Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mexico City was a bit of an anti-climax

Not because I had a bad time, but I was constantly reminded, when faced with a menu item that needed explaining or an exotic piece of fruit, how spoiled I had been by having the expert companionship of Cristina and Judy for the last week or so.

It was also the point, about six weeks into this stage of the journey, that the travel demons of loneliness and fatigue began to win the battle over excitement and hunger.

So, although I certainly got out and about, I can’t possibly claim to have done Mexico City justice. I never saw The Pyramids, I did not visit a single museum nor indeed did I spend anywhere near enough time exploring Mexico City’s incredible past.

Despite that, I came away from Mexico City with fond memories. Primarily, because of the people who were helpful and welcoming and, of course, because of the food.

It will, I am sure, make those who knew me in my past life, laugh out loud when they hear that I arrived in Mexico City on a bus. I have always been the sort of person who decried the use of buses for the logical reason “they are used by the sort of person who uses busses”

So, when Cristina informed me that it was the best and cheapest way to get to the capital from Morelia, I had my doubts.

She was not wrong, of course. Mexico’s bus system is a marvel. It has to be given that they have no train services. It is efficient and quick and the buses and the stations remind you more of airports than the grubby coach stations I had been expecting.

Five and a half hours after leaving Morelia, I was flopped on the bed of my hotel. It really was that easy. If only all travelcould be like that.

After a welcome shower, I headed off to explore. My hotel was on Paseo De La reforma and close by to a large park and I spent the next couple of hours wandering around looking at snack stalls and the impressive buildings before tiredness hit me and I returned back to the hotel for an early night.

If I can often be accused of neglecting the cultural side of the cities I visit on the EAT MY GLOBE trip, the same cannot be said of the markets. They really are one of the best ways of understanding any society ( the others, in case you are wondering, are TV ads and Porn) and the markets of Mexico City are a thing to behold.

Daddy of them all is the astonishing Mercado Mercede situated in the rough and ready Avenida De Salvador area of the city.

My hotel advised me to get a taxi there, not because it was unsafe because of its location, more because of the distance from X to Y. I decided to walk figuring that, if I was not going to spend time in Museums, walking a fair distance would at least give me chance to see some of the buildings and some of the local people doing what local people do.

It was not such a great distance, a few miles at most, but it certainly gave me the chance to see Mexico’s inhabitants doing what they do.

The market is way outside the normal environs of the tourist and the streets surrounding the food market are swamped with stalls selling just about anything you can imagine from videos where Animals were the stars (and I don’t mean as in the Lassie films) to electronic items and clothing. It also seemed to be home to the majority of Mexico City’s pimps, hookers and pushers.

Despite that, I did not feel in anyway threatened by the surroundings and reached the market about an hour or so after leaving the hotel and I even experienced some smiles from the prostitutes that I think were genuine rather than an attempt to see what I keep hidden in my fashionable Lurex posing pouch.

Cristina had told me that the market was remarkable even compared to The Abastos in Guadalajara. It was. In fact, it was probably the most astonishing market I have seen on the whole trip ( and I am writing this now some two months later) It would be hard to imagine anything that was not on sale here. Fruits and vegetables towering over you in piles that threaten to topple at any moment, meat and fish in variety and amounts that I had not seen before or since and, of course, the constant whirr of machines making tortilla, the staple of every meal in Mexico and sold by the bundle load.

Despite the hustle and bustle of the market, people still had time to smile, offer tastes and allow me to take pictures. They seemed genuinely bewildered by the sight of a bald European walking around with a camera and a big smile on his face but equally pleased to let me get up close and see what they were doing.

By lunchtime, the sights and smells had made me extraordinarily hungry and I decided to take up another piece of advice from Cristina and head to Azul Y Oro, a restaurant situated way at the end of the Metro line in the campus of Mexico city’s university.

The metro system in Mexico is pretty extensive, incredibly cheap and very efficient. So, within an hour, I was on the shuttle bus that went from the station to the cultural complex of the university.

Azul Y Oro, may be in an unlikely setting but it has an astonishing reputation. The chef, Ricardo Muniz, is the author of “The Culinary Dictionary of Mexican Food” and has been widely featured in magazines all over the world.

I began simply with a light soup of cilantro and crema, which was standard enough but served to prepare me for one of the other great tastes of my trip. The Polo Con Mole, chicken (either breast meat or, much better, leg and thigh meat) served in a glistening pool of shining sauce made from umpteen ingredients including chilli and dark, smokey, cacao.

The taste of mole is hard to describe. I had probably only experienced one deserving of the name once in that brief moment when London went through a phase of opening up “authentic” Mexican restaurants, which were nothing of the kind. I had even tried to make one myself but ended up with a frighteningly red, if not unpleasant sauce that was as Mexican as Anthony Quinn.

Here, at Azul Y Oro, I had an epiphany. The initial taste of the sauce is sweet and smokey with a hit of chilli. You think that is it. Then the sauce opens up to reveal layers of flavour like the package in a game of pass the parcel.

The chicken it surrounded was fine, but a sauce like this could be laded over dead dog and it would still be good. The restaurant was empty on a quiet Monday lunchtime, and I was not under the watchful scrutiny of the staff, so I took the opportunity to pick up the plate and lick it clean. My mother would have been so proud.

The waiter, when he came to collect my plate seemed not put out at all that the plate was almost totally clean. I suspect it happens all the time.

That was about it for Mexico City. In the next couple of days, I just mooched and ate. I went to El Refugio for a meal that seemed to consist entirely of cold pig skin

and to Casa De Pavo (turkey) where I tried another mole this time slathered on top of slices of turkey. It was good, but it was not close to that at Azul Y Oro.

On my last day, I decided to have an early night. I was exhausted from a day of walking and from six weeks of travelling. My body was bursting out of my clothes increasingly tight clothes and I felt, in the words of Paul Simon “weary to my bones”

I also had a flight the next morning to Buenos Aries which meant I had to leave the hotel at 5am.

As I sat on my bed and finished off my notes for that portion of the trip, I decided that, at the end of EAT MY GLOBE, I would treat myself to a holiday. Yes, Yes, I know. I will have been travelling for over a year by then but, if you have gleaned nothing else from these pages, you will at least acknowledge that it is pretty hard work and the constant flitting from place to place is a wearying, if fun way to see the globe.

I promised myself that, at the end of the journey, when the manuscript was handed into my publishers and when I had settled what was going to happen in the rest of my life, I would have one last adventure, choose one country of those I had visited and spend more time exploring it in depth.

There were a few countries on the list. At the top, I scrawled MEXICO in large capitals.

Since then, I have been to another eight or so countries and I still have found no reason to take it from the top of the list. I will be back.

Next stop, Buenos Aires

1 comment:

Tana Butler said...

I want to meet you there. (And maybe we can go to San Miguel Allende, where a friend and client lives.)

I hope with all my heart that this can former in-laws, wonderful people, live in Mexico City, and they have traveled the world and eaten on EVERY CONTINENT including Antarctica. I suspect you would love them.

Sending love from Soquel, where the day was perfectly springtime.