Mexico City

Mexico City traffic at night

Mexico City is so many things that I’m having a hard time putting it all into words. Let’s start with what it’s NOT: it is not the dirty, poor and asthma-inducing smogpot that you hear about a lot. It’s also not the dangerous and scary murderville that some people might have you believe. It certainly is huge in size, full of people everywhere and the noise level never really dims. But if you’ve been to Los Angeles or Sao Paulo then in reality Mexico City isn’t such a stretch.

We stayed at the wonderful B&B “Condesa Haus” in one of the artsy neighbourhoods – Condesa – that’s home to the young and hip or those who wish they were. There are at least 3 restaurants or bars on each block and any space that’s not taken up by food or drink is given over to clothing or art. In other words, a great place to walk around and soak up the atmosphere. (Yes, you can perfectly well walk around, even after dark. Even when drunk, as we found out later…)

The first day was a bit grey and rainy so we postponed our planned tourist bus tour and instead headed south to see the Frida/Diego trinity: the Museo Dolores Olmedo, the Museo Frida Kahlo and the Museo Diego Rivera. The museo Dolores Olmedo is the furthest away from the city so that’s where we started. Dolores Olmedo was the patron and alleged lover of Diego Rivera and because she had such a close relationship with both Diego and Frida, a lot of their artwork can be found in her hacienda. There are also a lot of photographs of Dolores herself, mainly meeting famous people from around the world or sitting with her children, but it’s still worth a look. And the hacienda is in a beautiful garden, almost a park, full of peacocks and ducks. There are also supposed to be some Xoloitzcuintle dogs around but they weren’t out in the garden that day. (This might or might not have had something to do with the weather – the Xoloitzcuintle is hairless and has a high body temperature, so they might not like the rain…)
Having whetted our appetite for Frida, we took the light train up to Coyoacan to see the Frida Kahlo museum housed in the electric-blue house where she and Diego Rivera lived for many years.

Guess who?!

It is filled with their clothing, furniture and work utensils as well as a few sketches and paintings but not nearly as many as you might expect. Because day of the dead is fast approaching, everything was nicely decorated with skulls and skeletons, swathed in rivers of marygolds.

Our entrance to the museum included a free entrance to the Diego Rivera Anahuacalli museum, so we headed there next. This time we caught a ‘pesetero’ – a small city bus – because it was only a short trip and taxis, unless phoned for, have a bad reputation. And good that we did that because the pesetero was a whole experience in itself: think of an old, rickety, tiny bus, probably built in the 60s and not serviced since then. There were two switches on the dashboard, both had an option for ‘On’ and ‘Off’ but neither one seemed to have any function whatsoever (luckily the one with the skull and cross bone sticker next to it was set to ‘Off’). The driver had a little wooden box next to him where he kept the pesos handed over by passengers. Surprisingly, the trip was a little more expensive than taking the metro but there was a lot more folklore included. While we were waiting at red lights, the ubiquitous sales people that roam the streets would step up into the bus to sell their wares: chocolate, cigarettes, newspapers, laptop cradles (I’m not kidding, you can buy anything at a Mexico City stop light). Passengers got on and off at random intervals, stubbornly ignoring any official bus stop signs. But the breakneck speed at which the driver wove through traffic made up for any time lost on the many unscheduled stops.

We made it to Anahuacalli just in time for the last tour of the day (the museum can only be visited with a guided tour). The building was errected on plans drawn up by Diego Rivera himself, based on ancient mesoamerican pyramids. It was built of black volcanic stone that was quarried from the exact 4 km square area where the museum is standing today, not far from one of the active volcanoes that surrounds the city. From the outside the building looks forbidding and ugly; from the inside it’s dark and slightly claustrophobic. But the artifacts exhibited rival those on display at the giant Museum of Anthropology, possibly one of the finest in the world, so Diego obviously knew what he was doing. In fact, there are only around 2500 pieces on display at the museum while in reality he owned 59,430.

Heading back to the metro station we caught another pesetero only this time we got the party bus. The driver had turned off all the lights, inside and out, and was blasting techno-pop at full volume. No one in the bus seemed to care or even notice, except one or two teenage boys who bobbed their heads in unison to the beat. Since bus stops are more of a decoration than a guideline, we were having some trouble figuring out where exactly we were supposed to get off but it turned out that most people were headed to the same metro stop so we just followed the crowds.

The metro, when it’s not rush-hour, is a great way to get around the city because it’s clean, runs often and is incredibly cheap. One ticket costs MXN $2. That’s about 10 EUR cents. What’s genius about the metro though is the signage. Each metro line has a distinct color and each stop has a unique image such as a pot or an animal or a house so that people who can’t read or tourists who might have trouble reading some of the names, can still navigate the map easily. It’s so much easier to remember that you get on at the bee and then get off at the pot instead of getting on at Chilpancingo and getting off at Tacubaya, isn’t it? Mostly the symbols match the name of the stop, making it even easier to remember.

Metro sign for the Tacubaya (Pot) line

Unfortunately, for the medical center they used the winged staff with two serpents, representing commerce, theft, deception and death. Instead of a non-winged staff with a single serpent that is the symbol of Hippocrates and hence medicine. This confusion isn’t the Mexicans fault though but began with the United States army a century earlier. (They’ve got their fingers everywhere…)

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