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Monday, 2 August 2010

Cuidad de Mexico

Everything has been quiet on the blog front this month due to the end of semester at UNISTMO and the much anticipated arrival of the 2 weeks of vacations! We have sweated(not necessarily a work induced condition, more a response to the climate) our way through this first semester so our two weeks of vacation were greeted by much whooping and applause by everyone here at the Centro de Idiomas, followed by frantic stampede to the exit like a herd of some kind of animal that stampedes in a frantic fashion, leaving the university in a cloud of dust..........and unlike other animals that migrate towards the heat for the summer, we all had a vision of escaping to the sacred places known to harbour slightly cooler climates, in the hills or further north.

I had quite a loose plan for my travels, something along the lines of go up north to Mexico City, then travel back down towards the state of Chiapas in the South and finish off by heading to Oaxaca City before returning to Ixtepec. So I packed up my rucksack in preparation of the two weeks, unpacked it several times after reconsidering how much I would actually be willing to carry consistently for two weeks, using images of my sister shaking her head in despair reminding me that its not necessary to bring two or three of everything. I am always inclined to over pack for every possible eventuality, when in actual fact nothing I ever bring gets used. I have a problem with stuff, as I always seem to bring to much with me, as well as accumulating more when I arrive. Its a constant battle with myself trying to whittle down my things to what is necessary and what might one day come to be useful in a potentially life changing situation....

So once prepared I set off for the 13 hour bus journey to Mexico City or D.F(Distrito Federal) as they call it here in Mexico. For the people at home reading this, you probably have images of the dreaded Megabus in Scotland or Ulsterbuses that operate in Northern Ireland in your head. Fortunately here in Mexico the ADO buses are far superior and much more comfortable than the equivalent at home. Here buses are a really cheap, efficient and safe way to travel around the country. There are ADO bus stations situated close to everywhere you could possibly want to go.

The buses are fitted with really comfortable reclining seats, air conditioning, televisions and toilets so they are about as comfortable and entertaining as sitting in a bus can be for 13 hours. However, if you are one for travel sickness when travelling in a bus, the road from Ixtepec to Oaxaca on the way to D.F is probably one of the most sickness inducing combinations of curvy mountainous roads, collapsed tarmac, sheer drops over cliffs and sleep deprived articulated lorry drivers that exists on the face of the earth. Especially when travelling at night, and depending on whether you are fortunate enough to get a driver with some Evil Kenevil tendencies, the first part of the journey is not for the faint hearted if you aren't able to get to sleep and are situated near the front looking out the window. I learnt the hard way on my first journey when I arrived in Mexico, when I was going from the airport in D.F to Ixtepec, the driver was falling asleep at the wheel and I was sitting in the front row.

Some facts about D.F. The 2009 estimated population for the city of Mexico exceeds 8.84 million people, and with a land area of 1,485 square kilometres (573 sq mi), Mexico City is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. According to the most recent definition agreed upon by the federal and state governments, the Mexico City metropolitan area population is 21.2 million people, making it the largest metropolitan area in the Americas and the third largest agglomeration in the world. D.F gets a lot of bad press for its reputation as a really dangerous city, and after talking to the locals that live in Ixtepec, they had pretty much made it clear to me that on getting off the bus I would be identified as a foreigner, promptly robbed raped and killed, not to be heard of again until I appeared on the 6 o'clock news, as part of tragic news report about another poor soul has fallen foul to the hub of crime which is D.F. On the other hand, anyone who has lived there assured me that like any other large city, as long as I wasn't wandering into areas that I didn't know at night time, brandishing cameras, credit cards and an abundance of cash its a really good city to go and visit and that I wouldn't have any problems.

I travelled on the bus through the night and stepped out bleary eyed into the considerably cooler air early on Monday morning. The ADO bus station is situated outside the centre of the city so I needed to make my way into the centre of the city. There is a really extensive Metro system throughout D.F, which I immediately took advantage of. I had no plans and hadn't looked up any accommodation before I left Ixtepec, so my method in that situation is always to make my way to the centre of the city first, and then use it as my base to make my way around to find the things that I need. The metro in D.F while being one of the busiest in the world transporting approximately 4.5 million people every day is cheap and easy to use. It is heavily subsidized, and has the lowest fares in the world, each trip costing 3pesos and takes you to almost any place in this enormous city from 05:00 am to midnight. Throughout my time in D.F there were a few times when the trains were incredibly crowded but the frequency of them meant that when it looked like there were faces squashing against the windows of the carriages, you only have to wait a minute before the next train comes along with less people on it.

I got off the train beside the central plaza, which is called the Plaza de la Constitución or Zocolo. Close to the main central square are Spanish-era Metropolitan Cathedral, National Palace, Delran, and ancient Aztec temple ruins Templo Mayor (Major Temple)The Templo Mayor was discovered in 1978 while workers were digging to place underground electric cables. When I arrived in the centre I asked around and found a youth hostel that's situated right beside the Zocolo.

I checked in there and for 1 night it only cost around 130 pesos which is really cheap, and suprising for where it is located, right in the centre of the city as well as including a good breakfast in the morning. It's quite a big hostel, with 5 floors, and the top floor they have a terrace overlooking the city, where they serve drinks in the evening and breakfast in the morning. Below is a photo I took from the terrace just after eating my breakfast.

After establishing myself in the centre with a place to stay, I commenced walking around the city to find out what all it had to offer. I'm not really a person for making an itinerary when I'm travelling, the only plans I really make are when and where I will arrive, and where and when I will depart from. I generally have a look for things that I would like to see but I don't make any kind of schedule or order of when I would like to get to them. It means that throughout the course of the trip I'm free to go wherever the wind takes me, because inevitably unexpected opportunities will come up as I meet people or discover things that I want to see that I didn't realise were there.

D.F being the giant city that it is, has a bit of everything that you could want to experience, as it mixes the aspects of modern city life with ancient historic centres and rich cultural experiences of all types. Walking through the city you'll be in an area filled with old beautiful architecture such as old cathedrals, government buildings and the next street is really developed and westernised, financial districts and shopping malls with all the lastest and fashionable brand names. The picture of the skyscraper is the Torre Latinoamericana, Latin America's first skyscraper. Its located along the Paseo de Reforma, where much of the the financial industry of D.F is situated.

To me D.F is a city of extremes and inequalities. Extremely old areas which have been engulfed by modern westernised business and shopping districts, along with areas of extreme poverty and hardship living alongside districts of extreme wealth. The wealth that exists there can be attributed to it being the most important political, cultural, and financial center in the country. According to the source of all knowledge that is wikipedia, Bolsa Mexicana de Valores, Mexico's main stock exchange, is greater than the combined market capitalization of the main stock exchanges of Argentina, Chile, and Peru.Mexicos stock exchange is found on the wide, elegant avenue Paseo de la Reforma, modeled by the order of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico after the Champs-Élysées in Paris. This avenue was designed over Americas' oldest passage in the XIX Century to connect the National Palace (seat of government) with the Castle of Chapultepec, the imperial residence. Paseo de Reforma is an important financial district where several corporate headquarters are located. Paseo de reform is home to one of the most recognised landmarks in D.F,the Golden Angel of Independence, along with many other monuments.

Like all other parts of Mexico, it wouldn't be complete without a monument of Benito Juarez, a very important man here in Mexico.He was a Zapotec indian from Oaxaca who served five terms as president of Mexico. He was the first Mexican leader who did not have a military background, and also the first full-blooded indigenous national ever to serve as President of Mexico and to lead a country in the Western Hemisphere. He resisted the French occupation, overthrew the Empire, restored the Republic, and used liberal efforts to modernize the country. What a guy!

Being able to speak Spanish really makes travelling around in Mexico a far richer experience than if I was only able to speak a little Spanish, or purely English. It means that I can integrate with the people here and understand everything that is going on around me. So much of our perceptions as people are related to the things that we can describe and express through language, and its something I understand more, the more I am able to integrate myself into the Spanish speaking world. My desire to move to a different country and learn a new language is that I want to learn about new culture, the experiences that other people have within it, and the things that I can learn from it to further my own understanding of other people and myself. Mexico is such a culturally diverse country, and I have only really seen such a small part of it.

When in the centre of the city, I met a couple of locals who are the same age as me and have lived in Mexico City their whole lives in barrios(neighbourhoods) just slightly outside the centre of the city. We spent a couple of days together as they offered to show me around the city and the parts of it that they frequented. One of them sells bracelets and armbands to make a living and the other one is unemployed at the moment but is starting a job handing out flyers and doing promotions for a night club in two weeks. David makes the armbands himself, and sells them for 10 pesos each, mostly to foreign tourists who frequently occupy the city. 10 pesos is the equivalent of 50pence or 1USD. We talked a lot about what it was like for them living in Mexico City, and what it was like for the vast majority of other people. They both were of the opinion that city life was extremely difficult for the vast majority of people the reality is that there is not enough work for everyone, and if your lucky enough to get work, the wages which they receive are so minimal that it might cover your food but that's about as far as it goes. So if you can't get work , no matter what your age or condition, you have to learn to be good at making something, or find something which you can sell(quite commonly to the tourists) and get out onto the street and make it work. Its really amazing to see the amount of people out on the street trying to make ends meet, and it doesn't discriminate between age or medical condition. Old frail women, young children, people with one leg, one arm out on the street all day and part of the night trying to make a living.

Both of the guys that i met hope to travel to Europe one day, because they believe that life there will be much easier for them and the opportunities to find work will be much more widespread. They explained to me that in reality they know that with the exchange rate the way it is, the peso being of such low value, that there is a possibility they could save enough for flights and money to make it over there, but it means saving for two or three years, and that depends on them being lucky enough to find constant work in D.F. and that they will never be given a visa. They talked of how there is such a lack of opportunities for the majority of poor young people and how a large class divide exists between the rich and the poor. Most of them will never leave Mexico City, and the ones who do will try to cross the border to work illegally in the US. Of every 10 people that try to cross the border, maybe only one or two will actually make it across, as being able to make it across depends on knowing the ways, which usually means paying someone to show you, which for most people isn't an option.

The large inequalities that exist in the city result in there being large problems of crime that affects the lives of the people who live there, as well as having a negative impact on the amount of tourists who are willing to travel there. The super rich living alongside people who do not have sufficient food and money and are struggling to survive. In recent years the government has made a lot of attempts to address the crime problem and in a lot of respects they have been successful in making it a lot more secure for tourists. The whole time I was in the city there was a visible police presence everywhere I went, although I have to point out that I didn't stray much away from the main central districts. There are areas off the beaten track that I'm told are a very different story. Another factor which I learnt from many of the people I met that live in the city, is that if you do have a problem, going to the police can pose its own dangers as there is a large problem of corruption within the police in Mexico. The guys i met explained that for example if you have been robbed and you go to the police, you can't guarantee that the police won't devise some kind of plan to try to get more money out of you, or create a problem and try to get you to bribe them in some form, to get yourself out of trouble. So yes there is a large police presence, but the low wages of the police that work within the city and the corrupt system they work in, means that there is always a possibility you will have to deal with a corrupt police officer who sees you has an opportunity to earn a bit more cash for his days work. The conclusion I drew from all of this is that the police here are not always a solution to any problems which you may have.

D.F is well known for is its problem with pollution which it is always struggling to try and control. The air quality is noticeably bad, and after a day walking around it was irritating my nose and to some extent my eyes as well. There is a visible cloud of smog that hovers over the city at all times. They have various measures in place which have improved the air quality over the past few years , but the pollution, along with the thin air which exists due to the high altitude of the city, make it quite a challenge for your lungs.

So I'm really glad that I went up to check out Mexico City, as it has a lot of things to offer and I really only scratched the surface of things there are to see and do there. The city is not without its problems but I would advise anyone who has a chance to go and check it out as my experience of being there was really positive. Its a really interesting place and has something in it for everyone.

After 4 days in Mexico City, the next plan was to travel down to the state of Chiapas, with a loose plan of visiting San Cristobal de Las Casas and a place called Tuxtla. So until the next blog............

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