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10 random things about Mexico City

1. Mexico City is sinking

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Mexico City's Cathedral has been sinking unevenly.

When it was founded by the Aztecs in 1325, the city, then called Tenochtitlán, was built on an island in the middle of a lake. Then the Spaniards arrived on the scene, conquered the Aztecs in 1521 and started draining the lake to control the floods. One flood in 1629 left the city underwater for five years! Since then the waters of the lake have more or less disappeared and the reservoirs underground providing water for modern-day Mexico City are constantly being depleted as the population continues to expand. As a result, the city is sinking down into the soft former lake bed at a rate of between 8-37 cm (5-14 inches) a year.

If you thought Venice was sinking fast, Mexico City está hundiendo even faster. Between 1950 and 1980, it sank down 5 metres (16 feet). When the famous monument, the Ángel de la Independencia, was built in 1910, it only had 9 steps at the base but another 14 have been added since then as the ground around it has sunk down. As you walk around the old parts of the city, you can see colonial buildings visibly leaning over or well below road level, balconies at odd angles and cracked walls or pavements. The Metropolitan Cathedral still looks askew despite the restoration project undertaken. By 1989, the heavier bell-tower end had sunk almost 3 metres (8 ft) deeper than the rear part and the eastern tower had subsided 1 metre (3 ft) more than the western one. Inch by inch and year by year, engineers repositioned a church that weighs more than 127,000 tons and is more than 400 feet long. Since excavation work began in 1993, the entire cathedral has been ratcheted more than 1 metre (3 ft) toward level, nearly half the distance it had settled askew

2. It has more museums than any other city in the world

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Tickets to some of Mexico City's museums

There are more than 160 museums in Mexico City, ranging from the enormous Museo Nacional de Antropología to some very tiny or obscure ones, including museums dedicated to Caricatures, Mexican Medicines or Telephony. In Chapultepec Park alone, you can visit 9 of them. Tickets cost 51 pesos per adult (about US$ 4 or €3) in the official ones which are free on Sundays for all Mexicans and residents. If you want to enjoy the museums without crowds, Sunday is a day to avoid, as is Monday when they are closed. Perhaps one of the strangest museum buildings is the one built by Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, to house his personal collection of artifacts and paintings. Located in Plaza Carso in Polanco, it resembles a twisted tin can and is free of charge to everyone.

3. The city changes colour in March and April

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Purple jacaranda trees

Sometime in March, the city starts undergoing a startling transformation when thousands of jacaranda trees begin blooming in the streets, covering the megalopolis in a beautiful purple cloak. At the height of the jacaranda season, if you stand still, you can hear the purple flowers drop off all around you and could be forgiven for thinking you're in the middle of a purple snowfall.

4. It is a massive city with millions of vehicles and NO driving test

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Millions of vehicles but no driving test is needed

Unbelievable as it may seem, the only thing new drivers have to do to launch themselves into the hazardous, chaotic traffic of this city, joining another 4 million vehicles on the roads, is to buy a driving licence. There is NO driving test involved, neither a written one or a practical one. Except for 15-17 year olds, the vast majority of drivers have had no formal training in how to drive their vehicle or how to share the road correctly with other users. Authorities in the capital eliminated the driving test in the early 1990s in a bid to reduce corruption but anyone visiting Mexico City today will see that this has only created a different set of problems. Sigh!

5. The Aztec language lives on

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A cultural centre where you can learn indigenous languages, including náhuatl

Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, has been spoken in Central Mexico since the 7th Century AD. There are still 1.45 million people who speak it today mainly in the Valle de Mexico and it is considered a lengua nacional. You may be surprised to find that some of their words have made their way into the English language via Spanish. These include "tomato" (tomatl in náhuatl), "avocado" (ahuácatl) and "chocolate" (chocolatl or xocolatl).

6. The best time of year to drive in Mexico City

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Lovely empty roads!

In 2011, IBM conducted their aptly-titled Commuter Pain Study around the world and guess which city grabbed first place? Yes, Mexico City which scored three times worse than New York. Of course, it came as no surprise to those of us who live here. The traffic snarls and congestion are notoriously bad. Yet there are a few times of the year when it can be positively pleasant to drive around the city: a few days during the Christmas holidays, at Easter and to a lesser extent, July. Why? That's when thousands of people leave the metropolis for Acapulco or other places and leave the streets empty. The only problem is... that's when we want to go away too!

7. Baking cakes is hit and miss

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A successful cake baked by my kids...

Baking Brownies or cakes can be a real struggle here. Nothing to do with different flour varieties or anything like that. No, it's the high-altitude factor which forces you to re-think all your normal recipes. At over 2300 m (7000 ft), you need to make adjustments such as higher oven temperatures, less baking powder, more liquid, less sugar and who know what else. It's a case of hit and miss and experimenting. So if you have successfully baked a cake or your Brownies haven't turned out like volcanic rock while living in Mexico City, you can be very proud of yourself!

8. Blankets are needed

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Colourful Mexican blankets, ideal for those chilly nights

Mostly, when you say the word "Mexico" to people, they are already imagining tropical beaches and warm climes. And when you say "Mexico City" they think the same, but add a huge city to the scene. However, the weather is Mexico City is influenced by its location in a high-altitude "bowl" surrounded by mountains. This means it is COOL all year round, except for a couple of months. As many houses don't have central heating, it often gets chilly at night, especially in January and February when temperatures can drop to as low as -4 °C and chances are you may need one of those typical Mexican blankets on your bed to keep you warm. Ironically, many of us during the winter wear our jackets inside the house and take them off when we go outside.

9. Mexico City is relatively safe

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Army truck patrolling in the Centro Histórico

Statistics show that the capital is becoming a refuge for people fleeing from other areas around the country which have seen an increase in violence and crime. In general, Mexico City is safe as long as you take certain precautions... like in any other big cities in the world. Some say the drug cartels have left it alone because this is where their families live, although we have had some grisly episodes recently not too far from us. Others say that the Federal Police in DF are better paid and therefore less corrupt than in other states. Who knows?

10. The city has floating gardens and canals

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Canals and trajineras in Xochimilco

Down in the south of Mexico City is an area called Xochimilco, famous for its chinampas and canals. Here the Aztecs created chinampas, or floating gardens, on the shallow waters of the lake, Lago Texcoco. They did this by making rafts of juniper branches and heaping soil and mud from the lakebed on top of them. They then tied these rafts to juniper trees and used them as vegetable plots. Today, there are still around 200 of these islands which are used to grow flowers and other crops and they are part of the Xochimilco World Heritage site. You can go for rides along the canals in colourful, flat-bottomed boats called trajineras.

Posted by margaretm 13:29 Archived in Mexico Tagged traffic museums canals driving mexico_city climate safety cakes xochimilco jacarandas baking sinking lakebed aztecs spaniards floating_gardens Comments (0)

The day my car vanished

Parking

Driving in Mexico City is, more often than not, a harrowing experience. When you're not being chopped up like minced meat by aggressive drivers, you find yourself glued to the neighbouring cars as the thick traffic solidifies around you like cooling lava. And if you do manage to get to your destination in one piece and you're still sane, there's still one more hurdle to get over. You have to find somewhere to park.

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No parking. Your car will be towed away.

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Solid traffic

There are millions of vehicles in DF and sometimes it seems as if they all got the parking spaces before you. Parking in this city is a matter of timing more than anything else. Depending on the time of day and, of course, the area you happen to be in, your chances of finding somewhere to estacionar your vehicle can vary from easy to downright impossible. More than once, I've made my way to the supermarket, sat in the queue waiting to get into the supermarket car park (which is synonymous for blocking the road) for 15 minutes and then decided to go home empty-handed or try somewhere else.

However, there are a number of parking options available to you, some of them a bit unusual:

1. If you go to a modern shopping centre, there is usually a modern car park alongside, as in Europe, often with European prices. The only difference is that you can get your car washed by the boys there while you're away. It will cost about 40 pesos. A case of killing two birds with one stone.

2. Small parking lots abound in many places on empty building sites, some of them terribly scruffy looking, with a small hut at the entrance next to a gate and usually a hand-painted notice proclaiming Pension 24-horas or 22 pesos 1 hora. Some of them look like the last sort of place you'd ever want to leave your car but they are usually OK. You can park there for a fee and have your car taken care of, washed, cleaned inside etc.

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A small car park with delusions of grandeur

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Waving a red flag to catch your attention

3. If you go to some shops, they may have a few parking spaces controlled by a "waver and whistler". He'll help you find the space (there are usually less than 10 spaces so it isn't actually very difficult), watches over your car while you're in the shop and then whistles you out. A few pesos will bring a smile to his face and a cheerful "Que tenga una excelente tarde, señorita" which more or less translates as "Have a wonderful afternoon, miss!"

4. You may find a street taken over by franaleros or car watchers. Although stationed on a public way, they act as if they own that particular stretch of street, putting buckets or other items in the road to prevent anyone stopping there by mistake. They then stand in the road and flag you down and offer you a parking space. You are expected to give them a tip for watching your car and making sure nothing happens to it. Some can be aggressive and you may find that if you omit the tip or don't pay enough, they will do something to your car. I sometimes make use of a franalero's service if I just need to pop in to the bread shop to get a couple of baguettes. He watches over my car while it's double parked and keeps the tow truck away for a few minutes.

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Plastic bottles guarding the parking space

5. Valet-parking is an upscale luxury in Europe but in Mexico, nearly every establishment of a certain size or importance offers this service. You may see a small stand outside the shop, restaurant or office with an umbrella over it accompanied by a group of boys or men, some of them smartly-dressed. First-time visitors to Mexico City usually hyperventilate when they have to hand over their car and the keys to some stranger for the first time and watch them drive their vehicle out of sight down the road. Will they ever see it again, is the thought that hammers away worryingly in their brain for the next hour or so as they have their meal, go shopping or do some other errand. It seems incongruous that, in a city where an average of 62 cars are stolen every day, you can willingly hand over one of your most expensive possessions to a man you know absolutely nothing about and hope to ever see it again. It certainly isn't in keeping with all the stories of corruption, violence, armed robbery or kidnapping. And yet Valet-parking is a safe option... or at least we have always been given our car back. The men either take your car away and park it for you, or they may even drive around looking for a space along the crowded streets and then swap it for an outgoing car. It saves you time and energy although you may have to wait quite a while for them to reappear with it. I sometimes wonder if they forgot where they parked it, like I do.

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Valet parking

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Taking care of the cars

6. Some restaurants and offices in well-sought after areas with reduced parking facilities have come up with a novel idea. They use a system of double-decker parking racks. You leave your car and keys with them and they park and un-park the guests' cars as and when they need them, shuffling them around, and moving them up and down.

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Double-decker parking

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Which one is your car?

7. Of course, there is always the possibility that you may actually find a space to park along a street. Just make sure there is no E sign crossed out (E = Estacionar) and that you are allowed to park there or you may come back and find you have a flat tyre or your car has disappeared without the slightest trace. Like I did. Or depending on the area you are in, there may be clear evidence when you return that someone tried to nick your wheel trims. Like they did to mine. Or even that they have tried to force their way in and your key no longer works. This has happened to me. The electronic key has never worked since.

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No parking. Flat tyres free of charge!

One piece of advice: I have learnt in the almost two years I've been living here not to underestimate the grua or the tow-truck. It is not a pleasant experience to have your car towed away.

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Someone's lost their car to the grua....

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Immobilised car

The first time it happened to me (unfortunately 3 times to date), I had accidentally left my debit card in a cashpoint machine. I drove round the block, remembered, and returned to the bank. Parking along the side of the road like all the other car drivers, I nipped into the cashpoint. To my dismay, the card had disappeared and hadn't been returned to the bank. I checked my car outside and then went in the bank to report and cancel the card. Surprisingly, just 10 minutes later, I emerged triumphantly with a totally new card (it takes a week back in Spain) feeling in awe of the banking system which had just zoomed up a few notches in my consideration. My feeling of amazement immediately turned to horror. My car, along with the ice-cream, butter, yoghurts and the rest of the weekly shopping, had vanished into thin air.

I checked the pavement to see if there was any sticker left by the tow truck saying where they had taken it to. Nothing. My heart began to beat faster as I then realised it must have been stolen. Obviously one of the 62 cars that day. And I'd only had it a couple of months. A man was standing by a car nearby so I decided to approach him. Had he seen what had happened to a small black car parked here? Sí, señorita, la grua se lo llevó", he said. "It was towed away". But why only my car? What about all the other cars? He proceeded to point out a beefy-looking bouncer standing on the other side of the street. "Tiene que darle pesos. Sino, llama la grua." If I didn't grease his palm, he was in collusion with the tow truck people and called them. I was learning the hard way. The man added, "That's why I'm standing here by the car while I wait for someone in that office. Otherwise they would tow it away."

I was unsure as to what to do next. Where do you find a towed-away car in the middle of Mexico City? After consulting a fair number of people, it seemed most likely that it would have been taken to one of two corrales. Josep was incomunicado in a meeting, and I rang Cristina and Marc at home to let them know why I was taking so long. "Mum, say it again. What have you lost? Your card or your car?" "Both!", I managed to blurt out before the cell phone died on me. A policeman told me where to go but said I should take a taxi. It was too far to walk. I'm glad I listened to him. He hailed one for me, explained my dilemma and off we went. The taxi driver said he would wait outside the corral until I was sure my car was there. It wasn't a nice area for me to be left stranded in. He went on to give me a grisly account of the 9 times he had been atracado, asaltado, herido (assaulted with injuries). He showed me the scar left on his head from one of the incidents. A gun had been put to his head twice and his taxi stolen twice. I was getting more nervous by his stories than by the thought of never finding my car again.

Three and a half hours later, after I'd had to call Joseo to get papers I hadn't even known existed and paid the fine, I peeled off numerous sticky white papers from the doors and petrol tank cover and drove my car home. The ice-cream had melted in the hot midday sun, the youghurts had curdled and the butter was dripping all over the contents of the shopping bag. But I had my car back.

Posted by margaretm 11:05 Archived in Mexico Tagged traffic parking mexico city trucks tow Comments (0)

Noé

I realised the other day that I haven't seen him for a while. I hope nothing's wrong. His name is Noé and he's rather small for his 11 years of age. I often see him sitting on the step outside the shop where I buy my bread. Balanced on his knees is a small cardboard box with a few mazapan snacks in it which he sells for 5 pesos each. When we buy him something to eat or drink, he looks up shyly, smiles and says, "Gracias!". Then he carefully puts the carton of chocolate-flavoured milk or food in his rucksack behind him. He doesn't take it for himself. It's for his family.

One day I asked if he lived nearby, knowing full well he couldn't possibly be from this area. "No", he replied. "I come here on the Metro after school with my brother. He drops me off here." I wondered about his parents. "Mi mamá works somewhere else. She takes my little sisters with her." "What about your Dad?" He doesn't have a father, only a mother. So that's Noe's life. After school, some days he comes to this place and sits for hours trying to make a few pesos to help his mother pagar los gastos.

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Sitting on his step

I hate to think of him spending all afternoon there. He's an eleven-year-old boy. He should be playing football with his friends or doing his homework at home. We started taking comics and other reading material to him. The first time he saw the comic, his eyes grew wide in excitement. "Gracias, gracias!". As we walked away, I saw him deeply engrossed in the pictures and stories. I hoped he wouldn't forget about selling the marzipan sweets.

Like Noé, there are thousands of children in Mexico who work. Not being exploited by evil bosses but just having to help their families out because the poor have no safety nets. They need the extra pesos just to get by, to eat, to survive. Many other youngsters are abused, mistreated, abandoned, living on the streets, and working. So all around Mexico City you can see children cleaning car windows, dressed up as clowns or selling things at the traffic lights, begging, playing the accordion or singing. Missing out on their education, sitting or standing for hours, breathing in toxic fumes, dodging cars, buses and trucks, carrying babies on their back, exposed to all sorts of dangerous situations. Others are hidden. This is the sad face of poverty and vulnerability and more needs to be done so these children can just be children.

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Boy selling football shirts

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Three boys forming a human tower

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Small girl dressed up as a clown asking for pesos

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Young flower-seller

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Mother and her two small children entertaining drivers at traffic lights

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Boy cleaning car

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A young girl with a baby on her back begging among cars

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Boy entertainer in Reforma

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Girls washing car windscreens at traffic lights

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Father and son doing their balancing act

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Collecting money from the motorists

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A young girl wanders around in pyjamas while her mother begs

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Young boy singing in the street

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A balancing act in more than one sense

Posted by margaretm 04:11 Archived in Mexico Tagged children traffic lights mexico city poverty Comments (0)

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