Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A new face of Mexico's Palace

There are still a few more days left of a special treat in the National Palace.  The Salones Presidenciales, surrounding the Patio de Honor, on the second floor of the southwesternmost part of the Palace will be open to visitors until the end of this month.   
Interestingly the Gate of Honor is not the central gate, it is the southern entrance facing the Zocalo.   That southern end of the Palace is the presidential portion of the building, built on the location of Emperor Moctezuma's Palace.

Television cameras have given us glimpses of the Salones Presidenciales when special ceremonies are held but rarely have the rooms been open to the public.  The furnishings and decoration are truly palatial and maintained in tiptop condition.  On one of my recent visits I watched a staff person dusting, using a fine-arts paintbrush.  The chandeliers are resplendent and the carpeting, upholstry, wall coverings, mirrors, paintings all in excellent condition. 

As an interesting architectural design, the presidential reception room's northernmost window is also the access to the presidential balcony over the central, main doorway to the Palace.  This is the balcony from which the president gives the shout of Independence on the night of the 15th of September recalling Father Hidalgo's Grito de la Independencia in 1810, and where the president reviews the military parade the following morning; famously the balcony from which Rigoberta Menchú greeted the crowd shortly after being notified she had been awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.   

The plaza overlooked from the presidential balcony is officially designated Plaza de la Constitución though universally known as the Zocalo -- a strange name for a plaza.   In proper Spanish zocalo refers to a pedestal for a statue.  One explanation for the use of the word to refer to a plaza is that a viceroy ordered a statue of the King of Spain erected in the plaza (or a president ordered a column erected honoring independence from Spain) and only the pedestal was built.  The statue or column was lost in transit.  People started using the pedestal as a point of reference.  "I'll meet you at the pedestal", or "my house is four blocks north of the pedestal."  Soon the whole plaza was referred to as the pedestal; resulting in plazas all over Mexico being called pedestals.  There is another explanation for the word zocalo, and the one I prefer.  Mexico’s great author, Carlos Fuentes, has a hobby of documenting words used in Spanish which are of Arabic origin.  He maintains that 25% of Spanish vocabulary comes from Arabic and theorizes that the Arabic word zuc, market, is the root of zocalo.  Fuentes points out that Mexico City's market was located in the southwestern quadrant of the plaza, and that there was a title awarded to the person in charge of the market:  Señor del Zuc.

The Constitution of 1917, which rules Mexico today, guarantees the right of the people to demonstrate in a public place without the need for any type of permit -- making the Zocalo is a frequent location for a Mexican innovation in demonstrations:  the plantón.  A round-the-clock demonstration which may go on for weeks or months, usually in front of a government building.  In the case of the Zocalo, if the tents, banners, and demonstrators face the National Palace, their demands are addressed to the federal government.  If facing south, to the Federal District (Mexico City) government.  

I had often wondered if demonstrators' demands could be heard inside the Palace, and their banners noticed.  From outside, looking up through the second floor windows where only ceilings are visible, the Palace seems worlds away.  From the inside, however, despite the beauty of the rooms and furnishings, the windows attract the insider like a magnet and leave no way to ignore what is going on in the Zocalo.  This feeling can only be experienced by actually being in those rooms. 

Through the centuries many powerful, important, and famous people have walked through the Presidential Reception Room.  One of the captions describing the room speaks of the ceiling beams and says they date back to the viceroyalty period of Mexico's history.  Though there was serious damage to the Palace in 1692, I like to think that looking up at the polished beams gives me the same view that Juana Ramírez de Asbaje (1648-1695) enjoyed when as a young woman she glanced up while serving on the staff of the vicereine as a lady-in-waiting.  Little did she know that many of us visiting the room today would carry her portrait in our pockets, on the 200 peso bill.  

As a dessert to this wonderful visual banquet, upon exiting the Palace, you'll walk through the botanical garden.  

Access to the National Palace is along the north side of the building.  There are two strict security checks.  Lockers are available for rent.  The Salones Presidenciales are the last part of an extensive exhibit.  If you don't have time for the whole exhibit, tell the security guard at the bottom of the main stairway -- just after entering the National Palace, that you want to go directly to the Diego Rivera murals.  Follow the murals up the stairway and along the hallways.  When you get to the last one keep on walking straight ahead -- that will take you into the Salones Presidenciales.  Be sure to be there before 4:00 p.m. -- start the entrance process by 3:30. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Insights on Mexico's road language

Invariably, within the first kilometer of driving visitors picked up at the Mexico City airport, I hear a perplexed "how can you drive here?," or an intimidated "I'd never try to drive here."  I reply asking him/her to listen.  “Notice how quiet it is -- how little honking  -- even in massive traffic jams.  Notice the lack of road rage.”   If we get past the differences in driving style we’ll realize how courteous Mexican drivers are.

I like to compare driving in Mexico to downhill skiing.  In both cases we focus on what's ahead, knowing that the skier behind us is focused on what is ahead of him/her.  We don't wear rearview mirrors while skiing, yet from time to time we do glance behind.  Understanding this we feel less pressure to be aware of everything going on around us and have improved concentration on our field of vision.  Just as it works on the ski slope, it works in driving – that is if everyone uses the same technique.  

Mexican pedestrians are at a disadvantage but I've found that if eye contact is made with a driver, followed by a slight hand signal requesting passage, nine times out of ten the driver will bring his/her vehicle to a complete stop allowing the pedestrian to cross.   I also suggest visitors disregard what they learned in kindergarten; instead of crossing at corners where traffic comes from four directions, it is often easier to cross in the middle of the block where there are only two directions of traffic.  Northern North Americans see this as both dangerous and illegal.  Nonetheless, it reflects Mexico’s libertarian philosophy and is a practical safety tip requiring that the pedestrian take personal responsibility for his/her safety and that the driver avoid hitting a pedestrian or other car and incurring likely liability.   

Drivers are restricted to three means of communication with other drivers and pedestrians:  horn, lights, and hand signals.  All are used frequently and in most cases courteously.  A short tap on the horn is a friendly message.  It can mean "thank you" or be a way to get the other driver’s attention to then be followed by hand signals making some request such as "I'm not trying to merge, I just want to cut across," by indicating the direction in which one wants to go holding ones palm with fingers extended and angling it up in the intended direction of travel.  Indeed most hand signs used by drivers are with palm and fingers extended in variations of an imperial wave.   In that position it isn't an offensive hand signal.  Universally offensive hand signals involve fingers, fists, and jabbing motions.   

Flashing one's headlights is usually a signal to the other driver or pedestrian to go ahead and do what she/he is intending to do -- make a left turn, cross the street, merge, yield to the oncoming vehicle.

In our English-speaking world hand signs, other than waving, seem to be restricted to offensive signals -- though we get glimpses of very complex hand signal language used by stockbrokers, baseball players, and bidders at auctions.  Mexico has many more hand signs that can be understood by the general population.  Some are much more offensive and aggressive than the few available in English-speaking circles, but Mexico has many more which are courteous, used on a daily basis, and easily understood.  This leads to a great deal of inaudible communication that may be missed by visitors. 

Mexican's have a treasure trove of sayings; all one needs to say is the first line because everyone knows what follows.  There are also communication sounds everyone identifies -- the whistle of the sweet potato man, the bell of the trash truck.   But don't ever, ever knock with a rhythmic five taps on someone's door, as is common in our neighboring countries to the north and south.  Mexican's will take great offense.  If the rhythmic sound is honked on a horn road rage will certainly result.  But tap-tap, tap-tap on the back of a vehicle is recognized all over Mexico as the way to alert the driver that he/she can keep backing up.  It is much more effective than screaming or waving, as is done in most every other country I have visited.  Screams generally can't be understood and waves can't be seen. Tapping lets the driver know he/she can continue backing up and that the person tapping is paying attention. 

Another custom of the Mexican road can provide an adrenaline rush when nighttime driving windy two-lane roads.  If you want to pass a slow moving truck, pull out into the oncoming traffic lane and turn off your headlights.  The truck driver will do likewise.  In that darkness you can see more than when both vehicles had headlights on, and you're able to see any oncoming headlights. Marvelous.

Roads and streets are one of the few, perhaps only, places we can be any time of the day or night without needing to own the place or pay to be there.  Interestingly it is on the roads, where we can easily experience and experiment with the libertarian nature of life in Mexico.  

Libertarianism is not just a facet of driving; it permeates the fabric of Mexican life.  Mexicans expect to be vigilant and know they are almost always responsible for any ill that befalls them.  I’d be most interested in hearing from readers about their personal experiences with libertarianism in Mexico and how they feel about it.