Saturday, January 7, 2017

XCI. Nuestro Viaje a México, Tercer Día

Our Trip to Mexico City, Third Day

A canal in Xochimilco, late-morning, as we return to our mooring.
Day 3 - We do not have time this morning to go out for breakfast before our guide arrives, so it’s coffee and not much more than a croissant at the Starbucks in the lobby. At nine, the hotel pickup for the tour goes smoothly belying my middle-of-the-night worries about how we would connect, and before ten we are pulling into a parking lot in the suburbs, about 20 km south of Centro Histórico. There’s only my grin-and-bear-it wife, myself, Carlos—black leather-jacketed, sunglassed guide—and Ana, our chofer.

Isla de las Muñecas, "Island of the Dolls", a chinampa with a
macabre story. For whatever reason, a crazed individual who
"owned" this land on a Xochomilco canal began hanging old
and broken dolls from the trees facing the water, to ward off
evil, perhaps, or to honor a dead child.
More than fifty years ago I saw a picture in my high school Spanish language book of colorful boats being poled through flowery, tree-lined canals—“Floating Gardens”, the caption said, “—of Xochimilco”, outside of Mexico City. That image isn’t too far from the reality we find this morning. Here is all that remains of the interconnected lakes, artificial islands and canals that filled the whole Valley of Mexico when the Spanish arrived 500 years ago. 

We begin our trajinare ride by hopping onto a half dozen of these flat-bottomed boats, carefully traversing the length of each, and then jumping onto the next one that is a little further from shore and less hemmed in by its fellow craft. We finally make it to Armando’s boat and he skillfully poles us into the canal, dodging a few other screamingly vibrant boats headed the opposite direction in this, now impossibly narrow, channel. In the clear, we settle in to gawk and listen to Carlos. It’s a crisp, clear morning and we’re one of the few trajinares—of hundreds of others still at their moorings—already out on the calm water. 

Museo Anahuacalli. Photo taken from the net, unattributed
Those plying their traditional livelihood on and around the canals have a family history here that often goes back centuries. The basic boats themselves have remained unchanged since before the time of the Aztec. The “floating” gardens, called chinampas, are actually formed by building a sort of fence to enclose an area of the shallow lake bottom, adding silt and mud to lift it above water level, and anchoring it by planting the indigenous juniper tree to the edges of the plot. In some areas, even today, transport is solely by means of a dugout; narrow channels link interior chinampas to the main canals which are often fronted by plant nurseries and restaurants serving water-borne tourists, mostly Mexicanos celebrating a wedding, family gathering, or a chance to get away from the crowded city.

A display at Museo Anahuacalli. Photos of Rivera in
After this idyl we head back north toward that city, but not before giving a substantial propina to our gifted gondolier.

Museo Anahuacalli entrances us as soon as we see it. It’s quiet here in this part of Coyoacán. A winding, tree- and village life-lined road leads to the entrance across a shady ravine. The black volcanic rock and glass museum itself is stark and oddly handsome. That we come here with no knowledge or expectation of what we will find makes its discovery all the more magical. Dedicated to displaying Diego Rivera’s pre-Hispanic art collection as well as showcasing some of his own work, it is a building that he jointly designed with architect, friend and muralist Juan O’Gorman.

Our hipster guide gives us the tickets and says he’ll wait outside. The crypt-like level on which we enter is only illuminated through slits of transparent carmel-streaked marble, and feels like it’s hewn of solid lava. The black and gray rocks on the dim ceiling form murals of Aztec designs. Backlit stone artifacts are framed in dark volcanic niches. Presentation is everything here. Papier mâché skeletons labelled Trotsky, Kahlo, Orozco, and other friends and artists converse through cartoon bubbles. There is a photo triptych of Rivera making faces at the camera. It’s all like a private joke, as if we’re in the basement of Diego’s clubhouse. 
Artifact on display at Museo Anahuacalli

Unfortunately, the basement is all that we see. We’re edged on to the next tour stop without being informed that this museum’s upper level contains many of the artist’s own works, including illustrations, writings, and drawings, such as early sketches for the “Man the Controller” mural we saw two days ago at the Palacio de Bellas Artes

Casa Azul—now Museo Frida Kahlo—was her childhood home; she moved back into it when married life in the two nearby co-joined houses—of which hers was much smaller—became untenable. Today this place is packed with tourists. Once inside, we are limited by ropes and docents to inch along a one-way path through the rooms, the most interesting of which houses Kahlo’s day bed with her death mask on the pillow, one of her painted corsets at the foot. There are several photos of her painting from this same bed. Its canopy is a mirror that allowed for plenty of self-reflection.

Street view of Museo Frida Kahlo, Casa Azul
It’s too crowded to comfortably see the displays, my boon companion is bearing up but has become increasingly exhausted (the 7000 foot altitude?), and now, well into the afternoon, neither of has eaten since our light breakfast. We have half a hope that a visit to a nearby cafe is in the offing, but no. We gamely stumble through two more stops—the church and market at the center of this arty little urban village and a distant view of the 1968 Olympic Stadium, of all things. 

The most notable thing at the market happens when we throw our tiny plastic tasting spoons into what we think is a waste basket and are brought up short by the stall owner who—I think—accuses us of behaving like typical entitled americanos. I could have said a few things about Mexicans and trash, but don’t. And then, at the stadium, our guide seem uninterested when we tell him of the controversy around the 1968 US track winners and their black power salute.

So, things end a little on a down note, and we’re hungry and exhausted when we return to our hotel on Christmas Eve. Nevertheless, especially since this is The Night, we are friendly and generous in parting with Carlos and Ana; we saw some amazing sights. The Chinese barrio is only a few blocks away from our hotel and we each order a good chicken stir fry for dinner. Fortunately there is no reason to get up early in the morning and we only have one thing on our Christmas Day agenda. 

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