When we finally arrived in Mexico City it seemed like any other big metropolis except that there were vintage 1970′s Volkswagen Beetles everywhere. I would soon learn that they still produce the “Bug” in Mexico and it is still a popular car. Unfortunately, the old 1600 cc engine has little in the way of emissions controls and the smoke produced by these reliable German designed cars just adds to the pollution of the city. I was quite shocked at how bad the air pollution was; the visibility was perhaps a 1/2 kilometer or less. Another interesting feature of the city was the huge speed bumps called “tumulos” (the sound made me think of “road tumors”) that are almost as tall as a meter high. We had seen tumulos all over Mexico but those in De Effe were particularly large.
We drove to one of the Lonely Planet Guidebook recommended hostels and found an eclectic mix of Argentine, Chilean, Dutch, American and Mexican travelers. The housing was dormitory style with 6 to a room; Jeff and I shacked up with the Chileans and Argentines who turned out to be great room moates. At night, they played the Latin group “La Ley” (The Law) on the boom box while we slept and it echoed around in my head all night long. I had some Spanish-speaking dreams and the sound kinda stuck; I bought the album and it is one of my favorites now. We were also exposed to some other Latin music like Mana and we sat around in the patios chatting, listening to music and snacking. The South Americans were quite nice and had a strong and independent spirit. Many from South America yearn to travel but with some, the strength of their finances does not allow them to travel overseas. Instead, they travel their own continent and make up for finance with good budget planning and a sense of adventure. Later, I would come to find that the book & movie The Motorcycle Diaries had a HUGE influence on the youth of Central and South America and many of them decided to hit the road and follow the path of “El Che.”
Once we were settled in we arranged to meet the girls for one last ‘goodbye’ before they left for Germany. We agreed to meet at Mexico City’s famous central plaza called the Zocalo; it seems that all over Mexico the town square is called the Zocalo but in the rest of Central America the town square is called “Park Central.” The Mexico City Zocalo is the largest town square in the Americas and as you can see in the photo, it is quite massive. The full name for the Zocalo is The Constitution Square Plaza de la Constitucion El Zocalo of Mexico City. As is normal in most Mexican towns, a huge Mexican flag flies over the square in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana). From the view in the photo below, the congress building is just to the right off photo. On the other side of the congress building to the right of the cathedral is an Aztec Pyramid; this entire area was also the capital for the Aztecs and when the Spaniards came, they tore down most of the buildings leaving only the foundations and then built the Cathedral and government buildings right on top of the Aztec foundations.
I ventured inside the Metropolitan Cathedral and to my surprise I found that Mass was being practiced. I stood in the back for a while and watched as the service went on (below). As I looked around the cathedral I noticed that there seemed to be all kinds of repairs; the foundation of the building appeared to be sinking into the ground. As I walked around after Mass was finished, I noticed what appeared to be wells dug throughout the church and the pillars were shored up. When I inquired, I learned that the entire city is built on a marsh and that the heavy buildings are slowly sinking into the mud. By digging holes and pumping out the ground water and extending artificial foundations, the process is slowed a bit. Later, when we toured the congress building and saw the huge murals did we understand why the buildings were sinking.
When the girls finally arrived, they took us on a tour of the congress building. Inside, several dozen large painted murals tell the story of Mexico City from the time before the Aztecs inhabited until now. The painting shows what looks like a lake and the Aztecs lived on boats and reed islands in a semi-aquatic and agricultural society. As farming continued over the centuries, eventually the marsh filled with soil and more and more of the lake was claimed as farm land. By the time the Pyramids were built, the entire area was land. But under the soil a marsh is a marsh and this has proved difficult for the City’s planners today.
The murals showed the Aztec climb to power, the invasion of the Spaniards, the time of colonization and then of revolution. When we looked at the list of the Mexican Fathers of the Constitution, I was surprised to see the names of Scottish, Jewish and Arab signers. I suppose it makes sense, just as America received immigrants from all of the European countries, so too did Mexico. And as there was a huge population of displaced Jews and Arabs from the Inquisition who resettled in North Africa, surely the lure of land in the Americas was an opportunity that many seized.
When facing the Cathedral, diagonally to the right lies the base of one of the Aztec Pyramids. It has been excavated and is on display as an archaeological exhibit. As we walked around and looked at the bases of these 500-year-old buildings, we could see larger stones at the street level that were a thousand years old. What history this city must have seen…
Around the back of the Cathedral is a huge open market and we wandered around enjoying the sights and sounds. It was just a few days before Christmas and the city was bustling with shoppers. We relocated our wallets to front pockets and kept close together as the LP guidebook warns of pickpockets. Many times we were pushed shoulder to shoulder with the crowds of Mexican Christmas shoppers; it truly is a crowded city. On one street corner a Mexican news team was interviewing shoppers asking them about the purchases and Christmas plans.
As we wandered around the market we saw that security was tight; Army soldiers were posted around the Cathedral and Congress building and in the market there were policemen armed with Colt submachine guns and body armor. We stopped near the policemen at a taco stand to get some lunch and I was quite surprised to see cactus on the menu (below). The meat was minced pork and seasoned nicely mixed with a few slices of cactus on a corn tortilla with some spicy salsa verde (green salsa). It was really good! The cactus is quite sweet when cooked and created quite a unique flavor with the pork, lime, salsa and corn tortilla. We munched on our tacos as the policemen scanned the crowd nearby. After we ate I shot their photo and added it to my police and soldiers page.
After lunch we toured the city’s art museum and then made our way to one of the skyscrapers that commands a view of the Zocalo. We paid our fare and took the elevator to the top of the building and as you can see in the photo below, the smog was so thick that we couldn’t see very far. Only a kilometer away you can barely make out the Zocalo in the photo below. It is the dark shape running horizontally; you can see the belfries of the cathedral on the left. Mexico City has a long way to go towards clean air…
Christiane had lamented that she never had the opportunity to ride a horse before she left Mexico. But later that day we ran into some equestrian police officers; I asked them in my broken Spanish if the girls could have a ride and they agreed! The helped the girls up and then walked them around the park; Christiane was beaming with an ear-to-ear smile.
We finally said out ‘goodbyes’ and then parted ways: Jeff and I headed south, the girls back to Germany.
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