If you want to see Mexico at its most unadorned, unapologetic, and most wonderful, skip the coastal resorts and spend a few hours at Central de Abasto in Mexico City.
Despite being the largest market on earth, not many foreign tourists come here. That’s a good thing. Unlike resort Mexico, foreign visitors are at most an irrelevant curiosity for the people who work every day at this market. That means you get to experience the innately warm generosity and friendliness of ordinary Mexican people in almost every encounter. As we wandered around the sprawling expanse of Central de Abasto, we were met with smiles and kind humour from the people working here. Many of whom would yell out, “Welcome to Mexico!”
We’ve noticed something about Mexico we haven’t seen in many other places. People are polite, respectful and generous, not just to us but to each other as well. We watched many interactions between people here, and even in the humblest of transactions we’ve seen a kindness and polite generosity you don’t often encounter elsewhere.
Waiting in line at a local supermarket, we watched a wealthy Mexican woman very deftly and almost imperceptibly hand the elderly woman bagging her groceries a small gratuity. She had had a huge load of groceries and a great many bags and she was saying ‘thank you’. Tipping is not allowed at this store. They exchanged very quick and conspiratorial glances between them.
We were working at a Starbucks in the wealthy neighbourhood of Condesa when I saw the barista hand a homeless man a coffee. The man was off-putting to other customers and he was quite loud. But the Starbucks employee didn’t chase him out. Instead he chatted with him kindly for several minutes. And he was patient with him even when he spilled his first coffee all over the stairs. He just made him another. We’ve watched many such interactions, each of them marked by courtesy and kindness among total strangers.
Obviously, we’re not saying that Mexico is free of rudeness, or that people don’t do terrible things to each other. That happens everywhere. But we’ve observed a lot of decency between people who don’t know each other. More than we notice in Canada. Enough to make you feel a little sheepish knowing that we don’t often trade small, mundane kindnesses in our own country. We can learn a lot from Mexico.
This is a unique country with an ancient, rich and complex past. It has an incredible history and sophisticated culture. I grew up knowing about the greatness of Mexico, my mother was raised here. But this country and its people get a lot of undeservedly bad press. For sure, Mexico has its challenges, some caused by its relationship to the country on its northern border. Some caused by the arrogant ineptitude of its wealthy governing class. And like many other countries, it has a huge and growing problem with inequality, just like America. But none of this should unjustly overshadow one of the world’s truly great cultures. It’s easy to fall deeply in love with Mexico.
Welcome to the world’s greatest market.
You won’t find Dia de Muertos skulls, lucha libre t-shirts, Aztec ‘calendars’ made of onyx, or sombreros here. And you won’t find many foreign tourists either. If you want merchants who can speak English, or neat and tidy shops that sell hip leather shoes or handbags, go somewhere else.
Central de Abasto is nothing like other markets. It is the greatest market on earth. And the world’s biggest. Larger than the country of Monaco, it covers 328 hectares. It has its own police force of 4000 officers. To put that in perspective, Toronto employs 5,400 police and it’s the fourth largest city in North America. Central de Abasto is a small city in itself, surrounded by the largest metropolis in the western hemisphere.
This is a real working market that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It feeds the city’s 21 million people, moving 30 thousand tons of food products every day – eighty per cent of the total consumption of Mexico City.
It would be impossible to explore this place in a single day. I doubt a week would allow you to explore the place on your own without getting lost. We were led by a man names Javier. His mother worked here in the wharehouses 25 years ago and he used to own a sweet shop in Mexico City. This is where he bought his supply. He knows the market inside and out. And he’s a terrific guide who takes very small groups. More than six people at one time would get unwieldy, and you’d start to be in everyone’s way. We actually visited Central de Abasto with Javier twice. We loved it so much, we went back.
It’s immense. Each lane, along which the various sections of the market are arranged, is over a kilometer in length. There are dozens of buildings each with dozens of lanes. Some of these are devoted to just a single product. We explored the onion section for instance.
But there are sections devoted to nearly every kind of fresh product imaginable. Meat, dairy, fish, dried fruit and nuts, pet food, fresh herbs, flowers or sweets. If you want it, you are most likely to find it at Central de Abastos.
Héroes de Abasto
Of the 70 thousand jobs that depend on Central de Abasto, none are more difficult, more back-breaking or less celebrated than the work of obreros, also known as cargadores. Using truck dolleys, these men move produce and products, rubbish, and equipment across the sprawling expanse of the market for hours every day.
They are not paid hourly wages. Instead they rent their carts for two dollars and then have to make up the cost of the rental by taking jobs hauling produce on their handcarts. They receive about 50 cents per box. They move at high speed and alert pedestrians to get out of the way by whistling. If you find yourself lost in thought, there’s a good chance you’ll get run over. The carts are often piled high and are incredibly heavy, so cargadores cannot stop or change course very easily. Everyone in the market gives them respectful leeway. You quickly learn to stay alert and out of the way.
These low-wage workers play an indispensable role in the functioning of the market. And they perform seemingly superhuman feats of strength and physical endurance. I cannot imagine a more difficult way to earn a meagre living. These are experienced, skilled workers and there is a fascinating story here to be told. Had I the skill or the means to do it, I would write a documentary about them.
Mexico’s rich and ancient past
“Why do we learn about ancient Egypt in school as kids, but we never hear about Teotihuacan or the Aztecs?” Sue asked me over lunch the other day. It’s a good question.
We’ve spent a week visiting with Sue and her friend Sharon who are here on vacation. Sue is my father’s wife. There’s no disputing the fact that Egypt is an important history to learn about. But Mexico is home to more than one of the world’s technologically advanced ancient empires.
We visited Teotihuacan, the sprawling archeological site about 90 minutes from Mexico City. It was once the largest city in Pre-Columbian America and would have been one of the largest cities on earth at its height in the 5th century. Today, the site contains only the remains of the religious centre of the city, the scale of which is humbling.
We don’t normally go in for trips to museums. But Mexico City is home to one of the world’s best, the Museum of Anthropology. It’s a beautiful modernist marvel built inside Chapultepec Park in the 1960s that is still strikingly beautiful. And the museum collection is incredible, laid out in a smart and accessible way that walks you through from the origins of Mesoamerican civilization all the way to modern meztizo and Indian culture.
Mexico City today is built on the lakebed and islands of what once made up the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. At the time of European contact, the city was home to a quarter of a million people. Larger (and cleaner) than any European city in the 16th century, it was an urban engineering marvel that boasted artificial islands, canals and bridges.
The genius of modern Mexican culture lies in the – albeit forced and violent – merger of two great civilizations: that of 16th century Spain and those of Mesoamerica. We had planned a visit to see Diego Rivera’s murals on the walls of the original Secretariat of Public Education, but the police had shut the place down in the wake of political protests. But we did manage to see Rivera’s other murals in the national palace. They are an inspired – and subversively progressive – history of Mexico from pre-Columbian times to the modern era.
We also took up the recommendation of a photographer friend to see an incredible exhibition of works by one of Mexico’s most celebrated photographers, Graciela Iturbide.
Tomorrow we head back to Dhamma Makaranda to conduct a 10-day Vipassana retreat there before we reluctantly end our time in this beautiful country. I have one more post to write about Mexico, one about my own family history here. I’ve been to Mexico several times because of that connection, but the last trip was almost 30 years ago. So much has changed here; thankfully also, much of what I remember loving about Mexico has not. I am collecting some photos to tell that story and will post in a couple of weeks.