The trip to Mexico was WONDERFUL. After only 2.5 hours of effortless flight the plane settled down in this city which is over 7,200 feet above sea level, has a history lasting over 1,700 years, purports over 40 million inhabitants, and is rated as the worse air quality of any city in the world. And, this diversity is only the beginning. I planned to visit Guadalajara and Vera Cruz as well as Mexico City. But, I never left the city!! It was just too fabulous to leave!
Mexico City is built on a lake. The early Aztecs wanted protection from opposing armies so they built their city in the middle of Lake Texcoco. They filled in the water to make a complicated arrangement of canals, land bridges, living areas, and farming plots. The lake protected all. This was the sight that Cortes saw when he arrived. Over the expanse of time, more and more of the lake was filled in by the various political and military regimes that ruled Mexico. The city grew and evolved into the modern Mexico City of today. Unfortunately, the city's foundation is not stable. Most large buildings are settling. Earthquakes have had a ravaging affect on large structures. This is especially evident on the great and very beautiful Catholic cathedrals. All of the magnificent works of art that I saw are in decline. It was sad to see the great granite walls listing to one side or another. Many of the structures have reinforcement inside to sure up the wall, roof, or alcoves. None of the floors are level. Some have been condemned such as the great basilica which used to provide a safe haven for the shroud of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. I suspect that within 100 years most of these wonderful buildings will be gone. Another tragic loss for mankind.
As luck had it I arrived just in time for the presidential election. It turned out that the PRI Party lost power after over 70 years in office. The PRI is viewed as the party which supports the "ruling class", ostracizes the indigenous peoples, ignores the less educated, and holds needed funds from the poor populations of Mexico. As you can imagine there was celebration all over this great city. Cars honking, people in the streets dancing, and everyone enjoying the prospects of a brighter future. I hopped on the metro and found my way to huge Constitutional Plaza in front of the National Palace next to the magnificent Metropolitan Cathedral. Men were on the stage making speeches prophesying the victory of this party or that, detailing how the future will be better, and generally enjoying the moment. People in the plaza were crammed so close that I was hardly able to move. CNN was there to record this momentous event. If you were tuned to CNN you probably saw me standing next to the guy wearing that giant victory costume on the stage. The camera was on and I waved…
After enjoying those festivities for a while I boarded the metro and went to the Plaza of Garabaldi. This small, cement covered block is famous for Marachai bands. They have anywhere from 20 to 40 bands playing for the tourists (Okay, I admit it. I went to a tourist place…). All types of instruments, singing, drumming, and costumes. It seemed that the excitement of the election exacerbated the glee in the square. It was a great sight to behold. It was easy to imagine living 100 years ago in some small Mexican town enjoying a local evening in the plaza. Many local couples come to the plaza to hear their favorite band play ballads of love and devotion. The bands surround the couple playing beautiful melodies as the couple stood gazing into each other's eyes seemingly oblivious to all of the gawking tourists. As time went on the couples found their way home, the plaza became quiet, and another day passed. A gentle rain fell as I walked to the hotel. My last thought before drifting off to sleep was what a wonderful way to begin my stay in Mexico.
The morning sun greeted me as I pushed back the curtains on the hotel window. The streets were already bustling with people going about their usual business on a bright Monday morning. Students going to school, people hustling along to work, mothers making their way to the Metro as quickly as they can, street vendors getting ready for a profitable day, and the ever-present police surveying their favorite corner. There were three schools on the same street as the hotel. I got ready and walked the two blocks to the local street vendor that served coffee, hot chocolate, tea and the best donuts in Mexico. Yes, the very best donuts in the entire country. I sat down on the vendor's street table, enjoyed a great breakfast, and experienced some of the very best people watching in the world.
On to the Metro for a closer look at the Presidential Palace, Constitutional Plaza, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Templo Mayor ruins. The metro is very reasonably priced at 1.5 pesos per ride. The metro provides rides to over 10 million people every day. That's right - 10,000,000! The design makes it very easy to travel to every part of the city. It is convenient and safe. Not what I would consider clean, however, but no different than any other big city in Europe or the eastern seaboard of the US. I guess the Moscow metro spoiled me.
I arrived at the palace before the tour buses. There were no crowds or zealous vendors to interrupt my exploring. The cathedral was built in the typical Catholic style of a Latin cross. There were several chapels around the main sanctuary. Each was decorated in a different theme. And each was done in the most magnificent manner. The actual stones of this church were once used by the Aztecs to build their temples. Cortes tore down these temples and used the stones to make this mighty cathedral. Over the 400 years the simple cathedral was changed and improved to make the impressive structure we enjoy today. Icons donned each area, and the beautiful murals on the ceiling naturally brought each eye toward God in the heavens. This Cathedral, like most of the large stone buildings in Mexico City, was severely damaged by the last earthquake. Many cracks are seen in the walls, and there was some damage to the wonderful works of art. There were many metal reinforcements to insure the safety of the patrons.
The Presidential Palace was begun in 1692. It was designed in the traditional Mexican style with a large plaza in the middle. This building was built on the very site of Montezuma's "new" palace. And, it was the place where Cortes' brother was imprisoned prior to his return to Spain. Over the entry door hangs the very bell that Padre Hidalgo rang to proclaim Mexico's independence. The stairwell directly east contains a very large mural painted by Diego Rivera depicting the early history of MesoAmerica including the cruelty of the Spaniards to the local peoples and the legend of Quetzalcoatl.
I was wondering around the second floor. There were soldiers blocking one wing of the floor. I was trying to ask the soldiers why it was forbidden to enter when a very nice young man walked up to me and said that I was authorized to enter. I have no idea who he thought I was, but I didn't complain. Other tourists were still kept from the rooms. So, I just began walking around acting like I owned the place. I walked through several meeting rooms with large cherry wood tables and thick leather chairs. There were small plazas off each room richly decorated with plants and fine ceramics. I was walking down a long corridor when a young man in a well-tailored suit came up and asked me to please make my way back to the plaza. I did. I did not want to push my luck.
I spent the rest of the day enjoying the Aztec ruins just east of the palace - The Templo Mayor Archeological Site. It was discovered in 1978 as a workman was digging and uncovered an exquisite Aztec stone. Mexican Archeologists who found the inner remains of the Temple of Huitzilopochtli excavated it. This great temple and part of the central temples that Cortes saw when he first arrived in Mexico.
I spent the next full day in the open market. It is HUGE. Everything is available there from TVs and stereos to beans to clothing to fruit to computers. It was a great experience, and a wonderful chance to practice my fledgling Spanish language skills. I ate at local restaurants. I loved it!
The next day I spend time in Chapultepec Park and the National Museum of Anthropology. The park is larger than Central Park (and much, much safer) filled with people of all types - vendors hawking their wares, children playing, teens reinforcing their parents attitude that the these years of their children's life are the most annoying all, fathers playing football (soccer) and lots of tourists enjoying the day. As I watch this cross section of Mexican society it was obvious that it just does not matter where a person lives. Human beings are basically the same no matter where they live, what language they speak, or what they do to earn their daily bread.
The Anthropological museum is the best I have seen. It told a very complete story of MesoAmericans. It covers each group, their growth, their religions, and samples of their daily lives. One could easily spend two or three days there. Back to the hotel for a nice and richly deserved night of rest.
Up in the morning, stopping by the street vendor for another donut and then on to Teotihuacan. I took the metro to the end and then took a local bus for the remaining 1:20 to the site. It was a great bus ride. Through every small town, picking up passengers, and hauling everything from roofing material to groceries. It was good to see the smaller towns and to understand their culture a little better.
Teotihuacan was spectacular!! The part excavated is over 6 square miles. And this is only part of the total location. I climbed the Temple of the Moon. It is at the end of the Avenue of the Dead. I planned to climb the Temple of the Sun, but a thunderstorm rolled in and it just poured. It was great. I found a small shelter in a feeble attempt to stay dry. As I watched this delight of nature unfold I wondered how many thousands of people have seen this same experience. What were their thoughts? What were their desires? What were their worries? What did they do on a daily basis? Did any of them sit during a similar thunderstorm and wonder the meaning of life?
One of the prominent features is a magnificent and well-preserved Temple of Quetzalcoatl. It is located at the current end of the Avenue of the Dead (which was in the middle during the time the city was occupied). Teotihuacan was the military center of the Aztecs. Very powerful and conquered every city except one - Xochicalco.
I came back into Mexico City and ate at one of the outdoor restaurants. It was a wonderful meal at the end of a great day.
The next day was spent traveling to Cuernavaca. Cuernavaca is a "small" (over 2 million people) tourist town about 64 miles north of Mexico City. There are no less than 65 intensive Spanish schools in this town. In addition to Spanish schools, this location furnishes approximately 90% of the roses consumed in the Southwest USA. Also, there is an American artist's colony here.
Xochicalco is about 16 miles out of Cuernavaca. Xochicalco means the "house of flowers". It was the commerce center of the Aztec world for over 300 years. There is strong evidence that this Aztec commerce center used mass production techniques long before they were prevalent in the western world. Who would have thought that Henry Ford was the second person to recognize this technique and use it as a free market boon?
Xochicalco was built on the top of a hill with only two ways to enter the city. Their armies were stationed on those entry points protecting the city. Like most of MesoAmerica they had a sophisticated priesthood which used the natural cycles to control the populace. They told the average citizen when to plant, when to harvest, when to sell their goods at market, when to have children, and, of course, to always fear and worship their angry gods. They had a very clever scheme. The temple consisted of several rooms surrounding a very large room in the center. They engineered a hole in the ceiling of that large room allowing the sun to shine on the floor during most of the daylight hours. The floor was painted with various marks depicting the seasons based on the path of the sun as it came through the hole in the ceiling. The priest had to watch the path of the sun on the floor. When the sun shinned on the "correct" markings on the floor, the priest would make an announcement, have a festival, make a sacrifice, and have the populace start the task (plant, harvest, sell their goods, etc). Of course, any "commoner" who ventured into this sacred place was put to death. The priestly class wanted to control this knowledge and the power that came from it. This knowledge is commonplace today, but it was extraordinary back then. The time spent in this ancient city was educational and inspirational. It is easy to see why it was one of the two most powerful sites in MesoAmerica.
I caught the local bus back to Cheruvaca. It was a local bus and cost about 70 cents. I had a tasty meal and caught the bus back to Mexico City. I arrived back late at night. I used the metro and walked the isolated streets with no fear. Some find that hard to believe. They seem to believe those exaggerated rumors about violence south of the border. I didn't do anything stupid, of course. But, US citizens fail to realize that America is the most violent country in the world. The good ol' USA has more per capita personal assaults, attacks on tourists, rapes, murders, and childhood deaths than any civilized country in the world. The only difference is that we know America while most other countries are unknown. Most people fear the unknown.
After a restful sleep I spent the next day in the home of Frieda Khola. She was the wife of the famous artist Diego Rivera (twice!!). Also, she was a woman who was an avid communist and women's rights advocate. She hosted several communist meetings, and was a very vocal person when speaking about the abuse of the MesoAmerican Indians by the Mexican government. Trotsky came to Mexico when he abandoned the revolution in the Soviet Union. Trotsky and his wife lived with Frieda in her compound for quite a while. Later he bought his own compound where he lived until he was assassinated by the KBG on the streets of Mexico City.
Mexico City has many, many wonderful cultural buildings. The one I like best is the Ballet Theater (Palacio de Bellas Artes). Construction on the building started around 1900, and it was fully functional by 1934. It has already sunk 12 feet. The palace (and it is just that!) was designed by Italian architect Adam Boari and is covered with Italian marble. Louis Comfort Tiffany added an absolutely spectacular stained glass curtain. This curtain contains over 1,000,000 pieces of iridescent pieces of colored glass. The third level contains the famous murals of Rivera, Orozco, and Siquerios. Rivera's work, similar to his work in the Presidential Palace, and depicts his vision of an economic system destined to grind down the common people of the world. The mural is a giant vacuum cleaner which sucks up resources of the world to feed the card playing, hard-drinking capitalists "bullies" whose only desire is to pile up more riches on the backs of the poor. He was the husband (twice) of Freida Kohla and a very active member of the Mexican Communist Party. It seemed a little odd that this dramatic view of the world is in a place where beauty, grace and gentleness reign supreme.
As I sat in my hotel room preparing for the trip home I thought of the wonderful people I met on the metro, the great adventures on the buses, the magnificent cathedrals I experienced, the glimpse of the long and colorful history of Mexico, and gratitude of getting to know this wonderful country a little better. A great place to visit and a better place to experience.