This is the original Nick's Tricks, a blog of a journey I made through Mexico, Central America and New Zealand.
Monday, November 17, 2003
It seems like a lot more than two weeks ago today that I was dragged onto the stage for the knife juggling act at Matt and Wendy's wedding before returning to my flat to frantically finish my packing. This has been my fortnight, I'll aim to keep it brief.
I had two expectations of Mexico City, that it would be big and that it would be dangerous. I wasn't disappointed on either count.
I stayed in a hostel in the historic centre, largely populated by the usual mix of Antipodean and North European twenty something travellers. The streets around the centre are a seething mass of humanity trying to pedal anything that you might imagine. From the usual bric-a-brac to knee supports to electric drills you can find it in a street stall, but Lord knows how you're supposed to find it. It's services too, with a row of electricians and plumbers lined up outside the main cathedral, and there would probably do a better job than the guy I hired in Putney.
In terms of population I'm told it is the biggest city in the world, and it's not compact. There is a tower in the centre from which you get a view; as far as the eye can see there is a seemingly endless sprawl of low level buildings. This makes it all the more remarkable that you appear to be able to get anywhere on the underground for about 15p, and a lot quicker that you would in London.
It was on the underground that I got what I was expecting though. I was returning from a trip to Teotihuacan, a set of pyramid ruins just outside the city, with an Englishman Greg from the same hostel. At one particular stop a group of three tiny Mexican women barged their way on. Two stops later they exited in similar fashion, taking with them Greg's wallet, jammed full of credit cards and the money he had just withdrawn using them. It was a schoolboy error, but I really felt for him as he had just arrived from England and had to deal with it along with the culture shock and jet-lag. Many dollars, pesos and phone calls later he was able to get his savings in travellers cheques; I may meet him in a couple of weeks and finally get back the money I lent him.
However, his woes were put into perspective by another incident the same day. A woman walked into our hostel having been robbed at gunpoint while taking a taxi with her three year old daughter. A basic error again, you should never hail a taxi in the city, but it was a high price to pay. Needless to say I was glad to leave form Oaxaca, the site of my language course.
Oaxaca is a great place to learn Spanish. It's a touristy town in southern Mexico about the size of Oxford. It has a very compact centre with lots of interesting shops making it a fun place to wander around. I'm staying with a host family led by two middle aged sisters, Christina and Marina. Also present are Christina's university aged children, Alex and Maria, and Marina's school aged son Carlos. There are no other menfolk and of course I can't ask why (not just because my Spanish isn't up to it).
I struggle to make myself understood by the sisters but we get along OK. I'm able to communicate better with Alex and Maria. Although they both speak reasonable English we stick to Spanish, the difference is I think they are more used to speaking to foreigners and there is less of a cultural difference than with Christina and Marina. The house is basic but quite liveable. It's a slightly strange set up in that I don't usually eat with them, rather they prepare food for when I would like to eat it, which does make for a slightly uncomformable atmosphere.
I attend Spanish leasons in the morning at a very professionally run school that is largely attended by yanks. Making steady but unspectacular progress with the language at the minute, able to understand much but struggling when it is my turn to speak. Also going to Mexican cookery classes at the school from 4 to 6. A fun and interesting way to spend a couple of hours, but somehow I doubt I'll be getting out my pestal and motar or taking the maize to be milled when I return.
Running is a bit of a problem in Oaxaca, it wasn't really designed with it in mind. With no central park, and a grid street layout that is perpetually packed with traffic, I decided I would have to grin and bear the treadmill in a gym. I've therefore been spending up to an hour on the machine, going nowhere. I've never managed more than about 10 minutes on one before, but I find it easier in the gym I've found because it faces a mirror. This might just be vanity, but I think it's something to do with giving you a false sense of movement. And using a treadmill does allow me to revise my vocabulary while I'm running too.
This weekend I took a trip to a mountain retreat with a group of other students from the school. We stayed in a basic wooden cabin in a small village a couple of hours from the city and was a great antidote to the noise and pollution of Oaxaca. Surprisingly, given we were all English speakers, the whole weekend was conducted in Spanish. Or at least they all spoke Spanish and I nodded when appropriate. We went for a couple of fairly unstrenuous walks with rather fantastic mountain views, to which I added a couple of morning runs. At 3000m, to say the least these were tricky. Difficult to describe what my body was up to. I was going unconceivably slowly but still feeling out of breath. Anything above a real crawl made me feel like a misfiring car. Not sure that a week in Oaxaca, itself at 1500m, had made any difference.