A Travellerspoint blog

May 2011

Supermarkets aren't just supermarkets...

I learnt something when I came to Mexico. Supermarkets aren't just supermarkets, they're a lot of other things too. If you take a trip down to your local Superama, it's much more than merely a place to buy your veggies and meat. Here's why.

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A Superama shop

Supermarkets employ a lot more workers than just the cashiers and people who stack the shelves. First of all, when you arrive at the car park, there may be a dozen men of varying ages all waving at you and blowing their whistles. They indicate to you which spaces are empty (not that you couldn't see that for yourself) and then stand in your blind spot whistling hard and making signals for you to keep reversing or whatever. Meanwhile, you are busy trying not to run them over since you cannot see them, only hear them. Among this group are some who will appear with a bucket and cloth and offer to wash your car for 40 pesos. "Can you get rid of these sticky white marks they left after towing my car away? You know, when they seal the doors?" "Si, señorita, no problem." I've still got them more than a year later but they all swear they have the product to remove them.

Next you approach the entrance of the shop and there's a helpful man distributing shopping trolleys so you thank him and go in and fill yours with bananas, guayabas (guavas), pasta, frijoles (beans) and an assortment of yoghurts, cheese, ham, fish and meat. Very conveniently you can also get your heart tablets and painkillers as there's a farmacia inside with someone to advise you. The man next to you is dithering over the thousands of medicines and products to deal with stomach problems. A common ailment, given the large amount of fiery chillies consumed with everything.

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All kinds of chillies

Then in the larger supermarkets, there's also a busy bakery churning out fresh bread, pastries, cakes and tortillas. You grab a huge round metal tray and a pair of tongs and succumb to the display of mouth-watering pan (bread) and panqués (cakes), smothering the tray with calories. A masked lady clocks up the pesos and off you go.

As you wheel your trolley around, you are stopped regularly by señoritas, their faces covered in blue masks, holding out plates, offering free samples of Mexican coffee, or mouth-sized bites of chorizo (spicy sausage), smoked turkey slices or cheese spread on crispy crackers. If you decide to try what's on offer, they will then direct you to where the product is on the shelves so you can buy some or go off to find you a free recipe including the foodstuff. On average, I collide with about 6 of these ladies as I'm attempting to steer my uncooperative cart around the supermarket maze. If you taste a bit of everything, you can actually forego your lunch and save yourself some money.

When you have finally decided your trolley is full enough, you make your way to the check-out, and discover that your wait is made more bearable by the reams of glossy magazines sprouting from the racks to your right and left. Everyone is helping themselves and catching up on the latest gossip, or flicking through Cocina Vital in search of a new recipe. For those more seriously inclined, the selection includes National Geographic and Mexico Desconocido. Everyone sportingly replaces the well-fingered magazines on the rack when it's their turn to empty their trolley. I sometimes wonder whether anyone buys those dog-eared revistas.

Nearby you will notice a whole fleet of youngsters waiting to help pack your goods into bags. Young enough not to have much shopping experience, since they insist on putting the shaving cream together with the ice-cream, the washing-up liquid with the yoghurts and the toilet cleaner with the Cranberry Juice. Never mind, they help move things on a bit and some of them make up for it with an enthusiasm that defies explanation. Meanwhile, the señora at the check-out is showing exceptional multi-tasking skills, swiping your newly-acquired groceries and carrying on a lively conversation with her colleague at the next check-out about how she bought 1 kilo of delicous taronjas (grapefruit) for her mother last Tuesday.

As she finishes and you hand over your debit card, she asks you a number of questions which vaguely go in this order. Boleto de estacionamiento? Have you got a ticket for the car park which you would like stamped? I had to learn about this one. If you get it stamped, you only pay 3 pesos as opposed to 16 pesos. I fumble through my bag to find my boleto. Retiro en efectivo? This one had me stumped the first time I heard it... She's asking if you want to withdraw some money from your bank account. Yes, Superama doubles up as a bank and you can draw out up to 1000 pesos a time. Quiere tiempo aire? Now, you may be wondering what on earth she's on about. All she's asking is whether you want to top up your cell phone. You jot down your number, and that of your son or daughter, or all three of them, and the amount you want to pay. At long last, to the relief of the other customers behind you in the queue, the transactions are all done.

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Whistling and waving

You leave with all your groceries, your medicines and your topped-up cell phone and are met by the whistler again. Quiere ayuda?. No, it's alright. I'll push the trolley myself to the car. He appears at your car anyway in time to open the boot and start helping you load the shopping. You pay the boy for washing your car and admit it looks much better than when you came in, despite the stubborn white sticky marks. The whistler starts signalling for you to reverse out, stopping the rest of the cars for you and you give him some loose change because you can't understand how, after all the years of whistle-blowing and energetic waving, he's still smiling. You show your stamped parking ticket to the person at the exit of the car park and they lift the barrier. You can make your way home after a productive visit to the supermarket.

Posted by margaretm 16:36 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico city supermarkets Comments (0)

A cool, green haven in the middle of Mexico City?

Chapultepec Park

It's hot in Mexico City these days. The high-altitude rays are microwaving the city and its inhabitants. The sun beats down from above. The concrete and tarmac radiate the heat upwards underfoot. Thank goodness for ice-cold Coronas in frosted glasses and the sliver of tangy lime jammed down the bottle neck.

Fortunately too, there is at least one place where I can go to cool down. A place where exhuberant greenery predominates over hot pavements, where you see squirrels and humming birds rather than Tsurus and Nissans, where at certain times of the day, trees outnumber the Mexicans there. This haven is the Bosque de Chapultepec, the immense park in the middle of the city which pumps out oxygen, keeping us alive... and cool.

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Chapultepec Park, Mexico City's biggest park

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Colourful flowers growing in the shade

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A squirrel eating a nut

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A fine display of white flowers

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A bird drinking

Nothing beats an early-morning cycle ride in the park, preferably at the weekend. Being an outdoor, nature-lover, it renews my connection with Planet Earth on a weekly basis. Luckily, most Mexicans tend towards a lazy start to the day on Saturdays and Sundays and by the time they arrive to enjoy the wood, I'm long gone. Those hours spent in the company of thousands of trees and scores of squirrels and birds, with the sound of the leaves crackling under the bike's wheels and gushing fountains, refresh not only my body but my soul. I can face the heat and noise and traffic another week, knowing I have this haven to escape to.

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Cycling in the wood

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Flowers everywhere

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A squirrel investigating my bicycle

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A humming bird hovering by some flowers

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An inquisitive squirrel

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Hundreds of trees

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A thick carpet of leaves

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Young shoots

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Some ducks enjoying the fountains

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A small canal

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Bright orange flowers

Posted by margaretm 14:40 Archived in Mexico Tagged nature park mexico city chapultepec Comments (0)

Flying men

Los Voladores de Papantla

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Voladores about to perform their ritual

If you drive or walk along Paseo de la Reforma, with the Museo Nacional de Antropologia on your left, look up and you'll see a tall thin blue pole poking above the trees in Chapultepec Park. Depending on what time of day you're passing by, you may see some men sitting atop the small platform, dressed in brightly coloured costumes. These are not modern-day bungee jumpers. They are the Voladores de Papantla, ready to perform their spectacular flying dance.

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Volador on pole with the Torre Mayor in the background

What are they doing at the top of the 30m (100ft) pole with no safety net below? If you arrive at the beginning of their ceremony, you will witness an ancient ritual. Dressed in bright red and white costumes, with a crested head-dress and coloured streamers, the men first of all do a small dance at the bottom of the pole to prepare the ground. Then one by one, five men, four fliers (voladores) and a musician, climb to the top of the pole. At the top, on a small revolving platform, the voladores tie their ankles to ropes wound around the pole and then at the appropriate time, they plunge off and fall down head first, "flying" gracefully in circles. With their arms open wide, they glide down to the ground and finally return to the standing position. The fifth man remains at the top playing a hand-made wooden pipe and drum. The pipe represents a bird singing and the drum represents the voice of the gods.

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Preparing for the flight

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Climbing up the pole

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The four fliers jumping off

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Flying

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Swinging round in circles

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Amost reaching the ground

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Returning to the standing position

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At the end

The Voladores are Totonac Indians and the origin of this ritual dates back to pre-Hispanic times. According to legend, the gods said to man, "Dance, we will watch". So the Indians perform this spectacular dance to please the gods. The dance has a specific meaning. Each volador circles the pole 13 times before reaching the ground, multiplied by four, making a total of 52. This symbolises the 52-year cycles of the ancient calendar. The pole represents the vertical connection between the Earth, the heavens above, and the underworld below. The dance also symbolises the four cardinal points - the four corners of the platform, the four voladores and the musician turning to the east, south, west and north as he plays.

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Flying upside down

Although originally a spiritual ritual performed on special dates, the Dance is now performed in places all over Mexico for tourists too. In Mexico City, they regularly plunge off their pole which is hidden among the trees in front of the Anthropology Museum. Many people combine a visit to this excellent museum before or after watching these brave fliers.

It makes an interesting contrast to watch Totonac Indians repeating an ancient pre-Hispanic ritual, centuries old, with a backdrop of skyscrapers and even airplanes and the roar of the traffic just metres away. And yet somehow while watching them gracefully fly down, you forget totally about city life for a few moments.

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In flight

Posted by margaretm 05:27 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico city indians customs ceremonies voladores Comments (0)

10 Head-turners - Modern architecture in Mexico City

The stunning, the unusual and the weird

Here are 10 of Mexico City's most stunning, unusual or weird-looking modern buildings:

1. Soumaya Museum

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Twisted and Squeezed. Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, had this building constructed to house his art collections. The museum, located in Polanco, was opened to the public on 29th March and is free of charge.

2. Mexican Stock Exchange

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Slim and Glassy. La Bolsa Mexicana is a stunning blue, glass skyscraper towering over the Glorieta de la Palma in the financial district, along Paseo de la Reforma.

3. La Lavadora - The Washing Machine

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Famous and Eye-catching. Its real name is Edificio Calakmul but it is more commonly known as the Washing Machine. No guesses why! It is a highly intelligent office building located in Santa Fe.

4. Fiesta Inn Hotel

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Balancing Oval. An unusual design for a hotel, set in the new financial district of Santa Fe.

5. El Pantalón - The Trousers

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Tall and Elegant. Its real name is Torre Arcos Bosques I and it was the first Intellligent building in Latin America when it was built. Its nickname, The Trousers, aptly describes its design. Located in Bosques de las Lomas.

6. Twin Towers

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Daring and Bold. This is the Second Tower of Arcos Bosques, next to El Pantalón. Twin towers crossed by a horizontal platform in the shape of an "H".

7. Plaza Moliere 222

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Avant-garde and Pyramidal. This highly-distinguishable landmark in Polanco houses a shopping centre and offices.

8. World Trade Center, Mexico City

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Stunning and Revolving. The WTC soars head and shoulders above anything in the area and is most famous for its revolving restaurant (the largest in the world) capping the rectangular-shaped skyscraper and giving impressive views of the city. It's located in Colonia Del Valle and is an important conventions centre.

9. Iglesia de Bosques de las Lomas

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Striking Shape and Colour. With its pyramidal shape and bright colours, this church stands out for more than just one reason in the surrounding area.

10. Plaza de Residencias

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Black Boomerang. This black,gl curved building is sandwiched between the Monumento a Colón and the Monumento a la Revolución, along Paseo de la Reforma.

Posted by margaretm 04:23 Archived in Mexico Tagged buildings mexico city modern Comments (0)

What's yellow, smokes and wakes you up in the morning?

It's 6.30 am and the sky is still inky black as we leave the house but the city is already asitr. In every neighbourhood, scores of wheezing, rattling yellow buses are doing the rounds, picking up kids to take to school. We stand at the end of our road waiting. Three other yellow buses pass by, going down the roads on their route. A high-pitched beep...beep...beep...beep...beep...beep slices through the dawn's silence. The bus in the next street is reversing the entire way down to the end of the no-through road with its accompanying warning noise waking up the sleepers. There's no room to turn around or manoeuvre so that is the only way to get to its pick-up point. That early-morning beep...beep...beep...beep...beep sound is etched deep into my memory. It will forever remind me of our years in Mexico.

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Our school bus arrives, manoeuvres itself into a position diagonally across the road (regardless of whether there are any other cars around), opens the door and when my kids are on, begins to reverse into the side street opposite. Beep...beep...beep...beep...beep it goes. Off they disappear, on what I call their "guided tour" of Mexico City. It will take them 35-40 minutes to arrive. Most of the others on the bus are sleeping in their seats, with their own music piped into their ears to drown out the driver's dubious taste in radio programmes.

I walk our dog, Ozzy, down to the main road. Yellow buses, some with smoke pouring out behind, are hurtling down at a speed which is only possible at this time in the morning, when the traffic still hasn't thickened. I try not to imagine what what could happen if a rather slow vehicle gets in their way. My children are on a bus like that too.

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I think back to when we arrived almost two years ago. A few days after our arrival, I went to visit the school and met the señora in charge of school transport. "El camión llegará a su calle a las 6.46", she said. Literally, she had just told me that the TRUCK would arrive at our street at 6.46 am to pick up Cristina and Marc and drop them off at school. I blinked rather quickly as I tried to digest what she'd just said. So our kids have to sit in the back of a TRUCK to get to school? Not only had people told us that life in Mexico City was dangerous, I'd seen how the truck drivers drive! "Don't they go to school in an autobus?" I asked innocently. She stared at me for a moment with a puzzled look, then clicked and burst out laughing. "Oh, of course! In Mexico we call buses trucks!" I was relieved.

Three days later, Cristina and I were standing at the end of our street waiting for the bus to pick her up and take her to her new school. We waited and waited. No yellow bus came with the school's name on it, like the ones we'd seen parked in a long line outside the school. We waited a bit longer. All of a sudden, it dawned on us that maybe the small white minivan we'd seen pass us was the school bus. As we ran after it, it disappeared into the distance and we could just make out the school's name on the side. Too late. She missed the camión, the bus, on her very first day of school. Not a good way to start.

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At that time, we were living at a different address. As I went for my early-morning walk around the streets, having got the kids off to school, I encountered lots of these yellow monsters thundering down the almost empty roads, reversing down steep streets which dropped off into the gully below, or churning out smoke while they waited for their young passengers to emerge sleepwalking from their houses. Here in Mexico, you don't go to the bus, the bus comes to you. Which is why it takes so long to get to school. They wait for a few minutes at each person's house to give them time to grab their bags, kiss their mums goodbye and rush out. Those who unfortunately live furthest away have to catch the bus at 5 am.

One morning, one of these enormous buses, with apparently just half a dozen sleepy passengers, tried to turn a corner near our house. A lady had very unwisely parked her car on the corner, making it impossible for a bus of those proportions to squeeze by. Despite the obvious tightness of the manoeuvre, I watched as the bus driver attempted the impossible. With a spine-chilling scraping noise (like fingernails running down the blackboard), he re-designed the whole shape of the car, leaving a gaping metal wound right down the side. I was curious as to what would happen next. He reversed a few centimetres until he hit the car on the other side of the corner and broke the front light, scraped the lady's car again and ploughed ahead until he came to a halt on the other side of the road. By then, the man vigorously washing the wheels of a nearby car had rang the doorbell of the lady's house. She appeared in curlers and a bathrobe, and aimed a whole stream of abuse at the bus driver. It was a good thing I didn't understand half of the Mexican expressions then. She looked like she was stabbing him to death with words. I turned and walked down the other way, and noticed that the kids on the bus had woken up and had their noses eagerly pressed to the window. I completed my circuit and arrived back 25 minutes later, to see the bus still there, the lady still shouting and the children obviously enjoying the fact that they were going to be late for school.

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Posted by margaretm 05:23 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico city transport buses Comments (0)

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