A city of extremes…

The past two days have underlined my point that Mexico DF is a city of extremes.

On Saturday night we visited Jaime’s relatives in Tlalpuente to the south of Mexico City. Aptly named ‘the bridge to nature’, this is a unique settlement perched on the slopes of the Ajusco forest. Once in this ecological park, protected and conserved by its inhabitants, it is hard to believe that you are on the outskirts of one of the busiest and most populated cities in the world. The air is clean and fresh; there is no noise - apart from the occasional barking dog; and all around you is green, abundant nature.

Originally the land was worked by the inhabitants of San Andrés - a small village lying at the foot of the mountain, alongside the old road to Cuernavaca - who mainly produced oak charcoal from the Ajusco forest. Gradually, as Mexico’s urban sprawl spread and interest in this area grew, they began to sell off parcels of land to the urban rich who wanted to create an ecological settlement in the forest. Initially only small weekend cabins were built, but as the building work increased during the 1980’s, Tlalpuente’s residents organised themselves into a civil association and adopted a series of rules aimed at preserving the natural habitat as much a possible. It was agreed that the buildings should not exceed 5% of the whole surface area of a plot of land – hence the plots purchased were generally very large. In this small community of about one hundred and thirty families, the population density is only eight inhabitants per hectare - surely a record for Mexico City!

Today, the area is almost completely fenced off, and there are guards and automatic barriers at the main entrance. San Andrés is situated outside the park and contains local shops for the Tlalpuente elite and a veterinarian surgery – which must be in high demand given the amount of dogs kept by the park’s inhabitants to confront the threat of burglary and kidnappings. Unlike most gated accommodation, the community here appears to be united by its shared love for the natural world and the inhabitants really do seem to be living in harmony with nature. Jaime’s uncle and his American wife moved here in the 1980s. This is undoubtedly exclusive living but, as they have proved, only for those who are passionately committed to protecting its unique environment.

Although I am uncomfortable with the ethos of gated accommodation, I cannot deny the sheer, captivating beauty of this haven from the city and admire the commitment of its residents to preserve its natural habitat.

Our visit to Tlalpuente couldn’t have been more at odds with our trip to the markets in the far north of the city. We had aimed to go to La Lagunilla which is one of the its biggest markets; on Sunday there is an additional flea market with antiques, second-hand books, stamps, coins etc, and this is where we were headed in order to try and sell Jaime’s old LPs and some books he no longer wanted. The market I really wanted to avoid was Tepito, which runs on from La Lagunilla and is full of cheap tat and counterfeit goods.

Weighed down with a suitcase and rucksack we had hoped to accomplish our mission early on so that we could browse through some of the second-hand stalls. We were to be sorely disappointed and our patience tried to its limits. Nobody wanted Jaime’s books and noone seemed to be selling LPs. We started asking stallholders where the ‘mercado por discos’ might be… in hindsight, we regretted not being more specific (most people born after 1980 have probably  never have heard of or seen a long playing record); when we said discos they just presumed we meant musica! It wasn’t long before we were stuck in an endless labyrinth of stalls selling pirated cds and dvds. Hemmed in by crowds of people, there was no way out; we were forced to keep walking forward – dragging our suitcase behind us. To make matters worse a plastic awning covered everything, trapping in the heat and dust and, I later discovered, turning the market into a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The cacophony of sound was overwhelming. This tented hell seemed to go on for miles and without end.

Eventually, almost two hours later, we struggled out into an offshoot of stalls that finally led us back to the main road and the spot where we had began. By this point we were desperate to offload the LPs and books and so began offering them to all likely vendors for free. It was only after a number of attempts that we finally succeeded. We then rushed to the metro; suitably chastened by our experience and vowing never to return.