Sunday, March 18, 2007
Kevin's Running Diary-New Orleans to Mexico City
We left New Orleans under threat of a tornado watch, with high hopes, high winds, and a certain sense of bravado to face the unknown. We weren’t half an hour down the road when we started getting large wind gusts which were blowing me all around as we passed the swamps and wetlands around Lake Pontchatrain. The rain soon followed. In strong spurts of downpours, followed by drizzle, then nothing. Then the process would start over again. I was filled with the excitement of starting the journey, so I wasn’t concerned and I was hoping Clara felt the same. She was being a trooper as far as I could see in my rear view mirror, taking the curves and wind on the wet highway with no problems at all.
As the miles racked up we left the fertile land and pine trees of Louisiana and entered Texas. The change was almost immediate with vast expanses of open land, occasionally herds of cattle, and more rarely rows of land ready for the spring plant. The wind was still whipping from the Gulf, a constant companion giving us no real barometer of whether every day was going to be like this on these bikes or if today was an anomaly. My GS1200 is much taller than Clara’s specially lowered GS650. She is about half the size of me, and my bike as loaded up with a large backpack and tent strapped to the back, with panniers and tank bag attached constantly, whereas she just has the tankbag and panniers much lower to the ground. My cross section it seemed to me was about as sail-like to the wind as any Round the World bike would dare be. Clara later confirmed that she could see me fighting the draft vigorously while only affecting her slightly.
As dusk fell we entered the vast expanse of the Houston area. I wanted to get through the city in the evening so that we wouldn’t fight rush hour, alleged to be among the worst in America, in the morning. As dusk turned to night we were in the center of town and after 330 miles and a couple of wrong turns Clara was clearly tired, plus she doesn’t like to ride at night as her eyesight is not well without enough light. Finally, at one turnoff, the bike fell over on her and we decided to find the nearest hotel, where we passed out for the night.
The next morning at breakfast I got punked by the Indian American manager at IHOP. When he brought the bill he told me my card (which should have an unlimited spending amount) was rejected. I quietly freaked out, not noticing the wink he gave to Clara. I was not prepared for this first thing in the A.M. with Clara’s brake light not working, her falling over and now my main source of funds being declined! After calling Citibank and finding out nothing was amiss, I was still in a foul mood as the manager apologized as we went out the door. Looking back, it was kind of funny and he did get me good, we should have taken a picture with him.
The next day it was off to Brownsville, another 300 or so miles of hot, windy Texas conditions. Arid land passed again with the ranches, low vegetation, and cows. Cars on the highway were intermittent, and I pointed out to Clara the many, many central Americans driving pickups filled with laundry machines, refrigerators, and other household goods, often with another pickup truck being towed behind. Clearly a living could be made by taking a 10 or so year old American used vehicle down to their home country and selling it for a profit. We would later see these same guys all the way down through Mexico and beyond. We passed the birthplace of Nolan Ryan and stopped to increase the tire pressure of my bike from 30/30 to 37/39 pounds respectively. I was still getting used to my bike, playing with different suspension settings. I put Clara’s preload on her rear higher but at this point in her motorcycling career, she can’t tell the difference, which is tough with every road being new, every scene fresh, and her getting used to the bike as well.
We spent our last night in Brownsville cleaning the bikes, fixing Clara’s brake light problem by hacksawing off her brake lever knob so that the lever would close properly,(against her vehement protestations, although it did fix the problem) jumping in the pool, ordering a pizza and resting up for the real adventure beginning the next morning in Mexico!
One mile down the road in the morning, my BMW had a problem! A yellow warning light and the image of light bulb appeared on my instrument panel. I paid closer attention to the bike but figured it was probably due to me playing around with the taillight the night before when I was diagnosing the problem with Clara’s bike.
5 miles down the road, we hit the border. The Americans waved everyone through and we stopped at Mexican immigration where Clara’s excellent foresight came into play. It turns out the Mexican authorities had a problem with the ownership of both motorcycles being in my name. Clara had brought a copy of our Marriage License!!! which saved the day. They took copies of that, our registrations, our titles, etc., etc. about $60 dollars of our money and two immigration slips for $23 bucks apiece that we had to pay at a bank somewhere in our travels. While Clara was patiently dealing with this for about an hour and a half, I talked to this nice family from Virginia who was dealing with the same document issues. They had sold their family farm of mostly cows, pigs and other farm animals to move to the Yucatan permanently. The wife was a sort of missionary, and they were going to buy another farm in Mexico. They were bringing their three grade school kids, four dogs and just an eight foot U-Haul trailer of their stuff. They were tired of the regulation and strangulation of the US, and wanted a freer, more friendly atmosphere to raise their homeschooled children. The wife and children had been living in the Yucatan for almost a year and she said that the children already had “better, more real friends” in Mexico than they did in the U.S. Very nice folks, well traveled, and we spoke of maybe meeting up if our travels took us to their new part of the world.
We left the border post and entered another world: Matamoros, Mexico. Quintessential Border Town. We weren’t 5 minutes into the country when Clara said to me at a stoplight “welcome to the jungle!”. It was hot, dirtly, dusty, smelly, run down, chaotic, polluted with no clear signage. If Mexico was all going to be like this, it was going to be a long, long, difficult ride. We took a couple of incorrect turns by following the signs, then circled around back to within 2 blocks of where we started before finally getting on the road to Ciudad Victoria. We were already many hours into our day and just 6 miles from where we slept, but in two different worlds. At this point I had no idea what to expect, and I was looking at the map on my tank bag to see if there were any towns 20 or 40 miles in that we might be able to stay in. We stopped to take a picture at the sign leaving from the town, gave an “air kiss” and headed down the road.
It soon opened up into a delightful country highway with farms on either side of the road, the ground tilled, without plants as they were waiting for the spring growing time. It was prettier than southern Texas with the farms coming almost one after another, rolling past on the decent 2 lane road. We came to the nice town of San Fernando(?) where we exchanged some money, had a delightful lunch of 50 cent tacos, and started to learn how the Mexicans have no idea about highway numbers. Every direction is just given by whatever the next town is. So you don’t ask “where is highway 101?” you ask “where is the road to Ciudad Victoria?”. Another interesting thing they do is take a plastic bag, fill it with water and nail it to the wall. This allegedly keeps the mosquitoes away. “que Padre!” as they say in Mexico, “very cool”
We were making good time around 4 pm as we came to a major fork in the road. The friendly gas station attendant said we could make it to the next major city, Tampico, in a couple hours. So, we decided to wick it up, and take the road less traveled. We took the left turn and experienced motorcycle Nirvana for the next 90 miles. The late afternoon sun illuminated the rolling hills, with the mountains in the distant background. There was lush vegetation, highlighted by the occasional twenty foot tall palm like trees capped off with beautiful white flowers like strings of large white puffy grapes, where both the fruit and the stems were all homogenous. We didn’t find out what they were but children and vendors were selling them at roadside stands, and the ever present speed bumps of which each town had at least 2, one coming, one going with larger villas having many each of them with a vendor at the side or often with a 6 or 8 year old kid in the middle of the road selling fruit, or drinks, or whatever the native specialty was.
Clara was OK with us putting the hammer down and we went almost 80 mph over the excellent roadway, with long straightaways, banked curves and only the occasional car. I was thinking of what a wonderful road this was and imagining on the proper sportbike one could easily average the “tonne” as the British would say, and easily see the fun side of a buck-fifty. This was one of the longest, most fun roads I’ve ever traveled, highly recommended to anyone of the two wheeled persuasion.
We reached Tampico at dark and it was chaos. Clara was exhausted, I was tired and the City was big, imposing and not well marked. We stopped at a Holiday Inn and they quoted an expensive room in dollars, so we moved on. I turned the wrong way down a one way street, got honked at, turned around, took a road towards the beach and was immediately in a rundown area of town. We agreed to stop at the first hotel we found which turned out to be a “No tell, Motel” in this case called “Microhotel”. These are places where you come to do the deed and not be seen. Here is the home of adultery, premarital sex, and the occasional adventure motorcyclist. You pull in, are assigned a room number and drive into the assigned parking space, a door closes behind you so no one can see your license plate or who is in your car, and a stair leads up to your room. You pay in 4 hour shifts, and the laundry machines are rumbling constantly. Our room had a mirror on the ceiling, a mirror in place of the headboard, and a mirror on the opposite wall. Above that mirror was a TV which was tuned into a rotating porn channel, albeit in English. But the price was right, about $25 for 3 4 hour sessions: we promised to be out by 8 a.m.
The next day we had a heck of a time leaving the city, which was overcast and threatening. Kevin ignored the advice of the gas station attendant before bringing us into a big circle, then taking a left turn at a red light, over some railroad tracks and into the waiting arms of the local constabulary.
(insert story here)
The day after the day from hell, we headed off, well rested and well fed on hotcakes. We decided not to try our BMW’s out at the motocross track signposted on the telephone pole, although it certainly piqued my interest. Around 10 miles down the road, everything changed. We reached the top of the climb which led to the central plateau that much of the main part of Mexico is located on, and the land opened up into wide expanses of open land and fields with some faraway peaks. Gone was the tropical dense forest, undergrowth, and mist. After the tumult on the roads the day before, we opted for the tollway which began (or ended, depending on which way you are going!) here. Since we only had about 70 miles to go, it proved not to be worth it as we had to pay about 7 dollars to go seven miles before the highway became free to all. Needless to say, we were virtually the only vehicle on the toll road. We were heading to Teotihuacon, the spiritual home of Mexico, ancient city, and site of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the moon. Teotihuacon is a about an hour northwest of Mexico City, and before we arrived we could already see the thick layer of smog hanging over the capital off in the distance.
We stayed in Hotel De Luna, in San Juan de Teotihuacon which turned out to be a delightful, friendly town. We visited the thriving marketplace just off the central square that all colonial towns (read: all towns) have. These are made up of a central plaza, usually with the Catholic church overlooking them. The plaza is usually a park, with some greenery, some statues or monuments and maybe a bandstand or other ceremonial platform. There well may also be some government buildings, and then lots of stores and restaurants on the outside of the road surrounding the plaza. The outer roads usually surround this plaza in a sort of grid pattern, before meandering off in different directions towards their various locales.
We had lunch at one of the outdoor vendors, found internet for about a dollar an hour, and a seamstress to fix a rip in my riding pants for $1.50. We lazily walked through town, checking out the shops, got the bikes cleaned, took care of some business and had dinner to prepare for the next day at the pyramids.
Mexicans identify their home as the country of the Sun and the Moon, and you will see these symbols everywhere you go. The symbols are on pottery, stationary, ceramics, decorations, throughout the country. This stems from the ancient city of Teotihuacon, which was a huge city, the most powerful in Mexico in older Pre-Colonial times. It was abandoned, probably due to environmental destruction and the citizenry imploding, well before Cortes got to Mexico. However, the remains of the City were never lost, especially due to the two huge pyramids which remained a holy site and a spiritual center for people to visit right up to conquest. The Pyramid of the Sun has about the same footprint as the Great Pyramid in Egypt but is only a third as tall, about 210 feet. The Pyramid of the Moon is maybe 2/3 the size of the Moon. The City was well planned out with a large thoroughfare at least 60 feet wide and miles long (they still haven’t found the end) with the Moon pyramid at one end, and the Sun Pyramid in the middle. There is also the Temple of the God Quetzalqatl, inside a huge square compound, with many of the original stella still intact on the face of the layers of the temple. These are in the design of animals, the rings of life present in much of the ancient architecture, and of the winged serpent, the representation of Quetzalqatl.
Now a funny story about Quetzalqatl. A couple of months before we were leaving on our trip Clara and I were joking around about how we would fare on the trip and I remarked how because of my pale skin and the fact that I am clearly an alien that the natives would regard me as the “third coming of Quetzalqatl!” She didn’t believe me, and thought I was making the word “Quetzalqatl” up. It had been a long time since I studied my Mexican history, and I had picked the name out of my head in an instant, so because of her ignorance of the name of the Great God I had a bit of self doubt that maybe I had remembered the wrong name. Of course, I was correct, and Quetzalqatl is everywhere in Mexico as one of the two most significant Gods of the ancients. I have been eager to point out the inscriptions and monuments to him at many of the ruins and the Museums that we have visited along the way, much to Clara’s chagrin. Alas, the Mexicans did not bow down before me and offer to give me their treasures as tribute.
We climbed all the pyramids, took pictures, visited the excellent museum and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. It is not to be missed, and we thought it was great that we were sharing the ancient city with busloads of schoolchildren who were getting a firsthand look at their history.
The embarrassing thing about the two Pyramids, which is quietly noted then swept under the table at the ruins is that archeological evidence has shown that they were not dedicated to the Sun and the Moon! It has been found that they were temples to the Rain God and Fertility God respectively. Sometime after the collapse of the city, with the Spaniards coming in and eradicating the old religions in favor of Catholicism, this history was lost not to be rediscovered until the 20th Century. Clearly, the Mexicans have decided to quietly acknowledge these facts in the textbooks and to keep forever the symbols of their country as the land of the Sun and the Moon. It would be like discovering a scroll that Alexander the Great was a complete idiot, who happened to have a very hardcore, manipulative, Vice-President named Dick who had the backing of all the big time Macedonian businessmen who had a farfetched dream of taking over the Middle East for their own profit….well, you get the picture. Would the Greeks rewrite history after associating with Alexander for thousands of years in favor of a Dick? No, the scholarly manuals would note the truth while the schoolchildren, and especially the tourists would hear all about the Great history.
When we left the pyramids, we discovered that one of the bars that holds Clara’s Touratech panniers on had fallen off, or had been taken off, as it is fairly unlikely for it to have fallen off in the two mile ride from the hotel to the site. Either way, it needed to be fixed. We asked at the local tire repair shop, and the helpful gentleman there told us about a machine shop in the next town. We grabbed the next taxi, which had a driver clearly constantly ready for the call up to an open driving slot in NASCAR. As we lurched over the omnipresent speedbumps in every town in Central America, Clara told him that we’d like to arrive alive, and he replied to just imagine that you on an airplane! So, I quietly fastened my seatbelt without waiting for the instructional video and stewardess.
We arrived safely to the machine shop, which are the same the world over: black soot and metal shavings covering the walls, the ceilings, the floors, the uniforms and the faces. Sparks flying and loud machines, cutting, drilling, polishing, welding whatever needs to be done. In this case, a tanker truck parked out front with two guys and a welding unit and 70/30 tips crawling around underneath the rear suspension, axle and tailgate. The men inside are at most gruff, and almost always ultimately friendly especially for a comrade of the mechanical arts who has an intriguing story and gadget to fix. It is usually good form to show up a bit dirty maybe with your own wrench or visegrip and to show some mechanical aptitude by taking off the part needed to be fixed or explaining what you’ve done so far to try and remedy the problem, or the best is to display how you’ve used wire, a screwdriver and piece of discarded flotsam from the side of the road to make it 69 miles to them, your imminent savior! At the very least, try and know the difference between metric and standard threads, or show the proper respect for a person who can take a hunk of metal and craft it into just the thing you need, which seems to be a dying art in the “modern” world these days where we just throw things away and overnight express a new one to our mailbox by 10 a.m.
This place did not vary from the norm, with the exception that Miguel, the owner’s son, and all the rest of the men were initially very friendly and helpful. We discussed what needed to be done, I brought a sample of what needed to be made from another pannier to leave with him, he dialed in his calipers for a precise measurement, he asked if he could make it in a slightly altered way from the original which I acknowledged was fine and he told us to come back in two hours.
We walked around this tiny town, again to the central plaza with the Church, saw the field with basketball court, two wooden backboards and missing rims which was a common site in Mexico, and tried to find a replacement handlebar protection bracket bolt for Clara’s bike. She apparently had a contract to field test the stock one for how many tips it could take before snapping, and I wanted to have a spare for the day we found out. We didn’t have much luck at the local “turnillos” which is the name of the street front hardware stores but we did find another 50 cent taco dealer. (Is that how the rapper got his name? Did he used to be a taco vendor?) Not that it is hard to find them, they are everywhere on the streets, usually with a big vat of grease being fueled by a propane burner, some Tupperware bins filled with vegetables they are cutting up and salsa sauces, and one to a few types of meats or fillings, usually chicken as beef is more expensive here. In Mexico we ended up trying beef, pork, mushroom, cow stomach, some other stuff difficult to describe in a non hieroglyphic language, and of course chicken. Many people will warn you away from these street vendors but I felt that the fact that you could see them chopping up fresh vegetables, you saw them cooking the meal in front of you, ‘how bad could it be!’. Luckily, probably, Monctezuma was not to have his revenge on us. We also found a nice hairdressing place where I got the best $3 haircut of my life, while watching old Batman TV shows in Spanish out of the corner of my eye, hearing Adam West’s voice over save Robin from the “crocadilo’s” in the vat that Pharaoh had placed him in. It was a productive day, capped off by Miguel having the part done for us for the grand price of $15, plus his shop had the bolt we needed. We thanked him profusely, told him we’d be back to take his picture, and found a cab home.
Back at the hotel we discovered that the part was about a tenth of a millimeter too wide, so we grabbed the camera and the part and rode back on my bike, where he was happy to grind it down a bit and repaint it. Alas, we had forgotten the camera to the battery!!, but we found out his hours the next day and promised to come by before setting off to Mexico City. At this point, they probably thought us a bit silly, but they were very accommodating the next morning when we stopped by with all our gear loaded up, to take a picture. The world is filled with Good People!
Through the Horizons Unlimited website, we had hooked up with Garry Dymond an ex-Brit English teacher who had lived and raised a family in Mexico for 30 years. He agreed to meet up with us, put us up and show us a bit around the city. We followed him on his Honda CBR1000 Hurricane into the haze, maze, and amaze of Mexico City, land of the quick honk, the omnipresent green and white Volkswagon Bug Taxi, snarled traffic, lane changing and of course barely present signage. We passed through the business district with some very neat modern architecture, tall A frames, and buildings evoking glass sails, before stopping (on the sidewalk) at the famous roundabout with the protecting winged goddess on the high, high pedestal overlooking the City, and the tombs of some of Mexico’s most famous pioneers buried at the base (open to the public if you ask nice!). Garry lived and worked on the south side of the 25 million person strong city, and we were able to get a glimpse of the central exhibit and tourist areas as we rode through. There are multiple museums, a large concert hall, zoo, biological garden, and park surrounding the whole area, capped with a huge flag of Mexico.
Over the next few days we visited as many of these sites as we could, which were so interesting that we decided to stay an extra day. Highlights included the Museum of Archeology with is filled with tremendous exhibits of all stages and areas of Mexico’s history. The Museum of Modern Art, which was not as big as I expected, still was fascinating. It held famous paintings such as the “Two Fridas”, and many other works which were graphic, interesting and questioning of Mexico’s culture, values and women’s position in society. Plus the usual supply of metal and wood forms twisted into weird shapes that a common person like me could never begin to understand the significance of. We saw the traditional upside down swinging from the 70 pole of four traditionally dressed dancers, each time circling the pole 13 times, while one man sits on the top of the pole playing the traditional drum and flute music.
Around the huge main central square of the City, known as the Zocalo, there is the Palacio National, the Grand Cathedral and the Templo Mayor, amongst other Colonial era buildings. The central square is huge and open, a square block, with stone pavers and a huge flagpole in the middle that waves the national flag at least 60 feet x 30 feet, put up and down by military procession every day.
The Templo Mayor is an ancient site of great pyramids built one right over the other that the Spaniards destroyed when they built on top of it. Only recently rediscovered, it has been excavated with a fine museum to the side. This is the site where the Aztec Calender was discovered, the huge stone dial which at first they thought was a type of compass of the sun, moon and stars but has recently been interpreted to be inscriptive monument, perhaps were sacrifices were held. It turns out that the whole of central Mexico City was built upon the old remains of the great Aztec city where Cortes outsmarted Monctezuma and took control of the region. Many, many of the downtown buildings are built on top of the ruins of the previous buildings, all of which are slowly sinking into the mud base of what used to be a lake.
On the Thursday that we were there, there was a huge rally of many different groups in the Zocalo. In particular it was the International Day of the Woman, and there were busloads of women from the Queretaro region, who were wanting their husbands to be released saying that they were just political prisoners. There were other groups requesting equal pay for equal work for women, a longer school day for the children so that women could hold jobs, childcare, safety at work, and other quality of life issues. They were joined by many, many unions and different groups from around the country, all marching in 3 different phalanxes from different parts of the city to converge on the main square. I estimated about 30,000 people in all, “companeros” in the fight for dignity, against privatization of the public utilities and other industries, safe work conditions and against the president of the republic, whose disputed victory in the last election is still questioned by many, many people in Mexico. The Palacio National has been the official home of the President of the Republic for ages, but newly elected Calderon has decided to live and work in another area of town, and it is easy to see why. Whenever he has any official business at the Palacio National there is some sort of protest held, shutting down the streets and causing a huge commotion in the square. The Mayor of Mexico City is from the opposing political party, so he gives them permits to shut down all the streets for the marches, thus making the already terrible traffic even worse. Our hosts told us that the main Boulevard in the City was filled with tents and protesters for MONTHS after the election, with no cars allowed to pass. Not exactly a great way to run a world class city.
The rally started at 4 p.m., and we knew that the taking down of the flag occurred each evening at 6 p.m. Kevin desperately wanted to see and participate in the “Revolucion!”, as we could see and hear the marchers during the day walking the streets with their calls and responses of the megaphones and the crowds. We wound up our sightseeing and took the subway back to the Zocalo. A growing throng of people awaited us, randomly arranged around a big stage, with signs from the different represented groups held alight, and large picture banners of Karl Marx, V. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin(!) strung up on a rope bordering the street on one side of the stage. There were people dressed up in costume, and many with shirts showing their particular allegiance. The speakers implored the crowd to work together for women’s rights, for the worker’s rights, for the rights of the indigenous people, and for a stronger Mexico.
We drifted towards the flagpole as it neared 6 pm, as Kevin figured if anything was going to happen that was the most likely place of action. The square was crammed full of people, and the government had to take the flag down at 6 o’clock. As the time approached and the Marine trucks drove into the square, the speaker asked the crowd to show their peaceful nature, and that the people had the respect of the nation and the traditions of Mexico. Some of the organizers with armbands came and started to make a circle around the flagpole, slowly prodding the crowd to make a 30 meter wide circle so that the huge flag could be dismounted. We were strategically placed in the front row, jealously guarding our position. After some time, the military decided they had enough room and the procedure began. First the military band came in, precisely marching and playing, then the honor guard armed with M-16’s and bayonets, and finally that days lucky (or not!) selected unit and upper brass to handle the flag removing. Most hats were removed and the crowd went silent as the band played, and the flag started to come down. And the band kept playing, and playing, as the flag slowly came down, the wind whipping and making things more difficult than they already were since the troops had less room than they needed because of the pressing crowd. It took 14 men to handle the flag, wrapping it us as they could as it came down, careful to not let it touch the ground. But not careful enough as the stress of the situation evident in their faces led to the flag drooping and touching very seriously at least once and just skirting it a couple other times, and a couple soldiers losing their hats, not good form for the National Flag. Also taking from the dignity of the situation was one of the ever present in Mexico stray dogs taking advantage of the one bit of open space in the square and hanging out, and seeming to stand at attention during some of the music, inside the circle that was opened up for the soldiers. All in all, not perfectly dignified but they closed well, as they took the flag on their soldiers and marched into the huge oak doors of the Palacio National on the edge of the square, followed by the armed guard and the band playing the Mexican National Anthem being sung by the military and civilians alike.
As they marched towards the flag’s nighttime home, we followed in behind with Clara taping the scene, and the stage announcers thanked the crowd for showing the proper respect for Mexico and starting a call and response “Viva the rights of the Mexican workers”. The crowd would throw their fists into the air “VIVA!”, of course Kevin fell right in wanting to be supportive of the compeaneros! At the gates of the Palacio some of the people tried to follow inside but they slammed the huge ancient oak doors shut after the last of the troops. Two women in togas and breast plates kept yelling something about political freedom at the door as the TV cameras rolled. All in all, it would seem as if the people have at least a modicum amount of political freedom if they are allowed to shut down the streets of the capital, take over the main square of the country, and say whatever they want in public while displaying a large picture of Josef Stalin. I don’t think Stalin would have allowed that!
It was a fascinating day, topped off with an evening with our hosts Yvonne and Gary. They took us to the “square of the Mariachi’s”, a place in Mexico City where all the Mariachi bands hang out and look to pick up some work. It is sort of a red light district for groups or 4 or 5 guys in sombreros, matching outfits with silvers studs, and trumpets and guitars. As you drive slowly along the street guys come out at you from in between the parked cars: “hey, you need a mariachi band?” as if you are buying some black market entertainment. The main square is filled with different bands hanging together, most of them traditional, a few with electric guitars or other modern accoutrements. It is a lively atmosphere where lovers on park benches will be serenaded with traditional songs that everyone knows, and a ring of restaurants and stores surrounds the square which houses statues of the most famous Mariachi singers in Mexican history, with a couple statue bases yet to be filled.
We had dinner at a fun tourist trap, where you had to pay a cover charge in addition to your food which covered the entertainment which included male and female singers, a traditional mariachi band in the background, a cowboy who does rope tricks, Mexican dancers, and later a band made up of about 9 boys who looked to be from the same family playing more modern yet traditional Mexican music, all overseen by an MC with shiny gun in his holster. There seems to be some sort of unwritten rule of the Mariachi code that the shortest, fattest, ugliest, toughest looking guy has to play the biggest guitar, and the tallest, gangliest and the second toughest looking guy has to play the tiniest guitar. The other clear thing is that all the Mexicans (and many other Central and South Americans) know all the Mariachi songs, as the people would sing along with whatever number is played.
As we left the restaurant to peruse the square we were treated to a young couple on the bandstand, he proposing marriage to her on his knee, while their well dressed friends surrounded them and three mariachi bands broke out into celebratory playing when she accepted! It was fun, joyous, and an experience surely no one will forget.
The two other major reasons for a mariachi band is to play your party, usually to close it down at 2 or 3 am, and also to show your undying affection for the one you love. The standard procedure is to hire the band (they go for around a $100) and show them the way to your sweet petunia’s while they follow you in their ‘mariachi mobiles’, vans and station wagons that surround the streets around the square. When you arrive at her house, they set up under her window and serenade her while you speak of your love for her, or do shots of good tequila and chime in, or perhaps the best of all is to share shots of great tequila you bring with the father of the one you hope to make yours. Of course this should happen at midnight, so you wake the world and there can be no misunderstanding about who and what the ruckus is all about. “QUE PADRE!!!”