Travel in the Time of Trump: How to Build Two Thousand Years of Hate

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A Google Maps guide demarcating the line of the Great Wall across China. The white far above it is the Chinese-Mongolian border. Source here.

When you travel through hostels so often, you go through the same conversation with different people over and over. The questions follow an unwritten script, with little variation: Where did you come from? Where are you going? What have you seen? Where are you from? You ask and answer these same questions every day, getting to know the flow of people through your room, trying to understand who they are and how they see the world.

Last night’s companions were a trio of Mongolian women here on holiday and one stayed in last night, where we played through the unwritten script with her, asking and answering. She was here with her small governmental department on vacation; the whole group decided to head up here to Ulan-Ude and Lake Baikal for the Mongolian national holiday of Naadam. She asked about our travels and we told her about the world trip, although she was sad to hear we had passed over Mongolia. I explained it was because of flight prices (it was actually cheaper to fly to Ulan-Ude than Ulan Bator), but that Mongolia is on the list of dream destinations. We spent the next hour talking about Mongolia, the woman telling us about the vast open plains, the vivid nature, the nomadic people, and the delicious food.

At some point the question of my identity came up, and I explained that my father is Chinese and I am half Chinese. The woman was a bit taken aback, but she exclaimed, “Yes, I can see it. You don’t look quite European! You would fit in here with the Buriyati or even in Mongolia.” I laughed and told her, “I know. I look like a local girl almost everywhere.”

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A bronze statue in Ulan-Ude representing the nomadic Buryati tribes. The Qin Dynasty built the Great Wall ostensibly to keep similar Mongolian tribes from invading China.

In the morning, the Mongolian women rushed to pack and leave the hostel for Baikal. As she was leaving, the woman we talked to last night bade us farewell and excitedly hoped we would come to Mongolia one day. Her eyes twinkled and she had a warm open smile. “But please…” she exclaimed, “maybe don’t say anything about being part Chinese! Because in Mongolia, we don’t like the Chinese people. When people insult each other, we say that a person is a son of Chinese.”

Her imminent departure made her speed rushed, but also deeply honest. “I have nothing against you. But I want you to be safe. And you see how the Chinese treated us. They built a giant wall at our border to keep us out. And now where is the wall? Very far in Chinese territory, no? Because they have taken so much from us, we hate them.” She paused, but was still smiling. It seems the contempt for Chinese people did not translate to contempt for Chinese (or half-Chinese) persons like me.

Then she was gone and I was left to parse the feelings of the interaction. My enthusiasm for visiting Mongolia wasn’t dampened, but her words about the Great Wall rattled around in my head for a while. For most people, the Great Wall is an archaeological and architectural marvel, amazing if only for length alone. To find out that it was a symbol of hate for Mongolians was surprising, although in retrospect not all that weird. If your neighbor builds a big, unfriendly wall bristling with weapons pointed at you, you certainly aren’t going to view it dispassionately; you’re going to think they’re a dick and you’re going to hate that neighbor. So the wall, maybe at first borne out of mutual hatred, becomes a symbol of that hatred.

The China-Mongolia-Great Wall story might be a well-timed allegory for us in the United States. Trump wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he argues will solve problems for the U.S., such as immigration and violent crime. But let’s set that aside and remember that this point in time is only a moment in Mexico-U.S. relations. If we do build a wall, even if it is successful, what is the cost of that success? Like the cross in Christianity or the American Flag, a wall would become a symbol of our country and a message to our neighbors. It might be a long-lasting, dark stain on our relationships. So no, I can’t tell you that the wall wouldn’t solve some of the immigration problems. But I think that it would be good to remember that the last huge wall built created two thousand years of hate.

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The bronze statue’s twin, a Slavic-looking man on a horse that represents the European settlers in Buryatia, looks out to the horizon.

Travel in the time of Trump: Election Day and after in Mexico

One of the interesting parts of our trip is finding out how the world reacts to President Donald Trump. We get to see the situation on the ground and hear from normal people, far from the rhetoric of politics. Since this isn’t a point of view you normally hear, these experiences provide insight into how things in the world have changed since the election. These posts won’t have as many pictures, they won’t be as touristy, and they may be uncomfortable.

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The Mexican flag over a building in Mexico City.

When I picked Mexico as the starting point of our trip, we had just begun the 2016 election cycle insanity. Despite the election rhetoric in the U.S. at the time, the residents of Mexico City and the Yucatan were wonderfully friendly to us the whole trip.

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Driving the Puuc Route in the Yucatan. The only day we were ever stopped at checkpoints was November 9, the day after the election.

The first mention of Trump in Mexico was on November 8, election day. We were driving the Puuc Route and visiting ancient Maya ruins. At one ruin, we were buying our tickets for entry to one ruin when the clerk asked “De dónde eres?” (Where are you from?) When we replied we were from the U.S., he laughed and asked “Why aren’t you there to vote?!” We laughed, too. “We already voted by mail. And we didn’t vote for Trump.” The three of us agreed that we hoped he wouldn’t win—it would be terrible for the U.S. relationship with Mexico. Then we skipped off to the ruins.

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Carvings at a ruin along the Puuc Route.

When we woke the next morning, Trump had won the election. We penned this article out of sincere worry about what would happen, then spent the day being stopped at every police/military roadblock we passed through. The guards weren’t happy to see us, and took the liberty of rummaging through all of our backpacking equipment. They asked questions about every single pill in our first-aid kits and made veiled threats about locking us up if we were carrying drugs. We knew why. If a country had just elected someone to the highest office in the land that maligned and denigrated you and your people, you’d be angry too. Angry, but helpless to make change or retaliate against that country at any meaningful level. But if you’re a checkpoint agent, you can give someone from that country a hard time, and feel like you have done something.

At one checkpoint we told an agent in Spanish that we hadn’t voted for Trump. That didn’t help. The agent sputtered, then told us that it had nothing to do with that. “We’re looking for drugs! Tourists come down here with drugs and cause problems,” he insisted angrily. That’s an unlikely story, given that of the twelve checkpoints we passed through over the week before and after the election, this day was the only day we were stopped–twice.

We knew why they really stopped us. They knew why they really stopped us. And because we had alluded to it, suggested that they would be so petty, they gave us an even stricter search. The head agent demanded our passports. Worrying that the agents might not give them back, we asked if a photocopy would suffice. The agent said no. “You must have the original. It is the law that you need to take your passports with you everywhere.” So we rummaged through the disheveled mess that the agents had made of our stuff in the back of the car, searching for our passports. Stoytcho’s was easy to find, but mine wasn’t where it was supposed to be in the pack. “It’s not here” I told the agent, embarrassed. “You have to have it. Or else…” he made the motion of being handcuffed. I could almost feel the irony in his voice. “How does it feel? To be desperately searching in the dark for papers which prove your worth, with heavily-armed and terrifying government agents looming above you. This is quid pro quo. This is for what you’ve done to my people in your country.”

It looked like there were two choices: either I would have to beg to be let go, or let the agent book me. It was dark and we were exhausted from the day, so begging would be the faster way out of this situation. But I could feel a stubborn fury against authority rising in me, a desire to call his bluff. The paperwork on any booking is a pain, so what would he do if I was dead serious and said “I can’t find it. Cuff me.” Then again, they could also cuff me, throw me in a car, and have me sit there for a few hours, no paperwork needed. Thankfully, I neither begged nor offered my wrists, but instead called to Stoytcho, “Honey, have you seen my passport?” He remembered we had used it while checking into the hostel, and with a few moments to think we figured out where we put it afterward. We presented both of our passports to the head agent and he whisked them away.

What followed was a somewhat uncomfortable five minutes as we began repacking our belongings and the agents stood around the car. It was as if some spell had been broken, as if the agents had yanked a twisted mask from a figure only to find a regular person behind it. They mostly looked away from us, or down, or into the darkness where their commander had gone. One tried to make conversation with us. “Where have you been on your trip?” he asked. We told him in our broken Spanish about visiting Mexico City, and about our time in the Yucatan. That everywhere we visited had been fun and interesting. That overall we had liked Mexico. I could feel the fury in me from before ebbing, replaced with a mix of resignation and regret. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry for the way our country treated Mexican immigrants, and for everything the president-elect had said. I wanted to tell him that he had a right to be angry, and we were angry too. I wanted to tell him that I hoped things would be alright between the U.S. and Mexico. But I remembered what happened when we said we hadn’t voted for Trump earlier. I didn’t say anything.

The head agent returned and handed us our passports. “You’re free to go,” he said politely. “Thank you,” we replied automatically. He nodded, then waved at us and mechanically said “goodnight.” We replied “goodnight”, got into our car, and drove away from the checkpoint into the darkness.

Tulum: Halfway between sleepy beach town and the next chic real-estate development

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Sunrise on the beach in Tulum

Once upon a time, if you said you wanted to visit the gorgeous beaches of the Yucatan peninsula without all the fuss and spring-break parties of Cancún, people would point you to Tulum. Located ~130 km south (a 2 hour bus ride from the airport), Tulum was a sleepy seaside town that boasted azure beaches, white sands, and hilltop ruins from an ancient civilization. All these things are still there when we visited, but adjacent to them are now massive beachside resorts and pricey restaurants catering to tourists.  There are still a couple of places for people like us travelling on a shoestring, but they take a bit of work to find. That being said, visiting Tulum is TOTALLY worth it for some of the most beautiful beaches we had ever seen. We’ve made some notes below that document our visit and might help you plan yours.

Interested in seeing the pictures of our stay? Click here!

Tulum Layout: Tulum is split into two parts: the coast (containing the beaches, ruins, and resorts) and the town proper that is inland by ~2km (including stores, restaurants, and bus station). The two are separated by a vast swath of jungle and you can only get between the two by walking south 2 km, making a sharp left at the main road, and then walking north about 4 km. The beachfront is now primarily resort hotels, with a couple of restaurants in between. The main street of town caters primarily to tourists, with tour runners, souvenir shops, yoga studios, and pricey restaurants that look like they belong in Santa Monica (think high open spaces, chalkboard menus, and minimalist décor). The road in between the two is littered with new developments, apartments and condos galore aimed mainly at attracting English-speaking buyers.

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Beach at the Tulum ruins

Getting around: The easiest ways to get between the beach and town are by bike or by taxi. You can rent a bike in town for about 80 pesos/day, and if you’re renting for >1 week you can easily negotiate them down to 50 pesos/day. There are tons of taxis that camp out both in town and along the beach to shuttle tourists, and will charge you 70 pesos a ride. Drivers wouldn’t negotiate in front of other taxi drivers (we tried), but we found that if we started walking toward town, some drivers would flag us from their cars and offer a discounted rate (30-40 pesos). Given these expenses, we spent most of our time along the beach and only went into town for groceries once every 2 days.

Staying:

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The entrance to Playa Roca, along the beach road in Tulum.

Finding a cheap place to stay can be daunting, but there are still a couple of affordable camping spots along the beach. We stayed at Playa Roca (above): located about 2 km from the ruins, it’s the best deal we found (80 pesos/person/night). As a bonus it had direct access to the beach. Max, the campsite manager, is super awesome and laid back, and lives on site with his family. The campsite included showers, toilets, a shared kitchen, and tarps to keep the rain off your tent:

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Our campsite at Playa Roca

Playa Roca is also a great place to meet other folks! We met Limberth, who’s from Mérida, over the weekend while we were camping:

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Smile for the camera!

If you want a spot, show up early in the day! We noticed that in the late afternoon, especially on weekends, the sites filled up quickly. Not comfortable roughing it that much or didn’t bring your own tent? The guy next door to Max’s campsite rents spacious 2-bed (yes, literally two beds) yurt-style tents for 800 pesos/night.

Eating: Food was also a bit of a challenge for us, as the nearby restaurants were pricey and town was far. We solved it by buying groceries in town and then cooking at our campsite’s kitchen. We found that the following meal was the most economical to cook (and tasted ok):

Ingredients: 1 16oz can of beans, 1 8 oz can of mixed veggies, 1 8oz can of salsa/diced tomatoes, half a bag (4oz) of small pasta, some spice mix, some water

Directions: Mix all of this together in a pot (dump in the liquid from the cans so you don’t need to find salt), simmer for 6-10 minutes until pasta is tender, and serve with crackers/tortillas/bread. This made a little more than 2 servings, so we found that we could keep the leftovers until next morning and pour them over scrambled eggs. It wasn’t exactly gourmet, but had plenty of calories, protein, and fiber to keep us going.

The one exception to our monotonous meals was Jungle Kitchen Table, a small French-Mexican restaurant nestled in the jungle along the beach. Recommended to us by a friend (THANK YOU Joël!) and running about $50 a meal, we could only afford to eat there once, but it was easily the most amazing thing we ate during our time in Mexico. Our list of dishes included: a huilachote and scallion quesadilla with pickled onions and herbed yogurt, crusted pork ribs with plantain fufu, the house beans and chipotle crema, and a dulce de leche pot with pecans. And it wasn’t just the fancy dining that impressed us, but also the unexpected flavors and textures like the star anise in the pickled onions and the fluffiness of the plantain fufu (although full disclosure, I had no idea what a fufu was until I came here). Yes, it’s expensive, and yes, you should order multiple courses, but it’s entirely worth it.

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Our main course at Jungle Kitchen Table: crusted pork ribs with plantain fufu and house beans

Doing:
There are three major categories of things to do: the jungle, the ruins, and the beach. All of the jungle-related activities required a pricey tour or transit, so we skipped them, but you’ll find nature preserves with monkeys and birds, the standard zip-lining and adventure activities, and clear freshwater cenotes to swim and dive in. We found the cenotes in particular to be more expensive here (100+ pesos/person) compared to those in Merida and along the Puuc route (~50 pesos/person), so unless you’re looking to visit a specific cenote, do your cenote swimming in Mérida.

The ruins (65 pesos/person) were a fun half-day trip, and what the buildings lack in size they make up for in complexity and history. The people that lived in this ancient port were neither Maya nor Olmec, but a mix of multiple cultures that thrived on trade with groups inland and along the coast.

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One of the buildings at the ruins of Tulum

The beach was the main draw for us, though. While we didn’t do any of the snorkeling or diving tours, should you want to snorkel the cheapest way is to hire a boat directly from the beach. We got them down to about 200 pesos (our target was 100 pesos) and they generally won’t go much lower than that. You don’t need to hire a boat to enjoy the beach, though! We spent 5 days jumping in the waves, swimming, and laying on the sand reading. And every morning, we woke up to this:

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Stoytcho admires the sunrise over the beach

Natalie

Tacos we have known

We’ve been in Costa Rica for about a week, and one of the things we miss most about Mexico is the food. As someone we met yesterday put it, we’ve crossed the “culinary zone line” into the culinary creativity desert that comprises all of Central America. It’s not that the food here isn’t delicious in its own right (it is), or that we can’t get affordable good food (we can), but most meals consist of some combination of rice, beans, plantains, and eggs or a lightly spiced grilled meat. No tacos, no rich marinated meat, no strange flavors. Partly because we miss this, and partly because woo-I’m-totally-behind on blog posts, here’s a post I wrote up about tacos:

IMG_0578 While we were in Mexico, the default meal was tacos. Almost everywhere, you could get tacos. Taco carts were our standard eateries, which mostly consisted of a hot grill, a small table with toppings (onions, salsa, and beans), and a couple of plastic chairs either around a table or just hanging out. To order, you talked to the guy at the grill (above), got your tacos and ate, then usually paid his assistant. There were lots of the standard tacos (carnitas, pollo asado, al pastor), but what we really liked were all of the new tacos that we’d never had in the states. If you’re getting tired of your usual taco, here are four taco fillings you can get instead:

(we forgot to take a picture, so just imagine it here)
The Suadero – If you Google this, no one can agree on exactly what suadero is, but from our experience it was a slow-cooked over low heat or “sweated” beef with a lot of fat and flavor. According to Wikipedia and a couple other online sources, suadero comes from a specific cut of the cow1,2, but given the variety in meats we got I’m inclined to think it might be a few different cuts of beef cooked in the same way. In a lot of places this was meat shaved directly off a roasting spit (think shawarma), but in the best place it was slow cooked at the edge of the griddle under some type of plastic sheeting. Best location we found: El Raton Taqueria in Pino Suárez, Mexico City; don’t be turned off by the name, the tacos here are amazing. To find it, take the metro to the Pino Suárez and head to the north edge of Jardin San Miguel. It’s right next to the bus stop and the Restaurante Lin China.

IMG_0811 The Campechano – This is the meat lover’s taco. It combines two or more types of meat in a single taco, so you can eat all of the meaty goodness at once. Options often include thin cuts of beef, fried pork, or longaniza (sausage)3, but we saw variants that included sheep and other animals as well. This is also the only taco I saw regularly served with beans, maybe to add some fiber to that pile of meat. You can get Campechano tacos all over Mexico (the meat will vary), but our favorites were in Mexico City on Nezahualcóyotl, between 5 de Febrero and Avenida 20 de Noviembre. (Stoytcho’s note : my favorite was definitely the steak with sausage variant)

IMG_1317 The Huevo con Chaya/Espinaca – These are the perfect breakfast taco, with a filling of fried eggs and the boiled greens of Chaya or spinach. Chaya is a little less bitter than spinach, although this may be due to a longer cooking time to destroy toxic hydrocyanic acid found in the raw leaves4. Either way, topped with pickled red onions and salsa, this is a great way to start the day. We found these tacos at Wayan’e, a taqueria chain in Mérida. Come early, as they’re only open for breakfast and lunch.

IMG_0907 The ???? (potentially Buche) – I actually have no idea what this taco was, because when I ordered it Stoytcho was worshipping the loperamide god and I glanced over to another guy’s tacos and said “I’ll have what he’s having.” It was pretty good, slightly chewy with a great smoked and slightly gamey flavor. I’m pretty sure it was organ of some type, and after a long hunt on the internet I think it was Buche, or pork stomach5. There’s a recipe in the reference, but I got mine at a tiny taco cart in the central square in the town of Muna, along the Puuc Route.

There are, of course, many more taco fillings than these four. If you want to learn about more taco filling, I came across these useful tools in my research:
The tacopedia – a recipe book on taco fillings throughout the 31 states of Mexico
The semi-serious Serious Eats Guide to Taco Styles – Kenji’s guide to tacos and taco-like objects

– Natalie

References:
1 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suadero
2 – http://www.lasrecetasdelaabuela.com/cortes-de-carne/cortes-de-carne-de-res/
3 – http://eatyourworld.com/destinations/mexico/general_mexico/mexico_city/what_to_eat/taco_campechano
4 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cnidoscolus_aconitifolius
5 – http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2010/06/the-nasty-bits-tacos-de-buche-pork-stomach-recipe.html

Teotihuacan

IMG_0762 Highlights:

  • This archaeological site is a 2000 year-old Mesoamerican city that’s incredibly impressive
  • The total cost of the trip is roughly 265 pesos/person if you plan well, which breaks down into 100 pesos in transportation costs, 65 pesos for entry, and 100 pesos for food and water if you spend wisely.
  • While not part of the archaeological site, we’d recommend taking a trip into the neighboring town (labeled Centro on Google Maps) to get food.
  • Bring snacks, water, and sunscreen. The temple site is massive and flat so there’s no shade, and no food or water is sold within the ruins – you’ll have to walk back to an entrance to get some.

The ancient city of Teotihuacan is a day trip away from Mexico City by bus and an archaeological must-see. Built between 100 B.C. and 250 A.D., the city is a sprawling complex of massive pyramids, plazas, and dwellings for an unknown people known as the Mesoamericans. And although it was ransacked and abandoned between 550 and 800 A.D., Teotihuacan’s glory remained so great that when the Aztecs found the site around 1000 A.D., they named it Teotihuacan (translated: place with the road of the gods) and believed it the sacred site where the gods created the universe1.

There are a couple of great guides for getting there without an expensive private tour2, but the short of it is to take the metro to the Autobuses Del Norte station, then walk across the street to the bus terminal and buy a ticket at the kiosk that says Teotihuacan. The site is huge (20km2, or roughly 1/3 the size of Manhattan), so we prepared for the trip by packing water and food. What we totally forgot to pack was some extra cash! Stoytcho got in line at the ATM and I took the last of our money to buy tickets for the bus. It took all the cash we had to get two one-way trips (46 pesos/person). I went back to Stoytcho and found that unfortunately, the ATMs were shut down for service a couple people before he got to the front. Oops! Also, I looked down at our tickets and realized they were for a specific bus time, in three minutes! Double oops!

We ran to the security checkpoint in the bus terminal, then tried to find the correct bus, which proved pretty messy. We asked around for a bit, then a nice family took our tickets to one of the bus conductors and he waved us onboard. At this point, it was 15 minutes past our departure time, so I’m pretty sure we missed our actual bus and they just put us on the next one. Likewise, while our tickets had seat numbers, in reality everyone sat wherever they wanted.

The bus ride took about 45 minutes and stopped in front of the Teotihuacan archaeological site, where we asked about an ATM. Unfortunately it was in the park, and we didn’t have enough for admission (65 pesos/person). So we walked ~20 minutes to the town adjacent to the site, looking for an ATM. It looked like tourists were a rarity there, although everyone was quite friendly. After finding an ATM, we grabbed some tacos and went back to the archaeological site.

By now (~11:00 am), Teotihuacan was full of tourists, but it wasn’t any less spectacular. Our first stop was the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, a smaller but ornate ruin decorated with stone heads of a feathered serpent (possibly Quetzalcoatl) and a crocodile-like creature believed to be either the rain god Tlaloc or the deity Cipactli3. Beneath this, a recently discovered tunnel suggests that this temple was a site dedicated to the beginning of time4. IMG_0694

From here, we walked on to the Pyramid of the Moon, the second largest pyramid in the compound. Dedicated to worship of a goddess that gave life and fertility5. This pyramid was likely the site of annual ritual sacrifices, fulfilling a ritual where the blood of sacrifices fed the gods and produced the annual rains that in turn fed the people6. The top gives a great view of the whole Teotihuacan site:
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Our last stop was the Pyramid of the Sun, which despite its size as largest pyramid in the complex has little known history. At this point it was around 2 pm, the sun was getting hot, and the pyramid was swarming with people. Stoytcho and I decided we didn’t really need to climb the pyramid, so we took a couple of pictures and called this one a day: IMG_0746

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Afterward we were pretty hungry, and stopped in one of the many restaurants just outside the park to get food. A word of warning to everyone visiting, the food was awful and pretty expensive (~350 pesos), so you should instead take a taxi into town where you can get a great meal for less than 100 pesos. Overall though, this was an affordable day trip for people on a tight budget.

– Natalie

P.S. more pics here.

References:
1 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teotihuacan
2 – http://thegirlandglobe.com/how-to-visit-teotihuacan-without-a-tour/
3 – https://ant3145teotihuacan.wikispaces.com/Temple+of+the+Feathered+Serpent
4 – http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/discovery-secret-tunnel-mexico-solve-mysteries-teotihuacan-180959070/?no-ist (Highly recommend this article, it’s a lot of fun to read)
5 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramid_of_the_Moon
6 – http://uncoveredhistory.com/mexico/teotihuacan/teotihuacan-pyramid-of-the-moon/

Museo Soumaya

One of the great things about Mexico City is that many of the museums we visited had free admission, making them accessible to everyone. Museo Soumaya, one of Mexico City’s newest museums, is no exception. Unlike many of the museums around the city though, it’s not dedicated a specific theme. Instead, most of what’s on display here is the collection of Mexico’s richest man and CEO of Telmex, Carlos Slim. He funded construction of the massive museum building and provided his private collections for display, naming the museum after his late wife (Soumaya).

The works on display are diverse. While there are a total of six floors, we only explored the first two. The ground floor was dedicated to sculptures and murals, including a bronze cast of “The Gates of Hell”, a massive and incredibly detailed work by Auguste Rodin. Here’s one tiny part of it:
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Here’s another of runners, racing toward the finish line: IMG_0495

The first floor was dedicated to Mexican and Hispanic art and artifacts, including religious works and early coinage from the Mexican republic. One intersting highlight was an entire cabinet-full of hearts of Jesus and the Virgin Mary:
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The second floor was dedicated to Asian ivory carvings, consisting of work from China, India, and Japan. There were pieces carved directly into tusks, like the one below: IMG_0501

There were also smaller pieces, including this one of Guan Yin:
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Overall, we thought Museo Soumaya was a fantastic way to spend a day looking at religious and cultural works. While researching the museum online I came across a lot of criticism for both the art collection and the project, one of which was that Slim spent millions on this museum while most Mexicans make a fraction of this. But art and culture aren’t the sole privilege of the developed world. Just like a free museum, like the Soumaya, it’s something for everyone to enjoy.

– Natalie

Impressions of Mexico – day one

What have I done.
This photo, taken by Natalie, truly captures my initial feeling upon landing. The rest of this post is my impressions after that initial feeling wore off.

A passport check and a customs form gets us into the airport arrival hall. A large letter “E” looms above us and small kiosks for money-exchanges, cell phones, and ATMs line the massive corridor that makes up the terminal.  As we walk the quarter-mile from E to C towards Natalie’s dad, I am drawn to the lines of people waiting behind the ATMs. None of them seem impatient or frustrated. Our first interaction with Mexico City is attempting to use one of these ATMs. The line builds behind us as the machine slowly goes through its prompts. Pesos nearly in hand, we make a mistake. A screen flashes by and our card is returned. We try once more, apologizing to the man behind us and – by proxy – the now embarrassingly long line. He smiles and says no problem. Our second attempt fails, slowly, and we leave to meet Natalie’s father. His presence for our first few days was invaluable, turning an otherwise frustrating and (to me) mildly frightening experience into a light-hearted and food-filled one.

In a blur of metro stops we arrive at the center of the city. There is a din and smell to this place. The cars rumble and honk, vendors advertise through loudspeakers, bus drivers yell their destination. The smell of grilled meat mingles with fumes and unburnt gasoline from a hundred exhaust pipes.

A round of tacos and sodas is our introduction to the local food. We eat inside a tarp-walled stall, the cook out front endlessly simmering and chopping meat, grilling tortillas, and chatting with customers. The taqueria is just to the side of the metro station square, Pino Suares. The square is bustling, surrounded by vendors hawking trinkets, clothes, and food. Two metro lines that crisscross the city connect here making it a natural location for the many stall-filled markets.

Our tacos eaten and paid for, we hail one of the many roaming taxis and make our way to the hotel. The back seats of this taxi don’t have seatbelts – this hopefully one-off event later becomes a trend. The streets of Mexico city are fluid and fast paced. Cars, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, and people share the road. Order and safety is achieved through common sense, some courtesy, and luck. Crossing the street is often an exercise in pure will, and casually driving on a red is an occasional tool of the road.

In a half-hour, we arrive at our hotel. We share the lobby with two other couples as we check in. Our limited fluency is both obvious and not an obstacle. The hotel room is large, clean, and quiet. We rest and discard gear to send back home. Our packs, despite having been purged once before the flight out, are still too heavy.

A walk down a dark street with cracked pavement leads to the local main drag. The pavement here is also cracked and broken, but streetlights and shop-signs light the way.
Here we are introduced to the ubiquitous Oxxo and Sanborns stores. Oxxo fills the role of the minimart; Sanborns is an upscale some-of-everything store with a restaurant on the side : books share the floor with electronics, makeup, and housewares. We continue along the cement and cobblestone streets to La Posta, the italian restaurant Natalie has chosen. Dinner is a three course example of excellent cooking. The waiters engage in light jokes at the expense of our limited spanish and we end the meal with dessert – pistachio creme brule – and a spanish lesson – caja para llevar.

Returning to the hotel we pass by an ATM. This time we succeed.

-Stoytcho

Mexico City, the first 48 hours

Whew! The first 48 hours in Mexico City were a whirlwind, but much easier than it could have been because my dad met us at the airport. He just “happened” to be visiting Mexico City at the same time to see the Día de Muertos celebrations, of course (the first this year, thanks to the 007 movie). When asked him about it, he also said “Ahh, I figured it would help make the start of your trip easier.” It totally did, for three reasons: he’s already fluent in Spanish, he’s been to Mexico City before, and he’s done a lot of traveling.

After leaving the airport, we stopped at for our first street tacos, where dad introduced us to the first awesome thing we’d never had: suadero. It’s a “sweated” meat that’s cooked at a low temperature at the edge of the grill while covered, setting it apart from the grilled al pastor or shredded carne. Topped with onions, cilantro, salsa, and lime, it’s freaking delicious.

We then traveled on to our hotel (Hotel Montreal) in Coyoacán to check in. By the way, this is what $23 a night gets you in Mexico City:

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This includes complimentary soap and etc, TV, and free WiFi. It’s pretty nice.

Dad took a nap while we sorted through the stuff we brought and decided we didn’t need about 3 pounds of it.  Just FYI, if you’re planning a long-term trip this will probably also happen to you, so be prepared to throw some things away or send them back home by mail.

The next day, we had breakfast at Bella Rafaela Bakery (more on that in a later post), and then met my dad at Metro Pino Suárez. We wandered along Calle Regina in what’s known as the “Old City” and watched people preparing ofrendas (offerings) on shrines for Día de Muertos.

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Dad makes an offering at an ofrenda for Chinese ancestors in Chinatown, Mexico City.

Then we headed up to El Ángel to see the Alebrijes, which are sculptures of bizarre and brightly-colored creatures that are a longtime part of local Mexican craft. While they come in all shapes and sizes, these ones were gigantic metal, wood, and paper beasts bankrolled by companies throughout the city and made by local artists. This one won first place:

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Magog, devourer of souls and winner of the Mexico City Alebrije competition!

For dinner, dad introduced us to the second awesome thing we’d never had: caldo de gallina, which is chicken soup made from young hens that has a richer flavor. It came with a chicken part of your choice (breast, thigh, leg), chickpeas, rice, and tortillas, and the table condiments included as much raw onion, salsa, and cumin as you wanted for seasoning.

We then rounded off the day by returning to Calle Regina, where Día de Muertos celebrations were in full swing. Amid the sea of marigolds and foods offered to the dead, I thought “Hey, it’s pretty good to be alive.”

– Natalie

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An ofrenda filled with marigolds and pictures of the deceased on Calle Regina