Saturday, March 05, 2011

poling in public

When I return to Mexico City, I will give the boat rides of Xochimilo a pass.

The people of Mexico City love the place.  They often show up in groups to celebrate an event and are poled about in long covered boats – to the sounds of mediocre (if they are lucky) mariachi and vendors of beverages, scarves, rugs, and who-knows-what.

To my surprise, most of the people on our bus tour thought this was one of the highlights of the trip.  I really did not get it.  I still don't -- even after thinking about it.

Most of us remember from our history classes that when the Spanish arrived, they discovered the capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan, was built in the middle of a lake in the Valley of Mexico.  Several other lakes were part of a vast network that joined parts of the empire.

When I first heard that story, I thought of Tenochtitlan as being an island in the lake.  It wasn't.  It was much more than that -- a series of small islands divided by canals.  The Aztecs not only lived there, they farmed there.  (You can see the canals in the model.)

You can still see the remnants of that massive inter-lake system in Xochimilco.  The islands were formed by driving sticks into the lake bed.  Fill (garbage, dirt, excrement) was then dumped into the staked area to create an island.  A particularly fertile island.

There are still farms on this canal-crossed area.  And often the only way to get from one island to another is by boat.

Here is the sad part.  The canal system -- and the ecosystem associated with it -- has been dying since the 1950s when water was pumped out to feed Mexico City’s needs.  As a result, the water level of the canals is dropping – even with efforts to pump more water into the system.

I found all of that interesting.  Learning about the canals and the people who lived there was new to me.

But what made it less than enjoyable for me was being crowded onto a long boat to sit around a table that left little mobility.  I had no trouble with the people.  They were pleasant.  But it was crowded.

We were then boarded by musical pirates disguised as a mariachi band.  I say disguised because they looked like a mariachi band.  But they certainly did not sound like one.  I suspect some grade school was missing its entire teaching staff for the afternoon.

What they lacked in talent, they tried to compensate with volume.  It didn't work.

We were then plagued by a flotilla of Liza Dolittles – to be replaced by merchant after merchant of every imaginable trinket  All available at almost any street corner in Mexico City.  (I would like to see a story one of these days about the fellow who supplies all of these vendors.)

Anyone who has read my blog knows I am a big defender of the free market system.  And I applauded each vendor for amazing persistence and initiative – in principle.

But, for me, it was just a bit too much.  I suspect I was starting to feel the effects of my approaching bout of stomach explosions.

I love boats.  I loved the history.  I was enthralled with the people working the fields – mainly plant nurseries.  But I would not want to relive the experience.

096At times I wish I could be more like the residents of Mexico City who truly love the place. 

When they come in groups, they will often hire a series of boats, tie them together, and have a great time.  It may also be a way for them to pay homage to the Indian side of their heritage.

OK.  I got that out of my system.  It was the only less-than-satisfactory experience I had on the trip.  And I feel a lot better for turning lose of it.

Now, let’s talk about the things that will bring me back to Mexico City.


Felipe Zapata said...

Hey, you reinforced my preconceptions about this place. Now I know I'll never go.

By the way, I enlarged the photo of your group on the boat. I see written on both sides of the roof: Propina (tip) $100 pesos each. My Lord, that's one whale of a tip.

John said...

I saw that tip demand too - hardly a tip when it is required - more like a fee over and above?

Being pestered a lot by vendors is mostly charming to tolerable; but, now and again the over zealous salesperson can really be bothersome regardless of your notion of a free market system.

We generally do not get involved with tour activities. The 'hidden' costs and collective mentality do not fit. Grumpy old man I suppose, although seems to have been with me for a long time ;-)

Don Cuevas said...

In all our many trips to el DF, we've passed up visiting Xochimilco. It just looks so tawdry in all I've read about it.

sparks said...

You just need to go with friends and be ready for food and party. Maybe attached is a 1999 foto of us in the back waters away from the bumper cars of the main canal. Great fun and relaxing

Nita said...

Steve, you have to be and think like a tourist to enjoy places like Xochimilco.

Steve Cotton said...

And I was simply not in a tourist mood. But I really enjoyed being with the same group at the Cuban restaurant that night. Go figure.

Curtiselowe said...

Too bad. It does look like a mob scene.

Steve Cotton said...

And it seems as ifit could be a very relaxing place. But it wasn't.

Steve Cotton said...

Nice photo. Some of the back canals seemed a bit less hectic. We didn't go there.

Steve Cotton said...

Good pick.

Steve Cotton said...

And "grumpy old man" is exactly how I felt.

Steve Cotton said...

The tip request was emlematic of the while visit. The place was less about enjoyment than peso transfers.

Steve Cotton said...

The tip "request" was emblematic of the entire experience. Less about enjoyment than peso transfers.

Kim G said...

Interesting, my experience of Xochimilco was completely different. I went with an American friend one week day, and it was a pretty slow day for the boatmen. We joined up with a couple of other people who were waiting for a boat, and then the four of us went out with the bargeman. There were a few parties with mariachis, and the odd vendor, but the experience was overall quite relaxed, tranquil and pleasant.

As for it being a tourist venue, most of my Mexican friends who live in DF love Xolchimilco and consider it a good venue to have parties, get together with friends, etc.

My biggest fear about Xochimilco was that the water would smell, and while it's certainly pretty turgid, it fortunately was not odoriferous.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we have our own version of Xochimilco if swan boats in the Public Garden count.

Steve Cotton said...

The water was fine on our visit. But it was not very much fun.

Irene said...

Can't you ever just have fun? Accept something for what it is, not what you think it should be? Xochimilco equates in my mind to Jantzen Beach back when it was an amusement park. Lots of kitsch, overpriced rides, and most important, families having a great time enjoying the day together.

Steve Cotton said...

I admit I was not in the best of moods when I went to Xochimilco. But it has some of the elements I never enjoy with group travel. It is just not my cup of tea. Here is what would have made it a winner for me. Two or three people in the boat with a guide recounting the history of island-formation and its relationship to the now-extinguished canal system. Of course, that would have been an entirely different trip.

Here is the great irony. I had a great time with the same group at a Cuban restaurant that night.