The redeeming canoe of Omar Menchaca in Xochimilco


At 66 years old, Omar Menchaca sports a formidable physique. Under the gentle winter sun in Mexico City, the man paddles and points to the banks of the canal, a favorite resting place for birds. “Ah, look! That is a water dog. They also call him a night heron ”, he exclaims, as he lets go of the oar and takes his camera. “Photography is an impressive thing,” he murmurs. The water dog, a stocky bird with red eyes, flutters heavily before hopping a few feet away. Menchaca points with the lens and while, in the distance, rockets are heard. Christmas is smelled throughout the city, although here, in the Xochimilco wetland, it arrives reduced, attenuated.

A retired official of the Ministry of Mines, a former manager of an industrial laundry, Menchaca dedicates his golden years to a silent exercise in ecological defense. “From 16 to 31 I was a bureaucrat,” he explains, “I started as a courier and later headed the human resources department. Then I set up the laundry and that’s how we went about doing it. But from a very young age I did sports ”, he adds. The canoe has always been. Now it allows you to stay in shape and earn extra money, guiding tourist walks. Menchaca takes advantage of the routes to remove plastic from the wetland. “The garbage is something that cannot be eradicated,” he laments, “the Government is unable to raise awareness.”

The canals appear calm on Christmas Eve morning. Hundreds of trajineras rest at the Cuemanco jetty, one of the most popular in the area, leaving free passage for Menchaca’s canoes and their companions. On a normal weekend, the huge and colorful barges would collapse the old Xochimilco canal, the main road of the wetland, reproducing the vehicular plugs of the nearby bypass rings, only here for the pleasure of the customers, happy to hear bullfights on horns huge as they go down packs from beer to the health of bored boatmen.

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A white heron flies over the channels of Xochimilco, last Friday.
A white heron flies over the channels of Xochimilco, last Friday.Teresa of Miguel

But today the Xochimilco canal seems like a misty mirror, a reflection of the capital’s highlands, with the Pico de las Águilas and the Cruz del Marqués hill in the background, setting the roof of Mexico City at almost 4,000 meters. Retired bureaucrat, proud athlete, Menchaca weaves in search of prey for his camera. The water dogs are certainly his favorites, but also the golden-legged herons, the green herons, the moray eels, the white ones, the nuns … “This is a relaxation”, he says, happy, “to be able to come here, to the canals , the silence, the birds. Look how beautiful! ”He exclaims, while photographing another water dog.

In a place where leisure is measured in empty tequila bottles, Menchaca is an anomaly. A rara reviews. For five years he has managed a kayaking business in the wetland, which broadens the tourist horizon beyond the main channel. Not surprisingly, Xochimilco expands over 2,600 hectares, a thermostat for the city and its growing tons of cement and concrete. “I usually do two walks on the weekends, one on Saturday and one on Sunday,” says the man.

In addition to the birds and the mountains, the strange reality of a green horizon in a hyper-urban environment, Menchaca dedicates his walks to collecting garbage from the canals. This Friday, he returned from a two-hour tour with the front of his canoe full of bottles, food containers, greenhouse plastic, polystyrene trays … He did not complain, nor did he curse. Nor did he ask others to do the same, to help him. Then, on the pier, he explained his technique, far from the excitement of the new wave of ecology. “On tours, the first thing I do is help clients with the paddle, until they get the hang of it. Then I already start collecting garbage. And then you realize that they start to do the same, “he said satisfied.

Menchaca collects garbage in his kayak through the channels of Xochimilco.
Menchaca collects garbage in his kayak through the channels of Xochimilco.Teresa of Miguel

Although the business has barely been in operation for five years, Menchaca has toured the Xochimilco canals for more than 30 years. He started going shortly after UNESCO declared the wetland a World Heritage Site, in 1987. By then, the man was quite a sportsman. As a young man he had been an athlete. He was national champion of 400 and 800 meters, although he covered all distances. Then he got hooked on multidisciplinary races of extreme difficulty, which mixed mountain marathons, mountain bike and canoeing, routes that totaled more than 200 kilometers in two or three days. At age 63, he covered a marathon between Mexico City and Cuernavaca, which rises from 2,300 meters in the capital to 3,400 in its mountains, and then goes down to 1,500 meters in the city of eternal spring.

In these 30 years, Xochimilco has changed a lot. For starters, the city has just inaugurated a huge concrete bridge just above the northern part of the wetland, criticized by neighbors, academics and activists for the impact on the natural area, beset by urban development. But not only that. Menchaca also points out the irruption of motorized boats and the conversion of part of the chinampas, the islets made of cane and mud that populate Xochimilco, into soccer fields.

But he is not overwhelmed. The clean morning air, the coolness of the canals and the chirping of the birds – even the ugly squawking of the white herons – put a perennial smile on his face. “This is a magical place,” he says, “I don’t want you to miss a sunrise!” Omar Menchaca must be one of the few residents of Mexico City who has seen the sunrise more than 100 times in Xochimilco.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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