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Hamish McKenzie - transient, Oaxaca, Mexico

Monday, January 10, 2005

Here in Mexico we are in the depths of winter. The mercury, its core chilled by the frosty skies, struggles to the mid 20s, and the locals laugh at me wearing my shorts and slapping on sunscreen.

It has only been a week, but we have already seen so much. Mexico City, Puebla, Oaxaca. Each one is a different bed of culture. Mexico City itself has 21 million people, many of whom can barely afford to live amongst rubble and debris in half-fallen-down shacks on the city edges. But we only got to see that part from the bus. From a tourist's perspective in the city, when you only get to see the sugar-coated DF (as they call it here, for ┬┤Distrita Federal┬┤), it is a magnificent place. The opulent Spanish colonial architecture; the stunning architecture of the modern buildings; the colourful and bustling zocalo (town square); the impressive Museum of Anthropology - it's all great.

The thing that really impressed me about DF is the importance placed on public arts. Throughout the megapolis there are elaborate government-funded fountains, statues, monuments, and parks. The zoo - which is by no means a token gesture - is free to the public. It almost makes up for having to pay for water.

Then there are the oddities: thousands of street stalls selling tacos (in order to conserve order in our stomachs, we were told not to eat from them), magazines, batteries, notepads, sunglasses, trinkets -- anything that can be acquired cheaply, maintained easily, and offered to tourists for meagre prices. My only purchase so far has been a notepad -- 3 pesos (4 cents NZ). Guards armed with bullet-proof vests and big machine guns keep watch at banks and exclusive shops. Buses lurch in the streets and cars veer violently in front of one another at will. I can't be sure I saw anyone use an indicator.

Most things are cheap in Mexico. DF's subway costs 3 pesos; a four course-meal $35 pesos (NZ$4.50); bottle of very good tequila 200 pesos (NZ$28) - I don't know what a Big Mac costs because I refuse to set foot in McD's.

In a city of 21 million, you have to be either well-paid or wily to survive. And so you meet characters like Leoncio, our tour guide for the Templo Mayor and the Presidential Palacio Nacional. Leoncio spoke English and wanted to learn new words from us, like "catalyst", "wasted", and "Senora Helen Clark". He once learned from some Australians the perfect way to seduce a sheila. All one has to utter, apparently, is "can I get my end in". He had no idea what it meant. He accompanied us for three hours, giving us history, narratives, rote-learned facts (the Palace is the second biggest in the Western Hemisphere; Moctezuma had a harem of mutants), and detailed analysis of the glorious Diego Rivera murals in the Palace.

The Templo Mayor is the ruins of an ancient Aztec temple which the Mexicans found in the 1970s while they were excavating in the city centre. It was the most important archaeological find of the 20th century. The Spanish conquerers, in a bid to wipe Aztecs from memory, destroyed as much as they could of the sprawling pyramids (which reached 200 feet high) and then simply built over top of them. Even now, half of the Templo Mayor remains covered by towering colonial buildings, themselves too precious to pull down for the Templo's sake. Costs a cool $4 to walk through and see the Aztec carvings of snakes heads, the old drainage systems, and the intricate pyramid structures.

The Palacio is the home of the Mexican government. We were lucky to see it because visitors can only have a squint when the President is not in the house. The Rivera murals, which tell the story of Mexico's fascinating history, took five years to paint. They are truly splendid visions. I'm sure they'll stay with me for the rest of my life.

But that's enough for now. One can only write so much on a hostel computer. And this is costing me 80 cents per hour.