July 29, 2012
If it is possible for the third largest city in the world to feel empty, it did as we closed the restaurant atop the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico at 11:30p. From our vantage point in the southwest corner of the world-famous zocalo, we could see a tent city of activists protesting against the results of the recent election. Beyond them was a gigantic limp Mexican flag, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Palace and in the far corner the Aztec’s Templo Mayor. There are manifestations of the far, recent, and immediate past here as everywhere in the massive expanse of Mexico City.
Although tonight our section of the city is quiet, the last four days have teemed with volume and activity as we’ve tried (and failed) to see, taste, and experience a city that could occupy us for months. We are fortunate to have any time here at all. On the day of our departure, Oaxaca’s taxi drivers blocked every road out of the city. Unable to depart, but also unable to predict when we might be able to, we waited alongside a rapidly expanding crowd of listless travelers for the driver’s to make their impact felt. Finally at 10:30p we boarded our bus for an uneventful ride that ended just after 3a. We’d lost a day, but little else. We still don’t know if the taxi drivers were successful in have their needs met.
Once here, we found the ancient bumping up against the modern, with the more recent past mixed in. Even the subway stations in Mexico City memorialize events in the city and nation’s complex history ,with small icons representing each stop. These are massively helpful for new riders to the system; less helpful is the unrestricted rush into the cars before departing passengers have a chance to exit–a social convention that had us taking indirect routes to avoid crowds after a mass of humanity pushed us back into the train at rush hour.
Our first outing had us riding a boat through the canals that once made up the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. They are the last remnants of the lake upon which first Tenochtitlan then Mexico City were built. In the Southern neighborhood of Xochimilco, the canals have been preserved not as a means of transportation but rather as a respite for travelers in the urban landscape. The water thoroughfares are filled with trajineras, colorful rented boats manned by a single oarsman carrying tourists and local day revelers for a few hours. Among the trajineras, an industry of smaller boats containing everything from mariachi bands to tortilla ovens to souvenirs to pet dogs float by.
The following day we traveled even further back in the country’s past to Teotihuacan, an Aztec ruin about an hour outside the city. While Monte Alban’s location offered a stunning juxtaposition of human accomplishment and natural splendor, Teotihuacan’s primary charm is its sheer size with the largest pyramids in the Western Hemisphere. We paced ourselves, made it the top of each of the three largest structures, pausing atop each one to reflect on the marvel of the builders’ ability to create such enormity before the invention of complex machinery.
For adequate contrast, we dined in Polanco, among the most voguish neighborhoods, upon our return to the city. Then we pushed further into the cosmopolitan the next day by meandering along a street named for an English city (Liverpool) in a neighborhood named for a Korean one (Pequeño Seúl). Our rain luck finally ran out, but the decision that it forced upon us led to a restaurant whose tofu stew and spicy cold noodle satisfied Linda’s discerning and homesick Korean tastes.
Lastly, we ventured South again to Estadio Olimpico Universitario, home of UNAM Pumas, for a soccer match. Outside the gates we were greeted by a small village of pop-up shops selling an abundance of unofficial, but authentic merchandise. I picked out a scarf from among the hundreds on offer. We had made our way through the gates when one of the small phalanx of police officers pulled us aside. He asked for my newly-acquired scarf and my belt, then motioned over a short woman on the outside of the gates. The woman had no uniform, only a pad with a series of numbers on it. Through the bars of the fence, she took the belt and the scarf, attached a number to them and handed me a slip with a matching one. This was Estadio Olimpico’s enforced coat check. Nervous, but unwilling to argue with the officer, I took the slip, but had little hope that I’d be able to find her after the game.
I had expected chaos inside, but found an entirely well-behaved, if entirely engaged crowd. We raised our fist during the singing of the Mexican national anthem because that was what everyone around us did. We chanted, we cheered, we ducked to avoid the beer shower that accompanied each of Pumas 3 goals. And even here we couldn’t escape history. It was only after entering the stadium and seeing the torch that I realized that we were in the place where one of my own country’s greatest sports moments had occurred. It was in Estadio Olimpico Universitario that Tommie Smith and John Carlos had raised their fists in 1968.
After the match, we departed through the same gate and found a tent blocked off by tables with a dozen women and rows of belts, scarves and bags inside. Outside the tent, a series of disorganized lines of men surged forward with slips of paper in their hands. Slowly but surely, objects were distributed. One man became impatiently bold and jumped over the tables. The woman on the other side punched him in the face and he went to the back of the line. My turn at the front was brief, my belt and my scarf were handed back to me. I paid a few pesos. The unofficial authentic system worked.