Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A photo essay of a week in Mexico - day 2 - part 2

After I left Tlatelolco, I took the bus back and got off near the Belles Artes building. The building is probably the epicenter of high culture in Mexico City, with museum exhibits, a performing arts hall and murals by Diego Rivera and other famous Mexican painters. I was running a little behind schedule, so I didn't have time to visit inside, and for some reason, museums make me very, very sleepy.

So instead I headed for the nearest Metro station and headed south on the subway to Coyoacan. Before I write about Coyoacan, I thought I would say a few words about the Mexico City Metro. Your typical guidebook gives you this impression that the Metro is a den of pickpockets and thieves, so when I first went to Mexico City in 2005 I was a little apprehensive. Once I actually got on the Metro my fears subsided instantly. I think the guidebooks must have liability concerns because the Metro is a cakewalk compared to riding nearly any Metro bus in Seattle, where I live. Generally, on the Mexico City Metro people are polite and quiet, especially in the middle of the day on weekdays. On weekends and during rush hours it gets crowded and a little noisier, but no big deal.

The strangest thing are the vendors who come through the cars selling their wares. You hear them before you see them. The sales pitch comes on loud, high and trilling. Often I've seen guys with giant boom boxes hanging on their chest, cranked up as loud as they can go and playing the mix CD they've got for sale. There was also the lady selling these giant pencils, this was the end of August so I assumed it was some kind of back to school sale. Usually, people seem to ignore the vendors with this kind of world weary stare ahead. I don't think I've ever seen a sale made, but I'm sure it happens.

What I'm trying to say is, if you're going to go to Mexico City, get over any fears you might have and take the Metro. Buy a money belt if you're scared about pickpockets and don't look like a tourist (no shorts, okay. Actually I actually saw a couple Mexican men wearing shorts in Mexico City this time. That was a first.). The metro is the fastest easiest and cheapest way to get around Mexico City. It's 2 pesos (about 17 cents) to go anywhere in the city as long as you don't leave the station. You could ride the thing all day long (not that I suggest you do) for 2 pesos. You will quickly find that riding a bus (unless they are bus rapid transit or have dedicated lanes), a taxi, a rental car (don't) or a colectivo (it's a little bus) will take you forever to get anywhere unless it's early in the morning or late at night. Especially if where you're going is a long way, like Coyoacan.

Next: your guide arrives in Coyoacan.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A photo essay of a week in Mexico - day 2 - part 1

And so the second day arrived with the question of what to do? My taxi driver from the airport had suggested I see the ruins at Tlatelolco. Sounds good I thought and I read up a little on the ruins in my guidebook. The ruins are the site of one of the final battles between the Spanish and the Aztecs and home to the remnants of a great Aztec temple. The story of the Aztecs is quite astonishing. They were a wandering tribe that settled in the Valley of Mexico just 200 some years prior to the Spanish arriving and proceeded to build a complex, large civilization with stunning architecture, sophisticated agricultural, justicial and trading systems, and much more. The tragic part is that so much of that incredible civilization was destroyed by the Spanish based on the twin justifications of lust for gold and lust for souls through conversion. I think the latter was probably more of a rationalization of the first. Anyhow, I highly recommend reading an account of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. It is one of the most stupendous, impossible, and sad tales that you will ever read.

Before heading up to Tlatelolco, I got some breakfast at a cafe on the west side of the Alameda Central, a park several blocks west of the Zocalo. It was Sunday and the park was filled with people and vendors selling everything you could possibly want.

As I walked on the sidewalk on the south side of the park, I noticed an interesting site on Avenida Juarez, an east/west boulevard that is one of the main streets in Mexico City. The street was blocked to vehicles and instead was restricted to bicyles, pedestrians, and inline skaters. I later learned that this was part of Mayor Marcelo Ebrard's policies to improve pollution in Mexico City by promoting alternatives. The restriction on Avenida Juarez is not without controversy, though. Many street vendors have protested the policy because it hurts their business on one of their busiest days of the week.

Then it was off to the ruins at Tlatelolco, which are about two to the three miles north of the Alameda Central on another main street called Lazaro Cardenas. Here I was in for another eco surprise. The street had been recently converted so the right lanes in both directions were devoted to zero emission buses. Apparently, this also was a part of Ebrard's anti-pollution policies.

After a 15-minute, extremely crowded, bus ride I arrived at the site of the Tlatelolco ruins. As you can see, much of the Aztec temple complex was razed by the Spanish. Ironically, much of the stone was used to create cathedrals, like the one you see in the background. I guess the Spanish were trying to send a message.

At the time of my visit I knew a little about the history of the ruins. What I didn't know was some recent history. The plaza on the west side of the ruins, just to the left of the cathedral, was the scene of a horrific massacre. In 1968, thousands of students gathered at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Aztec, Spanish, and Mexican) to protest the Olympic games, which were being held that fall in Mexico City. Government snipers posted on the roof of the Foreign Ministry building opened fire, killing hundreds, maybe thousands of protesters. Again, at the time of my visit, I did not know about this tragic event. Yet I distinctly remembered getting chills as I stood on the plaza taking the picture. When this happened I thought the chills arose in me as I thought of the battle between the Spanish and the Aztecs. I wonder, though, if I may have sensed some of the more recent history subconsciously.

Below is a picture of the Aztec ruins with the abandoned foreign ministry building in the background. Ironically, the building is its own sort of ruin now and another reminder of the sad history of this site.

The site is also a reminder of the unique ethnic history of the Mexican people. About 80 to 90 percent of Mexicans are Mestizo, that is, mixed. They carry a mixture of Spanish and Indian DNA. Every time I visit Mexico I can't help but think of this fact. There's really no ideal comparison to it in the United States, because most of the Native Americans were wiped out by disease before Europeans arrived (read Charles C. Mann's "1491" for a fascinating look at this topic). Europeans arrived in what was to become the US one hundred years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, So while a significant percentage of Native Mexicans died out as well, it was not before the population had become significantly Mestizo. I wonder what it must be like to carry these twin strands of DNA, and the be a part of that third culture - contemporary Mexicans. In many ways this is what is most fascinating about Mexico.

Next: Your guide travels from the north of Mexico City to the south, to Coyoacan.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A photo essay of a week in Mexico - day 1 - part 2

The Zocalo in the giant square in the center of Mexico City. It's the third largest square or plaza in the world, third only to Tiananmen Square in Beijing and Red Square in Moscow. It's nothing fancy, just a solid brick mass with a gigantic flag in the center. The flag is so big that people actually stand in the shadow of the pole on hot days to beat the heat.

Or they just chill against the giant base of the pole.

Basically, it's a great place to hang out, people watch, catch a demonstration, listen to music, see the Aztec dancers, buy street food, check out the wares of the street vendors, you get the idea.

Unfortunately, I picked a bad time to visit Mexico City, at least as far as the Zocalo is concerned. That's because about two thirds of the Zocalo was inhabited by huge temporary museum exhibit celebrating the history of the Centro Historico. That's fine but, c'mon. So, a little disappointed I headed out for a walk in the rain around the Centro Historico, had a fine dinner at one of the few cafes open in the area (surprisingly, there aren't many restaurants open around the Centro Historico after 8 p.m. on a Saturday) and went back to my hotel. It had been a long day and I was tired so I went to bed. (Coming up next, day 2)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A photo essay of a week in Mexico - day 1 - part 1

This is the start of my attempt to chronicle a week spent as a solo traveler in Mexico between August 29 and September 5. Most of these posts will be accompanied by pictures, but not this one, because there are no pictures from this day. First, I'll step back a bit and mention that this was my fourth trip to Mexico since 2005. On this trip I spent a three days in Mexico City, three days in the city of Zacatecas and one day in the city of Guanajuato, not necessarily in that order. Let's start with day one.

I live in Seattle and originally planned to take this trip with my girlfriend. But we were going through some rough times (rough enough that she is my ex-girlfriend) and she decided not to come with me. So I went alone, as I had done on trips to Mexico in 2007 and 2008. So I embarked on the trip with mixed feelings. I was excited to be on vacation, but it was not as I had intended.

I arrived in Mexico City late in the afternoon, where it was raining, and this being the rainy season in Mexico, that wasn't much of a surprise (and also explains why there are no pictures). So I found myself in the spanking new Terminal 2 at the Benito Juarez Airport. I love that terminal and if you like modern architecture you may like it too. All whites and blacks and circles letting in natural light. It's got a bit of Kubrick in it.

My chief problem upon arrival was losing my pen and needing one to fill out the customs form and the swine flu declaration. Fortunately, a kind soul loaned me their pen and after clearing customs I was off to the authorized taxi station. The authorized taxi station is ostensibly where you can hire a taxi for a fixed rate and not worry about getting robbed, or so the tourist books say. And it's always worked out fine. When you're a solo traveler and speak un poquito espanol, taxis are one of the best places to talk to Mexicans. Essentially, you are alone with one other human being for a half and hour and there's not much to do but talk and look out the window. Fortunately, my taxi driver, Andre, spoke about as much English as I do Spanish and we had a wonderful Spanglish conversation in which I talked about my plans and he informed me it was his first day on the job, or second, I can't exactly remember. Anyhow, he was incredibly friendly and helpful. Now you're not supposed to tip authorized taxi drivers, but he deserved one, so I gave him 200 pesos, if I recall correctly, which is a fairly big tip, at least for me. I checked in at my hotel, the Hotel Isabel. The Hotel Isabel is in the Centro Historico of Mexico City. I've stayed there three times now. It's about five blocks from the big plaza in Mexico City, the Zocalo, and only about $20 a night. For $20 you get a big room in a reasonably nice hotel with hot water, a tv and a safe. The safes never work, though, and I can never be bothered to talk to the reception desk about it. After unpacking my things and resting for a while after a long night I set out towards the Zocalo in the rain.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The balloon

The balloon
Originally uploaded by El Gregein
Detail from the playground at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Outside the Sunset Tavern

Candid street portrait outside the Sunset Tavern in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Sunset Tavern

The Sunset Tavern
Originally uploaded by El Gregein
From the bar at the Sunset Tavern in Ballard.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Pathway at Rialto Beach

Pathway at Rialto Beach
Originally uploaded by El Gregein
From Rialto Beach on the northwest coast of Washington

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Thinker

The Thinker
Originally uploaded by El Gregein
Another one from First Thursday in Occidental Park in Pioneer Square.

The Dancers

The Dancers
Originally uploaded by El Gregein
From First Thursday in Occidental Park in Pioneer Square.