Mexico City Museums and Culinary Adventures, February 2023...photo album here
(Photos illustrate things I talk about in my diary, but in completely random order, and there are probably 400 of them. You can run them as a slideshow.)
Between the illness and passing of my father-in-law Sol, and two years of a covid pandemic that precluded travel south in the winter months, this has been the first winter in five years that we’ve been able to escape the cold. We barely escaped winter: the snow pack by early March extends across the continent and down the western side to Baja, and it has been snowing for several days in Santa Barbara. The weather in Mexico City has been warm and sunny in spite of the altitude: 2200 metres. But we did return to some snow shoveling, and in March, the winter isn't done with us yet.
Since we’d only been to the Yucatan in Mexico before now, we decided that to know the country that fills the southern end of our continent better, we should visit Mexico City, which has a population almost a quarter the size of the entire country of Canada. Since we’d escape winter for 33 days, it was also important to find a place where there was enough to do for that length of time. I get bored easily. Also, I wanted a place to strengthen my Spanish language muscle. Fortunately there are more than a hundred museums in Mexico City, where the chilangos treat their history like a religion.
On our trips to the Yucatan we were young enough that we enjoyed diving holidays. I would buy a package of ten dives at a time. Now that we’re 70 and 72 respectively, the prospect of carrying heavy tanks and swimming against currents is more daunting. Although we won’t see bright colours in living fish and coral, we’ll see them in museum paintings. Not to mention the fact that airlines have luggage limitations now that preclude taking our own safe, familiar and better quality diving equipment without substantial extra cost.
My friend Laurence Wright gave me a digital copy of El Monstruo by John Ross, “Dread and Redemption in Mexico City”, which I began to read while there. The maps and references in his book made a lot more sense once I began to know the layout of the city, and had been introduced to historical personages in the many museums. His pre-2009 description of air pollution in the city was not my experience in 2023. There must be some, and occasionally the distant sky looks a little gray, but it doesn’t smell or sting your throat.
We caught a red-eye to flight Mexico City on January 31st. The trip across the city was smooth. The 300B bus picked us up at the south end of Marsh Rd and we got to transfer to the 300A as soon as it turned onto Danforth Ave. After 80 minutes we were in the terminal.
We had pre-packed breakfast and the plane had a good selection of movies to watch. Landing in Mexico City was bumpy and we had a long walk to retrieve our checked bag and clear customs. We struggled to make Didi or Uber work - we’d been warned against taking a regular taxi. Finally I was able to order a car on Didi but we had no credit card registered so we paid “effectivo” (cash), $60 pesos or about $4 CAD to get to our airbnb. We had excellent, helpful, friendly hosts, but when it came time to sleep we realized that there was no ladder for the bunk beds in the tiny room. We tried putting the top mattress on the floor but it wouldn’t fit - that’s how small the room was. We found a way for Deborah to get up to the top bunk, and sent a message to our host.
We had burritos for supper, delicious, for about $15 CAD for both of us, and they refused a tip. We learned subsequently that if you are in a nice restaurant it is normal to pay 10% tip, but “only if they earn it”.
Feb 1st. We walked to the Plaza Oceania, had interesting Mexican dishes for breakfast in a restaurant called Tok, and got a Telcel sim card for my phone. This avoids international roaming charges on my phone and allows me to register as a Didi customer. Once we put our credit card into the system, it allowed us to see available cars in the area and see the cost of trips. With my 30 day SIM card I got 2 gigs of data and unlimited access to apps like WhatsApp. We learned from our hosts Fernanda and Gabriela that no-one in Mexico uses text messaging with a number - they all use Whatsapp. On our walk we saw large trees, one with flowers like a Christmas cactus and another with long red seed pods that looked like hot chilies.
Fernanda and Gabriela’s mother Claudia came with her partner Fernando and drove us to see the property Claudia manages. She offered us a ground floor room with a nice outdoor patio for the remaining six days of our week, and we said we’d book it for the next week as well. They rescued us, essentially. We didn’t know how to get Airbnb to resolve the payment issue, because they claiming that we paid for a week and couldn’t cancel after we’d already arrived. However, Gabriela convinced them that they didn’t want us as guests, somehow.
Feb 2nd. At Claudia’s, we’re close to Terminal 1, right at the end of the runway, basically, so there is jet take-off noise intermittently throughout the day, but we have a nice tree lined avenue, and the neighbourhood isn’t as seedy. A pleasant park called Fortino Serrano is a block away. We saw many unusual alliums, magpies and doves of several types, including ring-neck doves and a smaller variety called an Aztec dove that is omnipresent and quite tame. People who live or work next to the street throw out corn for them every day. The park was still made up for Christmas, with lights everywhere and backdrops for Christmas pageants; maybe it stays that way year-round. There was a dance fitness group working out on one of several stage areas, outdoors in the winter - too hot to work out at an earlier hour.
We don’t hear the jets inside the room much, with a fan to create white noise and counter the mid-day warmth, and my ear plugs if that’s not enough. I have had two days of headache from altitude but that should abate.
There was fatigue from the onslaught of new sights and sounds, of course, and from the fire hose of rapid Spanish that I understand fairly well but my comprehension is always a beat or two late, and responding in Spanish is only possible if I think and speak about a quarter the speed that native speakers do. It’s painful, but it’s one of the main reasons that I wanted to come here, apart from the warmth.
Feb 3rd. Palacio de Bellas Artes.
We’ve seen lots of poinsettia bushes and trees - there’s a bush outside our door. Yesterday we had breakfast at Las Delicias, and we’re going there again this morning. Good coffee, papaya or juice and breakfast for two for under $20 CAD. At about 10:30 two musicians came in with a 6 string and a 12 string and played some songs for the restaurant crowd, for tips. Deb tipped them on our way out, and we walked home. Deb waged a battle with KnowRoaming, her international cell phone number provider, which turns out to be useless communicating with WhatsApp. She finally got them to refund the amount she’d paid them for this year’s service, and we will purchase a Telcel sim card like mine for her.
Our hosts dropped us at a Metro station and we traveled downtown to Garibaldi station, from where we walked to the Palacio de Bellas Artes. There are art exhibitions there, but the chief attraction are impressive murals by various artists from the mid 20th century which have been curated on the top floor. The themes were all to do with the rise of the proletariat from their abuse at the hands of the new capitalist wealth class around the world.
Walking back to the Metro, we stopped at the Museum of Tequila and Mescal (we didn't go inside) in Garibaldi Plaza, where we tried birria and sopes for supper. The square was filled with mariachi musicians dressed to the nines, all pestering random tourists to pay $10 CAD for two minutes of their favourite song from a very short list of hackneyed old Spanish tunes. They didn’t get many takers. They seem to work in shifts because there are so many of them, and they look a little despondent and desperate. I doubt they earn enough in a day to pay for their fancy belt buckles, let alone the rest of their get-up. Not a great investment…but maybe they get gigs in restaurants as well.
At home, we watched nature shows in Spanish, which are easy to follow because the vocab is in context.
At Las Delicias, we are regulars by our second day. We had enchiladas for breakfast and were about to make our way to Bosque Chapultepec when we realized the extent of the feria, which we learned sets up every Friday in our park. We walked every aisle, which took quite a while, bought a papaya and a snack like a large energy cookie made of peanuts, pumpkin seeds and amaranth grains, and decided that the food looked good enough to eat for supper, so we’ll go back - but we have to eat early because they start tearing down their stalls well before dark, which happens at seven. It’s a twelve hour day here, almost exactly.
We returned at the supper hour with Gabriela, who helped us buy four different items you’d never find in Canada, at least with the fillings they had which included a cactus leaf called nopales, and a huge flat fried green chili stuffed with cheese. It was a gastronomic adventure.
We returned once again to watch an evening folkloric dance exhibition (or class?) which was advertised on a poster outside of the park entrance, but no-one showed up to dance.
A washout. The cold air arrived from the west, but it warmed up during the day. After a very good breakfast, we walked to Plaza Oceania to buy a Telcel sim card for Deborah, who has given up on her KnowRoaming service and trusts them to return her money…they said that they will.
Not five minutes out of the store, Deborah checked her data usage and discovered that the sim card was already used and down by 1.05 gigs out of the 3 gigs she’d purchased. There followed four hours of arguing with the vendor and then with the head Telcel office upstairs in the same plaza. They refused to top up her sim card or refund her money and sell her a new one. They said they have no idea how it could have happened. A nice young agent tried to help us but got no-where. In the meantime, he discovered that the vendor had also screwed up my purchase, giving me fifteen days of data and fifteen days of “internet”, instead of the 30 days of cell data I’d asked for and paid for. We hauled the vendor up to the Telcel office to have both problems explained to him, but the best we could get out of them is that on the 17th the vendor is supposed to credit me with the second fifteen days of data with a credit for the “internet data” which I will not have used. We always use wifi in businesses or where we’re staying, so we don’t need and didn’t ask for internet access through our data plan.
The best that Telcel would do for us is to swap our sim cards in the two phones and ask us to check them every three hours for a day to see if we have normal usage; they didn’t agree to replace the missing gig of data if we showed them that it wasn’t our usage that was to blame, and they knew very well that we hadn’t had time to use that much, which was the equivalent of almost two full movie downloads. It was either a defective or a used sim card that had been repackaged.
We walked home, having missed our window of time to visit Bosque Chapultepec today. We found a restaurant for supper called Isla Bonita on the nice boulevard a few blocks from our door, and ate tacos al pastor with shrimp, and Deb ate a shrimp taco enamorado and a fish one as well. The servings were a little small, so I ordered chicken nuggets, which was a cheaper dish but came with a cup of rice and a great salad. Ya just never know…
Feb 5. Museum of Modern Art.
Today certainly had its ups and downs. We had a late start, walked to a bus stop and waited ninety minutes for a bus that would take us an hour to cross the city to the park we were going to. Along the way someone asked where we were trying to go and put us on the right bus with them, and showed us where to get off. On the next bus a metro driver for a different route was riding and volunteered advice on how to finish our journey; he got off with us, walked us to the stop where we should get our connection, gave us a metro card which normally costs 10 pesos, (maybe someone had dropped it on his bus), and charged it with 15 pesos, enough to get us on the next bus. He gave it to us for free. We rode on the upper floor of a double decker through a fancier area of the city to our destination.
We still tire quickly. We’re probably over altitude sickness, but there are long walks between connections and my feet get sore. We got into the park and went into the Museum of Modern Art, which is free on Sundays. After we’d seen all those galleries, sitting down to rest between them, and knowing how long it would take to get back home, we left. We had to transfer from metro to a bus and then back to a metro, and finally I ordered at Didi to take us to our Isla Bonita restaurant, where the music is ridiculously loud but the food is good. We split a kilo of paella, and took some home.
There is still a lot to see at that park, but the journey there is a little daunting. There are bicycles you can rent not far from the entrance, so that might be an option, but I’m nervous about having to leave the bikes outside the museums. We have a plan to take a different route next time which might shorten our trip. Best of all would be to find accommodation much closer, which we will try to arrange for our third week. There’s a zoo, a botanical garden and a few other museums to visit there.
The people in Mexico City, apart from Telcel, are gentle, non-aggressive, kindly and helpful. They are unfailingly polite, so much so that if we ever get mugged I’m sure that the mugger will have gracious old-world manners, like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
If someone finishes their breakfast at an adjacent table, they will always wish you “buen provecho” as they pass your table during their departure. They will always wish you “buenos dias” when they meet you walking in the street, or enter a restaurant where you are already seated. Ladies will occasionally warn Deborah not to wear her purse openly. Of course she doesn’t carry valuables in it, but still…at the ferias, vendors have no fear of leaving their goods exposed and there doesn’t seem to be any thievery.
Airbnb: not an easy system. You don’t get an address until you’ve booked your stay, so you can’t see it in person, and the photographs aren’t always accurate. The reviews are useful and not fake. We chose our first host based on top notch reviews, which they work hard to earn, and we let the other details take care of themselves. We had a little problem when we booked our second week through the Mexican website. The rates are higher than those shown in Canadian dollars on the Canadian Airbnb website. We paid significantly more, maybe 15% more, by using the Mexican booking site, and in the little shuffle we had moving from the place with no ladder for the upper bunk to this very comfortable ground level room.
Tomorrow we’ll take things a little easier, but still make it down to the city centre where there is a cluster of museums. And I’ll study my google map to get a handle on more green spaces to visit.
I forgot to mention that I had a harsh tumble yesterday. With no lights and no crosswalk to get across a busy street to the Metro station we wanted, people were jay-walking through the traffic. “When in Rome…”, sez I. I caught my toe on a yellow reflector curb that stuck up in the middle of the street and sprawled out prone on the pavement. I banged my left knee and hands, and my phone and brand new metro card went skittering out of my shirt pocket under a car. I scrambled to retrieve them along with my dignity, and Deborah helped me to my feet. The driver of the car was shocked but solicitous. This morning I took stock of all the aches and pains of age, but a warm shower helped. I sure hope I build some stamina as a walker. I’m certainly getting enough steps in.
Today is a fiesta day, and many things are closed. We might go argue a bit more about Deb’s sim card, have a leisurely breakfast at Las Delicias, and then if it is open we’ll visit a nearby zoo and garden. We did manage to book a good airbnb near Bosque Chapultepec, so we’ll wait until the 14th to begin spending time in that park and see the rest of those museums. Instead, we looked for something closer. We couldn’t confirm that the zoo was open, and we read that the Indigenous Museum is open today. We rode the metro and walked a considerable distance only to find it behind locked gates. We told the guard what we’d read on the website and he replied “Oh, they don’t police that website” - meaning, I suppose, that they don’t keep it up to date. So, home again on a Didi which was slow to arrive and then let us off six long blocks from our house because I didn’t put the correct house number into my app.
For supper, we ate our left-over paella from yesterday, and a few peanut and cookie snacks I’ve been carrying around in my backpack.
Feb 7. Zoologico de San Juan Aragon.
I had a great Burrito Americano for breakfast, a huge portion with a taco bowl of guacamole. Then we did banking and messaging and ordered an Uber to Zoologico de San Juan Aragon, the smaller of two zoos in the city but a bit different than the other, we’re told. We examined bus routes in the city. They’re not terribly well integrated with the metro system nor with each other. I think Canada’s transit systems are better, perhaps influenced by winter, when it isn’t easy to walk between them and all-one-fare trips are the norm.
Deb wants to write a cautionary note about Telcel herself, but in a nutshell we’ve learned that Oxxo stores and independent agents are not advised for purchasing sim cards. The Oxxo agent near us wanted $50 pesos extra for “installation”; the agent we chose in the lower floor of the plaza, which we thought was official (big Telcel sign outside their store) sold us two sim cards, one of which had 1.05 gigs stripped from it before we even got it - I suspect used and repackaged - and the other incorrectly programmed by the agent. Bruno Pacheco, upstairs at the real Telcel office, told us if we’d purchased it there, they’d have fixed them for us, but that they have no control over independent agents. But how is a traveler to know? Telcel should back up their product no matter who they’ve authorized to sell for them.
Bruno taught us more than we already knew about how to set up our phones so that we don’t use data for automatic updates of apps we don’t even use, and that updates of any sort only come through when we’re on a wifi connection. Important to know. My phone is like Fort Knox now, and I only turn on my data in brief bursts to locate myself on a google map or in a Didi or Uber map, for example.
Today was a fine day. In spite of researching bus routes, we ended up taking a Didi to the zoo and an Uber back. They use surge pricing, so we always check both to see which is cheaper when we want to go somewhere. We only spent $6 CAD return for ten miles there and back. It was free to get in, and a lovely day with lots of animals and birds, and plants. They had a walk-through aviary, which I always enjoy - no bars or wire between you and the birds, which are as tame as chickens. I was sad that they only labeled the animals (most of them) because I want to know the names of all the arid and semi-arid plants in Mexico. But I got my steps in and more immersion Spanish from the signage.
For supper we had “comida corrida”, plate of the day, which included tortitas de papa, and nopal (cactus leaf with the thorns scraped off, a very common local food), “orange water”, creamed spaghetti and chicken, salad, and tortilla chips with refried beans. Cost us about $13 and we were stuffed.
Feb 8. Museo de Charreria and Museo del Juguete Antiguo.
So begins our second week with our first host in Mexico City. I imagined that we’d spend a week in each place but hadn’t counted on how long it takes to become assured in a complex new environment. As the second week begins we feel more at home in our neighbourhood, we’re beginning to know how to navigate the public transit system and the wonderful modern hi-tech smart phone app alternative to old fashioned taxis with their potential to get ripped off by the drivers.
We bought more drinking water this morning, a 20 litre container for about $2.80 CAD. We have a pretty good handle on costs by now, and can project to the end of the month; and my Spanish oral comprehension is much improved although I still tend to avoid torturing people by making them wait as I try to construct sentences. I know 80% of subtitle vocabulary and maybe 50-60% of what I hear, although getting stuck on single word can make a whole sentence incomprehensible.
Today we had hoped to meet a BeWelcome host named Gabriela (“Gabanana”) and learn more about what we should try to see and do in the city in our next three weeks. She was at work and didn’t want to meet until evening, so we put it off for another week. Instead we went to the “charreria” museum (a cowboy is a charro, and a charreria is a celebration of everything surrounding the lives of charros), inside an old convent. It was free, and amazing. We kept wishing Ed and Heather were there to see it with us. Then we went to the museum of old toys. It wasn’t free but was five stories high plus a basement jam packed with dolls and toys in their many thousands. There is an enormous Barbie collection in original packaging, and other toys are grouped somewhat thematically. It was an exhausting collection by a quirky curator.
More about the charreria: The Spanish introduced horses to N. America circa 1530. In battles to conquer indigenous people and introduce cattle onto their land, the horse was like a tank against infantry in a modern war. Indigenous people saw the advantage of horses and began to capture them. Letters flew and the Spanish king made a law forbidding Indigenous people to ride and own horses. But horses multiplied. An indigenous horseman would ride up to mingle with a herd hiding behind his mount, and when he got close enough he’d leap onto one he wanted to capture and hang on for dear life until the new horse was exhausted and thereby captured. They still do this in a modern rodeo, and call it the “ride of death”.
Humans multiplied too. Haciendas were scattered and remote, like little towns unto themselves, and a population of “mestizos” grew, mixed race, living and helping with the chores, herding and branding cattle, among other duties. The king was forced to change his mind, first allowing mestizos to have horses for their role, but without saddles and bridles; then saddles were allowed but no cloth for clothing - only fine Spanish gentlemen who owned the haciendas and ranchos could wear fine cloth. The gauchos began making their protective clothing out of leather, which was allowed, including chaps to protect against cactus spines, and whole suits of suede, more latterly viewed as suits of “the finest Spanish leather” in ballads. They made their own wooden stirrups.
When France tried to invade Mexico the young men of the haciendas rose up and formed famous regiments, the Lancers and the Dragons. Mestizo progeny were included in this recruitment, and all the caballeros practiced amazing tricks with the lariat. The lariat was an effective weapon which could be used to dismount an enemy or snare a foot soldier and drag him along the ground, which became a favourite sport. When the war was over, integration was somewhat complete - there were still class distinctions in society, but Mexico was well on its way to becoming the most racially mixed population in N. America, and charros were more mestizo than white Spaniards.
The museum traced the evolution of charro culture, including the finest handmade sombreros and clothing, full suits of leather, saddles, halters and bits, and all the other pieces of a charro’s equipment. One of their most prized possessions is Pancho Villa’s saddle, which is a major work of art in silver and gold thread over leather. The pommels are quite distinctive. It was well worth the time spent. The curator spent a lot of time explaining things to us in rapid Spanish, exhausting Deborah’s processing skills as well as mine, but there was excellent signage in Spanish, French and English. I thought I’d read the Spanish explanations but tripped over the vocabulary for technical details of the charro’s kit. There were a lot of words I just had no clue about, so I gratefully read all the English ones.
Feb 9. MUNAL, Museum of Modern Art
Deb had huarache for breakfast - thin steak inside masa dough, with “smashed” pinto beans and avocado slices. It is the shape and size of the sole of a Mexican flip-flop style of sandal. It is a special breakfast for this week, not on the menu. We had a green juice but I couldn’t decide which fruits made it: lime? guava? pineapple? Later I learned that it is actually “pina y apio”, therefore pineapple and celery. Weird, but refreshing. I often choose “naranja y papaya”, orange and papaya. Juices of various combinations of fruits have been made in the pueblos in Mexico for at least two hundred years before becoming common further north, and they have a name for each. Some involve putting lime with corn flour to extract protein, if I understood that correctly.
We learned that nopal, the cactus we’ve been eating, has a list of health benefits according to nutritional studies, including enhanced control of blood sugars (important in a country with so much corn flour in recipes), and as a stool softener, which explains why Deborah has worried about having a bad tummy! She thought it was just a salad that she ate, but I ate the same salad. I had some nopal effects a couple of days earlier, though.
We spent all afternoon in the MUNAL, Museum of Modern Art, soaking in works by famous Mexican artists, including a special private tour through a gallery of Diego Rivera and his contemporaries that was closed to the public. I’m not sure why that happened except that we spoke to a guard who spoke to an official guide who had ten spare minutes and was willing to supervise our presence there. Apart from that, we saw paintings of the aerial view of early Mexico City from almost two hundred years ago, a special exhibit of paintings depicting the markets and flavors of Mexico, some great marble and plaster statuary, an exhibit on the rise of the telegraph and its eventual demise, one on femininity and feminism called “Under the Same Skirt”, and a journey through stylistic fashions from classical to neo-classical and modern paintings, including very artsy dresses made by fabric artists.
The building itself is a palace. There are bright frescoes and ceiling paintings, marble floors and stair treads on huge curving staircases, and beautiful stained glass windows in several locations.
This evening we are watching Encanto, which Deborah found on our room tv with Spanish audio and Spanish subtitles, which seems highly appropriate to our circumstance.
Feb 10, Friday. Museo de la Ciudad de Mexico.
After surfacing from the Metro in Zocalo, the central plaza of the city, we gawked at great old buildings and walked the Pino Suarez avenue. We went to the Mexico City Museum, which I expected to be about the history and development of the city, given its name. It wasn’t. It housed a few more exhibits of painters, and some maps to show the development of the city, portraits and nudes by someone famous whose name I’ve forgotten. After that we thought we’d walk to the Museum of Women, but on the way Deborah spotted a doorway advertising murals by Diego Rivera. It was free and we’d learned quite a bit about this painter, so we went in. There was a series of murals each twenty feet high, maybe thirty of them, and a little gallery with a movie playing as well.
Some museums are free, some are free for people our age, and some only for Mexican citizens our age (National museums). We never know what we’ll encounter. We skipped the Temple Mayor museum and the tower of skulls, but we watched dancers in the square dressed in a modern reproduction of Aztec high fashion for dancing. The drums were loud, the costumes colourful, and the dancers energetic. It reminded me of a Canadian powwow but with more energy and scarier masks and costumes.
We returned home in time to buy a pair of quesadillas in true Mexican feria style, along with a large avocado, and we ate them at home.
Feb 11, Saturday. Museo del Indigenas and Museo de Mujer
We returned to the Indigenous Museum which had been closed on Monday. It is a small gem of a museum with displays of costumes, masks, pottery and other items, and showed us that there are about 64 tribal groups in Mexico, with about 175 spoken languages. There were photographs of one tribe from the late 1800’s, and a cine room where we had a private viewing of a half hour video of some tribal groups, and a community of Afromexicanos, which I hadn’t thought about before. They have a musical tradition with drums and brass instruments, trumpets and saxes. We got to rest our feet and my back in comfy theatre seats.
We saw one family making huaraches as a family cottage industry business. They’re basically a flip-flop in leather and more colourful materials, and sometimes the soles are cut from old tires - good recycling.
Next we took an Uber to the Museum of Women which traced the rise of feminism around the world and how it flowered in Mexico. Women have always been a strong force here within the context of a patriarchal culture, while facing the same challenge for recognition as in other parts of the world. Their story began with their place in pre-hispanic cultures and mythology, and walked us right up to present day Mexican heroines.
Getting to the museum was very difficult for our driver because he didn’t know how to get around the enormous Saturday market which blocked off all the streets along our way. There are millions of mostly cheap mass-produced items for sale in the stalls - God knows why. A major excess of consumerism. Uber sent the receipt for our trip and tried to charge us for the extra time to get there, but I balked and they instantly reverted the charge to the amount I’d been quoted when I accepted the ride. As Deborah pointed out, Uber dispatch should have been aware of traffic disruptions on market day. It happens every week. They have to eat it…we weren’t on a meter.
When we got home we walked around the block to the place that was supposed to have pozole last Sunday, and they were open! We had a great bowl of pozole and it was delicious, filled with lean pork and elote (large white corn kernels, called mote in Peru), with fresh veggies on top.
Feb 12. Sunday. Museo de la Revolucion and Museo de Arte Popular
Two free museums today. We began our afternoon at the Plaza de Republica, a huge square with a monument. We watched no less than eight hip-hop teams practicing their routines on the street, and a drum and bugle corp, and young people in uniform T’s playing group sport games in three lines. Then we went under the square to the museum of the Revolution, which was historical background for understanding the current culture and all the names of the streets, statues and Metro stations.
After a short bus ride from there, we were in a three story building that houses the most interesting, entertaining, bright, well-spaced and well-cared for exhibits I’ve seen in Mexico City so far. It is the museum of folk art, and includes costumes (sarapes, huipiles), pottery, ceramic animals and amusing artifacts from every corner of Mexico - a good follow-up to yesterday’s museum that explained how many tribes and languages there are. Deb couldn’t stop taking photos. Some of the most fun items were related to the Day of the Dead celebrations. There were also many examples of the most intricately carved and sculpted examples of the Tree of Life, a cultural theme which artists create in 3D, usually as pottery. One of the folk art crafts is to cover items in tiny beads of different colours; I can’t imagine how long it took, bead by tiny bead, but there is a VW Beetle entirely covered. And there are enormous paper maché fantastic beasts on wheeled carts that sometimes get taken out into the streets in parades. This museum had Spanish and English on all the major placards, which was very helpful.
One interesting thing I’d forgotten to mention: all the residences in Mexico City are behind locked gates. You can’t see through them, and they’re double-locked when it seems prudent, so the security of guests is guaranteed. When you unlock the door in the gate you step out immediately onto the sidewalk. Most hours of a weekday you hear people who cruise the streets with a loud recorded message that they’ll buy your old furniture and appliances, or you’ll hear the bell of a knife sharpener, or the sound of a calf bellowing for its mother - I have no idea what that sound signifies, but that’s what it sounds like.
Feb 13, Monday. El Borsegui and Museo de Lucha Libre (and the Blue Demon)
We considered going to Xochimilco on our last day on this side of the city, but reviews spoke of flat-bottomed boats that rent for $35/hr, minimum two hours, for up to twenty people. But if you don’t arrive as part of a group, you can’t join a group so you pay the same price for two people. Some unscrupulous operators steer you to the wrong docks with substandard boats; some insist that the fare is per person rather than per boat (the rate is actually gov’t mandated). There’s an hour’s travel to get there, and the same to get home.
So instead, we indulged our inner Andrea and went to a shoe museum in the Centro Historico, where organ grinders play their boxes on most streets. There appear to be two on the map, quite close together; we found the one called El Borsegui, which might be larger. The museum was small because shoes don't take up that much space, but it was free and included styles from most countries and historical periods, sports footwear, children’s footwear, tiny porcelain shoe tchatkies, shoe key fobs, brooches, and pins. In pride of place was a pair of boots worn by Neil Armstrong, donated to the museum by NASA.
We had no desire to attend a Lucha Libre wresting match, but it is a core part of Mexican culture, so we went to a museum set up by a journalist who was the Blue Demon’s biggest fan. There were two floors of photos and publicity publications, masks and models, and a short film about the phenomenon. It isn’t much different than our WWE wrestling matches, very athletic but obviously fake fighting, more theatre and acrobatics than real combat. Still, it drives fans crazy. Most of them seem to eat up the story lines and believe that the outcomes are not pre-ordained. The Blue Demon and Santo are real heroes to them, legends that deserve a museum because they will never die.
On the top floor of the building is a great outdoor patio with shade and a good view of a beautiful old building, and the Kato Cafe, which has a reasonable menu, washrooms and wifi.
We walked the streets nearby and took photos of the House of Blue Tiles, and visited a small sculpture garden. Then we came home to a menu del dia at the little restaurant where we’d had pozole on Saturday. They served us each a good bowl of soup and then a plate of chicken, cheese and sour cream over tortillas, topped with ladles of mole, unsweetened chocolate sauce.
Feb 14th, Tuesday.
Today was moving day. Deb got her deposit back for our 20L water bottle, but not without an argument. Our Uber across the city took an hour (traffic) but cost only $10, supposedly, although our driver took a different route than the one presented on my app and they’ve tried to charge me for a longer distance.
We lucked out, though - again, by relying on reviews. We’re in a much nicer Airbnb for less cost than the previous one. We have our own suite that includes an anteroom with a desk and couch, hangers for our clothes and our own private ensuite washroom with a hot water shower. At the last place the hot water was slow to arrive and didn’t last long. There’s a shared kitchen down a flight of stairs, lots of equipment like cookware, coffeemaker, microwave and stove, and we have our own assigned fridge. They provide free drinking water in a water cooler. There are two sets of washers and dryers.
The owner is a young man named Christian with his second child on the way. He was enrolled in a Master’s at U of T but got bounced when they found he was a Mexican national and not a Canadian, so he had to complete his Master’s in Mexico. While in Toronto he had trouble bouncing around in short term housing until he found a professor who had set up a rooming house for students. He used that as the model for his business here, and included all the amenities he’d enjoyed there.
I’ll note right here that Christian’s address is Becquer #39 and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, in case anyone wants to stay here after having read my diary. It’s difficult to know which property is his if you go to Airbnb, because they won’t disclose the address until you’ve made your booking, as stupid as that sounds. I’d be happy to introduce you. His nine rooms are reasonably priced, each with its own bathroom and shower, and his building is very secure. It costs between $10 and $20 CAD to get here across the top of the city via Uber or Didi from Terminal One at Benito Juarez airport.
Deb did the laundry while I showered and napped, then we went for a walk around a well-shaded ring road called Lafayette, and stopped along the way for a pair of chilaquile based dishes. Very tasty. I got to drink a horchata, finally. They also have jamaica on the menu so I’ll order that next time. Unfortunately I get spikes in my sugar readings after meals like this, so I’ll have to be more selective and possibly take an extra metformin before a dangerous meal. Mexico has a terrible problem with diabetes, with so much corn and sugar in their diet.
We saw a few more restaurants on the way home, several nearby breakfast options and lots of supper choices. There were only a couple of decent ones within walking distance of our last place.
Deb is now checking out how many things we want to see here and how many days that might take, so that we can decide whether to extend our stay or not. There are some interesting places south of here. We are about ten short blocks from a north-east entrance to Chapultepec, which opens onto a concentration of the best museums, a botanical garden, the zoo and a castle.
Feb 15th. Wednesday. Zoologico de Chapultepec
I woke to the news by email that Uber had investigated my charge overnight and reduced it back to what I’d initially accepted on my app. I begin to believe that this is a common scam by Uber drivers who take customers on a longer trip, just as taxi drivers used to do, and adjust the charge from their end without telling the customer. In many cases, I suspect, the customer doesn’t notice it, even though the ride receipt appears in your email before the end of the day, or he or she doesn’t know what to do about it. It has happened to us twice, on longer trips.
Now I have to ask Jonathan at Plaza Oceania to convert the misplaced 100 pesos from our purchase there on Feb 1st into data for the next 15 days of the 30 day data plan I’d purchased. What sneaky games these people play. We’ve been side-swiped by five people in the sweetest way possible, for different items.
Breakfast happened along our walk to the north-east entrance to the park, where we found the zoo as great as others had reported. 2000 animals within Hell’s Half Acre, as I’ve decided to call it, just because of all the walking it took to get through all the pavilions. But we kept finding animals that were close up and exciting, and seeing animals has some sort of cheering effect for us, as it probably does for most people.
A highlight of the zoo for me, apart from jaguars and a white tiger close up, and some pretty cool colourful birds, was an axolotl breeding program. There are ajolotles, acholotls and axolotls. They’re like underwater lizards, and most lose the branches around their necks and become salamanders, but the axolotl is a special one, almost mystical to Mexicans in that under the right circumstances it remains a juvenile all its life, a sort of Peter Pan creature…yet still manages to reproduce, if I understand the Spanish explanations thoroughly. They were common in the canals of the chinampas of Xochimilco and throughout Mexico City swamps before they got paved over, but carp and tilapia were introduced and the population of axolotls almost completely disappeared. We saw baby ones, and what they were fed, and different sizes as they grew to adulthood.
We had supper at Churros El Moro on the way home, two delicious tortas (meat sandwiches) and a churro for dessert. It’s a pretty, bright fast food restaurant with white tile with blue designs and large windows that open to the street.
When I got home I napped and then joined a MeetUp group online that I’d attended last year. Seventy participants were assigned to break-out rooms of four or five per room, usually two or three Spanish learners and two English learners. They draw each other out in a friendly, supportive way for a half hour in Spanish and then switch to a half hour of English.
Tomorrow, Deb tells me, it will hit a high of 29, so we’ll definitely go to a museum. We found that the hike to get to the zoo wore us out somewhat before we even got there, so we'll hunt for a bus that’ll save us some of the journey.
Feb 16. Museo de Antropologia
Deb talked me into asking Christian if we could just stay here for the rest of our time in Mexico. We got a discount by paying him directly in cash, so we’re here until the 4th and he’s allowed us a late check-out so that we don’t have to sit around in the airport with our luggage for eight hours before our flight.
We couldn’t find a good bus but got an Uber at off-peak prices, so we hiked to the Museum of Anthropology, which turned out to be as amazing as others had told us. We spent six hours and only got through the first floor, about nine galleries in a sequence featuring the earliest inhabitants and then up through the successive civilizations beginning over 4,000 years ago. It cost $6.50 each, and there are many translated placards so English speakers can read more quickly and get through the place faster than we did - like a masochist, I studied all the placards in Spanish, which took longer. The last three galleries on the first floor we had to do at a trot. A nice museum employee confided that if we arrive at five the cashier will be closed up and we can get in for free to finish galleries we haven’t seen yet, until about six. So maybe we’ll do that on our way home from some of the other museums or the botanical gardens.
We have an appreciation now for the passion that our friend Laurence Wright has for mesoamerican history and culture. As in Peru, though, I was struck by what they didn’t have: no wheeled carts, just a forehead strap for carrying heavy bundles on their backs; no hard metals, just softer ornamental ones - copper and gold. Gold was their undoing when the Spaniards arrived.
For the first time in over two weeks, we didn’t have Mexican food for supper. We had a bowl of Panda Express because it was on our way on our hike home. We’re getting much better at marching along - tightening up our march gait and our fitness, I think.
Feb 17, Friday. Jardín Botánico del Bosque de Chapultepec
Jonathan hadn’t extended the data on my phone. After breakfast, Deborah phoned him. She said he was cheerful and promised to do it after the store opened at 11 a.m. He actually made me wait all day, but by six it was done and it is showing that I can use data whenever away from wifi until early March 5th, when we fly out.
After that we had a chat with Christian, who took our money for the extended stay in our little suite, and gave us lots of ideas about where to eat.
We Ubered to the botanical garden at Chapultepec, which turned out to be excellent. I soaked in a lot of information about cacti and other plants common in Mexico, and enjoyed the restorative effect of being around green things and flowers. The first beds we observed were several varieties of echeveria, of which their sign said 84% of the world’s echeveria live in Mexico. They had an orchidarium, but that turned out to be a disappointment; lots of epiphytic plants on hanging slices of wood but no flowers. There’s an orchid store nearby that we might walk through just to get our orchid flower fix. The rest of the garden was well laid out and there were labels. One named a round cactus the size of a footstool that looked like you could sit on it, but for the sharp spines - its official name is “mother-in-law’s chair”. I always thought that the name that we have for the sansevieria plant, “mother-in-law’s tongue”, was a bit mean; but in Spanish that plant is called “tiger’s tongue”. Asiento de suegra seems worse, somehow, as you imagine her taking her seat on sharp cactus spines.
The botanical garden didn’t take as long as I’d hoped, so I wasn’t sure what to fill the hole in our afternoon with, but spotted the double-decker bus that we’d ridden on once. We jumped aboard, sat upstairs at the front and rode it to the end of the line, almost to the eastern edge of the city, past iconic landmark statues like the golden Angel, Diana the huntress, and others. We went past Garibaldi plaza, which was our first taste of the Centro Historico shortly after we arrived, and past the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Then we rode the bus almost all the way back but got off at La Palmas and found out how to change to a green “microbus”, a really old staple of transportation in the city. Deborah used her phone and the occasional query of strangers to make sure we found the right stop to get on and then to get off. The driver made change for her from a large open tray of coins in different denominations - no digital card for this old system. Then he ground the gears with his huge old gearshift and we were off. The first and last time I’d ridden in a bus where the driver made change from a tray that way was in Cuba, if I remember correctly.
We got off at the right spot and found our way to Casa de Tono, a restaurant that is famous for having expanded in a short time from one to nineteen spots in the city. It is huge, spacious, and waiters run to serve you and swarm you with service. Fast table turn-over accounts for some of their success. We split a “grande” bowl of pozole which they kindly brought in two bowls, and three soft tacos called cochinita pibil, with maciza (shredded meat, maybe pork) inside, plenty of hot sauce. and hard taco crackers called tostadas. Deborah had jugo verde which consisted of fresh squeezed orange juice mixed with celery, parsley, lime and spinach. Delicious, and very healthy. Sometimes people put cucumber and nopal in it. To finish, Deb had Flan de Abuela, “grandmother’s flan”, which is a small but powerful dessert. She shared some of it with me.
We walked home, hitting a few stores along the way looking for a certain size and brand of laundry soap but only buying some instant coffee for me. We went over a footbridge, one of at least three that cross the Avenue of the Army (on which we saw two open trucks with the backs filled with army guys in uniform), which explained for me why Uber was quoting a high price to get us home - the driver would have had to go the long way around. We crossed on one footbridge and were only eight blocks from home. I was tired by then but wasn’t able to be lazy. It had been a hot day and my legs and feet were sore (as usual) so I had a nap right away and then got up to write this.
Feb 18th. Soumaya
We are more than halfway through our visit to Mexico City - fifteen days remaining, including today.
Carlos Slim is one of the world’s multi-billionaires, richer than Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos for a number of years, until the peso declined. He’s still pretty darn rich. He built the Soumaya museum to house his enormous collection of art, and maintains it free for the public, including foreigners. I think there are three different sites, but we went to the main one close to us, with very iconic architecture.
Ubers are expensive on Saturday, I guess because there are so many people out and about. We found a bus that stops a few blocks from home that took us within a few blocks of the Soumaya. Deb’s google map showed the bus route, all the stops and the names of the cross streets, and even where the bus was along the route, courtesy of the gps inside her phone and the one on the bus. Amazing technology.
Inside the Soumaya on the ground floor are two statues by Michaelangelo, full size replicas of his original: La Piedad and David. David stands a full 17 feet high, anatomically correct and very imposing. I worried at little when I saw one young man, quite tall himself, walking up the ramp behind David and taking a photo of his tush.
We followed Christian’s advice to take the elevator to the top floor and work our way down. The elevator goes to the fifth floor and then you walk up a ramp to the final floor which is a collection of statues, mostly by August Rodin but also by some other sculptures, and with paintings scattered about; this gallery is from Julian Slim and his wife. I saw stickers from Sotheby’s on the backs of frames of some of the paintings which were mounted in open air. I was astonished that there was no real protection from vandalism - just a thin line in front of each painting to indicate how far back you should stand.
When we were finished with sculptures we walked down a ramp to the fifth floor and looked at paintings by the world’s greatest artists, including Van Gogh and almost every painter you could name off the top of your head. On the fourth floor was a large area devoted to Gibran Kahlil Gibran. To my surprise, he wasn’t just a middle eastern mystic, but an artist, and a playwright who wrote plays in English, and author of several books beyond The Prophet, for which he is most known.
The whole museum demonstrates the evolution of art from the earliest periods to the latest, without getting into “modern art”. When I say the words “modern art”, I always want to spit like the residents of Dog River who have to mention their neighbour town Wullerton.
We managed three floors in four hours and by then we had decided to split our visit into two days. We went looking for a meal and found a nice restaurant nearby but they wanted us to wait for four tables to finish, without providing a place to sit. I chose to look for a restaurant where we wouldn’t have to wait and we picked one called El Pescadito on Deb’s phone. We followed the arrow and the breadcrumbs on her phone and found ourselves in a food court in a three story mall behind the museum. We passed one place with ok tacos and a place to sit at a table, so we took it because we were exhausted. We found El Pescadito on the way out - fish tacos, as it turns out - but found better choices on our return visit to the Soumaya.
Feb. 19th, Sunday. Chapultepec Castle and National History Museum
We found a Casa de Tono three blocks from the golden Angel of Independence. After breakfast we walked to the square and watched animators hired by the Brazilian embassy lead a crowd in dancercise. The day was warm and sunny, and at 10 a.m. a samba group had formed and were performing for the crowd about fifty feet away on the avenue. The crowd packed all around them but when it came time to move, they simply edged their way forward inch by inch and the crowd made way for them to proceed down the street. We watched from the steps of the monument.
After they were out of sight we walked to Chapultepec, since the buses weren’t going - two of the four lanes in the street were open to cyclists and runners on Sunday and it seemed that all of Mexico City was in sneakers or on bicycles. A few were on bicycles built for two.
We sat in chairs below a raised gazebo where an excellent pianist performed very cheerful compositions. One was devoted to Monarch butterflies, which are a big deal here in the winter after their annual migration from Toronto. They cluster here in Michoacan just as we saw them do in California. When the spring arrives they head north again to breed and lay eggs on milkweed. Another composition was in honour of the axolotl.
After about twenty minutes we decided to see whether it was true that some museums are free on Sundays. We walked up a very long carriage way around a hill to Chapultepec Castle, which was perhaps the only North American castle to be built and occupied by kings and queens. They never walked up the carriage way themselves; their horses pulled them up it in a carriage. The castle now houses the National Museum of History. On Sundays there are literally thousands of people who swarm the castle. The guards made no effort to determine who were Mexican nationals; they just waved everyone through. We enjoyed our tour, saw some amazing huge canvases and a gorgeous model ship called the Frigate Chapultepec, among other curiosities. On our way out we passed a machine that was counting everyone who entered. It registered 8,417 people as we passed it at 3:23 in the afternoon, and there was still a steady stream of visitors hiking up the hill.
Getting home was another long hike. We dropped in at the Museum of Anthropology but we were an hour too early to get in for free and much too late to want to pay full freight (they would have kicked us out 90 minutes after paying for a whole day), so we continued on our way to Panda Express, which was the closest place we knew where we could rest and have a meal. My “guarnacion” which I chose to go with my “especialidades” was a large portion of fresh steamed vegetables, not overcooked, so that was a healthy meal. With the whole city outside for the day, Uber surge pricing was very high, and walking seemed preferable because we’re too cheap to buy a ride for a short distance, and because we could pick a spot for supper on our way home. At our Sunday evening zoom with family, Deb realized she had a step counter app on her phone and checked it, which she hasn’t done in months, but it has continued to collect data. Today we clocked 11,700 steps, 7.08 kilometres, which impressed me. I still had a little bit of spring in my step by the end of the day, but not much. A lot of that time I was on my feet but only standing, appreciating art, which might explain my sore feet.
Feb 20th, Monday.
The Soumaya has a narrow-waisted design, so the middle floor galleries are smaller, but it is open on Mondays while many museums are not, so we returned there to finish the job: “Inspector of Museums”. We saw the floor of religious art collated into significant moments in the Bible, and a floor of Asian marbles (and an intricately carved mastodon tusk), and a gallery of old European masters. In the Bible gallery it became obvious that there were distinct rules to be followed in the depiction of Biblical subjects. Different artists had done portraits of Mary Magdalene, imaginary of course, and she looked the same in each one, right up to her headdress. Same with “Mary Magdalene the Penitent”. Deborah remarked that in all of these scenes, none of the subjects looked Jewish or middle eastern in the slightest. But it wasn’t all bad. In the old European masters, non-Biblical section, I suddenly observed that I’d never been surrounded by so many naked women in my life.
In a final gallery there were non-painted (for the most part) items: an eclectic collection of ancient music boxes, phonographs, telephones and telegraph machines, “organillos”, and many optical devices.
We decided to finish the afternoon by visiting the Jumex modern art museum which is right next door, but that one actually does close on Mondays, so we headed into the mall. Around the food court there are a number of more expensive restaurants. One of them called Asaderos was handing out discount coupons and we liked the look of a parilla hot iron platter of meats: chicken, beef and spicy sausage, 600 grams, and a pile of tacos to swaddle them in and convey them to our mouths, plus a hot bean and cheese dip with nachos, and unsweetened lemonade. Deborah got an ice cream for dessert. We hiked to the bus stop next to Hooters, and came home a little early today (by 4:30) for a nap and a relaxing evening.
I joined a Meetup online for two hours, alternating Spanish and English. I found my ability to understand Spanish was perhaps around 50% today, listening to long, rapid-fire sentences - enough to get the jist much of the time, but after a while my brain tired and my comprehension dropped to perhaps 10%, I got even with them when it switched to the English half-hour, of course. There was a guy from B.C. on who could speak very good Spanish but he’d brought a collection of common English idioms to torment the Spanish speaking English learners during the Spanish half-hour. That was a fun approach.
Feb 21. Museo de Historia Natural y Cultura Ambiental
Deb chose the Museum of Natural History and Culture this morning. We found a better price on Didi than Uber, but they went the wrong way, gave the driver wrong directions (he claimed) and he turned on extra “time and distance” charged that almost doubled the price we’d agreed to pay. We’ll see if they’re as responsive as Uber about correcting the fare. They’re pretty consistently more expensive than Uber. Deborah has taught me to take a screenshot with my phone from now on to prove what we were quoted.
[It took three days of hammering and refusing to accept automated rebuffs of our complaint, but we kept escalating until a live agent named Evelyn returned our overcharge; it might have helped that I said I’d begun to explain the details on social media - which was true - and to my credit card company. It was a paltry amount, but as Deborah said, “It’s the principle”, and we don’t want to see them do it to us again. If it ever happens again, say, on our trip across the city to the airport, I will email “Evelyn” directly (Didi is actually a Chinese app) with our complaint.]
The museum is under renovation and some exhibits were closed, but what we saw was excellent, really new with lots of info, amazing dioramas, some 3D and with sound, and some good video and digital experiences. Afterward we walked to a pavilion that told the history of Chapultepec park and the castle, with some examples of trees, birds and animals that are found there. We hiked out past a garden in the heat of the day, found our way to a metro station not that far away and took it two stops to Polanco. From there we jumped on a bus to go to the Panda Express in Anzures near our residence, but we went the wrong way - we had to jump off, cross the street and pay again.
Now home for a nap and another Spanish-English zoom this evening.
Feb 22nd. Cencalli
Casa del Maiz
y la Cultura Alimentaria
We are in a tree-lined neighbourhood that is clearly middle class as opposed to our first neighbourhood which was more working class. There are no derelict vehicles on the streets here. There is pay parking, and delineated parking spots. There are dog walkers every morning, usually with four to six dogs that must belong to office workers who must spend their days in the office buildings. Most diligently pick up after their dogs; some don't, and the sidewalks are a bit of a minefield, like in France. Stray dogs or loose pets are extremely rare. And the streets get a proper cleaning at least once a week, with trees carefully trimmed and all garbage collected.
At breakfast I thought about coffee culture: here you get “cafe de olla” in every restaurant: coffee “from the pot”. It’s pre-sweetened. Some restaurants will also sell you Cafe Americano, which is the same thing but without the sugar. I imagine that waiters get a giggle out of American tourists who insist on Cafe Americano and then add their own milk and sugar. Only diabetics would want the basic black coffee, which isn’t as good as the Sumatran drip coffee that I make every morning at home.
Today we reversed the steps we discovered yesterday to find our way home. We found ourselves in the Casa de Maiz, housed in what used to be the Molino del Rey, the king’s mill. That was astonishing. I want to call it the Church of Corn: four floors of incredibly well-presented information about the part that corn has played in the history of Mexico, including how it is used to make many different dishes, and nutritional information. Until corn flour became refined and tortillas began to be produced by machine, they used to be filled with protein and fibre and were very healthy. Obesity shot up in Mexico with the advent of refined corn flour products.
It was an excellent place for Spanish language training as well, with few visitors apart from a school class and lots of information placards. There were videos around each gallery in little booths, each with a single comfortable chair.
The corn museum was the endpoint of a complex of buildings and gardens called Los Pinos, so we stopped at a few others as we retraced our steps. We enjoyed a presentation that celebrated the building of the Mayan Train, which is scheduled to open in December of 2023 and will join five of the western provinces. We toured an exhibit of paintings by an artist and muralist of wide-ranging topics and techniques named Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, and an exhibit celebrating the life of a well-loved former president of Mexico, Lázaro Cárdenas, from 1934 to 1940 - to this day, beloved and considered a hero by the Mexican people.
Los Pinos has the nicest gardens I’ve seen in Mexico so far, and many exhibit buildings and well-tended paths to stroll. There’s a salon where music is performed although no group was playing while we were there.
Speaking of paths to stroll, though, my endurance still hasn’t improved a lot, but for an interesting reason. My oxygen intake is fine, and today my feet didn’t hurt, but for two days I’ve had an agonizingly sore right hip and lower back. I even lean when I walk, when it gets bad. A week ago it was a different hip. Before that, my right wrist and hand. I’m beginning to believe that I must have some migratory form of arthritis. Deborah suggested advil, and if it doesn’t improve I may need to try that, even though I never take pain pills.
Feb 23rd, Thursday. Museo Jumex
Today’s walking was easier, so perhaps my theory is correct. I left my backpack at home, which might have helped.
It wasn’t much of a highlight day,though. We went to Museo Jumex, which had two galleries open out of three (the third was “closed for installation”) and they only confirmed my distaste for modern art. One famous artist named Lari Pittman filled an entire floor with large canvases and his execution of all the objects and symbols in his paintings were excellently done but the gestalt was meaningless. Just images somewhat randomly connected, some elements for shock value and all complete non-sequiturs to anyone but himself. It was just a waste of expensive real estate.
We stopped at the food court and had an excellent “grande” salad with chicken, crab and lots of vegetables and sunflower seeds, about 1 ½ litres in an enormous bowl.
We looked for a smaller museum I saw on the map but it appeared not to exist, so we walked to the bus stop and got off near Casa de Tono where we split another “grande” bowl of pozole with maciza, with vegetables on top and large taco chips, then walked home for another kilometre, bringing our total distance today to just over six kilometres.
Not an exciting day, but the food was good and the sun was shining. We haven’t been rained on once in three weeks, except for a few spitting drops for a distance of about thirty feet one afternoon.
Feb 24th. Museo de Cera and Ripley's Believe It Or Not
Last night I had the nagging feeling that we’d booked a week too long, and that we were running out of interesting museums to visit. But this morning’s research turned up a few more quirky choices including the wax museum and Ripley’s, a museum San Carlos which highlights nine epochs of art from the 14th to the 19th century, and an amusing museum of Franz Mayer. We haven’t yet seen the Tamayo museum of modern art, and we still have to finish the Museum of Anthropology, although we’ve seen the better part of that one already; but we have to return on Sunday to catch the Danza de los Voladores, folkloric acrobats who hang by their feet from a pole thirty metres high and spin their way to the ground.
UNESCO awarded Mexico an award in 2010 for its cuisine. France might squawk, but we’ve certainly had fun trying everything they serve up. Most mornings, though, we have our usual breakfast, “igual como siempre” served up by Jacqueline around the corner in a little hole in the wall that our friend Jefferson and his brother opened during the pandemic, in six or seven locations. It was an Uber Eats and Didi Eats delivery kitchen with just a few tables. Every morning we have eggs and ham with a bit of avocado and mashed refried beans with white cheese sprinkled on top, “negra” salsa piquante, cafe de olla, fresh squeezed orange juice, a loaf of hot fresh bread just big enough for two, and a two biscuits with jam to finish. Then we return to the house to do language, continue research, do email, etc. By 10 or 10:30 we’re usually ready to exit the building, and most museums, zoos, etc are open by at least eleven. After touring, we choose a supper spot, and in the evening at home we do more language, sometimes by zoom online, or watch youtube sketch comedy shows, the National, etc. That’s our daily routine during this trip.
Today’s choice was more fun than yesterday: Museo de Cera, the wax museum, and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Deborah’s choice. We bought a 3 for 1 pass that included a “4D” ride in 3D glasses, similar to one we’d been on at the Epcot Centre. It made Deborah quite ill with headache and dizziness. But the wax museum was fun: political figures and entertainers, Mexican and international, and a scary basement of terror. Ripley’s wasn’t very amazing but there were a few items I hadn’t seen before or expected, including a rolling tunnel that you walk inside, holding tight to handrails while the walls spin around you in both directions, making your brain believe completely that you’re leaning so far over you will certainly tumble from the walkway, first to one direction and then to the other.
Afterward we walked down tree-shaded Londres street, which has hundreds of food choices and hotels for tourists. I saw a flight crew coming out of one. There's a street completely shut to traffic to create a pedestrian mall. There were money changers everywhere giving buy and sell rates for U.S. dollars, so it reminded me of where we stayed in Buenos Aires. Lots of homes were gracious old 19th century architecture.
Feb 25th. Museo de San Carlos
250 years ago a school to develop painting and sculpture in Mexico was formed, and the founders of the school began collecting art from Europe to use as teaching pieces for their students. The collection grew and later included Mexican works. It is now the Museo de San Carlos and is in a terrific old building with an open oval central courtyard where operatic works are performed. There are lights all around the second floor balcony.
The galleries weren’t all open but we got to tour the landscapes gallery (I always enjoy landscapes), followed by religious works from 600 years ago and more recent, and works of other subject matter. One striking portrait is of a woman suffering from dementia, with nine of her family around her in mourning over her condition. There is a fine collection of statuary and some modern art pieces as well.
After that we went across the street to treat ourselves to a fine meal at the Casa de Los Abuelos, “grandparents’ house”, which is a chain restaurant now. Sadly, we had the worst experience we’ve had in a Mexican restaurant: my plate arrived well before Deborah’s and it was cold so it had obviously been sitting around; we asked for it to be heated but they weren’t clever enough to take my pork roast off and heat that separately so it was still barely lukewarm in the middle and was soon cold. I’m sure they didn’t nuke anything on the plate, they just waved it under a heat lamp for a few moments - the plate was warm.
The waiters were inattentive and had to be asked for basic things like a knife and spoon. The meal was slow and they never asked us how we were or what else we needed - we had to wave for them. No-one seemed to be specifically assigned to our table, and we sat waiting for our bill afterward until we finally went up to the cash register to pay it ourselves. We left no tip, obviously...and we were obvious about it. I left my first negative Google and Yelp reviews.
Which got me to thinking: one never knows what’s going on in the kitchen of a fancier restaurant. If you eat at sidewalk grill venues you watch the food get cooked and served to you piping hot directly from the chef, and your portions are usually smaller (my plate was too full, which I couldn’t tell from the photo). Casa de Tono franchises are fast and the food is hot but they are too popular, so there's usually a line outside waiting and the interior is loud. So, street food is not always to be avoided, but often prefered, and it’s also cheaper. As long as one picks the right spot and you can sit down somewhere off the sidewalk, it’s fine.
We got home and chatted with a young lady in our building, Veronica, who works at the Czech embassy here. She seemed a little shy during our first days, but people come and go quickly so she probably thought it wasn’t worth the effort to get to know us. She's seen us several times now over the past week and I guess she became curious. It’s nice to have someone to chat with. We commisserated that it is difficult for us to chat in Spanish with Mexicans because they are always busy and usually masked, especially the ones who serve us, so my goal of chatting in Spanish never got fulfilled during this trip. Even museum guards are masked…and who would like that job? Hours at a time on your feet, bored as hell, watching tourists wander in and out of your galleries. You get to dress up in a fancy uniform, but you’re probably paid peanuts. Guides speak too quickly for me, and they’re masked too. So my final resort remains my twice a week online Spanish-English Meetup exchange and the same youtube videos I used to watch on my computer at home, and apart from that I read all the museum placards with my phone as a crutch for unfamiliar vocabulary.
Feb 26th. Tamayo
Decisions, decisions…the Museums of Anthropology and Tamayo (modern art) are beside each other in Chapultepec, only a 21 minutes walk from here, but a five minute walk takes us to a bus that’ll drop us at the gate for only a dollar each. Both are free on Sundays but probably only for Mexico City nationals - we’re not sure whether they’ll be free for us, being national museums. Not that expensive if they’re not, though. But like the Museum of National History in the Castle last Sunday, it may be difficult for them to isolate foreigners from nationals, so we might sneak in that way.
Turns out the bus Deborah wanted was once again suspended on Sundays, so we walked to the park. We got into Tamayo unchallenged, but as usual I was less than impressed with modern art. I swear those artists compete with each other to see who can create the silliest stuff and have it recognised as “art”, and then fill up wall space and floor space with it.
We did view one gallery of art by Rufino Tamayo, for whom the building is named. It was just ok, to me.
There was one Mexico City artist named Miguel Calderon, a former insurance loss adjuster, who made an amusing and honest 46 minute documentary to explain, in a humble and self-deprecating way, how he began collecting and got invited into the art circles of theatre and photography. He was quite honest and transparent, and some of his stuff was fun. The pieces shown and described in the movie were on display in the gallery outside the projection room.
When we left that museum we had only 350 metres to walk to the Anthropology museum, but there they were stringent, demanding ID at the door. Non-Mexicans were told to buy tickets. But it was late - we’d already paid for tickets on our last visit and didn’t have time to see everything, and they wouldn’t extend our tickets. Too bad; they should want foreigners to learn more about Mexican history and culture, and make it easier for them. However, a kind girl showed us two exhibits we could tour for free, so we did that. Then we walked home, stopping at Panda Express for a veggie heavy supper.
Feb 27th. Museo de Guillermo Tovar de Teresa
One week left, but today is laundry day, and a day when only a small number of museums are open. We dilly-dallied a bit, then went to the Museo de Guillermo Tovar de Teresa, free courtesy of Carlos Slim who took it under his wing and made it part of his Soumaya complex. Guillermo was another very wealthy man who filled his house with art but of a smaller variety: chandeliers, vases, painted china plates, trays and bowls, figurines and oil paintings with heavily ornamented carved frames. Perhaps he didn’t have the heart to break up his collection and empty out his home, so he simply turned the place into a museum. One thing I enjoyed there was a collection of a dozen finely detailed paintings by Daniel Thomas Egerton, highlighting scenes from Mexican in the early 1800’s (he died in 1842). I was disappointed that six of the twelve were hung too high - lack of wall space, apparently - so they couldn’t be examined and enjoyed as much as the lower set of six.
It didn’t take us long to see everything there, so we walked around the Fuente de Cibeles, an ancient Mediterranean goddess in a chariot pulled by two lions - not the usual depiction, but there’s always a lion or lioness at her feet, apparently. The circular road around the fountain is relatively quiet with traffic and there is a lot of green, with outdoor patio seating restaurants around the outside.
Then it was already time to go home early. I’d remembered restaurants that were right in front of us as we got off the bus at Metro Sevilla. One of them was called La Ola Marina, and was a perfect antidote to our miserable meal experience two days ago. Male waiters were attentive and the sign out front advertised a Menu del Dia (with numerous choices for the main course) that looked okay. It was more than ok. We had a delicious three course meal with soup, main and dessert, “agua” (it was actually a watery fruit juice) and all the bread or tortillas we’d have wanted, for $6.58 apiece. Deborah was so thrilled she wants to return there tomorrow after we see the Franz Mayer museum.
In the evening I napped and then read more of El Monstruo before joining my two hour Spanish-English zoom Meetup. I’m beginning to feel as though the giant tumblers of an enormous combination lock in my brain are gradually settling into place and my Spanish listening comprehension is unlocking. It’s a long, slow, exhausting process, but I’m making progress.
Feb 28th. Museo de Franz Mayer
Franz Mayer Traumann came from Mannheim as a young man, with a young wife who went back to Germany shortly afterward (if I have the story straight) but he stayed and had a good life in Mexico. He was a German Financier who collected artwork and furniture and the museum named after him is impressive. Many pieces originated in the trade with China, via the Philippines, during the days when the Mexican elite were getting very wealthy from the export of silver, as they do today with the export of oil.
There was one temporary gallery displaying works by women designers, who tend to take functional items of home decor or dress and bring a fresh creative look to them. That was a pleasure. Deborah has photos of designer bookshelves and other items.
We had another menu del dia at a different restaurant on the way home, but it wasn't as good as yesterday’s, although a little cheaper. They’d run out of a number of choices, and when it came time for dessert they didn’t know what to serve us so they delayed until we forced the issue (because it was listed on the board), and then gave us each two marshmallows in a little bowl! There was another dessert but they wanted to charge us for that one. Other than that, the meal was okay. Deborah still left a tip, said she thought the kid was cute…I might not have.
Across from the museum is the Alameda Central, the oldest municipal park in all of North America. There’s a lot of history in this city, and a lot of parks, which tend to be very traditional geometric garden plans, with green hedges around triangular beds which may not contain much that is interesting, but there’s often an interesting plant or two inside. And there are almost always statues and fountains at the junctions of geometrically laid out paths through the garden.
March 1st, four days to go. Museo Kaluz
On the way home yesterday we passed a museum called Museo Kaluz which looked pretty good. 1800 pieces of Mexican art from the 18th to the 21st Century. And it’s free on Wednesdays. We’d planned to visit Coyoacan today, but that can wait another day.
Kaluz is the art collection of yet another incredibly wealthy Mexican who decided to keep his collection intact and share it with fellow Mexicans, and incidentally with foreign visitors. It’s only been open for three years. The building is newly done over and has large galleries. The New York Times has an article describing it in English but you have to purchase a subscription to the newspaper, so I’ve just got a Spanish link with good photos; one can also google images, the photos that other visitors have taken.
Only the second floor contains galleries, although they are extensive and rambling. On the top floor there is a sunny patio and cafe, with a large collection of flower boxes filled with Mexican native plants, from flowering shrubs to diverse succulents and cacti. You can aim your phone at QR codes on some of the boxes as you look out over the city, and hear descriptions of significant buildings and landmarks below.
March 2nd. Coyoacan and Museo Nacional de las Culturas Populares
We’d been told that one must-see place is Coyoacan. I picked a destination: Jardin de Hidalgo, with a museum beside it. It was a bit grueling to get there, an hour and a half each way from our bnb with waiting time included for each connection. We arrived at the Museum of Popular Culture and enjoyed colourful folk art exhibits including a series of highly detailed ceramic models of Mexican commercial and folk scenes, very well done, and the opening exhibit that celebrated the life of Emilio Zapata, a gallant horse-back populist hero of the south who mobilized peasants including women fighters, and with his friend Francisco “Pancho” Villa in the north, swept into Mexico City after ten years of guerrilla warfare. He made a new constitution that lasted for a while. He was famous for insisting that politics could wait until all the people had tortillas.
After the museum we walked the park and neighbourhood. It’s very cute and touristy, and it was easy to see why people recommend it as a destination. We saw the Coyote Fountain, which Deborah speculates is how Coyoacan got its name.
We ate at a busy tourist joint with a good recommendation for one of the dishes. It was delicious, but our portion was tiny and the price was high (and the service sucked, and the joint was too loud) so we stepped into a franchise of Churro El Moro two doors away for a more satisfying torta al pastor and a churro to finish our supper, and then came home, which was a challenging adventure. It’s good that people are friendly and willing to help. The first bus we waited for never came, so we figured out an alternate route with four connections.
One problem with navigating by phone is that you don’t have cardinal compass points and a map that would match a compass, so you’re forever guessing in which direction you should launch yourself and watching to see if the blue dot on your phone follows you (using the internal gps) to confirm that you’ve made the right choice. The scale is often hard to determine. Scale is often different even between Deb’s phone and mine. Best for navigation in a strange city this size might be a paper map, a compass and a phone with mapping and a gps, all working together, but that’d be a bit awkward on a street corner. At least the phone maps show the stations of the bus routes, and where your bus is along the route.
Two days left. After some deliberation we have decided that we will complete the Anthropology museum today. It feels as though we planned just the right amount of time for the museums we had any interest in, and a couple of duds (“Modern art! Ptew!”). There are more modern art museums that we won’t bother with, and some performance art sites that we can’t really attend without being out after dark - and little information about what we’d see or hear. So we’ll go home feeling satisfied that we’ve accomplished our objective. [Upon our return home, I believe I've found a few new ones on the map that we missed on our phones.}
Deb picked a combination of buses. The first took us closer to Centro but then we transferred to one that dropped us right at the gate of the Anthropology museum - we’d always gone to the north side, which required a lot of extra walking.
It was the right call. We saw four upstairs Ethnological galleries which took about three hours, then we spent another two hours going through the first floor galleries that we’d had to race through on the first day. We saw a lot that we didn’t remember having seen before.
We took the #7 metro bus (double-decker) to Paris station and spent some time in a plant and flower market with fascinating succulents in flower pots for the home, and gorgeous orchids. We had supper at Panda Express so that we could have a healthy meal with a pile of steamed veggies and a little meat; then caught a little green microbus that raced us home through rush hour traffic. Those green microbuses are the cheapest and the fastest way to get around.
We hear that flights are being canceled - Westjet, in particular. We’ll see if Air Canada follows suit.
Deb got up at 1 a.m. to secure our boarding passes. So far Air Canada has not canceled our flight, although Ursula and other friends in Scarborough have sent us photos of their terrible snow dump. By noon we were still on track to arrive at the airport shortly after nine, and Christian has graciously allowed us a late check-out so that we can have a restful afternoon and a nap before we leave.
The only other museum I could think of for today was the Museo de Pulque, which is about beer made from maguey cactus, similar in a way to tequila and mescal which are distilled from agave. It was a staple drink for poor people in Mexico City, highlighted by John Ross in El Monstruo. It helped them tolerate their miserable existence in the days of Don Porfirio Diaz, but it also might have been safer than drinking the water, just as wine and beer were safer in Europe. However, it is easy enough to learn about the history of Pulque online. We anticipate a long night of travel. The possibility of an interrupted journey or a canceled flight still looms, so we’ve decided to take it easy and treat the whole day as a travel day. We’ll probably stroll to our supper restaurant, and chat with people here in Christian’s rooming house who have Saturdays off. Apart from that we’ll just read, do email and Spanish youtube videos.
Jefferson, Jacqueline and the staff at Chilaquilotas gave us a free breakfast before farewell photos, and I promised to zoom with Jefferson to continue his English practice. In the afternoon we crossed the pedestrian bridge over Army Avenue and ate at Mariscos Don Pachito. We had Cazuela Ranchera, Filete a la Diabla, Tostada de camarone and agua de alfalfa. A fitting end to our culinary adventure in Mexico City.
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