Greater Mexico City (Zona Metropolitana del Valle de México) is huge, with a population of approximately 19.23 million. As the plane descended I could see houses sprawling out in all directions from the high (2,240m / 7,349ft) mountain valley and creeping up the sides of the surrounding hills. During a fast cab ride from the airport, Israel, the driver, pointed out whatever he thought I might find interesting about Mexico -- the vendors who sell their items openly in front of shops whose owners allow them to hide their merchandise inside the shops when police come; the "mujeres prostitutes," who solicit clients openly on the street without fear of police repression, since prostitution is legal in most of Mexico. It was all interesting, and quite overwhelming. It reminded me of parts of NYC, only faster and more crowded. The fare was 40 pesos. With the standard 10 percent tip, it came to a total of $4.40 (US)-- for a trip that would have cost at least 20 dollars in el norte. I was deposited in front of the Hotel Catedral, which, fortunately, was just around the corner from the Hostel Mundo Joven Catedral, where I would be staying.
Hostelling is not for everyone. If money is no object, there are plenty of hotels that offer varying derees of comfort -- at a cost. Hostels provide inexpensive, safe lodging, but are often short on amenities. Since I am able to sleep under almost any conditions, I usually stay in hostels, at least for the first couple of days. If there’s an International Hostel available, I know in advance that it will meet my basic needs for the first few days. I have an aversion to sterile, high-priced hotels that charge for ambience, instant hot water, a fancy bar and the opportunity to rub elbows with other people who can afford to pay for these inorganic constructions. I’d rather spend money on the luxury of being able to go out and wander unfamiliar streets, and maybe even get lost, knowing that I have a place to go back to and that my important stuff is safely stored there. The money I’ve saved by going cheap on the sleeping accommodations is probably more useful for the purpose of getting me out of a situation I might rather not be in -- maybe. Anyway, I find comfort in that thought.
A night at the Hostel Mundo Joven Catedral in a four-bed dorm costs only $13 (US). Included are a set of sheets; a locker in the room (bring your own lock); a comfortable bed; and roommates from all over the world who all have their own travel experiences to share. (My roommates included Danish, Australian, German, Austrian and Mexican women.) Also included is a kind of continental breakfast (the continent bordering Central America) consisting of dry cereal with milk, watermelon slices, bananas, yogurt, cold toast and hard butter, and tea or instant coffee. Other foods, fancy coffees and alcoholic beverages are served at a moderate cost. Because sleep comes so easily to me, I haven’t minded bedding down to the thumping of disco music from below, which I’ve heard every night since I arrived -- except last night, when the place was strangely silent (possibly because a large group of high school students, mostly female, from somewhere in Mexico had checked in). A couple of my companions on day trips found the hostel too noisy and crowded, and were able to find similarly low-cost hotel accommodations in the area.
One of the first things I noticed about Mexico City was the overwhelming presence of police and military. Yesterday, I awoke to the sounds of reveille and what may have been gunfire in the near distance. A few minutes later, looking south from the rooftop patio above the fifth floor, I saw puffs smoke rising high into the sky. Soon after, a couple of army trucks passed by filled with soldiers dressed as if they were going off to war.
Just across the street from the hostel (which is also in the vicinity of the Palacio Nacional, where President Felipe Calderón’s offices are located) police congregate every morning. My guesstimate would be that there are at least a hundred, maybe more, every morning. Many of them look too young to be out of high school, much less in the police force. Of course, what I’m writing here are just my impressions. I did get the sense that showing an interest in relations between police and people here would be breaching some sort of taboo, and so I wasn’t inclined to ask too many questions. Most people don’t seem to look at the police. They are like the elephant in the living room.
The hostel offers guided tours of historical sites in and around Mexico City. I signed up for a couple of them as an introduction to the histories and cultures of the peoples of Mexico. Highlights were the Bosque de Chapultepec; the National Museum of Anthropology; the ruins at Tlatelolco, (where government forces massacred more than 300 students in 1968 -- almost 500 years after 40,000 Aztecs were slaughtered there by conquistadors under the command of Hernan Cortez); the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe; and the pyramids at Teotihuacán. Mexican history is incredibly complex, and it will take me a while to assimilate even a small amount of it. It is an extremely colourful, violent, artistic and religious history -- but I will only begin to understand what those influences mean in the daily lives of people, my own and those of the people around me, when I get to the real Mexico. Of course, it’s all the real Mexico -- the tourist resorts, the border town maquilladoras, the small subsistence communities struggling for basic rights, and the moneyed interests who support the status quo.
The hostel in Mexico City has been a good place to stay for four nights, and a good place to try out my few Spanish phrases with people who have been gracious and helpful, and haven’t doubled over laughing at my errors. But it’s getting near check-out time, and I’ll soon be leaving for the next stop on my journey. Hasta la vista!