Grant McWilliams

Travel Trip Journals Central Mexico - 2010

Mexico - 2009

Templo Mayor, Baldaras Artisanal Market and potato quesadillas

It's our third day here and I'm still taking Tylenol for my head. Many people don't realize that Mexico City is 3000 feet HIGHER than Denver Colorado. Maybe to Bolivians that's not such a big deal but for someone that lives one mile from the ocean it's been interesting. I remember that when I was in the Andes I had a headache at 10,000 ft and became winded anywhere above 12,500 ft. With this in mind I didn't really expect to have any elevation sickness this trip but I've had a headache for 3 days now and so have my kids. A couple Tylenol takes care of it though. The other issue with being this high is that breathing can be a problem if you're exercising. If we were just sitting in the hotel I doubt we'd feel the elevation but we're currently averaging about 7 miles a day of walking. Part of that time we're winded. The metro (subway to New Yorkers) has a lot of stairs and we're starting to dread them. To make matters worse the world famous Mexico City pollution does in fact exist. I've mentioned in previous posts that you know the smog is there by a faint smell that always seems to exist no matter where you are. It's like your neighbors cooking some food and a hint of the smell gets through the wall but not enough for you to identify what they've cooked. Everything smells a bit like smog. Thankfully there's enough bums and homeless people living in the street that the smell of urine overpowers the smell of smog making you look forward to the next moment in time where smog is dominant.

 

Speaking of pollution and urine.... I was here three years ago and the smog was worse and the streets dirty. The former you forget about after a few days but unfortunately the sore throats from breathing pollution exists longer. Both of these problems have changed enough to be noticeable in the last three years. I'm honestly not sure what the solution is to the pollution problem but it's very much caused by transportation because early in the morning you can see the surrounding mountains and by 10 am their covered in a blanket of ick. One solution would be to replace all the cars with a Metro system that can carry five million people per day – oh wait, they already did that. Maybe they could prohibit cars from driving all 7 days depending on the ending number of their license plate like London. Drat, they did that too. I think they need to replace all their old smog belching cars with new ones but who's going to pay for 20,000,0000 new cars?

 

The second problem (garbage in the streets) has gotten better because Mexico City has banned the miles and miles of street markets. They've never needed a mall because Mexico City IS a mall! I have fond memories of waking up in the morning hearing the street sellers announcing their prices in a very melodic manner. They're all gone now outside of a few places. I mentioned in the past that even though this means the streets are cleaner it also means a little of character in the process.

 

In the National Museum of Anthropology I once saw a diorama of what the market at Tlatelolco was like during the reign of the Aztecs and it was impressive with 30,000 people buying and selling goods. Cortes was really impressed with the market system and their methods of keeping things fair. Walking down any random street a few years ago had people laying out blankets on the street and putting their wares on it. There was many voices calling out what they had to sell and the prices. If you took away the Spanish buildings it wouldn't be hard to imagine this as being Tlatelolco. It really was a strong observation to realize that these people still carry on their 600 year old traditions. They speak Spanish now instead of Nahuatl but everything else is the same. Now that most of the street markets have been driven off Mexico City seems to be calmer and more quiet although don't get any ideas about this being a solitary place because it's still a zoo. When the markets were going full steam the streets would be full of trash and then street cleaning crews would come out at 7pm and clean it all up only to have it return to the same mess the following day as it was impossible to keep it clean. It was amazing to watch. Now the streets stay cleaner and are easier to maintain. I took an early morning walk and saw people hosing down the sidewalks and scrubbing them with squeegees and you always see cleanup crews in the street picking up garbage. The new Mexico City has less pollution, less crime and is much cleaner.

 

The job isn't over though as the city still smells and I believe better technology needs to be used. In Paris they have these little sidewalk wide “street cleaners” that remember a full size street cleaner but can fit on a sidewalk. Mexico City could use about 1000 of those. So in relation to other cities of the world I'd say Historic Mexico City is on par with the Termini area of Rome for cleanliness. Not perfect but doable. Anyone who comes here expecting Geneva will be shocked though. We need to keep this all in context - Mexico City is a city of 25 million really poor people in a country that doesn't have enough money to change that fact. The average full time worker in Mexico City makes $10US a day.

 

I'm dwelling a bit on the Aztecs and history because I finally gave in and went to Templo Mayor, the remains of the city of Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan as you probably know was one of the largest cities in the world at about 1500 AD and was several times the size of London. It was built on an island and expanded using Chanampas – floating squares of dirt where they planted things who's roots grew until they anchored in the lake bottom. Each street through the Chanampas had a dirt path and a water way which was used for transporting goods. Tenochtitlan was an American Venice! Can you imagine the tourist opportunities of a city built in the middle of a giant lake? The Spanish couldn't so they razed it and took the stones to make Latin America's largest church in the early 1500s. People knew that the modern day zocolo is is paved over the  main center of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan but what do you do about it 500 years later? You can't tear down 500 year old buildings to find 550 year old buildings so Tenochtitlan remained buried. In the 70s a construction project unearthed a multi ton carved stone. Since they they've unearthed the main ceremonial pyramid of the Aztecs – Templo Mayor. I can see Templo Mayor from my terrace window as I could last time I came to this grand city and I walk past it every day to catch the metro but I've never gone in. The reason for this is from the street it looks like a bunch of rocks and I'd heard there was a museum but it didn't look like there was enough room for a real large one so I avoided Templo Mayor until now. The Let's Go guide gives it a thumbs up and they've treated me well but I'm not super interested in the Aztecs so I avoided going. Today I went and I'm blown away by how much better it was than I imagined.

 

The ruins of Templo Mayor itself are really subtle. You don't realize until you're standing a foot away from a giant serpent carved in stone that this thing is big. Before it was torn down it was about 150 ft tall. Not much in comparison to the pyramids at Teotihaucan but still very impressive. You also learn that the temple the Spanish saw was the 7th temple and the other 6 still existed inside the 7th. Each time the Aztecs got a new emperor they built a new temple over top the old one making it larger. We could see the top of the original templ from the boardwalk the top. The people living in Montezuma's time didn't even know there were 7 levels let alone see them! Fortunately AND  unfortunately a city works project cut a 4 ft wide swath through the Templo Mayor and inserted a brick tunnel for water. This is something a scientist would never do but thanks to the short sightedness of the city officials they now have a cross section view of all 7 temples which we got to see. We also saw some other buildings that made up the ceremonial center, relief panels and the original paint on the stones. When we entered the complex I asked about the audio guide and she said we get it in the museum. My thought was I don't want it for some dinky little museum, I'd rather have it for the main show – the ruins. After following the boardwalk path through the ruins we end up at the museum and upon walking into it I realized they'd built a 7 story building to house over 1000 artifacts pulled from the Templo Mayor site. Over 1000 Aztecs artifacts! They built it in a very forward thinking "giant square ugly concrete block" style showing Mexico's leadership in architecture since it led a wave of apartments and condos being built all across America in the same style. A few colleges look like they were built in the same style but I won't mention which ones.  Also the Aztecs had two main Gods and two temples on the tip of their pyramid – one for agriculture and the other for war. The modern museum building was built into two sections, the right for the God of war and the left for the God of Agriculture (rain). I'd say we spent every bit as much time in the museum as we did in the ruins. Overall I too will throw in my bid and say that Templo Mayor should be on everyone's list of things to do.

One thing worth mentioning is that you get to see how bad things have sunk over time. The Aztecs employed a very Venetian technique of sinking wood poles in the mud to make a foundation to build temples on. This worked sort of. Even during their time they were "repaving" the plazas with more layers of rock to make it level again. The Spanish copied that method and suffered the very same consequences. The Catedral Metropolitana is sinking at an alarming rate. Massive amounts of stones are really heavy and this was a marshy island in the middle of a lake.

Interestingly enough we also entered the Catedral Metropolitana to day as well. The Catedral was built in part from the stones of the Aztec pyramid and palaces nearly 500 years ago and is Latin America's largest church. You can't say that it's the biggest church in all of America because about 30,000 nuts get together in a stadium and call it church somewhere. I'm not sure I'd put that in the same category as this. Inside this massive Gothic church is an equally massive pipe organ. Most churches like this have the organ take up the back wall but this organ occupies what looks like an entire 3 story building in the middle of the floor. It's positively massive. I'm not a big church fan so after taking some photos and a video we left.

 

Starved we started walking toward a mythical indoor market to which no guidebook mentions. OK so mine mentioned it but I missed it. We found it the previous visit and inside this market was a quesadilla restaurant that made the best potato quesadillas I've ever had. I'm not sure why they're so good and I've tried to duplicate them at home with no luck. I wanted a second memory to go by but didn't remember exactly which market it was. My brain said Baldaras but the word Artisinal kept popping up in my head. So we walked to the Artisanal market listed in the guidebook only to find it's not the right one. Even more hungry Natalya and I decided that we could still make it to the Baldaras market and if that wasn't it we'd eat anywhere that had food. Another 15 minutes of low blood sugar walking (the kind where you walk like you're drunk) we made it and beelined for the Quesdilla restaurant I ordered papas and queso of course but nobody else remembered how good they were so they ordered other things. Jade wanted Tacos el Pastor but got rolled up fried tacos. I tried explaining to the waiter that I wanted the potato and onion quesadilla but didn't know the name for onion so he took me to the preparation area and had me point to the ingredients – there were no onions. I settled on papas and cheese because it was the closest. I remember onions and salt, I found out that the onions were in the potatoes and were green onions and the salt was in the cheese. They were as good as I remembered and now have a more fresh memory to go by. I also took pictures so keep your eyes peeled. Jade and Piper ordered papas fritas (fries) which turned out very good. Who would have thought that the Mexicans would be great at French Fries. Jade made the connection that the French ruled Mexico for 3 years so maybe that is why. :-) Kids are funny sometimes.

 

For anyone interested in pre-hispanic mesoamerican civilization it's worth it to get on a plane and fly to the National Museum of Anthropology even if that means you'll get back on a plane and fly home when done – it's that good! It's the Louvre of mesoamerican civilizations. Our plan was to get there before it closed and spend an hour or so on the civilizations that I've been studying. Each building of the museum holds relics from each civilization like the Maya, Aztecs, Toltecs, Teotihaucanos, Zapotecs, Mixtecs and so on. We caught the metro but was shooed out of Chapultapec park because it was closing. Tomorrow we can't go because it's Monday and all museums are closed on Monday so our only other chance is Tuesday morning before we leave for Oaxaca. Tomorrow we plan on taking a bus to Tula to see the ancient Toltec city of Tollan. The Toltecs predated the Aztecs and were idealized by them as well. They wanted to go to the Toltecs schools and intermarry with them so they would have noble offspring. I've been wanting to see their city for a long time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Saint Angels and Skinny Coyotes - part 2

I split this journal entry into two parts because only after I started writing did I realize how much I had to say about San Angel. San Angel may very well be my new favorite place in Mexico City. It's this very cute little "town" that the City absorbed with cobblestone streets and Spanish colonial buildings. What's neater is the park in the middle hosts an art market on Saturday that reminds me a lot of the one on Montmartre in Paris short of the mime infestation of the latter.

There were some very nice restaurants there with tables out on the sidewalk very European style with prices in the 130 peso range for really nice meals. This is roughly equal to about $10 in the states which is expensive here but the food is much better than we'd get at home.

I like San Angel a lot, I think I mentioned that. It's important to note though that if you think Mexico City looks like the pictures I've added to this blog you'll be a little disappointed when you get here. Just 3 blocks down the hill is a bus station with garbage strewn all over and open air stalls selling knockoff Rolexes. This still IS Mexico City afterall but you might think of San Angel as an oasis in a desert of chaos. I think it's definitely worth a visit especially if you want to get away. I've been to Mexico City several times and it's the first time I've wandered out this way. The first time we went to Coyoacan but we'd hired a private driver and didn't have enough time to do the San Angel to Coyoacan walk.

 

 

 

fLike I mentioned earlier on Saturday there's an artisanal market in the square of San Angel. For those of you who poo poo the idea of carrying a guidebook around I'll have you know that we would have missed one of the coolest parts of our trip had I not read ahead.  So we wandered the stalls looking at the original Mexican art and I can say that it's all very good and original. Mexico has some great artists.  We then ventured inside to the Bazar de Sabado which many more shops and is a permenent exhibition hall with prices to match in an old hacienda with a restaurant in the central courtyard (with a mile long line). As this building was built in the Spanish hacienda style there were rooms all around the courtyard and each room has been turned into a salesroom for different artists. In one room you might find pottery and in the next jewelry. It took quite some time to shuffle our way through the rooms as they were very very crowded and per the norm we ran into a few other Americans which did not fail to live up to the stereotype.

 

Our stomachs were starting to complain so we decided to search out food. The way we budgeted this trip was to have two cheap meals (street food) and one fancy meal which took up the majority of our daily food budget. There were so many nice restaurants that we nearly had our big meal in San Angel. All the while we've been in Mexico City we've been passing Tacos el Pastor stands and we definately can't get decent Tacos el Pastor in the states so we took a vote and the majority decided to eat Tacos el Pastor on the square and save our large meal for later. There was a place that advertised Tacos el Pastor for 9 pesos which is roughly equivalent to pocket lint. We found out that they were not 9 pesos for the plate of four in the picture but 9 pesos each which for a meal is roughly equivalent to pocket lint from both front pockets, a ball point pen and a rubber band. We ordered 20 tacos el pastor. Tacos el pastor (you have to say that really fast or nobody here will understand you, go ahead and practice) are hard to find in the States. In Mexico they have a spit of pork mixed with onions and peppers rotating in a vertical position next to a heat source not unlike Greek gyro shops do it. This spit of meat sits there rotating all day and they just shave off meat when needed onto little corn tortillas about 2 inches across which you squeeze lime juice over. For reasons unknown to me you always get double tortillas. I'm not sure why that is and my Spanish is just good enough to find the toilet so I probably won't be solving that mystery any time soon.

 

 

Piper of course had to buy a hand made indiginous doll to go with her collection so there was one lady making these gorgeous little Mexican dolls on the spot so Piper asked her Quanta Questa (phonetically, I don't write in Spanish) and she rattled off some prices which did us little good since we don't hear in Spanish either. My little notepad came to the rescue (today's travel tip, if you don't speak the language carry a notepad) and she outlined that the large dolls were $125 pesos ($10), medium $100 pesos ($8), smaller $60 pesos ($5) and smallest were $40 pesos ($3). Sometimes you feel bad about buying this stuff because it's so cheap. Those were the pre-bargain prices and we were supposed to talk her down but I just couldn't. Piper paid full price for a medium doll. Eight dollars for a very nice hand made doll with cloth body. Now that we'd taken a page from Cortes book and stolen from the natives we figured we'd head to Coyoacan - Cortes' home.

 

The next leg of our day was spent walking to another suburban “town” named skinny coyote or coyoacan. Coyoacan is where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived as well as where Leon Trotsky spent his last days before being assassinated by one of his servants which just backs up the old saying that most "accidents" happen within 10 miles of your home, would could ask President Carranza to back me up on that one. Coyoacan however came into existence when Cortes decided not to live on the swampy rattlesnake infested island where Tenochtitlan was and built his house on the shore of the lake Texcoco. That house still stands today and is coming up on it's 500th birthday. I believe it's administrative offices now but mostly ends up being the backdrop for a bunch of tourist photos of friends and families. Mexico City is only allowed to have two Zocolos (main squares) and the one at Coyoacan is the second. I'm thinking that the link to Cortes probably helped. Coyoacan is probably the only other place besides San Angel where I'd actually live in Mexico City since it reminds me of Oaxaca so much. We watched a Quinceanera celebration in front of the church which got Natalya all excited because they had gorgeous dresses on. I do have to admit they looked very beautiful which brings me to another topic.

Whatever stereotype about Mexicans you buy into it's probably wrong. Mexicans range from short to very tall and ugly as sin to absolutely gorgeous. They can be as white as I am - no make that as white as Natalya or very dark brown. There is a very large range of people who fall under the category of Mexican and this makes Mexico a very fun place to people watch. Actually they spend as much time watching us as we spend watching them. Mexico City doesn't get a lot of American tourists so we're a bit of a spectacle. As we walk down the street people will either pay us no mind whatsoever (the nananana response) or stare and smile – there's nothing in between. Every guy of all age looks Natalya up and down which she's getting used to slowly. It's very interesting.

After taking the metro back we went to find the Pastalaria Ideal to get pastries but it was out of about everything so we went around the corner to the Churreria (24 hour Churro and Hot Chocolate shop, just imagine a donut shop that sells chocolate instaead of cofee) which had about 50 people waiting to get in so we skipped that as well. On our way back to the hotel we walked up a pedestrian only street and believe it or not ate at a Chinese restaurant. Yes, that's right we had Chinese. It was cheap and it was fast so it served nicely. When it came to pay though I was short a few pesos and they didn't take credit cards so I ran to the ATM which refused my card as did the next one. I returned to make a deal with the restaurant and we scraped up every penny we had and gave it to them which they accepted. You have to love Mexico... Especially when you don't have enough money to pay the bill. They're very laid back about everything.

Upon getting to the hotel we all passed out from exhaustion. Tomorrow is unplanned so we don't know what we'll be doing. I'd like to make it to Tula but a private driver will cost $100 for all day. This includes a stop of at Tepozollan and Teotihuacan. I haven't decided if I want to spend the money since we could take a bus for a lot less...

 

 

 

 

 

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Saint Angels and Skinny Coyotes - part 1

The sun came up and we didn't. We'd had a long day traveling and went out to the zocolo last night to get banana leaf tamales from a street vendor. He had a choice of rojo or verde so I used up all of my Spanish by saying dos dos which he understood as two of each. Most of the tamales I've had in the states have been dry corn mush with meat in the middle. I like them but you need something to drink with it. The one exception to that statement is the banana leaf pollo en mole negro tamale at La Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard. That's a nice moist tamale. These tamales were like La Carta de Oaxaca in that they were very moist and on first bite tasted of chilies but after further digging I did find chicken (with bones). All four of us at tamales for 60 pesos which is roughly $4. Maybe the moistness comes from the banana leaf.

While I'm talking about food I might as well say you need to be careful in Mexico because you can get sick very easy if you don't know what you're doing. The problem is with the water.

  1. You should not in any case drink the water from the tap
  2. You should not get any in your mouth when showering
  3. You should not use it brush your teeth with.
  4. You should not have ice cubes in your drinks
  5. You should not eat lettuce.
  6. You should not eat any fruit unless you peeled it yourself.
  7. You should not eat anything else that doesn't look like it was cooked to temp.

That might seem like a lot of things not to do but in reality it leaves a great deal of food open for tasting. A lot of people are so afraid of getting sick that they never venture beyond the gates of their resort. This I think is unfortunate because real Mexico has food you'll never seen in a Mexican restaurant in the states or anywhere else for that matter. This is my “should list”.

  1. You should eat any fruit if you've peeled it
  2. You should eat anything that has been cooked in boiled or filtered water (tamales)
  3. You should eat anything cooked to temperature
  4. You should drink as much bottled or filtered water as you like

This is a shorter but all encompassing list. Think about how many things you eat everyday at home that fits into the second category and you'll realize that going to Mexico isn't as restricting as you thought. Notice that I've not singled out street food at all. When eating street food just follow the rules. The advantage to street food is you get to see it up close which is something you can't do in a restaurant until you've received it. If you think you're going to Mexico to eat hard shell tacos, burritos and fajitas you will be very surprised to find out that it's tough getting that food outside of the US. That food IS Mexican but not native to Mexico. I fear that as tourists “find” Mexico they may have to start serving it to satisfy the masses. I heard that you can now get nachos at movie theaters now. That I think is sad.

After you're removed your fear of eating you will have the other very overwhelming aspects of Mexico City to deal with – namely crime, pollution, elevation and crazy traffic. The first one you don't have to worry too much about if you travel smart. I would honestly rather be in Mexico City than Los Angeles. Crime does exist here but just be smart. Don't carry a purse and don't flash money etc.. I carry a small notepad with pockets that I keep the days pesos in along with a debit card with only a couple hundred dollars on it and I carry it in a zippered pocket. My cameras are pocketable which I like. Although I still take precautions I never feel unsafe in Mexico. I never look over my shoulder or have to step aside to see if that guy following me has malicious intent. These are things I do have to do in other cities. As far as the pollution goes it has gotten better. You can smell something all the time like when your neighbors cook dinner and you can smell it through the walls but you can't make out what it is. That's the way the pollution is here. It used to be that by 10am you couldn't see the surrounding mountains but I found that you can now see them all day long. The sky is definitely more blue. However, having said that you will still probably get a sore throat and feel short of breath. The latter not helped by the fact that you're 3000 ft higher than Denver Colorado. Between the pollution and the altitude we've all felt winded and have had altitude headaches. At least for another day we'll be keeping the Tylenol coming.

Since I didn't want to pay the hotel $4ea for breakfast in the hotel restaurant we hit the street about 11am to find food. I remembered a pastalaria (bakery) down the street but my memory was a bit vague about where and we never found it. Along the way we passed three tiny hole in the wall shops selling tortas so we stopped at one and bought their basic chorizo, beans and tomato torta at a cost of 19 pesos each or roughly $1.50. Natalya and I ate them down and Piper and Jade wouldn't touch them. They said they wanted to go to McDonald's but since we needed to find a place to sit anyway we went in that direction. I walked up to the counter in McDonald's and just couldn't do it. Why go to Mexico and eat McDonald's? We left and split the tortas between us.

I've had a few loose plans for Mexico City and one of those was to take the metro to San Angel a suburb and walk to Coyoacan another suburb. I've heard it's a nice walk and although we'd been to Coyoacan before we didn't have enough time to spend there as we would have liked. So after the tortas were downed we headed toward the Zocolo metro stop and found literally thousands of people standing in line. We also saw bleachers and music playing so I assumed they were having some sort of concert but curiosity got the best of us and we headed for the middle of the crowd where we saw not a concert but a hill with snow on it! Those crazy Mexicans brought in a snow machine and that hour or more line was to go down the hill on an inner tube. They thought this was great fun and to me it does seem more appealing when you're sledding in 75 degree weather instead of freezing your patootie off. Next to the snow hill they built an ice skating rink and the bleachers were for people to sit and watch the skaters fall all over the ice. We watched for a minute and headed on down the road. If you missed my comment about visiting Mexico City being similar to being dropped into a Roger Rabbit comic I'll repeat it now. I spend a lot of time just shaking my head and smiling at these people. You've got to love them.

The Mexico City metro is not fancy but it's fast and efficient. It only has 9 lines (half as many as Paris) but those 9 lines transport 5 million people a day around the city. The platforms are the longest that I'e ever seen and the trains hold 9 cars with room for 40 seated passengers and probably 100 standing passengers per car. Each train probably transports about 1200 people and they come every 60 seconds. Contrast that to our light rail which currently is carrying about 12 people per hour and you'll be amazed as I am. The stations are simple, the cars are simple and it's dirt cheap – about 15 cents to go anywhere in the city. After buying 8 tickets for a little over a dollar we walked the maze of tunnels to out train passing ancient Aztec ruins on the way that were dug up when the station was put in.

Upon arrival at San Angel we saw a large pastalaria which looked enticing so we went in. I sadly didn't take pictures but I'd say the tarts we had were on par with what we eat in Paris. Piper and I shared an apple, kiwi and strawberry tart that had a layer of cream under the fruit and a swath of chocolate under that. Very very good...(and you don't hear me say that often)

In comparison to the zoo that is Mexico City the suburbs of San Angel and Coyoacan are both very laid back and pleasant which was a nice change. I've never been to San Angel before so I was excited. After about a 20 minute walk we came upon a nice park with a monument to General Obregon one of Mexico's founding fathers. While staring up at this megalithic monument we read a bit of Mexico's history. It goes something like this..... Mexico unlike the US had several independence moments. The first couple ended in the rebels getting executed. Eventually after about 11 years they succeeded and set up a constitutional monarchy and crowned an emperor which I think is a contradiction of terms but hey, what do I know? The empire lasted a couple of years after which the rulership bounced between Santa Ana and a bunch of other people for about 3 decades. He was president 11 times so that makes him very successful. He was also thrown out 11 times which makes a complete failure. He's not exactly worshiped in Mexico these days because he lost California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to the US but secretly Mexico is getting those territories back. If you doubt me just go there and look around.. :-)

Anyway the head spot in Mexico bounced back and forth between Santa Ana, Bonito Juarez (my hero) the French under Archduke Maximilien (as emperor) and lastly a dictator by the name of Diaz. To make a long story short this Obregon guy comes in a bit later after 30 years of living under Diaz came to an end. Of course whenever an iron fisted dictator is overthrown there's a whole lot of chaos for a long time until the citizens can find another iron fisted dictator to replace him. This “interview” process can take some time and many people get assassinated in the process. Zapata and Pancho Villa helped out in getting a guy by the name of Madero elected who in turn figured out that rebels like their job of being rebels and now he was the guy having to fight them. One of the rebels was named Huerta which the US embassy convinced to switch sides and arrested Madero and promptly shot him. Like all people we put in power he was as evil as the last guy which angered the aforementioned rebels Zapata and Pancho Villa and General Obergon. The US however did what it does best after putting someone in power and undermined the new presidents power by invading Mexico and occupying Veracruz. Huerta resigned and left a power vacuum which of course always sucks. The aforementioned rebels all had to fight each other since there wasn't anyone else left to fight and any chance of peace was nil because they'd only actually met once in their lives. A third rebel named Carranza gained power which prompted Villa to retaliate and being a little confused (or drunk) attacked New Mexico since it had Mexico in the name which in turn prompted the US to invade Mexico again only to insult the newly recognised government. Carranza in good “rebel turned president” form assassinated Zapata. Obregon then joined his former rebels and turned against Carranza since he was no longer a rebel and was the enemy. Carranza was accidentally assassinated by one of his own guards (who probably liked the feel of the presidential chair himself because lets be honest, you don't accidentally assassinate your boss). This put Obregon in the presidential seat and his political party ruled Mexico for the next 71 years. This period is often called the perfect dictatorship where there was really only one party but people could vote.

That's pretty much how it went so after being harassed by a drunk bum with so many open sores we started wondering how he kept all his stuff inside we left to find San Angel which turned out to be about another 10 minutes away.

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Culture shock in Mexico City

Describe Mexico City in two words? Sensory overload! I'm very careful about recommending Mexico City to travellers because of the intensity of it all. I usually ask people where else they've traveled and if they enjoyed it. If they say they just loved Aculpulco, Cancun or PV then I'll probably tell them to keep going to those places. If they say they were in Istanbul and got a kick out of the Grand Bazaar then I'll recommend Mexico City to them. Note that I wouldn't recommend against Mexico City for any of the reasons that people think – crime, pollution or danger in getting sick. I'd recommend against it because it's full force sensory overload and a very foreign place. People get a little miffed when I tell them that Europe is a lot like America. My first trip to England I thought it was some really foreign country and I couldn't believe how hard it was to get around. Now I smile when I think of that because to me England's primary worth is to change airports to catch a plane to a destination with more punch. England outside of an accent difference and not driving on the same side of the road is very much like America. They have most of the same companies, cars, types of foods etc... France is a bit more intense because of the depth of their culture but still if you took a French person and dropped him in the middle of a major US city you'd not be able to find him until he spoke. Mexico City though is a very different story.

 

Where do I start with Mexico City? If it weren't for the basis in Catholicism and the Spanish colonial buildings we'd have no connection with this country and it's main city. For anyone who's been to the main four or five coastal resort towns I'm going to go out on a limb and say you've not seen anything of Mexico yet. I had a friend that said he really liked adventure so they went to PV (Puerto Vallarta) and one day they ventured outside their resorts gated area and into a “slum” and ate some tacos. If that's adventure I don't know what is! :-)

You might be wondering what makes Mexico City so intense then and that's what I'm about to attempt to answer. I'd relate the experience of going to Mexico City as being more like Istanbul or maybe Morocco than anywhere in Europe, the States or the 5 Mexican resort towns. When flying into Mexico City (or Day Effay as the locals call it – District Federal) at night you're blown away by how far this city goes. It's very difficult to measure a city when it has as many people as this so I'll refrain from throwing around numbers but it's one of the largest in the world along with Tokyo. As a rough comparison you could put New York City, Los Angeles and possibly Chicago in it, so as you can imagine it's immense. It has many social problems which you will no doubt encounter while you're here. I'll talk about those in a minute but for now to give you an impression of Mexico City I'll tell you about our own arrival.

Because of a massive ticket price reduction we flew from Portland Oregon to Atlanta Georgia and then to Mexico City. I love arriving in Mexico City after dark because it gives me a real sense of the size of the city by the lights. The MEX airport looks a lot like 70s concrete prison with wall to wall indoor/outdoor carpet and not much else. So we arrive not knowing if immigration will let us in because our passports are getting ready to expire. There are some countries that will turn you away if you have less than 6 months on them. When the immigration official scanned that first passport, stamped it and handed it back you could have seen all my muscles relax if you'd had your eyes trained on me for very long. He stamped the rest of them, took our immigration cards and welcomed us to Mexico. The next step was to pass through customs and play the “do you want customs officials to manually search your bags lottery” which is always fun. All bags go through giant scanners which to be honest probably aren't even turned on but they make the criminals a bit more nervous. Then after your bag is scanned you take it up to a stand an push a button – if the light turns green you go, if not you get searched. It's always fun and a bit nerve racking. No poker faces here, it's completely random.

After customs you walk out into a series of grand hallways all leading to different places none of which you have any interest in. Your main mission at this point is to get pesos and get a registered taxi. To combat taxi fraud which is rampant you buy your taxi ticket to your destination at a taxi booth and then take the ticket to a taxi. That way no money changes hands between you and the taxi driver. If you think this is just a Mexican problem you'd be very wrong – I wish most of the major cities in Europe would adopt this because it's a major problem there as well. The Mayer of Prague put on a disguise and took three taxis to see how bad it was and he got ripped off twice and the third guy recognized him. This is a problem everywhere and Mexico has found a decent solution for now. Mexico also had a problem with taxi drivers taking you to your ATM and helping you decide how much money you need to take out as well but that's a different story.

So we get our registered taxi which is a Chevy HHR – a definite improvement over last time which was a little rattle trap with a back door that wouldn't close all the way - I'm sure you can use your imagination. I have to take a break for a second just to mention that walking into Mexico City is like being drawn into a Roger Rabbit cartoon. Everything resembles reality but is just funnier than crap sometimes. I spend a lot of time smiling here and even writing this gives me chuckles. Back to the story. A couple of years ago we hired a driver to take us to Xochimilco – Fernando was his name. Fernando told us you needed two things in order to drive in Mexico City – first you needed a drivers license and second you needed to be crazy. I concur. Lanes are optional and traffic lights a mere suggestion. It's amazing that I've never seen a wreck in this city but I think they just get very good at defensive (and offensive) driving. My first point that lanes are optional is realized by the taxi only staying between the lines about 50% of the time. In Ecuador I'd say they're never between the lines so this is an improvement but a part of me says they're only between the lines when trying to avoid running into someone else who also happens to be between the lines in the next lane. As soon as that danger has passed they just drive wherever. The second point about traffic lights is true. Between the airport and our hotel near the Zocolo we ran EVERY red light! It wasn't like someone in America running a red light though by whizzing through it at the last moment but rather he'd slow down, look both ways and if there wasn't any traffic he'd just hit the gas again. This is not the only place in Mexico where I've seen this. I did however, see some cars sitting at red lights so I assume that not everyone runs them. If anyone has insight as to who gets to run the reds then I'm all ears. There's another thing I need to say about me not recommending people to come here – they don't speak English! We've encountered many people in shops and on the street and we've found two people that speak English, one at our hotel and a tourist guide at the Zocolo. We did encounter a kid that knew his numbers in English but that's it. If you need to be pampered and want someone to speak English to you then Italy or the resorts may be a better choice.

Another thing that people dwell on about Mexico is they ask if it's dirty. Well, yes I suppose it is. But then I can show you some pretty nasty areas of London or Paris as well and there are parts of Los Angeles that are trash dumps. I think in any country where the average yearly wage is roughly what I make in 4 days things are going to be a bit rough. There just isn't a lot of money to repaint buildings, fix sidewalks or clean streets. I will say this though that if Mexico can ever get to a point where they're making enough money to fix the place up they are sitting on a gold mine! You heard it here first. I will probably be going more into detail in the coming week or so but I this city is packed with so many beautiful colonial Spanish buildings and ancient ruins and in combination with the awesome culture and food it's crazy that people don't come here.  Since I have international readers I should quantify that by saying I don't know why more Americans don't come here. If you see a white person in Mexico City he/she is probably from Europe and I'd put money on it that they're German. But then Germans are everywhere. You could climb to the top of Mount Everest and there'd be a young German couple in their tan backpacker pants and the girls blond hair pulled back into a ponytail... Seriously.

Mexico in general is a gold mine. There are more ancient cities here than anywhere on earth including Greece, Italy and Egypt but there isn't enough money to excavate them or provide infrastructure. If they could uncover all the ruins and provide infrastructure these guys would be rolling in cash. National Geographic did an article on the Maya region and through satellite imaging they estimated there were about 250,000 covered cities in the Yukatan penninsula. This does not include the cities of the Aztecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs, Teotehaucanos and the many many other civilizations that have lived here. It's overwhelming to be honest. I have an Archaeological guide to Mexico and just when I get done reading about the history of some civilization I've heard of I get to the next chapter and they start talking about another one, and another one and another one. Mexico from 400 BC to 1500 AD wasn't that much different than Europe with many many different “countries” struggling for power and cultural dominance. The largest city on earth has been in the Valley of Mexico three times by three drastically different civilizations over the course of 1500 years. Tenochtitlan would have been the worlds greatest tourist attraction had the Spanish not been blinded by the hopes of finding gold so they razed the pyramids and palaces and filled in the canals in the lake that the city was built on. For those of you who don't know Tenochtitlan was practically a floating city with water for streets not unlike Venice Italy. The Spanish like most catholic countries wanted to assimilate the locals and steal their gold. Ancient temples and local culture had no value – idiots. What people will do in the name of religion.

Anyway Mexico = Goldmine. I'm in amazement just walking around Mexico City looking up at the buildings... This could be Vienna or Madrid or Paris in a lot of areas. It needs Paris' yearly budget though and that's not going to happen.

Just as a teaser I'm going to upload a few photos to get you by. Later I'll write about our first full day here.

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To rail or not to rail, that is the question.

You don't realize how bad things are until you experience the opposite. Without darkness there is no light. I have mixed feelings about rail travel in the US. If it seems as though I'm bouncing around between topics bear with me, they'll come together in a moment. To give some background before I start I have to say that I've logged about 15,000 miles on Amtrak in the past and about another 5,000 to 10,000 miles on other train systems all over the world. In addition I've flown about a quarter of a million miles or enough to circumnavigate the earth 10 times. I took my first train ride in 1993 from Pasco WA to Las Vegas. For about the first day of the trip I felt a bit embarrassed because I always thought people who took mass transit were poor uneducated folks with little other choice. - a train was just a bigger Greyhound. If you were someone you drove of flew. How little did I understand trains. I started noticing business people taking the trains, grannies seeing family, workers commuting and more. I realized that normal people took the train.

 

Back to the future... We started our most recent journey by taking a bus to downtown Seattle to the historic King Street Station. Seattle is like many cities in that we had competing rail companies who built competing passenger rail stations. The interesting part is they built them across the street from one another. Union Station got funding to renovate because it is used for the new Light Rail Station. King Street Station across the street is just starting the process of restoration and the Venetian Piazza St. Marks style clock tower definitely looks better as does the new roof tiles. It might be easy to say that Seattle really only needs one passenger rail station and we should combine our money but how do you decide which of the 100 year old stations to keep? The answer is you keep both as comical as that is.

At some point during the last couple of decades some idiot decided to modernize the King Street station and put in lowered ceiling tiles covering up a truly amazing molded ceiling and a second story balcony. What's worse is they actually chipped molding from the walls so they could plaster over it to get a smooth surface. There used to be a beautiful wooden ticket booth which is no longer and a Lady's waiting room which doesn't get used. The stairway from the street is closed off and the street level parking lot is a hangout for bums and trash. However, funding is starting to tickle in and the clock tower is being cleaned, the clay roof tiles are being replaced and new lighting for the 15 ft clock is being fitted. Inside the station they have a media board showing the future plans which include tossing out the water stained roof tiles, restoration of some of the marble pillars, a new walkway up to street level and a restoration of the outside of the building which will open up space for businesses etc.. The old Lady's only waiting room may be made into a cafe or restaurant.

 

So let's get to the meat of the question here. Why? Why bother with this old crap when we have at least three eligible airports that could service the area? OK, now the part about my mixed feelings with rail travel. I spend a lot of time in Europe and especially France where high speed rail has all but killed air travel and I have to say that I love trains. The idea of taking a taxi to some airport where I have to take my shoes off, scan my bags and then wait at a gate to be crammed into a tin can with a bunch of other half sick travelers coughing on me and babies screaming is very very unappealing. Because of the amount of time it takes to get to airports, get checked in and get your bags and get away makes any journey under 6 hrs subject for replacement by high speed rail. Longer journeys the planes speed overcomes it's inefficiencies. So is there any hope for Amtrak and why am I yammering about such things? I just spent 4 hrs on the Coast Starlight for the first leg of our journey so it's fresh in my mind.

 

What Amtrak does wrong.... Let's start by the ridiculous and painful process of going from the idea of taking the train to actually walking on. I went online and bought my tickets with a promotion code (Never pay full price for Amtrak, there's always a promo code somewhere). I then had to go to a station to pick up the tickets where they made me sign each one to combat fraud as they said. Fraud? What, someone is going to masquerade as me on the train? If Safeway did this we'd have to sign each squash to keep someone else from cooking it. Anyway with tickets in hand we proceeded to the King Street Station two days later. My perception may be skewed a bit but in France I show up at the train station 15 minutes early (or whenever to be honest) and walk up to a kiosk to buy my ticket after which I walk onto a train. The whole process takes 15 minutes tops from the time I decide to take a train and get one one. With Amtrak having a ticket is only the beginning. You now have to stand in a long line to turn it into a boarding pass. Once you have your boarding pass you need to move to a new line which is waiting to get on the train. Why would there be a rush to get on the train? Because seat assignments are done at the train car door! Thats right, a person is standing there with a map and a market to scratch off where he wants you. A kiosk that can assign seats on purchase would replaced this entire thing. The one nice side effect of this process though is you don't have conductor coming through to punch your ticket. With Amtrak when you're on you're done. The other thing Amtrak does wrong and I'm not sure they can fix it is the train routes are generally slow and not very frequent. However there are 4 trains a day from Seattle south which isn't wonderful but it's good enough that you can choose a schedule.

 

What they're doing right.... This is also from my experience today. The Coast Starlight is a double decker Superliner train similar to their flagship Empire Builder. I've always been a fan of the double decker trains. An Amtrak Superliner is a completely different product than say a French TGV. The TGV is an all business experience more like an airplane ride (but not so Walmart). TGVs have about as much room per passenger in economy as airplanes have in business class. There's very little difference between first class and second so unless the ticket prices are close we always ride second class. Unless you knew the specific differences you wouldn't be able to tell. The TGV experience is about getting to your destination as quick as possible with relative comfort. The Amtrak Superliner experience is drastically different. Immediately upon entering the train you will notice that you have an insane amount of room in your coach seat. I measured 5 softbound novels from my upright setback to the one in front of me. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that is a lot of room. I'd estimate roughly 45 inches between seats or roughly equal to a first class airplane ticket. The seat width is as wide as the first class airplane ticket as well. When you fold down your tray you have to then slide it toward you about 6 inches before you can put anything on it. The seat reclines about 2-3 times more than an economy airline seat and a second lever props up a leg support and a third pops up a bar for your feet. The overhead luggage compartment has enough room for a rugby team and if that's not enough there's more space at the car entrance. Because they're double decker the second level (the main level) doesn't have to deal with train wheels so there's 37 rows of seats in the car which is amazing considering the space between them. The lower level is for first class and sleepers in addition to the bathrooms which also will surprise you. A couple (that's right, a couple per car) are small like airplane bathrooms and then there's at least one large one where you can plug in all your electronic shavers, blow driers etc... The lower level also houses additional luggage storage although if I were you I'd lock my bags if I couldn't monitor them.

 

Not only do you have way way more room than on an airplane the train gets going quickly because they can load all cars at the same time. I think we were off about 15 minutes after we started boarding. Each seat has power plugs which are a godsend and a quick stroll through the cars will show many people taking advantage of them with laptops and pods everywhere. Speaking of which if you get bored in your oversize seat you can take a walk. The Coast Starlight also has a bar/lounge car with observation deck which is where I love to just sit and read and watch the scenery pass by the wraparound glass windows. Downstairs from the observation car is the food counter where they have the usual cardboard pizzas and AMPM quality hamburgers. There is about 12 tables where you can sit an eat your food before returning to your seat. If you want more of a personal experience (and more costly) you can snag one of the attendants as they walk through the car and get a reservation to eat in the restaurant. The restaurant car is complete with white table cloths and nice food but you have to be fast because there's several seatings and if you don't get a reservation you're limited to the bar car or bringing your own. Speaking of which you can bring your own food and drinks (yes liquids!) avoiding the whole can of soda for two bucks situation completely. I remember times when I was passing through Portland and had a layover when we'd run down the street to the Burger King and buy a couple of $1.39 Whoppers and take them on the train. I'm sure there's probably limits to what you can take on board (like your weber smoky mountain smoker) but they're not real strict about it. The train ride goes by very casually and without disappointment. On the Amtrak you feel like you can take as much time as you want to get where you need to be and for good reason, you have to. The trip from Seattle to LA takes 40 hours. Amtrak is not crappy rail travel, let me just say that right now. However, they're rarely on time, they're not fast and they're not always cheaper than flying. My first Amtrak trip cost me $177 from Washington to Nevada round trip. That was cheaper than any plane ticket then. Now I can fly for less than that. The train would probably cost more.

 

So back to my original quandary. Should we do something about rail in America or let Amtrak go the way of the dodo? I say do whatever to bring us up to the same level of Japan, China, France and Germany or leapfrog them. A modern train with right a way could do Canada to Mexico in 10 hours or less and would be full the whole way because unlike an airplane they pick up people on the way. Before people jump on me about taxes and subsidies let me say one thing, the TGV system in France makes money. That's right it makes money and is usually full. The TER (inter region) do not make money and need to be subsidized. So in this country where we're afraid to pay one cent in taxes unless it's put to good use bombing a small country to protect our civil liberties we should think about just using rail for these high profit lines. I would think that Vancouver BC to San Diego would be one such line as well as Boston to Miami and Chicago to NYC.

On a less idealistic dreamy note Amtrak would do well with newer rails and more right of way. It took us 4 hrs to get from Seattle to Portland which isn't that much slower than driving and a heck of a lot more enjoyable. If the Superliner could get up to speed or stay at top speed longer it could equal driving and still be more comfortable. More trains, a bit more speed and keep them full so the ticket prices could be lower and I think we'd have a winner. It's no TGV but I think it could be profitable. Also there's the feel element. I just like riding trains. I like the rhythmic rocking motion and I like the fact that I can do other things on them. Buses are cheaper but I hate them. A good bus can't compete with a bad train in my book.

On arriving to Portland we exited the always nice restored Union station. A short walk to the Chinatown station put us on the red line light rail. Thirty minutes later we're at the airport. I'm fairly impressed by how much light rail Portland has put in compared to Seattle. We've managed 1/5 the amount of mileage and only after two decades of talking about it and it still doesn't really go anywhere.

Tomorrow we fly to Georgia. Yes you heard me Georgia then we turn and fly to Mexico City. It's the long way but I'll pick up some miles and I got the tickets for a song. The plane leaves at 6:30 and our Comfort Suites is going to start breakfast at 4 so off to count sheep I go.

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We will get out of here!

Leading up to any of our trips there's always doubt. Doubt because my pay schedules aren't always reliable. Doubt because until I go looking for my money it doesn't show up. But doubt no more, we're leaving on Thursday.

Something is happening in the Airline world with prices. The prices are climbing higher all the time and the nickel and diming model of making money seems to be getting more popular. This Week in Travel podcast just covered this topic recently. Are customers more satisfied if the ticket price is initially higher and they don't get nickel and dimed or do they like to see a low ticket price and then feel the sting when they get charged for not printing their ticket ahead of time (seriously!), for checking 1 bag, for a blanket and pillow, for soda etc... Is it better to have a $500 ticket and pay another $100 for your bags and printing your ticket? A part of me wants to say yes because I print my ticket ahead of time and I don't check bags. Let other people pay my way! However I don't like the nickel and dime method of making money. I don't like thinking I'm getting a ticket for $500 if when I click on "purchase" the number goes to $750. This irritates me and is one of the reasons I use Orbitz - they try to tally everything for you and show you that price. Another reason is if someone else buys a ticket on the same plane after I do and the price is lower they'll send me a check for the difference automatically. This I like.

However, there's another something happening in the industry that I believe is connected with the first - airlines aren't making any money and they don't think they'll get bailouts. This has driven the ticket price skyward. Normally to fly to Mexico around Christmas time I pay about $300 per person. During the summer I pay about $500 per person. When I searched for tickets this time I was shocked to see $1100 per person! I've never seen the tickets that high to Mexico. We had initially planned on going to Thailand this holiday but instead of the normal $1300 ticket to Bangkok or Hoh Chi Minh City they were $2800. I think $1300 is doable but $2800 is not. I'm not paying $10,000 just for us to get on a plane. Clearly I'm going to work a lot harder for my tickets than usual.

A third thing I'm seeing is that legacy domestic carriers are now treating round trip tickets as if they were two one way tickets ala Southwest, Jet Blue and Virgin America. I turned up my nose at first but now I've realized this gives me a great deal of flexibility that I didn't have before. It's much easier to book an open-jaw ticket now online.

So I pulled out all the stops to get a better deal to Mexico.  If we'd come back on the 7th the tickets would be a lot lower but because I have class on the 5th we can't stay that long - bummer. There's a website in Europe that I use a lot called skyscanner.com. It's really nice because you can put in your current location and leave all other fields open and it will tell you the cheapest prices anywhere. It's great fun to just take the cheapest ticket and go explore wherever it sends you. We've gotten tickets from London to France for 1 Euro cent that way. We paid $6 to fly from Poland to the UK another time (the taxi to the airport was $12). Some times you just want to go somewhere and you don't care where. I wish the US ticket booking sites would let me do this as I would have put in my location and Mexico for a destination and it would have shown me ALL tickets to anywhere in Mexico. This would have saved me time.

So tickets from SEA to MEX were over $1000 rt. Tickets from PDX to MEX were over $1100 rt. Tickets from YVR (Vancouver BC) to MEX were over $1000 rt. However a ticket from PDX to MEX one way was $172! What you say? It's true. Coming back would have cost a fortune though which is why the RT ticket was so much. However a Puebla to Las Vegas ticket was $159! Yep, I could get back to the states for $159 from Puebla. The same ticket from Guadalajara or Mexico City was $450. So now I'm back in the states and need to get home and Orbitz found me a ticket from LAS to SEA on JetBlue for $169 again. Total from PDX -> MEX - Puebla -> SEA using all one way tickets - about $500. We need to get to PDX so we booked tickets on Amtrak. Kids ride for half price and Natalya bought a Student Advantage card which shaved the ticket for four people to $133 from SEA to PDX for four people. Adding in the train tickets, all plane tickets and the hotel in Portland we saved $1300 over just buying the cheapest ticket on Orbitz or Expedia. I worked for it but it paid off. The money I saved paid for 10 days of Hotel, local transportation and food in Mexico. Basically what I saved paid for the rest of the trip.

 

 

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Travel Trip Journals Central Mexico - 2010