Monday, July 29, 2013

Glimpses Of Mexico City

Traditional Mexican kitchen, painting in El Cardenal
As we landed, blurry eyed from our early morning DC flight to Mexico City, we could catch only a few glimpses of the city from the air.  It was covered with clouds and a light rain pattered incessantly.  We could not see the mountains and volcanoes that surround Mexico city from up above.  As we left the plane, the height and coolness of the place suddenly hit us (Mexico city is about 7200 feet above sea level) and I wondered if we should have brought more woolens.  Fortunately, a light sweater and jacket sufficed.

We were met by our old friend and her incredibly pleasant and steady driver at the airport.  Battling the chaotic traffic (very reminiscent of Delhi) requires steady nerves and a ton of patience.  Mexico city is densely populated (about 57 people per sq. km., so the statistics say) - and the roads are groaning with vehicles (despite the fact that there is a very efficient metro system in the city).  There were cars, buses, two wheelers, real taxis and fake ones (discernible only by the order of alphabets on the number plates) - the only thing we missed here were the cows!

We stayed with our friends, in Coyoacan - the place of the coyotes - a beautiful area where once a river flowed.  Now it has picturesque old houses, narrow, winding lanes and bird-filled trees.

After a delicious lunch of tortillas and chicken with mole and glasses of hibiscus juice and tamarind water, our friends took us around.  It was a whirlwind tour of the city covered in the short time we had - to show the diversity of the region : the large green spaces and cramped roads, the famous murals and architecture, the local bazaars and the world renowned museums.  During most of my stay, I shunned my camera, just wanting to soak in the atmosphere and sights.  I do this sometimes (and generally regret it later, when I am unable to describe all that I have seen and experienced, to others!).  Fortunately others were not so lackadaisical.

On the first evening we visited UNAM, the second oldest university of the Americas.  It has a sprawling, green campus dotted with architectural wonders including beautiful mosaics and sculpted murals.  We walked around to get a feel for this venerable University; it seemed like a wonderful place for students.

Mural atop a University building
We returned home for tea and then visited a nearby marketplace.  An old church stood at the entrance and much to our delight, a wedding procession had just begun to enter.  "Weddings are lucky," we were told, and this one certainly lit up the entire area.  A few feet away, a stage was being set for live music.  Further down there were rows of stalls selling the most interesting looking food - an incredible variety of chopped fruit, vegetables, tortillas, steamed and roasted corn, all kinds of fried snacks, juices and more.  We stopped to try some hot guava juice - thick, soup-like, laced with cinnamon and very slightly sweetened - it was delicious in the cool, rainy weather.  Our friends bought all kinds of things for us to try- pumpkin seeds and more held together with a kind of caramel, paper-thin wafers of different colours sprinkled with seeds and nuts, fried snacks served with a thin sauce.  We then entered the actual market, which was filled with art, craft, textiles, jewellery and hand made products of a high quality.  Very similar and yet very different from India.  Our friends bought us a painted wooden box made of a local citrus-scented wood and I bought myself a jaguar T-shirt, which made me feel very powerful when I put it on!

The next day was Sunday and we rose early in anticipation of our Sunday breakfast at 'the best breakfast place in town' (as our friends said).  It truly was.  El Cardenal (named after the bird) - located close by, in a huge traditional house with gleaming wood, beautiful stained glass, white linen and large vases overflowing with fresh flowers.  Everyone was impeccably courteous and no one was rushed us (even though a long queue built up as we sat down for breakfast).  I was quite amazed at the unhurried atmosphere - families large and small, sat together and ate their food with relish amidst much chatter.  "It is the Mexican way," I was told.

It was a memorable meal, that began with a plateful of hot, freshly baked rich breads and a cup of steaming chocolate that was made at our table.  The Mexican chocolate is lighter (and I think, tastier) than the Spanish variety.  It is generally made with milk but one can also request for a version made with water than is still lighter and has a more intense chocolate flavour.

Then, to my great joy, we were able to taste two specialties that I had read about and had been wanting to try in Mexico (and it was very fortunate that we ordered them because I did not see them anywhere else subsequently).  Huitlacoche - a corn fungus (that was served in tortillas).  This is a fungus that grows on the ears of the corn, transforming them into dark coloured, earthy tasting nuggets.  The second was an omelette (Mexicans are experts at cooking eggs) stuffed with nopal (a cactus) and a kind of ant larva - a surprisingly tasty combination.  This was one of the most memorable meals that we had in Mexico.  We were also offered lots of fresh fruit but could only manage a slice of Mexican pineapple (a different variety from the American kind).

Tortillas with corn fungus
Omelette with cactus and ant larvae
Tortillas with a baked tomato sauce dish
After this, we staggered out and managed to head towards the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (Museum of Anthropology) - a world famous museum and the best anthropological museum I have seen so far.  On Sundays, there is no entrance charge and we trooped in along with many other families.  The museum is far too large to be covered in a day, it requires almost a week to do justice to all its exhibits.  It has some visiting foreign exhibitions that change periodically (at the time we visited there was an exhibition on Indian miniatures) and a large number of galleries showcasing Mexican civilization through the centuries.  Some of the permanent highlights include the colossal Olmec heads (there seem to be no bodies, just large, incredibly carved, ancient heads) from sites in Tabasco and Veracruz, sacred objects from the cenote near Chichen Itza, a replica of Pacal's tomb from Palenque, a model and layout of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (currently central Mexico city) and the original gigantic Aztec 'Stone of the Sun'.

Stone of the Sun
We spent half a day at the museum and then stepped out, into the Chapultpec park - vast, green and filled with picnicking families.  Suddenly we saw some people in brightly coloured clothes, wrapping vast amounts of rope round themselves.  Traditional acrobatic dancers!  Another wondrous surprise for us.  We sat and watched them climbing up a tall metal pillar and securing themselves to the top.  A single musician remained below, the others (some carrying small musical instruments) were high up above.  All of a sudden, the music started and they launched themselves, upside down, off the post and descended slowly, in wide graceful circles, almost flying through the air, until they reached the ground.  It was a spectacular performance.  Then they nonchalantly untied themselves and drifted away.  We clapped and dropped some money into the can that was being passed around.

After this we went for a drive through the most amazing and varied sections of town - tiny lanes, broad boulevards (some of the roads are closed to traffic on Sundays, leaving a clear path for cyclists - this was a heart warming sight, and we wished that the same could be done in India).

Finally, we drove past the Gandhi bookstore (one of the best in the city), past the sculpted coyotes, to reach home - in time for a Sunday nap and a good Sunday evening gossip session followed by a small piano concert.  Later at night we met my husband's college friend, who had driven miles in the pouring rain to come and see us.  We sat in a little cafe and watched him eat his dinner (we were too full to eat anything except a bit of rice pudding that was thick, creamy and liberally sprinkled with cinnamon).  Caught up on news.  He has recently opened a hotel in Baja California and invited us to stay.  Alas, we had no time, but I did secure a job as a Yoga teacher in his hotel!  An offer to be seriously considered at some other time, in the future.  As we parted he handed us a bagful of guavas- they were small, ripe and delicious.

Thus ended our last night in Mexico city.  We left (after another excellent breakfast and a bagful of gifts) the following morning, carrying with us sunny memories of Mexico city and all our friends.

(Note on photographs: All pictures were expertly taken by Gossi Soto but Blogger has somehow changed the dimensions in the process of uploading.  Some of the pictures have been slightly distorted in this process.)  

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