Thursday 21 May 2020

1993 Mexico

2.2.93 Mexico City

Driving in from the airport after a horrendous flight (bloody KLM), Mexico looked like a cleaned up, civilised (sic) version of Toronto.  Indeed, driving through the centre made Mexico City look like Switzerland in comparison.  Hotel (Royal Zona Rosa) expensive but comfortable (11th floor) – has a good view over the city, which looks very like New York.  And with the circling hills in the distance (hello, smog) I realised that this was also like Srinagar, but after a century of madcap industrialisation.  I suppose that's one of the few benefits of the situation here: no such growth for a while.

Road in from the airport (which was quite like JFK in its chaos) had fast and slow lanes like Jakarta.  Interesting ads: Durex ("Cuestan menos porque duran más"…)  Traffic police are obeyed here, all-in-all (we may yet be proved wrong), we agreed that here seemed infinitely better than Jakarta.  And a sign: "Tlascala".  My heart leapt – this strange reality of the Aztecs living on in the names and language.  And the interesting mix of features seen in the indigenes.

Denny's (corner of Amberes and Londres) – orange juice and flan.  Must be a holiday today – everybody seems out enjoying themselves.  And why not – bright sunshine, coolish air: Zona Rosa reminds me very much of Los Angeles – money around, too: mobile phones, VW Golf 16v, very civilised here.  Be interesting to see other parts.  Have fixed up hotel in Merida – finally, after wandering for a while searching for a suitable agency.

To the National Museum of Anthropology – fantastic cascade/fountain in the the middle.  General anthropology first (nice mammoth hunt) then to the Pre-classical – but signs of that face – ear, nose – frightening – in clay.  And then TeotihuacanQuetzalcoatl – huge coloured forms, the details of the murals.  The pix of the pyramids.  The squat form of Huehueteotl, god of fire, crushed under his brazier.  My first Chac Mool, gloriously bubbly stone, a man sunbathing on his back, holding a plate on his tum – a plate for human hearts.  Amazing abstract concoctions – like one of Picasso's surreal jokes.  Bizarre: a monster with an open mouth – and a man's head inside.

Breaking off halfway – to the restaurant, the sun dappling this page as I write.  A beautiful museum – thoughts inevitably of what-if? - what if Cortés' unbelievable – unreasonable – luck had not held?  Probably a civilisation like China – hermetic, mysterious, perhaps a communist revolution.  Great novel in there… Food simple but seemed good (we shall see).  Restaurant felt like Los Angeles (again), the Contemporary Art Gallery.  

One thing very noticeable in the galleries are the schoolkids arrayed in uniforms and crocodiles.  As in Indonesia, there seems to be (rightly) a real pride in education.  Would that this still held in the West where we foolishly take all this for granted.  Since I regard education as central to everything, I also like uniforms – here, if nowhere else.

The language of the Aztecs – given that it developed from common roots is a perfect example of how particular sounds – the "tl", the "catl" etc – were obviously "liked" and so grew to become the language in a sense.  Language by aesthetic selection.  Driving in to town, the sign "Manchester School of English". Seeing orientals here – makes me uncertain if they are: the Aztec cast is very oriental, and shows its genetic heritage clearly.  On the sample of one day I'd say that some of the most interesting faces in the world are here – the sheer contrast from Roman aquiline profile to chubby Castilian, oriental.

Fine name for a dog: Xolotl – the twin (!) brother of Quetzalcoatl.  Ehecatl – the terrifying Donald Duck of the Aztecs, god of the wind.  La Piedra del Sol – time lost and found. Oaxaca – stunning dark green (malachite?) mask.  Plus a roomful of figures; looking/waiting…  Monumento 2 de San Lorenzo – bloody hell, what a head.  Pock-marked with huge, sad eyes, a neat helmet, earrings.  What a sight – worth coming just for this, almost…  El Luchador – oriental in a way.  The magnet-shapped "yugos".  The tattooed sculpture with the deformed heads – sloping forehead.  Sculptures like Aardman figures.  Maya – those faces.  The characteristic hieroglyphs – so delicate.  Almost Balinese.  The lively ceramics.

At the sound of music, we gyrate – and find an Aztec minimalist band – drums, tortoise shells, flutes, conchs, ocarinas, stone "xylophones".  However "inauthentic", it does at least give a vague idea of what perhaps the conquistadores might have heard. Outside, the flying Aztecs, four of them hanging from their ropes.  A green taxi back – VW Beetle – with front passenger seat removed.

3.2.93 Merida

Usual ructions: leaving at 4.30am, having checked that they knew we paid, find that they don't believe us.  Argue – with minutes ticking away.  Last night the bath stopped working, then the toilet stopped working.  The country is falling to pieces.

Failed to eat in Denny's, where we had been twice, and went to Café de Londres (on Londres) – which attempts to be swish, but fails rather.  Spent the afternoon fixing up a hotel for the return – not the Royal.  Went to the Grand Hotel – also Howard Johnson owned.  Amazing interior, like Royal Scottish Museum, only more sumptuous, if more ragged.   Rooms OK.  But – full for 13/14 – St. Valentine's Day, I suppose.  This was the hotel recommended by STA – good recommendation.  My one consolation of having paid through the nose for the other is that at least we discovered that the Zona Rosa is much better than both the guide books would lead you to believe.  Rather relaxed and civilised.  Even the boot-shines with their almost papal thrones on which you are ensconced are a part of it.

Then went to Majestic – also rather faded, but with a certain grandeur and stunning view on to the Zócalo (not the Plaza de la Constitucion, as the lady cab-driver plainly signalled to us).  But the problem here, few double beds.  So on to the Ritz, which didn't really live up to its name, then back to the Majestic – where we have the brainwave of asking about suites – which only cost $88 a night (half that of the Royal).  We saw room 714 – up a tiny flight of stairs to the three-room suite – but no view.  Assured that a room will have a view, we booked. Zócalo area looking fascinating – very bustling, more third world.  To think that under it all lies the rubble of the Aztec empire…  

Another reason Mexico City looks so American is the use of the green road direction signs.

More problems.

Flight excellent.  Efficient, modern airport, new plane, good breakfast.  Gook off at 6.50am, still dark, flying into sunrise.  Mists/cloudy below, but a few mountains visible, and then out over the sea.  Flying over Yucatan (ah, the romance of words) – very flat, rather dull, or perhaps frightening.  Into Merida airport – international, strangely enough (our flight connected with Miami).  Taxi to our reserved hotel Posada Toledo.  Through some pretty depressing areas, very like Yogyakarta.  First glimpse of hotel good – very moorish.  But the rooms dark, smelly, old.  So we churlishly slink out, saying we want to "think about it".  Pathetic.  But how to extricate ourselves from the situation?

Then to where I sit, Casa del Balam.  And where I sit again, three hours later, in the charming courtyard beside the bubbling fountain, waiting for chicken pibil.  Very pleasant colonial feel, with tropics very much in evidence – that wet, dark jungle smell – so like Indonesia.  The throat feels better already.  And where I sit again, back in our room (204).  So, to the hotel: room available, nice (see below), but price N$320/night – high.  I ask whether a discount is available for six nights – we go to the office and argue – to no avail.  But it turns out that discounts would be available if we booked through a travel agent.  The man at the desk kindly suggests going to the travel agent next door.  Which we do.  And sure enough, they offer a discount – to N$300.  Could we have more, please? Nope.  For some reason, I stay there, and we plead again.  Finally to N$275 – about £65-70.  Too much really, but we hated the other place.

So, finally, a room for six nights here.  And very nice it is too.  Two double beds, lovely ironwork bed-heads, quaint truncated column for the TV stand, hot water.  Tiled floor that (even more than the rest) reminds me of Hotel San José, in San José, Spain.  Rather noisy if only because Merida seems full of huge buses without silencers, and motorbikes with especially loud motors.

And all this by 9.30am.

The city itself is curious – to my eyes, anyway, because of its grid system – far more rigorous than New York's, for example.  The whole city just goes on, repeating itself.  At least the area round the Zócalo is quite attractive.  Beautiful lush garden in the middle with lovers' chairs (facing and side by side).  The glum old cathedral (the oldest in Mexico – and therefore America, I suppose), built with and on the stones of a Mayan temple.  Quite good colonial buildings around the square.  We take a drink in a café; the traffic is appalling and we flee soon.

On the way to the Zócalo, down Calle 60, we see this boy standing outside a watch shop, wearing boards advertising its wares.  He does not move, his eyes have that terrible, intense vacancy that I somehow associate with the natives of Latin America.  We must pass him several times that day, and each time I felt his immobility the more, such a terrible symbol of his poverty.  Back to the hotel for lunch.  Then to bed – we have been up since 4am (again), and I am frankly tired.

Out again, this time in search of the market.  The streets start to blur, like an endless nightmare.  The traffic thunders, the people swarm by.  And again those sudden shocks of Mayan profile, of "pure" native features.  There seems to be little real Indian (as in India) poverty, but little wealth either.  Only one Walkman that I saw in hours.   The people, even the hawkers, very unpushy.  You say "no", they go.  If I wanted to generalise, and be pompous (moi?), I'd say that they have a dignity about them.  Interesting to note, too, that in the cathedral there were many men, obviously devout.

To a nice café in the little square near the hotel.  Hotel Caribe and Gran Hotel around it lend an air of faded glories.  A two-man band strike up on a weird twangling xylophone.

4.2.93 Merida

Back to the square, almost bearably noisy.  Breakfast in the rather nice surroundings of the café by the tourist office: enormous ceilings, striking clocks, good value food.  We are the first there.  Then out to book car.  Hertz – an agent thereof – in the forlorn hope that it will be more reliable.  One thing: everywhere you go there are telephone stands – posts with three or four keypad phones – almost always in use.

Before, we went to the square and looked at the murals in the mayor's palace – all rather bloodthirsty stuff, reflecting the rather bloodthirsty history of this oppressed people.  Also went into one shop (looking for the Pemex road map) and saw the (in)famous encrusted beetles: living brooches covered in stones.  Er, yes, how do you use/wear them?

Back to Café Peon Contreras.  Strange fondu followed by rather sickly cheesecake.  Weather just right for sightseeing: overcast but bright, the air quite pleasantly moist and warmish – t-shirt weather.  To the museum of folk art – hidden away – reminds me of similar museum in Jakarta.  Very small: a room with 15 bird cages and baskets; another with Dia de los Muertos figures.  Weird masks from Tlaxcala – for a ceremony… The fantasy in the forms, the pix showing the people: there is still a world here to discover.  Clay planes looking like pterodactyls.  A faded pic: the gaze of a little hunchback, sculpting in wood, a ghost of a moustache on his lips.  Through to the shop – a museum in itself.  The heady smell of straw, and fabrics.  Reminds me of Fiji…  We spend some time looking around the attached shop of folk stuff.  Much nice, but – like the pottery candelabra – impossible to transport.  For all its gimcrack nature, the museum does convey well the variety and vitality of the native arts.

One thing I have noticed is the lack of dog pooh – and of dogs – in this city.  In fact, I have not seen a single dog – though they were selling kittens, barely able to stand, in a souvenir shop (???).

We pass the main Yucatan restaurant, though it is a little early for the evening. We eat in Tiano's – nice chicken and corn fries.  Some band and drummer, lots of triplets and syncopations, some more twangling sounds.  Square very full, most of the tables occupied.  Strange paper decorations hang from wires: spheres with lights, made of paper and covered in crepe.  We saw animals made thus for sale in the market yesterday.  Carnival time?

At lunch time, a tiny girl – 3? - offered us chiclets for sale.  We said "no", but repented, called her back and ended up paying N$4 for four of them.  That is, four chiclets, not four packets.  But you can't be mean here: the Mexicans are very tolerant.  And the beggars, like the hawkers, are remarkably complaisant, moving off quite readily.  It's still too early to say, but I feel tempted to say how well-balanced it all appears here – and functional.

Today I have been, as I like to say, very weak.  I bought a Mayan grammar in Spanish, and in English (by the splendid Mr Tozzer, who refers to Mr William Gates…).. After, some Mayan tales.  Very interesting.  It is strange, but reading about how all the American languages have been pulled together suddenly made me feel closer to them.

Again, at supper, those sudden, Mayan profiles.  We visited another museum today, next to this square where we ate – Pinacoteca de Mérida Juan Gamboa Guzmán.  Full of obscure, quite touching Yucatan artists' works.  Good space with it whitewashed walls, the flight of stairs with a sudden turn in it.

Lovely evening, sky clearing, the moon comes out, very bright.  The cathedral facade catches the late sunlight, looking like Monet's Rouen series.  People just sit around in the square, everything very peaceable.

And tomorrow on the road: White VW: YZM 911 (Yucatan, Mexico).…

5.2.93 Merida

Well, here I am in Uxmal, at the top of the Wizard's pyramid, after a pretty vertiginous climb.  The steps are shallow – about 6 inches deep – and very steep, more than 45 degrees slope.  But it is worth it: utterly stunning view of the almost unbroken forest – so flat, so hot – barely a cloud in the sky.  Typically British – I have a jacket, white hat, jeans – because Montezuma took his revenge last night; but the drive has cleared my head.  Lovely view of the Nuns' Quadrangle.  Now down.  Going down was worse than going up.  And the other side has deeper steps – even harder.  To the Nuns' Quad.  That smell of antiquity – damp stone, dust.  Great stone here: yellow-orange.  The deep carvings need the sun – and get it today.  Outside now – exhausted.  I see the steps up to the sights like Kathmandu/Borobudur.  Heat pretty savage when you're not feeling brilliant.  

Drive back – which strangely makes me feel better. Some thoughts on Mexican driving.  They are remarkably law-abiding – never jumping lights, and only overtaking when it is relatively safe.  They are also pretty patient, and fairly slow off the mark at lights. The worst thing about driving here is the speed bumps – down to first gear and slow if you want to preserve your axle and wheels.  Even found on the main ring road – strange and rather dangerous for me seeing everyone suddenly grind to a near-halt.  Driving in Merida is simplified enormously by the logical arrangement of the one-way streets in a grid.  

Driving through the city you see amazing colours – yesterday we tried to photo a mint-coloured monstrosity that looked totally unbelievable.  Today, pinks and blues.  Lots of crumbling stucco.  And barely anything above one storey.  This combines with the level landscape to produce a city that is almost abstractly flat.

The drive to Uxmal (Ush-mal) was fairly easy, though longer than I expected.  The VW's pedals are very high and the third gear is suspect.  But reasonably comfortable.  Roads are pretty well signposted.  Also saw a couple of Green Angels who patrol these roads looking for those in automobilic distress.  Arrived at Uxmal at about 11 am, not too many tours then, though the Cancún contingent turned up later (a journey and a half).  Cheap to get in, good tourist facilities as you enter. 

Up the steps to the first and best: the Wizard's/Magician's Tower.  Just very impressive and quite frightening as a physical experience.  The views frightening too: just scrubby forest for as far as the eye can see.  I began to appreciate what it must have been like for the conquistadores as they slogged through all this stuff.  Again, that will of Cortés – his expedition through Guatemala – took as long as the conquest of Anahuac… The Mayan names are so un-Aztec: Oxkutzcab, Xlapak, Tixkokob

Of course the presence of the trees everywhere rather obscures things, makes it more romantic – and gives some shade.  Which I needed, even with my beanie hat and jacket.  The sun was pretty intense, and I was getting weaker and weaker.  We went to the Nuns' Quad  where you could hear clearly from the opposite side.  Through the arch to the ball-court with its crazy hoop.  The suggestion that to lose meant death.  It is so hard to imagine all these things happening.  Then after admiring geckos and butterflies and hummingbirds (?) to the Governor's Palace with its astronomical alignments.  Again to try to conceive of the days these things happened, what people felt…  Uxmal is all the more impressive for being stuck in the middle of this dry wasteland.

To the restaurant for two cups of sugary lemon tea (for energy and to fill the objecting stomach).  Then I lie down for 30 minutes, dozing.  Better afterwards.  I watched the beautiful clouds dissipate high above me, see faces in them, hands, strange forms. High there with them huge birds (vultures?) that we had seen on the road, circling something.  I remember Fatehpur Sikri

Then the road back, stuck behind three huge American trailers – bloody enormous.  The journey back, as ever, easier.  Drop the car outside the hotel for someone to park (the benefits of a £70 hotel), then round the markets looking for a swimming costume and hat.  Everything seems closed.  Ironic: yesterday we were deluged with hats, caps; today we couldn't find a hat seller when we needed one.

To the square by the Gran Hotel, definitely the centre of the evening scene.  I am struck again by how basically decent and happy the people seem here.  They appear to harbour little rancour or envy towards rich tourists; in the shops they hardly press you to buy, seeming almost indifferent. They are calm, and peaceable, and have no real machismo.  Indeed, the women wear miniskirts and shorts – without the usual male lewdness that often greets such things.  Young couples walk around, young families ditto with sleeping bambini.  The Mariachi xylophone band plays away, the night is stunningly clear with the nearly full moon blinding, and a planet a bright point in the sky.  I think one could be happy here in some ways, and that the locals have reached an equilibrium with things.  But it will be interesting to see what Oaxaca is like.

6.2.93 Merida

Slow, easy drive north to Progreso.  As ever, the grid system, to the beach – practically empty – huge white sands.  Very shallow apparently.  Practically all closed here.  Heat tremendous, plus good breeze.  Waters milky turquoise.  Ceviche and merlo for lunch – fresh fish landed as we sat on the terrace. Walking along the promenade, we see huge black clouds roll in from the east.  More extraordinary, the sea turns opalescent – but bright – against this background.  As if an unskilled painted had done painting by numbers – and got it wrong.  Now it is raining – and then some – and we sit in our VW, as if on the Brighton seafront, with the difference that it is warm even with the wind and the rain.

Progreso, at this time of the year at least, is rather charming.  Few people, very sleepy, nice weather (pace the rain).  Also very untouristy – few Yanks/Euros come here, it seems.  To my left, the jetty (miles long) disappears into the storm, with the mid-point building looking like a Scottish castle in the gloom.

7.2.93 Merida

Chichen Itza: this is what we have come for: majestic stone buildings in almost Oxbridge-like grass.  Up the main temple – not so shallow.  Very impressive, the central pivot of the surrounding monuments.  The ball-game – it felt as if it had been used yesterday, the grass neatly clipped, the high hoops, just waiting…

Glorious weather: breezy, sun not too hot.  Crowds absent so far.  The images of the players in the court: very clear, very alien.  This place feels very real, whereas Uxmal felt more of a romantic folly.  Brilliant carvings outside the ball court – I think of Hatshepsut's Temple – and that bloody Frenchman…  Inside the great pyramid - 62 steps, up to the usual features: jaguar throne, Chac Mool. Nowhere near as impressive as the Big One in Egypt.  Crude stonework.

To the 1000 pillars.  The view: this place looks like a kind of Mayan heaven, the stones, the undulating light green-grey.  Poor crumbling Chac Mool next to us, sat upon and abused by all the bloody tourists – French again.  What have they got against the past?  The pyramid beautiful from here, its east face crumbling, the steps zigzagging down.  The foliage thicker here than at Uxmal, richer and greener.  The covered buildings carry less conviction than the Egyptian ones, while the pyramids work brilliantly.  Through the pillars – very Greek, I felt in Crete or somewhere – then to the southern group.  More fragmentary, and again the covered buildings don't convince.  The observatory interesting for its unexpectedly modern design.  

The main group remain obviously the thing here.  Also, I find the repeated heads with the beaked nose – the rain god – a little wearing.  But the main area gives a sense of the tremendous scenes that must have unfolded here – the pomp, the milling throngs – things seen best by Cortés and his men – and seen more or less last by them.  

Apt, then, that we should be here at the mid point of this all-too short trip.  In many ways, this is the reality of all the images/vague thoughts I have had of Middle America.  It is certainly proving the perfect intro to Latin America, and I wish to return, and range further afield – perhaps mimicking the extraordinary migrations which are beginning to fall into place.

The drive was good – once we were out of bloody Merida.  Murphy's Law seems to be that the road you want in Merida is always going in the wrong direction.  But halfway we hit a rather anomalous toll-road – N$18 – worth it for the speed and comfort.  I sit now in the café of the site, nothing special, but efficient as the rest of the place is.  The Mexicans/Yucatans do a good job in this respect.

I am struck at how unreliable the guide books – Lonely Planet and Cadogan – have been.  Both about details – hotels, for example, and generalities – safety, "niceness" etc.  Perhaps Mexico is changing quickly…

Back in Merida – Sunday is the day.  "Our" square has huge queues snaking all over the place: for the two cinemas here.  The bars are full, and there are three musicians singing, playing guitars.  Calle 60 completely closed here – except for horse-drawn carriages, used by the locals.  The main square alive with stalls.  The queues: Mexicans seem very good at this as at other civilised behaviours.  Singing quite fine in the Mexican idyll sort of way – all parallel thirds and sixths, maracas, and swaying guitars with the added roulade.  Idyllic is the word: everyone out in their Sunday best, the sun setting, casting a glow on the church opposite, blue sky is not half…

In the Plaza de la Independencia.  Stalls like a funfair, balloons, candyfloss, a stand-up female comic, roast corn-cobs with cheese and cream, behind me the cathedral full of organ and voices, bright single bulbs illuminating the stalls, their long leads trailing across the pavements.  Interesting little pedal carts, covered, four-seaters.  And everywhere, but everywhere, that Mayan profile.  In jeans, in suits, in skirts, in hot pants, in swaddling clothes.

The stall selling religious artefacts seems to have a good trade.  Interesting how religion seems to have rooted here – perhaps because of the indigenous philosophies.  Perhaps because as a still downtrodden people Christianity gives them most hope.  

To the restaurant Bella Epoca, sitting on the balcony – first time I have ever done this.  Great with no traffic – impossible with.  Beautiful evening – the sounds of the church (a bell like an old tin bath, the choir and the organ), the marimba players in our square, Mexican "muzak" here.  Nice murals inside, chandeliers.  Below us pass the bike carts, looking like something out of "The Prisoner".  Stars starting to peep through the clouds above, bright points of white light.  

Even from here we hear the bloody bus – with the specially-designed silencers that amplify the sounds…

Mexican wine from Baja California – very dry – reminds me (he said pretentiously) of the Georgian wine I had in Moscow that first time there, bought by a kind American in our Intourist group  It was like sherry almost.  Wonderful food (so far): chicken, pork, sausage, tomato, avocado, beans – with the lovely dry wine complementing nicely.  In our hotel when we return, a trio of serenading singers/guitarists.  A lovely end to a lovely day – pity the moon, full this weekend, was too low and partially obscured by cloud.

8.2.93 Merida

I am at lunch now.  Miserable day outside: cold and wet.  Strange that such weather can be wonderfully romantic somewhere like Venice or Paris, but merely woeful here.  This morning (or "the smorning" as I still, 30 years after I first tried to do it, want to write) took the car back, hoping to save a day £33).  And did eventually, after a nightmare trip to fill the bloody tank up (Hertz charges double real rate if it does it).  I shouldn't have bothered, but luckily nothing happened.  In the exiguous south-east Mexican newspaper I saw a premonitory notice: yesterday a hire care driven by a German tourist was involved in a crash; there but for…

Reading Diaz at the moment: great "but let's get back to my story".  Thucydides it ain't, but it has pace and a "I was there" charm.

9.2.93 Oaxaca

In the café at Merida airport, which is rather nice.  Pity neither of us wants to eat much.  A little twin prop awaits us, touching down twice on its way to Oaxaca.  Very strange night, partly because we had to wake at 2am to take one of the magic anti-nausea pills, and partly because I was sweating out a fever I had, so my dreams were odd – all Tlaxcala-y.

Flying in our little, rather noisy twin-prop over the salt marshes of Yucatan, and thence to the sea.  To think this was the coast Cortés sailed around, in the days when the New Spain they were inventing could have been anything – infinite even…

Into Villahermosa airport – very green, lush, lots of water, palm trees, big winding rivers.  Lots of green fields – not necessarily used for anything that I could see.  Now flying among the mountains with the odd bit of turbulence.  Among the hills and valleys, amazing scenery after Yucatan – looked like Nepal – rather more my image of Latin America.  You get a hint of the Aztec city states – like the Greeks – or the Irian Jaya tribes living apart.

And so in to Oaxaca ("c" is pronounced as "s").  Stunning flight in: the land arid, often not a road in sight, and so little vegetation.  Flight into Oaxaca strange because we flew in almost level, the ground rising to meet us.  Reminded me a lot of Kathmandu, getting out of the plane to be ringed by mountains under a deep blue sky.

Driving through the city to get to our hotel, the Stouffer President [now Quinta Real], Oaxaca looked like a more attractive version of Merida: low shops, brightly colours, basic grid system, and the main Zócalo pedestrian only.  

To the hotel – almost shut off from the outside world – as befits an ex-convent – and such a haven of peace and beauty inside. Two main quads, one with a pool, the other with a babbling fountain (where I sit, waiting for some food that I now want).  Lovely whitewashed rooms that remind me of the dormitories in San Marco, Florence (though without the Fra Angelico frescoes).  Lots of green around me, plus what may be bougainvillea (but what do I know of such things…?)  After eating a jet-black sopa de frijoles, I am now (unwisely?) eating another concoction covered in a slightly sweeter black sauce, chicken inside corn pancakes.  Nice, but...demasiado.

To the Zócalo on a lovely, er, February evening.  Beautiful, relaxed town, pedestrian precinct, bandstand and plashing fountain.  Straight off you notice the wider variety of faces (the Mexican flag is being lowered, trumpets and drums sound…).  The only problem with this place is that it seems full of wrinklies – like some huge retirement home.  The hotel is the same: rich, old and bored.

10.2.93 Oaxaca

Brilliant morning: cold air, clear blue sky.  Long night…

Up to Santo Domingo – inside a typically over-the-top riot of gold and curlicues.  A little excessive, but probably useful for impressing the natives.  To the Contemporary Art Museum – reminds me of a gallery in Scrabster (?).  This is beautiful: white walls, bleached wooden benches.  The pix – well, nothing special, but all so well organised – couple of interesting local art mags, good books and posters.  Upstairs to the pix by Flor Garduño.  Exactly my image of these places: stark, grainy black and white pix of Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala.  Haunting images of ancient peoples, ancient rites, ancient images.

Back to the hotel for lunch.  I had a rather nice beef concoction, steamed in banana leaf with chili sauce – very Sri Lankan.  Then read more of Diaz – which is interesting.  To the city Museum, in the cloisters of Santo Domingo.  Upstairs to the ethnological exhibits.  Amazing figures on the number of non-Spanish speaking natives.  The poor Ixcatecos – 19 speakers of the language… Also strange the hierarchical organisation of the societies – the "cargos".  Los Zapatecos of Oaxaca, third after Nahuatl and Maya.  In 1971, 30% not speaking Spanish.

A fine roomful of ceramics – heads, grotesques etc.  Monte Alban – place of trepanning "for experimental purposes"… Yikes.  To the Treasure of Monte Alban – the carved obsidian – thin.  In the quad, passing through light and shadow: the heat of the former - the rarefied air et al.

In the main square, under the portico of "E. Marques".  Cuba libre (sin hielo – and so rather warm).  Sun very strong, but breezy here.  Oaxaca is much more scenic than Merida because of its gradients, too: the combination of the grid with a plain is not happy.  Men with besoms cleaning again – the city is kept up well – as were the other parts we visited.  From what I can see, Mexico seems a very successfully ordered place.  The trees painted white to head height.  Even the few beggars seem fairly healthy.  To the west, a road straight to the mountains, the air very clear.  Huge trees to my right by the flag we saw lowered yesterday.

11.2.93 Oaxaca

Sitting in the south corner of Monte Alban, the sun 45 degrees in the sky, the place practically empty on this breezy, but completely completely clear day.  Wonderful harmony of colours – earth browns, burnt grass yellows, russets, flashes of green fire in the trees.  For me, this is the most spectacular site, partly because of the harmony, the isolation – and its location.  The levelled hilltop, now covered in a haze, Oaxaca below, lost in smog, alas.

To the palace, then over to the main hill.  The view to the north-west fantastic: crumbling, sun-soaked valleys.  Incredibly quiet and peaceful here – but a little chilly, even with the intense sun, it has to be said.  At the top of the south end – what a view in all directions.  The central area – like a bed of fine sand, dotted with stone islands. 

Back in Oaxaca, the main square, Café del Jardin.  Glorious day.  We remain at the Hotel Presidente.  A melancholy sax plays, strangely complete – perhaps because of the richness of its harmonies, the variety of its registers.  Dappled sunlight on the cobbles, the tall trees' boughs swaying in the breeze.  Roasting by the pool – which is nice, if lethal.  

Passing up to Monte Alban, interesting to see the small villages – so like Indonesia.  Pity about the plastic litter everywhere.  The sun lower now, falling behind the cloister walls.  And just to complete it all, a red hummingbird, feeding from the nectar of the white flowers behind us.  1.5 Cuba Libres under the arcade of Hotel del Conde.  The band playing, dusk falling, postcards vaguely getting written.  Round the square to the restaurant of yesterday, up on the balcony.

12.2.92 Oaxaca

Breakfast in the park.  Cool morning, sunny.  Watching tourists follow their maps like treasure seekers.  Forgot to mention (as ever) the market, the day before yesterday.  Wonderful riot of sights, sounds and – alas – smells.  Fruits, finally, particularly good.  Reminded me of Cardiff market for some ridiculous reason, but actually was much more like Toronto's.  Everyone watching TV.  As were many taxi drivers in Mexico City…

To Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo – past a row of gorgeously-coloured shops – colours that seem to be a product of the clear air.  Lovely pink wash of first room.  Classic Olmec – oriental in features.  Some also look amazingly like Lynda Barry's cartoon characters.  In the Blue Room.  Strange figure of a man in profile with dinosaur-like lumps on the back.  Glorious mottled surfaces.  A Picasso-like figure on a stela.  A case full of fluid forms, funny little noses and hats/hair.  A game of pelota – complete with fans, a Sumatran-type house.  Double clay flutes, four finger holes.  The Blue and Cerulean room, full of dogs and warriors.  Dios de la Muerte, 200-250 AD, but he could be from yesterday.  White Room – horrible beds for deforming the craniums of babies.  Ritual garments, almost a tent of strange shapes.  Stunning stela of a Mayan priest.  The Butterscotch Room – one of those haunting fragments of Aztec maps.  Fine name: Tzintzuntzan.  Rich painted stone used for some carvings – also in our hotel.  To sum up, surely the most consistently fine collection of such artefacts that there is, beautifully presented.

Looking round the souvenir shops near the hotel, and the Guzman church.  One in particular turned into a warren of small rooms hung with increasingly bizarre and almost menacing artefacts.  You could imagine that at the end of it all there was a room with something so horrible that you'd never be able to leave…

13.2.93 Mexico City

That dead time, waiting for the hour of departure.  Last night, we were half-exiled from the world, trapped in our courtyard by the regional folk dance performance, roughly based on the big festival here in July.  Judging by the sound quality as we finally passed through, we didn't miss much.  Strange how absent music is here.  Instead you have noise – like the whale-farting sound at 4am.  Outside, the huge old bus – must be fatal if you hit them – belching acrid fumes and noise.  And yet for all that, Oaxaca is definitely a haven of peace.  Glorious situation, lovely weather. 

To the airport – which has a surprisingly good restaurant.  Amazingly clear view of Monte Alban on the nearest hill.  On the plane – a flash 727, complete with Philips LCD-based TVs in the back of the seat.  Prices clearly dropping.  Views from the plane tremendous: air very clear, and the height we had (from 6000 feet altitude to 6000 feet) gave an original perspective.  Grid-style towns lay like tiny chessboards, craters were pock marks.  Alas, on the wrong side for Popocatepetl.  Flying in over Mexico City – which began so early.  Saw the Anthropological Museum in its poor patch of green.  But no real India-type squalor.

To the Majestic, which it is, even if its glory is faded.  Curious dull orange colour in the hall – makes everything seem hushed.  A fountain burbles at the end.  One lift (still) working.  Our promised suite turns into a double (516).  Nothing special, except for the view, which is classic: Zócalo, dead centre. Unusual design: first floor has a glass floor, and seems to be the bar.  The Zócalo below me, people scurrying around, ant-like.  Couple of Aztecs fighting (well, ish).  On the way here, there were a group of four acrobats – in a pyramid – the top one juggling.

14.2.93 Mexico City

On the terrace, the clock striking 8, but showing 8.20 (it's 8.15).  The huge flag raised with pomp at 7.30am.  The bells going bananas – all very clangorous – very Italian.  Sun hot now after reddish down.  Full buffet breakfast – trying to gain some energy… Remarkably peaceful here – even with traffic.  We slept reasonably well.  Bells now playing semitones, augmented and diminished intervals…

To the cathedral.  Inside, almost filled with great webs of green scaffolding, making it look like some Richard Rogers creation.  It would probably be rather undistinguished without it.  A side chapel with various glass cases of wax figures and a huge altar that looks positively industrial with its jutting broken pediments and great gold bolts.

To the market in the Zócalo (from "socle" – a plinth), haggling.  Then to the Alameda park.  Full of courting couples exchanging St. Valentine's Day gifts.  A guitar twangling away.  Hot but fresh day.  A ball stuck in a tree provides Sunday morning entertainment. St. Valentine's Day very big here – clouds of gaudy helium-filled hearts hover at every corner.  Rather appropriate, really, given the city's Aztec past…

To Zona Rosa for lunch, ridiculously enough in an Italian restaurant.  I ate what was billed as a pizza, which wasn't, but was highly edible.  Everyone out in Sunday best – even though the sun was scorching.  Cops racing around, looking very serious.  Back to the hotel, then out for a drive in one of the taxis, which are cheap here.  Rather nice when banked, bright yellows and frog greens.  Back just as the flag comes down: we rush to see it (am I becoming a tourist?).

Then to the terrace for a rather heavy meal (fool me).  Very nice setting.  Emphasising the pleasantness of Mexico City and Merida – despite the pollution here, the shortness of breath, the noise etc. In the square we bought two wind chimes, made of onyx (?) - £1 each, endearing urchins selling them.  Earlier in the day we bought some knick-knacks.  Bustling market here.

15/16.2.93 Somewhere south-east of Iceland

My body is not really sure which day this is, of course.  Not helped by the strange, in-between time of Monday.  We walked a little – the place strangely full of men with guns, a demo in the square (making a splendid headline one evening paper: "Zócalo").  Lunch in Zona Rosa – back in Denny's, which oddly for a US chain serves good Mexican food.  Blistering heat.  Then back to the hotel – driven by the world's worst whistling taxi driver, who read the newspaper most of the time – to waste the afternoon.

Appropriately enough in this dead time I start reading Under the Volcano" – a book I have been meaning to read for years.  Glad I waited: it is full of unexplained references to "oaxaqueño" and "Zócalo".  Very dense, very depressing, rather over-written but the first section is a brilliant tour-de-force.  Rather racist too, treating the Mexicans as a quaint backdrop.  

To the airport remarkably early – very good driver for a change.  Find queue.  Queue for 30 minutes.  Arrive at head, where I have to ask for seats to be changed – otherwise we'd have been back in the hell of the smoker's section.  Flight relatively empty from Mexico City – glorious view of the sprawling, twinkling mass – such a world away from what old Cortés saw.

And Mexico is a world away, but one accessible by virtue of Cortés and the Spanish language.  I hadn't realised this, stupidly regarding Latin America as essentially, not superficially, Spanish.  Even the religion is only superficially Catholic, with many ancient twists and observances.  I look forward to returning now (with better Spanish, which is indispensable).

Indeed, Latin America offers yet another fascinating case study of language and culture, and how nations are defined, how they can co-exist.  Mexico seems to be remarkably successful, given that it represents several hundred distinct ethnic groups.  Reminds me of India, which now looks less successful.

Also, the physical reality of Mexico was quite shocking – to the lungs.  The altitude of Mexico City – around 2200 metres, and of places like Oaxaca, make all the difference.  I'd love to drive through this country.  Pity about tiresome things like money...

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Moody's Black Notebook Travels

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