Monday, June 20, 2005

The Trip is Half the Fun

number thirty-six

This is an installment in a nine-part series detailing our first big Mexican vacation. This installment is about our air travel to—and cab travel in—México City. 2,711 words.

[NL; composed in GTO]-Originally, we had planned to take our vacation in May, just ten or so days after I arrived in México. We cast about the map for a good place to go (not terribly difficult to do in México), and finally settled on Guanajuato. Other things came up, and the vacation was put off until June. We were to take the bus, and spend the week between Wednesday, June 8th, and the following Tuesday. However, because one of Sunshine’s coworkers had unavoidable wedding plans, the opportunity to attend a conference in México City in her stead pushed the vacation another three days away. This worked out very well for us, because not only were we going to get to take a business trip to México City, but now our vacation week was book ended by weekends, making it two days longer. Of course, for me, this whole thing was a vacation, since I didn’t have to attend the conference. So, instead of one week, I got to go on holiday for almost two.


We arrived in the DF in the early evening of Tuesday, June 7th. Travel day is always a little exciting and stressful for me. It is hard for me to enjoy the world while I am concentrating so far forward. It was a long ride to the airport, after a day of cleaning the house, and just generally getting it ready for the people who would be caring for the cat and the plants while we were away. The temperature was in the mid thirties, and the crazy half broken-down cab we had hired wasn’t noticeably air-conditioned. Due to having to stop at the gas station and a couple wrong turns, we had been in the cab for over an hour by the time we arrived at the airport. All of this should have been a great time: seeing a lot of outlying Monterrey for the first time, talking with a really friendly and knowledgeable old cabbie; but I was only focused on my goal, ticking through check lists, and a little apprehensive of the flight.

I have been on non-US air carriers before, and shouldn’t worry me any more than any other airline. This was a brand new brand with what certainly turn out to be brand new planes. There was nothing to worry about. And heck, the flight was fine, no real bumps of turbulence, no flickering lights, no mid-flight seatbelt warnings. They even served a lunch, unheard of in American fifty minute flights. The schedule to México City is pretty funny, as the plane must climb a whole lot farther up than it then descends to land, and because this the trip is fairly dramatic: spiraling up and out of Monterrey’s congested airspace in a dogfight maneuver taking us to 35,000 feet, and plunging about half of that (okay, okay; three-fourths) into a city which sprawls well out of sight, even viewed from above. The plane did not turn out to look very new, though. It had large black stains issuing from seams in the wings. I spent the trip gripping the armrests. What scared me was that I was scared. I have flown a good many times in my life, and the only fear of flight issues I have ever suffered through seemed to be pretty rational. After the whole flight of reading or staring out the window, as the ground rushes at me during descent, I get a little nervous and tell myself all of the things that might go wrong. No big deal. It’s normal. But this time, take-off was very difficult. I had to resort to reading a book and pretending like I was on a bus. This is a little irrational, and worse than I was expecting. It was my first flight since 2000, and I think most of the world developed some flight issues overnight on September 11th. Most of the commuting world had the opportunity to work these issues out. I am hoping that a flight or two more and I will come out of it. It is going to be a short life if I cannot: this future of mine will have me flying to and fro across the globe regularly; and that will have my heart thoroughly dead and gone but quick.

Funny thing is, that when we got to the ground and headed through the airport, the things I was supposed to be terrified of didn’t bother me in the least. I am fairly undaunted naturally, so the airplane nerves really got to me because I wasn’t really used to it. By turns the taxi ride, which should have terrified me, was actually pretty fun. Maybe it was near-death euphoria: I was on the ground, and simple Earthbound death didn’t scare me anymore.

See, the thing about Taxis in el DF, is that many of them are stolen. The State Department sent out an official warning speculating that at any time there are thousands of stolen, or otherwise fake, Taxis cruising the streets of the city looking for fares. Typically, once the passengers are seated in the back of the evil cab, the driver will pull over and let armed accomplices into the car. People have been held hostage for days, riding from ATM to ATM, draining their bank account. There have been assaults and murders. It is not safe to hail a cab in México City. What is considered mostly safe is hiring a sitio cab. In other words: calling for pick-up. Most dispatched cabs are on the up and up. Plus, cabs gotten at taxi stands and hotels are driven by people the establishment are familiar with. Often, the passenger is given a form with the cabby’s name and identification number printed on it. The prices are fixed in advance, and there are no grey areas. So, the City is doing everything it can to make choosing a cab safer. What happens after the passenger is slapped into the backseat, however, is under nobody’s control but the maniac bouncing to and fro behind the wheel. City things scream by the windows and careen in parabolic tracers; hopefully, people and animals manage to dodge out of the way. Our cabbie had a TV for us to watch, mounted on his dash board. I am pretty sure he was watching it too. Luckily, I was untouchable because I was on the ground.


México City is no more of a realistic view of México than the trendy streets of San Pedro are. While home resembles a landscaped hamlet with all of the existential vibrancy of a golf course, the DF is a teeming, kinetic den of near-lawlessness, occupied by big city people and big city issues. Much the same way that the spirit of the US probably rests around the midpoint between Aspen and the Bronx, México City represents merely one polar extremity of Mexican culture. Still, this city is a big world all to itself, and everything that happens in México, happens here first.

The nice thing about this first leg of my vacation being a business trip is that Sunshine’s employers put us up in a really swank hotel right in the middle of the Zona Rosa. This “pink zone” is a district chock full of restaurants and clubs and shops. It is home to el DF’s gay and Korean scenes. It is made primarily of cobble bricked pedestrian walks shaded by enormous five-story palms. The hotel is called the Galleria Plaza, and it is simple and elegant. We were staying on one of the executive floors, so we were told to check in at the honor bar on the eleventh floor. In the rooms, the door key cards fit into a slot just inside the door which activates chosen settings for the lights and air conditioning. The view of the City from the picture window was astounding. I would have been able to see the entirety of a smaller town. México City’s twinkling early evening lights stretched beyond the curve of the world.

I was really happy to be here. So far, living in San Pedro has been about finding a domestic identity: moving furniture, cooking, and buying household wares. It is a whole different type of adventure than the traveling I had done in México before. This trip to México City was more nostalgic, and I was having a ball. I spent the time Sunshine was working walking around town (well, walking around the tiny slice of downtown that comprises the Zona Rosa, the Centro Historico, and the area in between), getting sunburned, and just taking in as much as possible. The first day I was there I made my way several miles from the hotel we were staying in to the Zócalo in the center of the Centro. I love going places I have seen in dozens of movies.

The Zócalo (la Plaza de la Constitución) is a city-block sized square of pavement with a huge flag in the middle. Of note: zócalo means “base”, and the nickname comes from a point in history before the plaza was paved. There used to be a statue in the middle of the square, but it was moved to one of the traffic circles along Paseo de la Reforma, a busy street accessing el Centro, la Zona Rosa, the posh neighborhood of Polanco, and the large city park called Chapultepec. Reforma is riddled with traffic circles and statues. Many large Mexican demonstrations march down this very busy thoroughfare to the Zócalo. For a long time, the base of the statue remained. People out for a stroll, or mounting a rebellion, began to refer to the square as el Zócalo, the base, rather than by its lengthy official name. Not only has this moniker stuck long after the removal of this famous pedestal; but, in other parts of México, the word zócalo has been adopted for cities’ central plazas. Most zócalos are a place to stroll in early evening, hanging out with the community. The park-like central plazas of many Mexican towns are green with trees and sport burbling fountains. Adolescents court each other here and their chaperones do the same. In México City, where the trend was founded, the plaza is a hot, paved blank used for demonstrations and unrest. If you want what most of México is talking about when they say “zócalo”, you will need to walk about seven blocks west to the Alameda.

Also on the Zócalo is the national Cathedral (la Catedral Metropolitana), and the Palacio National, México’s White House. Admission is free, but you must show ID. The Cathedral was begun in 1573 and was supposedly finished up two hundred and fifty years later. It is smack on top of an Aztec temple, and because of this it sinks even faster than the rest of the city. This is also why it seems to still be under constant construction almost two hundred more years later. The Palacio is notable for its many world-famous Diego Rivera murals, as well as for being the seat of the Mexican federal government. Nestled between these two historical sites are the remains of the Aztec Templo Mayor. The Templo was thought to be the exact center of the universe, where the Aztecs saw the eagle eating the snake. It was rebuilt seven times over the centuries, and then the stones were used to make colonial buildings by Spanish conquerors. Of the once-grandiose pyramid of the sun, only the base structure remains; the only uncovered remnant of ancient Tenochtitlán in central DF. This is not surprising since, to uncover more of even this temple, they would have to tear down the national symbol of Catholicism, the federal government, and the giant slab.

The nearby Alameda is a three-block long network of parks, each with a central fountain intermittently spraying green water onto tile mosaics. Vendors sell refreshments and couples stroll in the lush shade. The park is patrolled by mounted Mexican police who travel in threes wearing enormous sombreros. The triangle made by this park, the Zócalo, and my fancy hotel includes México’s block-long Chinatown, the Café Cuadrilátero, Latin America’s first skyscraper, and el Monumento a la Independencia (el Ángel), where the heads of Mexican rebellion are buried. This was my stomping ground during my stay in DF. I saw many of these things on that first day, and then returned to photograph them on the second. Several things I returned to with Sunshine in the evenings after she got off work.

I kept planning to see some of the many museums during my stay, but never managed to go to even one. Walking around with no plan at all was just too seductive. Museums I missed include: anthropology, history, Diego Rivera, José Guadalupe Posada, Mexican medicine, culture and wax. I missed Frida Khalo’s blue house, where Leon Trotsky once lived. I missed the Trotsky house, where Leon Trotsky was killed with an ice axe.

My favorite dinner over the next three days was in the Café Cuadrilátero; Super Astro, proprietor. It is, as far as I know, the only restaurant owned and operated by a retired luchador. It is a humble little sandwich shop with seven tables and dozens and dozens of donated wrestling masks displayed in box frames on the wall. On other walls were photos of Super Astro in the company of a parade of famous luchadors. Café Cuadrilátero is the home of the enormous el Gladiador, a torta as large as a human thigh and free if you can eat the whole thing in under fifteen minutes. There is no wall of fame for the defeaters of el Gladiador, by the way. I am pretty sure that no human being has ever beaten it. Super Astro met us at the door, and told us to make ourselves at home. After we had eaten some merely huge sandwiches, Sunshine got to talk to him a little bit. He seemed like a really nice man, and just looking at him, I am sure that he was a técnico and not a rudo before he retired.


Sunshine got off early on Friday, about noon, and without much more ado, we packed and left the hotel. We had not really investigated the bus schedules, but the travel guide had seconded the opinion of the concierge that the busses to Guanajuato rolled about every hour. The cab was rather harrowing again, but this time because the bell man had hailed an unmarked car, and the trip took much longer than I was given to believe it would need to reach the station. Whenever we slowed down, I anticipated the arrival of armed gunmen. This makes no sense, frankly. A decade ago, not wanting to deal with this immense and dicey city, I had nevertheless needed to take a bus through it. México City actually has a central bus depot for all four of the cardinal compass points, and heading from Guadalajara to Oaxaca meant that I needed to get off in one, and then gat back on in another. Between the Western and the Southern bus centers, I took the Centro Estacion de Autobuses bus. Not counting my brief waits inside the stations, I figured that I was passing México by in a bus for better than three hours. Three hours to ride right through it. This taxi ride to the station took about thirty minutes, and this makes all the sense in the world. Eventually we got to the Northern bus center with all but one of our important belongings. The next bus to Guanajuato was a little over two hours away, but hanging out in the bus station is really pretty cool. There is plenty to eat and drink, video games, and souvenir shops. The time went by quickly. It is slightly annoying that in México, mostly there are pay toilets in the bus stations (oddly, the airport toilets all seem to be free). The cost to visit the typically unsanitary facilities is three pesos. It costs more to play the toilets than it does to play Super Street Fighter III.

Some excellent photos of the inside of the Café Cuadrilátero.

Next up: a brief history of Guanajuato.

Click image for better view © the Author

Quiet Reading Room

This is a quiet reading room. Often, I find it is uncomfortable to digest long tubes of columned text directly off a computer screen. This journal is dedicated to the collection, percolation, and ultimate integration of my personal experiences. Subjects that I want to examine and then talk about--sometimes talk a lot about--€”are presented here. This central content can tend to thousands of words, maybe millions. I was afraid that readers were leaving the presentation boggled, spinning, googly-eyed. Or perhaps when confronted with twenty-four inches, or yards, of monitor sprawl they were just giving up. I am not even certain that I have necessarily solved this inevitable content problem of modern information enjoyment, but here is what I have done.

After long and highly scientific routines manipulating double-blind control- and test-subjects, peer reviewed journal publications, and hours and hours of hands-on experimentation, I have crafted this quiet reading room. There is no scientific way to control the length of the articles I write, but careful handling can somewhat soothe the contextual presentation. In other words: I have dropped the traditional speculation about lexicon, and attacked the question of the matrix itself instead. Brilliant. After years of diligence what I eventually crafted is this reading room.

The walls are contoured to relax instead of constrain; the paper is made to soften instead of reflect. The light is dimmed--just so--€”to prevent strain, angled to prevent umbra, and color-coded to soften harsh red lights and deepen wimpy light reds. There is nothing I can do to control aural environment, but my recommendation is that it should be kept quiet. About ambient sound: these entries are probably best read as far as possible from emergency vehicles, preferably from beneath the muffler of a vintage fire fighter pilot's scarf, puffy old duvet, or snow that is still falling.

My theory is that the wide web world is filled with potent and material opportunities that are just too difficult to digest for many people to take part. Enjoyment of this stuff is regulated to the routines of crawlers and robots at the peril of humankind's peaceful future survival. In an attempt to delay this likely outcome: welcome to this quiet reading room. It is for people like you to relax, kick back, and hate my content for better reasons than the dizzying vertiginous specter of its lousy dpi presentation.

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