07 May 2007

¡Viva Mexico!

More technical failures on the mobile blogging front, but I'm figuring it out bit by bit, and hopefully at some point soon will have the entire process mastered sufficiently to produce a "G's guide to mobile blogging for the dim-witted, post-puberty set." But for now, I'm bored with the whole mechanics of blogging thing and having now had the weekend free from my project, I was able to do a bit of exploring in Mexico City, and I'd much rather write a few lines about that.

I did a bit of preparatory research on Mexico City before I came here, and the expectations created by my readings were mixed at best. (By "mixed" I mean that I was led to expect to alternate between being robbed by armed thugs and suffering from an attack of explosive diarrhœa every 10 minutes, whilst all the time choking on smog so thick you could spread it on toast for breakfast). Having now been here for over a week, I believe I can say with some authority that the city overall is under-rated, the dangers are wildly exaggerated, and as someone with no small amount of travel experience, I would put this place in my top ten urban destinations world-wide.

One of the main reasons I like Mexico City is that it has excellent transport infrastructure. Personally, I love good public transportation, and any place that lacks good transport is never going to score good marks in my book. The Mexico City metro is famous mostly for its size and the number of passengers (millions) it transports every day, but in my opinion it deserves recognition for other reasons as well. One of the many clever things they do is give every station a simple graphic identity, like this route description shows:

They've done this of course, because many of the system users are illiterate, but I found it useful just to commit to memory that I was to disembark, for example, at the station with bell logo, rather than trying to remember the name of the station. I certainly would have appreciated this approach if I my native language didn't use the roman alphabet, as I recall the challenges of travelling by train and bus in places like the Middle East and China, and trying to recognise the name of my destination when written in an unfamiliar script on a departure board.

But for all the media attention given the Metro system, I've heard little about the other elements of the transport infrastructure here. Electric trolley-buses running in dedicated lanes move people quickly around the city even during rush hour (without adding to the smog level), and the "Metro Bus" is a unique hybrid transportation approach I've never seen anywhere else, although my colleagues inform me they are also used in Bogotá and Buenos Aires, amongst other places. Metro Buses run through the city on dedicated lanes, which allows them to cruise through rush hour traffic, but the really cool thing about them is the way you pay your fare and board.

The buses stop at metro-style elevated platforms located in the median in the middle of the street, rather than at traditional bus stops on the side. Doors in the bus align with doors in the platform, so you just step directly on board.

Even better is the fact that you pay your fare in order to access the platform by passing through a turnstile. So when the bus arrives, there is no delays while the driver sells tickets, etc. And because each bus has four wide doors, boarding and disembarking are completed in seconds. These are big buses, and during rush hour they are completely jammed, despite the fact that they run only about 60 - 90 seconds apart.

Finally, I was pleased to see that Mexico has what every livable city has to have -- a network of dedicated bicyle lanes.

Seeing the simple but creative things cities have done to reduce automobile usage (and hence polloution and CO2 emissions), it makes me particularly angry to hear Bush rambling on about how America can't do anything about carbon emissions until we develop some new technologies. A few million invested in dedicated bus and bicycle lanes in the USA (which has very few of them) would probably be all it would take for the USA to meet it's Kyoto obligations.

Of course I had to do the obligatory tourist stuff -- the Cathedral, the Plaza de la Constitucíon, etc., and I wouldn't suggest you pass these things up. But those weren't the things I enjoyed the most. At the suggestion of the Grouper, whom I awoke at 2 a.m. in Kawasaki by ringing him for directions, I decided to seek out the Cantina Guadalupana, a very old and very famous Mexican restaurant. I tried without success to locate it using the directions the Grouper gave me based on his memory of his time there nearly 2 decades ago, but finally resorted to walking into a 5-star hotel and asking the concierge. As I suspected, the Grouper's recollection was a bit fogged, in part no doubt because of his massive daily intake of tequila at the time he was a frequent patron, compounded by an apparently severe case of love-sickness involving a Volkswagen-beetle driving Mexican girl named Rebecca. Rather than being near the Cathedral in the Centro Historico as the Grouper recollected, it was many kilometers to the south, on another colonial era square, behind another colonial era church, in absolutely beautiful neighbourhood called Coyoacán, where I've since learned Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leo Trotsky once made their homes. It was quite an effort to get there -- about an hour on the metro, 2 line changes, and about 15 stations -- then a walk through a beautiful park called Viveros, then some residential streets with graceful 17th, 18th and 19th century homes and beautiful landscaping, then a commercial area with trendy restaurants, coffee shops, art galleries and boutiques, then finally an exquisite colonial square with a baroque church, and behind the church, the Cantina Guadalupana, looking every bit as old and authentic as lettering on the façade that claimed it had been in business "desde 1932".

Even the Grouper's love and tequila-addled brain remembered the classic swinging saloon doors you passed through to enter, and inside was an interior every bit as authentic and original as the façade. I'm also happy to say the food lived up to the rather high expectations created by this atmosphere heavy with character and authenticity, and I re-emerged a couple of hours later refreshed and revived after my long trek from the centre. I wandered around the area a bit more, and found more tree-shaded streets lined with more cafés, restaurants and boutiques populated, naturally with the same painfully hip people who inhabit all such neighbourhoods world-wide.

I found myself involuntarily quoting the immortal words of a friend I shall refer to as "Wally Joe": -- "I could live here."

Finally, I have to thank the anonymous poster on Virtual Tourist who woefully related her own Mexico experience, brushing her teeth with tap water her first day in town and as a result being stricken with a particularly virulent bout of Moctezuma's revenge that lasted the remainder of her two week trip. Her post reminded me to be extra careful with the water here; I have't let a drop of it pass my lips and I'm pleased to report that after 10 days here, I have yet to have the slightest problems with my digestive system. Salads and street food I have decided to risk, and despite other warnings I've been liberally partaking of chilis in every form -- so far with no adverse consequences.

Mexico City
9 May 2007

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