Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Aztec Adventures

on July 17, 2013

Mexico City. Ciudad de Mexico or El Distrito Federal to the locals… A sprawling metropolis with a population of around 21 million… Yes, you read correctly- there are almost as many people living in this capital than there are in the whole of Australia!

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This is just one of the things I learned which I had no idea about before I visited Mexico City… I didn’t know the city sat at an altitude of 2,240 metres. But I sure noticed when climbing up the five flights stairs to the rooftop of my hostel for breakfast on my first day! I also didn’t know the city was initially built on an island surrounded by lakes. The legend goes that the gods told the Aztecs they were to build their new city at the site where they found the sign of an eagle perched on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak. When they came to this island on Lake Texcoco, they saw this sign and it was here that the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was built in the 1300s (and the eagle, snake and cactus is now the symbol which decorates Mexico’s flag). When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, Tenochtitlan was destroyed and the colonial capital which is now Mexico City was built over the top of it. As a consequence of the city expanding over the soft ground which was once underwater, there are far more leaning towers here than in Pisa!

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Despite what I’d heard, Mexico City appeared far more clean and felt a lot more safe than the reputation which proceeded it. Although its population is enormous, while I was there the city streets never seemed to be overly crowded or bunged up with traffic or full of exhaust fumes- but maybe I was hanging in quieter parts of town. Mexico City is the home of more old skool VW beetles (aka. Punch Buggies) than I’ve seen in a long time, but also has electric taxis, electric buses (they operate just like trams from an overhead cable) and they have a free bike hire scheme as well as several bike routes too.

The city is also pictureque, with wide, tree-lined streets and beautiful colonial buildings, though for some reason all the streets seem to be made of the slipperiest stones known to man, which makes wandering around  in thongs particularly hazardous (especially after the rain!). You will also never be without a toilet here- every street has numerous sanitarios, obvious by their giant ‘WC’ signs out front. I have never seen such a concentration of public loos! It seems to be quite the business here… Often you pay a few pesos to use them but the standard is leaps and bounds above the average Asian public toilet. Mexico City is not only memorable for its quality public amenities, but it is also a haven for museums, galleries and cultural activities. You could probably visit a different museum every week of the year, there are that many around- it seems like there’s one every block! There is art everywhere, not just in galleries but in the streets and underground in the metro stations, pretty much any surface that can be painted on…

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The fact that Mexico City has a vast and super-efficient metro system is something else I didn’t know before I arrived. It is SO cheap to get around at 3 pesos per trip (~25c!). You can change lines as many times as you want and cross the entire city for that price! Which is great because with the city being so big, it isn’t really easy to travel between boroughs by foot.

Taking the metro is an experience in itself. It’s here that you tend to notice the crowds more- being so cheap, it really is accessible to everyone and is well utilised. No matter if the carriage is bursting at the seams, there are always vendors selling all kinds of things on board. They really are talented, somehow managing to get on during the generous 10 second window that the doors are open (with hoards of people pushing in opposite directions), then they somehow shuffle their way through the packed carriage spruiking their wares in a sing-song voice. They sell anything from gardening gloves, to razors, to pocket mirrors, to chewing gum or candy, or my favourites, the compilation CDs. These vendors come in wearing a backpack decked out with a speaker attached to a discman (remember those?!) playing a snippet of each song on their CD full bawl. Depending on the day, a segment of your trip could be accompanied by traditional mariachi music, electro beats or English pop tunes from a range of eras sung in Spanish. And all could be yours for the bargain price of 10 pesos or less (<$1)! There were people selling stuff everywhere in the metro, even setting up on the stairs from the street down to the trains, or on the 10cm wide bit of railing between the stairs and escalators!

I stayed in a hostel in the Centro Historico just a couple of blocks from the Zócalo (Main Square), which is encircled by several impressive buildings including the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace and the City Hall.

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The cathedral is apparently the oldest and largest Roman Catholic cathedral in the Americas. On my first day, I roamed around inside, which is lovely, and also climbed up the bell tower (unfortunately on a Spanish speaking tour, so I understood little more than random words here and there!) but the view from the cathedral rooftop was well worth it.

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We also went to visit the Templo Mayor, which was the main temple of Aztec Tenochtitlan, part of which has been excavated just beside the cathedral.

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Sadly, the National Palace, formerly the presidential residence, but now a government building, was closed for renovations the whole time I was there. There are some Diego Rivera murals depicting significant scenes from Mexico’s history which I really wanted to see, but not to be.

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The next day however, a group of us- Joe, Sarah and I from Oz and Matt from England, went to the Ministry of Education building (which we later discovered was actually the building adjoined to our hostel!) which Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint in the 20s. He spent 6 years (1923-1929) painting murals around the walls of 3 levels of this huge building, which gave us plenty to see for free! He painted a range of images, depicting various types of labour carried out in Mexico, different Mexican celebrations, intellectual sciences, and the most impressive for me- a large series of images about the people’s struggles during the revolution, which quite clearly expressed his socialist and anti-capitalist point of view.

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We were very excited to find this place, as our day though turning out well, had started a little disappointingly. We were all waiting in the foyer of the hostel for a free market tour, when the guide (who had been at the hostel just ½ an hour earlier) called to say he had a family emergency and couldn’t make it. So we decided to conduct our own self-guided market tour. We jumped on the metro out to Mercado Jamaica, which had a bit of everything- food, produce, and finally came to the section they were famous for- the flowers. And they were amazing! I was kind of expecting some nice big bunches, but they had crazy elaborate arrangements shaped like Elmo, the Cookie Monster, frogs or lions, holding hearts saying ‘I Love You’. Insane.

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After Matt had bought some crickets and I’d tried and not enjoyed the second cricket of my lifetime, we trekked along to find Mercado Sonora, which was known as a market for ‘witchcraft’. They had a whole bunch of stalls with freaky looking dried snakes and other creatures, as well as an assortment of herbs, incense and candles, so I guess this was the part that got it the reputation. We also found a guy selling peyote under the table, though didn’t buy any! The rest of the market was a close knit maze of knick-knacks- toys, costumes, handicrafts. The find of the day was the Luche Libre wrestling masks for a fraction of the price of what we’d been told they were at the arena, so I bought up in preparation for the following evening!

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The rest of our afternoon was spent eating a ridiculously large but super cheap meal at Mercado Merced and later wandering to several museums and galleries in town which were all shut because apparently Monday is Mexico City’s day off for museums. When asking directions for one, we were told to ask the police, which we thought was a bit funny, but turned out to be a good tip as they actually did seem to know more than the average local! Mexico City has a lot of green space too, so despite not getting into any of the buildings we wanted to, we were able to wander through Almeda Central, a massive park with many water features, and also checked out Plaza Garibaldi, known for its many Mariachi bands, but it was a little early for much action (clearly it does get some action though, judging from the sign we saw below…)

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We then ended up walking through a part of town that appeared to be dedicated to fiestas,  but predominantly Quinceaños, which is the 15th birthday and ‘coming of age’ for a Mexican girl. There were stores overflowing with full-length puffy princess dresses, in all colours with frills, sparkles, diamantes, you name it! And stores filled with fancy invitations saying ‘15’ on metallic paper with ribbons and more sparkles… It would have been pretty cool to attend one of these parties, as it seems like they are a big deal! Each area in Mexico City seems to have a theme- there’s the shoe street, the jewellers street, and the floral leggings street (seriously, you would not believe what a popular fashion item this is here)… you really need to know where to go for what you want as you can’t just hope to stumble upon it in the sprawling expanse of Mexico City!

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We spent the evening at the hostel, where the Aussies were delighted to meet a French guy who looked exactly like Guy Sebastian (and introduce everyone else who was not acquainted with Guy Sebastian to both his picture and his music- the classic ‘Angels Brought Me Here’ Aus Idol era of course). It was uncanny. But then I got ‘Angels Brought Me Here’ stuck in my head for days…

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The next day was a revisit to the Diego Rivera Mural Museum, which was now open and definitely worth going back for- there was an amazing photo exhibition by a guy called Leo Matiz featuring musicians from all over Latin America and of course the feature piece, Rivera’s Sueño de la tarde de un domingo en la Alameda Central (Dreaming in the afternoon on a Sunday in Alameda Central). It’s a massive piece featuring lots of famous faces of Mexico’s present (as per the 70s) and past. There is so much going on you can look at it for ages.

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Later we took the metro out to Coyoacán (‘Place of the Coyotes’), the town of Frida Kahlo. Well, it used to be a town, but has now been swallowed by Mexico City and is more of a suburb… It still retains somewhat of a village feel however, and was very pleasant to walk around. The main attraction here is Frida’s Casa Azul (Blue House) where she was born, spent much of her life and also died. Unfortunately, you couldn’t take any pictures in the house, but there was a great exhibition of her clothing which had just recently been discovered locked away in a bathroom in the house, and you could also see her studio and bedroom (with the mirror above her bed) and all her things still in there. Personally, I found learning about Frida fascinating. I didn’t know much about her prior to coming to Mexico City, other than she was an artist from Mexico who painted a lot of self-portraits. However, after being here, seeing her and her art everywhere, reading a bit more about her and visiting her house, I’ve found her quite an intriguing character.

For those of you who aren’t interested or who are already Frida buffs, forgive me, but I will tell a little about her here from what I’ve heard and read for those who don’t know… She was born in 1907 in Coyoacán to a Hungarian father and Mexican mother. She had polio when she was 6 which left her with a deformed left leg which was shorter than her right leg. She originally wanted to be a doctor, but when she was 18, she was in a tramcar accident where she was pretty much impaled on a metal pole. It sounded horrific, and it’s actually amazing that she survived it at that time, but it did her a lot of internal damage, leaving her unable to bear children and also needing to wear external braces to supprt her pelvis and spine. Her trademark outfits were therefore chosen specifically to hide her physical defects. She wore long skirts, elaborate headdresses and detailed blouses to draw attention upwards. She started painting while she was recovering in the hospital from her accident. A lot of her paintings depict her physical and emotional pain. Later, she married the famous painter Diego Rivera, but it seems they had quite a tumultuous relationship, both having numerous affairs. Diego’s affair with Frida’s younger sister caused them to get a divorce, although they then remarried a year later! It sounds like their second marriage they lived in separate homes and were happier that way. She still had a lot of trouble with her health throughout her life and had something like 22 operations, including the amputation of one of her feet, and sadly died quite young, at the age of 47. So quite an interesting and also a tragic life, I thought!

The rest of our afternoon in Coyoacán was spent lazing around the main square which was full of couples and ice-cream shops. Here in Mexico the PDA is rife, seeing people making out is commonplace in any area with a bench, tree or even a wall to lean on. Though I guess for a country where people you’ve just met greet you with a kiss on the cheek this is somewhat understandable…

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That evening a group of us from the hostel headed out to the Lucha Libre- Mexican wrestling! We picked up an additional Aussie couple on the metro so ended with a crew of 11 people. Arena México is pretty big, but wasn’t full, I guess because it was a Tuesday night, which probably isn’t as popular as the Friday night matches. Dressed in our masks we took to our seats and ordered massive paper cups of beer (2 bottles in one cup) and as the action started, we picked random wrestlers to cheer for. The first fight was probably more amateur, as you could see a lot of the moves coming a mile off, and often it looked a bit fake; but as the night went on, the tricks got more and more impressive. It was really entertaining, watching El Felino play dirty and rub his armpits in his opponents’ faces, seeing massive dudes flying off the top of the ropes and flipping opponents using their legs, finding out the bitch slap is employed regularly as a legitimate move in this sport and also seeing an ex-Aussie Gladiator take to the ring (so that’s where they end up…).

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The boys really got into it, and for the rest of the night, the masks were never far away, with Joe and Martin street-fighting, bar-fighting and Joe just generally enjoying his beer more with his mask on…

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After quite a late but fun-filled night, Sarah and I dragged ourselves out to the tour bus the next morning to visit Teotihuacan. First we stopped at an Aztec site called Tlatelolco, still in Mexico City, where we saw the ruins of temples and human remains, as well as the colonial church, Templo de Santiago, and the Plaza de Tres Culturas (Plaza of Three Cultures). The three cultures referred to are the indigenous, Spanish and Mestizo (mixed European and American Indian), represented by the buildings from different eras around the square. This site is infamous for a massacre which occurred in 1968, where hundreds of student demonstrators were sadly killed by the Mexican government.

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We then visited the Guadalupe Shrine, a few kilometres outside Mexico City, to see the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legend goes that in 1531, the Virgin appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego, and asked him to tell the bishop to build her a church. So he went and asked, but the bishop didn’t believe him and wanted proof. When Juan Diego was returning home, the Virgin appeared again, and gave him some roses to take to the bishop as proof. He gathered them and put them in his blanket, and when he went back to the bishop and opened it, the roses fell out the famous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was inside. So then the bishop believed him a built a church. There are two churches at this site now, the original colonial one and a new modern one where the image is currently housed.

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There were soooo many people in there! It looked like Christmas Eve mass or something, not a random Wednesday morning in June… Anyway, they had thought up this neat system where the image was placed so that it could be seen by the whole congregation, but behind the pulpit was a little escalator which went past the image so all the tourists could get up close to it and take their pictures.

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From there, we had a little nap on the bus before arriving to a mezcal factory just outside Teotihuacan. Here we got to try several liquors made from the maguey (agave) plant including pulque (a nice sweet syrupy one) and mezcal (the close cousin of tequila, and a real difficult tasting to do the morning after!). The difference between mezcal and tequila is that tequila is made by steaming the agave and mezcal is made by roasting it, so mezcal tastes more smokey. Tequila is technically a type of mezcal I think. We were also shown several other things that the maguey is traditionally used for- the outer part of the leaf can be peeled off to make paper, the liquid that is on the surface of the leaf after the outside is peeled can be used as soap or shampoo, and lastly, the spiky tip of the leaf can be pulled out with the strong fibres from the centre of the leaf attached- an ancient needle and thread! They often make clothes and bags with this thread, though these days it is often combined with another textile such as cotton to make the end product softer. A pretty impressive plant!

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And then, we got to the main event- Teotihuacan. It is actually a huge site, quite a lot bigger than I expected. We were shown around one of the palaces by our guide and then had a couple of hours to wander on our own. First, we climbed the Pyramide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), the second biggest structure on the site. You can only climb part of the way up but you still get a great view down the main avenue. We climbed some little side pyramids too, which seemed like a good photo op as no-one else was doing it (and you were allowed to, don’t worry, we weren’t being crazy rebels).

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From there we wandered down the avenue, where many, many people shouted at us to buy things for 10 pesos. But apparently, it’s not like on the metro where everything is actually 10 pesos… one of the guys at our hostel discovered this call is just a hook to get you in! He thought, ‘10 pesos? Sure, I’ll get one!’ Then went up to the dude who said ‘40 pesos’, which resulted in no sale for him…

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One of the most annoying things they sold there were these little jaguar noise makers that you blow into and they make an artificial sounding roar. On top of all the people selling them and kindly demonstrating what they do, it seemed like every kid in the joint had gotten a hold of one and was consistently blowing into it, so our climb up the Pyramide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) was somewhat less tranquil accompanied by incessant grainy roaring… The Pyramide del Sol was really awesome though, unlike the Pyramide de la Luna, you had 360 degree views and could look over the whole site and the surrounding valleys.

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After that we tried to go and see a temple in the citadel which was meant to have some great paintings in really good condition. After walking for what seemed like kilometres we finally made it to the citadel but there were no real signs to direct us, just random ones in Spanish about topics such as ‘What did the people of Teotihuacan eat?’. We wandered around and climbed up a platform in the centre of the plaza to see if that was it, but no dice. There was only one other platform that was covered in scaffolding and looked fenced off, so we  gave up and headed back.

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On the way, one of the sellers who had spoken to us on the way past came up to us again and offered me some gemstones for free. I was a bit wary but he came up and put them in my hand. Then he proceeded to give each of us a little massage with a spherical polished stone while he chanted something. Felt good on the back, but then he did your stomach too which was not as pleasant! We wandered if he was casting a spell on us to buy stuff, but we managed to leave with nothing but my free gemstones- seems like he was just a friendly guy who liked to massage foreigners with stones. We trekked all the way back to the Pyramide del Sol, whizzed through the museum, then met our group again. When our guide asked if we’d seen the paintings and we said we couldn’t find it, he said it was in the platform with the scaffolding- apparently it was still accessible! Boo!

On my last day in Mexico City, Sarah and I decided to tackle the giant Anthropology Museum. It had been raining a lot, so wasn’t a bad day to hole ourselves up inside learning about the ancient civilisations of Mexico. It was a really interesting museum, but intense as there was so much stuff! I spent 5 hours there and only made it around the ground floor and there was a whole second level! Epic.

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There were some really awesome displays and I also learned some fun facts like:

-The ball game played by the Aztecs was actually of religious significance, representing the cycle of life and death and movement of the cosmos. If a team made a play in opposing direction to the movement of the sun/ moon or other relevant celestial body, they were sacrificed (either by decapitation or the cutting-out-their-still-beating-heart technique of ‘Apocalypto’ fame).

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-3 months of the 18-month Aztec calendar (each 20 days long) were dedicated to worshipping maize. And the sacred foods for all the other months were always made of maize… It was believed that corn was a gift from the gods themselves to man, and that the first humans were made of corn dough. It’s still a Mexican staple.

-The famous image of the Aztec Stone of the Sun (commonly called the ‘Aztec Calendar’, which everyone thought foretold the end of the world last year…) is not actually a calendar! It does contain symbols depicting the names of days and cosmogonic suns which is probably where this thought came from, but the stone was actually a large sacrificial altar… the central image is of one of the gods holding two human hearts with his tongue represented by a sacrificial knife…

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Anyway, after a long day in the museum, and a chance meeting with a Kenyan marathon runner in town for the Mexico City Marathon that weekend (Hillary Kipchirchir Kimaiyo- really friendly guy!) on the way back, Sarah and I went to the opera. The performance was at the Bellas Artes, Mexico City’s stunning opera house.

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In this area of town, they randomly have traffic police at intersections with working traffic lights who direct traffic in opposition to what the lights say! Crazy! Crossing the road there is always fun… Anyway, I digress… Sarah and I decided we’d check it out the opera as we’d never been before and could get some cheap tickets (~AU$15) to test the waters and see if we liked it. Also we got the see inside the theatre… 🙂

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The show we went to was called El Trovadore (or Il Trovatore in its original Italian). It was performed in Italian, but had subtitles projected in Spanish. My Spanish was enough that together with the acting I had an idea of the major events going on, but consequently missed a lot of the finer details in the convoluted plot! I really enjoyed it despite being a little confused at the end, but got home and Wikipedia shed light on everything for me… ‘Ohhhhh she wasn’t really betraying him, she was trying to save him!’ and ‘Ohhhh, so she didn’t just drop dead randomly… she drank poison beforehand!’ So, in closing, I would go to the opera again one day, but it might help me to buy a program in English… shame it’s so expensive in Australia though!

It was a bit sad saying bye to everyone when I left the next day- I met some amazing people in Mexico City and had some great times. But for now it was adios big city, I was off to test out the village life in Puebla!

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