Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A very Mexico (City) Thanksgiving.

Dang, Jesus - that makeup  game strong! 
It's official: I love Mexico. This is our third trip in as many years, and it's not just due to its proximity. I really do love it here; it is a booty chest of discovery. You want mountains and active volcanoes you can climb? You got 'em. A beach, palm, and hammock scene right off a postcard? Right this way. Buzzing megapolises and quaint, brightly colored towns? Plenty of that here. Heaps of fascinating cultures and civilizations past and present, whose stories you can explore in a museum or mind-blowing archaeological site? You've come to the right place. It's a tapestry of arts, cuisines, smoky mezcals, ubiquitous Jesuses, grinning painted skulls, and monumental, soul-stirring murals. A kaleidoscope that offers something astonishing at every turn.

Variety is key, people. You take that, with just a hint of danger and a pinch of chaos to add a little spice - that's the recipe. Because, let's face it, Mexico is batshit crazy. After all, they descend from a people that played soccer with a boulder and killed virgins to make it rain. They speak Spanish, yet everything has a mile-long name made up almost entirely of consonants. Plus, they all drive like Godzilla is 3 blocks behind them and gaining. Will you die crossing the street today, pedestrian? Anyone's guess. Try and find out.

They are a loud, riled up population chanting for change in a public plaza, and being swept up in that crowd adds a new layer, something deeper than the customary tourist experience.

More on that later. But first, the third trip to Mexico, this time to its teeming hive deep in the heart, the capital - Mexico City. The most populous city in the Western Hemisphere. A sprawling, smoggy conglomeration, but also one that surprised with unexpected beauty and charm, quiet neighborhoods, cozy parks, beautiful architecture, old and new, and an incredibly vibrant art scene.

Detail of a Diego Rivera Mural. Diego and Frida lived and worked in Mexico City for most of their lives.
Mexico City has been around since the 12th century as a powerful Aztec stronghold, but was promptly razed and burned by the Spanish when they arrived to the New World. One of the most interesting things about it (to me) is its geology. It sits in a mountain valley that was once a large lake called Texcoco. The lake was drained in the 17th century, but the city continued to grow, very rapidly, on the clay lakebed. This unstable, seismically active swamp is awful to build on. The city is sagging, so much so that parts of it have sunk over 20 feet just in the last century! This results in buildings that lean every which way at dizzying angles, cracked walls and foundations, huge problems with sewer systems and drainage, and the whole thing is getting worse due to over-extraction of groundwater, which is further compromising the ground's stability. Whew. That was a doozy. If you think about it abstractly, Mexico City is too big and too heavy, and it's literally sinking into the earth. Creepy! Especially when you're up in a high-rise.

The Metropolitan Cathedral, Constitution Plaza
Metropolitan Cathedral

Constitution Plaza
The first day was spent checking in at all the major landmarks - The Constitution Plaza, The Historic Center, Park of Chapultepec, and Diego's murals. We also walked around the more quirky, bohemian Zona Rosa, Roma, Condesa, and the ritzy Polanco at night, but nights were cold and windy, which didn't make for good photo opportunities, so we focused on finding hot food instead.

The Historic Center was lovely though.

Bright and festive, crowded, but cozy.

Just looking at the picture is making my teeth rot.
A little side street with a niche lower level, where book vendors set up stalls under a canopy roof.
It's almost impossible to correct for perspective in photos of the historic center, because at least one building is inevitably leaning precariously.
You really don't need to travel all the way to Pisa to see buildings tipping uncomfortably over your head!

Interior of the historic Central Post Office with beautiful metalwork details.
Despite being almost entirely paved over, Mexico City still manages to have a lot of green space. Each neighborhood has its own park or two, with fountains, playgrounds, and shaded benches. Major public buildings like museums and palaces have sprawling lawns and flower beds. And then there's the one park to rule them all - Chapultepec, a city in itself, with museums, markets, lakes, a castle, and hills, which means: great views.

at the entrance to Chapultepec Park, with the Health Ministry Campus in the background.

One of the lakes with associated revelers.
A road with a view, Chapultepec.

If there's one thing Mexico City has in abundance, it's museums. There are so many of them, of every size, shape, style, and content, you could spend a month never setting foot outside. It's truly an embarrassment of riches.  Art and anthropology are my favorite subjects to explore in museums, so here's what we treated ourselves to.

Museo de Antropologia - The Anthropology Museum

So amazing. In all honesty, you could spend a week here and still not get through everything. It's like the Louvre of human history in Central America. Anthropology is not pottery shards on a dusty shelf, oh no. Here it's interactive, immersive, tactile, multi-dimensional, and at times, missing a few teeth. Here's but a taste of what you can see here.

Stone jaguar mask

A Mayan calendar.

Ritual burial site.

model of an Incan cave dwelling. The shape of the windows reinforced against earthquakes.
Post-Columbian chapel
I love the very particular shapes and patterns of Mesoamerican art.

The building itself is worth seeing.

I really enjoyed this museum. For someone like me, this is a playground. My curiosity doesn't end at present day; it has grown tendrils that reach back through centuries and millenia, and a museum like this gives me room to satisfy it thoroughly. Enlightening, exceptionally thorough and well-curated, bursting with beauty, and not the least bit boring. As an added bonus, it's located next to Polanco, so you will have plenty of dining options after you've worked up a ravenous appetite looking at human femurs. Pujol, for example, is on the list of the top 50 restaurants in the world! We didn't make it, but if you do, please report back.

Back to Chapultepec for a second. There is a castle in the middle of all that noise, cotton candy and tropical vegetation. High on a hill it sits, overlooking the entire park, and much of the city. Fun fact: it's the only castle in North America that at one point housed an actual monarch; an emperor of Mexico, Maximilian the First.  Today it's a history museum.

doors made entirely out of malachite, a gift from the Russians.
Some rooms of the castle are kept in their original condition. 

The beautiful balcony with the beautiful view.
A view down Paseo de la Reforma, one of the major thoroughfares

Castle grounds

One more museum worth mentioning is the Soumaya. Here again, the building itself is an attraction.

It's an art museum. What's unusual is that it's a private collection of Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world. (Is he still? I'm not up to date on these stats). Soumaya was the name of his wife. So the museum - by all parameters a world-class collection of masterpieces - is free and open to the public. Inside it resembles the Guggenheim of New York: a white, windowless spiral. The permanent collection is great (especially loved the Dali sculptures), and there were several temporary exhibits, Chinese ivory and the life of Sophia Loren. 

detail of an ivory piece.
Inside the Soumaya
That's a lot to see in one city, and yet, it's but a glimpse of Cuidad Mexico's riches. For our last day, we booked a tour to Teotihuacan, the archeological site of a Mesoamerican city that's more than 2000 years old.

"Only gods can build such things."
 At our early morning arrival (about 7:30am), this is the sight that greeted us as we approached the city. I don't know about you, but I get goosebumps just looking at that shitty picture. The presence it has in person is prodigious - note the humans on its summit. The quote in the caption refers to what the European explorers allegedly said upon discovering it.

The whole city is very well preserved. The temples, auxiliary complexes and streets, all remain in good shape, though that is due in no small part to to restoration work. Even some original artwork remains on the site.

Another view of the pyramid of the Sun.

About halfway up, this is the view towards part of the complex.
Almost there. At the top, there are several people meditating. Apparently, some people still believe the pyramid has a powerful energy conductor, and they sit at the top channeling it. 

Going up the pyramid of the moon. It's slightly smaller, but serves up an amazing panorama from the summit.

Looking at the Pyramid of the Moon from one of its auxiliary buildings.
Inside a chamber that still has some original carvings and even pigments!

Finally, a note about current events and civic engagement. At the time of our visit (November 2014) Mexico had just been rocked by the kidnappings and murders of 43 university students by a drug cartel. Tensions were high, and protests erupted daily during our visit. We saw a couple of unrelated protests too, calling out systemic corruption. They were all peaceful and civil - even if some did consist of throngs of men in nothing but briefs -

- but at the same time, they left no room to speculate about the general mood of the citizens, especially the younger ones.

During one of the nights, we stumbled on a huge Occupy-style demonstrations in front of the Bellas Artes Palace - one of the most prominent places in the heart of the city. It was packed, the air sizzled with anger, and protesters put on performances, gave speeches, and erected entire art displays in commemoration and protest of what they viewed as incompetence and corruption that led to the loss of so many lives.

We didn't try to inquire too much, but we stayed to observe for a while and soak up the atmosphere. It makes me hopeful for the future of Mexico. An engaged, empassioned citizenry is a sure harbinger of change, and I can only hope there's some on the horizon for Mexico.

So, that was it. Our third visit, and definitely not the last. I actually have my next trip to Mexico all planned out, but I won't give it away yet. You'll just have to wait and see.

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