Suitcase and World: México, D.F. Dia dos.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

México, D.F. Dia dos.

Our second full day in Mexico began as the previous one. Early rise, breakfast and waiting in the lobby to be picked up.

On the dot, our ride appeared and we were deposited back in the same meeting place on Paseo de la Reforma.

This time we only had to wait a couple of minutes before Rodolfo showed up. He apologized saying that he was late because he had spent 2 hours riding on the subway from his home. I completely empathized with him having spent my fair share of time in bad morning rush hour traffic.

The game plan with Rodolfo was that he would take us on a quick tour of the city – our first opportunity to see the Zona Historico and get oriented to the area that I had planned for us to return to on Friday. I made a mental note of the route the driver too – down Paseo de La Reforma then onto Juarez. Rodolfo pointed out Alameda Central – a small park, and the monument dedicated to Benito Juarez.

To the Centro Histórico.  It was drizzling lightly as our driver stopped the car on the street alongside the Palacio de Bellas Artes. By now, this beautiful building had become a familiar landmark for me. I pulled the hood on my rain jacket over my head and followed Rodolfo across the street to a street that is blocked off to traffic.

The overcast, rainy day made all the buildings look a bit drab but through the grayness of everything, you could still see the beauty.

The first landmark we walked by was the famed Casa de los Azulejos, so named because of the blue and white tiles that cover its exterior. There’s something very handmade about the look of this house – the tiles are not all the same and the windows are a bit crookety. Oddly charming. Originally, the home of a wealthy man, the building now houses Sanborns which is a high end department store that also has both a cafeteria and a restaurant.

We continued on our merry way, chatting with the ever so charismatic Rodolfo as we walked. I was beginning to feel like we were being shepherded around by a friend whom we were visiting with.

The San Francisco Church was our next stop. While the guys stood outside and continued their chatting, I headed inside.

What can I say?   It was another magnificent gold altar which after Cuernavaca and Taxco, I was coming to expect with each and every church I enter. Each one seems more magnificent to me than the last one. A few religious paintings adorned the side walls.

Back outside, I was greeted by the beautiful mustard colored wall of the church’s entry archway. Looking up towards the sky, I caught sight of what I love about places like Mexico – a modern building located alongside one that has been in place for centuries. I love the contrast of old and new.

A girl can dream, can't she?  Back out on the street, I was enjoying my stroll. It was still early in the morning, too early for the stores to be open. I let the guys do the chatting; I was happy looking at the buildings which to me, looked very European in architectural design. Rodolfo described how rich people are buying homes in this area. In my daydreams, I too would have a small pied–à–terre here. Everyday, I would just pop downstairs to a nearby café and enjoy breakfast with my neighbors. Yes, in my dreams I would live in a place like this.

I made another mental note to return to this street tomorrow. Maybe we’ll get lucky and it won’t be raining. I would love to just find a sunny spot to sit in and people watch.

As usual, I lag behind everyone else when it comes to walking – I’m too busy soaking in my surroundings. By the time I caught up with the guys, they were standing at the entrance to another church.

The Temple of San Felipe Neri, commonly known as "La Profesa"
. As Rodolfo had explained to us earlier, Mexico City was built on to of an old lake and every year, the city sinks – perhaps just a few millimeters a year. The church we were standing in front of had in fact sunk so the city had to build a bridge connecting it to the street.

We crossed the bridge and headed inside. I was expecting another over-the-top interior, complete with a massive gold altar and was pleasantly surprised to find something far more humble in appearance. The interior had a very intimate feeling. Almost like that of a neighborhood church which this might have been at one point in time. Perhaps, the city had sprung up around it.

A few short blocks of walking later and we had finally reached the zocalo. Ringing the perimeter of the massive square were the tents that had been erected by protestors. The tent city seemed to have been set up quite some time ago because there were a few that were occupied by enterprising food vendors. People do have to eat. I still don’t quite know what they’re all protesting about though some were having issues with the local electric company, SME. I’ll have to do some Googling when I get home to find out who’s complaining against what.

The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary.  We darted across the street to stand before the magnificent cathedral. Now I gasped in awe. Rain or no rain, the exterior façade of the cathedral is simply stunning and as I was soon to discover, its interior would match in magnificence.

But before we went inside, Rodolfo pointed out open sections of the plaza that had been covered over with glass.  These sections exposed ruins dating back to when Mexico City was known as Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital city of the Aztec Empire. Archaeological work is still being done in the area so excavation areas have to be protected.

Passing through the cathedral’s massive wooden doors, I was greeted by a jaw dropping but *small* gold altar. The Spaniards spared no expense in welcoming parishioners inside!

As with all cathedrals, smaller chapels lined the perimeter of the apse. Rodolfo directed us to a small one where people come to pray for their well being – be it to recover from an illness or find a better job.

Whatever ails them.....people write their wishes down on a ribbon and they tie the ribbon to a stand. I don’t read Spanish well but with Rodolfo’s help to translate, some of what was being wished for was just so heart touching.

The interior of the cathedral was very dimly lit but even with that I could see that several sections of walls were dedicated to patron saints. It was solemnly beautiful.

There was a service going on at the church so visitors were restricted to the back section of the church. I could only catch a glimpse of the main altar and from that sliver of a view, I could imagine how wondrous the massive, floor to ceiling, gold altar would be had I been able to stand in front of it.

A new use for lock and key.  I had gone as far as I was allowed to so I turned around to head on out. Along the way, Rodolfo pointed out a small chapel dedicated to San Ramon Nonato. Apparently, there is a ritual that is centered around the padlock that is part of his martyrdom. Locks are placed at his altar to stop gossip, rumours, false testimonies and bad talk. They are also used to keep secrets, stop cursing or lying and to guard priests who want to protect the secrecy of confession.

People who want to keep a secret or perhaps false rumors being spread can write their gripe down on a ribbon and the name of the person(s) uttering or spreading the words, tie the ribbon to the rack, tie a key lock to the ribbon, lock the lock and then throw away the key.  I think you have to have real faith to believe that this works but hey, it’s better than either trying to return bad words with more bad words or get into a physical fight to get someone to clam up.

Back outside into the drizzle. I took a few minutes to snap photos of the cathedral and then it was a short walk to adjoining Metropolitan Tabernacle which houses the archives and vestments of the archbishop.

Ornately decorated on the exterior, the interior was remarkably modest. I hate to admit this but after the grandeur of the interior of the cathedral which was just next door, this interior seemed to dull. I don’t think I spent more than 5 minutes inside.

 The guys were still chatting when I met back up with them. They seemed to enjoy each other’s company and with all that was around me, I never felt any need to join in. As they continued to chatter, I took in the view of the National Palace. The plan is for us to visit the Palace tomorrow – to see the famous mural by Diego Rivera! Very much looking forward to that.


Ice man.  As the cars whizzed by on the street encircling the zocalo, this guy pulled up on his bicycle to deliver a huge block of ice to a street vendor. For a second, the sight of this guy took me back to my childhood in Malaysia; it’s been that long since I’ve seen anyone delivering blocks of ice.

One country, three cultures. The driver pulled up a few minutes later than Rodolfo had expected. Of course, my brother and I had no clue why timing mattered until we got to our next destination. There, we said our goodbyes to Rodolfo as he would be *handing* us over to another guide who would be leading us around from that point forward. We had really enjoyed our time with Rodolfo and in a way, I was sad that he was not the one taking us around. He introduced us to our new guide, Daniel and then we exchanged our goodbyes. Tucked into my palm was what I hoped was a good tip for this kind man.

We had been deposited outside a place that was called Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Plaza of Three Cultures). Rodolfo had pointed this place to us on our ride to Cuernavaca. I didn’t understand what he was trying to tell us then and standing before the place today, I had no better a clue.

Daniel introduced us to our tour mates. A tall man named Richard from Philadelphia – the first American tourist we’ve met since being here! The other four people were a husband, wife and their two young daughters who were from northern Mexico. And last but not least, three women from Brazil who looked related. At least two of them were definitely mother and daughter.

We followed Daniel and we were soon standing in front of a small site of Aztec ruins. In fact, the Plaza of Three Cultures is located at the ancient Aztec city of Tlatelolco. In the near distance, there was the  Catedral de Santiago (Cathedral of Santiago) which dates back to the Spanish colonial period. Surrounding the complex were the structures of modern Mexico City. It then finally dawned on me what the three cultures were – ancient Aztec, Spanish colonial, modern Mexico! Yeah, I’m slow sometimes but more that old/new contrast that I love though.

Only part of Tlatelolco has been excavated; most of it still remains under the modern buildings that surround the plaza.

The Plaza of the Three Cultures is also important as being the site of three terrible events in Mexican history. It was at Tlatelolco, that on August 13, 1521, the Aztecs made their final stand against the Spanish army led by Hernán Cortés. On that day, the pre-Columbian era in Mexican history ended.

The second tragedy occurred on October 2, 1968 when Mexican soldiers, equipped with tanks and machine guns, fired into a crowd of 14,000 unarmed students who were staging a protest against federal spending on the 1968 Summer Olympics which were being held in Mexico City.

The plaza was the site of more death on September 19, 1985 when an early morning earthquake caused a modern building adjacent to the plaza to collapse. The earthquake, which affected Mexico City, left at least 8,000 dead.

Cathedral of Santiago.  After our history lesson, we headed towards the Cathedral and entered the adjoining monastery.  Today, the monastery is officially referred to as a college for religious studies.

We entered the college and the interior was laid out in way common to the Christian monasteries I’ve seen in so many other countries – a square shaped center courtyard surrounded on all four sides by arched, covered walkways with curved ceilings. Okay, here’s another admission which may come as odd to some people but I love strolling under the arched covered walkways in monasteries. I have no idea why. Perhaps, it’s because it’s the thought that I’m walking through the same hallowed halls and treading on the same pathways as ancient monks, of course dressed in friar costumes, shuffling back and forth in silence to perform their divine duties. Maybe it’s a sense of connection that the hallways give me. I really don’t know.

In any event, I can never go to a place like this and not do a full circle around the courtyard. From certain vantage points, I could see the buildings of the city that have enveloped the monastery. You have to admit, they’re ugly in comparison. When did we lose our ability to build with heart and soul? When did concrete blocks become the hallmark of architecture?

We soon ended back up at the entrance and as all good tour groups do, we followed our leader out and made our way to the small adjoining chapel.

The relatively modest exterior was matched by an equally humble interior. The white stucco walls and ceiling were punctuated by two frescoes of angels. A wall of gold painted bricks provided a simple backdrop for the altar. This was not a chapel built to impress; it was really built to encourage prayer and devotion.

Every now and again, you can't just walk into a circle, circle around and then head out. Sometimes, you take a seat on a pew to admire the view. Other times you do it because you need to give your feet a break. This was one of those times for me. I usually tell myself five minutes only and usually I'm back up on my feet after just a couple of minutes.

On the way out of the church, I joined Richard to admire a very large and beautiful pedestal baptismal font. It looked like an oversized marble wine glass. It was simply beautiful. I told Richard that the font would make a beautiful bird bath for my backyard. Very sacrillgeous comment I know but it was true.  Later on I found out that that was the baptismal fountain of Juan Diego, the Indian to whom, according to tradition, the Virgen de Guadalupe appeared in 1531.

Back outside, I caught another view of the three cultures. I couldn't help but think there must be an Aztec somewhere rolling over in his burial spot at the thought that his home, which was built by hand from stones chiseled by hand, has now been dessicrated by a chuch or even worse a cement block building.
We retraced our steps back to an awaiting van.

We all piled in and I took what would be my spot for the day, second row back, seat behind the driver. That way, I would have the window view. My brother and the father joined me.

As we got on the road, Daniel announced we would be Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe next.

We ended the day back for dinner at our neighborhood taqueria. This time we decided to for the *real* meat first and then have the *parts* later.  For less than $1.50, you get a taco with meat filling and as many condiments as you can pile on.  You can make a pretty filling meal!  Of course, I had to go back to the other side and get a longaniza taco too :-)  This time, we decided to share a drink - 32 oz is just too much liquid to swig down while munching on a taco.

For dessert?  A Mexican popsicle of course!  Back to Michoacana for a coconut popsicle which I shared with bro.  It may have been a cold, dreary day but that's not going to stop me from having a yummy bit of frozen fruit on a stick :-)

Now, that's what I call a great day!  We've only been in Mexico for three days but we're already having a great time.  Can't wait for tomorrow to come along!