Saturday, January 7, 2012

Viva la vida viajando

The itinerary: The boyfriend and I had three months to make it from Mexico City, in central Mexico, to Panama City, Panama. There was no plan to stick to. We had particular destinations in mind, but no reservations, no pre-purchased tickets and no notion of what it was going to be like, who we would encounter, what challenges we would have to face. We just went. 
Living the Travelling Life

Flying into Mexico City.
Mexico City - When you've never travelled extensively, arriving in one of the largest cities in the world at the start of a backpacking trip is not a gentle, genial way to begin. Mexico City, with a population so high that officials can't even say how many people live there, is more congested than my sinuses in the middle of February. When you finally escape the crowded MEX airport, and you wind up on a dark street lit with one street lamp, where everything seems darker than it normally would at 9:30 at night, a search for a taxi is not the thrill you'd think.

The Zocalo, with Parliament on top and
Catedral Metropolitana, oldest church
in Latin America.
Fortunately, the excitement of commencing a three month trip I had been waiting months for overshadowed some of that fear on the first night we arrived in Mexico. That, and the three friends that came to pick us up because they know Mexico City better than I ever will. That helps, too.

We jumped into the taxi, and I ignored vigorously all those things people had said before we left: "Mexico is SO dangerous right now. Why are you going there?" And suddenly the taxi driver is holding his horn down and driving in the middle of two lanes on a bustling highway, and I'm reaching for the seatbelt to contain my insides and calm my nerves, but there isn't one. But it doesn't matter. The point of travel is to immerse oneself into another, foreign culture. If this culture meant no seat belts, then so be it.
Art and the Aztec Calendar in the Museum
of Anthropology, Mexico City.

Mexico City's official city proper population is around 9 million people. But the surrounding metropolis area contains more than 21 million people. The city has an incredible history: many years before its existence the Aztecs (Mexican people) were migrating through the region in search of a place to settle. Led by a god, Huitzilopochtli, they were told that when they saw an eagle atop a cactus, holding a snake in its beak, they were to settle in that particular area.  The Aztecs, after years of travelling, saw a serpent in the mouth of an eagle at the current site of Mexico City, then called Tenochtitlan, and began to build the city on an island, surrounded by Lake Texcoco.

Mexican soldiers taking down the Mexican flag in the Zocalo, Mexico City.
After having spent a week in Mexico City, I could tell the story of the eagle and the serpent held great meaning. The Mexican flag bears an eagle with a serpent in its beak, and can be seen in almost every corner of the city, paper flags taped to the dash of every taxi cab, in every restaurant and blowing in the wind at every park. In the city centre, the zocalo, the largest flag I have ever seen blew in the wind at the top of a flagpole, the reds and greens of the Mexican flag towering over the people that stand below it. While there myself, it was hard to ignore the deep affection that Mexicans themselves have for that flag, and their country. 

Chrissy, Renee and I in Coyoacan, and in the
Zocalo, in front of the cathedral.
The city is so rich in history, and so rich in tragedy. I heard many stories while I was here - the beauty of travelling to a place you've never been. You become so engulfed in what has occurred, what is happening, what tragedies and triumphs a city has encountered, that you begin learning far more than you ever would by just reading up on a book about the particular area.
One night while we sat in the zocalo, as I watched while hundreds of people marched around the square, protesting the

firing of more than 40,000 electrical workers (the president is working on privatizing electricity in Mexico - another disconcerting issue) a friend told me about the Tlatelolco massacre. Ten days before the summer Olympics in 1968 were held in Mexico City, a group of 10,000 university and high school students gathered to peacefully protest the Olympic Games, demanding a fairer government and looking to that government to provide basic necessities for its people. Instead, snipers stationed throughout this particular square opened fire on the students, killing between 200 and 300, and injuring hundreds more. The electrical protesters continued on through the square, many shouting "Viva Mexico!" as I listened.

El Angel, commemorating Mexico's independence,
and a view of the city centre from atop the Latin
American tower, downtown Mexico City.
Mexico has many demons that few people are aware of, the stories I heard are evidence of that. And when the dark secrets are exposed, they cloud the outsiders eyes of what real beauty the city, and the country, holds. I write about the darkness because that was what had me questioning visiting Mexico in the first place. In truth, I was wrong about it. Those people who doubted us going were also wrong.

So what did we do in Mexico City? Everything we could fit into nine days. We visited the monument El Angel, the Angel of Independence that towers above the city, constructed in 1902. We spent a day at the Six Flags Mexico City theme park - for an unauthentic experience. We walked the streets of La Condesa, where my friend Renee lived. We ate frozen ice cream from a plastic tube and walked through Coyoacan, a former village of the city, and I watched in amazement at the indigenous dancers bearing rainbow colors of feathers on their headdresses, with nuts tied around their ankles and dancing in unison to the giant beat of the drums. We scrambled through crowded markets with candles and incense burning my nose.

Indigenous dancers in Coyoacan: the woman on the right is providing a
traditional blessing for people in the audience.
We spent hours wandering through the rooms of the Museum of Anthropology, which houses some of the oldest artifacts discovered in Mexico, and some of the oldest mummified remains of sacrificial slaves in surrounding ancient cities. I saw the enormous Aztec Calendar that archeologists pulled from the centre of the city. And I got to see all of it with people that I really care about, which made it that much more worthwhile.
Tradition, culture.
Mexico City was a great way to start a three month backpacking trip. From the moment we landed it was as though we had walked through a solid door and into a room painted with all sorts of colours and cultural riches, filled with people who love the way they live, who carry an undying compassion on their shoulders for their country. It wasn't scary at all. It was exhilarating. If anything, before leaving the city I became envious of the culture they carry with them.

Photo credit: Ben Ross and Jessica Bell


  1. amazing article!! you gave me shivers.

  2. Tks Jess, can't wait to read more...I hope the traveling bug keeps biting you....Auntie Di

  3. Wow! Your trip sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing!


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