Sunday, March 18, 2007
Down and out in Mexico City (okay, not VERY down and out)
Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I was terrified of arriving in Mexico City. The worst crime rate in the world: drugs, pickpockets, bus hijackings, cab drivers who rob their passengers. City of slums; last and desperate refuge for Mexico’s poor. Overflowing centre of Mexico’s population explosion.
I think I probably read too much and listened to too many people beforehand.
‘Going to Mexico City huh?’ observed our not-Australian fellow traveller when he ran into us for the last time in Guanajuato. We were standing on a street corner eating ice cream, loaded down with all our luggage. ‘You’d better be careful or that camera won’t last long.’
The Mexico City bus terminal, scene of our first impressions, swarms with travellers. It’s 9.30 pm and raining for the first time since I’ve arrived in Mexico. Catching a taxi to our hostel proves complex. The Lonely Planet warns against hailing cabs on the street – it is not uncommon for cab drivers to kidnap passengers, drive them to ATMs and force them to withdraw all their money. Sometimes, they keep them overnight in order to get around rules governing minimum withdrawals. To get around this, you pay your fare in advance at a booth in the terminal, then queue with your coupon and wait for a cab to roll up. A man rescues us from the languishing queue to pull us ahead to a better position, explaining what to do in English. As the driver he flags down pulls up by the kerb, our guide scribbles on our ticket.
‘This is the cab number. If you have any trouble at all, phone this number here and tell them the cab number.’
It’s both disconcerting and reassuring at once to have such close attention paid to your safety. Comforting to know that someone who knows what they’re doing is watching out for you; not so comforting to know that danger is so prevalent that such precautions are necessary.
We drive past the national university, Universidad Autonomo de Mexico (UNAM). The walls are topped with menacing coils of barbed wire. It looks like a detention centre, without the gun towers. Of course, UNAM has planted the seed of more than one rebellion here. Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatista rebellion and continuing thorn in the side of successive governments, is among its alumni. The Mexican army infamously opened fire on student demonstrators in 1968, killing hundreds and jailing thousands. And as recently as 1999, the army forcibly ended a student strike that lasted eighteen months, in which the strikers barricaded themselves into the university.
The streets of Mexico City, or DF (federal district) as it is locally known, are eerily empty. Rubbish tumbles along the footpaths. At one street corner, it forms a lumpy pile on the concrete. The shopfronts, too, are forbidding in their absence of life; most of them are resolutely hidden behind garage-style roller doors.
Our monosyllabic driver winds his way through the city streets, moving in lazy circles. He has the name of the hostel and the street address, but somehow he still can’t find it. Eventually, we pull up in a lit doorway under the sign ‘MEXICO CITY HOSTEL’. As we buzz reception to be admitted past the iron gates, The Husband confides that he was getting worried about what exactly was going on. This makes me very happy.
The hostel itself is brilliant. Internet access, friendly staff, clean bathrooms, funky decorations – ceiling-high murals and Mexican tiled stairs. Our room is slightly weird in the typical Mexican way. We have four double beds and six lockers. A tinted, curtainless glass door opens out onto the iron balcony overlooking the unfriendly street.
We brave the streets for dinner, after gathering tips from the hostel staffer on where to go. Just finding out somewhere that will be open is useful. I grip The Husband’s hand tight as we make our way to the café nearby.
‘You’re really scared, aren’t you?’ he says.
We pass one other dark figure on our journey, and he seems utterly uninterested in us.
The windows of the café are crammed with pastries, donuts and cakes. The booths are packed with both Mexicans and obvious tourists. It’s not just the white skin or the accents that mark out our breed. It’s our sandals, backpacks, fleecy windbreakers and Lonely Planets. My order of tacos arrives, drowned in sour cream (which I hate), the tortillas slick with oil. I peel one open and recoil at the greyish scraps of chicken. A sad tomato rests on wilting lettuce at the edge of my plate. To my horror, I burst into tears. I slept for just two hours last night (too much thinking, too many roosters) and every meal I’ve ordered today has been horrible. I am tired and hungry and I hate Mexico City. The waitress avoids the table as I blow my nose into the serviettes and The Husband bewilderedly tries to comfort me.
In the hotel, I sniffle and sob my way to sleep.