With a population of nearly 9 million and a metropolitan area with a population of more than 21 million, Mexico City is one of the greatest cities in the world. Seeing the sheer physical size of the city made the enormous population somewhat easier to comprehend when I visited last weekend. Looking down from the top of the Tower Latinoamerica, the city stretches out in every direction, the edges only disappearing where the buildings are swallowed by smog against a backdrop of mountains.
Even though I went on a trip organized by the art school, I couldn’t only visit galleries. There’s so much to do and so much history to explore in this city with its roots reaching back to Tenochtitlán. First on my list was the Templo Mayor, the ruins of the Aztec site only recently excavated in the late 70s after workers digging for an electric company unearthed the enormous stone image of the goddess Coyolxauhqui. Her now-iconic representation, perhaps more recognizable by its gruesome depiction of her dismemberment than by name, was and is again a centerpiece of the Templo Mayor. The circular carving is about 10 feet in diameter and weighs close to eight tons – more than some of the tanks used in WWI and II.
I could have spent the entire day poring over the thousands of artifacts and of course, the ruins of the temple itself. Luckily for me, admission to museums in the city is free for students, so I didn’t feel too guilty about hopping around.
My next stop was the National Palace. You know how Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel? Diego Rivera had a similar relationship with the palace. All of the murals, which depict Mexico’s history from the Pre-Hispanic periods through the Mexican Revolution, are so impressive individually that had Rivera only completed one, I think it would have sufficed as his life’s work. Each mural tells its own story. Each has become part of the building, molded to fit with the arches and idiosyncrasies of the walls – one mural incorporated into a staircase is two stories high, while another is stuck in a corner and narrower than a doorway. It is the kind of art that must be seen in person, in order to appreciate the seemingly impossible – that one man managed to create all those paintings, not to mention his other works.
After a day of traversing the city center, I took a break just to sit awhile – a trip to the movie theater. Of the seven or eight movies showing, only one was Mexican – the rest were all Hollywood movies with subtitles. It was mind-boggling. I can’t imagine a standard theater in the U.S. habitually listing one foreign film a week, let alone having the majority of films be in another language. Anyways, I did see the one Spanish-language movie available – “Me Estás Matando, Susana” (“You’re Killing Me, Susan”) starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Mexico’s darling. It was a lot of fun, partially due to all the Mexico-specific slang and swearing, some of it pretty vulgar, not to be repeated here… but I’m always working on adding to my Spanish vocabulary.
After a day of continuous walking and craning my neck at all the historic sights, I was looking forward to crashing at the hostel. I stayed with other students from the university in a room for sixteen, all in bunks. The set-up of the room is sort of how I imagine boot camp, except we were all equally worthless about making our beds. The hostel itself was nice – clean sheets, hot showers, and the weak beam of free Wi-Fi gave enough occasional bursts to download emails. The only problem was that the Mexican students had way too much energy. They’d go out drinking and leave the hostel at eleven o’clock or midnight, not come back until three or four in the morning, and still not go to sleep. They’d hang out on the balcony next to my bed, their conversation seemingly happening on top of my pillow, until I regretted not accepting their invitations to tag along – at least then I would have been part of the elated exhaustion, instead of silently hating them for having a good time.
I should add that while many of the students took advantage of the city’s nightlife, I have never had more academic peers. For souvenirs they bought books at the museum shops, excitedly showing their purchases off to their friends. BOOKS.
I spent the last day in the city in the Chapultepec Forest, the largest city park in the Western Hemisphere, with an American friend from my study-abroad program and two Mexican friends. The first thing we saw when we entered the park was the Dance of the Flyers. I remember learning in high school about the ancient Mesoamerican ritual, but I didn’t realize until stumbling upon the live performance that it’s still a thing, and it’s fascinating.
Sitting on top of this hundred-foot pole, one man played a flute while four “flyers” swung upside-down, circling the post, from ropes tied to one foot. Their circles sunk lower as their ropes unwound, until they eventually reached the ground. The scene was something a little eerie, partly due to the music and overcast sky, but mostly because even thinking about dangling in the air like that was enough to give me chills.
We later ended up on the outskirts of the park, looking for food other than the chips-and-peanuts-variety available from street vendors. We wound up at a panadería, a bread shop, where we bought sandwiches that a woman heated, wrapped in paper, and boxed in plastic cartons. There weren’t any tables or chairs inside, so we went out and sat on the curb of the sidewalk to eat. I don’t know about your experience, but this sort of behavior isn’t the norm in the U.S. In Mexico, however, it didn’t seem to bother anybody that the four of us sat there munching as cars and busses and pedestrians passed by. It seemed all right to me, too.