I left almost all my jewellery at home when I moved to Mexico, so wandering through a market in the centro historico a couple of weeks ago I bought a cheap red cord bracelet, just to feel more comfortable with my wrists. As I explained to Maddy, my straight-talking Canadian friend, it only needs to last me a few months. She looked at me blankly and said, “you just paid ten pesos for a piece of string.”
Guadalajara is losing its shapelessness and beginning to reveal its nature. I have been stopped and asked for directions about five times now; usually, I make an entirely convincing tapatío – Guadalajaran – by saying “sorry, I have no idea,” and smiling. The bus routes and numbers are becoming more transparent by the week and crossing eight lanes of traffic to get to a corner shop is barely worth mentioning. I remember one afternoon on a bus back towards home, people packed in elbow to armpit. Two girls squeezed themselves in via the back door, instead of the approved driver’s one, and one of them conjured a note from her purse and handed it to the man next to her. He blinked and tapped an elbow near his nose, and I watched as the money was passed indifferently down the aisle and out of sight. Perhaps a minute later, a grubby hand waved two tickets and a bit of change in front of me. I picked a still moment to let go of the handrail, took the tickets and coins and passed them to the girls, patiently pressed against the door. I suspect for everyone else on that R-24 it was as forgettable as the daily commute, but in the evening sun I was quietly delighted to have been part of a group of complete strangers who had co-operated to help someone out. I planted my feet wide again against the swing of the bus, and wondered why that would never happen in Britain.
Living with an elderly couple has begun to take its toll. The bottom line is I have been treated very well, but too often I have to remind myself of it. Ruth has her moments – a car-ride involving Eminem comes to mind, as well as the time I returned home after an abortive attempt to meet up with some friends. “Nobody there,” I shrugged, irritated, confused, back two hours early. “What fuckers,” consoled Ruth in her most motherly tone. But she and Juarez are very set in their ways, and sometimes seem to be under the impression that I have come to Mexico in order to be convenient to their plans. Being told what to do and how to conduct myself is losing its charm by the day.
School continues to be frustratingly helpful, and I am encouraged to push myself out of the Spanish comfort zone I currently inhabit. I get by, day-to-day, without having to think about it very much, but I often rely on gist or context when someone is speaking quickly, or on a specific topic that I perhaps lack vocabulary for. I feel instead I ought to be using the opportunity of this year to be pushing for fluency. Newspapers are one method, having only really learned to speak and listen previously, so to be seeing the grammar and a greater variety of words in front of me is useful. I was fairly pleased with my first effort on an article about the dangers of being a paramedic in a state wracked by drug wars. One paragraph in particular has stuck with me: it was small, barely three lines, but I understood not one of the verbs used and few of the nouns. I almost skipped it, feeling perhaps it was not worth the effort, but reminded myself why I was reading at all and opened the dictionary. The words were “vest”, “obstruct”, “tilt”, and “explode”. The context was that a team of doctors were refusing protective vests because they would obstruct the operation. They were operating on a paramedic who had been hit by an explosive, and they were told by a military doctor they could not tilt her face because there was an unexploded piece of the grenade in it.
Violence in Mexico tends to dominate its popular image. Stories such as the one in my newspaper make it impossible to brush off, but perspective is often lacking. A friend of mine working here as a journalist writes that the murder rate in Mexico is lower than Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Belize, Colombia, Brazil and Panama. Many US cities are statistically far more dangerous than Mexican counterparts. None of this, of course, makes Mexico any safer, but I do question why this country in particular has such a grisly reputation. My inner Orwell speculates at the extent to which America’s media, one weapon in its ever-more costly war on drugs, is responsible. GDA, thankfully, is a city rarely affected, and I for one feel equally as un/safe here as I did in the south of Leamington Spa.
School has also in these early weeks provided a useful platform for branching out of my district, with trips to the lucho libre and a local orphanage. I was uneasy about the orphanage and skipped the first two trips there, but last Thursday I had nothing else planned and was persuaded to join the group. We stayed for perhaps two and a half hours, mostly playing football and answering a hundred times the question “where are you from?” Later, the next day, I was part of a discussion about the pros and cons. One side argued that we as volunteers provided fun and attention, two things highly valuable to children under the age of twelve, and were not possibly doing any harm. The other side countered that actually all we were doing was making ourselves feel virtuous and were not making a real difference. My views on volunteering, and indeed aid work in general, are very much a grey area and I have sympathy for both views. My personal qualm is that if I was nine years old and had stories about shootings to tell to rich foreign youths, I would become attached to that youth far more than he or she would to me. If that youth then leaves after a couple of hours, or even a couple of months, I think perhaps I would be worse off than if they had not come. But I don’t know.
Lucho libre translates as “free wrestling”, but a more accurate name would be something like “highly disciplined full-contact gymnastics”. What I couldn’t work out was whether the whole thing was choreographed in advance or it was based on a system of “lead and follow” – I suspect the latter, firstly because there are three rounds of five or six minutes each, which would be a lot of moves to remember, and secondly because a lot of the action didn’t look to me too far removed from my salsa classes.
It sells itself on cheap beer, steroid-aided men being violent and plastic-abetted cheerleaders being provocative, but it’s pantomime. It is wholly, if not primarily, appropriate for children: I think the person who enjoyed the actual wrestling the most was the boy a few rows in front of me who couldn’t have been more than six. He watched agog the entire evening whilst occasionally putting his mother into a headlock when the excitement became too much. For the rest of us, the most entertainment was the hardcore section of the crowd. There were two tiers separated by a wire fence; the pobres sit behind the fence on concrete steps, higher and further away from ring. The ricos sit in the padded individual seats in front of the fence, level with the ring. The pobres stood, ignored the ring almost entirely, and tirelessly abused the lineage and inclinations of the ricos, who only occasionally were stirred into a retaliatory chant. I was reminded of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, in which he chews over the social curiosity of paying money to ignore a spectacle and instead bawl filthy songs at a group of people who have chosen to do exactly the same as you. In Britain the event tends to be football rather than wrestling, but the spirit is the same.
Football is taken very seriously in Mexico, to the point where even the Pan-American Games are unable to claim full attention on matchdays. I am currently writing with one eye on the clasico de clasicos, Mexico’s biggest domestic football game. Chivas, of Guadalajara, are away to América, of Mexico City, and with twenty minutes gone Chivas are 3 – 1 up. Ruth, in the La-Z Boy to my left, is supporting Mexico City because she doesn’t like Guadalajara and branded the last Chivas goalscorer a “bloody chav”. (My favorite player so far has been the América right-back, because his name is Shaggy Martínez.) The quality is not bad at all, but it is outweighed by emotion and there is more deliberate violence than in the Premiership.
Having the Games in the city has mostly affected the traffic. A fifteen- or twenty-minute bus ride now can take up to double that time due to street closures for road events or promotional stages. There are noticeably more white people around town, although not so much in my area. The atmosphere as far as I can gauge amongst the tapatíos is one of slightly stressful pride at being hosts, rather than excitement. I wonder how Londoners are feeling about the Olympics, and whether I will be landing in an airport there during the Games. There remains, however, a lot to be seen and learnt before then.