Greetings all! After exhibiting admirable restraint by anchoring myself in Victoria for the past ten months, I have now departed the realms of home to explore our planet on yet another rather lengthy journey. The constituent impetus (or excuse) for this trip is to study for one semester on exchange in Stockholm, Sweden. Prior to commencing this program in September, I will be travelling through Mexico, Guatemala, New York City and Iceland. I intend to circumnavigate the globe by trip’s end in March, which I failed to achieve in 2013.
I have somewhat reluctantly decided to resurrect Globo Trip to bombard you with exhaustive recollections of my travel adventures. However, I’m not terribly confident in the sustainability of this endeavour because I’m suffering an extreme lack of motivation to write! Some shrewd members of the readership have noted the absence of blog entries covering Bali, Komodo and Flores from my Indonesia trip last July. Regrettably, these entries have failed to manifest in the past ten months, so I have decided to start afresh with diatribes about my current journey. I will attempt the extreme challenge of keeping moderately up-to-date and recommence the blog with an entry about the first destination of this trip, Mexico City. Recurring Globo Trip character Danish Nadia will feature in the Mexico and New York City entries and be referred to as “Nactus”, one of her Mexican nicknames.
With a gargantuan population (more than 20 million) and a perilous reputation, I was expecting to encounter rampant chaos, clutter and criminality in Mexico City. Actually that’s not entirely truthful, because unlike Mum I avoid being spooked nonsensically by stereotypical viewpoints fuelled by our perpetually negative news cycle. Nevertheless, I was apprehensive about the pleasantness of Mexico City. I was scheduled to arrive in the mid-afternoon, but a flight delay postponed my eventual arrival disconcertingly to the late evening. After disembarking the airport bus in central Mexico City, I scurried quickly to my hostel amid concerns about my vulnerability. In subsequent evenings I concluded that this initial paranoia, likely induced by 35 hours without sleep and a lingering cold, was (probably) baseless. Mexico City has evidently been cleaned up in recent years. Legions of police officers patrol the streets throughout the day, which creates a sense of security in the central areas. Squads of police are deployed to guard the Zocalo (world’s third largest square) at night. Of course, their mere presence indicates potential issues continue to threaten. But the advice I have received suggests that pickpocketing is the primary issue that tourists face, consistent with other major cities. More sinister threats are predominantly reserved to the cities on the US border and rural areas in Guerrero and Michoacan (which I just recently departed from actually… more on that later!). Nactus and I felt completely safe and comfortable in Mexico City, although we did witness one rather unusual incident of “voluntary kidnapping”. On one the evening, we walked past a group of men congregated around the bonnet of a car. They appeared to be an ordinary bunch, casually chatting and… stuffing someone into the bonnet. Since the subject exhibited minimal resistance, Nactus and I decided to mind our own business and walk away rather hastily.
Overall, Mexico City feels very much like a typical Southern European city. The expansive historic centre is impressively well preserved and festooned with animated plazas and grandiose baroque churches. The historic centre’s thoroughfares feature cobblestone pavements, 16th-19th centuries edifices, manicured trees, street art and terraced cafes and bars; characteristics reminiscent of Southern Europe. Its epicentre is the humungous Zocalo, which also serves as the symbolic heart of the Mexican state. Seldom does a day pass without a demonstration manifesting in the Zocalo, as Mexicans reflect the Southern European obsession with protesting. The Zocalo is dominated on the northern side by the colossal Catedral Metropolitana, which was completed over the course of three centuries. The cathedral is a monolithic and gnarled structure entirely absent of aesthetical refinement or proportionality. Its monumental character clearly expresses the excessive wealth and hegemonic power of the Catholic Church in Mexico. The Palacio Nacional on the eastern side of the Zocalo, formerly the residence of New Spain’s viceroys and now the presidential palace, similarly conveys power in the form of the Mexican head of government. Despite its enormity in occupying an entire city block, the palatial compound is considerably more appealing with its pleasant symmetrical facades and magnificent internal courtyards. Grand avenues sprout from the Zocalo and bisect other thoroughfares perpendicularly to form the historic centre’s grid-layout. Navigation through the central areas of Mexico City is therefore surprisingly rather easy (unless, of course, you’re Danish).
Perhaps the only obvious difference between Mexico City and Southern European conurbations is the ethnic composition of the populace. The vast majority of Mexicans (especially in urban areas) are mestizos, or mixed raced ancestors of indigenous Amerindians and European colonisers. Consequently, I expected Mexicans would generally resemble Southern Europeans, but with darker skin. What a naïve assumption. I was surprised to discover that most Mexicans look quite distinct to their European counterparts and realised that Latinos are very much an independent racial group. This reality simplified our “Westerner alert” game of identifying tourists in the Mexico City crowds (occasionally altered to “Asian alert”). Disappointingly, relatively few tourists seem to visit this fantastic metropolis.
Mexico City ranks among the eight largest cities in the world, and yet its immensity is very difficult to conceptualise. The streets, shops and markets are not overwhelmingly crowded. The economic significance of the city has not translated to skyscrapers and exclusive hotels dominating the urban landscape. The constituent attractions are not sprawled throughout the metropolis but conveniently centralised. Waste generation is managed effectively, at least from a visual perspective. Despite Mexico City’s reputation as a traffic-choked metropolis, I encountered minimal congestion or stressful street-crossings. Mexican motorists are very respectful and considerate of pedestrians, probably more so than anywhere else I have been to (Australia included). I expected Mexico City would be similar to the other mega-cities of the developing world I have travelled to (Beijing, Chengdu, Cairo and Istanbul), but it was entirely different in all of the above mentioned categories.
The foundation of Mexico City pre-dates the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors to the Americas. In the early 14th century, the nomadic Aztec tribe wandered the shores of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. They sighted a prophetic vision of an eagle devouring a snake while perched atop a cactus and interpreted this as signifying the centre of the universe. The depiction of this sighting has since become a ubiquitous symbol of Mexico and features at the centre of the national flag. The Aztecs resolved to construct their capital, called Tenochtitlan, around the site, despite the existence of the lake. They instituted an agricultural technique common in the Valley of Mexico to grow crops on small, artificially created rectangular areas on shallow lake beds. The centre of Tenochtitlan was constructed on a natural island, but this was continuously enlarged as the city’s population expanded. The Aztecs were a militaristic civilisation that came to dominate most of Mesoamerica. As the capital of the Aztec (or Mexica) Empire, Tenochtitlan’s splendour consequently grew manifold. The city was connected to the mainland with barges, while canals were the primary thoroughfares between the districts. Scholars estimate that when the Spanish arrived, the city’s population ranged from 200,000-350,000; making it one of the largest cities on Earth. The Spanish conquered the Aztecs with relative ease, partly due to the superstition of the Aztec emperor (he initially believed the Spanish leader Herman Cortes was the mythical god-king Quetzalcoatl). The Spanish adhered to the traditional Catholic practices of degrading indigenous religious beliefs, vandalising monuments and constructing churches atop exquisite temples. Has any institution or empire systematically destroyed humanity’s cultural heritage more so than the Roman Catholic Church? I think not. The Spanish established the capital of their new colony on the ruins of Tenochtitlan with European architectural styles; thereby consigning one of the most fascinating and unique urban agglomerations to history. Over the subsequent centuries, Mexico City expanded dramatically to cover shallow Lake Texcoco. Since buildings were constructed on swampy grounds, many buildings in the historic centre appear to be sinking or leaning.
Unfortunately, very few vestiges of the mighty Aztec Empire remain. However, the religious epicentre of Aztec culture can be visited directly beside the Catedral Metropolitana. In 1979, electricity workers uncovered an 8-ton stone carving of an Aztec goddess, which eventually led archaeologists to discover the Templo Mayor. The temple was a 40m high double-pyramid dedicated to the gods of war and rain. The excavated ruins of the temple and the corresponding museum are surprisingly impressive, with the extensive foundations, parts of the steep stairways, intricately carved sculptures of mythical beings and even coloured frescos depicting Aztec life surviving. The last traces of Lake Texcoco endures in the far south of Mexico City at Xochimilco, where the “floating gardens” (not a literal description) used by the Aztecs for intense agricultural production can be viewed. Visitors are required to hire a gaudily decorated boat to cruise along some of the canals. The experience is more carnival than historical; because other gaudily decorated boats with lame names like “Brenda” ply the waters with Mariachi bands, souvenir stalls and snack bars on-board.
Mexico City boasts more museums than any other city in the world, so I felt obliged to visit at least one. Nactus and I chose to attend the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, which is probably the world’s most important museum about pre-Hispanic cultures in the western hemisphere. The museum includes exhibits detailing all of Mexico’s historical cultures, but particularly focuses on the civilisations of Mesoamerica. The most advanced societies of Central America were concentrated to the southern half of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras; a region that scholars have labelled as “Mesoamerica” (one of the six regions of the world where civilisation arose independently). The Olmecs were the first advanced society to develop in the region (contemporaneous with Archaic and Classical Greece) and are considered to be the “mother civilisation” of Mesoamerica. They became established on Mexico’s Caribbean coast in modern-day Veracruz state and sculpted monolithic stone heads that are not too dissimilar to the Easter Island statues (well, at least to me). In the first millennium AD, the Maya proliferated in the southern corner of Mesoamerica, the Zapotecs in Oaxaca and the great city of Teotihuacan was established in the Valley of Mexico. After the fall of Teotihuacan, the militaristic Toltecs dominated the Valley of Mexico. Zapotec hegemony in Oaxaca declined as the Mixtecs migrated into Oaxaca. The great city-state kingdoms of the Maya deteriorated and ultimately disappeared by the arrival of the Spanish. The Aztecs revered the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan and were inspired by the legendary militarism of the Toltecs. They came to dominate Mesomerica exluding Mayan regions and may have established trade and communication links with the Inca Empire.
Beyond the historic centre, Nactus and I explored several other districts of Mexico City. We ambled along the city’s foremost boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma, which is touted as a tourist attraction with its domineering monuments. The monuments however are not momentous and the traffic-heavy boulevard dully resembles major thoroughfares found in any big city. The boulevard leads to Mexico City’s gargantuan metropolitan park, which features a castle, botanical gardens and a free admission zoo. Never one to pass a free offer, I explored the zoo while Nactus attended the Danish embassy to vote for a non-racist party in Denmark’s recent election (a futile endeavour). Unfortunately, the zoo visit failed to galvanise the same excitement such excursions would have achieved in my childhood years; I think once someone witnesses mega-fauna on the African savannah, viewing animals in captivity can never be a pleasant experience again. Nactus and I also ventured into the “Bohemian” districts of Condensa and Roma. These neighbourhoods consisted of boulevards with wide canopied trees, posh residences, trendy cafes, hipster eateries and a litany of eateries. It was here that I recalled Nactus’ hatred of canines and quickly resumed the “look Nadia! A dog!” warnings I thoughtfully provide whenever a dog passes by.
Pretentious Melbournian food snobs (certainly does not describe me) will often lecture the uninterested that suburban Mexican restaurants are not authentic and instead serve Tex-Mex cuisine. The snobs flock to trendy inner-city Mexican restaurants that espouse faithfulness to the cuisine’s supposed healthiness and vibrancy. In reality, these restaurants are as far from the reality of Mexican cuisine as Tex-Mex. Mexican cuisine rivals Hungarian as the world’s unhealthiest (in my venerated opinion). Mexicans are obsessed with meat, maize, animal fat, sauces, salty salsas and sweet breads. Their diet is defined by heavy egg-based breakfasts, large mid-afternoon lunches and rather hefty snacks throughout the day. These snacks are referred to as antojitos, which are basically a collection of street-food dishes that utilise tortillas in different manners. Tacos are the ubiquitous snack in Mexico City and they come in hundreds of different guises and street-side stalls. The tortillas used are always soft and are usually made from the corn. One of the most common fillings is taco pastor, which is basically slices of spit-roasted pork (imagine doner kebab, but pork). Another common filling is braised beef (from any part of the animal- your choice!) and chorizo. The fillings are then topped by the consumer with lime juice (limes are more common than table salt in Mexico), Nactus and I also sampled some fancier tacos in restaurants, which included stewed pork, fried shrimp and pork sausage with cheese. Chilaquiles are another form of antojitos and are often eaten at breakfast. They consist of corn chips cooked in a spicy tomato sauce (so they become soggy) and are served with a light smattering of cheese. Nactus and I sampled the national dish at Mexico City’s oldest restaurant: chile en nogada. The dish consists of a huge chilli stuffed with minced beef, dried fruits and spices. After cooking, the chilli is completely covered in a creamy walnut sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds to cut through the richness.
I didn’t have especially high expectations for Mexico City, but I came away ranking it narrowly outside my top 10 favourite cities. Mexico City boasts an impressive European-style historic centre, ample attractions, manageable crowds, lively atmosphere and sensational food. Its unwarranted reputation as a dangerous city is surely the explanation for the conspicuous and unfortunate absence of tourists.
That’s all for now,