Viva Mexico City – 2004

Every so often I go back into my way-way back machine and pull up a travelogue from my past.  Back when I traveled on the cheap, I usually sent back travel stories to friends and family.  I am slowly going through them, editing them, and posting them on my blog. 

In early 2004 I was selected to take part in an assistantship through my graduate school.  Each of the participants would be working at a different international organization; I would be heading to an organization in Honolulu.  Beforehand, we all would take part in a three-week pre-departure seminar.  I decided to jet off to Mexico City to feed my travel bug in between the seminar and the assistantship. 

The weird thing though is that this trip is one of my least remembered.  Only a few photos from the trip remain, but they capture so little of my memories.  There are none of Frida Kahlo’s house, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Palacio Nacional, Xochimilco, the Templo Mayor, and many more major sights, in addition to the Zocalo, the subway, and other every day scenes.  Its unusual for me to take so few photos.  I searched through my old diaries, but I wrote not a single entry during the trip or even any about the trip later.  At least I sent out an email story.

Me and the Pyramids

Me at Teotihuacan

I was a bit hesitant to come to Mexico City.  After years of media reports on the dangers of Mexico, especially the capital, and the floods of job stealing migrants (ha!)  I had been subconsciously developing a latent fear and apathy towards Mexico.  Also, everyone and their brother warned me of the terrible dangers of taking a taxi from the street.  The guidebooks.  My aunt.  The man sitting next to me on the plane.  The hostel driver who picked me up at the airport.  It seemed a constant mantra drummed into me.  I wondered though if there were actually any danger left anymore, with so many people warned off this potentially disastrous act.

Still, I love the taxis, the traditional model of Volkswagen Beetle in bright green with a white top.  I recall hearing a story from a few years ago that although VW was discontinuing its production of the Beetle, it would continue to make the car in Mexico.  I see VW bugs all over the city, so it seems to be true.  Bright new Bugs zipping through traffic with sometimes terrifying velocity.  It might just be a good thing to avoid getting into one for reasons other than crime.

Another fear building up inside me in regards to Mexico City was the pollution.  I was under the impression considering the altitude of the city and the ring of mountains and volcanoes which surround the one-time lake – now Mexico City – trapped the pollution, leaving it hovering over the city.  I imagined asthmatic self, gasping for breath, perhaps falling by the wayside on some heavily polluted street making fish out of water type mouth movements as my lungs fail to suck in enough air for me to go on.  At the very least I expected a smoggy dark overcast sky greeting me each day.  I expected the air pollution to be visible and tangible, heavy, oily.  And yet, for the most part, each day has greeted me with beautiful blue skies with white fluffy clouds.  I have hardly used my asthma medicine, and I have not once been winded.

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The Dance of the Flyers

The city is amazing!  Mexico City is a vibrant, exciting, culturally and historically, rich metropolis.  Its wide boulevards seem to manage the tens of thousands of vehicles traversing the streets daily.  I have hardly seen a traffic jam.  The metro is a wonder; nine lines of clean, orderly and efficient underground trains zipping some five million people a day across and around town.  Considering the city was built on a lake by the Xochimilco people more than a thousand years ago, then built on top by the Aztecs, then on top of those by the Spanish, and is gradually sinking as the lake seeks to reassert itself, that there is an underground metro at all is quite amazing.  On top of the millions of people who daily (yes, millions every day) squeeze themselves into the of often overcrowded cars, yet the stations are kept quite clean and the system is easy and efficient to use.  I am very impressed.

I suppose I could wax on and on about this, but I have done more here than simply breath the air, avoid taxis, and enjoy the fantastic metro!

On my first day in the city I strolled through the huge market which encompasses the Calle Moneda (Coin Street) in front of the hostel and the surrounding streets, with vendors selling just about every possible thing one might need, from socks and CDs to underwear and sodas, to tamales and batteries, and handbags and electronics.  I figured if I were to move to Mexico City, I would not need to bring a thing and could buy everything I need on a long day to this amazing daily market.  Then I headed to the Palacio National, just across from the hostel, but facing the Zocalo, or main square, cattycornered from the imposing, but beautiful, facade of the Cathedral Nacional.  Inside the Palacio Nacional are the unfinished murals of Diego Rivera portraying the history of Mexico.  He planned to paint murals of the entire Mexican history, but due to illness, never completed past the arrival of the Spaniards.  A German girl from the hostel and I managed to procure a free guide who told us the history and symbolism of the amazing murals for a full hour!  I was entranced.

In the afternoon, I made my way to the Tower Latin America, what used to be the highest tower in the region.  My plan was to go to the top, but the building seemed so fantastically ugly to me, I felt repelled to even think of going inside.  Instead, I crossed the street to the opposing beauty of the Palacio Bellas Artes.  That evening, I walked further up the avenue to the Plaza Garibaldi, the haunt of the mariachi players.  I knew I was heading in the correct direction as I followed a man in tight black pants with silver down the pantleg sides, tall white socks, a short bolero jacket, and a guitar slung over his shoulder.  The Plaza was full of mariachis biding their time waiting for someone to commission a song from them.  Most were dressed in black, but a small group in magnificent green played to a couple in a small corner.  I imagined couples driving about the city, when the man suddenly decides a song would woo his sweetheart and he furiously heads over to the Plaza and wins the heart of his woman with a paid song by a smartly dressed mariachi band.  There did seem to be classy cars turning into the Plaza like a drive-thru serenade stop.

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Me standing with the stone sentries at Tula

On my second day I joined a tour to the Church of the Virgen of Guadalupe and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.  The huge church was built on the site where a local named Juan Diego saw a vision of the Virgen of Guadalupe, who told him to build a church in her honor.  Like many buildings in the city, the church is sinking, and one side more than the other, giving it the appearance of almost falling forward.

The Pyramids were amazing.  How to describe them?  They are not like the Pyramids of Egypt, as these have steps to climb up, as they were steps to take the priests to the temple located at the apex of the building for rituals.  They were not tombs, but are solid inside.  The Temple of the Sun is the third largest Pyramid in the world.  They were not actually built by the Aztecs but by a tribe of people who came perhaps 500 years before them, but used by the Aztecs when they arrived to their promised land.  Most of the buildings facing the Avenue of the Dead, the main drag down Pyramid row, were places for the higher personages in the society, though little remains of them.  I wanted to try and imagine the spectacle of this city as living and breathing, but the stark ruins and the dry countryside made that difficult for me.  Besides, the Aztecs were a rather cruel and brutal society, and I am not sure I would want to imagine the trains of people lined up for human sacrifices, their hearts ripped out of them in order to appease the Sun God thus ensuring the sun would rise the next day.  There was apparently one time when in the city of Mexico before the Templo Mayor (Major Temple) some four lines of sacrifices, stretching for three miles, awaited their fate to die for the Gods.  Though the Aztec art and architecture are indeed beautiful, much seems borrowed from earlier groups, whom the Aztecs admired and claimed as their ancestors, particularly the Toltecs.  The German Girl said she did not find the Pyramids impressive because of the lack of scenery surrounding them, but I still found them amazing.

On my third day I headed first to the Templo Mayor, a major Aztec temple now in the center of Mexico City.  In the early seventies, some electricians or city water people, or someone doing some sort of digging, stumbled upon a huge disc, several tons in weight, carved with Coyolxauhqui, the God of the Moon.  And this is how the temple was discovered.  I opted not to tour guide here and soon my head began to hurt attempting to translate the Spanish placards.  Mostly, I just walked the excavated portions and then through the museum.

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The healer shaman

My next stops were Mexican artist Frida Kahlo´s house and the final home of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.  I enjoyed visiting Frida´s lovely blue house in a well-to-do neighborhood in the southern part of the city, but I found it odd there were few of her paintings on display.  I wanted to buy a postcard of a particular painting of hers, but it was not to be had.  In fact, there was not a single postcard of Frida´s paintings on sale at her house.  There were a few of her husband’s, Diego Rivera, and some photographs of Frida and Diego, but none of the paintings.  Leon Trotsky, who found asylum in Mexico at the insistence of Diego Rivera, an ardent socialist (he often painted Marx, Stalin, Mao into his pictures as well as industrial utopias and the famed ideal proletariat), came to Mexico in the late 30s.  He even had an affair with Frida, whose own home was nearby.  He was also assassinated in the house.  The first attempt left bullet holes in the bedroom wall across from the bed, the second, successful assassin employed the use of an ice pick.  I left the two houses with a thirst to know more about Frida, Diego, and Leon and the times and society in which they lived.

On my fourth day, together with a Romanian woman from the hostel, I visited the Museum Antropologica.  We spent more than four and half hours in the museum!  And I did not see it all as we spent so much time in the Toltec, Aztec, Maya and Oaxaca sections of the museum that by the time we got to the Mixtec/Oaxaca section we just blew in and out.  We stepped outside just in time to watch the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers). While at the Pyramids, the guide had explained a number of favorite Aztec games and this Flyer was one of them.  A long pole is set up, let’s say 100 feet into the air.  At the top perches a man who will play the haunting Aztec flute.  Four other men, dressed as birds, climb to the top of the pole, wind four ropes around the pole, and then tie the end of the ropes to their feet.  A platform at the top rotates and off the platform the four men go, flying around and around the pole, arms outstretched as they are slowly lowered to the ground.  The version we saw seemed harmless enough, but from what I have learned from the Aztecs, I can hardly believe they just flew down and nothing happened to them.  Surely someone had to die?  Surely someone was sacrificed?  The other Aztec “games” do not appear so innocuous.  But this one was fun to watch…

The following day, I headed out to Tula, again with the Romanian woman.  Tula is another Aztec site about 70 kilometers to the north of Mexico City.  It too has a pyramid, though it’s in poor condition, but it’s the six magnificent Atlantes, 4.5-meter-tall carved stone statues of Toltec soldiers, which previously held up the roof of the sacred temple, which people come to see.  But, boy, was it an effort to get there.  First, there were seven metro stops with two changes, then a 15-hour bus ride, followed by a 10-minute mini bus ride, and then a 100-meter walk.  And through it all the Romanian woman regaled me, against my will, with the story of her recent tragic love story.  The weather was cold and a little dreary, having rained in the morning, and with continual dark clouds threatening to do it again.  The setting was lovely, though it would have been more so had the sun been out, but the dark skies and the purple mountain and what seemed like an extinct volcano in the backdrop gave the place atmosphere, though it was all overshadowed by the trials of a failed Romanian romance.

Mexican medallion

I may not remember much of my Mexico trip, but this necklace, my one souvenir, reminds me

On my final day I headed to the Xochimilco, the floating gardens, remnants of the original innovative means early settlers employed to create islands and finally the land over the lake, providing the foundations to build this amazing city.  At Xochimilco the gardens and homes are crossed by canals.  I had imagined flowers everywhere, something of what I had seen at Lake Inle in Myanmar, but I was disappointed.  Today Mexico City got to me.  The canals were choked with garbage, and I felt the strangle of poverty.  Though many of the homes were pretty nice, most had dogs, there was something dejected and dilapidated permeating the place.  Maybe it was just my mood.  I took a small launch for one hour.  Mariachis played on another boat; the sellers of sweet potatoes and tamales and roasted corn floated by.  It sounds idyllic, but I felt cold and disappointed, but most of all defeated.  I felt a great weight.

On the way back to the hostel, I saw more and more.  I saw traffic jams.  I noticed the presence of the hawkers on the subway cars.  I had seen them before, but today there appeared legions of them, a never-ending chain of them boarding every car, one at a time.  They would board, hawk their wares, CDs, children’s books, candy, crossword books, maps, tool kits, etc, ride one stop and then off they went to the other side to try another car.  A blind man boarded and sang on his karaoke machine.  Two youths perhaps 13 or 15 dressed in shabby and dirty clothes, who lay on glass shards.

I changed my larger money and began to give out small change to just about everyone I passed.  The pretty young girl in gold earrings selling bubble gum for one peso.  The old man with his fiddle, not playing too well because he is bent over and it seems a strain for him to play.  The old woman in a nondescript brown dress sitting in front of a church, her one leg bent at an odd angle.  The smartly dressed organ grinders.  The mother with two very small children bundled up in a blanket awaiting the night chill.

I headed toward the large market in front of the Zocalo and my hostel.  The crowds choking me.  Before, I had not been too impressed by the crowds, I have been to other countries with crowds to rival, but on Saturday the masses swelled.  The drums on the Zocalo reserved for the evening practice of headbanded people dancing to old Aztec steps had burst to an all-day frenzy of dancing with costumes.  I saw a shaman of sorts.  A bare-chested man with rough cotton trousers belted with a red sash, and a headdress of feathers cascading down his back, was exorcising the bad from people.  With a grey stone cup with a design of some sort, a person or an animal, with steam or smoke rising from it, he passed the stone and the smoke, whispering some words to the devotee.  The line grew to go through this ritual.  I jumped into line as well, and for a donation of five pesos I had my soul, or whatever, purified, receiving a small pink pebble in return.  Afterwards I did indeed feel better.  A placebo perhaps, but my heart felt much lighter for it.

Another great trip already at an end.  But my rusty Spanish improved slightly, I saw some amazing sights, and I have been cleansed.

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Two: Big Island Sightseeing

The continuation of my “last hurrah” whirlwind three week trip to three Pacific Islands.  This is the second part of the Big Island — when my German travel companion Carmen and I finally stopped screwing around, finally figured out our transportation issues, and started to actually see some of the sights.

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Rainbow Falls

As Carmen and I drove back up from the lava coast, the clouds descended around us again, and dusk descended.  We drove to the small town of Volcano, a lush rainforest oasis of deep green ferns and dark red flowers engulfed in a light mist and chilly fog.  We planned to stay the Holo Holo Inn but had no map with it on, and with the growing dark and fog it was difficult to see the road signs.  We stopped in the small general store to ask directions.  The store had a very small town feel to it; a real general store stocked with just about every necessity.  Not a huge selection mind you, but enough for the artists who live in the area to not have to drive far for groceries.  I asked the woman behind the counter if she knew where I could find the inn.  She said she didn’t know.  But the tall white-bearded man who had just made his purchases, and was on a first name basis with the woman, told her she surely did.  He said it was just off the road near the Japanese school, and he says some Hawaiian road names.  She disagreed and said it is off another road.  He kindly tells her she is wrong and proceeds to tell us how to get there.  The woman good-naturally laughs at herself for not knowing the location.  The whole conversation had that warm feeling that comes from people in a small town knowing each other well, of regulars and long-time store proprietors joking with one another.

As Carmen and I drove up to the wooden house next to the Japanese school, it seemed dark.  The front driveway was littered with all kinds of garden and mechanical tools.  Carmen took one look at the place and said maybe we should just go.  It did seem almost deserted.  But when we rang the bell, the door was opened by a small blonde boy followed by a young Asian woman with delicate features.  In heavily accented English she welcomed us inside and showed us around.  The place was really beautiful.  All made of rich warm wood.  Wooden floors, walls, and ceilings.  Though it was chilly outside, it was a nice temperature inside, enough for bare feet upon the floorboards.  Our wooden bunk beds topped with heavy warm blankets.  The kitchen had a high ceiling, with large Japanese paper lamps hanging from the ceiling over a wooden table.  The cupboards were well stocked with beautiful Japanese ceramic plates, bowls, and cups – all for the hostelers use.  It felt very homey.

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Lava Trees State Park

On my fourth day on the Big Island we drove the rest of the way around the stopping to see many sites along the way.  The weather outside of Volcano was gorgeous.  Warm, crystal blue skies.  We drove first to Lava Trees State Park.  The lava “trees” were formed when a volcanic eruption some 200 years ago swept through the forest.  The lava climbed up the trees burning them but then hardening in the shape of the former tree trunks- making hollow lava cones of varying heights.  The drive, once we found the tricky turn, was gorgeous.  Huge trees on both sides dusting the two-lane road with leaves, and just a touch of sunbeams filtering through.  It felt a bit more like a drive in New England than in Hawaii.  The forest itself seemed almost primordial with tall, old, moss-covered trees.  A short circle trail led us around the ghostly lava trees.

We headed next to Rainbow Falls just outside Hilo.  The falls were absolutely beautiful – perhaps one of the best falls I have ever seen.  They were tall and thick, falling into a lush pool at the bottom, with a large cave behind them – supposedly the one-time home of the goddess Maui.  At the top of the falls, just before the water gushed over the edge, there was a large boulder which split the falls into two ribbons of water.  In the early morning or afternoon, if conditions are right, there is often a rainbow across the water, but unfortunately, we were not there at the right time.

On next to Akaka Falls State Park via a 4-mile scenic drive.  At the falls we were rewarded with two falls, much taller than Rainbow falls, though thinner as well.  At the top of the trail to the falls we sat at a picnic table and had our lunch of bread and cheese and fruit.

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Waipo Valley lookout

On next to Waipo Valley lookout.  The drives were not long, perhaps an hour here or an hour there, but very pleasant.  At the Waipo lookout we stood on a cliff above the Waipo Valley and the sea, with a tremendous view of the undulating cliff coastline, the sparkling sea, and the beginning of the low valley.  There are some good treks and horse riding in the valley but they are costly, so we did not have anything planned.  But seeing the view was worth the drive.

We then drove through the town of Waimea with a magnificent view of Mauna Kea rising in the background, it dwarfed everything else on the island, rising quickly to its height of 13,800 feet.  The road ended at the town of Hawi, where the original statue of King Kamehameha the Great, the first king to unite the Hawaiian Islands – born on the Big Island – stands. (And in one of those amazing coincidences of life, I happened to be watching Hawaii 5-0 while editing this story, and the episode happened to be one in which they feature this original statue.  I was thinking, I just read about this…in my own story!)

Then we drove along the coastal road another hour to the Pineapple Park Hostel to the town of Captain Cook (where the famous navigator who discovered the Sandwich, or Hawaiian Islands, met his end).  Carmen and I stepped into the reception area of Pineapple Park at 8:30 pm.  The office was closed but there was a sign saying to ring the bell for after-hours arrivals.  Unfortunately, on the other side of the shuttered reception window was another sign indicating the hours were 7am to 7 pm and that THIS IS HAWAII – WE ARE NOT OPEN AT ALL HOURS.  The sign did not inspire confidence as I hesitantly pushed the bell and cringed.  A Japanese woman came from the hallway behind us, saying in a decidedly unwelcome tone “What do you want?”  I explained we wanted to stay.  “How many of you?”  The two of us were standing right in front of her…Of course, she made a point of telling us the usual hours are 7 to 7 and made such a case out of it as if we were really being a bother and she was being tremendously nice to let us stay.  I had a hard time not rolling my eyes.

On the wall of our room was a list of the hostel rules.  Some made some sense, some I found a bit humorous (copied word for word):

  1. No abusive- belligerent or disruptive behavior tolerated (must fit in)
  2. No drugs of any kind – alcohol in moderation
  3. Must be a traveler and have a picture I.D.
  4. Quiet hours 10 pm – 6 am; kitchen, TV, up stairs lounge closed after 10 pm
  5. Must have clean clothes and no offensive smell
  6. Must clean up immediately after using kitchen
  7. Five minute shower
  8. Do not take others food or drink

You will be asked to leave on the first violation – ALOHA

I had to crack up at the “ALOHA” in capital letters at the end of the list.  I hardly felt the Aloha Spirit emanating from this hostel.  What would happen if I haven’t had a chance to do laundry (i.e. have dirty clothes) or I do not fit in with the others?  And the five-minute shower?  Well, without the lock or even being able to close the shower door completely, I imagine I will be taking the quickest shower ever.

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Hanging with some Hawaiian tiki friends

On the morning of the fifth day, Carmen and I woke up early to head out to swim with dolphins.  There was a small bay a short drive away where dolphins were often spotted swimming.  I did not really feel comfortable swimming with dolphins, but I thought it might be nice to see them.  Besides, I knew in the water I would not have my glasses and would probably not see a dolphin at all.  At the bay, a man pointed out some dolphins in the water.  I didn’t see any dolphins, only human beings floundering about in the bay.  But I took his word for it.  We entered the bay from a rocky shore; I am talking about mini boulders.   They made it difficult to get in the water.  We nearly fell a couple of times.  Carmen pulled on her snorkeling mask and paddled off.  I stood waist high in the surf, feeling the pull of the waves as the water rushed back to the sea.  It was a strong pull, nearly pulling me off balance.  The crashing in of the waves was also strong.  I tried to stand my ground.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a large wave knocks into us both.  I was tumbling underwater over and over.  After some 20, 30 seconds, I do not know how long, I stood up.  I called out to Carmen to see if she was okay, she was also calling for me.  Her flip-flops floated by.  Even my strapped sandals had been ripped off forcibly by the wave.  I think my hair was standing straight up, matted with sand.  There was sand in my ears.  Later I found a pound of sand pushed into the top of my swimsuit.  Carmen and I both agreed our little foray into the ocean was over for the morning.  We violated the five-minute shower rule back at the hostel.

Our next, and last, sightseeing stop was the Historical National Park Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (which means Place of Refuge at Honaunau).  This was an area where the Hawaiian ali’i (royalty) lived.  It was also a place where those who broke the strict rules of traditional Hawaiian conduct might find redemption – after swimming across shark infested waters.  In times of war, women, children, those unable to fight or wounded soldiers could also find refuge here.  In times of war in Hawaiian times all people were considered fair game in battle, and only those located in compounds of sacred refuge could be spared.  Sounds brutal.

hawaii 5Nowadays the Historical Park is peaceful.  The wall of the compound is all that still exists from traditional times beside white sand, a glittering sea, and reconstructed straw huts.  In one large boat house, an old native Hawaiian carves the traditional totem or Ki’i that guard the entrance to the landing lagoon reserved only for ali’i, and the site of some reconstruction, from evil spirits.  In the small lagoon a sea turtle swam around, another basked in the sun.

The following day I took Carmen to the airport and return the rental car; we said our farewells (though we remain Facebook friends to this day).  Later the same day, I embarked on my own flight away from the Big Island, leaving behind a magnificent view, but looking forward to the next leg of my journey….