HOLIDAY WEEKEND IN MEXICO CITY
ALAN PHILLIPS feasted his eyes, his palate, and his nose in the storied capital of Mexico — where you can encircle yourself with opulence for the lowest prices in any big city on this continent
“It’s the most romantic city in America,” the travel agent told me, “three hundred years older than Quebec, more sophisticated than New York, it has inns as beguiling as London’s, a better climate than Cannes, a nightlife as gay as Havana’s, more luxury hotels than Miami. It's the biggest travel bargain on the continent — 6V2 hours and $200 return, CPA, from Toronto.”
And so 1 found myself in Mexico City.
As a seasoned traveler 1 came equipped with the Spanish word for the men’s room; besides, 1 am naturally fluent with both hands. I’d scanned a dozen guidebooks. I’d visited Juan Buendia in Toronto, the affable young director of the Mexican Tourist Bureau. “Mexico City,” he'd said, handing me three more guidebooks, “is a city of surprises.”
Surprise or novelty is, of course, the main pleasure in new places. I therefore recommend the guidebooks. They inform you that Mexico City is cheap and expensive, that its architecture is bold and insipid, that its 4,500.000 people are peaceful and violent. Such knowledge, enlarging one's area of ignorance, makes one more susceptible to surprise.
I'd expected something like Banff on a large
Holiday weekend in MEXICO CITY continued
scale, a city ringed close by mountains, for I’d read that two volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, brooded over the capital, dominating it. But our plane came down on a brown dry plateau as fiat as a cornmeal tortilla. The mountains w'ere there. 30 to 50 miles distant, but you'd need a very clear day to feel dominated.
We disembarked in the pleasantly tropical late afternoon and I asked the elegant Mexican in the camel’s-hair coat beside me if he could tell me the city’s best restaurant. “Mauna Loa, for exotic food,” he said with languid hauteur.
Obviously further questioning would overtax his strength. Besides I was busy persuading myself that 1 was actually here, a disquieting air-age problem for which. I am happy to report, Mexico has the answer.
As we entered the spacious glass-walled modern airport, a white-coated waiter thrust a Daiquiri at me. I thrust it back; 1 had no Mexican money. “Libre, libre,” he said. I thumbed my dictionary. Libre means free. I realized at once that I was no longer in Canada.
My next surprise was aural. “Señor Fee-leeps,” blared the loudspeaker, “Report to Immigration.”
1 did, on the off chance that Fee-leeps was me, and found that I had been met by a Señor Horacio MacAlpin, tall, brisk and hawkfaced. He looked unlike any Mexican I had ever seen in the movies. In fact he looked like a Scot, which his greatgrandfather was, and his Mexican accent seemed an affectation. He was a tourist department offi-
cial. clearly a man of authority, for he had my tourist card stamped and my baggage okayed and into his car before 1 could savor fully the lifted eyebrows of my languid friend, who waited impatiently in line.
MacAlpin sped down an avenue, past raw suburbs, mostly apartments, past old walled buildings incongruously crowding glass-and-chrome display rooms, into the swarming turbulence of the city. On the narrow streets small sidewalk stalls sold dubious drinks, exotic fruits, housewares, clothing, and hot meats wrapped in tortillas, the omnipresent Mexican staff of life. Each salesman shouted his wares. It was one continuous bazaar, colorful, noisy and stepped in the smell of fried corn.
On every side, vignettes: a potter shaping clay, a black-swathed crone with garlands of live red and green hens round her waist and neck; a man in what looked like pyjamas threading traffic on a bicycle miraculously balancing a basket of buns on his head.
“Many things are as they w-crc in 1325 when the Aztecs founded the city,” MacAlpin said. “Our people are poor. After oil and mining, tourists are Mexico’s biggest industry.”
We pulled up across from Alameda Park in the heart of the city and two bellboys descended on us from a low and dingy edifice whose ancient stones rose flush from a shabby street labelled Hidalgo. Beneath its carved-stone entrance arch an electric - blue neon sign proclaimed Hotel de Cortés. This was the beguiling inn Buendia had
recommended. My heart sank. “One of the finest examples left of colonial architecture,” MacAlpin said proudly. “Once a monastery. Cortés, who conquered the Aztecs in 152! met his only defeat on this street. We called it once the Street of the Sad Night.”
I could sec several more sad nights coming up.
1 thanked MacAlpin and followed my bags. I found myself in a charming courtyard. Tables shaded with gay umbrellas encircled a central fountain. Vines and flowers splashed the stones with color. The rooms opened off the courtyard. Between mine and a Sheraton hotel room the only difference was $3. In my favor. My heart lifted.
The shower taps were marked C and H. I turned on H and leaped clear before I froze. I looked up the word for cold. Frio. That didn’t help a bit. I tried C. It was hot.
Picking up the phone I informed the desk clerk that my taps had been switched. He let me in on the mystery of Mexican plumbing. All the fixtures are shipped in from the States. Every Mexican plumber knows that C means caliente or hot. He has never figured out what the Americanos mean by H but after all, there are only two taps.
In Mexico City no one who is anyone dines before nine. That gave me three hours. I bought some pesos for eight cents each and sauntered through the park. Roses grew under palm trees. Street vendors picnicked. Toddlers sold chiclets. On tiled mosaic benches twelve-year-old belles necked with teenage
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Holiday weekend in Mexico City
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lovers. I say “necked” advisedly. The men were all using a grip that our wrestlers assume is a stranglehold.
I emerged on Avenida Juárez, an expensive thoroughfare smelling of French perfume and tooled leather. For five pesos I rode to the bar in the observation tower of the Torre Latino Americana, a 43-story glass-and-stcel spire built on floating piers.
In the ’57 earthquake,” the waiter said, “not a pane of glass cracked. It is said to be the world’s tallest building.”
I raised an eyebrow. "A joke,” he said. “Because of the altitude. The foundation is a mile and a half high.”
“Your English is good,” I flattered him.
I’m from Cincinnati,” he said.
I sipped tequila, that famed firewater Mexicans make from cactus, anti watched the sun set over the continent's third largest city. Descending 1 strolled to the Plaza de la Reforma.
Here you see the National Lottery building, a striking modern shrine, and beyond it, down Calle Balderas, a lovely old church with twin spires. I like the way the past and present rub shoulders here, the way some of the soaring new structures are shaped with love, some with pride, some with exuberance, and some merely with money.
By day the Reforma, broad and treelined, is reminiscent of Paris. Now. at night, the neon fireworks of the beer and liquor signs made it a miniature Broadway. The ladies were Park Avenue. elaborately coiffed, tightly sheathed. My glances at first were circumspect. but caution soon disappears. Mexican men leer openly. They comment or whistle at every appearance of pulchritude. You hear a lot of whistling in Mexico City.
The traffic at the Plaza swirls round a fine bronze horse and rider. One has a feeling the drivers aren’t long off horses. In a jam, instead of slowing, they jab their foot at the gas like a rider putting spurs to his mount. Pedestrians ignore the traffic lights and the cabbies swoop down upon them like cowboys eagerly riding down a stray.
I tried to whistle down one of thgse demon drivers. All the ladies passing stared at me. After twenty minutes a small boy stepped beside me and hissed. A cab stopped. 1 turned to the boy to thank him and two women leaped into the cab. Unless your reflexes are fast you develop strong legs in Mexico.
The hoy shrugged apologetically. I shrugged philosophically. The encounter had the warmth that comes when empathy surmounts language. 1 walked on, hissing, and finally snared a taxi. “Mauna Loa,” 1 said. It was just around the corner.
The Mauna Loa has more Hawaiian atmosphere than the islands, tropical greens behind glass walls, a straw and bamboo roof, Polynesian totem poles, lovely live flamingos, lovely live Malayan girls, and, curiously, a kangaroo.
I was welcomed by a tall dark brooding young man, Lindsay Gatty, a partner in this venture. "Why the kangaroo?” I asked. “I’m from Australia,”
he said. His father was Harold Gatty, a famous pioneer airman.
Out of young Gatty’s fertile mind have emerged such exotic libations as Nakutipipi (served in a pineapple), a Tafoa Love Potion (for two. naturally) and a Ua Pou Pearl (a real pearl in every fifth drink). “Some people come in the afternoon and try to leave with a necklace,” Gatty said darkly. “I chose a smoking volcano called a Tamarapu Kava Bowl, rum seasoned with pineapple, apple and lemon juice.
Gatty suggested hors d’œuvre—fried won ton. an eggroll, rumaki (chicken livers) and barbecued spareribs — followed by chicken with Japanese mushrooms, lobster Cantonese, and filet of beef with oyster sauce. It was as good as the Canton in Ottawa at its best. High praise, I told him, furtively glancing at the tab (six dollars with the drink ).
"Yes, we’re very successful,” Gatty said gloomily. "Alec Guinness was three days in Mexico and ate five meals here. We get all the movie stars.” He brightened. A tall striking blonde had come in. "The singer at the Continental Hilton roof,” he said. “Terrific, eh? You should go there.”
1 did. Gatty came too. He was badly smitten. We sat near the hand, and all around, through glass walls, the city twinkled. At I I o’clock the band played Star Dust and in the sudden darkness fireworks rained from the roof on every side. It was very festive, moving me to rhumba with Irene Buchanan, a Mexican ex-schoolteacher whose charm and erudition were now employed in her work as assistant hotel manager. Whereupon, leaving Gatty plotting how next to see the singer, I hissed up a cab and rode home.
“Now it’s like Toronto”
Breakfast in the Hotel de Cortes’ sunny courtyard is delightful. You begin with slices of grapefruit, melon, banana, papaya, and pineapple, all trucked in, tree-ripened, from Mexico’s tropical lowlands. Then hot rolls, ham, and eggs Mexican style, which involves gulping cool air quickly after each bite. With the rich local coffee and the onedollar check I had a visitor, a guide MacAlpin had sent to show me around.
He had been a musician for thirteen years before the mayor, an ex-cowpuncher named Ernesto Uruchurtu. cracked down on the nightclubs. “Before Uruchurtu,” he sighed, “we had burlesque. Real French shows. You could drink and dance with a woman all night and take her out. Now the clubs are like in Toronto. I played Toronto.” He sighed again. "Is bad for tourists.”
We walked east on Hidalgo. “Before Uruchurtu,” he said, “people dump their garbage on the street. The markets—so dirty the rats are fat. The fountains— all dry. Now Uruchurtu sends garbage trucks. He builds new markets. The fountains have water. Everywhere, in the parks, bee-oo-ti-ful (lowers. We call Uruchurtu 'Mr. Flowers.’ Is good for tourists.”
We came to the great colonial square called the Zócalo.
We contemplated the oldest and largest cathedral on the continent, site of a temple where Aztec priests ripped the hearts from their still-living victims. “Bee-oo-ti-ful. no?” said my guide. I thought it lacked proportion. The interior was too cluttered to have grandeur. "Very impressive,” I said truthfully.
If anything goes wrong in Mexico City, “it’s the altitude”; it even gets blamed for hangovers
Off the Arcade of Tradesmen we browsed in a storehouse of splendid bric-à-brac, the National Pawnshop, where interest rates are set low to circumvent usurers. In the President's Palace, site of the once-greater palace of Moctezuma, the last Aztec emperor, we lingered over Diego Rivera's murals. In fascinating detail they show how a handful of Spaniards conquered and repressed the Indian masses. Rivera was halfIndian. All his Spaniards are ugly. "Bee-oo-ti-ful, yes?” said my guide. Weil, the Indians are.
For a dollar we took a 14-mile cab ride to University C ity where 156 architects, and the nation's best painters and sculptors, have converted the hemisphere's oldest university (400-odd years) into the world's most spectacular showcase of scholarship.
The 550-acre campus was reared on a desert of lava spewed up by an extinct volcano. I he humanities building, nearly a quarter of a mile long, looks like the UN turned on its sitie, lour swimming pools adjoin to make the world's biggest. I he stadium, modeled after a volcano’s crater, seats 104.000. Fne 12-story library is surfaced with one monumental mosaic by Mexican artist Juan () Ciorman. ''Bee-oo-ti-ful, yes?" said my guide, in his first understatement.
Beside a huge Stalin like statue of ex-president Alemán, known as Joe to 45,000 students, I engaged two in conversation. Hunt McCauley from Iowa, and Francis Beattie from Hamilton, on leave of absence from Queen's Univer-
sity. "Imagine all this"—Beattie gestured—"in a city so poor that a million families live in one room each, go to the fountains for water, empty their pails in the public bathrooms, queue up for two or three hours to get their milk from the government at 60 centavos (4'/2 cents) a quart. You can see they believe in the future.”
McCauley drove us back to town. My guide was all for continuing our tour. His enthusiasm was admirable but wearing. I said gracias, and joined McCauley for lunch in his apartment.
Ale for eight cents a pint
His brunette wife served us salad, toasted cheese sandwiches, and a cold Mexican ale much like ours except for the price, eight cents a pint. ”1 thought you got the turista from salads,” I said, munching heartily, "otherwise known as Moctez.uma’s revenge, or dysentry.”
"Believe me, you can," she said. “I wash mine well, but I've had it three times. I usually blame the altitude. It's so handy. If I'm lazy, it’s the altitude. If I snap at Hunt, it's the altitude. If I feel lousy in the morning, it's the altitude."
'1 tell her, don't drink so much altitude,” Hunt said.
That night, at Hunt's suggestion, I invested four dollars for dinner at the Hotel Vasco de Quiroga and watched Mexico City's best folk dancers for two hours. They’re flamboyant, virile, vividly costumed and trained from infancy. Afterward, they paraded through the
audience, mostly Americans. I seized the chance for a chat with the comely young star. I said several things in English. she answered fully in Spanish, and since neither of us understood the other, we parted warmly.
Next morning I strolled to Sanborn’s House of I iles. The Sanborns were Americans, two brothers who made their fortunes in World War I selling sodas to Mexicans. Whereupon they turned the courtyard of this aged colonial mansion into the city's most cheerful place to breakfast.
Amber light filters down through the glassed-in roof. Waitresses rustle and bustle in crisp quaint costumes. Over delectable fruit and coflee you have an unexcelled view of tourists from all parts of the globe, identifiable by their Mexican shirts or skirts.
I buttonholed the headwaiter; he seemed to have nothing to do but .smile. "I regret I have not time to talk," he said. "I could tell you of the generals who ate here in the revolution and when they did not like the food they shot away the tiles. Once the great boxer Jack Johnson ate here with a general. Our manager spoke to the general. 'General,' he said, 'our American customers do not like to eat with your guest. They do not eat with Negroes in their country.’ ' I hey have never eaten with Negroes?' asked the general. 'Never,' our manager said. Then how do they know they don't like it?’ said the general. 'Eet us try it.' He pulls his gun. 'You will serve it.' Every tourist ate well. But I cannot talk to you now. Come back
after breakfast.” “I regret,” I said, “that I must go to the pyramids.”
Buses to the pyramids leave from the Palace of Fine Arts, a pile of Italian marble and taste built in ¡934 but so grandiose that already it has the interest of contrast. Inside are items of greater interest—ballet, opera, recitals, sculpture, paintings. I listened to a pianist practice behind a studio door, viewed the frescoes by Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros, and came out feeling so fine that a grizzled guide talked me unresistingly into his waiting Cadillac.
"Eor eleven dollars, señor, no more,
I throw in silver factories . . . No? The pyramids only? Hokay.”
We stopped at two silver factories, a glassworks, a leather factory, two weavers and a roadside pottery stall. The guidebooks say you disappoint Mexicans if you pay their asking price. Obligingly 1 bid $3 for a $4 silver bracelet that would have cost $12 in Canada. The saleslady exploded. At our next stop I fancied a leather purse. In Toronto it would have cost $30 to $40. The tag said $10. I bid $10. No one seemed disappointed.
It was lunchtime, even in Mexico, when we reached the pyramids. My guide insisted I lunch at the restaurant called Mirador. It has beautiful stonework and looks out on the monuments.
I saw no Hies in Mexico City; they all congregate here. The food is execrable. My guide ute with relish and blandly gave me his $1.75 check.
The pyramids rise, huge, grey and incredible, from a brown plain. They
were here before the Spaniards, before the Aztecs. The Toltecs who built them were engineers and astrologers and artists and all that is left of their cities nov are these terraced stone temples.
My guide pointed out the temple of Quitzalcóatl with its gaping snake's heads carved from volcanic stone. The jewels in the eyes, he said, had all been stolen. His spiel, and the hawkers who brandish their brand-new authentic relics at you. kept jerking me back from the past to the present. I asked him to wait while I climbed to the top of the Pyramid to the Sun. 216 feet, largest of theie temples, bigger in bulk than Cheops in Egypt.
Climbing the steep stone steps you leave sound behind. From the top you looi down the Road of the Dead to the Pyramid to the Moon, smaller and grown over with grass. On these altar stones a hundred thousand men have shed their blood. Now it is littered with orange peel. I climbed down thoughtfully.
'Hotel de Cortes,” I said.
'Hokay,” said my guide.
We pulled up at Guadalupe, holiest shrine in Latin America. You do not see beauty here, you see faith. A middle-aged Indian woman was approaching the church on her knees, leaving bloodstains behind her on the cement. Het family fussed around her ineffectually. The hushed interior was crowded. The Mexican Indian prays to the virgin of Guadalupe. He is so sure her image on the dashboard of his car will keep him from harm that the wail of an ambulance siren is a constant sound in the city.
My guide suggested a place for dinner. I feigned illness with ease. On part-
ing he demanded $16. "You said $11,” I said. ‘"Look at the time you took.” he said. His effrontery was magnificent. I gave him $11.50.
I ate at the Cortés, beside a fire in the courtyard, an entrée of red snapper, a sea fish flown from Veracruz. Then chiles en nogada—peppers stuffed with ground nuts, pork, garlic, cinnamon, raisins, almonds, chopped peaches and pears, grated cheese, kernels of pomegranate. and over all an aromatic sauce. Troubadors played softly on their guitars. I sipped kahlua. a Mexican liqueur distilled from coffee, and felt at peace w'ith the night.
Around midnight I w'ent to Gitanerías, a Spanish gypsy club, to see the city’s finest flamenco dancers. When the dancers quit the patrons took over. They sang, danced, and handed each other jars that squirt wine in a thin stream. Every fifteen minutes three ruffians (I later found out they were bank managers) would cluster round my table, slap down a jar, and say, “Drink!” You're supposed to open your mouth, let the wine stream in, then lift the jar. “Higher, higher!” they'd shout. “Olé, olé!" When I left, my once-white shirt was a blotchy purple.
In the morning I took a cab to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, which means place of flowers. In this New World Venice, my guidebooks say, the visitor floats on flower-laden boats through a maze of flower-banked canals.
In an hour and a half of floating past islands that haven't floated for centuries, the only flowers l sawadorned the boats and they were plastic. Instead. I saw something richer: a pageant of Mexican life, a cross-section of Mexico City,
families, lovers, the rich, the poor, eating. drinking, talking, singing, staring at the tourists. 1 gave some mariachis two dollars to serenade me and stared back. The mariachis play good but loud. Per decibel they're the world’s best musical bargain.
I drove through Chapultepec Park en route to lunch. Everybody who isn't at Xochimilco is here. It has everything: beautiful gardens, an open-air concert, sidewalk cafés, a castle, a zoo, a midway, a lake, woods, and more hucksters than Coney Island. Beyond it is the racetrack. Beyond that, the Bay Horse
Inn. More properly, the Mesón del Caballo Bayo.
The Caballo Bayo looks like a Spanish mission. It has a pigeoncote and a flowering patio. The waiter brought dishes of chopped liver, cainitas (frenchfried pork), and guacamole (mashed avocado with onion, tomato and chili pepper)—appetizers to be eaten with hot tortillas. The specialty of the house was lamb, baked on hot stones for eight hours. They cook goat this way too. Maybe this was goat. It was juicy without being greasy, tender and delicately flavored. The red wine called Santo
Tomas was light but smooth. I ended with café de olla, coffee with cinnamon and brown sugar, paid the four-dollar check, drove to the hotel, packed, and rode to the airport.
Wailing for the plane to Zihuatanejo, a paradise beside the palm-fringed Pacific (the guidebooks say). I thought of my travel agent. He would want to know my impressions of Mexico City.
Well, the altitude is creeping into the
prices, but it’s still the only big city I know of on this continent where $38 a day will surround you with luxury.
It has more for the eye than any city I know except Rome or London, more for the palate than any city except New York or Paris, more for the nose than any except Genoa.
It’s a city of surprises, I'll say. But perhaps he won't be surprised when I tell him you can’t learn them all in a weekend. ★