Tag: Mexico City

Why I Love Guanajuato

I went on a rant when I returned to Guanajuato after two months in Paris. Now I have returned from St. Louis, Boston, Brattleboro, then we went off to Tampico, Mexico for four nights, then four nights in Mexico City, then home again. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to return to this small colonial walking city Guanajuato.

In Missouri, we biked the Katy Trail in St. Charles, where the Lewis and Clark expedition started, then paralleled it by car from Fulton to St. Louis, where it was hot and overly urbanized. I met talented, intelligent and thoughtful people there, but I think I also sensed loneliness and disenchantment.

Brattleboro was too small and too uniformly culture and counter-culture. The best hotel plays classical music over a loudspeaker in order to drive the latter group, youth without privilege, from the parking lot. They have a wonderful coop grocery store that rivals or surpasses Whole Foods. The first of two bridges crossing the Connecticut River over to the New Hampshire side still vibrates alarmingly when lumber trucks crawl across it—a disaster waiting to happen. I’m sure there are good people there, but they are probably too spread out from each other for my taste.

Downtown Boston—we have a friend who lives in Chinatown—seemed overrun with tourists and irrational in its planning. It is nearly impossible to leave the airport, go through the Sumner Tunnel and turn south toward Chinatown and the whole South Shore. Like other cities, the wealthy have abandoned the downtown. The subway—its ridership is largely people of color and working class—shuts down at 1 am, as if working people did not work at night, or need to get home. I did enjoy the two modest AirBnBs we stayed at in East Boston, across the harbor from the downtown. There was a lovely, beautifully planned walking path along the edge of the harbor to a dock where water taxis stopped, along with larger ferries. Except that it cost $12 to cross the mile or so to downtown Boston, $20 round trip. And therefore not an option for the working class—as opposed to the salaried class.

We visited family in Portsmouth, NH and stayed in a charming, old little house and walked all over the town. I could live there, except that I’m not sure there’s enough happening, for me. There was an interesting monument honoring African slaves that had died there.

We returned to Mexico. While approaching León/Guanajuato (BJX), I realized I could not find my permanent resident card, my “Credencial de Inmigrado.” And so I ran headlong into the Mexican immigration bureaucracy, itself a study in irrationality. It did not matter that I held in my hands a paper that said I was a permanent resident when I left three weeks before. I had to write a letter then and there explaining how I had lost the card. That document was stamped, and I received a tourist visa, good for only 180 days. There’s no stress like this kind. I protested that they had a record of my status in their computers. Not good enough. We drove over to Inmigración in San Miguel. The agent there told me my status had been automatically erased when they issued me a tourist card. Again I mentioned my status as permanent resident was established after ten years of paper work. Not good enough. I have to return to the U.S., to a Mexican consulate, with the proper documents (that’s no mean trick, knowing what they are), get a certain stamp in my U.S. passport, then approach Migración in San Miguel again, fill out more papers, have an interview, present documents, pay a fine and come back for the piece of plastic at some future date.

Then, after a few days of rest, we were off to Tampico, Mexico for four nights, to do research for a novel on the nationalization of oil in 1938. Tampico is rich in oil history, especially at a time when the world was gearing up for a world war and radicalized oil workers were demanding fair wages and benefits. If it had not been for Roosevelt liking Lázaro Cárdenas, the U.S. might have listened to the U.S. and English oil companies and landed troops in Tampico. Instead, the companies instigated a boycott and withdrew technical support, shipping and machinery. Mexico turned to Germany and Italy for machinery and oil sales. There is an interesting photo of a German freighter tied up next to the elegant customs house, flying the swastika.

Tampico makes St. Louis seem cool. It was hot, and the dew point was so high you couldn’t sweat and cool yourself. Depending on who you talked to, the city was either completely safe or extremely dangerous. We found a good tourist consultant, who linked us up with a trusted guide. He took us places only a novelist would want to go to. Starting from shadows underneath a railroad bridge—where people waited for outboards to take them to various landings up and down the Pánuco River, a river system a little like the Mekong in Vietnam—our guide lined up a ponga with outboard plus boatman, and we crawled up and down the Pánuco for an hour, observing freighters, navy ships, fishing vessels, wrecks of every sort, shoreline vegetation, old oil rigs, oil platforms being built and places that might reveal a large crocodile or two.

People were very sweet and helpful in Tampico. Like most of Mexico, people look out for you and warn you when you shouldn’t go somewhere. Our taxi driver from the airport told us the Army had driven out the city police and replaced them with military police. That seemed to mainly apply to the Old Town Plaza de Armas. You’re wary when you don’t know the parameters of safety and danger in a new place in Mexico. Eventually, we trusted out consultant and took small, clean, air conditioned share taxis to lovely Miramar beach (8 pesos for a twenty-minute ride), where I swam in the Gulf of Mexico—but not too far out where larger crocodiles cruise.

Mexico City on a weekend, in the Historic Center, is a mad house. We met with my publisher, then gradually succumbed to our accumulated travel fatigue and took long naps. We had a momentary fright when our Uber taxi that was to take us to the airport was blocked by Transit police. You can read about that in the post just below this one.

The point I’ve been trying to get to is this: I was overjoyed to get back to Guanajuato, where it seemed safe, simpler, calm and rational. Where all ages and classes mix in this walking city. Simplicity is the key word. There are few surface roads. You hear the sound of chickens and dogs. The rains build up and come later in the afternoon. There are the figs, avocados, oranges and limes in the garden, the many people we know and who know us, the many people we like and who like us. We seldom get into our car, because there is no need to. From the roof of the restaurant and cultural center called the Casa Cuatro—where we do yoga—you hear the Symphony practicing César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor in the next door ancient cathedral called the Compañia after the Jesuits.

There are things that bother me of course. While I was writing this, a small plane circled over the city with a loudspeaker pointed down at us, as if fighter-bombers were coming and we were being warned to leave immediately. The pilot was hawking mattresses, or something else that the sound of his motor drowned out. And there are the bandas de guerra, the adolescent bugle and drum squads, maybe holdovers from the Cristero War 1926-29 in which 90,000 people died. Recently, the lads have drummed more and bugled less—but together or separately it is little more than an ugly blaring and the thump of war. All in the name of the man who said to turn the other cheek. I can live with it, just barely—because the rest of it here is so livable and good.

Uber vs Mexico City’s Transit Police

Recently, I had my first Uber taxi experience, as well as my first experience of police corruption in Mexico city.

We had to get to the Mexico City airport. Our AirBnB host sang Uber’s praises. He would pay the taxi through his account. I would reimburse him in pesos. We would only need to call about six minutes before an Uber came. The driver would be dressed in jacket and tie, we would know all about him before he arrived since he had been thoroughly screened by the company, we would see his photo and know the license number of his car. We would each get a free bottle of water.

We waited at the corner of Motolinía and Avenida Francisco Madero. Various taxis slowed, offering rides. We waved them on. That may have been the tip off. Finally, Luis came, in a little red car, clean, new, and with the right license number. We loaded our luggage. Luis asked what terminal. We didn’t know. I got out the piece of paper with the flight information. There was no mention of the terminal. Our host looked it up in a flash with his smart phone. Terminal 1. A good minute had gone by. We got in the car. A Transit Police pulled in in front of us with his motorcycle, boxing us in. He came to the driver’s window. We had, he said, committed an infraction and weren’t going anywhere. Our host, a rational man, began to protest. What did he mean, we had just stopped to load baggage, that’s what you do when you’re going to the airport. The policeman said we would have to wait until his commanding officer got there. Out of thin air, a Transit Police pickup pulled up next to us. A female officer got out of the passenger seat and turned to the pickup’s bed. There she had a whole tangle of wheel boots, linked by cables, to incapacitate the Uber taxi. I got out. I told her we were on our way to the airport, we had a flight to catch, clearly we were tourists. She ignored me. Our host ran down to the middle of the next block, up-traffic, to consult with other police who had gathered there with their squad cars. I could see about three different flashing police lights. I assumed their activity had to do with ours, and it looked menacing. Our host ran back. He opened the truck of the Uber.

“There, look at the bags,” he said to the woman. “See, they’re going to the airport.”

The female officer ignored him and began to fumble with her nest of cables and wheel boots.

Our host looked at me. “Get in the car!”

I opened the door. Our driver—quiet the whole time—had been saying something to the motorcycle officer. He turned back toward me and commanded, “Get in!”

He started the car and began to back away from the motorcycle that blocked us. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. He pulled out and gunned it. D. turned around to wave good-bye to our host. I turned too and could see he was still arguing with the police.

“What happened?” I asked our driver.

“I told him he would have to pay for the flights if you missed them.”

After a pause, I asked, “Did they know you were going to pick us up?”

“I don’t think so.”

“So the police are with the taxi drivers and anti-Uber?”

He nodded, yes, that’s what was happening.

He held up a small bottle of water. Would I like one? I said I would. D. thanked him and said no.

While I drank my free water, I contemplated what seemed like a  dark alliance between the police and the spread of normal taxis. I didn’t understand it, especially since, according to Luis our driver, Uber paid the same amount of taxes as the regular taxis: 2%! and that, like everything else, it had to do with mafias of control and was, of course, a kind of anarchic harassment. It turns out, however, that the matter is much more complicated and that Uber actually casts a long shadow, and that our host was wrong and the Transit police, right. For an intelligent discussion, scroll down to the Laura Flanders interview with a representative of non-Uber taxi drivers in an American city. I find her remarks very persuasive: http://www.telesurtv.net/…/Mexico-City-Set-to-Regulate…

The Chronicles of a Rat in Mexico City

No one understands Mexico City, or what will happen next, since it’s sinking and leaning—it was built over a bog—and overrun with complex commercial mafias and hollowed out by inattention. It is said that eighty percent of the historical buildings in the historic center are unoccupied. That is to say, the first floor (U.S. second floor) and on up are empty, except for questionable storage and a few of us.

But how can this be, you ask, when the sidewalks and subways in the same area are teeming with Two-legs. Well, it is partly because of the rent freeze decreed in in 1948 and lifted in 1992, that scared off investors and ceded the walls to us. Earthquakes were always a possibility, but less so than owner indolence, the philosophy of doing just enough, and no more, which is to say, taking the earnings from ground floor stores and shops but not fixing everything above it.

How long can this go on? it is reasonable to ask. The buildings will collapse and we will be back on the streets. The Government should do what it does best. Threaten. Say they’ll give you the pesos, but then you have to bring things up to standards, preserve the heritage—wipe us out. You have five years, and if you don’t do it, we take your property and that will be that. Fortunate for us, the thin-tailed Fates smile and political indolence stands in the way. There’s money but no ideas. Or, more likely, no money and no ideas.

But there are community efforts to buy up individual buildings and restore them, so that there will be apartments, with the hope of bringing middle class families back into the historic center. Here again, the government could control rents, so tariffs rise slowly. Otherwise, young families will not be able to stay and those who can stay won’t want to share the streets with the teeming masses—which would include us.

What you have now is a strange, sprawling museum of architectural ruins that the poor stroll past and admire as theirs, passing fine restaurants they cannot afford and museums for which they have no cultural affinity. Unlike us who visit them all regularly. Hence the name rattus norvegicus intellectualis.

There are exceptions to everything, including to non-investment. Governments like to immortalize themselves and have taken ruins and changed them into breathtaking constructs. The Biblioteca de México “José Vasconcelos” used to be Spain’s royal tobacco factory, finished in 1807, became a prison in 1816, an armory 1825, a base for anti-Madero forces in 1913, a library in 1946—in short, a story of swords into books, with an ingenious over-arching, floating roof, the personal library of Carlos Monsiváis, among others, and a vast reading room for 2,000 readers—in a city and nation that are largely non-reading, and know little of oral history—a tradition sacred to us who embrace all kinds of tails.

Still, be hopeful, there are other kinds of occupations. Two and four-legged Mafias that regulate space, the flow of goods and payoffs. You can see this in places like the Avenida Donceles in the Cuauhtémoc district, just north of the Zócalo, where trucks clog the streets unloading contraband, stuffed teddy bears and pandas—for some reason no rattus norvegicus—oversized trucks for spoiled little boys, red and yellow plastic for Three Kings. Or the western end of the Alameda park, the permanent camp in front of the Hilton Hotel, the last holdout of the ambulantes, the street merchants who used to occupy the whole park. And in the short street on its northern border, mafia types in short zippered leather jackets park their cars in the middle of the street, stand like wrestlers and discuss the various kinds of rents and protections that are due.

This kind of occupation is tolerated, while another kind is not—that vast space called the Zócalo, controlled by the Government in order to preserve the appearance of control and sovereignty. A street or two back, storm-blue police buses squat like turtles sunning. They have screens over the windows to keep rocks out and prisoners in—with, I can testify to this—generous deposits of dried blood on their metal floors. No rat, Norwegian or otherwise, would be caught dead lingering in one of those traps. Men in half riot gear lounge on the benches, fighting off, confronting boredom. They are always present, the buses, because of the threat of occupation is always present. Like the huge November 20, 2014 demonstration against the unexplained murder of the 43 student teachers from Ayotzinapa. As in chess, always control the center or, in this case, the Zócalo. To that end, a page out of The Brothers Karamazov, the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor,” who tells a returned Christ that the people need nothing more than authority, miracle and entertainment. Hence, in front of the Presidencia (authority), the humble wait for hours in long lines to experience skating and sledding (entertainment), on the miracle of ice and artificial snow—a Disney fairytale of sparkle and wonder that keeps the square safe from citizens unhappy with their government.

As I have said, there are different kinds of occupation. Like what occupies my mind. Images of the market San Juan, the sprawling indoor complex that offers everything, in the poorest taste, crocodiles skinned right up to their jowls, their white meat flaky like that of dead snake. But worst of all, and the most foreboding, also white piglet bodies in two or three sizes, bereft, naked, dead. Murdered. A reminder of what can happen to us if the Two-legs decide we should appear clear-wrapped in the counters of Costco. Rattus barbecue-kebabus.

There is one final occupation I feel I should mention. A certain restaurant in this historic center. Where the fine people gather with their happy, safe families, amid courtyard trees and hanging, flickering candle chandeliers. The husbands, the proud controllers of things—it is the happiness of their wives I am concerned about, women threatened by traditional foods that only fatten them and who, without a rodent’s energy, grow soft and plump and depressed, because everything is rigged against them—food, lack of a profession, fashion, religion—so they can not remain the frisky foals that originally caught their husbands’ eyes. If they could listen to me, I would tell them to get out of their cars, take a restored apartment, occupy the historic center, and themselves, invite family and husbands to visit if they really wanted to, but otherwise plunge into the chaos that I the  species Rattus norvegicus, superbus, intellectualis find so tail-quivering alive. I would say, Come join us in fat Diego Rivera’s “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” Come join Frida and—us. Because we are there too, behind the ragged newspaper boy, proudly included and carefully drawn, but only in such a way that a rat can see it.