Riding the Metro in Mexico City

Cheap efficient, fast: the two-peso ride on the Mexico City Metro brings a bit of drama to any tourist's day.

Mexico...in small bytes

TRAVEL..........STORIES OF MEXICAN LIFE..........& MORE

The plan was for Mexico City to clean up its act and present a more polished image to the world. It was an idea whose time had come. The year was 2002 and the city was indeed fraught with problems.

A city with a population anywhere from 20 to 30 million, depending on who you talk to, has its share of problems but Mexico City provides its own special twist. Here street vendors and traffic vie for space in the Zócalo.

The ‘lightning' or ‘express kidnappings' where taxi passengers were abducted and forced to withdraw the limit on their credit card as they were ‘chauffeured' from one bank to another made international news. Crime, garbage and streets clogged with ambulatory vendors discouraged tourism. The magnificent Historical Center was all but deserted after dark as foreigners stayed away and locals barricaded themselves inside their apartments. The number of unemployed and underemployed and those living in poverty and extreme poverty was stupendous. Corruption, notably within the police force, was unprecedented.

So Rudy Giuliani, the can-do guy who had orchestrated the New York Miracle, was called in. He was now operating as a private consultant and charged 4.3 million bucks to work his magic, a respectable sum in anyone's checkbook.

But then among the profusion of ideas, he promised to clear the city sidewalks and the Metro of ambulatory vendors. There were those that felt if he accomplished that alone, he was worth his fee.

Four years later, only a part of the 4.3 million has been paid and vendors are back en masse, in some cases filling up both sidewalk and pavement to such an extent that even pedestrian traffic is a challenge.

As Earl Shorris writes in the introduction of THE LIFE & TIMES OF MEXICO, “ Mexico is nothing like the United States, not even when it speaks English or sings rock & roll or drinks Coca-Cola at McDonalds. There is a difference in the vicinity of the heart between Mexico and the U.S. If we ignore it and try to think of both countries in the same way, there are bound to be mistakes.”

So a few mistakes were made foremost among them Giuliani's belief that what worked in New York City was going to do the trick in the Districto Federal.

A small percentage of the stalls that crowd around metro entrances.

But in the area of street and metro vendors alone, he was up against impossible odds. It's reputed that at least 350,000 are roaming the city streets engaged in this segment of the informal economy. A December 8, 2005 report on Hechos TV (TV Azteca News – Internet) put the figure at 10,000 ambulantes working the Metro daily. There are moments of madness when it seems to me a good portion of that number has descended on the metro car I'm occupying.

The handicapped make up a sizeable contingent of the metro vendors and have for years. Many will come by dropping some article with a message in your lap. When they reach the end of the car, they make their way back collecting a contribution or the article left behind. This is a system with a few built-in loose ends, like when a stop occurs before the person has a chance to retrace his or her steps. One woman who was leaving left the article on the seat she vacated. The fellow who sat down obligingly returned the box of gum to the mute woman as she made her way back through the crowd but a young child exited still clutching her packet.

On one ride a blind DVD seller waited resigned as a man at the other end of the car beat him to the pitch. The man at the far door stated he was blind and could not walk, so his whole income was derived from the generosity of metro riders. A young man then made his way through the passengers collecting for the afflicted man. The outstretched hand held some coins, including a ten-peso piece, which either showed the generosity of someone in the crowd or was strategically placed to generate ideas.

Since we were at the other end of the car and could only hear the man's voice, it was a mystery to me how the older fellow got on and off. The metro is not exactly wheelchair friendly. Either he must have been carried by the young man or found a miraculous cure by the end of each shift that enabled him to walk up the stairs. And the metro stairs are no joke.

Just like it is no joke having any kind of disability in Mexico , both the city and the country. Handicap access is a bright new word just gaining access to the vocabulary. Simply trying to manipulate on crutches after a broken ankle would be hellish; a permanent disability goes beyond challenging. If an able-bodied person with education and experience is generally considered unemployable after age 40, it's not hard to imagine the situation for someone with physical problems. For some, there is no other alternative than the metro.

Although the voice of the young woman singing her spiel was quite lyrical, it was evident when she turned around she had no future as a singer. Her face had the wooden quality of a mask from the numerous skin grafts that had been made. Mechanical arms began at her elbows and ended in pincers that held a packet of pages for coloring. At one point she almost lost her hold on the sheets that were encased in a plastic bag and her eyes betrayed a bit of the panic that her rigid face could never show. When she recovered her purchase on the bag, her jaw extended a bit and a breath of relief sent her bangs to fluttering on a forehead seemingly molded in plasticene. Passengers selected a design from the bag, deposited a peso in her open fanny pack and life went on.

The old-time peddlers pitching a plethora of merchandise have been mostly replaced with a battalion of young vendors hawking pirate CD's and DVD's, carrying huge contraptions that give new meaning to the term ‘boom box'. The decibel level of this auditory onslaught is deafening.

Whereas ten-peso CD's and 20-peso DVD's are found with numerous titles in stall after stall throughout the city, variety on the metro seems to be reduced to ‘All-time Popular Song Hits' and animated kiddy videos. Just how many copies of ‘Oldies But Goodies' and ‘The Lion King' can a population want, even one as large as Mexico City? One understands this is how a number of the unemployed (of whom there are legion) can eke out a living but after a steady diet of auditory bombardment, I admit to feeling decidedly less charitable to their plight. I longed for the not so distant past when the merchandise hawked had more of a variety to it.

The “Corta uñas, corta uñas, diez pesos” (nail clippers, nail clippers, ten pesos) people had nothing on those that went through a whole litany between stops. They could be advertising some magic potion or promising the unraveling of the mysteries of the Aztec calendar or promoting a fund-raiser for an AIDS clinic in the brief time it takes to go from stop to stop.

Then there were the itinerant musicians. The most memorable character was the unusually tiny midget who squeezed into the car as the doors were closing. His accordion had to have been specially designed since it was smaller than a child's toy. This highly petite musician proceeded to ply his way through the car as he literally walked between people's legs accompanying himself on the accordion and singing in a high-pitched squeaky voice. He actually needed two stops for people to recover from the shock and contribute something but like every other vendor, he was in and out of the car in one stop.

The UNAM Metro stop.

Instead of reminiscing of times past, one could look philosophically at the boom boxes tuned up to full volume. One could say that the new technology saves the vocal cords of the vendors…at the expense of their eardrums, it's true, and that the pain is now democratically shared by all those in the car, letting everyone get a little taste of poverty. But over the years, it seems I have lost the capacity to be thrilled by discomfort.

Even today, however, there are quieter interludes when you witness vestiges of the past. During our last visit, friends heard a pitch for a book of baby-names, giving the origin and meaning of a host of names, even those in Nahuatl. They said a number of young women showed keen interest but their flat stomachs belied any pressing need to shell out the ten pesos right then.

On one of our recent forays, we heard a monotone pitch for a pamphlet explaining the new transit laws for 2006. Why anyone using the metro would need or want to know about the myriad offences it is possible to commit in a vehicle and the fines that are levied for such transgressions is beyond me. These are people singularly lacking in cars which is why they are jammed together with hundreds of other car-less souls.

And it would be hard to imagine the congestion of Mexico City traffic today if planning had not begun in 1967 for an underground transportation system.

The first line opened in 1969 and today the metro's 207 kilometers, plus the 18 km of the tren ligero, transport somewhere between 4,000,000 to 5,000,000 passengers daily, more than the population of Mexico City in 1969 when work first began on the line.

Since the system became operational, there has been only one crash, in 1975, (not counting a derailment of the light train in 2001 but that goes under another statistic). It's reported that Mexico City 's metro is the safest in the world. Here metro workers do routine maintanance on the Tasqueña line.

Besides being the safest, the Mexico City metro is also the cheapest. The two-peso ticket is unchanged since 2002 and represents less than half the operating cost. There are also discounts available when a block of tickets is purchased. To the tourist, the price represents one of the true bargains in the travel world. To the commuter, transportation takes a huge bit out of the daily wage.

There are transfer points within the metro where you can switch for free to another line but once you exit and return later, you pay again, as compared to Italy where your ticket is valid for an hour and a half and is good on other forms of transportation as well.

Even at two pesos per metro ticket, transportation costs mount up when combined with the the four to five pesos for each bus or combi. Minimum wage in Mexico City is 48.67 pesos daily (2006 stats) which translates to about four and a half bucks a day. One could easily use up half the minimun wage on transportation alone.

 

The majority of workers in the D.F. live well outside the centro in one of the satellite cities or in the Estado de México rather than the city proper where cheap rent is disappearing faster than a cornfield covered by a cloud of locusts. Therefore, large chunks of change and multiple transfers involving not only the metro but buses and the vans known as combis are required to get to and from work.

 

These aerial photographs were taken by helipilot C.O. Ruiz. None of the URL addresses work for a direct link but you can find all his incredible photos by searching on Google under ´helipilot mexico city´. It usually is the first item to appear on the page. It is definitely worth a look!

Whereas at first, maneuvering about the various lines appears a little like wandering about a House of Mirrors, the system is quite simple. Of the people in this megalopolis who can neither read nor write, many have the entire metro map etched indelibly in their minds. In fact as an aid to help these very same riders, Mexico was the first metro to use colors and symbols to identify the various stops.

Without the metro, Mexico City gridlock would have already reached the standstill predicted for 2030. Already there are times it reaches total gridlock. A fifteen-minute trip on the metro could easily take hours above ground during normal rush hours or when a march, accident or mítin (protest) brings traffic to a grinding halt. When temperatures rise and traffic is congested, many cars simply overheat spewing out liquids in the air and draining them on the pavement. Owners simply leave them behind as they seek help or take the metro home. The truth is, though, that Mexican car-owners are very reluctant to use the metro, preferring hours in traffic.

Not that taking the metro is a picnic. During rush hours, people are packed in so tightly it's actually a bit of a miracle to manage to get inside and then escape at your exit before the crunch of incoming passengers prevents outward movement. The air can be quite rank. It's usually hot inside the cars but when temperatures rise, it is so stifling that breathing can be a challenge. During peak times, women and children have separate cars toward the front to prevent the free-for-all groping that goes on by randy males. Then there are all those stairs!

There are compensations, however. Many of the metro stations are rich in artwork.

A recent SERVAS guest from France commented how she thought the metro in the D.F. to be much cleaner than its Paris counterpart. I've certainly never noticed the overwhelmingly strong odor of urine that kept me away from the metro in Milan . As long as you avoid the line where tradition seems to dictate that students push their chewing gum to the car roof before exiting, she may well be right about cleanliness. The Minnesota friends we met during our recent March trip to the capital said that practically every time they headed down the stairs to the metro, someone was washing them; the moisture adding that extra little challenge to keep one from becoming too complacent about life.

But then riding the metro is never a “ho, hum” experience. It's impossible to pack that many people together in Mexico and expect routine.

It was impossible to ignore the elderly, dignified couple that sat to my right as I held on to the pole by the door. They both stared straight ahead. Not a word passed between them except the eloquence of her hand resting on his thigh. It was covered completely by his. Both hands had obviously done much heavy labor during their lifetimes but on that Saturday afternoon, they were completely at rest.

Across from them was an impossible large woman. I kept thinking, “If my knees protest the stairs coming and going, how does she maneuver that bulk up and down?”

To her side, a fairly nondescript woman tenderly cradled a dozen long-stemmed red roses.

If the vignettes enacted around you do not mesmerize you, you can always occupy yourself being on the lookout for pickpockets. In the 70's we kept seeing pictures in the paper of a crew of young chaps so ‘employed'. They had been rounded up by the police and a happier bunch of crooks you could never hope to see. The photo always caught them being led away, arms cuffed behind their backs, a cop at the front of the line and one bringing up the rear. All but the constabulary were sporting huge grins for the camera. Maybe they were in on the fact that this was everyone's opportunity for a photo-op before being led up the stairs and released.

From what I've seen, few tourists, except the French where the metro is a way of life, venture into the metro's depths. But for the visitor with the guts to maneuver its labyrinth, it is a fantastic form of transportation.

The fellow from www.downtheroad.org who is biking around the world with his wife, recounts in a journal entry for 2002 that guidebooks scared them completely away from taxis so they used the metro exclusively for the twelve days they visited Mexico City . During that time, he was aware of three separate pick-pocketing attempts. These moves were thwarted undoubtedly by the fact that the two carried their money and documents in a pouch worn underneath their clothing and the times they used day packs, they wore them with the pack positioned in front under their chinny, chin chins. It's not a bad idea to be on your guard against theft but if you notice anything, it's because a rank amateur or a school dropout has touched you because there are indeed schools for this trade.

Somewhere in the deep recesses of filed trivia, I recall the newspaper account of this informal, if dubiously prestigious institution, that instructs its charges in the wily ways of the professional crook. Final exam for the pick- pocketing course was extracting a goodly number of items off a mannequin without setting any one of the numerous strategically placed bells to jingling. Advanced credit was given for performing the same feat on a master thief equipped with knowledge and experience as well as tinkling bells.

Those graduating with flying colors are the ones that can unzip the fanny pack of a tall, muscular, football star with impunity, slide out a wallet and valuable documents and zip the pack back up without the victim having an inkling of anything being amiss. Or he/she can be the one who lifts a wallet, rifles the contents, extracts the cash and credit cards inside and slips the wallet back in place with no one the wiser. All this while everyone is wedged together like the old song goes, ‘back to back and belly to belly.'

Photo provided by www.downtheroad.org

The Ongoing Bicycle Adventure

Don't kid yourself. There are very clever professionals out there mixed in with the thief school dropout and the bungling amateur.

The best bet is to leave valuables someplace safe and ride the metro during non rush hours if possible and avoid it completely during the times it is fairly deserted. Another trick is the time-honored traveler's subterfuge of distributing money about your person. Mexican thieves are not known for the largesse of their Brasilian counterparts who traditionally leave victims with enough money for cab fare.

There are days I think I would like nothing better than getting on a line right after the morning rush and going back and forth until the cars start to feel the going home crunch.

Fellini would have loved the clown that got on along the Tasqueña line. Since it was Saturday, the cars were fairly open so she and the elderly gentleman with her could share a seat for four. She wasn't there to work the crowd but rather to go to work, dressed in full clown costume and paraphernalia.

She hadn't done her clown nails, however, and her companion solicitously was trying to help her apply the paint. The Tasqueña run has some curves. This is not a big deal when four or five butts are wedged into the bench-like seats but being Saturday, the normal 80 kilometer speed of the metro sent the clown sliding toward the window, as she raised her partially painted hand in a wave and jokingly called out “Adiós ”. Another curve sent her skidding back to her companion with a “Watch out! Here I come!” He awaited her return patiently holding the brush with the nail enamel.

The clown nails had to be put on hold, though, when the work was interrupted by one of the CD hawkers. The woman had obviously done a home dye job attempting a shocking pink coiffure that hadn't been a complete success. Some of the dye still colored her neck and a bit of her ears. When she saw the bright orange hair of the clown, this called for a halt to the sales pitch as the two women animatedly discussed hair coloring tips.

All the while the clown was involved in her many endeavors, a young child around two years old sat across the aisle with her eyes firmly covered by both hands. She appeared to be totally overwhelmed by the clown's presence but when her parents led her to the exit; the little girl's neck was craned as far back as possible so she could keep this mysterious and fascinating individual in view. Now that a bit of distance separated the two, the child couldn't get enough of the sight. The stop sent the clown careening once again across the seat so the little girl left the car to a fluttering hand waving with bright nails and a final “ Adiós”

At the next stop, a number of kids exited, followed by the clown flapping long, floppy shoes, off to start another workday.

Given the possibilities that await one on the metro, it's a wonder that this experience isn't ranked right up there as a favorite tourist destination. If they can have organized favela tours of the slums of Río, can the ‘Guided Metro Experience' (200 pesos, complete with nametags) be far behind. Or you can pay your two pesos for the cheap but front-row seats and see for yourself.

After taking such a tour, you might want to relax your overloaded senses. Get off at the Insurgentes stop and make your way out toward Avenida Puebla . I've always found that managing to exit on the correct side of the exit circle is the true challenge of a metro ride. There on Puebla, between Orizaba and Jalapa you'll find an ambulatory pirate CD stall whose proprietor has a corner on a niche market. Whereas the normal stall of pirate CD's is overflowing with a redundancy of the same titles that reappear day after day, this stall carries the eclectic. We've seen one dignified gentleman drop 600 pesos for a stack of violin concertos. At 15 pesos a pop, that's a mean number of violin concertos.

We've purchased Andre Bocelli, Boleros by Nana Mouskouri, Gregorian chants, old-time Cuban sounds by Compay Segundo , Italian Jazz Sax, Arabic Groove, Chicago Blues and queña music from the Andes…definitely an eclectic mix.

Then you can rub a little pomade of Belladona /Arnica on your sore knees (available at naturalist shops and very effective to relieve the aches generated by the metro's system of stairs). Put your feet up and relax to some great music. Or if you hanker for a cappuccino and like me are fond of a strong brew, head out to a café and order a cortado . That way you get expresso with a bit of creamy foam on top instead of chocolate colored milk. Sit there and savor this treat and plan your next metro trip.

Coming up next: Taxco in the Wink of an Eye

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