Versus 1981-82

Today was faux spring. That happens occasionally even in darkest winters. The aspects of spring we got today were non-freezing temps, drizzle and mud. The dog at least is happy. And it is better than a subzero day.

Last year, when looking up William F. Hagerty, a VU alum who eventually became the current U.S. ambassador to Japan — succeeding such notables as Caroline Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Douglas MacArthur II, Joseph Grew, Townsend Harris and arguably Commodore Perry — I also came across this photo in the 1982 Vanderbilt Commodore yearbook.

Pictured are staff members of Versus magazine, the student magazine, 1981-82. Actually only about half of the staff; the editor for that year is not even pictured. I’m third from the left, top row. Or third from the right, come to think of it. These days I’m on Facebook with four of the people pictured, including Dan, bottom row right. I correspond by postcard and email with another person in the picture who doesn’t do Facebook.

The present generation of VU student journalists will not know the joys and irritations of producing a paper magazine. At least not Versus, nor a paper version of the student newspaper, The Hustler. At some point in the current century, those were unceremoniously dumped, as was the terrestrial radio station, WRVU, though that was sold for a mess of pottage.

Mid-January Debris

Never mind what the Rossetti poem says, the bleak midwinter is about now, in mid-January, which is bleak, and which is smack in the middle of meteorological winter.

Dogs don’t mind, though. They’re already wearing coats.

One more pic from Mexico, a statue on Paseo de la Reforma.

“El Angel de la Seguridad Social,” a bronze by Jorge Marin, erected in 2013.

As gob.mx says, “Como parte de las actividades conmemorativas por el 70 Aniversario de la fundación del Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (IMSS),” the Mexican Social Security Institute. That’s the branch of the Mexican government in charge of public pensions and public health, established in 1943.

My brother Jay got me a Suprematist tea cup and saucer for Christmas.

On the bottom, something unusual: Imperial Porcelain – 1744 – St. Petersburg – Made in Russia. I’d probably have to look high and low around my house to find anything else made in Russia, and even then there might not be anything else.

Campaign Cards Are Coming

There’s no official moment when it happens, but I think it’s happened all the same. We’ve passed into the Pit of Winter. All days in the pit are cold, as in well below freezing, but they come in varieties: cold sunny days, cold overcast days, cold snowy days. With the potential for a blizzard thrown in for grins.

We can only fondly recall High Summer days, or imagine ones to come, at the remote opposite end of the calendar. They looked like this, at least from my deck.
The first political postcard of ’18 came in the mail a few days ago, sent by a candidate for a relatively minor local office. Not particularly creative: a touch of “next to course god america i,” a dash of tough on crime, a serving of motherhood (in this case, the candidate is a woman. For a male candidate, a serving of loving family man.)

It’s easy to be cynical about that sort of advertising, as you can see, but it’s the formula that inspires contempt. I don’t really know anything about the candidate. In any case, I expect I’ll be seeing more soon, since the primary is March 20.

YouTube ads for Illinois governor have already started appearing. But at least we won’t hear campaign trucks making noise with loudspeakers, as you do before parliamentary elections in Japan.

Stinkin’ Badges

All of us went to a screening of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on Sunday, one of the old movies that TCM shows in movie theaters periodically, in this case for the 70th anniversary of its release. I can take or leave Ben Mankiewicz doing the introduction, as he might on television, but for someone who hasn’t seen the movie, I guess they’re informative.

No one else in the family had seen it. I had, on tape about 25 years ago. Good to see it again, and on the big screen. Like for Casablanca, the movie didn’t fill the house, but there was enough of an audience for an audible chuckle when the subject of badges came up, as most of us knew it would.

Remarkably, “Stinking Badges” has its own Wikipedia page.

This is the kind of thing I wonder about when I’m watching a movie again: just how far would a peso go at the time when the movie is set (1925, despite the appearance of some later-model cars)? Maybe that came to mind because I was handling pesos recently.

Early in the movie, Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) panhandles three times from the same well-dressed American in Tampico — played by director John Huston — eventually claiming not to realize it was the same man, who tells him off. The well-dressed American clearly gives Dobbs a Mexican peso of immediate post-Revolution vintage: one of these, I could see.

A very common coin at the time: from 1920 to 1945, about 458.6 million of them were minted. It’s a nice coin, composed of .7199 silver and weighing 16.66 g (12 g silver) though not as weighty as a U.S. Peace dollar of the time, .9000 silver and weighing 26.73 g. So what was Dobbs receiving when he got one?

According to the movie at least, which I realize had no obligation to be accurate, enough to buy a meal or a few drinks or a haircut with change left over. The haircut scene was interesting for another reason: Bogart was bald by this time, but after the pretend haircut and oiling of his hair, he didn’t look like it. Probably the work of hair stylist Betty Delmont, if IMDb is accurate.

Also, McCormick (Barton MacLane) promised Dobbs and Curtin U.S. $8 a day for working on his oil rig. That’s about U.S. $114 in current money, but what did it mean in pesos in 1925, when the cost of living was surely a lot less in Mexico?

Curious about the exchange rate, I did some looking around and found this interesting table posted by the St. Louis Fed: average annual exchange rates to the U.S. dollar in the 1920s. That would be the Coolidge dollar that Cole Porter sang about being the top. To answer the question about pesos, it seems that ca. 1925, the rate was about two pesos to the dollar. So if Bogart could get 16 pesos a day, when he could feed himself for two or three, that’s not bad.

Of course, Dobbs and Curtin didn’t get any of that until they beat it out of McCormick. You’d think that if McCormick had made a habit of swindling oil-rig workers, and still walked around openly in Tampico, he’d at least have carried a pistol.

Another thing I noted while looking at the table. In 1922, a French franc was worth about 8.2 U.S. cents. By 1926, the rate was 3.2 U.S. cents to the franc. No wonder Hemingway could afford to drink himself silly in Paris, and Liebling could afford to eat himself fat. Further examination of the table traces the course of the great inflation not only in Germany, but also in Poland and Hungary.

One more thing: when looking into the value of the 1920s peso, I happened across an interesting essay about the economics of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by a Wake Forest economist named Robert Whaples.

Toward the end of the essay, Whaples offers this observation: “In these scenes and others, the film examines altruism; bargaining and negotiation; barriers to entry; creation of capital; capital constraints; compensating wage differentials; contract enforcement; corruption; cost-benefit analysis; credence goods; debt payment; deferred compensation; economies of scale; efficiency wages; entrepreneurship; exchange rates; externalities; fairness; the nature and organization of the firm; framing effects; game theory; gift exchange; incentives; formal and informal institutions; investment strategies; job search; the value of knowledge; labor market signaling; selecting the optimal location; marginal benefits and costs; the marginal product of labor; natural resource extraction; opportunity costs; partnerships; price and wage determination; property rights and their enforcement; public goods; reputation; risk; scarcity; secrecy; sunk costs; supply and demand analysis; team work; technology and technological change; the theory of value; trade; trust; unemployment; and the creation and recognition of value and wealth.

Can any other movie offer more?”

Mexico City Sobras

Back to posting on January 16. Would that Dr. King had been born in the summer, but I’ll take holidays when I can.

The last major sight we visited in Mexico City was the vast Palacio Nacional, the National Palace, on Zocalo Square. It was fairly late in the afternoon of December 31, and we’d already walked a fair amount, so we only had energy enough to see a small slice of the complex. Even now the palace includes the offices of the president of Mexico and other governmental functions, but there’s also artwork and museum space and some impressive plazas, both open air and covered.

Diego Rivera’s mural depicting the history of Mexico, “The Epic of the Mexican People,” is impossible to miss. This only part of it. My picture does it no justice. One thing it does include is an epic amount of violence.
The building, which evolved over the centuries on the site of an Aztec palace and then a fortified compound that Cortez built on top of its ruins, included a spot that features a lot of cacti native to Mexico, along with other fauna.
This is the most useful postcard I bought in Mexico City, on the second day we were there, a route map of the Sistema de Transporte Colectivo.
The Mexico City Metro, that is. If we didn’t walk someplace, we took the Metro. Note the crumpling of the card. I had it in my back pocket a lot.

Rush hour was as jammed as any other megalopolis’ subway, and occasionally we’d get the hairy eyeball from someone who presumably disapproved of tourists on the subway, but on the whole it was a good way to get around: quick, clean, and best of all, 5 pesos per ride. About 25 cents, that is. I know it’s because of subsidies. If you’re going to have a metro area of more than 20 million, best to have a large network of subsidized transit.

Wayfinding in the transfer stations was sometimes lacking. As were maps on the walls. Some stations had them, along with maps of the neighborhood, while some didn’t — such as the station closest to our hotel, Sevilla. That’s what made the postcard so useful.

Also of note: each station has a symbol. Sevilla’s, for instance, was a schematic of the old Chapultepec Aqueduct that runs nearby (and which we saw on foot). Construction of the Metro started in the 1960s, and the idea was to devise a system everyone could use, including people who couldn’t read, which was a higher proportion of the population in those days.

Who created the symbols? Remarkably, American graphic designer Lance Wyman, who is still active. Here at his web site are the some of the symbols for Line 1, which is colored pink, including the aqueduct. We rode that line most of all, and discovered that even if you can read, the symbols are quite useful for knowing where you are quickly.

Walking presented its own challenges. Namely, holes and other rough patches in the sidewalks. Some of the Mexico City sidewalk damage, I expect, is from routine neglect. In other places, the recent earthquake probably did some damage that hasn’t been repaired yet.

Still, you got used to watching for sidewalk hazards in pretty short order, and even got to know the bad spots on the streets you walked on frequently. The street we used from the hotel to the Roma neighborhood, where we ate some fine meals, was Calle Varsovia, which then changed to Calle Medellin, and it featured an especially dangerous urban crevasse. The spot had once had a set of steel plates, maybe covering a utility trench, but some of the plates were gone, others cracked. Step into that unknowingly and you’d break a leg.

In Chapultepec Park, we saw this kind of acrobatics.

It’s called Danza de los Voladores, Dance of the Flyers. “The ritual consists of dance and the climbing of a 30-meter pole from which four of the five participants then launch themselves tied with ropes to descend to the ground,” says Wiki. “The fifth remains on top of the pole, dancing and playing a flute and drum.”

That’s exactly what we saw, with the four flyers slowly getting lower as they circled the pole. Tom said he’d seen it in other parts of Mexico.

My favorite meal of the trip was at a place called Los Almendros, a handsomely appointed restaurant just north of Chapultepec Park in the well-to-do Polanco neighborhood. Apparently there’s another location in Mexico City and one in Cancun and one in Merida. Fittingly, since it specializes in cuisine of the Yucatan.

We arrived at about 2 pm for lunch, and were a little early. Pretty soon the place filled up. That’s the timing of meals in Mexico: lunch after 2 and dinner after 8. We got into the groove of that without much trouble.

I had the pan de cazón: “a casserole dish in Mexican cuisine that is prepared in the style of lasagna using layered tortillas with shark meat such as dogfish shark, black beans or refried black beans and spiced tomato sauce,” explains Wiki, which are says it’s a specialty of Campeche.

Close enough to the Yucatan, I figure. It was tasty. It also inspired a discussion of the various times we’d eaten shark. For me, that goes back at least to a visit to Long Beach in 1982 when a friend and I acquired shark at a grocery store and cooked it up.

One should try things like Yucatani shark casserole on the road, I think. While in Mexico City, I had an ambition of trying fried grasshoppers, chapulines, and even found a recommended place; but it closed early on New Year’s Eve.

You’d think a place like Los Almendros would be expensive, and I suppose it is, locally, but a strong dollar helped us out: the check for three (no separate checks in Mexico, so Tom and I took turns paying) came to about 1,100 pesos, or about $57, including the meals, beer and tip. Put that restaurant in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles and it would have been three times that, at least.

A bit more expensive was Cafe de Tecuba, not far from the Palacio de Belles Artes, the sort of place that ends up in guidebooks. Indeed, I quote from Moon Mexico City, the book that I had with me: “Occupying two floors of a 17th-century mansion… the fun of eating here is enjoying the Old Mexico atmosphere in the dining room, with its tall wood-beamed ceiling, pretty frescos, and old oil paintings.”

For atmosphere, it was the most aesthetic place we ate. And the food was very good, just not quite as novel as we got other places. I had some enchiladas.

At the other end of the expense spectrum was McDonald’s. Try McDonald’s at least once in each country you visit, to see how it’s different. German McDonald’s have beer, for instance, and the wonderful McTeriyaki is available at Japanese McDonald’s. The only thing different about Australian McDonald’s was that the restaurant stressed to one and all that it served 100% Australian beef.

As for Mexican McDonald’s, it wasn’t so different from its norteamericano counterparts, except that Filet-O-Fish was missing, and the condiments counter had more varieties of local peppers.

One leisurely morning, after the busy day before in Chapultepec Park, we ate at Jaxson’s Chicken & Waffles, a smallish joint in the Roma neighborhood that would not have been out of place in Brooklyn, including the bearded hipsters at other tables. More importantly, the place served up a whopping good breakfast — the kind of large breakfast you eat at 10 or 11 to get you through a day of tourism. Each of us had the special: chicken, waffles, hash browns, bacon and a pancake in there somewhere.

Not far away in Roma, on Fuente de la Cibeles square, is Cancino Cibeles. We ate pizza there al fresco, and while the evenings are a bit chilly in Mexico City in December, the restaurant had heaters on poles near the sidewalk tables, the kind that radiate heat downward (Tom didn’t want to sit too close to it, asserting that it would be too hot for his bald head).

To make things as interesting as possible for a setting like that, we picked the Gorgonzola and pear pizza for the main course, a thin-crust wonder of the pizza arts, and a bottle of wine. I don’t remember the name of the wine. But it was red and Portuguese and had a dignified label.

I’m sure people order a bottle of wine for three people all the time, but it was a rare thing for me. The kind of thing the characters in The Sun Also Rises would do, except that they would drink half a dozen bottles and then go somewhere else and drink absinthe. And then do knife tricks.

Palacio de Belles Artes & “El hombre controlador del universo”

The 500-peso Mexican banknote now in circulation is the largest one I handled during my time in Mexico City, worth about US$26. On one side is Diego Rivera. On the other is Frida Kahlo. Husband and wife on paper money is unusual, but not absolutely unheard of: George and Martha Washington appeared on an 1896 U.S. $1 silver certificate.

I had Rivera in mind on our last full day in Mexico City, which also happened to be New Year’s Eve, and a Sunday. I wasn’t sure places like the Palacio de Belles Artes or the Palacio National, where Rivera murals are on display, would be open. Not only were they open, there was no charge to get in, though I believe that’s always true at the Palacio National.

We arrived at the Palacio de Belles Artes just before noon. It looks like an art palace built before WWI, and it is, partly. Porfirio Diaz commissioned it, and work started in 1904. Enough of the exterior was finished by 1913 to give it Neoclassicial and Art Nouveau aspects. Adamo Boari, an Italian architect active in Mexico, did the exterior.

Worked then stopped because of the Mexican Revolution and wasn’t picked up again until 1932. By that time, any art palace worth its salt was going to be art deco. Mexican architect Federico E. Mariscal designed the interior, and it’s an tremendous bit of art deco.

As fine as that was, though, I’d really come to see the murals, and I wasn’t disappointed. To quote from Lonely Planet Mexico, which organized the information well:

“On the 2nd floor are two early 1950s works by Rufino Tamayo: ‘México de hoy (Mexico Today)’ and ‘Nacimiento de la nacionalidad (Birth of Nationality)’, a symbolic depiction of the creation of the mestizo (mixed ancestry) identity.

“On the north side of the 3rd floor are David Alfaro Siqueiros’ three-part ‘La nueva democracia (New Democracy)’ and Rivera’s four-part ‘Carnaval de la vida mexicana (Carnival of Mexican Life).’ To the east is José Clemente Orozco’s ‘La katharsis (Catharsis),’ depicting the conflict between humankind’s ‘social’ and ‘natural’ aspects.”

All interesting and sometimes unsettling works. But what I’d really come to see was Rivera’s re-creation of his Rockefeller Center mural. If it were anything like his murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts, I knew it would be astonishing.

“At the west end of the 3rd floor is Diego Rivera’s famous ‘El hombre en el cruce de caminos (Man at the Crossroads),’ originally commissioned for New York’s Rockefeller Center,” continues LP. “The Rockefellers had the original destroyed because of its anti-capitalist themes, but Rivera re-created it here in 1934.”

Indeed he did, though I’ve also heard it called “El hombre controlador del universo (Man, Controller of the Universe).”
Quite a work. We spent a while looking at it. The polemics aren’t subtle. Lenin is famously depicted, but so are organized workers, or maybe just determined masses.

Capitalism has brute force and decadence on its side.

Why, I wondered, were the capitalist allegories to the left and the socialist ones to the right? Then in occurred to me that they are on their own respective right and left.

In between is Man controlling Science — so presumably capitalism and socialism are at odds over capturing the power of Science toward their own ends.

If you asked me, the man has vacant eyes, as if he’s a scientist pretty much ready to serve whomever prevails, capitalism or socialism.

Frida, No. Leon, Si.

“This is for the birds,” I said.

There was context for it, but first the setting: we were on the sidewalk on Calle Londres in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City early in the afternoon of December 29, just outside the Museo Frida Kahlo.

Curiously, besides a street named after London in the area, there were also calles Bruselas, Madrid, Viena, Berlin, and Paris: European capitals. Unlike the part of the Zona Rosa where our hotel was, which had streets named after European cities, capitals and non-capitals: Londres and Berlin (again), but also Roma, Liverpool, Marsella, Hamburgo, Napoles, Oslo.

Coyoacan is a pleasant walking neighborhood, sporting mature trees, sidewalks in reasonably good shape — with not as much pedestrian traffic as in other parts of town we frequented — and large, colorful houses. After a while you do notice that some of the larger houses are essentially walled compounds with iron-bar accents and hard-to-see entrances. Ah well, así es la vida in the big city, if you’re well-to-do.

The most famous compound is the Casa Azul at Londres 247, and blue it is. A deep blue. Like a lot of people, we wanted to visit Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s house. A whole lot of other people, as it turned out. After we got there, we waited a few minutes in one line, only to discover that was the line for people who already had tickets. So we then joined the equally long line to buy tickets.

We’d been advised to buy tickets ahead of time. We ignored that advice. After a few minutes standing in the non-moving ticket-buying line, and with the knowledge that we’d have to stand in another such line eventually, I said waiting was for the birds. Everyone else agreed. No go on Museo Frida Kahlo.

I’m sure the Casa Azul is an excellent museum, but I suspect the real reason for the overcrowding is the movie Frida, which came out in 2002. Her artistic reputation had already been rising, such that Diego Rivera is now her husband, rather than Frida Kahlo being his wife, but I believe the movie kicked it into high gear, the way Nashville has overcrowded the Bluebird Cafe.

Luckily, we had another nearby destination in mind anyway: the Casa de Leon Trotsky. Who could resist that? Not only were Frida and Diego part of the story, it’s got international intrigue, murderous foreign operatives, adultery, a gun battle led by another famous artist, genuine communists and communist plots, and — the crowning event, you might say, an axe murder!

Clearly, Trotsky needs the Hollywood treatment (besides this) if the museum wants to get people in the door, you know, the sort of people who never really heard of that guy Trotsky until they saw that movie about him. Then again, crowds would have drained the fun out of the experience. The Trotsky House wasn’t deserted by any means. A fair number of people were there. But we didn’t have to wait for tickets and crowds didn’t get in the way of free movement around the place, with one exception.

Casa de Leon Trotsky, I’m delighted to report, is quite red on the outside. The present-day complex includes what must have been the building next door at one time, which you enter through and which now has exhibits devoted to the Bolshevik leader. From there, visitors go to a small but very pleasant courtyard with an assortment of plants, walking paths and a few benches.

I don’t know how well tended the garden was in Trotsky’s time, though he did raise chickens and rabbits there. But I do know there was one feature Trotsky never saw himself.
Namely, Trotsky’s grave, where his and Natalia Sedova’s ashes are interred (she died in 1962). Naturally, I couldn’t resist the joke: it’s commie plot. I think I heard that one as long ago as high school, only it was about Stalin’s grave (Lenin and Mao and Ho, strictly speaking, have no graves).

Behind the grave site is the house itself and an attached guard house, for all the good it did Trotsky. The first floor of the guardhouse has a few more exhibits, including photos of Trotsky at various ages and other family members, as well as a family tree. For all of Stalin’s efforts to murder Trotsky’s offspring too, the revolutionary has quite a few living descendants, including in Mexico, the United States and Russia.

The axe wasn’t on display anywhere. That’s because it isn’t even in Mexico.

The house is fairly modest and solidly built, with thick walls and bullet holes on the outside of one of the walls, purportedly left by the unsuccessful May 1940 attempt on Trotsky’s life led by David Alfaro Siqueiros. We saw some of Siqueiros’ murals later, as one does in Mexico City. That Stalinist episode of attempted murder hasn’t seemed to have harmed his reputation as an artist.

Trotsky had reason to be security-conscious, and the compound reflects it. Besides the guardhouse, which includes a guard tower, the entire residence is surrounded by thick walls. Its doors are heavy and, at least going into Trotsky’s study, re-enforced with iron. I didn’t see any steel window shutters or barbed wire, but I read these were part of the security too. None of that stopped a determined NKVD agent with an ice axe.

The study itself is supposedly the way Trotsky left it: a large desk, a lamp, chairs, papers and books, a Dictaphone, a small bed on which to rest (see the picture here). The floor, I noticed, is painted red. It was here that moving around was a little constrained, since you can only stand in a small part of the room, like in most house museums, and visitors want to see the study most of all. I know I did.

The current setup at Trotsky’s House includes a small cafe next to the guardhouse. We had a light lunch al fresco there, cheese crepes for me, and some of the best orange juice I’ve had in a long time. All in all, a bourgeois sort of meal. I expect the waiter was paid for his efforts and presumably the museum made a modest amount, which it probably needs to keep the lights on.

The museum also features a small gift shop at the entrance, heavy on socialist books and portraits of Trotsky for sale and light on tourist gimcracks, though I bought some postcards there. I doubt that the organization is using any of its budget to foment worldwide socialist revolution.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

We visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, in the northern part of Mexico City, 18 days after Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day, which is December 12. The new basilica and the old basilica, and the large plaza they occupy, were all crowded the day we were there. This was the scene just in front of the new basilica.
I can only imagine what it would have been like on the 12th. Every paving stone in the plaza would probably have had someone standing on it, or kneeling. As it was people were milling around, though I did see a couple of pilgrims making their way along on their knees.

A wider view at the new basilica, at roughly the same afternoon moment.
The orange-shirted men appeared to be pilgrims on bicycles, arriving to pay their respects to Guadalupe just as we entered the grounds. I don’t know who they were, but I didn’t doubt their devotion.
According to one wag I read recently, Mexico is about 80 percent Catholic these days, but 120 percent Guadalupean. (I would have thought the Catholic percentage was higher, but it seems that religious apathy and Protestantism have gained ground in recent decades.)

The new basilica, as these things go, is quite new — finished in 1976. Turns out the old basilica, built on dodgy soils, was at some risk of collapsing. Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, Gabriel Chavez de la Mor, and José Luis Benllioure designed the structure. Modernist it may be, but the new one has its charms, especially inside.
I’ve read that anyone from any spot in the basilica can see Juan Diego’s cactus-fiber cloak with the image of the Virgin on it. I certainly was able to see it, though the glare was pretty strong. A mass was under way, so we didn’t get that close.

The old basilica was closed after the new one opened, and stayed closed until the building was stabilized in 2000. It’s a fine old colonial structure designed by one Pedro de Arrieta and finished in 1709.

Inside is the the altarpiece that used to hold the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Behind the old basilica is an even older shrine on Tepeyac Hill, where the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego, but considering that we’d been climbing pyramids earlier in the day, no one wanted to climb the hill to see it.

One more thing, not visible in my pictures. Under the plaza is a sizable underground parking garage and an even bigger religious items gift shop, the largest of that kind of retail that I’ve ever seen. If you want to find just the right souvenir statue or painting or other image of the Virgin — and I was told the faces can vary considerably in their small details — that’s the place to spend some time looking. I just bought a few postcards.

Teotihuacan

During our six days in Mexico City, we ventured out of the city only once, traveling 25 miles or so northeast on December 30, into the State of Mexico, to see Teotihuacan. To see las pirámides there: the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent; the Pyramid of the Moon; and the Pyramid of the Sun, hard to beat for sheer rise-to-the-sky bulk.

The rest of the time in Mexico, we walked or took the subway to our destinations. For Teotihuacan, we hired a car and a driver, who doubled as a guide: a bilingual gentleman name Leonardo, a lifelong resident of Mexico City in his 60s (probably) and exceptionally knowledegable about las pirámides de Teotihuacan, and a good many other things. He had, I believe, escorted many a gringo to see Teotihuacan over the years.

The ride out of Mexico City had its own interests: the miles and miles of city visible from the highway, seemingly endless painted cinder block and colored stucco filling every spot until the terrain is too steep; the graffiti on the highway walls or, as it seemed sometimes, the painted words that represented a cheap way to announce or advertise something; the many Pemex stations; the brown brush and tired-looking trees; and distant mountain peaks always in the background.

Leonardo’s lived long enough to see the Valley of Mexico fill with greater Ciudad de Mexico. Fewer than 3 million people lived there in 1950; now more than 20 million do. As in many parts of the world, the inhabitants of the furthest reaches of the country came looking for work, waves and waves of them, and built their own improvised neighborhoods. Leonardo also said that he remembered the ’68 Olympics as an exciting time to be a young man in Mexico City.

It occurred to me only afterward — only after I’d returned from Mexico, really — that I’d never seen a pyramid with my own eyes before, unless you count the likes of the Luxor Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Actual ancient structures, no. An odd thing to realize.

Or maybe not. We’ve all seen so many images of them, whether in Egypt or Mexico or elsewhere, in movies and TV and magazines and books and artwork and travel literature and posters and so on. Second-hand experience, that simulation of the real thing, is not always a bad thing, but is infectious and can blur first-hand experience.

Now I do my little bit to spread second-hand experience. No matter.

The first place we visited at the site was the smallest of the major structures, the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, a Mesoamerican name if there ever was one. It was a short climb up uneven stone steps, a preparation for that much larger pyramids to scale later.

In archaeological terms, the Feathered Serpent is where a lot of the recent action has been. According to the Guardian, “in 2003, a tunnel was discovered beneath the Feathered Serpent pyramid in the ruins of Teotihuacan, the ancient city in Mexico. Undisturbed for 1,800 years, the sealed-off passage was found to contain thousands of extraordinary treasures lying exactly where they had first been placed as ritual offerings to the gods.

“Items unearthed included greenstone crocodile teeth, crystals shaped into eyes, and sculptures of jaguars ready to pounce. Even more remarkable was a miniature mountainous landscape, 17 metres underground, with tiny pools of liquid mercury representing lakes. The walls of the tunnel were found to have been carefully impregnated with powdered pyrite, or fool’s gold, to give the effect in firelight of standing under a galaxy of stars.”

We didn’t see any of that, of course. But even if it was standalone ruin, Feathered Serpent would be a fairly impressive pile of stones. Many of the artifacts discussed above, incidentally, are now on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Soon we took a look at some of the excavations near the larger Pyramid of the Moon.
Then on to the Pyramid of the Moon itself. Here it is, seen from near its base.

I stood and stared a while. If I hadn’t, I’d have had no business being there. Pretty soon, though, you feel like climbing the thing. You’re only allowed to climb about three-quarters of the way up, however. The upper level beyond that looks a little dicey.

The structure is unexpectedly complex. Science Daily reported in 1999 that “the inhabitants of Teotihuacan built successively larger pyramids on top of the previous monuments, often partially deconstructing the previous pyramid in the process.

“From past research, there were thought to have been five phases to the Pyramid of the Moon, with phase one (dated in the 1st Century A.D.) being Teotihuacan’s oldest major monument. Excavations show a major jump in size and complexity occurring with the construction of pyramid four and a change in orientation that puts it in line with the unique and precise city grid structure that we see today in the city’s eight square miles of ruins.”

From the perch on the Pyramid of the Moon, you look down on the broad path known as the Avenue of the Dead.
Beyond that, the mountains nearby are clear — or rather, they’re in the haze. But more striking is the mammoth Pyramid of the Sun, to the left of the Avenue of the Dead as seen from the Pyramid of the Moon. Remarkably, the outline of the Pyramid of the Sun looks a lot like the even more massive mountain Cerro Gordo behind it. No coincidence, I figure.
Afterward we walked back down to the Avenue of the Dead, because who wouldn’t want to miss a chance to walk on such a thoroughfare?
Pretty lively with living tourists. It’s pleasing to imagine that the shades of the unknowable people who built these impressive structures sometimes take strolls on the avenue, too.

The Pyramid of the Sun looms over the landscape like no other part of Teotihuacan. To save a trip to Wikipedia, the structure is 216 feet high and is considered the third largest ancient pyramid in the world (the likes of the Vegas Luxor are thus out). The Great Pyramid of Cholula, only down in Puebla, is considered the largest, though it looks like a hill in our time; and the Pyrimid of Giza is second.

The Pyramid of the Sun also seems to attract climbers more than anywhere else. Note the orange line part way up. That’s crowd control, in the form of orange netting that marks a queue to get to the next level of the pyramid.

Tom and Lilly went on the to top. Considering my weight and age, and the fairly hot sun, I decided to wait for them at the level of the orange netting, so that’s as high as I got. Just another thing I should have done 20 — or 30 — years ago.

Even so, the view back at the Pyramid of the Moon from that level was one of my favorites at Teotihuacan and, in fact, of the entire trip.
A postscript to our visit: A few days after we returned home, I happened across an episode of Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. Or rather, the “History” Channel. It isn’t a channel I watch much. But I was passing by and I noticed a familiar image. An aerial layout that looked like — Teotihuacan.

I stayed with it to confirm that the fellow was blathering about Teotihuacan. He was. The IMDb entry about the show (which is in its 12th season) pretty much sums it up: “The many structures that still stand in Teotihuacan appear to be encoded with advanced mathematical and cosmic principles, and the layout precisely mirrors the positions of the planets in our solar system.”

Does it, now? Clearly, I’ve been wrong about certain things for many years. Especially that interest in ancient aliens somehow faded away with the 1970s. Maybe that was merely the golden age of such notions, and they aren’t gone at all.

No one knows which people built Teotihuacan in the early centuries of the first millennium or what their motives were or why they left. Why is that hard to accept? The idea that ancient aliens had a hand in its construction is an insult to whomever the real builders were. Or to any ancient human beings who built extraordinary structures.

Museo Nacional de Antropologia

Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, is also in Chapultepec Park, not too far from Castillo de Chapultepec. The park was fairly busy three days after Christmas.

Maybe the park is always busy on nice days. It’s a nice park, with a lot of recommend it, including water features.
On the other hand, the week between Christmas and New Year’s is reputedly a fairly busy one for travel within Mexico. Many residents of Mexico City leave for vacation spots on the coast, and people who live in other parts of Mexico come to the big city, so that might have added to crowds at Chapultepec Park and some of the other sites we went to.

Interestingly, the two main languages I heard in passing at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia were Spanish and American English. Not as much British English or French or German or Japanese as I’d expect in a museum of its high calibre. You can’t go into the Art Institute of Chicago on a busy day, for instance, and not overhear Frenchmen and -women or spot gaggles of Japanese in their tour groups.

Maybe August is when the Euro-tourists come in numbers to Mexico City, and the Japanese as well, during O-Bon. Or maybe Mexico City isn’t quite the draw that Mexican beaches are.

The National Museum of Anthropology is a creation of the 1960s, and looks every bit of it. The building was designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez — who also collaborated on the New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, more about which later — Jorge Campuzano, and Rafael Mijares Alcérreca.

This is the view from the back of the sizable interior courtyard, looking at a mammoth example of modernist construction.
The hefty structure perched over the courtyard, which got me thinking about the potential for seismic activity, at least while I was standing under the thing, is known as el paraguas, the umbrella.

This is what the shaft looks like from closer up. A stone umbrella shaft.
The light was poor for photography as I stood under it; this is a better image of el paraguas, through which steady cascades of water rush to the ground. Maybe “umbrella” is a wry Mexican joke on the nation’s uneven infrastructure.

The museum’s exhibition halls surround the courtyard — 23 rooms in all, displaying a vast array of artifacts from all over the country and across millennia, including but hardly limited to such diverse peoples as Olmecs, Zapotecs, Toltecs, Mayans and of course Aztecs (please to call them the people of Mexia), whose hall has a place of prominence at the back.

The museum has possession of more than 7 million archaeological pieces and over 5 million ethnological pieces, so the best any single person, even a curious one, can hope for is an interesting sample. Such as at any mega-museum. I feel like we got a good sample, such as bones and artifacts from the Tlatilco culture, which flourished in the Valley of Mexico around 3,000 years ago.
A Cabeza Colosal of the Olmecs, 1200-600 BCE, found near Veracruz. Colossal head indeed.

Specifically, the San Lorenzo Colossal Head 2 (also known as San Lorenzo Monument 2). To quote Wiki, it “was reworked from a monumental throne. The head stands 2.69 metres (8.8 ft) high and measures 1.83 metres (6.0 ft) wide by 1.05 metres (3.4 ft) deep; it weighs 20 tons. Colossal Head 2 was discovered in 1945 when Matthew Stirling’s guide cleared away some of the vegetation and mud that covered it.

“The monument was found lying on its back, facing the sky, and was excavated in 1946 by Stirling and Philip Drucker. In 1962 the monument was removed from the San Lorenzo plateau in order to put it on display as part of “The Olmec tradition” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 1963. San Lorenzo Colossal Head 2 is currently in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.”

A sculpture from Teotihuacan featuring Mictlantecutli, god of the dead.
The people that built Teotihuacan — more about that place later, too — flourished in the early centuries of the common era, but the city was so completely abandoned 1,000 years later that even the Aztecs weren’t sure who had lived there.

Here’s clear proof that ancient Mexico was visited by space aliens, right there in the museum.
He’s wearing a space helmet, after all. What more evidence do you need, except maybe a bottle of Tang? I might be mistaken, but I think images of this very stela appeared in books and TV shows about ancient astronauts when I was a lad, a time when they were fashionable.

The idea lives on. Writes one Paul Seaburn just last year: “So many statues, carvings, paintings and artifacts from the Mayans depict what appear to be aliens or alien spaceships, it’s hard to argue that all of them either have logical non-ET explanations or are hoaxes.”

I dunno, Paul, I don’t find it at all hard to argue the “non-ET explanations.”

Here’s El Creador, found in Morelos State and dating from the late first millennium of the common era.
Here’s a figure found at the Templo Mayor, a site that’s been excavated in recent decades at the historic center of Mexico City.
Speaking of which, I liked this model of Tenochtitlan.
Finally — among the many, many things in the Mexia (Aztec) hall, is the Mona Lisa of the museum, so to speak: The Sun Stone, famed icon of Mexico.
The Sun Stone certainly had a lot of admirers. I admired it myself. Maybe the Conquistadors did as well, since for some reason they didn’t destroy it, though the stone was eventually buried, only to be rediscovered near the end of Spanish rule, in 1790.

Much more about the Sun Stone is available online, including this article by an academic, Khristaan Villela, based in New Mexico. An artist’s interpretation of the central part of the stone is here.

“Since its rediscovery, the Calendar Stone has been displayed vertically, as if it really were a clock,” writes Villela, who refers to it as the Calendar Stone. “But the form and imagery of the sculpture closely link it to sacrificial altars, upon which the Aztec emperor, probably Moctezuma himself, ascended to sacrifice noble captives to feed the sun and earth.

“The most closely related monuments to the Calendar Stone are the Stone of Tizoc and the Stone of Moctezuma I.” Which happens to be only a few feet from the Sun Stone.

“Both are large basalt disks, with solar imagery on their upper faces,” Villela continues. “But whereas these other monuments display the conquests of Aztec rulers on the sides of their cylindrical forms, the Calendar Stone shows images related to the sky on its shallow carved side.”