Thursday, March 19, 2009
Saved by the bus. Or not.
The only thing I really wanted to do in Mexico City was visit the Isla de las Muñecas. You won’t find it on the official tourist map. It’s a small island in the canals of Xochimilco – the old Aztec floating gardens now home to a Unesco biosphere protected area and favourite weekend destination for the locals. In this idyllic little place there’s one thing that’s a little off. And that’s the Isla de las Muñecas.
Years ago, a young girl drowned in one of the canals. Locals said that her spirit was haunting the area so to appease her, they threw dolls into the water. But that didn’t work so a man named Don Julian created a permanent memorial. He fished the dolls and toys out of the water and strung them up over his small plot. Some of these dolls had been in the water for years and now exposed to the elements they were in various states of decay. The result is a perfect photographic subject for photography. And thanks to an episode of Lonely Planet/Pilot Guides/Globetrekker though, it’s now easy to get there, supposedly.
And indeed getting there was easy. We took the subway, found the correct microbus and walked past the sewage treatment facility to the embarcadero where we saw lots of boats but no skippers. Eventually a teenage boy approached us and we began the negotiating. He named his first price 200 pesos/hour for the four hour trip. Ouch, that’s $80 and considering our daily budget is only $100 that was way over. But he easily accepted my counter offer of 150/hour or $60 total, perhaps too easily. Despite the price being super expensive it was the one must do for me in Mexico City so I was willing to splurge (I don’t think Adrian was thrilled with this decision). I assumed this guy was just the salesman for his dad so when he returned with the pole to power the gondola I was a little surprised. How was this skinny little guy going to punt the 40 foot, 16 seat gondola around the canals for four hours? My concern and interest disappeared when I remembered the money we paid him.
But he earned his money as he took us through the canals, past tiny islands each home to one farmers livelihood. We saw numerous big white cranes, cows grazing, altars to the virgin mary and fishermen hauling in their catch - although I’d be scared to eat anything that swam in those water (perhaps that’s why they put the altars up). However after an hour of this slow boat I was beginning to get, dare I say, a little bored. Thankfully, just about then I saw the creepy island up ahead.
It didn’t look as ominous in the bright sun as I thought it would, but with thousands of dolls hanging from every branch and every object it was still plenty creepy. We disembarked and were greeted by an old man, not Don Julian who died about 5 years ago, but a "friend" of his who was continuing to keep up the Isla de las Muñecas, in other words now making a buck off of it by charging admission – only 20 pesos including us of the baños. He attempted to give us a history of the island – in Spanish – but when he asked me if I understood mas o menos I eventually had to let him know more menos than mas. He set us free and let us roam around the island.
We spent about 30 minutes taking snaps of the decaying dolls, including our own version of American Gothic. Adrian got right into it, finally forgetting about the high cost of getting here. However, I think the highlight of the trip for him were the outhouses which oddly enough had no dolls. But they did have crude instructions on how to make your specific deposit drawn on the walls with a sharpie.
Happy to have seen something truly unique, we enjoyed the long ride back being serenaded by the panting of our out-of-breath gondalier as he piloted with the boat. I realized that the trip had not actually been 4 hours but only 3 but Adrian refused to let me get our money back - he must have been happy with the trip.
But now it was time for the trip back. We retraced our steps to the collection of bus stops. Not wanting to get the wrong one, I asked a man which one went to Periferico. He let me know that they all did but not before sticking his hand out and asking for a donation for the information. Thankfully, a bus pulled up and saved us from the awkward situation. Or so I thought.
Remember that hour that was missing from the boat trip? Well, it was added to what was supposed to be our ten minute bus ride to the train station.
I had to tell the driver our destination when we got on so he could tell us the fare so I thought he knew where we wanted to go. But when it came time to get off at what looked like our stop, I asked him to confirm if this was Periferico. In lightening fast Spanish, he replied and pointed to the road ahead away from what look at the station. The only words I caught were turn and road. So I thought he was telling us no the station was after the turn in the road. We sat back down and after another 15 minutes of driving I knew that that was the wrong decision. Nothing looked familiar. After 30 minutes, I pulled out the compass to see if we were at least heading towards the town and Adrian attempted to ask the driver for the Metro Station. After 2 minutes of Adrian repetedly asking “Metro? Metro?”, the driver finally acknowledged him by once again pointing ahead. No one else on the packed bus offered any insight and I could swear they were laughing at us so we sat down in our seats watching the sun set and the rain begin as the bus continued to travel along the expressway.
After an hour, we went from annoyed to panic to resigned to angry to frightened. And considered getting off and hiring a taxi but not only did the neighbourhood look a little sketchy but we had about 20 pesos on us, more than enough for the subway but hardly enough to get us downtown. Plus, getting off the bus would require us to communicate with the bus driver who didn’t want to communicate with us.
Finally, 90 minutes later, we pulled into a parking lot full of buses and the driver kicked everyone off. I was convinced we were now miles from downtown, perhaps in another city so we merely followed the crowd hoping they would lead us somewhere. At that moment, a kind gentleman motioned for us to follow him. I pulled out my Metro map and asked him to show me which Metro. I expected him to point to a stop way on the edge of the map. Instead, he pointed to a stop only 6 away from ours (that’s when I realized just how big the city is). He then led us through the crowded stalls to the unmarked entrance to the Metro stop. We thanked him profusely and parted ways.
While the bus had saved our feet from another day of walking, it was the old man who saved us from being hopelessly lost.