Why do we all insist on travelling in cars? In New Orleans we had taken the shuttle (into town) and the tram (down the river front) and the boat (up the river, where else?) and the bus (to Walmart). But touring Louisiana in anything other than a hire car, would have been impossible. Public transport needs to be cheap, reliable, fast and have a convenient node. In Louisiana it was virtually non-existent. So we drove our automatic, to and from where we wanted, pausing when we wished and making very good time. And it was comfortable and reliable, so long as I remembered not to jump on the brake, thinking it was the clutch. I only did that once. It’s quite a jolt.
Yesterday, I commendably took public transport to Mexico. Firstly the hotel shuttle to the airport. Then the plane (would you believe) through the air. Having landed in Mexico City, I was all set to take the metro to my hotel. I knew from my Lonely Planet guide that there was a metro station at the airport, which despite having to change twice, would get me and my growing luggage collection to my place of abode.
As I emerged through arrivals, I was predictably accosted by taxi drivers offering me transport. The trick is, of course to walk straight ahead, look straight ahead and shake ones head without engaging eye contact.That was easy enough, finding the metro was less easy. There were no signs, so I picked up an airport map from the Information Booth. Studying this carefully with the full weight of a geography degree and a duke of Edinburgh’s award behind me, I determined to go to the far left of the concourse.
On the way, I thought I would double check. I asked an airport official directions in broken English with sprinklings of Si and Grassyarse. The metro was to the far right. Well, the map had been in Spanish. I left the safety of the airport, and risked my life crossing some weird road network. There were cars everywhere and eachy time I tried to wheel my case down the six inch kerbs, it lost its balance and swaggered like a drunkard. They were not making public transport easy.
After 15 minutes, despite my case being being on wheels, it felt like I was pulling one of those massive trucks on the Worlds Strongest Man – but without most of their muscle power. I wasn’t sure if it was the dirty socks, the souvenir mug or the plastic alligator which was adding all of this weight. And it was hot, and I was wearing a jacket. And the final road beyond which I could see the promised land of the Metro looked as uncrossable as the Red Sea.
And so I weakened. Having said “no” to a uniformed woman on a radio, who seemed to be controlling entire taxi fleet of Mexico City, I switched to a resigned “Si”, pointed to the address of the hotel on my piece of paper, and put myself into the hands of the unknown driver. As he set off he stared at my piece of paper, which happened to be my hotel reservation. He studied it intently – was he looking for my credit card details, or just looking for somewhere to stay?
So we dashed and crawled into Mexico City, adding to the traffic, pollution and world carbon tyre-print. I tried to assuage my guilt. I had tried, and we were just another insect on roads covered in insects. He drove like a controlled maniac, of course, as everyone did. This is a city of 19 million people, and all of them seemed to be on our route. Road markings were for cosmetic purposes only, it was every car for itself, usually 4-5 lanes deep, bumper to bumper. Beeping in turn like an orchestra tuning up. It was remarkable that nothing touched. F1 drivers have nothing on these guys. As we drove, I noted the equally chaotic and colourful buildings, smeared in graffiti and labelled in Spanish. There must be more Spanish in Mexico than in Spain.
In 1519, The Spanish destroyed the Aztec empire in just two short years, reducing the native population to slaves and razing this city to the ground. There are hardly any Aztec remains here today. The Spanish imposed their architecture, culture and way of life almost overnight. Ravaged by disease, the population of the Valle de Mexico shrunk from 1.5 million to under 100,000. But the city emerged as a prosperous and elegant capital – the home of the Spanish elite, with European-style plazas and markets. We could have been in downtown Barcelona as we raced through the streets.
Or Santiago, I mused and fretted, in Argentina. There, 5 years ago, I had two very unnerving taxi experiences. I had inadvertently found myself on the way into city in an unlicensed and unroadworthy vehicle with an overly excitable driver who spoke only Spanish. At least my Mexican guy was calm. In Argentina, we had ‘negotiated’ the price as we went, and I ended up paying around £40. When the driver insisted on a tip, I pretended not to understand, so he dropped me off short of the hotel. At least I didn’t end up in a shallow grave in an Argentinean forest, and at least he didn’t drive off with my luggage in my boot. Here in Mexico City, there was at least a meter. I checked my Lonely Planet guide as we drove – it was the recommended airport taxi firm. On the way out of Santiago, the driver missed the airport turn and had reversed up the inside lane of the freeway, in the pitch dark, with trucks roaring past, taking evasive action. I watched all of that in the back seat, ready to be smashed into smithereens. At least here it was light and we were driving forwards!
And so we weaved into the city centre. The meter was on 80 pesos as we approached the Zolota square where my hotel was. But there was a problem. The access road to the hotel was blocked off. The driver gesticulated, shouted at a few police men, and tried to explain to me by a series of circular hand movements that he would have to go round another way as there was a “big circus” happening. I offered to get out and walk the last 50 meters, but he shook his head. I think he was pretending not to understand this time. I did a double take to make sure it wasn’t the same guy from Santiago!
Half an hour later, having inched round the square, clocked the meter up to 104 pesos and got only further away, he suggested I got out and walked. The meter had turned even when the car was stationary. I offered him 100 pesos, but he wasn’t satisfied. I only had 100 peso notes, so I gave him two and grabbed a fistful of coins as change. As I pulled my trailer across more crowded streets with impossible kerbs, sweating again in my jacket, I realised I had paid 150 pesos. I shrugged, that was my carbon tax. My car guilt was assuaged. And its only £7.50.
I wheeled my belongings through the street, feeling conspicuous and rather vulnerable to bumping crowds. I found the hotel easily enough. Finding its entrance was more difficult. But it was worth it. It is a magnificent, luxurious, colonial, European style building. There is an elaborate central hall with balconies on four floors – not unlike the Luxur in Vegas, but in renaissance style. As I settled into my suite, far from the maddening crowds and cars, forgiving myself for missing the metro, I thought that maybe I could also forgive the Spanish for this particular architectural contribution.