A Travellerspoint blog

Clear skies and sleepy volcanoes

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The volcano Popocatépetl letting off some steam at sunrise

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Occasionally, we are treated to a special surprise, climatically speaking, in the Valle de México. Take last weekend, for example. Mexico City shrugged off its grey-coloured shroud of contaminación and the hemisphere above us became unusually clear. The night sky was a brilliant inky-black studded with the city's million twinkling lights and the planes coming in to land every few minutes at the airport sped like comets through a clean night sky, for once. Dawn didn't so much break as creep up over the dark mountains, pushing the blackness of the night upwards with its delicate pastel-shades. From my roof, I watched as the mountains ceased to be flat sleeping lumps in the background to take on their usual three-dimensional character. The moon, a mere crescent at the base of a silver globe, moved up and up until it disappeared when the sun burst over the horizon.

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View of Mexico City at night from my roof

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The endless lights of the city

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Early morning moon

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The soft shades of dawn

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Pastel-coloured sky

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Looking down towards the Centro Histórico and the Torre Latinoamericano

On Sunday, I got up early for my usual bicycle ride and caught the volcano Popocatépetl yawning in the sunrise, sending out little wisps of white breath from its mouth. Nearby, his volcanic sweetheart, Iztaccihuatl, lay motionless as the sun peeped over her silhouette trying to wake her up and sending the night's shadows scuttling away. Down below, Mexico City was still slumbering except for a few early risers braving the chilly air.

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The two volcanoes, Iztaccihuatl on the left and Popocatépetl on the right

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Popcatépetl at sunrise

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The mountains surrounding Mexico City bathed in early morning mist

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Looking towards the Centro Histórico in Mexico City at dawn

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The Torre Latinoamericano in the Centro Histórico at dawn

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The sun's rays on the Hotel Imperial

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Palacio de Bellas Artes

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Early light casting shadows on an old building

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Santa Fe's skyscrapers

And then as the sun rose up and up, the hemisphere above us turned a solid blue, without a single white cloud to dilute it. It was so intense, so saturated, so blue that everything in the city seemed to be clean and bright and new. The trees and grass were doubly green, the coloured buildings turned vibrant orange and yellow, and modern skyscrapers became clean shiny mirrors reflecting back the blue.

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Blue skies behind Caballito

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Church tower decorated with tiles

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Monumento a la Revolucion

A real treat for eveyone, and especially for my camera. Let's hope that after this performance, we get an encore really soon.

Posted by margaretm 07:01 Archived in Mexico Tagged night volcanoes views sunrise mexico_city centro_historico popocatépetl santa_fe iztaccihuatl Comments (0)

Wall art

From Prehistoric days when cavemen did their wall paintings right up to modern days, man has felt the need to decorate his environment or leave a message for everyone to see. Mexico is no exception. Walls, pavements, cars, garage doors, even trees... just about any part of the urban landscape will do. The artists may not be Diego Riveras or José Clemente Orozcos but some of them are pretty good. Here are some of the works of urban or outdoor art I've seen...

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Painting of a Mexican wrestler seen near the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, DF

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A colourful wall for a kindergarten, DF

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No idea who these people are.... seen on a wall near the Alameda, DF

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A fitting mural painted on the wall around the Azteca Stadium, DF

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An amusing picture painted on the outside wall of the Sala de Arte Siqueiros, Polanco, DF (it has since disappeared)

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Selling newspapers next to an intricately decorated wall, Condesa, DF

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A shoeshiner in action by the Palacio de Bellas Artes, DF

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A sketch in perspective, seen around a building site, Condesa, DF

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A bold, eye-catching design for a shop front, DF

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Painting on a small supermarket wall in Akumal, Yucatán

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A creative way to "hide" an ugly pipe! Seen in Polanco, DF

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Iguana painted on a bus near Xel-Ha, Yucatán

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Mural painted on wooden boards put up around the Palacio de Bellas Artes during renovation work, DF

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Hand-painted sign on wall at Mazamitla, Jalisco

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Christmas painting on outside of the Hard Rock Café in Mexico City

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Wall with a message, Polanco, DF

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Mural in the Zona Rosa, DF, showing the volcano Popocatépetl

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Painting seen on the front of a house, Condesa, DF

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Anyone want to go snorkelling? Puerto Morelos, Yucatán

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Air-brushed dinosaurs on a VW Beetle, Coyoacán

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A tree trunk painted with frogs to match the bench, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco

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Mexican heroes painted on a school wall, Cuajimalpa

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Informative painting at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, Michoacán

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Funny place to see this mural... in the middle of the countryside, near Soyaniquilpan, Estado de Mexico

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Artwork done by a pavement artist for the Day of the Dead, outside the Museo de Arte Nacional, DF

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Aztec priestess inspiration for a garage door, DF

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Russian motifs on the wall of a café in DF

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Doors painted with cactus plants, Zona Rosa, DF

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Children's mural on the way to the Basílica de Guadalupe, DF

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Wall painting of a jaguar, Teotihuacan Pyramids, near Mexico City

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A colourful garage, on the way to the Basílica de Guadalupe, DF

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Eye-catching comic strip painted on a shop front, Polanco, DF

Posted by margaretm 05:47 Archived in Mexico Tagged art mexico colours mexico_city wall_art Comments (0)

Be prepared.

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Bench at sunrise in Chapultepec Park

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It had to happen, didn't it.

It's very early on Wednesday morning, which is when I do my good deed for the day. This consists of taking Cristina and Marc to school in the car so they can get up half an hour later. Thirty minutes makes all the difference at that time in the morning. They can leave the house at 7 a.m. instead of 6.30. And no bumpy school bus ride all around the dark streets picking up other students, to the accompaniment of unwelcome music on non-teenage radio stations.

We arrive at school where I drop them off without stopping the car. They just open the doors simultaneously and jump out and that way I don't lose my place in the traffic queue. On my way back, I stop off at Chapultepec Park to give Ozzy a quick run. It's still dark enough for runners to be using headlamps strapped around their heads to see where they're going. I try to get us going on a brisk walk but Ozzy insists on sniffing every tree in sight.

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The lake where I walk Ozzy in the morning

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Early morning light filtering through the trees

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Ozzy on his walk

Back to the car. I go to start the engine. When I turn the ignition key, instead of the usual, triumphant vroooom of a healthy engine starting up, all I hear is a pathetic little gargle leaking out from under the bonnet. "Oh, no!" I groan and try again. And again. But it's no use. The car isn't going anywhere. I'm not particularly mechanical-minded but I deduce it's either a dead battery or something wrong with the starter motor.

My second thought has nothing to do with the fact that I'll have to call the grua, the tow-truck, and go through all the rigmarole of getting the car to a workshop where it can be fixed. No. My second thought is, "Oh no! I can't let anyone see me like THIS!" The thing is, I didn't leave home with the intention of being seen by anyone. Anyone, that is, except Ozzy. I was going to drop the kids off at school and wouldn't even be waving at the other parents or teachers from my car. Not at that time in the morning. Then Ozzy and I would be going for a quick walk through the park on the way back before driving home by 8 or 8.30 a.m. It would be dark anyway. So I'm dressed in my old jeans and jumper. Looking in the rear-view mirror, I can see my eyes are in desperate need of the cucumber treatment, or maybe it's just because they still haven't woken up properly. As for my hair, I'm hard pressed to decide whether Ozzy's fur or my hair is looking more dishevelled at this particular moment. No, I can't let anyone see me like this. I have a go at making myself a little more presentable. I've come out unbreakfasted too. So has Ozzy. If only I'd had a shot of strong coffee and some toast and Marmite, the wait ahead wouldn't seem quite so long. My third thought is along the lines of How long is it going to take for me to get help?

With these thoughts buzzing around my head like pesky flies, I begin to set in motion the process of getting me rescued and my car fixed. First I ring Josep, who says he'll come and find me right now on his way to work. Next I make a call to the car insurance company to ask them to send a tow-truck. The man's 15 questions take longer than I can imagine... "¿Me puede indicar su segundo apellido, por favor, señorita?". He wants to know my second surname. "I haven't got one," I reply. "¿No tiene usted un segundo apellido?" he comments in disbelief. "No, I'm English. We don't have two surnames, only one." "Ahhh", he shakes his head invisibly at the other end of the phone. We move on to some other questions. I'm getting worried that my cell phone will die on me. "¿Podria usted indicarme la ubicación exacta de su vehiculo?". I do my best to enlighten him as to where my car has broken down. Except that I'm in the middle of the park and this street has no name. "¿No sabe usted el nombre de la calle, señorita?". No, it hasn't got a name. I explain more or less where I am. "¿Podría usted esperar un momento? Voy a buscarlo en el mapa." Off he goes to look at the map. We move on to the next question after what seems a very long time. "¿Tiene usted acompañantes que necesitarán ir en el camión con usted? ¿Cuántas personas?". Now he's asking if I have anyone else with me who has to ride in the tow-truck with me. How many people? Yes, as a matter of fact I do. My dog. Will that be a problem? And can I get the tow-truck to drop me off at my house on the way to the workshop so I can leave my dog at home? I don't think it will be a very wise idea to take Ozzy with me. "Sí, señorita." Thank goodness for that. It takes a long 15 minutes but at last he finishes his questions. The tow-truck will be here in 40 minutes or 60 minutes. It depends on the traffic. But don't leave your vehicle, please. It may even arrive a bit earlier.

Josep arrives on the scene and we wait. Ozzy is secretly rather happy at this turn of affairs. He gets to sniff around the trees a bit longer. Quite a bit longer. I find a couple of alfajores and a cereal bar in the car, plus two centimetres of water in a bottle. Josep and I share them between us. Ozzy has a sip of water too. The tow-truck arrives 63 minutes later, just when we begin to worry that they have indicated Mexican time instead of real time. Josep leaves as my little Yaris is being winched up on the back of the tow-truck.

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My car being winched up onto the back of the tow-truck

I've rescued Ozzy from the back of the Yaris just in time. Now the man is telling me I can get in the truck with my dog. I open the door and tell Ozzy to jump up. But he takes one look at the noisy, shuddering cab and sniffs the greasy, gasoline smell and refuses. He has no intention of getting in there. I have to literally pick him up and heave him into the small space and climb in quickly before he can jump down again. The man is busy pushing levers outside accompanied by crashes and bangs and whirring sounds. I look around the cab. The first thing I see is a wooden crucifix hanging up in the windscreen along with two bright artificial flowers. Lower down, tucked in the dashboard are a selection of cards with the images of cristos, virgenes y santos. I roll my eyes, hoping he isn't going to drive like he needs protection from all of these. Ozzy begins whimpering. The man jumps in the cab and off we set for Santa Fe.

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Ozzy squashed in the cab

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Wooden crucifix hanging in the windscreen

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Some of the Cristos and Virgenes

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Off we go

He turns out to be a very respectful driver and my fears are allayed. Ozzy is determined he isn't going to stay cramped down below at my feet. His nose begins to investigate the controls, then he decides he wants to see where we're going. Now he's got his front paws up on the dashboard and is enjoying the panoramic view out of the windscreen. I wind the window down a bit. If there were any music, I'm sure he'd soon be singing along to it. We make it home.

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Ozzy enjoying a panoramic view

While the tow-truck goes off down the street a bit further to do a U-turn, I run into our house with Ozzy. The key? I've left the key to the back garden in the car. Ozzy will have to come in through the house. For the second time that morning, he refuses. After almost two years of training him not to go through the house, here I am trying to get him to carry out the prohibited action. He's confused. Please, Ozzy. Just this once. I don't want him to drive off with my car. He eventually obeys the contradictory command. I run upstairs for a quick change of clothes, splash water on my face, massage in a few fingers of cream, drive a brush through my hair and give my teeth a fleeting clean.

Thankfully, the man is still waiting for me down the road with my car and we make our way up to Santa Fe to the Toyota workshop. Another wait, while I bite hungrily into a cuernito (Mexican croissant) and polish off some juice kindly put out for customers to consume. This is one Mexican custom I'm beginning to appreciate. There's always some food and drink around. I start watching something on TV, a film about the end of the world. Well, it's the end of my peaceful morning... three hours have gone by. It turns out to be the battery. I have to buy a new one. They promptly fit it and I'm free to leave.

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Getting dropped off at the workshop

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A brand new battery

As I drive off, I think to myself, "It could have been worse." I'm relieved. This is Mexico where anything can go wrong, but everything went like clockwork. My car is working again. And I've learned my lesson. Always be prepared. Like a Boy Scout. Next Wednesday, I'm going to make sure I leave the house looking pretty and having had breakfast.

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Ozzy's hoping the new battery will die soon so he gets another long walk...

Posted by margaretm 07:03 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

If animals could talk....

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Visitors are often surprised to discover giraffes, zebras, hippos, giant pandas and even a polar bear lurking in the heart of Mexico City's Chapultepec Park. Not running around wild, of course, but in the spacious zoo located there, the largest in Latin America. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that entrance is free of charge and anyone can walk around the savannah, jungle or temperate highlands when they want and be reminded of the immense diversity of animal life on our planet. This is particularly poignant in one of the largest cities in the world where another type of two-legged mammal and a wide variety of noisy, fume-emitting mechanical creatures inhabit the urban countryside in their millions and dominate life.

Although the zoo is sandwiched between two of the city's busiest arteries, Paseo de la Reforma and Constituyentes, the loud roar of traffic and bellowing of horns becomes a distant muffled sound as you enter the zoo. Spacious walkways shaded by abundant trees, bamboo and other vegetation lead around the world's main ecological systems where the different animals are housed, and where large aviaries are aflutter with birds. The only places you have to pay to go into are the mariposario, home to hundreds of butterflies which fearlessly waltz past you, and insects like giant scorpions, and the herpetario, full of shuddering snakes and giant anacondas.

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Mexico City's zoo is in Chapultepec Park

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The bears have a rushing waterfall

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The giraffes in their area

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A sea lion swims around rocks

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You can watch the antics of the sea lions, polar bear and penguins under the water

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Bright flamingos in the bird section

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Jungle in the middle of Mexico City

Strolling around the zoo will take a good few hours if you want to see it all but a word of advice; avoid going at weekends or on busy school holidays or you'll be seeing a lot more of the two-legged homo sapiens species than other animals.

The other day I set off to do some errands in the city centre but, due to four simultaneous protest marches blocking my way, I had to change my plans and decided to go for a stroll in the zoo instead, a far more leisurely activity. Looking back at my photos, I wondered, "What if animals could talk? What would they be saying?". Take a look...

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"What?! Are you sure she said that?!"

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"Mmmm....zzzzz....I wonder what on earth they put in the water today?!"

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"Oh no! I must have got the hair removal cream mixed up with the shampoo!"

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"Have you seen my upside-down, underwater grin?!"

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"Hey guys! Come up here. There are some strange blue rocks over there!"

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"OK, if you're not going to speak to me, I won't speak to you either!"

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"Yeah, I know a great dentist. He fixed my teeth a couple of weeks ago. Aren't they great?"

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"Hey, while they're not looking, let's make a dash for the open gate!"

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"ZZZZZZZ...zzzzz...ZZZZZZ!"

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"Come on, let me out of here. I didn't do nuffin' wrong!"

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"Mummy, Daddy, look at me! I look like that pole, don't I?!"

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"Admiring my beautiful body, eh?"

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"I could sure do with a bit of ice in this hot sun. Anyone know where I can get some?"

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"Now, remember what I told you. When you're sunbathing, always keep your head in the shade. That way you won't get those nasty headaches, OK?"

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"These meditation sessions are really good, aren't they?"

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"Ha ha! I just can't seem to get the hang of where these feet are supposed to go!"

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"Now don't get stroppy with me! Just because I got picked for the leading part of Swan Lake instead of you!"

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"All this playing around for the public is hard work, isn't it?!"

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"If that ant comes any nearer, he's gonna disappear down my throat!"

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"You know, I don't remember being given a nice sunshade like this in Arabia, do you? And it was much hotter there!"

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"Hey! That was MY worm!"

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"Wish I had someone my size to play with!"

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"I'm sure this was where I lost it. It's gotta be somewhere around here!"

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"Wow! That new hairdrier really is powerful and quick!"

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"I'm the king of the castle, and you're a dirty rascal!"

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"Hey, where d'you get those stunning wings? I'd like to get some like that too!"

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"Mmmmm... this beats a Coronita on a nice hot day!"

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"Just thinking to myself. Why are those people making funny faces at me?"

And a cute picture to end up with...

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"Hey, look at the butterflies on my head!"

Posted by margaretm 07:49 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

What do Mexican drivers hang in their windscreens?

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The other day when I was driving up to Cuajimalpa, I got stuck, as usual, in the roadworks. I'm sure the highway is going to be extraordinarily efficient when they've finished doing the work but it's been at least 6 months of driving misery so far. There's a certain stretch where three or four lanes have to cross to the other side into one lane over a deeply rutted, unpaved part. You don't need me to tell you that this simple interchange takes a month of Sundays to get past. There I was, sandwiched against my will between two enormous trucks, when one of the trucks moved ahead and up next to me came a taxi. The driver was in his 20s and had no passengers but my eye caught sight of something. The rear-view mirror on his windscreen had unwittingly become a hanger for upmteen different items. It was literally bending under the weight of an unguessable number of rosaries, several crosses on chains, a soft toy and some other unidentifiable knick-knacks. The thick clump of travelling accompaniments can only have severely obstructed his view of other road users and vehicles which seemed somewhat pointless. He'd put them up there to keep him safe on the road and they were actually doing more harm than good.

I decided to do a bit of personal research on the subject while I was stranded among the solidified traffic. What do Mexican drivers hang in their windscreens? This investigation project, albeit rather limited in scope and time, threw some light on the matter. I began to carefully (but not too obviously) check out the rear-view mirrors in the cars, trucks, buses and taxis all around me and those coming towards me on the other side of the road. I didn't want anyone to think I was prying into their vehicles and their lives. Surprisingly, what in previous months has been a totally monotonous, frustrating wait, when I usually turn to a book or magazine to keep my mind alive, actually took on a rather interesting turn that morning.

At the end of the journey, my findings were as follows:

1. The overwhelming majority of drivers on that road had something hanging up at the front windscreen. Maybe the vehicles come out of the manufacturing plant complete with an amulet which can be removed if wanted? It's a definite possibility here in Mexico.
2. About 80% had rosaries and/or crosses and crucifixes on chains. Was this a sign of their profound sense of religion, a superstition or some kind of modernized Aztec belief? Something akin to a talisman?
3. Quite a large proportion had more than one rosary or crucifix, as if they felt one was not enough to protect them.
4. There was a clear correlation between the antiquity of the vehicle and the number of items hanging up. The older and more rickety the vehicle, the larger the tangle of "whatcha-ma-call-its" blocking the view. Obviously, the greater the probability of breaking down or having an accident, the more help needed.
5. Other things seen hanging up included furry dice, dream catchers, soft toys of varying sizes, virgencitas, pictures of saints, medallions, rabbit feet, a green chilli, Christmas tree air fresheners, miniature boxing gloves, beads, feathers, ribbons, a witch, football team flags and scarves, a pair of mushrooms, miniature shoes, sunglasses...
6. There were quite a few Mexican flags, Mexican hats and Mexican dolls which must have been left there from the Independence Day celebrations in September but, in general, the Mexicans are quite patriotic.
7. The most unusual items were an extremely large yellow Tweety Pie (aka Piolín), hanging upside down by one leg in a bus and an enormous wooden cross with a dying Cristo nailed to it in a pesero, a once green-and-white bus which was falling to pieces. The exaggerated size of the wooden cross was clearly a desperate sign that the driver was sure he'd require divine assistance. I'm not sure about the meaning of Tweety Pie.
8. The vehicle which was most likely to have something hanging up was .... the VW Beetle, commonly known as the Vocho here. I'm convinced that's because they are so old, no-one has bothered to remove these items over the centuries.
9. Drivers of all ages were seen putting their faith in these artifacts, not just older ones. This was particularly true for taxi drivers.
10. I saw at least three vehicles which didn't even have a mirror, so there was nothing to suspend anything on, and an incredible number of vehicles with broken or cracked windscreens.

To sum up, whereas in other countries the front of the car would be equipped with GPS navigators and speed trap detectors, i.e. high-tech protection devices against getting lost or being stopped by the police, it would appear that Mexican drivers prefer to have some kind of cross or rosary swinging from the mirror, obviously making them feel safer. Safer from themselves and the way they drive or from other drivers? Who cares. Once you know that almost none of the drivers in Mexico City have learned to manejar with a driving school or taken a driving test, you'll realise it applies to everyone, including the driver, other vehicles, potholes, pedestrians, stray dogs, uncovered manholes, bridges, falling trees, flash floods.... Nobody has the faintest idea that a Highway Code exists so these talisman items are absolutely essential for to getting from A to B without a mishap.

As I was sitting there immobile in my car, I recalled my first few weeks living here in DF, before I had a car. In those days, I often had to use the infamous taxis to get around. Those early journeys were highly memorable for one reason or another but I particularly remember one taxi driver. When I got into his car, the dashboard looked more like a Mexican church altar than the controls of a vehicle. All around the windscreen, and tucked into the trim around all the windows, he'd wedged cards bearing pictures of saints and prayers. Rosaries, crucifixes and medallions were everywhere. I half expected to see candles lit and incense clouding up the windows. What I didn't expect to see was a small jolly Santa Claus inside a snow globe firmly stuck to the dashboard above the steering wheel. Maybe it was so that when he rolled the car, it would shake the globe up and the snow would flutter down again to the bottom as his taxi turned back up the right way. I hoped not.

Quite frankly, seeing all this paraphernalia gave me the spooks. I really wasn't sure I wanted to see what his driving was like if he felt he needed so much help from the Far Beyond. Since no other taxis were available, I offered up a prayer and settled back. I have never had a taxi ride quite like that, before or since. He set off as if he was being chased by a police car, and switched recklessly from lane to lane as if it were some kind of F1 race. Every time we hit a speed bump (aka "sleeping policeman"), I was thrown out of my seat, landing very painfully, and had a few seconds to recover before we hit the next one. I kept my eyes closed most of the time, not wanting to see what he was just missing. But the eeriest part of the journey was when we passed by any church. Without taking his foot off the accelerator, but happily taking his hands off the steering wheel, he would grasp one of the rosaries hanging up at the mirror, kiss it and solemnly cross himself. Yes, make the sign of the cross, as if merely doing so would keep him from having the accident which he himself was about to cause. I had never felt so happy to get home and vowed never to get into another taxi if the driver had more than four rosaries hanging up.

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I've also discovered a new hobby... doing interesting research projects while stuck in the DF traffic.

Posted by margaretm 03:58 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

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