The Palacio des Bellas Artes in downtown Mexico City. One of the most beautiful buildings I've seen in person.
As I said before, I have a new favourite country: Mexico. Sorry, Norway. I now have a new favourite city, Mexico City. Sorry, Stockholm.
There is a lot of Death in Mexico. A hell of a lot.
Let me begin by stating my expectations. I am not really a huge fan of gloomy metropolises dedicated to greed and surplus. London is the closest to us and it is by many accounts a thriving, culturally astounding behemoth yet equally, it is dull, grey and dirty with far too many people and swearwords. I have had many good times in London, it has many things to offer, but it does not hold a great place in my heart.
I visited Los Angeles when I was about seven years old. I didn’t really get to see much of it then except Universal Studios, Disneyland, that beach where the vain do pull-ups in front of women who are 60% plastic and some of the suburbs. I didn’t really get a feel for how vast that place was, nor for how smoggy and dusty it was. My father somewhat wisely chose to skip that part and meet us in the airport on the way to Hawaii instead.
Don’t get me wrong here, I had a ball in that mega-city! My mind was blown by Los Angeles at the time. It was the biggest city I’d ever been to, I was surrounded by flashing colours, roller-blades, boobs and garish late-90’s fashion and totally ignorant of the sweaty armpit of a city that lurked around every corner. Or so I am told.
Most of what we see of Mexico in Europe is from the USA. I now know that that is mostly lies and bullshit. They usually depict Mexicans as horrible stereotypes: lazy immigrant workers, cholos (gangsters), house cleaners, maids, farmers, mariachis and poor. It’s a total lie.
I know what you’re thinking: Hollywood… didn’t tell the truth?!? Well, it’s true.
Mexico City at Sunset
Mexico is so vast, so diverse and so rich that there couldn’t possibly be a “stereotypical Mexican”. I know the same couldn’t be said of any country, that stereotypes don’t exist and that the common perception is merely a result of ignorance (except maybe Germany…), but so far my impression of Mexico has been overwhelmingly positive and I have yet to encounter any of the stereotypes.
I was kind of expecting Mexico City to be like that. I was expecting it to be far too big, far too noisy, far too busy, far too bustling, dirty, smelly and uneasy. I was expecting it to be dangerous and violent. Drug wars everywhere. Moustaches. Mariachis shooting it out with pistols. Bullet holes everywhere. I was expecting it to be everything my father said it would be like. I was totally and utterly wrong in almost every way and so was he.
But, I only judge something on its merit and never on what I expected. I’ve seen people do this with films, books or music all the time and I really don’t get it. Why would you judge something you haven’t experienced on what you thought the experience would be? That’s a very strange idea to me. But people still do it all the time.
You can almost feel the electricity, the energy of the city as it stretches into the distance. It's scale is uniminigable, like trying to picture the size of the universe. It's quite literally 5 times the population of Ireland and 1/3 the population of the UK crammed into one massive valley.
Culture and Feel
There is so much culture here that I have experienced and so much more to be experienced. It’s half the size of the EU, for fack’s sake, simply the size of the place would generate cultural diversity. But it goes further than that.
Mexico City, with 21 million people, is one of the biggest cities in the world. It is also one of the most diverse. The architecture varies widely between gorgeous Spanish colonial constructs like the baroque cathedrals, ornate masterpieces of stone and gold, to the fine late 19th/early 20th century palaces in the middle of the city. The city’s skyscrapers are quite decentralised, so occasionally one comes across a massive tower in the middle of normal office blocks. These towers are mostly tastefully done. Mostly. At street level, it’s mostly unimpressive like most cities, but Mexico City is also shockingly green and full of life. Cheeky squirrels run around the parks in Coyoacán with total abandon, accepting treats from strangers. The massive indoor park at Chapultepec has all the museums and vast arboretum teeming with life. While walking around the streets normally, you can still hear birds in one of the many trees that line the pretty streets. It is not a city devoid of life by any means.
Virgen de Guadalupe - Queen of the Mexicans and of particular importance to Mexican Catholics. "Calling Dr. Freud, Dr. Freud please to reception, Dr. Freud, your patient is waiting..."
Lest we forget, this is the city that inspired many great artistic minds like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and José Orozco. It is a city with a strong element of the surreal to it. In modern parlance, that means you often say: “WTF?!?” while walking around and, I think, that’s a wonderful thing indeed. Murals adorn many of the walls of every major building. But the art is everywhere in the city – most of it makes no sense to me, but still looks quite wonderful. Muralism is a fantastic artform. Diego Rivera was a genius. There is a strong sense of the surreal to the place. Surrealism is based mostly on Freudianism and I had a great time trying to figure out some of the Freud in the works around the place. While walking in the park, I came across a ritual where fellows in traditional dress slowly rotated themselves down and around a pole with a rope tied to their feet while banging a drum. Good times.
The murals are incredible. Shocking, even. I was blown away by the scope and majesty of some of them. The power and emotion of the grand works are something that really need to be experienced first hand. There is a wonderful way to them. They seem to encapsulate many concepts and many ideas and tie them all together in a very convincing, very tight way. Incredibly, some of them, large though they are, seem to demand more space, as if they are in wont of expansion, the space to say more, to really speak all that is on their minds. The biggest and best of them cover years of history, tie them all up with political expression and ideology and draw us in with their beauty.
To really get a feel, try this one by Diego Rivera. It’s too big to put on the page, so zoom in and take a look see.
I went in there with the right mindset. That probably made the difference. I went in their somewhat ignorant but with the desire to seek out the best of it. I have never been to anywhere like it so it seemed strange. I did a few things right. I chose the right hostel. It was a party hostel right in the centre with a very good international crowd mostly between the ages of 20 and 30 with a few road-worn old hippies to add to the atmosphere. That place partied almost every night and was simply organised, clean and relatively comfortable. It had a couple of guided tours for people to go on, but that’s not really my sort of thing unless I want to meet people. Just walking around the city with people from the hostel was very easy and lots of fun. A great variety of excellent people kept on coming in from all over the world.
A Brief Complaint about Drunken Australians
…except for certain Australians, they were mostly good fun at the hostel. This may seem a little racist or look like some sort of colonial superiority or something like that, but seriously. Most Australians are quite nice and some Australians are wonderful people. I’m sorry if this offends you, Australians, but it’s just that the 20-somethings that travel to get drunk and take drugs in Europe and the Americas really piss me off – and I’ve met a few too many of them and I’m sorry if I’m not alone in this opinion. Generally speaking, they’re loud, obnoxious, empty vessels with the personality of a road-killed possum and the manners of… well, a deported Scots/Irish/Englishman. Perhaps it is my prejudice from living in New Zealand and that natural disdain they have towards Oz, or perhaps its just the ones I meet seem unusually dumb compared to the Europeans or Canadians or, even, dare I say, Gringos one meets on the road, but either way, loud Australians are the worst type of traveller I’ve met so far. Gripe over. Racist diatribe ended.
Anyway, so I ended up staying a whole week instead of just four days in Mexico City. The end result of that is that I am now somewhat behind on my plans and will have to skip the Mexican desert in favour of the Copper Canyon and the Arizona/Utah desert. No biggy.
Lucha Libre masks. Very inventive and quite a lot of fun. I, for one, know what my halloween costume will be next year. I'm going to slap (and sweat all over) everyone just for the hell of it.
With the hostel, I took a tour to the wrestling that Mexico is so famous for. Lucha Libre, or free wrestling, is famous for novelty masks, supposedly tracing back to the Aztec traditions. This is just like American wrestling except they don’t even bother to cover the fakeness of it all. It’s pure showmanship in it’s most greasy form. It’s just a spectacle. Oiled up sweaty mean in panties slapping each other around homosexually, steroid pumped arms and legs flailing everywhere is …actually really entertaining, to be honest. Sometimes the acrobatics are great: they do flips and jumps and slides. Other times it’s the choreography as they set up complex sequences of moves and events. Slap to kick to hop and step and waltz and jump. It’s fantastic stuff. It’s not meant to be real. It’s just meant to be exaggerated, intense, masculine fun.
And it has and endless supply of boobs from both sexes. Good times.
Within moments, the head of the downed will meet the crotch of the attacker. Sweaty sound effects will be audible.
So many museums. Good God, they know how to do museums here. The Museum of Anthropology is ludicrously well done. It’s vast and there’s enough to see for two visits. I made about three or four hours before my brain started melting from information overload. I was raised on the internet dammit, we just can’t do it!
The Museum of Anthropology
Museums are like walking around caged versions of a country/demographic/civilisation/etc. with short explanations. The museum of anthropology is like walking around a wax-model version of Mexico, but somehow felt twice as tiring as walking around the real thing. Here, the differences between regions became far more noticeable. It was rather fascinating, expertly done and very, very worth it. I’ve been in sort of contact with maybe three of the indigenous populations on show. There were over fifty on display. Big country.
No post would be complete without a short description of the societies I’ve wormed my way into.
I arrived in Mexico City on Saturday. I booked into the hostel and then grabbed a German from my room and the other two Germans I’d been travelling with and we went on the search for a beer. We found one place with shisha. Good call. Then we moved on. We wandered around the main square, witnessed the beauty of the city at night and saw the massive cathedral in its illuminated glory. Then we, well, sort of crashed a party. We spotted a rooftop party in downtown Mexico City and we sought the entrance. It was on the top of an apartment building and we saw some people coming out of the door. We asked if we could go up. They were very drunk but they said yes so we went up. The view from the top was great. Then we sort of joined the party. They invited us with open arms and gave us free drinks cakes and other assorted gifts. They were a little older than I, mostly late 20’s, and were celebrating a birthday. They spoke great English and we all had a whale of a time.
Then, when the party on the roof was over, we jumped in one of their cars and drove out (singing Pink Floyd and Theme from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the way just to add to the WTF of the situation) to an expensive, upmarket karaoke club in the bohemian nightclub district of Mexico City. Here, they all packed up into one sweaty little room and sang songs in drunken English or cheesy Spanish songs. Then when that was done, we drove out to another club. Here, they asked for 200 pesos entry, but after paying 150 for the other place, that was a little too much. So they spoke to the bouncers and let us all in for free. It was a dance hall with a carpet and chandeliers and there I was, not the tallest person in the room for a change, in hiking boots. Free bar, too. I got home some time around six.
…and was up for nine to say goodbye to the Germans leaving for Cuba. Then I met up with the same Mexicans I had partied with the night before for a barbecue and to watch the Gringos lose the Winter Olympics hockey final to Canada. It’s an anyone-but-America mentality out here. I had a great time, though my Spanish was terrible, but it was a really chilled, enjoyable Sunday afternoon. There they had beer with tomato juice, chilli, lemon and *gasp!* Worcester Sauce. Why the hell did we never think of that? It’s amazing.
Then, on Thursday, I went out again with some people from the hostel. We found a dingy, mural-covered cantina out in the middle of nowhere and had a few really authentic drinks. Then some locals joined us. Then the party finished and the locals invited us back to their place. The house belonged to a bunch of artists and paintings and designs were everywhere. They brought out more drinks and a variety of weird and strange musical instruments for us all. There was this unique guitar/harp combination, a digeridoo, rain sticks and singing. I even got to whip out the Mongolian Throat Singing I’d learned a while back and taught it to one of the locals who was very impressed. Absolutely wonderful night that didn’t happen at all as expected and was all the better for it. I also met a delightful Israeli who I’ve now been travelling with for about four days from Mexico to Morelia. Good times had by all.
All throughout, I just embraced the randomness of Mexico City and I was rewarded with priceless, bizarre memories. Fortune favours the brave – and I was feeling particularly ballsy on this trip and fortune rewarded me justly.
I’ve eaten things I never expected to eat out here. Brain tacos, for instance. Texture is so important in food and this had the texture of dry porridge and the flavour of uncooked fat. It was thoroughly nasty, but I finished it because I am ballsy. Then I ate my other taco: tongue. Then the next one: ear. I almost threw up it was so weird. But I didn’t and now I can officially claim to have eaten BRAINS.
I have eaten this. Pig brain. Tastes pretty much how it looks.
Mexican street food is fantastic. The sweet goods are amazing. The bread shops are divine – Mexican pastry is shockingly good and the doughnuts are beautiful. I’ve eaten some weird things out here, but since I can’t remember their names, I’ll have to let it go. Just know that it was mostly pretty damn good. I love this country’s food. So much better than our food back home.