Mexico City appeared, suddenly and dramatically, as my plane from San Francisco descended beneath the cloud cover. It was vast, stretching to lush green mountains far, far in the distance. It emerged like a visual burst of energy, and looked more prosperous than I’d anticipated. Many of the buildings had terra cotta roofs, which made a pleasant impression.
“Possibly the most populous city in the world,” I reminded myself, but it looked appealing, not miserable. Before the cloud cover came up, the plane had been flying for an hour or two over Mexican desert that had seemed even more inhospitable than America’s arid southwest.
In another hour or so, I was off to Oaxaca. Five days passed before I returned and first saw Mexico City from the ground. I’d booked a hotel in the “Centro Historico” district for two nights, as a home base for exploring.
This time, as my plane descended, I was reading a book about a contemporary Latin American author’s promotional book tour, which included a chapter about his experiences in each country. A sentence in the Mexico chapter read, “There’s always a grey cloud over Mexico City.” On this day, that seemed to be the case.
First bus ride
I retrieved my rolling duffel bag from Baggage and began asking, in my halting Spanish, how to get to the public Autobus that went downtown.
Travel websites recommended a bus or cab, rather than the extensive subway system. Some travellers—including two of my friends—had been pickpocketed on subways. The red city buses were a mere three pesos (about 15 cents). A taxi might have cost a hundred times that.
I lugged my bag up the steps of a bus, shoved it into the first passenger row, and climbed in after it. As the bus began to roll, it became clear that we were not in Oaxaca. We passed factories, storage facilities and enclaves of the homeless. I saw very little that I found charming. Everything did seem to bear a grey pall.
After some time, the bus pulled up at a central checkpoint, where there were many more buses along the curbs. The driver motioned for me to get off. Why, I wondered? We clearly weren’t downtown.
I used my phone’s Spanish app to converse briefly with him. Soon, though, he motioned for me to follow him, and led me off the bus into a line in front of another one. I decided to trust that this was the bus that would take me where I needed to go.
“Cuanto questo?” (“How much?”) I asked the new driver, when it was my turn to board. He motioned me on for free, though I didn’t have a transfer. Again, I trundled up the steps with my bag and squished us both into a front row.
A hotel named after a street named after a person
Finally, our surroundings started to look like a central city instead of some warehouse district. I heard the name of the street of my hotel, “Isabel Catolica!” called out, and then happened to see it listed as the third upcoming stop on an illuminated monitor beside the driver.
I started moving myself and my load to get ready. A little later, I glimpsed the name on the street sign out the window! I jumped off as soon as the doors opened, and there was the big sign proclaiming the name of my hotel—Hotel Isabel—staring me right in the face.
Though I wasn’t sure yet that I liked Mexico City, I immediately found the hotel charming. Its pleasant “orange-pink” colour inside was what had attracted me in the online photos.
The four upper floors, the ones with the rooms, were arranged around a central atrium that had handsome wooden railings. The lobby had various Mexican curios on the walls and comfortable sofas. It felt homey. Through a doorway, I could see what looked like a reasonably-priced restaurant, with bright pink walls that had sombreros mounted on them.
I walked towards the ladies at the front desk of this rather busy place. They all knew some English. One of them told me in a friendly way that although check-in time was several hours away, I could leave my bag in a storeroom and go out until then.
I’d had only a cup of coffee at the Oaxaca airport and nothing on the short flight, so I didn’t stow the bag right away, but rolled it into the restaurant and ordered an omelet, frijoles, coffee and a roll. Both the food and the eager, friendly service gave me a boost.
After breakfast, I finally ditched the duffel bag. Shoulder bag comfortably slung and walking stick (carved for me by a craftsman in the Fiji Islands, and helpful for a chronic back injury) in hand, I headed out to find Mexico City’s Zocalo.
That was where it seemed everybody went. When a good friend from my hometown had visited two years ago with his wife, a Colombian-born professor of Spanish Literature, they’d stayed in a hotel on the Zocalo.
I joined the flowing river of people walking along Calle Isabel la Catolica. The streets were lined with little shops selling electric devices, clothing, pharmaceutical goods or health food. There were a few restaurants, and every few buildings, there seemed to be some kind of historical hacienda, museum or church.
I still couldn’t get a sense of the city. The question “Was I smart to come here?” hovered inside me. I arrived at a boulevard with far vaster throngs of people and cars. It occurred to me that I should check my direction.
I’d set my course with Google Maps, but since turning off cellular data, I found that Google sometimes deserted me in mid-trek. The person towards whom I aimed my “Donde’ esta Zocalo?” pointed at a right angle towards the direction in which I’d been heading.
I turned, walked a few more blocks, and finally saw it: an entire square of buildings on such a massive scale that I’d rarely, if ever, seen anything like it! Red Square in Moscow, Russia was the only parallel that came to mind.
Circumnavigating the square
There were no clues as to what any of the buildings were. The one to my right could’ve been Parliament. It was big enough. It was more or less featureless, but most of the buildings here were distinguished only by their size. All of them were grey or brown.
There was a central area with big white tents in it. Way opposite me, on the other side of those tents, was what might have been the most massive building of all. This one had a huge dome. The dome made me wonder if it was Parliament. For an active centre of government, though, it looked very old and a little dilapidated, reminiscent of a birthday cake about to fall.
I decided I’d do one lap of the entire Zocalo. I passed another massive building that I thought might have been the Best Western hotel, where my friend had stayed, but there was no identifying sign of any kind.
Finally, I was past that mysterious building and was crossing the street to the domed one. When I reached the centre of the block, I turned and saw the inscription above the main entrance: Catedral Nacional De Mexico.
Realizing now that the building really couldn’t have been anything but a mighty church, I went in the front entrance and found myself in a space so enormous that I needed to sit down just to take it in. Only I couldn’t decide where to sit. There were several different chapels without walls, each with an altar, plus the main chamber. People were coming and going and staying. The altar directly in front of me positively dripped with Baroque gold.
I walked on until I came to what looked like a gigantic pipe organ. As I stood and gaped, the organ suddenly gave a mighty blast and started playing! Its volume was disorienting. I watched the great pipes as they bellowed their sounds. “It must be the biggest one in the world,” I thought.*
I sat down and surveyed the interior of the Cathedral some more. People were still coming and going. Others were sitting in the pews like me. I simply couldn’t get over the scale of the place. I did a little writing, during which the organ stopped its music, which had reminded me of an old Lon Cheney silent movie. The sudden silence was as dramatic as the sound had been.
Finally, I walked back up the aisle and out the door. In a large area near the corner of the block, an alternative scene was going on. People were wearing Aztec headdresses and death-heads. Other people dusted passersby with sage. Still others rubbed people’s faces with another herb.
I gave a donation and allowed myself to be saged, but didn’t get in line to have my face rubbed.
The next thing I wanted to find was the Palacio Des Bellas Artes, where many of the renowned murals of Diego Rivera and others are housed.
A policeman pointed down a wide pedestrian walkway that led off from the Zocalo. I began walking down its tiled, shop-lined length. The rather upscale walkway was filled with people hawking hotels, restaurants, tours and jewellery.
Every 20 feet (about 6 metres) or so, someone would stick a ticket or a pamphlet or a discount card right in front of my nose! “Merchandise City would be a better name for this town!” I found myself thinking.
Finally, I reached the museum, a breathtaking, gilded Victorian building, a work of art in itself.
After making my way through my language barrier enough to buy a ticket, I spent two hours on the second floor studying the murals: admiring the consummate skill of these painters and contemplating the extreme horror of many of the canvases, content-wise.
Here’s a short poem I scrawled in my notebook in front of these paintings:
Homage to the Mexican Muralists
I cannot know the nightmare
out of which
the world was waking
as I was taking
They try to tell.
They tell. But I
am deaf to hear,
I can’t descend
to that deep floor
of suffering, where
there isn’t any sky.
and endured, somehow.
I take in
what I can.