From Ross, Marin County California, to Mexico City
We arrived in Mexico City Sunday evening after flying from Oakland International Airport via LA on Delta and Aeromexico. The flight was uneventful, and that perhaps is the problem with flying these days – it is an ordeal to get through. However, the flight did not begin that way. We had three months of clothes for Mexico. Both Nancy’s and my bag were overweight. We had left our spring/fall wardrobe either in Victoria or our one week traveling bag with my nephew in Marin County. We had packed our summer bags separately, but obviously not very carefully. The result – we both brought too much stuff. If we were not to be charged US$480 for each of our overweight bags, we would have to buy two small carry-on bags to reduce the weight – which we did from an airport store around the corner. Luckily, both small bags were on sale. We repacked our luggage in front of the check-in counter. I find more ways to humiliate Nancy than you can imagine.
The trip from San Marin County to Oakland International Airport was exactly one hour as my nephew had advised. However, in spite of his excellent directions, once we got on the spaghetti highway system north of and around Oakland, we would have become lost a number of times if it were not for GPS, the new navigator that has reduced me to an unemployed extra when we drive. THAT is truly humiliating. You can see why I have to find other ways to exact revenge.
We arrived after 8:00 p.m. in Mexico City and it took us about an hour to clear customs and retrieve our luggage. We thought one large bag had been lost, but someone had presumably simply taken it off the belt at the other side, perhaps thinking it belonged to him or her, but, since it still weighed a lot, did not bother putting it back on the belt. We were taken to the apartment by a wonderful driver, Antonio, who met us at the airport. The cost of a trip was only 300 pesos or about CAN$25 for a trip that he said would take 20-25 minutes on late Sunday evening, but took about 45 minutes and seemed endless as we traveled through city block after city block. Mexico City is like Tokyo or Bangkok, an agglomeration of cities. For those who know Mexico City, the apartment is located in Zona Rosa just adjacent to the very busy Reforma district.
Nancy found the apartment on VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner). In the pictures, it looked lovely. It was extremely well located in a district positioned between the historic centre of Mexico City on one side and the Museum of Anthropology and the Museum of Fine Arts on the other side. This two bedroom two bathroom furnished apartment cost only $700 for the week. Two couples would be very comfortable and the apartment would cost each couple only $50 per night in an excellent location.
When we arrived, I was expecting the worst – an apartment advertised with pictures intended to deceive. But Nancy was still batting one hundred percent. The apartment was even better than its pictures. We have since discovered some minor flaws. Day time temperatures in Mexico City may rise to 19 degrees, but at night on this high plateau they drop to 6 degrees and the apartment is not heated. We offset that by turning the burners of the stove on for an hour in the evening. Second, the apartment is not outfitted with toiletries or the best large bath towels. Totally minor inconveniences in a wonderful place to stay. There is one other characteristic. The windows are frosted. The apartment is on the fifth floor. When we opened the windows, the views were atrocious – back alleys and the rear of other concrete buildings. No wonder the windows are frosted. What a shocking contrast with the views from my nephew’s house in Ross in Marin County.
The next morning (yesterday morning) I found an excellent bakery around the corner. I had to learn to traverse the Mexican City sidewalks. For though the streets were clean and the roads well paved, the sidewalks were often broken, with sudden changes in height and with foot-holes rather than potholes. I quickly learned to be very dexterous in walking and to keep my head down rather than forward. Uninjured and without a sprained ankle, I brought back a coffee (Americano) and croissant for Nancy.
We intended to visit the city centre on the first day. En route, we inquired about sight-seeing with concierges at two classy hotels near us, a Sheraton and a Marriott. Both told us that all government offices and museums were closed on Mondays. I clearly had not done my homework for this trip and was humiliated once again.
We were advised that Mondays could be spent shopping. We took their advice and decided to explore the Reforma District. We also wanted to visit a centre for designers and a set of shops selling antiques – not that we had any intentions of purchasing anything. The problem was that we only managed to find them near the end of our walking the streets. By then, I was exhausted. We decided we would return this morning en route to catching the subway to Zocato and the historic centre of the city.
Almost always, because of her hip, Nancy wears out first. This time I could not go on. We took a taxi back to the apartment. That just showed how tired I was – and the taxi only cost 30 pesos or about CAN$2.50. It was not even 4:00 p.m. when we got back. Immediately, I stripped, got under the covers and fell asleep instantly. That is, of course, not so unusual for me. But stripping and, even more importantly, sleeping for an hour and a half instead of 5-10 minutes was.
If that had been the only problem, I would have just presumed that I was more tired than normal and missed my short daily nap. But twice – when I went to bed on Sunday evening and when I returned from going to the bakery yesterday morning – my heart was beating rapidly and almost explosively. I actually became very worried, but intentionally and consciously relaxed. I soon fell asleep on Sunday evening. The arrhythmia also went away again fairly quickly Monday morning. I was worried that something had gone wrong and I would have to fly back to Toronto for medical treatment. I gave no indication of what was going on in my body to Nancy. This is a test of whether she reads my blog. If she does, I will be berated strongly for not reporting on the state of my health.
I then developed one of my very profound philosophical theories for this sudden seeming switch in my health, for I have not had an incident in eight months with my heart. The pacemaker and the pills manage the pump excellently. What had happened? As anyone knows who reads my philosophical writings, they are always strongly grounded in reality and experience. This was even truer of my initial theory explaining my sudden extreme fatigue, a theory which was even more grounded than usual.
I thought it must be my sneakers. I hardly ever wear sneakers, but had taken them this time because I anticipated a lot of walking. They were heavier than shoes I normally wear. Though they might have been responsible for my excessive tiredness, they were not responsible for the extra weight in my luggage since I had worn them on the plane and not packed them. I convinced myself it was the running shoes and would test that theory out today.
However, my philosophical speculation seemed peculiar even to me. I decided to do some research on line this morning. Lo and behold, there was an answer, which most of you, I am sure, already know. Tiredness is often experienced by tourists after they first arrive in Mexico City. The explanation is very simple. Mexico City is on a plateau over 7,300 feet (almost a mile and a half) above sea level. The altitude often makes visitors from much lower altitudes very tired. Some even develop altitude sickness. I had just become very tired. I had no dizziness and no nausea and, certainly, no loss of appetite. Breathless to some degree, and certainly exhausted, but not from heat. And some swelling of my feet – it was hard to get on my better shoes when Nancy insisted that I not wear my sneakers when we went out to dinner last night. However, for the next two days, Nancy cannot insist that I control my carbohydrate intake as that is advised when first acclimatizing to Mexico City.
Visitors to Mexico City are also advised to limit their activities on the first day. That was forced upon me. They are also advised to drink a lot of water. I consumed more than usual – a whole pint at dinner – but not nearly enough. I will do better today. I do not have to watch my alcohol intake. There is, perhaps, another source of tiredness – breathing in air full of exhaust from cars with diminished oxygen. That may have been the case but, in fact, I did not smell or sense the air in Mexico City as very polluted in spite of the enormous amount of traffic.
The good news is that the acclimatization takes, at most, a few days. Evidently, your rate of breathing and pulse increases to meet the demands of an atmosphere with lower pressure and less oxygen in the air. Soon, your body is engaged in producing more red blood cells. However, my pacemaker and my pills control my heart rate. Would they not prevent the normal adjustment process? I will see.
I would have thought I would have been slightly acclimatized. My nephew lives almost near the top of what
appears to be a small mountain, but is probably just a very high hill. Though it may not reach the 2,500 feet height of Mount Tamalpais just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, I bet it was over 1,500 feet high. In Mexico City, I was only a mile higher. It was not like traveling from Boston to Tibet. But, as indicated above, I was not acclimatized.
Acclimatizing to altitude is one thing. Acclimatizing to another culture is a different order of business altogether. The tiny municipality of Ross where my nephew lives is just an old and independently incorporated very small municipality within San Rafael (first established as a Catholic mission at the beginning of the nineteenth century). Both municipalities are part of Marin County just across from the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco. Ross has a population that, at most, is 2,500; it is as if Rosedale in Toronto was a separate municipality.
What a contrast with Mexico City itself with a population of over 20 million and with a much larger population in Greater Mexico City! With the population of two-thirds the whole of Canada, Mexico City itself has a population over 10,000 times greater than Ross. That is not the only contrast. Marin County is very rich. It is a very small county, but has a tax base of almost forty billion dollars, three quarters of that from private homes. Some of the homes on the hills are just spectacular. We arrived in Marin County from the north by traveling down highway 101, the Redwood Highway, and through a forest of giant redwoods just before you enter wine country. There is nothing in Mexico, or perhaps anywhere, that I know of, comparable to the giant redwoods in northern California.
Marin County lacks population diversity. I do not think I saw a single Black, though I did see a few Asians and many Hispanics. The population is overwhelmingly white. I also have not yet seen a single Black yet in Mexico City, but perhaps when we go to the old city centre today, we may see a number of Black American tourists. I also have not seen many Mexicans who I would describe as looking white. The overwhelming vast majority of Hispanics in Mexico City look like Spanish Amerindians or predominantly Amerindians. There also seemed to be an unusually large number of Asians, mostly Japanese, that we saw, but they may include many tourists and Japanese in Mexico on business. Or there may be many Mexican citizens of Japanese origin living and/or working in the Reforma district.
We have yet to see any sign of last month’s political protests and the violence that erupted after 43 students were abducted. This is in spite of the fact that yesterday the world learned that the tests from the pile of ashes from a pyre proved to match the DNA of one of the missing students. In day-to-day life, for tourists, there seems to be no sign of the widespread corruption that supposedly infuses politics, the state police and possibly even the federales, the Mexican Federal Police. The latter are everywhere. They are dressed in their black uniforms, bullet proof vests, machine guns and electric stun sticks at the ready. I think I only saw one police car while we were in Marin County. Mind you, we were not walking as we are here, another difference between an exclusively car culture and a combined foot and car culture.
However, though late September’s Iguala massacre of the forty-three students – the massacre confirmed by more DNA tests – the calm exterior barely hides the turmoil underneath. That turmoil broke into the open when raging students set fire to the governor’s palace in the city of Chilpancingo, capital of the state of Guerrero in September. Yesterday, at the Ibero-American Summit in Veracruz, Mexico, the leaders of Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua, and, most importantly, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner, were no-shows in protest. President Enrique Peňa Nieto belatedly acknowledged the crisis resulting from the students’ deaths. However, he has yet to call for a day of national mourning let alone initiate a realistic concerted effort to do something about the problems of Mexico. The issue is not just of students in rebellion and political administrations and police evidently rife with corruption and in bed with violent drug cartels. In the three months between April 1 and 30 June of this year, 87 journalists were attacked. In spite of its evident growth and increasing prosperity, Mexico may only be a democracy on the surface.
This is in stark contrast with Marin County. Of course, comparing Marin County and Mexico City is not even like comparing apples to oranges. It is more akin to comparing a grape to a watermelon. Marin County is the watermelon. It is a fabulously rich place where the median household income exceeds US$110,000 per annum. There has been hardly any unemployment in recent years. My nephew Zach has plans to renovate his house and told me his overall budget. Only when he explained the economics of Marin County and the hourly wages of carpenters, electricians and plumbers did I comprehend what I at first believed to be a huge discrepancy between the renovations he was planning and what I initially perceived to be a very inflated budget.
Another thing I learned about Marin County is not only its unrepresentative demographic make-up and its unrepresentative economic status, but that a great many of Zach’s friends were Jewish even though Jews did not even constitute 2% of the Marin County population. However, the bagels we went to buy on Saturday morning were as good – or, almost as good – as any to be bought in Toronto. Yet, though the population of Jews in Marin County was very small, the citizens of Marin County voted like Jews, or, at least, as Jews traditionally voted and still tend to, if not nearly as strongly. The population was well above average in income, but were liberal. A majority supported the Democratic Party – though small municipalities like Belvedere were still evidently strongly Republican. Marin County has shifted from what was once a staunchly Republican stronghold to a staunchly Democratic one.
In part, this was due to re-districting. But in good part it is due to the fact that the young entrepreneurs and dot.com specialists here are overwhelmingly liberal with a major concern with the environment. Zach, my nephew, is on the verge of trading in his Audi for an electric car. Megan, his wife, is a vegetarian. This is tree hugging country. George Bush received almost 60% of the Marin County vote in 2000, and even McCain received 55% of the vote in 2008. However, in 2012 Obama won the presidential election with over 68% of the vote, an even larger majority than he received from his home district in Chicago. Diane Feinstein received 72.6% of the vote.
I also learned that the tiny municipality of Ross attracted these young well-off liberal high earners because it had an excellent public and high school. The only thing I knew previously about Ross was that Julia Child went to a boarding school here, The Branson School. I learned this when I was doing research on the bio-movie on her life for which Meryl Streep, who is not particularly tall, won an Academy Award playing the 6’2” Julia Child. Meryl Streep did so with an excellent imitation of Julia Child’s high warbly voice, infectious laugh and her extraordinary optimism.
Of course, in the movie, we never learn that she was a very good athlete, an excellent student and very ambitious and disciplined. After all, during WWII she quickly rose in America’s predecessor to the CIA, the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services), to become General William J. Donovan’s top secret researcher. However, Meryl Streep captured her unstoppable cheerfulness and her unaffected manner even if her voice did not exactly come across that way. Luckily, this food revolutionary was wrong in her fear that America’s new obsession with health would be the death of culinary art in America. North Americans continue to take great joy in great cooking that has become far more cosmopolitan, well beyond the love affair she taught Americans for French cooking.
Yesterday noon I wanted to order French onion soup, one of Julia Child’s favourites; it made up her last meal before she died at the age of ninety-two. However, I was told the preparation would take 20-25 minutes and I opted for another choice Yesterday evening, our meal at an Italian restaurant was an excellent testimony to the spread of the culinary arts from all cultures across the world. My minestrone soup was the best I ever had and the pepperoni pizza I chose was excellent, except I prefer a thin crust. Nancy’s shrimp pasta was superb. Mexico has a wide variety of excellent restaurants.
We look forward to another great day. However, we will not be attending the huge MEXSEC Convention on the construction industry that is opening at the Cancun Center. Hopefully, I have become sufficiently acclimatized to leisure and can avoid one of my favourite hobbies.