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Chapter 4. A Feel of the City

Terminal Norte, which had looked so well organised in the morning, appeared less so now: the ATM machine was broken, the money changing counter was only selling dollars - they'd run out of pesos! We were not sure that we had enough money for the taxi fare, and from what we had read about "Dangers and Annoyances" of Mexico City, decided better than to hail a taxi and ask to be taken to the nearest ATM. Trouble was, there were no ATMs to be seen anywhere around.

With vague directions from the staff of a furniture showroom, we started walking to the nearest bank. This was obviously a less than fashionable area of Mexico City - butcher shops, auto repairs, machine tools. It was getting late, we were tired, and a bit nervous, when we stopped to ask at one more shop for directions. Its owner told us that the bank we were trying to locate was quite far, and shared our frustration to learn that neither the Cambio nor the ATM was working at the bus terminal. Both kind and intelligent, he then showed us his identity card, and offered to drive us to the bank, if we could trust him. In that entire sentence, the only keywords I got were his idenity card, and the word "confier"; rest was accomplished through body language and a desperate need to communicate. Figuring we had no choice, we accepted. In a car that had seen better days, he drove us to a shipping company's office, which had an ATM for the use of its employees. Profusely thanking him, we drew cash and walked back to Terminal Norte to catch a taxi to the hotel.

That was one night we strayed from Hotel San Diego: we first tried the Quakers-run Casa de los Amigos, which turned out to have changed its minimum stay policy from 2 days to 4; then went to Hotel Pennsylvania near the Plaza de la Republica. Though charging the same price, the room was much smaller than San Diego's - the kingsize bed hardly left any room around it; the uncomfortable mattress was made worse by a funny synthetic sheet on it (apparently, the management doesnt have much faith in guests' bladders). One interesting feature of the bathroom was a bidet - I was discouraged from trying it out by the spout of water that it delivered into my face when I attempted deciphering the controls, and Revathi's derisive hoot that accompanied it.

Balderas We got a better feel for the city that evening and in the weekend. We walked around and used the subway, instead of taking taxis as we'd been doing so far. The maps in Lonely Planet turned out to be very useful for moving around independently. The subway is supposed to be perilously crowded on weekdays, but on weekends, they are a wonder: inexpensive (2 pesos a ride, including any number of transfers), clean (it should be a pilgrimage for New York city residents), efficient - we never had to wait more than a couple of minutes for a train. When we re-established base next day at Hotel San Diego, Balderas became our focal subway station. A ten minute walk from the hotel, it is an important station with transfers to two lines.

Our first use of the subway was to go to San Antonio from Balderas to buy the bullfight tickets at the Plaza de Toros (as it is called by the locals, not Plaza de Mexico). Seeing we had to change trains on the way, we started quite early; the subway was so efficient and easy to use that we turned up well before the counter opened, and only a few diehard fans were there at that hour. The only guy ahead of me at my window turned out to be an agent (possibly working for a hotel or travel agency selling marked up tickets for tourists). We bought the most expensive tickets, $28 apiece.

Bullhorns near San Antonio On the way from the San Antonio station to the Plaza, we saw a huge abstract sculpture that looked to me like a stylization of bullhorns.

An interesting thing happened while going to Xochimilco, the southern end of the city. By then we had started enjoying navigating the underground using the subway maps and the color-coded signs at the stations; comfortably settled in the train to Tasquena, the southernmost station on the metro, we were surprised to find the car climb to the surface at the Chabacano, and completely taken aback to find the coaches evacuated at Viaducto, where we were put into buses run by the Subway; on weekends for a certain period, these buses ran in lieu of the Chabacano-Tasquena section, parallel to the train tracks, stopping right next to the stations along the line. The problem with the buses was that they crawled through city traffic, but at least the company was honoring its commitment to take us to Tasquena.

The metro ends at Tasquena, and the baton is passed on to the Tren Ligero, the tramcar (or streetcar): and this is the suggested pilgrimage for Calcutta city-fathers who, instead of modernizing the city's antiquated, jalopied system, are just giving the dog a bad name to hang it ASAP.

For dinners, we tried different restaurants in Zona Rosa, Mexico's nightlife district. There was the Yug, a vegetarian restaurant with quotes from Saibaba and posters of Hindu deities; Parri - the meat, meat, meat place; and Konditori - a roguish Italian sounding name - with Danish affinities expressed in Copenhagen posters decorating the walls. Konditori has tables on the sidewalk, and if they're full, it's a good idea to go for one upstairs - you get a nice view of the passing crowd. To start off, we ordered soup and a fancy plate of nachos that came with all kinds of toppings but didnt kill our apetite despite the huge size. The place is known for pancakes, but we we found them too cheesy and heavy for our taste. For desserts, you just say "postre", and the waiter brings a big tray with all kinds of tempting samples displayed - a most intuitive interface. Konditori makes known its tipping-expectations with imaginative discretion: a notice in the men's room says - "We are often asked about gratuity by our international customers; it is not included in the bill; a figure of 10-15% is considered an acknowledgement of good service" - in several languages. Drinks, dessert, tips (15%) included, the bill for the bursting-to-the-seams dinner came to $20 between the two of us.

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