“¿Eres de España? ¿De Madrid?”
Been a long time since anyone took me for a Spaniard, I thought. I said no, my accent no doubt confirming the fact even before my stumbling attempts at conversation. I established my flight mates were Cubans, working in Mexico, that I had never even been to Spain; felt a little better. The three syllables of “Gracias” for water in a plastic cup tripped me up moments later. The Cubans drank from a bottle wrapped in a bright plastic bag, ordered beer from the airhostess every time she passed, rum on their breath. I drank water, tried to think in Spanish, and waited for lunch.
The flight dragged on. After seven hours I wondered if it would have been quicker to go via the States. I was glad not to have to deal with the security of a US airport though, remembering being stopped and questioned both to and from Honduras three years ago, much to the amusement of my undelayed half-Indian half-Pakistani companion. After ten hours, eyes burning, I rebuked myself for the vanity of putting my contact lenses in, eighteen hours ago. After eleven hours, Mexico City emerged beneath the clouds, lights spreading as far as the eye could see. The red and white bands of traffic spread three, four, five lanes wide. Fifteen minutes later, we landed. I had to concentrate: I still had a bus, the underground and a map of the Centro Historico to deal with.
After twenty three and a half hours of travelling, most of them awake, I walked humourlessly into a hostel half a block behind Mexico City’s vast Metropolitan Cathedral. I limped through a discussion with the girl behind the desk about my reservation before climbing two flights of stairs to the dormitory. I made for the bed nearest the door, barely noticing if any of the other eleven showed signs of habitation, and made something of an attempt to put a sheet over the mattress. As I was finishing this, the door behind me opened and a twitchy, light skinned man entered. I said “Hola”, and the rest of the conversation went along the following lines.
“Hola, ¿como estás?”
“Estoy muy cansado hombre, yo he –”
“Does “como estás” mean how are you, right? You can say it at night?”
“… um, yeah. You can say it any time.”
“That’s cool buddy. You caught me at a good time, actually, I’m not normally this talkative.”
“OK, cool, well, I’m really tired so –”
“Yeah. I’m on this, uh -” he looked closely at the bottle in his hand – “rum, and also tequila. And muscle relaxant.”
I mumbled something about being so tired I may as well have been on crystal meth and excused myself.
The next morning I hit Mexico City centre, its variety and unpredictability making it one of my favourite places in the world. I stood in the Zocalo, over two hundred square metres of concrete and a flagpole. The scale is hard to put into words without hyperbole, and impossible to capture on camera, at least, not on one as ordinary as mine. I stood in front of Diego Rivera’s famous mural in the National Palace and thought about Marx. I listened to the organ in the Metropolitan Cathedral and watched the sun through the amber stained-glass windows, dozens of feet above my head. I waved down four floors to a pretty girl in the Urban Art exhibition in the Museum of Spanish Culture. I was stunned by a photography display of the Metro; it wasn’t that the photos made me see it in a different way, it was that he had captured the Metro exactly as it is. I ate tacos for lunch and dinner and felt like a cliché. I wandered in the opposite direction to my hostel and within a few streets came face to face with a statue soaring forty feet into the air and a museum the size of Buckingham Palace behind it. Over the road, another huge palace was flanked by four more giant statues. Beyond that was a park claimed by street vendors hawking ice cream and Beatles t-shirts, and beyond that, a square filled with old men playing chess. In the square was a building housing a Diego Rivera, a Brazilian photography exhibition and a choir accompanied by a grand piano.
While the magnificence of the Centro Historico is undeniable, the other extreme of life is unavoidable there as well. Outside the Cathedral, the deformed and homeless gather, some unable even to shake the scratched plastic bowls in front of them for coins. Inside the National Palace gardens an ancient woman, bent double, shuffled a few paces at a time before having to stop and rest. As I passed her, I saw her feet, which she must almost have been looking straight at as she stood, were bare, the toes fused together by years of dirt. What thoughts are going through her head right now? I wondered. What happened in her life, to make her end up like this? And the man with one limb in the chair, and the girl with the unfocussed eyes, holding a baby clumsily in one arm as she sat in the gutter. What do they think at the start of each day? The questions ring naive, even if the sentiment isn’t. Here’s a further cliché: what would Jesus do? What would He say to these people? As for me, I said nothing.
The jetlag slapped me hard at around 8.30pm, and I had to go to bed.
The next morning, keen to make the most of my last day in Mexico City, I ventured out of the centre. I jumped on the Metro (copying photos from the exhibition whenever there was an opportunity) to Coyoacán, the zone that according to myth used to be inhabited by coyotes. More recently it had been inhabited by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and León Trotsky, amongst others. Kahlo’s house and Trotsky’s are both museums of sorts now, Kahlo’s artfully embellished with quotations on the walls and pictures in the gardens, while Trotsky’s is a sad place. The small artefacts in glass boxes, the photos of him happily tending cacti or feeding his rabbits and the bullet holes still visible in the walls of his bedroom combine uncomfortably, and I did not stay long.
Trotsky’s house may or may not have been a contributing factor, but the residential area of Coyoacán made me slightly uncomfortable. The expansive, brightly painted houses clearly marked it as a rich neighbourhood, but eight-foot iron gates with portraits of rottweilers on them were as common as the SUVs parked by the road, and in the quiet side streets, the shimmering bougainvillea was offset by the quiet snap. snap. snap. of electric fencing. In the centre however a fountain with a statue of the legendary coyotes was surrounded by a mariachi band playing to an enthusiastic audience, their children running up and down the sunny square outside the cathedral. This, I realized, was why the streets had been so empty, and I began to come around to the place. I bought a coffee and sat on one of the many benches around the fountain, and was pleased to be joined by a tranquil old lady and her two young grandsons, with whom I practised my loosening Spanish. After a while two blond men talking in English walked past, and Beatríz and I regarded each other wisely. “Americans,” we agreed. I told her that I tried not to look too much like a tourist, and that sometimes people in England had mistaken me for a Mexican. But not here, I added. “No,” she agreed, looking me up and down, “Mexicans are quite short. And you’re white.”