Growing up in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I had very little exposure to Mexico or Mexicans, and therefore I never considered visiting the country. I had imbibed whatever “knowledge” of Mexico I collected via the American media and entertainment industries and during visits to the various parts of the USA. My husband and I traveled to San Diego in the early 2000s, but somehow crossing the border and exploring the other side never appealed to us.
Our first discussion about a trip to Mexico occurred on a hot air balloon ride over Luxor, Egypt in December 2011. There were two families in the balloon, ours and a Mexican one, and I cannot recall why we decided to have a conversation about us visiting Mexico 2,200 feet over the Valley of the Kings, but we did.
The second discussion about a visit to Mexico took place a year later in December 2012 in the Amazon jungle, Brazil. There were two lovely Mexicans in our tour group, and we took such a liking to them that we decided that any country producing such fine people was definitely worth a visit.
So finally in December 2017, we were on a flight from London to Mexico City. It was not the most comfortable of journeys; I was nauseous and cranky, and my head was spinning with all that I associated with Mexico: Salma Hayek, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Taco Bell, cartels, kidnappings, the Tijuana border crossing, poverty, Cancun, Sicario, and of course Donald Trump’s wall. Would this awful flight be worth it?
I was never so relieved to disembark an aircraft as I was at Benito Juárez and pleasantly surprised to find myself in a bustling, chaotic, and friendly airport. There were people around to help with forms and directions if one was lost and/or confused.
We cleared immigration, collected our luggage and crossed customs, to find a sea of people at the exit. I am originally from Dhaka, so I’m used to seeing crowded places, but nothing like this. It could be just the time on that day -- peak hours of the holiday season, but it felt daunting and disorienting, especially arriving late evening after a long flight, especially without any knowledge of Spanish. Somehow we managed to get our bearings, find a taxi and reach our hotel in the Polanco district in the modern part of the city.
We spent four days in Ciudad de Mexico, enough to cover what we wished to see, but a week would have been nice as there were many facets to it, with great restaurants, stores, boutiques and museums spreading out over the sprawling city.
First day, first stop: Old Mexico City
The drive from the new city to the old was smooth, probably because we had an 8am start, and we passed by the iconic Angel of the Independence, the Monument of the Revolution and the Chapultepec Park, which is the largest city park in Latin America covering 1,700 acres. I did not know there was such a park until I saw it. I had always associated Mexico City with overcrowding and never expected to see such a massive green space à la NYC’s Central Park.
Old Mexico City is apparently sinking as it was built on a lake, but in the bright sunshine and amidst the breathtakingly beautiful colonial architecture, the Zócalo square, which was the main ceremonial center in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, was a vibrant and happy place with food carts, souvenir vendors, students, dancers, fortune-tellers, musicians, singers, painters, and an enormous Christmas tree. There was a 10-ton asteroid that had hit Chihuahua in Mexico a century ago. It was being cleaned outside a museum near the square and we chanced upon it.
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Diego Rivera's painting, 'History of Mexico' | Photo: Courtesy[/caption]
The main attraction in the old city for us was of course Diego Rivera’s “History of Mexico” at the National Palace. Until I saw it up close, I could not even comprehend how history, politics, art and storytelling were so exquisitely interwoven in that mural. The Cathedral of Mexico, Templo Mayor, National Museum of Art, National Pawn shop, and the Palacio de Bellas Artes were distinctive too, but not as endearing. We also walked through the Barrio Chino, a Dali sculpture park, the House of Tiles, and past other significant buildings spread between bakeries, taco stands, perfumeries, curio shops, shwarma cafes, shoe shops, toy shops and more. The Palacio de Correos de Mexico, which is the most beautiful post office I had ever seen with one of the oldest elevators in the country, looked vaguely familiar, and then I realized it featured in a Bond film. Great for a photo op!
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Palacio de Correos, Mexico | Photo: Courtesy[/caption]
I could have easily spent weeks in the old city of Mexico, but sadly our walking tour came to an end by mid-afternoon, and we set off for the Museum of Anthropology. The car park of the museum was an interesting place itself with a statue of Gandhiji and a number of cars decorated with religious paraphernalia signifying they (the cars) were blessed, colorful stalls, and vendors selling an array of grasshopper snacks. And as for the museum, it was an architectural delight of 360,000 square feet of exhibits, the most significant being the Aztec calendar, the Sun Stone. As with the old city, I could have spent days in the museum, but even in a few hours I was beginning to grasp the nuances and the richness of the history of modern-day Mexico, and how shamefully limited my knowledge was. I returned to the hotel in a rather contemplative mood.
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Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan, Mexico | Photo: Courtesy[/caption]
Another early morning start to the ancient city of Teotihuacan or “the place where the gods were created.” Built over 2,000 years ago, the city complex felt like geometry coming alive. It is difficult to describe its magnitude. At first we saw the Temple of the Moon, then walked through the Avenue of the Dead, which felt very much alive with throngs of visitors, to the Temple of the Sun, after which we drove to the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Since I knew little of Toltec or Aztec life, I could not really imagine the culture of this ceremonial complex. I was simply overawed by the number, size, and symmetry of the pyramids. I was also overawed by the Dance of the Flyers, four men dancing mid-air around a tall pole with ropes tied around their waists, with a fifth sitting on top of the pole playing drums. Apparently it is a 400-year-old ritual that came about during a drought to please the rain god. Where next?
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Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City | Photo: Courtesy[/caption]
We returned to Mexico City to see the country’s most significant female icon, Our Lady of Guadalupe. The story goes that in 1531, the Virgin Mary, or Hazrat Marium (pbuh) appeared before an Aztec peasant as a Mestizo or native near Tepeyac Hill, which was once the location of an Aztec temple. A shrine was built on that spot, and at present the shrine and the area around it is part of a complex that houses the new Basilica, which displays the Lady of Guadalupe, or the Virgin Mary, the old Basilica, and a few other buildings. This is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Catholicism, and on Sundays hundreds to thousands of Mexicans congregate to pay their respects to the Lady of Guadalupe. What I found fascinating was that in the square between the old Basilica and the new, there was a performance of Aztec dancers, and to me it demonstrated that Mexicans could be both proudly Aztec and profoundly Catholic.
Driving in and out of Mexico City, I saw the hills dotted with colored houses: Blue, pink, purple, and other shades, the homes of the not-well–to-do. I took photos, but that did not capture the vividness. At first it looked beautiful, but upon reflection, I realized how the bright colors masked the poverty and its discontents. But then I could see that Mexicans put color everywhere, even the cemeteries were decorated with colorful artifacts, and bright piñatas hung all over the city. Maybe I was culturally wired to associate certain concepts with color, and clearly those were not universal.
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Frida Kahlo's home, Casa Azul | Photo: Courtesy[/caption]
We could sleep in! After which we decided to visit the Coyoacán district to see the homes of Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky. The moment was uncanny when we arrived by taxi at Casa Azul, or the Blue House, or Kahlo’s home. It looked exactly like Yves Saint Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle in Marrakesh; even the gardens had parallels. Apart from Vogue magazine, was there any connection between these two icons, Kahlo and YSL? Mental note: Must Google later.
Kahlo is Mexico’s second most significant female icon, and as with Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexicans flock to her house on Saturdays and Sundays. Her charisma just flowed out of every corner of her residence, and so many years after her death I could still feel the intensity of her emotional conflicts. Trotsky’s home, which was a few blocks away, had a very different feel to it. A handful of visitors, a smaller garden with his tomb, and the details of his traumatic life etched on a poster in the study. I could understand his and Kahlo’s affair, why their othered souls attracted one another. I could also understand why the affair ended.
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Gibran Kahlil Gibran’s sketches at the Museo Soumaya | Photo: Courtesy[/caption]
Another lie-in, followed by a leisurely walk around the Polanco district where we were staying. An afternoon well spent at the iconic Museo Soumaya at the Plaza Carso. There was such a contrast between the Museum of Anthropology and the Museo Soumaya, in terms of the architecture and exhibits and style, and visiting both I was able to gain a window of insight into what Mexico was and what it had become. And yes, it was safe to walk around. There were lots of people, lots of street food, lots of traffic.
Back at Benito Juarez, while waiting for our flight to Oaxaca, I was sad to leave Mexico City. One could argue that it was just like any other big city, but to me what made it distinctive were the juxtapositions of the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial histories interwoven into the social spaces. With my psychosocial academic background, my stay there was much more than a travel experience; it was an extension of my education too.
Oh, and the food deserves a special mention. Mexicans are very, very creative cooks, just like the Bangladeshis. They can whip up an array of dishes with just a few basic ingredients and are rather generous with the onion, chili, lemon, and coriander. I could barely pronounce what I ate, but the presentation was beautiful, as was the taste.
What else to say? The hotel was comfortable, the service was great, the people were polite, friendly and helpful, and I liked that the taxi drivers kept apologizing for the traffic without complaining about it.
Oaxaca? That deserves its own travelogue.
Fariha PH is a newspaper columnist who loves to travel across the world. She lives in London.