Wednesday, January 4, 2017

XC. Nuestro Viaje a México, Secundo Día

Our Trip to Mexico City, Second Day
Casa de los Azulejos--House of Tiles--with pedestrians streaming in the
direction of the zócolo along pedestrian street Franciso I. Madero.
Day 2 - Unfamiliar and too-plump pillows plus sirens throughout the night keep us from settling the sleep debt we’d accumulated yesterday, but we wake up feeling game to explore the mile-long strip between here and the enormous square, or zócalo, at the city’s historical center. First, though, we fuel up at a Sanborns restaurant located along the way in TripAdvisor-recommended House of Tiles—Casa de los Azulejos

My delightful wife, being a gamer.
The Casa is located on what is now a pedestrian street, or andador, named after Franciso I. Madero, a politician who ignited the Mexican Revolution. Once one of the best residential addresses in the city, the 300-year-old building is covered on its three exposed sides with blue and white tiles. The American Sanborn brothers bought it a hundred years ago and it is now the flagship restaurant for the Mexican chain currently owned by Carlos Slim. And what a fancy place to have breakfast! Reviews say the food is only so-so, but it suits our tastes. 

The day before Christmas Eve, when the holiday is traditionally honored with a family gathering, must be The Day to go downtown for citizens in this, one of the largest cities in the world. My brave but faltering spouse and I make our slow way to the zócalo, center of this coagulating mass of humanity, most of whom seem set on shuffling along one of the many snake-like lines delivering them to the entrance of either a temporary four-story toboggan slide or a five-acre skating rink.

The Altar of Forgiveness--the first altar you see upon entering the Cathedral,
among the many there. The story is that those found guilty during the
Inquisition were brought here to repent before their execution 
We opt for the solace of La Catedral Metropolitana—the city’s main cathedral—which fronts one side of the zócalo. The immense splendor of this place evokes mixed feelings—tears acknowledging centuries of faithful devotees which morph into fury at the suffering caused by the Church’s excess. 

Barely thirty years after Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec at their capital, Tenochtitlan, the cathedral began to be built virtually on top of a principal Aztec ceremonial center—Templo Mayor—the remains of which can now be seen in an adjoining excavation. A few blocks away from here was the seat, for 250 years, of the Mexican Inquisition. Still, if you can forget the history of all that happened in between, being inside this building is peaceful and awe-inspiring. Of course, you also need to put aside the sight of a diapered eight-foot-long plaster Baby Jesus kicking his huge bare feet in the air, and inspiring family photos and selfies at the seasonal creche located in one of the side chapels.

From near the front altar, looking back down the central nave.
This is the place where we both begin to feel an urgent need to pee. Since I hadn’t seen any signs in the cathedral directing us to a WC—always a rare find—I go on a scouting expedition, short-stepping around the crowded square. The scariest moment comes about five minutes into my search, when I find myself under the zócalo at the convergence of what seem like a dozen different tunnels, bringing unending streams of people to join the throngs already queueing thirty deep at the free tickets—boletos libres—booths on street level up above. 

From the east there is a human river flowing past the entrance to our next stop—the massive and boring-in-appearance Palacio Nacional. I dodge my way across to a tourist kiosk, ask for directions to the nearest sanitorio publico, and am pointed to a disreputable looking doorway across a narrow, fortunately less-traveled side street. We both manage to take care of our needs here before braving an against-the-flow trek to the Palace’s side entrance. 

The central panel of Rivera's "History of Mexico" mural
We are mainly here to see Rivera’s famous mural, "History of México", but there's plenty of interesting history in the building itself. The seat of government has been in this location since it was Moctezuma the Second's residence. The current building incorporates the same stones as were in that Aztec structure, and later that of Cortés' palace/fortress. At the main entrance a small bell over the balcony above was rung by Father Miguel Hidalgo in 1810 when he declared Mexico's independence from Spain. Each year on 16 de Septiembre, just before midnight, México's president delivers a version of this address, ending with "¡Viva Mexico!" echoed by the huge crowd gathered on the zócalo.

Facing the camera is the final panel of the mural. Frida Kahlo's
image is visible lower center giving textbooks to school
The main mural is stunning in its massive size, and the way Rivera has chosen and melded his depictions of the myriad facets of Mexico’s history. It is a triptych painted on the three sides of a large stairwell. The right panel represents an idealized vision of life during the Aztec reign—worshipping Quetzalcoatl, creating glorious works, beheading enemies. The large middle piece shows the brutal defeat of the Aztec, and maltreatment of Indians and Mestizos alike at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, royals and the Church. Finally, Mexico becomes independent and united in fairness for all—albeit briefly—under President Benito Juarez. The final panel shows the bloody struggle and eventual triumph of proletariat socialism over Porfiro Diaz’s dictatorship and church-state kleptocracy. 

A detail of one of Rivera's other murals around the second floor courtyard
portico. It shows the cruelty and perfidy of Mexico's Spanish conquerers.
Rivera's works that we've seen so far have their good guys--workers, teachers,
peasants--and their bad guys--rich, religious, royalty--and there is no doubting
which is which.
After a taxi ride back to the Fiesta Inn and dinner at a nearby brewpub, we’re dropped off by hotel limo at a bus stop in the “hipster” colonia of Roma Norte, night coming on. We’re there to meet a guide who will take us to a local pulqueria—“Daughter of the Apaches”—to get liquored-up before the main event on the freestyle wrestling card at Arena México. It takes an anxious while for us to recognize the teenager standing alone on an island in the middle of the street, holding a pink umbrella, as our guide. But it's game-on as we discover he’s an amiable sort, older than he looks and there’s at least one other tourist who will join us—a New Zealand college co-ed on a year abroad.

Arena México before the night's final lucha libre match.
Pulque is an ancient drink made from fermented juice of the Maguey cactus. Our table’s brew is ladled from a plastic bucket and flavored with oatmeal—surprisingly tasty. The bar is packed and the band ear-splitting—not exactly what our tired bones need at the moment, but then, this is in preparation for joining a screaming crowd cheering on masked and costumed fake wrestlers. In for a penny, in for a pound, must be our motto tonight.

Tonight's lucha libre card
The stairway up to the nose-bleed section of the arena is a challenge. The place is not packed to the gills on this Friday night as I had anticipated, and the crowd that's here is not mindlessly drunken as I'd sort of hoped, but at least they're moderately raucous on cue. And there are a lot of cues to cheer or hiss as teams of good guys--the santos--pair off against dastardly trios of bad guys--the tecnos. We like the final bout the best, a mano-a-mano grudge match between Caristico and Ultimo Guerrero. The latter is a tecno who has succeeded in winning the admiration of many in the santo-loving crowd, including Vladimir, our knowledgeable chaperone.

Ultimo, wrestling without a mask (it's complicated), loses and is pledged to shave off his tangled mane of hair. Caristico gets to keep his mask, and we are delivered to our hotel room bed just before midnight. We have a full day tomorrow with another guide picking us up at 9AM to take us to sights in Coyoacán and points south.

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