Sunday, 7 October 2007

Museum of Anthropology and the joys of public transport on my birthday

My old school friends, sisters Bev and Judy, came in by bus on September 26th. They had flown from LAX to the airport at Leon, which got them within a reasonable bus ride of the very pretty town of San Miguel de Allende, where they spent 3 nights having a great time
before heading to stay with us in Mexico City. We had lots of talking time to catch up on news, and consultations with Barry, our Tourism Guru, to plan out activities for about a week here. As Barry is at work in the archives or at the Colegio most of the time on weekdays, I was their tourist guide most of the time. I'd saved going to some of my favourite museums and tourist destinations till their visit, and though there is so much to be done and so little time to do it, we gave it our best shot.

Our first day's destination was the National Museum of Anthropology, located along Paseo de la Reforma in Chapultepec Park. It was my birthday, so I was delighted to spend the day having fun with friends from home and from here. I love accompanying newcomers to Mexico City on their first trips on peseros (the collective mini-buses that run shuttle services between undocumented locations) and the Metro. The peseros are crowded, often very run-down vehicles with uncomfortable seats (if you can get one - standing is more usual). There are always people sleeping and always women applying their make up, which is hazardous due to the stop/start nature of the ride. A favourite activity is curling your eyelashes with a teaspoon - I attempted this at home once after studying how it was done on many peseros and Metros: all I can say is I was lucky not to put my eye out totally - don't try this at home!

The drivers clearly spend more on their sound systems than they do on vehicle maintenance - this way they can drown out the roar of the engine, the squeal of the brakes and the grinding of the gears with their choice of super-loud Mexican or imported music s they weave in and out of the traffic and ignore the traffic lights and stop signs. One does see a cross-section of Mexico: Indigenous people who seem to have come straight off some of the carvings we were to see later at the museum; slim young men in exquisitely laundered and ironed silk shirts and pants; men and women in business suits; students; lots of muffin tops hanging out of jeans; many little kids who have been to cute school; tired looking medical workers in their white or green uniforms; shoppers with huge bundles of every kind of stuff; young couples with babies in their arms, looking little more than adolescents themselves.

We took a pesero to the nearest Metro, a 6 or 7-minute ride, then headed for Chapultepec. The Metro here is less than 50 years old, quite spacious and very graffiti-free by world standards. The passageways, open spaces and platforms are made of local polished marble; there are always people sweeping and keeping the place clean, and however frequent the trains, there are always lots more people waiting on the platform by the time the next one arrives. Not only passengers get on: there are numerous people selling something. Most noticeable (certainly most audible!) are the mostly young vendors with a super-amplified CD player in a back pack selling pirated CDs in regular or these days MP3 format: they blast a selection of their music at you while crying out a spiel about what's on it, and the standard price is 10 pesos ($1US). Sometimes you get a musician or two, playing their music for tips and often also selling a CD of it: we had a young guy playing guitar and quena (Andean Pan pipes) and after giving him a few pesos for the entertainment, Bev also bought the CD. Sometimes they have a DVD for sale, mostly kids' music, or CDs or DVDs of English language courses. Also I have seen every kind of lolly, commercial or home-made, every kind of pen, flashlights, batteries, sink strainers, gimmicky key rings, combs, toiletries, make up, hair ornaments, and small tools. Plus there are blind, deaf or just plain religious folk begging or selling religious tracts of various kinds. Plus magicians, musicians, joke tellers, mimes. We saw one of the most desperate performances ever: a filthy man, looking like a very dirty Indian Fakir from a 1960's cartoon, unwrapped a bundle of broken glass from a putrid rag, spread it out on the floor and lay down on it, on his scarred front and back, flexing his muscles till we heard the glass break further: then he got up, swept the glass splinters back into the rag, and requested money for the exhibition, while oozing blood from his cuts (Bev says he was bleeding - I couldn't bear to watch).

From the Chapultepec Metro we walked to the Museum, through some of the park, past the Monument to the Niños Heroes ( a group of young military cadets who valiantly defended their college to the death from the invading troops.) This is unkindly referred to by some, but not patriotic Mexicans, as Los Asparragos (the Asparagus) which the columns closely resemble. We came out on Paseo de la Reforma and wandered along this beautiful boulevard past several other museums till we came to the Museum of Anthropology. Apart from being a very impressive building indeed, this is a magnificent museum. Downstairs it covers all the major archaeological regions and periods of Mexican History, while upstairs is the ethnography/ anthropology display, which goes through the same regions geographically and historically in their continuity to today. Upstairs is a wonderful place to get oriented to this fascinating country, and to see the many indigenous people, and their origins, their religions, agriculture, food, tools and music, and some of their handicrafts, all placed in the context of Mexico's geography, history and the Mexico of today. Downstairs you can see some of the treasures from the key archaeological sites and eras of pre-columbian Mexico, which is a fabulous orientation to get before heading off to some of the key sites. When I first visited the museum, 30 years ago, there was hardly a word in English, but now there are many bilingual captions, plus displays and videos in English or with subtitles. I am only good for about 2 hours at a stretch, so then I get a coffee and/or a snack in the cafeteria and go back for a second stretch of about an hour, but I can't absorb any more than this, so I always spend several days at this museum if I am in Mexico longer than a couple of weeks.

No photos are permitted at the Museum and I don't think I took any at the Market, but here are a few shots of typical artesanias I found in Barry's library: a Tree of Life; some colourful table napery; a tin Virgen de Guadalupe; some clay figures of a demon and a skeleton.

As it was my birthday, our good friend Maggui decided to come and meet us at the museum and chauffeur us to our next stop, the Ciudadela craft market (Mercado de Artesanias). We were bit hungry by then so after a very quick preliminary wander, we had a quick snacky lunch of quesadillas (tortillas folded around a mixture of cheese and a variety of fillings, I think we had mushrooms, potato, maybe flor de clabaza (zuchinni flowers), cooked on the comal , a large flat metal plate over a heat source), and a drink. Then we all ended up buying some jewellery for ourselves or for gifts, and Bev and Judy bought small shoulder bags with typical embroidery panels to fit the minimal travellers' requisites, but we spent very little time going through the market as it was getting late. I have been known to spend 4 hours at this market roaming around without buying anything at all, so a stay of barely an hour didn't scratch the surface of its many delights. But as Bev and Judy are going on to Oaxaca and Yucatán, they will have many more market opportunities, and I guess so will I!

We had my birthday dinner booked at a very lovely restaurant very near home in Coyoacán, but first Maggui took us home to her apartment where we picked up Romy, her 90+ year old mother, drank a tequila toast, and I got presented with a beautiful bunch of coral roses. Then we raced back to our apartment to change into something a bit warmer, collected Barry, and headed off to Los Danzantes, where Herzonia was waiting as she was on time and we, typically were just a bit late. Later, an old friend of Barry and Maggui's from 1968, Hilda, who now lives in New Orleans but was visiting, joined us also. We had more tequila and mezcal, wine, and a wonderful dinner - this restaurant does modern Mexican food with a twist, maybe it is the Mod Mex equivalent of Mod Oz food. It was really hard to choose what to eat as so many dishes appealed, and we all tried each other's just to be sure. Barry had kid, Bev, Judy and I each had a different fish dish, several people had ravioli of cuitlacoche (this is a fungus which grows on corn under the right circumstances - Herzonia thinks it'd sound better described as corn truffles, and it certainly has that wonderful earthy mushroom flavour). Herzonia had manchamanteles, a kind of spare rib cooked in a wonderful richly coloured and flavoured sauce which literally means "tablecloth stainer". We shared some salads and the restaurant gave me an explosive small chocolate souffle bearing a birthday candle - it was so rich none of us could manage much more than a spoonful of it, though we all tried! As we were sitting in an outdoor area right at the front of the restaurant, which faces the Plaza Centenario, on of the two central squares of Coyoacán, we were serenaded, and asked for money, by every itinerant musician who came by . I have never had so many renditions of Happy Birthday and Las Mañanitas and suspect I never will again!

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