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Dave and Jan's travels, day 182:
Mexico City

17th November
Mexico City is reputedly the second largest city in the world (no, I don't know which is the largest, and I don't know what the measure is either). It also has a reputation as having the most smog, the most muggers, the most pickpockets, the most unsafe taxis, and so on and so on. The U.S. State Department recommends that you never hail taxis on the street. Our guide book advised us not to travel in the end car on the subway. Not surprisingly, we approached the place rather apprehensively.

Guess what? Based on our little experience, all of the above is total tripe. Except maybe the bit about the smog. Mexico City is actually a very nice place. It's very calm as huge capital cities go. Drivers are certainly more relaxed than their counterparts in New York, and compared to Bangkok, for example, most of Mexico City is practically asleep. The general ambience is not unlike Paris. The subway is spacious, clean, efficient and full of people who look way too prosperous to be in the mugging game. The taxis are little VW beetles driven by VW beetle-sized people who are a lot less frightening than their New York counterparts. And - continuing our Mexico experience so far - we kept meeting really nice friendly people. As it says in Jan's diary, when you smile at people, they smile back.

A special mention must go to the Restaurante El Vegetariano. The menu of the day is four courses of vegetarian food that you haven't tried before. And you get the attentions of the owner, who is going to move heaven and earth to explain what each ingredient actually is. To give you some idea of how hard he has to work to do this: Jan had salad, cold guava soup, choyote primavera (choyote is a kind of prickly pear cactus which tastes like juicy potato), capirotada to finish (soggy but nice bread pudding). David's main course was huauzontle rebozado, which bears no resemblence to anything I've seen before. Imagine broccoli-like bobbly bits, only on twigs rather than stalks, and tasting a little like spinach - but not much - all deep fried. Oh, and banana juice to wash it all down. At 35 pesos a head (about £2.50) this is bargain basement stuff.

There is a lot to do in Mexico City. After four days we'd accumulated a huge amount of plans for our next visit. The biggest single highlight of the city was the one that everyone seems to pick out: the Anthropology Museum. This is split into several sections, each of which has a ground floor dedicated to archaeological finds and their explanations, and a first floor covering the corresponding peoples' ethnology. The whole is beautifully presented and explained, and the contents of the collection are visually stunning. It helps that they're able to draw on the 1,500 or more years of advanced civilisations that came before the Conquistadors. It would be a great place to start a tour of the country: we spent a total of about eight hours there in two visits.

A bonus was the Voladores rite which was performed outside the same museum. The Totonac Indians who perform this rite attribute it with a range of symbols. Four people jump off the top of a pole, each with a rope tied to a leg. They've previously wound the rope around the poll in a cunning fashion that ensures that as each person falls, they both fly around the pole and descend reasonably slowly. See the photo at the side: it's remarkably slow and graceful

There's a central historical area in the middle of town, which includes a lot of colonial era buildings, and the recently excavated Templo Mayor which is the only visible sign that the place is built on the ruins of the Mexica (commonly called Aztec) city of Tenochtitlán. Actually, that isn't quite true. Tenochtitlán was built on an island in a now invisible lake, whose presence is still felt as buildings subside. The central cathedral is only held up by a gigantic quantity of scaffolding.

Another head-turning colonial building is the Casa de Azulejos - see photo. This beautiful 18th Century edifice is clad entirely in tiles shipped from China. Inside there are more tiles and a mural painted by Orozco.

Which brings us nicely onto the subject of mural painting. Orozco was a contemporary of Diego Rivera, and between the two of them, they seemed to have painted literally acres of wall across Mexico City during the twenties and thirties. Both had outspoken left wing views, and a strong belief in the importance of educating the masses, so both eschewed the more lucrative world of ivory tower art galleries, and constructed massive historical murals with a socialist message. This was serious stuff: Diego Rivera once completed a commision for the Rockefellers that was so scathing in its portrayal of capitalists that the Rockefellers promptly had it destroyed! Rivera later recreated the work which can be seen in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, along with more works by Rivera, Orozco and others.

Other works by Rivera appear in public buidings such as the Secretaria de Educacíon and the Palacio Nacional. The last contains our favourite: a kind of potted history of Mexico in which a few hundred people appear. We hired a local guide for this one, a must if you are to get the full import of every little figure in the picture.

We aren't finished with Diego Rivera at this stage. As well as painting every other wall in the city, this prolific artist still found time to create a vast body of more conventional art, put Leon Trotsky up in exile, womanised all over the place while maintaining a notoriously odd relationship with his wife, Frida Kahlo. A visit to what used to be her house is a glimpse into left wing bohemia fifty or more years ago: Joe Stalin was still cool back then. The final art source we should mention is the Museo Dolores Olmeda Patiño. Dolores is a (now old) seriously wealthy socialite who spent her life accumulating both Rivera and Kahlo paintings, as well a beautiful collection of preHispanic crafts. It's all displayed in her mansion in the south of the city, amidst beautiful grounds that swarm with peacocks and the like. Whilst we were there we also saw a temporary exhibition of folk art and this year's offering for the 'Day of the Dead' - see photo at the side.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Casa de Azulejos

Anthropology Museum

Day of the dead ornaments

Rivera Mural, the Palacio Nacional

Subsiding Cathedral