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"Life In The Big City"
March 7, 2000

The Mexican Sun

Everyone just calls it "Mexico." Like NYC in NY, someone thought it was a good idea to name the capital city and the country (or state) the same thing. Couldn't they have come up with another name? It seems like anyone who can come up with cool names like "Izùcar de Matamoros" should be more creative than that. Everytime someone asked me "How long have you been in Mexico?" I would have to ask "You mean the city?"

I arrived by bus. Having read that the road from Mazatlàn to Mexico was among the worst in the world for bicyclists due to heavy traffic, I opted for the 18 hour bus ride instead. The ride was comfortable enough, and I was entertained by a subtitled version of "The Soldier," a bad Spanish comedy called "El Rollo," and "¡Ay Caramba!," Mexico's answer to "America's Funniest Home Videos." "The Soldier," an Arnold Schwarzeneger ripoff staring Gary Busey, is an ideal movie to learn Spanish from, since there isn't much dialog, leaving plenty of time to look words up in my dictionary. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose,) words like gun, blow-up, starship, and destroy have not come in useful yet.

As in most countries, I found the food that you get at bus stops to be exceptional. Not having traveled by bus in the US, I imagine that it may be an exception. The bus pulled up next to a tiny food stand, and the feasting began. In seconds, I had a full plate of chorizo, suadero (bull), and tripa (tripe) in front of me and was shoveling food in my mouth at an alarming rate. I also had a big stack of tortillas, but every time I took one, the cook would take the rest from me and reheat them on the grill. They obviously take hot tortillas seriously.

Minutes later I was back on the bus, and I gradually fell asleep, serenaded by Elvis tunes emanating from the driver's stereo. At 3am, I was awoken by the sound of people shuffling their bags. Why were so many people getting off early? The bus wasn't supposed to arrive until 8; we couldn't possibly be in Mexico yet.

The streets of Mexico City Five minutes later, I found myself standing in the Mexico City bus station, my bike loaded up with my panniers, my head still groggy from only a few hours sleep. Apparently the spirit of Elvis had entered the driver's body, and with his new found vigor, he managed to get us to our destination over four hours ahead of schedule. Normally I would be elated at the opportunity to avoid an extra four hours in a bus, but I was not very excited by the prospect of biking naround the city in the middle of the night looking for a hotel. In my usual state of indecisiveness, I debated between trying to ride to a nearby hotel or trying to cram my bike into a taxi and go to a hotel in the city center. After calling several places and finding them booked, I eventually decided to just sleep on the bus station floor until daybreak. A few hours of sleep sitting against a wall, a quick washing up from the bathroom sink, and I was as good as new. Speaking of which, has anyone else noticed how annoying it is trying to change clothes inside a bathroom stall with an automatic flush sensor? One pant leg on, whoosh, another pant leg on, whoosh, shirt off, whoosh... People in the next stalls must really have wondered what it was I was trying to flush.

In my rush to pack, I had never had a chance to weigh all of my stuff to see how overloaded I was. The bus station afforded me the opportunity to find out, as it had a combination scale/biorhythm machine. Each time I got on the scale, it would ask me my birthday, height, and sex. I came in at 88kg, a libra with my physical, mental, and emotional levels peaking. I then got on the scale holding my bike and all the gear. I could barely lift it, let alone type in my birthday. THe other passengers in the station were amused by my gymnastics as I tried to balance everything. Realizing that the year I was born would probably not influence the weight reading, I tried to get the thing to give me my printout, but it wouldn't accept the year 1111. Eventually, I figured out that if I just got off the scale when it started asking me questions, it would give up and just give me a weight printout. Conclusion? Over 45kg (about 100 lb) for the bike and all the gear. Yikes.

It was Sunday, and on each Sunday, they have a bullfight in the arena in Mexico. Debating whether or not my attendance contributed to the painful demise of the bull, I eventually decided to go, since I figured the bull was in trouble whether I decided to go or not.

I first needed to find a place to stay for the night and unload my gear. Riding a bike through the heart of Mexico City is certainly a challenge, but it's not really any harder than riding around the Bay Area during rush hour. The only problem was that the pathetic map that was in my guidebook only shows major cross-town roads (basically highways), and it doesn't mark which streets are one way. As a result, I would either find myself lost in a maze of one-way streets, invariably all going the wrong direction, or I would end up on a major highway, trying to merge across two lanes of traffic going 60 k/h. In some ways, being on a touring bike made it easier, since the sheer size garnered some respect from the drivers. I usually stuck to the right lane, which was reserved for buses and taxis. The problem was that the buses would suddenly veer to the right and stop every couple of minutes, making riding to the right impossible. Oftentimes I would pass on the left, other times I would be left riding the bus' bumper, sucking diesel fumes from the tailpipe, and using the bus to clear a safe path in front of me.

I ended up in a hotel called "El Rioja," a quaint but run-down building right in the center of the historic region of the city. The building was undergoing major reconstruction, with half the building being supported by a tangle of girders and wood blocks. I was gambling against an earthquake.

The "Plaza De Toros" or bullfight arena was on the far side of town from the bus terminal. I was told I could buy tickets over the phone using Ticketron (they really are taking over the world) but best I could tell from my feeble Spanish, they couldn't sell me tickets for the same day. A long bus ride later, and I was at the arena. It seemed awfully quiet for a bullfight in one of the world's largest arenas to be just about to start. Too quiet. The arena was completely abandoned, save for a guard at the gate. He let me in to check the place out. It was simple enough; a large circle of red earth and seats in concentric circles around it. I never did find out why there was not event that day.

Mexico is like many major cities; highrises, museums, parks, a historic Confessions in the cathedral section, markets, and of course lots of traffic. One might confuse it with a city in America were it not for the frequent outbreaks of bad American 70's music. Long ago eradicated in the states, virulent strains of "Seasons In The Sun," "Top Of The World," and "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" still run rampant. The more recent "Macarena" seems endemic.

That night I wandered about town, and stumbled upon a plaza filled with a hundred mariachis, which, I suppose, I something else you would be hard pressed to find in the states. They gather each evening in the plaza for a giant mariachi-fest. For dinner, I found a great taco stand which had tasty al pastor and carne asada tacos. Not only that, but to my utter amazement, they were only 1 ps ($.10) each!

The market Mexico City has one of the largest markets in the world, and I spent most of the next day wandering around and taking photos. At various points, I would find myself chatting with the people selling their wares, sometimes for over an hour at a time. I talked with one woman, who was selling fresh squeezed orange juice for 5 ps, who was trying to set me up with her friends. While we chatted, another local was kind enough to teach me various words to describe the human anatomy, and its various less savory functions. I never did figure out if they were the polite or informal forms. The main market was spread out Flower market across numerous huge buildings, with vendors spilling out into the surrounding streets for blocks. There was an entire buildind dedicated to candy, another to flowers, another for fruits and vegetables. In the flower market, there was one old woman selling flowers who I wanted to take a picture of. She said she would allow me to photograph her if I would send her a copy. I would take a shot with my digital camera and then show her the result for her approval. Eventually, she liked what she saw. Now I just need to remember to send her a copy. Something tells me I won't be able to send her it as an email attachment.

Pokemon piñata Toys were sold everywhere, and every major icon was there; Barney, Mickey, Snoopy, and of course, Pokemon. Pokemon fever has hit Mexico hard, with Pokemon hats, inflatable toys, and dolls. Fortunately, Mexico has found a good solution to the crisis - Pokemon piñatas, to teach children at a young age to beat the crap out of anything Pokemon.

Bella Artes building Strangely, in all the time I spent in Mexico City, I don't think I once talked to another traveler. Somehow I ended up at the local markets, the back streets, and the taco stands where only the locals went. One such taco stand I visited was owned by a man named Saul. I quickly got into the routine of dropping by to say hello each evening, and eating my share of suadero and chorizo tacos. My Spanish had even progressed to a point where they would laugh at my jokes, and not just at my bad Spanish.

By the last day, I had the metro system down cold. Public transportation in Mexico puts the US to shame (which is pretty easy, agreed.) They have an extensive underground system which goes everywhere, with trains every minute 24/7. You pay 1.5 ps ($.15) to enter, and you can transfer all you like. I used the system to go to the market, the museums, internet cafes, just about everywhere. My bike stayed safely locked up the whole time.

Teotihuacan My final day in Mexico City, I went to the ruins of Teotihuacan. The ruins are extensive and incredibly impressive. Teotihuacan was an entire civilization, and the main complex extends for kilometers. The main structures, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, are just what one would expect - huge pyramids with hundreds of steep steps leading to spectacular views from the top. The civilization of Teotihuacan predates the Aztecs (built approx. 300 bc.) The settlement was so quickly abandoned that the Aztecs had to give names to most of the features.

An ancient carving from the Gulf States The afternoon was spent in the Anthropological Museum, a huge complex with history of all the various ancient cultures of Mexico. By the end of the day, I had pretty much had my fill of museums and ruins for quite a while. As much as I liked hanging out in the city, it was not exactly the adventurous, primitive world I was seeking. So, after a final visit to Saul's taco stand, I prepared myself for a week's bike ride to Oaxaca.

Copyright © 2000 Peter Birch All Rights Reserved.