Monday, March 19, 2007

The road to ruins

Our first morning in Mexico City begins with a free buffet breakfast at the hostel. Scrambled eggs with chopped ham, toast and jam, fruit salad, tea and coffee with powdered milk. A pair of twenty-something girls, a punk and a hippy chattering to each other in German, soon take the spare seats at our table in the cafeteria-style kitchen. The punk, a Swiss girl with cropped green hair, black-framed glasses and black skinny jeans, speaks English in clipped, confident tones as we exchange stories. The (German) hippy, huddled over a bowl of green tea, has dirty blonde dreadlocks loosely tied back with a fat tube of hair. She wears a loose, olive green cardigan and is more laid-back, less aggressive in her opinions. The flow of conversation is turgid.
‘So, is Mexico City dangerous?’
‘Yes, it’s dangerous, but no more than Costa Rica or Guatemala or Honduras. They’re really poor. In Guatemala City, the streets are empty after dark. Here, it’s okay to be walking the streets.’
We ask about food.
‘Oh, we don’t eat out. We eat street food. It’s delicious. And we’ve been fine.’
We talk about what we’re doing today. The Husband and I are going to Teotihuacan, to see the pyramids.
‘I don’t need to see any more ruins’ scoffs Green Hair. ‘We’ve seen Mayan ruins in the jungles of Guatemala, and in Palenque [in the south of Mexico]. Nothing could top that.’
While I’m fastidiously buttering my toast at the counter, The Husband talks about his upcoming trip to the Yucatan, where there are more Mayan ruins, as well as amazing beaches.
‘Why would you want to go there?’ sniffs Green Hair. ‘There are so many tourists!’

We part with the usual pleasantries. Back in our room, as we gather our things, we decide that Green Hair especially is too cool for school.
‘She’s got attitude’ concludes The Husband. ‘Just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s not good. And anyway, we’re all tourists. What do they think they are?’

Hostel interior: overlooking the TV lounge from the second level, near our room

Unsure about how exactly to get back to the bus station (to catch our bus to Teotihuacan) we approach an Information Counter near the hostel. The Husband begins in tentative Spanish. The uniformed attendant answers us in flawless English, his accent a curious blend of upper crust British and Mexican Spanish. He flourishes a map and points out how we can get to the quickest bus route, mentioning landmarks we will pass along the way.
‘You will see some beautiful buildings.’
He is charm personified, his easy professionalism and smooth conversational patter mirroring that of the tourism staff I encountered in the US.

The city streets are transformed from last night’s siege atmosphere. Most of the shops here open at 10am, but some of the roller doors are already rising, and the cafes and restaurants are buzzing with breakfast clientele. The smooth stone-paved roads and footpaths are clean and neat, crowded with suited professionals powering their way to work, tourists ambling, beggars sitting beside upturned hats or paper cups, and store and café owners splashing soapy water on their doorsteps. In fact, cleanliness is our biggest obstacle, as we gingerly step over foaming suds and gathering puddles. An aproned woman in a café doorway sloshes a bucket over her sandwich-board sign, looking directly at us as the water envelops our shoes as if to say ‘so what?’ The entranceway and half the tiled floor of a sports store, lined with sneakers and emblazoned with Nike, Adidas and Converse logos, swims in watery detergent. I can’t imagine how a customer could enter some of these places if they wanted to.

Pairs of uniformed police are stationed at every street corner, directing traffic with the aid of sharp whistles, which they blow with seemingly joyful abandon. At the great square just steps away from our hostel (the Zocalo, or town centre), another pair of police stand at alert, surveying the area for signs of disorder. I am both comforted and vaguely disconcerted by their presence: the Mexican police are notoriously crooked, renowned for their shakedowns. I’ve heard at least two direct personal anecdotes about tourists bribing their way out of trouble; the threatened arrest somewhat warranted in one instance, manufactured in the other.

The clean streets and courteous tourist officers, the noticeable police presence, are all part of recent attempts to clean up the city’s notorious crime statistics, and its corresponding world image as a den of vice. In 2003, a group of private business interests, headed by Mexico’s richest man, hired former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani, who had famously fixed New York’s similar crime problem a decade earlier, to advise them on how to do the same in Mexico City. Guiliani handed down 146 recommendations based on the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy he implemented in New York, which were enthusiastically embraced by then mayor (and recent presidential candidate) Lopez Obrador, along with the city’s police chief. A comprehensive makeover of the historical centre was a central part of Obrador’s plan – repaving streets, bolstering security and improving traffic flow.
‘This reminds me of New York’ marvels The Husband as we edge our way along the narrow footpaths of Avenue Madero.

Lazaro Cardenas, the central artery where we will find our bus, is crammed with street vendors and newspaper stands on either side of the road. Some of them spread their wares on the concrete, at the base of the city walls, others are more permanently set up with portable tables under rooves of flimsy plastic sheeting. It’s the usual fare of jewellery and knick-knacks, along with pirated DVDs and second-hand books (in Spanish, of course – sadly). Some vendors display an odd assortment of old shoes, random items of clothing and household goods.

Across the road from where we stand, on the corner of Lazaro Cardenas and Avenue Hidalgo, is the Palacio de Bellas Artes – an enormous white wedding cake of a building topped with a red roof and a tripartite sunset dome. It is flanked by manicured gardens at its front entrance and bordered by Alameda Park (Mexico’s version of Central Park) to its right.

View of Palacio de Bellas Artes (with Alameda Park border) from the air

The bus costs a few pesos and arrives every few minutes. We stand wedged between vendors and easily hail one down (or at least, The Husband hails it down). The journey is uneventful. I start to breathe a little easier about the whole danger thing.

As we enter the bus terminal for the second time in two days, we are addressed by a booming American accented voice. A meaty, broad-shouldered moustachioed man with mutton chops at his cheekbones leads a family of four – his wiry, bird-like wife, a pony-tailed, wholesome-looking teenage girl and a beanpole of an older brother, in glasses and a green polo shirt. The boomer asks us for directions, then, catching sight of the Australian flag pinned to my satchel, begins to enthuse loudly about Australia. When he hears that we are from Melbourne, his grin stretches so that his face can barely accommodate it.
‘Oh boy! Mel-born. I LOVE Mel-borrrn. It was our home base in Australia, especially north Melborne. We stayed in a hostel there – you know, the main one.’
I take a chance.
‘The Nunnery? In Carlton?’
‘That’s it! Oh, it was wonderful. We love Australia, it’s the place to go!’
I stayed in The Nunnery for two weeks when I first arrived to live in Melbourne, and ended up making friends there that would form my core for my first six months there (until they all wet home to England and Canada!) – so I join his enthusiasm. It turns out that they are going to Teotihuacan too, so we follow in the lead of the lanky teenager (who seems to be group leader, despite his relative youth) as he expertly locates the correct ticket office and orders tickets in Spanish. We talk about Australia to the father all the way to the bus, though we form two separate groups again as we take our seats.

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