Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Science in the Cathedral: Mexico City

I'm back in Mexico. Staying at the moment in Mexico City with my friend Patti. She's a teacher and can't come on one of my scheduled tours during the winter, so she wanted to spend a few weeks going around with me, practicing her high school Spanish, and seeing new parts of Mexico. I could use more Mexico time and some exploration myself, since I want to expand my little tour business.

I haven't been to Mexico City in 42 years, since I spent the summer of 1971 in school, in Cholula, Puebla, a few hours south. I spent a week with my mother's cousin Peggy, who had lived here for 30 years at that time and still spoke Spanish with a thick Texan accent. She had a dozen dogs, mostly schnauzers, though unrecognizable as schnauzers since they were unshaven with floppy ears. And two parrots.

Jocko was an African Gray that had belonged to Peggy's parents and ended up with her because parrots tend to outlive their owners, especially when the owners are already elderly. And Pedro was a green bird from South America. Carmela the maid, only spoke Spanish, so she interacted with Pedro all the time, as he spoke Spanish too. So poor Jocko, who only spoke Texan, sat on his perch in the corner of the kitchen and slept. But every morning, Jocko would say, to the first man to enter the room, "Good Morning Ben". He never said it to a woman, and never said it at any other time than morning.

Pedro, on the other hand, could sing songs, had a mind of his own, was often stubborn, and was the only pet with a job. His job was to get on Peggy's stick in the morning, go with her outside where she put him on a stair railing. He would then climb, beak over feet up the rail, to the door of Carmela's apartment and call her name to get her up. When she was good and ready, she'd let him climb on her arm and she'd carry him back to the kitchen.

When Carmela was gone and Pedro was bored, he would get off his perch and go over to the edge of the kitchen counter. I watched as he leaned over, looked around, saw there were no dogs, and then he barked madly! From all over the house, dogs came running, ready to kill whatever strange dog was in the kitchen. That crazy parrot bobbed up and down like he was laughing. And the dogs were such living-in-the-moment creatures that Pedro could do this many times a day, they always came running.

But alas, Peggy is gone now, as are the parrots, Carmela and the dogs. Mexico City is unrecognizable to me, except for the basic locations of places like the National Archeology Museum, and the Zocalo.

Seismic equipment
Today, Patti and I walked down a long andador, a street closed off to cars. We had intended to see the cathedral, Templo Mayor, the Zocalo, and return to visit the Bellas Artes museum. The cathedral was interesting. A small parroquia, a parish church, was part of the complex, and in fact was much more beautiful, if not as dramatic as the cathedral itself. What struck both of us is how much the cathedral has tilted. The entire right side is canted, with all the pillars slanting right. And throughout the cathedral, metal rods are attached high on the pillars with a plumb line dropping straight down into a seismic reader, housed in a box to prevent anyone from bumping it.

Several readers are strategically placed beneath pillars, and in the very center, where a candelabra has been pulled off to the side, a pendulum hangs from the top of the dome, it's point only a millimeter or two from the floor. On the floor is a white drawing in stone, showing where the pendulum has swung over the centuries. Meanwhile, the pendulum is swaying right, then left, then in an oval shape, moving up to four inches in any direction, and it didn't quit moving. That cathedral is vibrating.

The eternally moving pendulum

Mexico is so prone to earthquakes, and it doesn't help at all that it was once an old lake bed. The cathedral and Templo Mayor (what is left of the once fabulous temple of the Aztecs) were built on what was once an island. Probably a water logged island, but still land above the usual water line. Now days, with drainage systems and deep foundations, water isn't as much an issue as the fact that clay soils tend to slide and wiggle in an earthquake. The entire former lake that is now Mexico City shakes like a big bowl of jello in a bad quake.

It's something I think about all the time I'm here. I wonder what slab of concrete is going to crash down on my head, or give out from under me as I sleep soundly in my hotel bed. I can't wait to get out of the airport as I can see the gray concrete roof and walls, knowing it could all come crashing down in just a few seconds under the wrong circumstances.

Through the door in the listing building. 
We passed by an open door on the way to Templo Mayor. The doorway led into a building that was leaning to the east about 10 degrees. Inside, it turned out to be an empty church, now used for artistic exhibitions. The floor tilted so badly, and the walls listed in such a way that it felt like those old 1950s fun-houses that were meant to disorient and terrify you. Looking up at the solid block ceiling, thinking thoughts like this place would have been condemned in the US - not used as an exhibition hall, and feeling myself inexorably pulled downhill on the unlevel floor, all I could think about was earthquakes. Suddenly there was a bang and a loud squeak came shooting out of my mouth. It was just a door closing, but it scared me something awful. Nothing to do but get the hell out of that place, it felt haunted!