November 27, 2008

An open letter to Mexico City

Dear Ciudad de Mexico:

Don't get me wrong. I think you're wonderful. A bewildering, bewitching, gargantuan kaleidoscope, almost incomprehensibly huge and diverse.

Click! Cathedrals, plazas, and cobblestoned streets worthy of a European capital. Click! Grimy and teeming seas of concrete buildings from which bundles of rebar sprout waiting for new storeys that will never be built, full of hard-eyed men and women hustling beneath incredible spaghetti tangles of improvised electrical wiring. Click! A magnificent boulevard lined with statues, luxury shops, and gleaming skyscrapers is blocked by hundreds of indigenous protestors, some stark naked, most wearing placards adorned with the face of their oppressor as loincloths. Click! A 7-11 cheek by jowl with a pre-Aztec ruin. Click! A warehouse-sized building full of dozens of food stalls surrounding crowded cafeteria-style benches, redolent with meat and spices and chilis and cerveza, resounding with conversation and sizzling food-noises and blaring radio and the mariachis int he corner. Click! Vast concrete-block shantytowns rising for miles into the hills on either side of a twelve-lane highway. Click! Angular minibuses, rusting white-and-green VW Beetle taxis, pickup trucks, and luxury sedans jostle for position on your perpetually clogged and potholed roads. Click! A peaceful, delightful neighbourhood of tree-lined streets, Mediterranean houses built around courtyards, sidewalk cafes and Parisian boutiques, armed security guards, and stone and wrought-iron fences topped by climbing vines that almost hide the barbed wire. Click! Swarming rush-hour throngs storm the metro like army ants. Click! Retina-searing boats glide peacefully along miles of canals.

And you're stuffed full to bursting with hidden and not-so-hidden treasures - murals and Moorish architecture, converted convents and the Palace of Masks, the Blue House and the Trotsky Museum, the jawdropping Art Deco masterwork Palacio de Bellas Artes, 24-hour churro stands, markets that seem to sell everything and go on forever, and a pleasing sufficiency of Starbucks. You're like someone took a major European city, a major American city, and a major Latin American city, kneaded all three of them together, rolled them all out in this plateau surrounded by 5000-metre mountains, and left them to seethe forever. And with perfectly nice $20/night hotels right in the heart of town. Like I said, you're wonderful.

I do have a couple of issues.
I hope that you will take this constructive criticism in the spirit in which it is intended.

  • The crepe place around the corner from my hotel is a little stingy with the Nutella.
  • Mango-flavoured Gatorade is an abomination in the eyes of G-d and must immediately and perpetually be abolished.
  • Those guys who sell CDs in the Metro, wandering ceaselessly with backpack boomboxes blaring five-second snippets of their wares? It's not just that they're annoying, though they are. It's their sheer numbers. You're all but guaranteed to encounter one no matter how short your trip. I once saw a good half-dozen file past me in the space of about five minutes. But I have not yet seen any of them make a sale. Do you really need so many of them?
  • And the organ grinders. For God's sake. One or two I could see as quaintly amusing. But there are hundreds of these guys, all identical, in the same uniform, with "Harmonipan 1937" boxes decorated like musical instruments and propped up on wooden poles, turning the crank and so introducing a ghastly atonal wheezing-whining into the world, while their assistant tries to collect money in a hat. Again, Mexico City, don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of yours, I really am. But these organ grinders? Something must be done.
  • More a request than a complaint: please don't ever, ever, ever make me have to drive in this town.
  • It would be nice if you could do something about the smog.
  • And the violence. Um, not that I've seen any. But everyone agrees that crime is rampant, and underreported because the police are terrible (and many moonlight as criminals.) "55 muggings a day!" warns my guidebook, though when you consider the population of 24 million, that suddenly doesn't seem so much.
  • A bookstore that accepted used English-language books as trade-ins would be a real plus.
  • Your metro. Um. This is kind of awkward. But, well, I don't know if you realize this, but it makes other cities feel inadequate. It's not just that it's orderly and efficient. It's that a ride anywhere in its enormous sprawling network costs all of two pesos. That's fifteen US cents. I mean, it's nice that you let your millions of very poor travel cheap across town, but could you maybe just double that to four pesos? I bet London and New York and Tokyo would feel much better about themselves if you did.
  • Finally, and really I feel more passionate about this than any of the above, even the smog: your parks? WTF? I mean, they're perfectly nice once you get into them. But they're practically freaking inaccessible! I understand that crime being what it is, you want to surround your parks (and your main, colossal, 300,000-student university) with high fences. But most cities, you know, when they build a park, and then a metro station immediately next to the park, they put an entrance there. Twice today I have had to walk for a good ten minutes along a park fence, casting longing glances at the park within, from metro station to access gate. I understand that your parks stay nicer longer when they're not infested with vermin like pedestrians, but really, let's try to remember why you built them in the first place, shall we? And even once you finally access your largest park, the interior is segregated by yet more fences rarely interrupted by gates. I think a Remedial Parks 101 course is called for. No offense. But really. Like I said. WTF?

But don't get me wrong, Mexico City. These are minor gripes. And I don't really care if you don't change at all (except the parks bit.) You're one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world already, just the way you are.

November 16, 2008

How to travel between Central American countries

The efficient way:

  • Embark at Airport A.
  • Take off.
  • Marvel at the earth from above.
  • Land.
  • Disembark at Airport B.

The simple way, as exemplified by my border crossings into Nicaragua and Honduras:

  • Go to busy bus terminal in seething city very early in the morning.
  • Wait. Check in. Wait. Hand over checked luggage. Wait. Produce ticket. Wait. Board.
  • Sit on comfy bus, high above the road, watching the verdant hills that surround the Interamericano highway.
  • Hand your passport and US$8 to the bus conductor.
  • Disembark at MIGRACION post. Run gauntlet of moneychangers. Change money. Stand around for awhile. Get your checked luggage out. Stand around for awhile. Queue. Wave luggage past customs guy. Stand around for awhile. Return luggage to under-bus compartment. Re-board.
  • Listen to your iPod. (Reading is out of the question as the road is unstable and you'll get a headache within minutes.) Watch world go by, or the onboard movie. If you are unlucky, it will be VANTAGE POINT three times in a row.
  • Disembark at busy bus terminal in seething city at dusk.

The fun way, eg my route to Guatemala:

  • Leave San Pedru Sula hotel at 8.30 AM. Find taxi. Haggle with taxi driver about price to bus terminal.
  • Board nice, air-conditioned minibus. Leave with only 6 people aboard. Be relieved that Central America doesn't follow the insane African model of "we will leave only when every seat is full, no matter how long that means we have to wait, even though we all know the roads will be full of paying customers wanting to hop on."
  • Stop in town to pick up dozens of other people. Become conduit for money being passed back and forth to conductor. Attempt to pick up still more people, who recoil at sight of the overcrowded bus.
  • Drive for an hour. Stop in Puerto Cortes.
  • Ask around in Broken Spanish for bus to "el frontera." Get directed to not-quite-broken-down former school bus.
  • Leave with only 10 people aboard. Pick up and deposit more people en route west, until bus is overflowing.
  • Buy snacks and drinks from hawkers who crowd their way onto bus at one stop and get off at the next. (This is typical in Central America - in Colombia you can hardly move for them.) Be surprised by the children hawking in Honduras; not seen elsewhere.
  • Veer off paved highway into dirt-road small towns. Wait while conductor gets out to get a piece of paper stamped, or driver gets out to chat with a buddy, or driver stops to examine grumbling engine. Collect and disperse dozens of schoolkids, blind men led by their grandsons, old women who argue the fare, entire families laden with bags and boxes. No chickens, though.
  • Arrive at sleepy border post. Run gauntlet of moneychangers. Chat to one who speaks good English from having worked in North Carolina for two years. Get slightly ripped off by him. Get waved through by Honduras police.
  • Walk across border unaccompanied but for a man on a bicycle and another on a horse. Reach large, all-but-deserted Guatemalan border complex. Run gauntlet of moneychangers. Get passport cursorily inspected by Guatemalan Migracion officer who does not stop chattering into his cell phone. Get waved on.
  • Hop onto minibus to Puerto Barrios, piloted and conducted by laughing Guatemalan teenagers. Careen out into the road. Fear for life. Observe teenagers pick up some would-be passengers, and disdain others. Their heuristic is incomprehensible but triggers much mirth. The driver is highly incautious but undeniably skilful. Enjoy self despite self.
  • Pass plantations of corn, coconuts, palms, and above all, bananas bananas bananas. (The United Fruit Company, which basically ran Central America in the first half of the 20th century - hence "banana republic" - is still active in Guatemala.)
  • Survive to Puerto Barrios. Disembark. Dine on really good Portuguese food. Hitch ride with guy who speaks fluent American English to the port. Get escorted by a dozen friendly locals to the next lancha to Livingstone. Stand around for awhile. Wedge self into lancha with sixteen others, and as the sunset reddens, set out into the Caribbean.
  • Hug shore for half an hour. Observe massive frigate birds circling above. Observe cotton-candy clouds and crimson sun setting behind massive palms. Resist temptation to throw self into water for a quick refreshing swim.
  • Arrive Livingstone. Disembark. Be surprised to readiness of touts to accept no for an answer. Note that there are few motorcycles and fewer cars, not surprising, as this town of 17,000 is not connected by road to the rest of the world. Note rich mixed smells of ocean, jungle, diesel and wood smoke in the air. Note touristy-in-a-good-way cafes and shops. Note amazing lushness - it looks like the jungle is ready to retake the entire city in approximately 15 minutes once its inhabitants leave.
  • Seek out hotel recommended by guy in Puerto Barrios. Find it full. Seek out backup hotel. Find it full. Stumble across lavish luxury room for $11 per night (with fan, no air-con, but that's fine in these sea breezes.) Congratulate self.
  • Find Internet cafe and inform world of day's accomplishments.

Option 3 is really not that much harder, and oh so much more enjoyable.