or people walk right past me using their I-pod earbuds as a communication shield. I think it comes down to a bias of fear. The types of people who warned me off of coming through the city are probably the type too timid to go up to someone who may not look overly friendly and ask them for directions. The local people in Mexico City certainly have hard faces and a purposeful way of walking, but so do the local residents of all major cities. I don’t know, maybe it is just my experience, but whenever I make the move to cross over –to ask someone here for help or even start up a conversation for the hell of it- people respond immediately. Their hard mouths become smiles and their faces become inquisitive as to what information I might require or how they can be of service. I know it goes against most opinions that you hear, but I’ve found Mexico and even Mexico City to be a much friendlier and sociable place than Vancouver or other parts of Canada. Perhaps the ubiquitous initiators of these judgments need to step out of their comfort zone more often and asses the preconceptions they have been led to fear.
The neighbourhood where Gaby and the girls live is definitely not what you would call upscale. There is trash lining the streets, homeless people milling about at all hours, and countless dollar shops and street vendors. Although the safety of my bike continued to weigh on my mind, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in this ‘hood. I felt extremely open, amiable and balanced. I enjoyed wandering along the streets, eating at rundown diners, poking my head into the stalls and engaging with the local residents. I tried to walk down the street with my head high, shoulders back, heart full and with a self-assured swagger. Surprisingly I really didn’t feel much fear while I was here. Once I arrived, the actuality of the environment was nothing like what I had been led to conceptualize. I embraced what the city had to offer and I think owing to my acceptance of everything and the way I projected this acceptance, the city embraced me as well. I’ve spent enough time in rough barrios during my travels and growing up in the T-dot that I have an innate faith that I can handle situations as they arise. And they do to be sure. But for the most part, I have found Mexicans everywhere to be incredibly friendly, calm and helpful, but this is still a very poor country overall and disparity will always create anger, resentment, crime and violence. My knee is still pretty messed up from surgery a year ago (although getting better all the time through consistent yoga practice) which has slowed my roll considerably and necessitated a good deal of caution. Basically I’m not so quick about putting myself into dangerous circumstances where in the past I didn’t need to be so restrained. I’m forced to rely on other facets now beyond the physical. I finally feel like I’ve attained a pretty good balance of affability, quick-thinking and maybe a touch of intimidation enough to handle myself in big cities. Things move extremely quickly in the DF. There are swarms of people, fast-moving vehicles, frequent and sudden earsplitting noises, uneven pavement, open sewers…. and the whole society just seems to move at a more focused and deliberate clip then we do in Canada. Although I can be completely one with nature, my disposition also seems to allow me to thrive in dodgy, urban areas. All the same it was nice to have tour guides for some of the time as well. Every evening when they got home, the girls would take me out to experience what the city has to offer. Although, none of them were actually from the city- they had all moved from surrounding states to go to University or for work- they were still eager to show off its vibrancy. They took me out to some great shows, concerts, restaurants and parties during my time in the city. I met all manner of people, young and old, rich and poor and felt very welcome and safe. There is a huge amount of diversity in Mexico DF and there seems to be a good deal of opportunity and entertainment as well. Definitely a world class city… I will look forward to call on her again someday.
By far, my favourite tourist attraction in Mexico was Templo Mayor. Think about it: the main temple of the Aztec capitol, originally constructed in 1325. It was destroyed when Cortes invaded and defeated Montezuma II in 1521. He then ordered a Spanish-style city built in its place. Over the centuries, the lake surrounding this legendary island capitol has been filled in and urban sprawl has created one of the largest metropolises the world has ever seen. In 1978, city electricians working underground accidentally stumbled across a 10ft diameter, 8.5 ton pre-Hispanic stone monolith. It was determined the monolith portrays Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess, and dates back to the end of the 15th century. This discovery prompted a massive excavation of this upscale neighbourhood smack dab in the center of modern Mexico City. Thirteen buildings (four dating back to the 19th century) were demolished to allow the excavation to progress. What is uncovered is the main religious and administrative capital of the Aztec Empire; having been buried under the center of town for more than 450 years. What is even more impressive is that the Mexican government went ahead and started destroying the downtown core of their capitol city for the sake of gaining a better insight into the country’s ancestral identity. Kudos to them! As well as the remarkably well preserved structural ruins, the initial dig uncovered more than 7,000 items from the Aztec era. These items are on display at a beautifully-designed museum on site next to the ruins. The seventh stage of Templo Mayor itself had been dedicated, it’s believed, to two gods, Huitzilopochtli, god of war and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture. Shrines to each god where found at the top of the temple with separate staircases leading up to each. Pyramids in Mexico were typically built upon one previous on the same size to increase their mass. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of seven stages within this temple and have dated the remains of each to correspond with its ruling emperor. According to a famous legend, the Templo Mayor was constructed on the spot where the god of war, Huitzilopochtli gave the Mexica people a sign that they had reached the promised land. It is here that the founders of the city saw the eagle sitting on a cactus with a snake in its mouth; still the official symbol of the country.