Wednesday, 23 November 2011

An Assault On The Senses

ARRIVING IN A large, unknown city can be an intimidating experience; I try to ensure that my arrival is in daylight. And they don't come much bigger, or apparently badder, than the megacity of Ciudad De México. The place has a negative reputation, little-deserved these days. Indeed, many locals are horrified when you tell them which parts of the city you have walked through without an armed guard. They tend to believe their own media, rather than see for themselves. Apparently as little as five years ago certain parts of the centre were no-go areas even for the police. And so I felt a little daunted on arrival, the endless barrios blurring by as the bus crept into the Centro Historico in the early morning. It was around 6am; I shouldered my dusty pack and headed off into the unknown, swallowed up by the streets. I decided to walk due to the fear of pirate taxis and express-kidnappings (the so-called Millionaire's Tour of ATMs at gunpoint in the back of a car). It was initially my intention to stay only for a few days, not knowing that I'd rapidly develop a strong affection for this impressive place. Its fearsome reputation would soon be dispelled.

My first impressions were good. Thankful for the coolness of the early morning air I picked my way through the side streets on my way to the Zócalo, the huge paved central plaza. I liked the atmosphere; I was reminded of my immediate love for had a similar look and feel in places. Some buildings are in a state of disrepair, others immaculate and intricately tiled; cracked pavements, leafy avenues and cobblestone streets contribute to its atmosphere of a yesteryear Spanish city.

The Aztec capital was originally situated on an island amidst a huge lake when founded in 1325 A.D. and now commands this vast plain, surrounded by volcanoes and hills. From the Torre Latinoamericana in the heart of the central district the solid mass of streets and buildings spreads in every direction, toward all four horizons. It covers an incredible 1485 square kilometres. In the distance dense settlements encroach upon steep slopes above the conurbation, space is at a premium here. The four main arterial roads serving as the main points of entry cut the city into four pieces of concrete pie. The view from here is truly breathtaking.

The ancient lake of Texcoco has been completely drained since work began to expand the city in the 17th Century: miles of tunnels and canals run below thousands of streets, draining away water which continues to seep upwards from the clay bed. But this is causing problems, as buildings in various areas of México DF are slowly sinking: the cathedral in the Zócalo has dropped an incredible 9m since the beginning of this century, the ground floor is now the basement. In the early hours of each morning, crews can be heard draining the excess water into container trucks. Keeping the city flood-free and above ground level is a 24/7 job.

Pollution is a major problem. On some days it is impossible to see the hills and volcanoes from the centre for the filthy smog. And this aire mala is estimated to shorten the life of the average resident by 10 years. In 1991, the air was deemed a health hazard for 355 days of that year. I dread to think how the conditions would be if the city did not sit at an altitude 2240m above sea level. But several measures seem set to improve conditions. The subway system, built in 1968, is very cheap at 15 pence a journey, and carries 5 million passengers each day. Anyone who thinks that the rush hour on London's Tube is claustraphobic and stressful should really try this one. The Tube feels like a day out on the Orient Express by comparison. I've seen carriages jammed with people, and yet more literally bouncing into them from the platform in vain attempts to create a space. The transit authority has wisely created an area of the platform available only to women and children during the busier periods. It is savagery down there. As regards traffic, by law new cars need to be fitted with a catalytic converter, and LPG cars are becoming more popular. There is also a system called Hoy No Circula, whereby cars ending in a certain number are only allowed on the streets certain days of the week, in a bid to alleviate the problem. Hopefully these will begin to make a difference and improve the lives of this city's residents.

The other problem is the people: indeed, they're very nice...but they are everywhere. An estimated 21.2 million people populate the metropolitan area, 8.85 million of those souls in the Distrito Federal, or DF as the locals refer to it. In the municipality of Nezahualcóyotl, to the northeast of DF, it was recently reported in National Geographic that 17,537 people saturate a square kilometre. A staggering figure. Throw in the problems with narco-trafficking on top of the usual issues associated with over-population, and you have troubles. The article reported residents taking matters into their own hands and reclaiming the streets after various gruesome murders and drive-by shootings: they built their own concrete barriers to pedestrianise roads and create safe-havens from the gangs. If people stick together, these problems will gradually be overcome. I overheard one American bemoaning the danger and drug-war in this country, and its drain on US resources. The deadpan reply from his Mexican friend was a classic "Well if you gringos would stop buying cocaine..?"

On my first day in the city I walked solidly for almost six hours. I'd climbed the Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador, in a pair of Converse, but this trek gave me more blisters. I left the Centro Historico with its heaving streets and roar of traffic; the khaki-uniformed wurlitzer players with their caps on outstretched arms, a raucous, tuneless din emerging from their ancient instruments; the noisy farting of VW Beetle taxis in their gold and burgundy livery; hawkers plying their wares in the streets adding to the racket. This assault on the senses is incessant. It begins at 5am and tails off around 9pm. Your ears ring as it dies down and the city relaxes.

I reached the bohemian Colonia Roma, and this was where I began to toy with the possibility of living here. It's rough around the edges, beautiful and decrepit. Gorgeous old houses covered with climbing vines, shabby-chic bars and restaurants with an arty vibe. Both here and the more upmarket Condesa district are littered with coffee shops populated by Macbook-wielding drinkers. The two Méxicanos I'd befriended in El Salvador live here, and I could see why (incidentally Emi, the thin, handsome one pointed out some factual errors in this text, and told me to say that he was The Thin And Handsome one of the two...sorry, Wíro (who is cute in a Beardy And Cuddly way, girls...see the photo)). They have a network of fellow creative friends in this area; it's the design-centric barrio of México DF. All I need is my Mac laptop and my diving gear: I could design for London agencies for 6 months of the year and dive, write and travel the rest? Sounds rubbish. Something for me to ponder, anyway. As far as art and design goes, there is plenty of inspiration on tap here: the city boasts some 2000+ museums and galleries. I took in a few on the way to DF's biggest green space, and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of work and tasteful curation on show.

Parque Chapultepec is an oasis of calm amongst the madness; once you penetrate deep enough to escape the sounds of traffic, that is. At its edge squirrels make forays between the groups of people, unabashedly searching for food. I had a couple scramble up my legs and dig about in the pockets of my jeans, and made a mental note to bring some nuts next time. Lose yourself in this vast park, and it's possible to forget that you're in one of the biggest cities in the Americas. Within its walls is the Museo De Caracol, showcasing a history of México and its people; outside the park is the famous Museo De Antropologia, a stunning building and collection of ancient artifacts charting the development of the human race on this vast continent. While here, I was lucky enough to catch the temporary exhibition of anthropolgical studies by JB Debret, a French exile to Brasil in the early 19th Century. His pencil drawings are stunning depictions of everyday life for the Portuguese colonials and their African slaves. I envied him his skills, having been pretty handy at sketching myself in younger days. The age of the Mac has put paid to those, but I've been inspired to pick up a pencil again. Though it's going to take a while...Rome wasn't drawn in a day.

I traversed the centro once more on my walk in the afternoon sun and stumbled across Calle Donceles. Being a bit of a bookworm, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this long avenue is populated almost solely by secondhand bookshops, stocking titles in English (and many other languages) as well as Spanish. As books in Spanish are very expensive in London, I stocked up on a few titles by García Márquez to study and improve my collection back home. As things look, I may be shipping them back to México within 12 months? Incidentally, I met an Australian who was carrying 41 books at last count, and was having to buy another bag to carry them home. I had to laugh, explaining to him that I had a strict Five Book Rule when travelling, as books aren't light. His library ensured that he was using México City as base...carrying those around would be impossible.

Physically shattered by my lengthy hike, I headed back to the Centro. Resting with a delicious, cheap coffee across the street from my hostal, I read a little in between the amusingly bad performance of those buskers who force unwanted music upon people enjoying a bit of peace and quiet with their coffee. At least the teams of Mariachis ask if you'd like them to play for you, whereas the buskers just start playing and you're obliged to endure it. There's a regular on Calle Regina for whom I have a soft spot, though: a middle-aged man who plays and sings (murders?) The Cranberries' Zombie every afternoon. He's so bad that he's good, as far as entertainment goes, and I tip him every time I see him. Unlike the mohicaned gimp screaming worthy revolutionary songs out of tune, while strumming a guitar which sounds like it hasn't been tuned since he bought it. My tip for him? Give up,'s giving everyone a migraine.

A gentle breeze carried the stench of a long-unwashed body. No...not mine. I looked to my left and saw that a tramp had laid down on a nearby bench for a nap, barely ten yards from me. His less-than-delicate aroma was clearing tables in a rapid fashion, empty ones appearing around him. Customers fled to those upwind, wrinkling their noses and laughing. I quickly grabbed another before I became stuck where I was, and the afternoon continued. I caught the eye of a few locals who raised their eyebrows and smiled, rolling their eyes at the prone figure as if to say What can you do? I smiled back. You've got to love the Mexicans. People are so tolerant of each other here. Back in England the tramp would have been poked with a (long) stick and told to bugger off.

So I was happy to be here. Inspired. Excited. And feeling the butterflies and goosebumps usually associated with the beginning of a love affair. I couldn't wait to see more of México and felt that, at last, I may just have found my place.

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