Martin Howard legacy

¡Viva México!

 My dissertation defense lasted four gruelling hours. Usually, these things are over and done with in two to three hours, after which, everyone in the audience is dying to get off their seat, eat cake, and drink champagne, so any remaining proceedings get curtly abbreviated to make room for the dining. In my case, I'm not sure whether it was chiefly dissatisfaction with the written dissertation or the fact that it attempts to cover everything from Wittgensteinian philosophy to computer display design in less than two hundred pages which resulted in the drawn out proceedings, but in any case, the questions from the discussant alone took three and a half hours, followed by another thirty minutes of questions from the examination board. The audience, gratifyingly, reliquished their right to query me in favour of eating what was by then a very late lunch. Following this, the examination board emerged from their deliberations to announce, just in time for the coffee, that I had passed my defense and consequently been awarded the degree of PhD.

As a result, I felt that I rather deserved another trip to Mexico, so less than a week later I boarded a SAS flight bound for México Distrito Federal. As it turned out, SAS collected the money for the ticket price, but happily deferred to Lufthansa to carry out the actual flying. During this, I had the misfortune of sitting in a section of the aircraft where our air hostess managed to spill wine on me, forgot to ask several people's dinner beverage preferences, and subsequently barked at us when we reminded her of her oversight. Lufthansa's slogan is apparently "There's no better way to fly". Whomever coined that should try British Airways or KLM some day. Flying from Stockholm with Lufthansa to Mexico City means that you first fly to Frankfurt. Dig out a globe and you'll notice that flying from Stockholm to Frankfurt takes you south. Flying from Frankfurt to Mexico City takes you over the Atlantic over the British Isles, Canada, down the Eastern Seaboard of the US, over New Orleans and across the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, you spend the first two hours of your second flight flying north to recapture latitudes you shed going from Stockholm to Frankfurt. I therefore had the pleasure of this particular air hostess' company for over twelve hours, before being able to throw myself into Miri's welcoming arms.

During my first visit to Mexico, Miri had been on holiday and was only working during the last three days of my stay. Since we hadn't seen each other for several months and were, in many ways, still getting to know each other, we tended to spend a lot of time together and did few of the tourist things. Upon returning to Sweden, my friends and family would ask what I'd seen of Mexico City: Questions which generally met with a somewhat embarrassed silence, or a few stuttering excuses to the effect that I hadn't actually seen much of the city at all. We had gone to the silver markets in Taxco and I had managed to navigate the D.F. Metro system to the Museo de Anthropología but that was about it and in any case, it failed miserably to account for how I'd managed to spend two whole weeks there. During this trip, Miri was working full time, so it had been carefully calculated to include two weekends, but still left five days during which I'd have to find ways to amuse myself without either the distractions or linguistic aid of this beautiful Mexican girl at my disposal.

Armed with the Guia Roji Cuidad de México (the Mexican equivalent of the London A-Z) I set forth in my explorations. My Spanish is limited to Linguaphone-like exchanges and my encounters with ticket salespeople, waitresses, and shop assistants sounded like clippings from a Berlitz Guide.

"Una tarjeta de telefóno, por favor," I'd ask
"Treinta, sesenta, o cien?"
"Treinta, gracias."

This gets you a telephone card good for thirty minutes of local calls, a useful thing to have when you find yourself on the wrong side of a Metro station and little clue of how to get to where you're really supposed to be going.

One of my first stops was El Castillo de Chapultepec. Having been pushed into use as everything from public park, through residence of emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg and his wife Carlotta, to presidential palace, it now serves as a national monument and tourist attraction. Perched atop a hill in the middle of the vast Bosque de Chapultepec park which also houses the anthropological museum and the city zoo, it offers grand views both of the present city and past life. The Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia gladly relieves you of the meagre sum of thirty-five pesos to enter, provided you are unable to provide proof that you are either a student or senior citizen, in which case, you enter for free. As a newly graduated PhD, I declined fishing my student ID out of my wallet and handed over a crisp fifty peso bill with a swell of pride that went entirely unnoticed by the rather matronly woman who accepted it with all the enthusiasm of an industrial robot carrying out its instructions.

In spendid defiance, and to the considerable challenge of English-only speaking tourists, all the plaques and labels are in Spanish. There were probably guidebooks to be bought with English text, but I find walking around with a guidebook which you find yourself almost inadvertantly dipping into every thirty seconds to reduce the richness of the visit to a largely literary one, which rather makes the whole point of being there moot, as you might as well have stayed at home with an armchair and a cup of tea. Besides, armed with the Océano básico Spanish-English dictionary, the paleantolic remnants of five years of grade-school French, and a little patience, it was possible to discern the main drift of what was being presented.

The castle itself has history that dates back to the 14th century, although it has been rebuilt and extended many times over the centuries. Most of the rooms are decorated in a distinctly 18th century style, with a typical European feel to them, presumably dating from the time of the French invasion when it was casa del Max. As with many affluent home of the period, it matters little were it is situated and it could just as well have been located in Madrid, Paris, or Stockholm. What makes it different from northern European stately homes is that most of the rooms sharing an outer wall with the house have vast doors which fold open, essentially removing much of the wall. A wide, covered balcony envelopes half of the house in a playful mockery of conventional notions of "inside" and "outside". As a result, you find yourself largely touring the ground floor along the balcony and looking into the rooms through the open doors. The view from the upper level balcony is spectacular showing the spead of Mexico City receeding to the distant mountains that form the natural barrier of the urban sprawl. At the same time, you are sufficiently far away from the noise of the traffic that, as you walk through the small, formal garden on the top level, you forget for a moment that you are in one of the busiest cities in the world.

Returning from the castle takes you along the paths through the park. These are lined with stalls, with vendors selling everything from drinks and food, to minature paintings created on the spot. Foolishly, I resisted the temptation to buy two framed, postcard-sized moonlit landscapes at twenty pesos each. Beaded necklaces, hats, sunglasses, ice-cream, obsidian statuettes, ceramic masks, woven tapestries depicting the Aztec zodiac, key rings, and t-shirts can all be bought along the make-shift stalls, here, as well as almost everywhere else in Mexico City. If it is stationary, chances are someone will place a stall on it. If it's not, then goods are carried in a small pouch along with change. Ride the Metro, and at each stop, vendors get onto the train and start announcing their goods. Combes, chewing gum, maps, pens, crayons, legal text books, electric razors, and cold drinks have all been available at one time or another on my Metro rides. Ride a city bus and within two stops of the bus station, you'll be offered ice-cream, literature, or refreshments. I never took a taxi, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a little kiosk and mini-bar inside each one. It's a conflicting situation. On the one hand, little or nothing of what is on offer is interesting or useful and the ever present noise of vendors calling out their goods and prices gets a little tiresome at times. On the other hand, for many, it is probably their only source of income.

 

On my previous trip, I had discovered a little currency exchange opportunistically wedged inbetween a myriad of little jewelry shops in one of the splendid buildings that lines the expansive central square, Plaza de la Constitución or Zócalo for short. Feeling less adventerous that particular time, I had forgone the opportunity to walk the distance between the Pino Suárez and Zócalo and instead switched trains at the former to ride the single stop. On this trip, I decided that such timid behaviour was inappropriate and set forth firmly in the direction of the sign announcing "salida". However, before reaching this, I discovered another announcing "Estación Zócalo". I followed this, expecting to be led up to the street level, but was directed instead to another underground tunnel. The pedestrian tunnel between the two stations is probably a little over half a kilometer in length and entirely lined by discount bookshops. Most specialize in particular literature, such as childrens books, educational books, scientific or religious literature, and even one dedicated to dictionaries. At the half-way point, a tiny café was located next to a minature cinema: about ten staggered rows of white, plastic chairs, three deep, were perched infront of a projector screen hung at one end. As if this wasn't enough, the bizarre character of this out-of-place cinema was reinforced by the fact that the entire length of this impromptu cinema was open to the tunnel. Along those parts of the tunnel walls that didn't house bookshops were notice boards. I found one poster announcing an exhibition of sculpture at the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño but unfortunately, it had closed a few days earlier. Upon returning to Sweden, I discovered via the Internet that it is home to large Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo collections, along with permanent exhibits of Precolombian Art and Mexican folk art. I guess I'll be returning to Mexico City.

Next to the Zócalo, behind the vast Catedral Metropolitano lies Zona Arqueológica del Templo Mayor. It contains the ruins of a vast Aztec temple complex, most of which is now buried underneath the cathedral and central plaza built by the Spanish, but some of it has been excavated and are subject to both admiration by passers by and the effects of urban air pollution. The conquistadores' practice of levelling existing temples and other sacred buildings in favour of erecting Catholic cathedrals appears to have been standard practice. Erik, Miri's brother, announced upon my return from El Templo Mayor: "Under every church of that period, there is a temple."

This temple was extended in stages and consisted of a large number of layers, making it resemble an angular onion in construction. Some of these are open to inspection, but it is only upon entering the adjacent museum you get an appreciation for the scale of the place at its peak. El Templo Mayor is but two of probably close to a hundred buildings located in a vast plaza surrounded by stepped wall. Much of the centre of modern day Mexico City sits directly on top of the island and surrounding lake which these structures dominated, with landfill reducing the lake to a mere reminder of past glory. The rest of the six-story museum houses artifacts, sculpture, and remains which tell the story of its evolution and dominance over the region, which, I gathered, was considerable.

On that earlier trip, I had tried some Mexican food, but for various reasons generally not having to do with my culinary preferences, Miri's and my diet seemed to have mostly consisted of sushi, pizza, crêpes, with the occasional quesadilla thrown in for good measure, and all washed down with healthy measures of ice-cold Coke or Corona. Upon hearing this, Miri's mother insisted that I be exposed to traditional Mexican food. As a result, my ten days were just as much a culinary voyage as a cultural one. Weekend breakfasts consisted of consommó de pollo, a hearty chicken broth, and quesadillas or tacos; lunches allowed me to sample enchiladas verdes (stuffed tortillas in green chili sauce) posole (lambs meat soup); dinners and late-night snacks included carnitas (deep-fried pork) and the delightfully spicy tacos al pastor (tacos with grilled meat). Fruits in Mexico are absolutely delicious and the Vings chain of diners offer a platter of assorted and, to me, exotic fruits such as mango and papaya for breakfast. Freshly pressed orange juice has a sweet richness to it that I haven't found anywhere else (and yes, I have been to Florida). Without exception, everything I tried was delight to eat and, for someone who likes spicy food, a welcome change from the conservatively spiced Swedish food I'm used to, where basil is considered exotic and ground black pepper the hottest thing ever to touch a meal.

 

One of the easiest ways to around in Mexico City is to use the Metro, which translates into the subway or underground, depending upon which part of the English-speaking world you are from. Metro tickets are two pesos each for a single journey, which can consist of any number of stops and train transitions, which means that Mexico City's metro system, according to an underground railway-geek site that I accidentally stumbled across on the Internet, has the dual distinctions of being both the most expansive, and the cheapest. According to the same site, it also has the single station serving the largest number of individual metro lines in the world, which hardly comes as any surprise to anyone who's been there, as everything you board appears to be bound for Pantitlan.

Unlike in Europe, few people seem to try getting in for free. Partly, this is most likely a reflection of the very humane ticket price. Partly, I suspect, it has something to do with the uniformed guards wearing bullet-proof vests and weilding 12-guage shotguns that I saw at many enterances. The closest station to Miri's house is Canal del Norte on the "light blue" line, or Linea 1. For someone used to the prime colours of London's or Stockholm's underground systems (although it can be argued that neither the ebullient silver of Jubilee nor the dirty brown of Bakerloo are particularly good examples of primary colours) the somewhat unusual colours used in the Mexico City Metro have to potential to result in some interesting confusion. There are nine lines, rather logically numbered Linea 1 to Linea 9, but then two more called Linea "A" and Linea "B". The colours used to denote the various metro lines are, to the best of my ability to name them: (1) pink, (2) dark blue, (3) olive green, (4) cyan, (5) yellow, (6) deep red, (7) bright red, (8) sea green, and (9) bronze. Linea "A" is the same bright red as Linea 7 and Linea "B" a sort of dirty silver. The olive green, cyan, and sea green colours are essentially exactly the same. Let a little metro grime settle on the silver of Linea "B" and it looks just like cyan or sea green. OK, you may be able to tell the difference when looking at a nice, bright, clean Guia Roji overview map in a well-lit bookstore, but try telling them apart on a grimy, poorly lit underground platform map. Miri swears that there's an orange line, but I'm damned if I can find one.

Always assuming you manage to find the right Metro line, the ride is very comfortable. Rather than riding on metal wheels, the trains have wheels with rubber tyres. Much to my delight, you do not necessarily arrive at your destination with an acute case of tinnitus, something that anyone who has been forced to ride the Central Line in London would no doubt appreciate immensely. Additionally, those who've designed the Metro have made a very kind consession to linguistically challenged tourists like myself: each Metro stop has its own icon. Martin Carrera is a head in profile; Auditorio shows the opera house; El Rosario is a rosary, and so on.

Miri's home is only a few kilometers from the centre of the city, but getting there is quite an exercise. Most of the Metro lines seem to go just past where you want to be, so you end up having to change a lot of trains. From Canal del Norte I'd ride two stops south to Candelaria which allows you to walk a short distance underground to the platform of the pink line, or Linea 1. This runs east-to-west across the city, with Pino Suárez within walking distance from the Zócalo. You can take the metro that last stop too, but you'd have to change to the deep blue line. Besides, you'll either miss out on the underground bookshop tunnel, or the myriad of shoe shops and the cacophony of street vendors above ground.

Further along Linea 1, past the Metro stop with my favorite name (or how's Salto del Agua for the stop with a fountain as its icon?) lies Insurgentes. The exit lies in the middle of a round square, if there is such a thing, and one of the exits from this, in turn, leads to the street Genova. Walk up this and you find yourself right smack in the middle of the area known as Zona Rosa. During the day-time, it's as irresistable to a tourist as nectar to a bee. During the nights, it's a favorite spot for men who like to walk hand-in-hand together, which is presumably in part what the area got its name from. But people of all persuasions find reasons to go to Zona Rosa. It is home to a great many restaurants, bars, and cafés as well as a surprising number of bronze statues of lithe, naked female figures. There's a souvernier shop every twenty paces and even an entire covered marked packed solid with little souvernier stalls. Prices are generally expensive and, at least in the market among the silver stalls, tempers can flare should you happen to show even the most cursory interest in an item and subsequently decide not to buy it at the insanely inflated price.

Zona Rosa is also home to two little gems. The first is the Bits Café y Canela internet café. It's located at 165 Hamburgo, a street that crosses Genova about three blocks north of the Metro exit. They offer high speed connections (which really are the 512 Kbps they advertize) at very reasonable prices, along with soft drinks, coffee, music, art, sandwiches, fax, copies, and anything else you'd require for keeping in touch with friends across the ocean while engaging in an afternoon snack. Their business card optimistically proclaims "English Spoken" but this, at least for the young Mexican beauty who manned the till on the afternoons I was there, was the kind of English that is communicated through slow Spanish phrases, finger pointing, and cute pouting. It's located slightly off the beaten track on the second floor and the enterance is a single narrow door at street level, which may account for the abundance of free machines, or short waiting times. Should you find yourself having to wait for one, you can sit down in one of the comfortable sofas with a good book and sip one of their cappuchinos.

The second gem is even harder to find. Campanario's Bazar Café lies just off Hamburgo at the bottom of a tiny little alley called Cda. de Hamburgo. As a result, it's out of the way of all the hustle and noise that you get in the city and a perfect place to spend an afternoon reading a book after running around trying to figure out what would be the perfect gifts for a woman of twenty-three and a man of thirty-four, without insulting either. It's a delightful little café and restaurant that looks more like a quaint antique shop than a café at first glance. The establishment is run by Ing. Vicente Salazar Mayoral, who started out as a chemical engineer but at some point embarked on applying his skill to formulating ambience. They do a fabulous Mexican-style club sandwich with avocado and lime and a superb two-course dinner for two with wine and coffee came to just under six hundred pesos, tip included. On the subject of coffee, their menu lists fifty-seven different kinds, including Café Americano which bears nothing in common but name with the coloured waste water you'll get north of the border, but is instead a wonderfully rich, deep black cup of superb coffee. A perfect way to end an evening, provided your date doesn't slip and bang her head on the rather harsh stone floor, in which case the wonderfully romantic feel of the place is swiftly swept aside as you cradle her head on an ice-pack and struggle to find the Spanish for "MRI" in your Mexican phrasebook.

 

The fact that I'd managed to get a PhD didn't impress Miri's parents the least. T he fact that I managed to travel from their home to Miri's old university two hours north of the city along Metro and bus routes, alone, was the subject of several days conversation. Particular points of delight were my telephone-card buying session (which by now probably eclipsed "Yo estoy de vacaciones" or "No, gracias, soy alérgico a los crustáceos" [which, by the way, I'm not, but I do a wicked Brendan Frasier impersonation] as the Spanish phrase I was asked to perform most often). My ultimate destination this day was Tepotzotlan, a small village north of Mexico City. The plan was to meet Miri at Tecnológico de Monterrey (the university) and then drive out to Tepotzotlan for lunch. I took the Metro to the end stop Politecnico after which I boarded a bus. About an hour later I saw the large parking lot and low buildings Miri had described and got off the bus. Armed with my newly acquired telephone card, I gladly marched onto campus in search of a telephone.

I got about three feet inside the campus proper when I was stopped by a guard. After a mutli-lingual discussion in which frowns and smiles were exchanged, I handed them my student ID card from Linköping and walked off. I got hold of Miri and we agreed to meet at the top of a hill, right by a large, red, metal sculpture that looked a lot like an alien entity out of the first Star Trek series (the one from the sixties). I'd only just reached this, when another somewhat youthful and chubby-faced guard, whom I later learned was called Ernesto, walked up to me and indicated that I needed to come with him. We walked back to the guard booth, where I was handed my card and sent off campus. I tried explaining to them with the four sentences of Spanish I knew that I myself was not a student at this campus, but at one in Sweden; that I was meeting a former student of this university; and that we both intended to leave this place as soon as it was physically possible, because it was now rather late in the day and at least I was in serious need of some food. My efforts met with blank stares. Fortunately, one of the guards enrolled the assistant of a couple of students who spoke excellent English and through their aid my linguistic inadequacy was overcome. It turns out that you had to leave an identity card to gain access to the campus. I handed them my Ohio driving licence and asked them to explain that I was meeting someone. While I was now allowed to enter the campus, it was only under the supervision of Ernesto who stoutly followed me every step of the way and waited until Miri turned up. I guess Ohio licences cannot be trusted.

The drive to Tepotzotlan took longer than expected, so Miri needed to head back after dropping me off. I was left to my own devices for a couple of hours and spent most of these eating lunch, reading my book, and observing a small dance troupe practice traditional Mexican dances. Once they were done, the ensemble came over to sit down in the shade of the tree I'd perched myself in and the man leading the ensemble motioned to sit beside me with the words "con permisito" rather than "con permiso" which even I with my vastly limited knowledge of Spanish thought was a bit peculiar. I left with a smile. Not that I wanted to offend him, but I already had a much cuter date for the evening (men in their forties really aren't my type) and besides, he was too much of a show-off.

The site that probably left the greatest impression on me was the Zona Arqueologica de Teotihuacan also known as Las Pirámides. We'd actually talked about Teotihuacan on my first visit, when I'd tried to wrap my tongue around the unfamiliar syllables for the first time.

"You should see Teotihuacan while you're here," Miri said.
"Tet-tit-what-can?" I stammered.
"Hihi! No, Teotihuacan."
"Te-ot-it... Te-it... bah!"
"Teo..." she said patiently.
"Teo," I repeated.
"ti... hua... can..." As she said each syllable, I repeated it.
"Great, now put it together"
"Teo-teo-ti-ti-hua-hua-can-can," I beamed. I cannot resist a bad joke, especially one by reference.
"Fool!" she gasped.

I never did learn that Teotihuacan was home to pyramids on that visit. But it is. At the height of its prosperity, around 500 AD, it is estimated that it was home to some 125,000 inhabitants and the sixth largest city in the world. Today, The Pyramid of the Sun and the smaller Pyramid of the Moon, two large, stepped, stone pyramids stand as silent monuments to past glory. You can ascend them, provided you have the necessary stamina and leg muscles. The view is spectacular, but potential rewards supposedly go beyond that. At the base of the Sun Pyramid, you can buy small, glass pyramids from the ever present vendors. Armed with one of these, you then charge up the steps of the Sun Pyramid. Assuming you survive the ascent, the idea is to find three collaborators. Each person sits in one of the cardinal directions, clutching their glass pyramid in their left hand, while touching their right index finger to the somewhat worn surface of the centre stone, placed at the very top centre of the pyramid. This position is held for about a minute. Doing this, I was told, charges your glass pyramid with positive energy. I'm not quite sure how you are then supposed to tap that energy, but this did not seem to deter the long queue of pyramid owners waiting for their turn.

The Pyramid of the Moon is smaller, but is perched at the north end of Avenue of the Dead so the view is spectacular. Getting to see it, though, is tougher than ascending the larger pyramid. The top of the Pyramid of the Moon consists of rough, sharp, angular stones set in concrete, pointing in all directions at once. Walk a little too fast, set a foot wrong, and there's a chance that you'll be the latest in a long tradition of human sacrifice. It's hard to say how much of the structures are original and what is the result of the extensive restoration effort that has occupied much of the 20th century. Parts of the Avenue of the Dead appear to be paved and the pyramids themselves seem to have had concrete poured over them at some point. I was too taken back by the splendour of the place to engage in any serious enquiries and the few, scattered information placks were in Spanish. I'm sure that an English guidebook would have been available for the interested, but I wasn't (we've already covered my aversion to museum guidebooks).

Coyoacan is another small village that has been gobbled up by Mexico City. It now constitutes a combination of quaintly romantic nostalgia-spot by night and tourist-trap extraordinaire by day. I've actually sampled both variants and care much more for the night-life than the daytime's endless market stalls selling the same beaded necklaces and scented candles that you find in every other tourist market in Mexico City. It has a number of interesting little businesses, burrowed into the side of old buildings, such as coffee shops, bakeries, and bars.

Arriving an hour before sunset, you can walk leasurly around the square, find some nice pastry, churros, or dark chocolate (depending upon your preference), get a steaming cup of fabulously black coffee, and then find a park bench and watch as the New Age kids exorcise their deamons by dancing to the rhythmic beat of drummers as the sun gently sets over the scene, reminiscient of ones that must have existed here for thousands of years.