Sunday 22 May 2016
A comfortable 14h 40min flight landed us in San Francisco. US immigration recently introduced fast access with passport scanners like the ones we have had in NZ for several years. Sylvia slipped through with ease on her US passport. I was thinking maybe third time lucky but not so… my ticket gets the big cross on it. After 20mins in a line I make it to the ‘do not speak to me’ immigration guy. Asking why I always get the cross he said “suck it up man your name’s too common, the guys that designed the system were no good!” At least I know now why.
We took the Bart train the 30 mins into the city getting off a short stroll from the ferry building. Strolling along the wharf edge towards Fisherman’s Wharf the place was full of people. Numerous restaurants line the piers along with market stalls, bars and entertainment. As we get opposite Alcatraz Island just about every business has Alcatraz incorporated into their name. Dozens of sea lions lie on pontoons, watched by a hundred or so people on the pier.
A Chinaman plays a one string harp with a speaker in a plastic bucket to amp up the noise. Skate boarders and beggars hold their spots. “Let’s be honest! I need money for weed” says one guy on his sign. “This broke ass nigger needs money” says another.
We pass a WWII submarine and merchant ship tied alongside. Arriving at Fisherman’s Wharf it is packed with people, many queuing for food especially crabs.
Further down the old cable car trams now run as a tourist attraction. I had ridden these in town in the eighties so we flagged the hour plus wait for trip.
There are few Europeans in the streets as we stroll back to the ferry terminal along the street. Interestingly less than half of the eight hundred thousand plus population here are white Americans. Asians make up 33% followed by Hispanics and others pushing it out to 56%. A big change from 1940 when whites made up 95% of the population.
Monday 23 May
Touching down in Mexico City just after 5am, the immigration process was quite quick. A driver was waiting with a sign and in 45 mins delivered us to the Gran Fiesta America Hotel near the Chapultepec gardens. After dropping our bags in our room we headed up the VIP dining room on the 16th floor. Here there is a stunning view out over a huge park. After a short sleep Sylvia headed off for a store tour.
Around noon I headed out into the park. Paseo de la Reforma, a main road, heads through the beginning of the park. Alongside the road is a display called Balon (golden ball). Hundreds of large soccer balls line the footpath, painted and decorated in different ways.
I crossed the busy road looking for a way into the western part of the park but all gates were closed. A know down the road I found a street heading west and soon access to the park – well a small part of it anyway. Varying statues dominated this park. Groups of old people sat at tables around the park playing cards.
Eventually I found a track leading to the main park. Finding the entrance to the Zoo I was stopped at the gate. My three Spanish words, “ola senor and gracias” were not much help. With me smiling helplessly and the guard using a large range of sign language, all but drawing his gun, it was established that everything is closed Monday.
Chapultepec Park is apparently, at 640 hectares, the largest city park in the Western Hemisphere. As I was to discover the accessible park is considerably less than that. As I strolled south I had a pidgin English chat with the navy armed guards (one took his magazine off his M16 to show me the live rounds) on the gate of a large fenced off area containing the president’s pad.
Further on I crossed an over bridge looking into a military compound. Along with a couple of locals I watched a parade underway for a while until a security guard came and told us to bugger off. Luckily he didn’t see me take a pic.
I wandered through bumper boat lakes then a fitness area including a running track. Crossing another set of roads the park became a wilderness surrounded by a high fence. I think the area once contained a reservoir. As I continued south on the foot path alongside the fence large houses with security fencing overlooked the scruffy park on the other side of the road.
I passed an equestrian facility. I approached the gate hoping to take a look. Not understanding a word the guy was saying it was still very clear I wasn’t welcome. At around the eight km mark I finally reached the end of the park. Heading north along the road on the west boundary alongside a high wall there were more unwelcoming equestrian places. This was followed by a huge cemetery with large tombs running a couple kms along behind the wall. Crossing an over bridge I had a view back to the city, just at the boundary of the wall of smog constantly surrounding the city. On the way home I passed a huge adventure ground complete with roller coaster.
The evening we spent in the VIP lounge on the floor above us enjoying food and drink. Just to the west there is a fourteen lane road that is constantly packed with traffic while we are in the bar.
With somewhere between seventeen and twenty two million people in this city (depending on what you read or who you talk to) I now realise why when flying in here the city is so vast. There are few high rise apartments.
Tuesday 24 May
After a short stroll through the park I arrived at the path leading up to Castillo de Chapultepec. At 2325 meters above sea level this, the only Royal castle in the Americas, has quite a history. Built for a Spanish general in 1775 it became a military establishment, then the home of emperor Maximillian I. Then it again became a military fort, captured by the US Marines in a bloody battle in 1847 where six cadets aged 14 to 16 fought to their death after the rest of the Mexican army had buggered off. More recently it has been an observatory (that must have been before the smog) and is now a really well done museum. With grand lawns, several huge sweeping marble staircases and rooms opening out on to the surrounding balconies it is a relaxing place to wonder around. The doors are open onto the balcony with each room roped off with a sign in Spanish, I presume explaining the different themes in each room. There are a number of firearms on display, in particular a number of variations of the Gatling (early multi barrelled machine gun).
Back down the track a little way there is the Galeria De Historia, Museo del Caracol. This building spirals down as you walk from exhibit to exhibit. Most exhibits are clay figures in scenes rolling through the history of Mexico. It’s a pity AJ wasn’t here as interpreter as again this is all in Spanish.
Wednesday 25 May
We woke to an extended view over the city as heavy rain had washed some of the smog out of the sky.
At 9am a driver and a guide picked me up at the hotel and we headed out into the heavy traffic. Our first stop was Templo Mayor, a bunch of Aztec ruins in the middle of town.
Next was the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Here there are a bunch of churches, the oldest of which has a significant lean on it. Apparently this is a big problem in the city as a long time ago the area was a lake and it is hard to find good foundations to build on. Hence there are not many old tall buildings here. Thousands of people flocked into the square in the middle of these churches, some in costumes, others just coming to pray. The area is famous for the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who apparently appeared here many years ago. There is a painting of her behind and under the altar of the new church. There are so many people that come to see this that one has to stand on a conveyor to look up at the painting.
Back in the van we headed north out of the city – the traffic had died off now. At one point I spotted on the hillsides thousands of colourful small houses stacked in close together. These are apparently squatters who have built illegally; by the looks of it there are way too many to tear down.
Well out into the country we arrived at the Teotihuacan Pyramids to clear blue sky overhead with the wall of smog well south of us. Our first stop was a shop that made jewellery “out of real silver”. They also carved stone and had a big cactus plant that tequila comes from. I got to drink the sweet liquid from the centre and was shown a version of paper used centuries ago, along with a needle and thread that also come from this plant.
A short drive had us at the moon pyramid, built around 200 BC and abandoned like the rest of them in this part of the world about 750AD. These ones were discovered in the late sixties, uncovered and are still in the process of being restored. This complex is quite large stretching probably 3ks. The moon pyramid faces down the length of the complex with the sun pyramid off to the west side facing east. Apparently this was the religious part of a community at its peak holding some two hundred thousand people. When unearthed after a thousand plus years of nature taking it over it basically had to be rebuilt. I am sure the cost has been more than recovered from the millions of visitors. It’s a bit of a pity NZ didn’t have a few people rocking around two thousand years ago building stuff out of stone.
Gacov, the guide, has a well-rehearsed English patter on what took place here, some of which I understood. I discovered asking questions was not an option as his English was totally rehearsed. He bailed back to the van leaving me to stroll up the structures and look around.
Next was the El Jaguar for lunch – a great buffet as various drummers and musos wandered in to strut their stuff. With nice gardens and good food it was a pleasure to visit.
No! We are not done with pyramids yet. Templo de Quetzalcóatl is the smaller one of the three at the southern end. This area had apparently been the local market area. They are still digging and restoring around here. Lots of the stone is now held together with concrete. There is a plant at the back and they wheelbarrow or bucket it in. This was the most interesting part of the site.
The drive back to town was relatively painless as we beat the rush hour and missed the massive teacher’s protest that was apparently about to happen.
When Sylvia turned up after a long, hard day at the office, we took a stroll around the area and found a great Mexican place where we enjoyed some delicious tacos.
Thursday 26 May
Altar a la Patria is a statue erected in honour or the six boy soldiers who defended to their deaths the Chapultepec Castle. One wrapped himself in the flag and jumped (it’s a big drop) from the castle to prevent the flag falling into US hands. From this memorial runs Paseo de la Reforma. This Boulevard was built for Emperor Maximillian to give him good access from his castle to the city.
A morning stroll down here revealed the first part in the park is a walkway displaying art.
Then one hits the real world – the traffic is bumper to bumper. I waited to cross at the lights. The green walking man started flashing but the cars just kept on coming until a policeman blowing on his whistle and waving a baton eventually brought them to a halt.
Street sweepers with their witch’s brooms sweep away amongst the cars. I have a funny vision of them getting to and from work on their brooms in formation. There are fountains and statues at some intersections. Streets weave on and off the boulevard at all angles.
Further down the street there are a number of photos portraying something that went on here in 1914. Funny I thought these type of Mexicans only existed in the movies.
Turning down a side street I find it blocked off by police with riot shields. I turned a few streets later to find I was behind the shields. In this area I discovered a massive dome type structure with a lift inside to go up and view the town. Unfortunately it was not open. The police presence around here was intense like they were waiting for some real action.
The area surrounding where we are staying is supposed to be the safest in Mexico. By the number of police and security guards around I am not surprised. Even in the park police were lurking behind trees and on street corners. It would have to be a pretty dumb bandito to try anything around here.
I took a detour through the back streets back to the hotel. There is no one sitting around like you see in a lot of cities in this part of the world. Streets are tidy and clean and people look like they are on the move with a mission.
Around 1pm a Uber guy picked us up and drove us to the airport using an app called Waze, which somehow works out the fastest route through the thick traffic. At one intersection the driver had to kind of push his way through traffic on a red light to get across a blocked intersection. We made it to the airport in good time.
At check in Mickey Mouse and that bloody duck appeared again. My US ESTA visa number didn’t come up when the helpful man scanned my passport. He asked me if I had the ESTA number on me. For years I carried a piece of paper with it taped in the back of my passport. A US immigration bloke tore it out last year telling me I did not need it. I got a new passport and a new ESTA late last year. I did write the number down but did not stick it in. They gave us a Wi-Fi code to look it up after explaining it was there on Sunday wasn’t going to work. No luck on-line it seemed to have evaporated into thin air. I went through the long, six-page process of applying online for a new one. Getting to the end it told me I already had one and applying for the new one would cancel the old one and may take 72 hrs. A gamble had to be taken. Dreading the thought of being stuck in Mexico I pushed go. It gave me an application number, which the guy on the check in accepted. We raced to board with a slight hold up at security. Someone must have passed out some ‘fxxk with Roger James’ pills this morning.
A huge thunderstorm delayed the flight for over an hour so right now it looks like a night in Houston. That’s if immigration lets me in as my big thumbs on the iPhone have changed my first name to Riger!!
I am writing this as we go. We finally got our take off turn. The pilot gunned the engine brakes on hard to gain maximum thrust, like he didn’t want to miss our chance to get airborne. As the Equipo Embraer climbed steeply we bumped around as though on a very rough road. Eventually the air settled and food was served.
Then “this is your pilot speaking. Houston control has told us the weather is too rough to land so we are going to fly around in circles for the next 55 mins. I just have to check the fuel, (I look to the wing waiting for him to climb out with a stick) then we may divert to San Antonio.” What’s more it’s quite fine up here.
There wasn’t enough fuel on the stick so we now sit on the terminal at San Antonio refuelled and waiting for the weather to clear in Houston.