A Venice experience in Mexico

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The green waters of the winding canal and the plethora of colourful gondola-like boats crisscrossing their way deftly through the water, instantly reminds you of Venice and its famous gondolas. But we are in Mexico City and Xochimilco is one of the 16 boroughs or districts within Mexico City, and can be reached through an hour’s drive from the city centre.

But here the similarity ends… instead of the Bridge of Sighs in ­Venice, which takes you back to not so happy times in the City of Romance, Lake Xochimilco is filled with smiles and chatter, music, food and spirits. Also, compared to Venice, where a private hour-long gondola tour can set you back by a cool Rs 10,000, in Xochimilco, you can have your own private, colourful boat, known locally as a trajinera, for just Rs 800 an hour. Affordable enough to take a three or four-hour ride.

minchilada-bhuttaAs we approach the lake and the place the boats are moored, the first cheerful sight that greets us is that of scores of excited schoolchildren out for a picnic and a boat ride. We get into one of the boats, which is made of solid wood, the boatman exchanges a few words in Spanish with a young man and in a flash a bucket filled with ice and stacked with a copious supply of different types of beer, and aerated drinks, is kept on the narrow central table.

We move from the narrow starting point of the canal, wondering how the boatman will make his way through scores of empty boats that are anchored to the sides, leaving hardly any negotiating space. It is a treat to watch several helping hands, and legs as well, that pop up suddenly to expertly squeeze our boat through the narrow space and soon we are out in clear territory with a wide expanse of water around us.

The mood is festive, the sights around you so colourful that you can’t help jumping around in your boat to get the perfect picture.

Colourful boats pass us by filled with both domestic and international tourists and we notice that some of them are carrying an entire bunch of musicians. You can engage them for a fee… if you do, they get onto your boat, sing a couple of songs and climb back into their boats. The mood is festive, the sights around you so colourful that you can’t help jumping around in your boat to get the perfect picture. The boats are so rock solid and stable that the boatman is not one bit anxious about loss of balance as you do so and he manually steers the boat along the canal.

shoe-polishAs you are enjoying the drink of your choice, several smaller boats and canoes float around you offering a rich variety of fares, including shawls, bangles and a variety of toys and trinkets, as also food and drink. I am in the land of corn and soon sight the bhutta which is on offer just as in India; roasted on open flame and served with salt, chilli powder and a dash of lime.

Michelada time

We pass close to a woman vendor who is selling michelada, one of the most popular beer-based drinks in Mexico; this beer is served along with lime juice and assorted sauces, sometimes clamato (tomato juice, with salt, pepper and clams), chilli powder and salt. It is both delicious and refreshing, and costs around 30 Mexican pesos — around Rs 100.

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As we’ve taken the boat for three hours, it is soon time for lunch and the variety of fare available through the clutch of floating eateries is unbelievable — from sandwiches to burgers to typical Mexican food. We choose chicken enchiladas and as they are being prepared fresh in the adjoining floating café, I am astonished to find a helper from that boat jump across to ours, and lay the table with a flourish — dining mats, serviettes, cutlery and crockery. The plates and bowls are not fancy, being made of melmaware, but they are spanking clean.

Michelada is, one of the most popular beer-based drinks in Mexico, made with lime juice and assorted sauces, salt and chilli powder.

Piping hot enchiladas are served along with a copious accompaniment of green salad and hot tortillas. We’ve ordered the boatman’s lunch too, and as he joins us on the table, the task of rowing the boat is taken over without any fuss, by the young helper from the café. There is enough food for him too, and once the boatman finishes his lunch, he asks the young man to have his. There is so much of good manners, courtesy and camaraderie, along with quick and efficient service, that generous tips are in order. Not a single seller of wares harasses any of the guests on the lake to buy his/her ware.

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Our tourism service providers have a lot to learn from this popular picnic/leisure spot in Mexico City. All along the sides of the canal, plenty of restaurants and cafes are located and absolutely clean washrooms are available there for a mere 5 or 10 pesos a person, even for those who don’t use them for a meal or snacks. You just tell the boatman you want to use one and he anchors the boat near one of those, which provide comfortable platforms to disembark. The washrooms are clean, there is both running water and toilet paper.

Hungry? Just summon a floating cafeteria and get your food.
Hungry? Just summon a floating cafeteria and get your food.

According to Wikipedia, the Xochimilco canals are left from what was once an extensive lake and canal system that connected most of the settlements of the Valley of Mexico. This vestige of the area’s pre-Hispanic past, and all that is left of what used to be a vast lake and canal system that extended over most parts of the Valley of Mexico, has made Xochimilco a World Heritage Site and internationally famous.

Boy-cycle

This system of waterways was the main transportation route, especially for goods from the pre-Hispanic period until the 20th century. But over the years and decades, the water table fell and the lake shrunk and all that is left of the canals is in Xochimilco. The canals are fed by fresh water springs which is artificially supplemented by treated water. There is concern that falling water tables will make the remaining canals disappear and hence the place has been declared a World Heritage Site.

Pictures by Pervez Bhagat

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