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The Apprentice

16 August 2006

It’s a safe bet that going to Xolchimilco on any weekend of the year is a med-free prescription for fun. I just had no idea how much fun it would be. The ancient miles of canals take you past fields of flowers, and small local farms.

As we stood by the embarcadero, a teenaged boy, wearing bright yellow slacks, approached. He urged us to let him take us on one of the trajineras. It was our first trip to Xolchimilco and we weren’t sure how the whole thing worked. We wanted to get our bearings and he wanted to get the “job”. He won out… since we didn’t know what the heck we were doing.

The first clue should have been that he put us on one of the biggest trajineras. There were smaller ones for smaller parties, but we got the stretch Hummer instead. It was a beauty named “Lupita”. Our guide put his long pole into the water and we headed into the Grande Canal. I always wanted to be in a parade!

The burst of colors was intoxicating. There were hundreds of brightly decorated boats cruising along in two directions. As we passed other boats filled with partiers who were celebrating birthdays or tourists who were living it up with their friends, we were joined by vendors who floated beside us with offerings of cervezas, roasted corn, or bouquets of flowers. The carnival was on!

Our relaxing cruise was about to get more exciting when we rudely crashed in to the rear of another boat. Ooops! The canal was extremely crowded and our guy, Carlos, had a little pole “malfunction”. It sent the drinks on the other boat toppling. A few words were exhanged between drivers. Ten or twelve “crashes” later (with other boats) ….. I was pretty sure that this was a normal part of the ride. Something like bumper cars …. Aztec style. But as I giggled, Carlos’s face told a different story.

At one point, Carlos decided to make a U-turn in the middle of the Grande Canal. He wanted us to see a big poinsettia farm on the other side. Bad idea! Carlos managed to get the trajinera going sideways and we blocked about 50 boats in the process. It took a good 10 minutes for us to get unstuck. Other drivers were coming unglued. One irate pilot even raised his pole in a menacing manner at poor Carlos. He was ordered to get off the Grande Canal.

Ever the gentleman, he took us under a foot bridge and gave us a private tour of “his” canal. We got to see his family home, and he even stopped the boat to bring me some candy from his uncle’s tienda and a sweater for me to protect me from the light rain. He had my heart!

After he regained his confidence, we headed back out to the Grande Canal and up to the mercado. We parked the boat and spent some time talking to Carlos. He told us that he was raised on the canal and had even fallen in the water when he was a small child. It was especially dangerous because kids can get caught in the roots of the many water plants in the canal. Apparently, local kids lose their lives in the chinampas every year…. they drown after being trapped in the root systems.

Now that Carlos was 18, he had only recently gotten permission from the trajinera union to begin his apprenticeship. He was clearly concerned about his future in canals after today’s screw-ups.

We bought two delicious roasted chickens, a few cups of beautiful fruits and some drinks at the mercado. We brought them aboard our boat and shared them with Carlos. As we headed back to the embarcadero, we tossed some of the chicken over to the skinny dogs on the edges of the canal. They practically did back flips as they tried to catch the tastey morsels.

Mariachi’s played on and the French tourists (in a neighboring boat) enjoyed their banquet of wines and cheeses. Damned French! They even thought to bring a white linen cloth to cover their table.

The soft rain had stopped and the sun was out. Carlos broke all the rules. Instead of a 2 hr. tour, he had given us 4 hrs. of pure delite. I’d vote to keep him because he’s exactly who you need when you’re floating down the gardens of Xolchimilco for the first time.

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