Friday, 6 January 2012

Day 4 of our grand adventure

Ola mi amigos!

We are in a penthouse suite, overlooking the vastness of Mexico City. How did we come to be here??
We've not had internet access for a few days, so buckle up for a looooong first post :)

Kevin here:
My trip started in Venice Beach, after a few long flights. My only words are "Wow... Wow". I swear to frog, it's like walking onto a TV or movie set. It was new years day (again, for me) and the beach was packed. Stalls as far as the eye can see selling everything from tacky tourist crap to 5 places openly selling weed (for "medical use only" of course), palm trees, street performers, and my hostel was about 12 seconds from the boardwalk. Way cool. I discovered that Funnel Cake is the best food on earth, and that pizza comes in slices bigger than my head. Met some Aussies at the hostel who we may encounter later on as they are doing part of our tour in reverse, but crashed early cause the next day was on to Mexico City!

Juliet here:
It's hard to believe that I left NZ almost 2 weeks ago now. Air TahitiNui loses points for service: in Auckland I was shown to the wrong desk to check in at first, wasted half an hour or so, and I found out on my way to LA that they don't know what a vegan meal is. Tahiti was... such a mix of France and Polynesia, in my mind. I had a 6 hour stopover there and after getting through customs it's only a minute's walk to Papeete so I had a bit of time to explore. I heard Simon & Garfunkel in French from a car, saw both Nestle and Tip Top ice creams in the corner store, smelled a lot of beef being barbecued French-style, and saw a large crab trying to scratch its way through the glass and into the customs area of the airport.

I survived my first solo international flights, and met up with my extended family on my father's side in LA. I had a lovely week-long holiday with them in the north of Mexico. Highlights included simply getting to know my family better (I hadn't seen them in 2 years or more for some), seeing a 30cm long orange-and-black iguana fall from a palm tree and eventually end up in the pool, the amazing place we were staying in, a horse ride to the top of the mountain near our town, and a New Year's Eve pinata that wouldn't die (it took all 22 members of my family in turn to finally destroy it).

My family flew back to the states and I had a night in Puerto Vallarta by myself. The hostel I stayed in seemed pretty cool and was the top-rated in Mexico in 2010 but I had little time to enjoy it. After throwing my huge bag down, I headed out in search of the city's one vegetarian restaurant. I was very glad the hostel gave me a map of the area - my directions jotted down from Google Maps would've gotten me horribly lost. I had a long walk, mostly next to a river, on streets that were only cobblestoned. I highly recommend Planeta Vegetariano (aforementioned restaurant) to anyone in the area. For 85 pesos (about $NZ8.50) I got an all-you-can eat buffet of salads, hot food, drinks, bread, tostadas, and dessert. The dessert of the day had dairy, so I passed it by and got a sorbet from elsewhere that tasted like a virgin mojito, soo good. I passed a lot of stores with lovely and cheap art, I would've definitely bought a few pieces if I'd had room in my bag! Mexico has a great discrepancy between rich and poor, and there are definite ethnic differences. The only beggars I saw were indigenous women.

Finally, it was January 3rd, when I was due to meet Kevin! I got up at the unholy hour of 4.45am to ensure I got on my flight to Mexico City. As it turned out, my flight was the first out of the airport that morning, so I had two hours spare. Ah well. I left Puerto Vallarta on what the taxi driver described as a hot winter's day for them (about 28 degrees Celsius) and arrived in Mexico City to less than 10 degrees Celsius. I sat shivering in the airport for 20 minutes or so as was waiting for Kevin 10 minutes after my plane landed and I didn't have a knife with which to undo the clip through my zipper the airline had put on.

We got to our first hostel hours earlier than their check-in but fortunately were able to drop our big backpacks there. The rest of that first day was taken up with finding a map, a dictionary, and muesli for my breakfast. Finding a map of the city was absurdly hard. Finding a supermercado (supermarket) was also tricky, there were no indications of any in our hours of walking around but thanks to the misleading map from our hostel we eventually found one. The supermarket was like a Pak n Save crossed with a Warehouse, basically a warehouse with stuff in it. The other success of the day was finding what is most likely the only vegan restaurant in the city, Falafelito's. It serves falafel with a range of veges (included in your falafel order you get a limonada (limeonade with mint)), and desserts. Muy, muy buena comida (very, very good food).

The city is almost incomprehensibly huge. You could ride the metro (subway) for two hours and still not be in a rural area. Fortunately, the metro is very cheap (for most trips, you pay only 3 pesos ($NZ0.30)) and covers the city quite well. Many people make their living in connection to it - sellers at the entrances of the station, sellers inside the station, and hawkers who make their way through the trains as they move. add in the Metrobus lines, the other city buses, a host of private "buses" (run out of vans and truck-like things), "ecobici" bikes for hire all over the place and the half million (mad as hatters) taxis and you have a city incredibly easy to traverse.

The people of Mexico City seem to have a laissez faire attitude towards many things: cars don't pay attention to road rules, pedestrians cross at any time it might be safe (and many it's not!), people walk BETWEEN lanes of traffic going in the same direction to sell stuff, push bikes ride down the motorway. The streets are crowded beyond anything we've ever seen. Power lines dangle casually in the street, accidents waiting to happen. Taxi drivers apparently get daily doses of getafix's potion - that's the only thing that can excuse their approach to road sharing. It has been eye opening to be sure.

Our hostel was strange. As with nearly all the properties in Mexico City, it was gated off the street, and the place not only resembled, but actually *was* an old spanish villa. There was internet downstairs, and 3-point power plugs upstairs (for our old, "no battery life" laptop), but no point where access to the 2 overlapped, which is why this has taken so long to appear. The shower was apparently designed as a whole room sprinkler system, which was... well... weird. The tap water was "drinkable, but has a little lead in it" - welcome to Mexico's water supply. Otherwise, nice, quaint and quiet.

Wandering the streets was an experience all unto itself. We saw a car that had been stripped right to the body, and even that was gone the next day. We stepped into a restaurant area only to be assailed with chilli fumes so strong we coughed until we left. You can buy paint from every third shop, but books are a rare commodity. Vegetarian food is mostly accidental, if available at all. Every street has vendors cooking dodgy ...well... lets call it meat and flipping tortillas cooking on what look like aluminium sombrero with their hands. People seem to walk down the road yelling loudly and indistinctly for no apparent reason. And *everyone* has dogs - not *a* dog, but several, packed into little flats. Many sad looking possible strays. The city is divided into neighbourhoods, each of which has it's own flavour and community, and they are HUGE. Tens of thousands of people in each neighbourhood, and thousands of neighbourhoods. The extent of the contrast between this and anywhere in New Zealand is impossible to describe.

Finally, we get to specifics.

On our second day we tried to find Chapultepec park. It was a mission and a half but we finally managed to navigate the myriad of uncrossable roads, underground passages and rickety bridges (there was severe sweating on Kevin's part) to discover a park that dwarfs Auckland Central. We tried some street food and wound our way up to Chapultepec Castle, now home to the National History museum of Mexico. I was struck by how proud the Mexican people are of their revolutionary history. Everywhere there are reminders - memorials to the revolutionary heroes, streets and neighbourhoods named after them, art and theatre and museums dedicated to the memory of freeing themselves from dictator after dictator. Strangely enough the National History museum was no exception.

A mural by Diego Rivera showcasing the victory of the Suffrage movement
This pride was contrasted with the opulence and obscene wealth of the Spanish rulers and priests of past. Staggering to see first hand, even hundreds of years later.

On day 3 we went down to one of the big tourist attractions of Mexico City - the Gondolas of Xochimilco. In "The Lacuna", Barbara Kingsolver described Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky riding the canals in the same style of boat as part of their illicit (if obvious) affair. Though the ride was expensive and frankly a little underwhelming (what was once an idyllic ride through beautiful countryside has since become a bustling cluster of hawkers and merchants selling food, drink and crafts to groups of drunk teenagers partying while riding past the back of slums, shops targeting riders and plant nurseries) it was kinda cool to emulate a little part of history of 2 great people.
We will eventually post pictures of us on the boat, but unfortunately our first encounter with gondaliers saw the inexplicable loss of our camera and Juliet's sunglasses, and almost saw us paying half again as much as we did for our 2 hour ride. We got out of there pretty quick, but suffered a few losses for our troubles.
To  compensate our loss, we found a pretty cool vegetarian restaurant for dinner, and Juliet was served fake meat and veges in what can only be described as a large 3 legged pig made of volcanic rock and piping hot. Sadly, still no replacement camera at this point, so no pictures.

And finally, today we went into the Centro Historico, the old centre of Mexico City. Originally intending to get into the National Palace and the ruins of a large Aztec temple discovered nearby only a few years ago, we only made it to the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of fine arts), which houses some of Diego Rivera's most stunning murals (pics next time), and the Museo de Diego Rivera (self explanatory). For the third day running, we were overambitious in what we wanted to achieve. The entry fee to Palacio de Bellas Artes was justified entirely by a single large mural, and the architecture itself. Though the exterior looks like a palace/church, with great statues and carvings, the interior is a masterpiece of Art Deco stylings, stunning to see first hand. (again, pics to follow - it's really late!).

And now for the punch line - how we ended up in a penthouse suite, looking over the whole of the city.

After our 3 nights in the old Spanish villa thing, we booked in to a place a bit further south, more convenient to some of the other areas we want to explore. Upon our arrival, however, we met only a very confused young woman who had no idea that we were coming, and indeed, there didn't appear to be anywhere for us to sleep in what looked like nothing more than a 2 bedroom apartment. Fortunately, she was very friendly, spoke english and was extremely helpful. Her boyfriend owns an apartment nearby, had a room spare at a reasonable (ish)  rate and - surprise - penthouse suite!

So now it's really late, we've spent hours writing this, and presumably if you've made it this far, you've spent about as long reading it. We promise future updates will be more frequent, and hence shorter. All in all, a few pitfalls, but a lot learned and an incredible city enjoyed. We'll be moving on next week, after heading out to the ruins of Teotihuacan and down to see the house that Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky (+family) all inhabited at one point, among other things.

Stay tuned and Buenos Noche,


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