Monday, May 23, 2011


Deep in the South of Mexico City, past the concrete band of highway that loops around the urban sprawl, past gritty neighborhoods and the National University, highrises give way to low whitewashed bunkers and patches of dusty trees seep through the asphalt landscape. Here, on the outskirts, is Xochimilco, where creaking gondolas glide along ancient canals and bands of mariachis serenade languorous birthday parties.

As Mexico City grew, the lake that once surrounded the Aztec capital was drained and filled, its elaborate network of canals and floating gardens quickly disappearing. Xochimilco too was swallowed by the metropolis creeping down and west, its neon trajineras and abundant flowers drawing a stream of daytrippers. These visitors spend hours soaking in the relative tranquility found aboard the gondolas that jostle for space in the main canals, slow-motion chaos that flows between the banks.

Most trajineras are narrow scows, their shallow decks lined with two rows of chairs around a warped table. The battered tin roof provides welcome shade from harsh midday sun for passengers who sip cool micheladas and snack on quesadillas sold from smaller canoes. Photographers, musicians, and trinket-sellers drift by, swinging their boats alongside the others to advertise their wares.

Bright colors abound here, in the vivid arches bearing the names of the gondolas and the starbursts of flowers on the banks. Yet there is something profoundly faded about Xochimilco, in the worn metal on the edges of the trajineras and the rotting hulls on the shores of backwater channels. Even as lively music floats over rafts of revelers, the murky water lapping at creaking hulls suggests a sadness. Mexico City has strangled the rich lake ecosystem that once sustained it, grown over the water that made the place special. A smoggy haze hangs over Xochimilco. Even on the outskirts, the city looms.

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