Mexico City Reflections

A Metropolis of Contradictions

By Julian Cleator

Bus passenger in Mexico City. photos by Max Hartshorne.
Bus passenger in Mexico City. photos by Max Hartshorne.

A real winter again in Toronto and the mercury has retreated like a Frenchman in wartime. This morning it was -25C with the wind chill and last night it snowed like a madman again…couldn’t see further than a few yards in front of the car as it skidded sideways along the highway.

However, for the time being, it’s winter and we’re smack bang in the middle of the beast. Weather aside, one of the saddest sights is the old boys gathered in the shopping centres.

Across the Atlantic

For a moment let your mind roam a few thousand miles east across the Atlantic to the beautiful town piazzas in Italy, Portugal and Greece where the locals gather to shoot the breeze, drink their cappuccinos, grappas and ouzos, dunk their pastries or munch on their cheese and prosciutto baguettes with bowls of olives and capers, played out to the soundtrack of the thump and clang of

boules, hooves on cobblestones and the splutter of tinny Renaults and miniscule Fiats.

Hold that thought, close your eyes and immerse yourself in the culture and history. Now open them again. Face the reality. This is North America. There is no Pine but plenty of plastic. You want Fir, well we’ll give you formica. Cobblestones? How about concrete? Cappuccinos? Tim Horton’s. Fresh baguettes? Subway sandwich. Grappa and ouzo? The Fleece and Firkin.

You walk around a suburban shopping mall in this desolate metropolis any time from October to April and in the sterile, often bright orange food courts you will find the unmistakably sad, sun starved faces of second, third and fourth generation European men sipping at paper cups of tepid beige dishwater masquerading as coffee, surrounded by fake plastic ferns and advertisements to win the lottery and save themselves from this banal torpor that they have inadvertently slipped into.

Young lovers in Santa Fe, a Mexico City neighborhood.
Young lovers in Santa Fe, a Mexico City neighborhood.

Finding an Escape

At the end of last year it all became too much and I hit the computer in search of a brief escape from it all. Beaches weren’t really on the itinerary as I tend to get bored after about 30 seconds lying on a sun lounger squinting at a book that rapidly starts to disintegrate in my sweat soaked mitts.

Cancun, Cuba, the Dominican Republic all fell out of contention and then suddenly a city that I had previously cast aside as a transit hub smacked me in the face with an overstuffed burrito. It was at that moment I booked my ticket to Mexico City. Unresearched and certainly unknowledgable, I arrived at the international airport of purportedly the most populous city in the world at around midday on New Year’s Eve.

Gleaming tinted glass, freshly laid carpets and smiling customs officers provided a stark contrast to the outhouse of Houston that played host to an hour and a half stopover on the way down. There, southern gentleman in large hats to which the term ‘rotund’ would simply be laughably inadequate, sat having their ornate leather boots shined on raised plinths while oversized belt buckles strained to contain pork filled girths of gargantuan proportion. It was like witnessing corpulent kings having their piggly trotters buffed by minions from subservient castes. An hour and a half was enough and I couldn’t wait to get out fast enough.

Keeping out of the sun near the Soumaya museum built by Mexico's richest man, Carlos Slim.
Keeping out of the sun near the Soumaya museum built by Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim.

Upon exiting the terminal I somehow wound up in conversation with a black American gentleman from the aforementioned transit hub who was on his way home after a forlorn sojourn to Medellin, Columbia. As he sucked on a cigarette like it was his mother’s breast, he informed me that he was “heartbroken” and then proceeded to regale me with his tale of how on a previous visit he had fallen in love with a Latin vixen who resided in this former center of the biggest cocaine cartel in the world.

He had returned this time to fulfill his amorous intentions and make lots of little coffee colored babies. However, he had neglected to pack his suitcase with all the accoutrements of his pampered Western lifestyle and instead had only brought with him a change of underwear, a stick of deordorant and a bad case of the flu.

Apparently, upon discovering that it was not cash that was running freely but snot, his Latin lover decided that she no longer could speak English and refused to open her door to him, let alone her heart or much else. I would have put my arm around him, his story was so pathetic, but for the fact that he didn’t seem the most likeable of individuals and there seemed to be a distinct possibility that immediate proximity to him would have resulted in him dry humping my leg such was the look in his eye.

He enquired as to where I was heading off to and stared in incomprehensible shock as I informed him I was actually at my destination. “Man, you’re going to get your big white ass kidnapped in this town” he dutifully informed me, no doubt highly concerned for my welfare as I had barely concealed my sniggers at his tomes of lost love.

Herb seller in a Mexico City market.
Herb seller in a Mexico City market.

I retorted that I had been lead to believe that it was considered a much harder feat to kidnap fat people and that I felt fairly safe in this knowledge. He just smirked and said “YOU stand out. THEY got guns. Ain’t NO problem.”

After giving up trying to explain to him the error of his double negative I bid him a fond farewell and hailed a very large vehicle masquerading as an taxi and driven by a swarthy gentleman with mirror shades and large moustache who seemed all too quick to pounce on my pesos, offering only a cursory glace at the hotel address that I had written down.

My concerns were unjustified as my guide book had failed to inform me that all Mexican men were of swarthy complexion and sported mirror shades and bushy moustaches….as well as a good many Mexican women too.

And so it was that I found myself in downtown Mexico City on New Year’s Eve. For the first time in a very long time I found myself contending with a certain amount of trepidation. This probably had nothing to do with the warnings of guns and potential kidnapping.

Pandering to my pathetic western preconceptions, everyone seemed to look like an extra from Scarface or the baddie from a 70s Cop series. I was convinced they looked at me in the same way that Sylvester looks at Tweety Pie…trussed up, roasted, with little paper coronets on the end of my limbs and looking mighty tasty. There were no furtive glances down there…it was full on head-to-toe “I’m checking you out now sonny boy” time.

To the detriment of my ego and self esteem, I realized after a while that people were staring not in awe of my manly pulchritude and studliness, they were staring in the same way we would stare if we saw a three legged china man or a blue gorilla.

It wasn’t the fact that I was at least a foot taller than 98% of the population (you really know they’re small when you can see over all the toilet cubicle doors in every banos you enter) and was twice the body size with three times the BMI of the average Mexican male.

A street vendor in Mexico City's Poblano neighborhood.
A street vendor in Mexico City’s Poblano neighborhood.

First Class Hair

It was the fact that I was bald and that my pink pate was glowing puce in the sun. On the whole, Mexican men do not seem to possess the baldness gene. In fact, they have the smallest foreheads of any nationality I have ever encountered. They could shave “Welcome” into foreheads and wipe their feet on them.

Golfers could tee off on their dense thatches. I was overwhelmed and impressed by their follicular fortitude. This latin nation certainly had first class hair.

Whilst on the subject of physical appearances it should be noted that 75% of Mexican women I encountered were pound for pound fatter than me. And that, brothers and sisters, is pretty damned porky. The average mujeres sported an impressive belly droop over infeasibly constricting belts that struggled to maintain vertical hold over pants that from the posterior view appeared to contain a large bag of ferrets.

The difficult thing is that I’m not supposed to look. Somehow if I stare I’m being rude. On one occasion I find myself on the subway and nobody bats a eyelid when a middle aged woman whips out a leathery old mammary gland to nourish a clearly already well nourished but socially maladjusted child most definitely above breast feeding age.

As the gland unfurls and the child starts sipping on its ancient teat I’m not sure where to look. Should I smile in conspiratorial recognition of her maternal duty or should I vomit in my knap sack and get off at the next station? The rigors or travel present difficult roads to navigate.
Fresh guacamole is a Mexico City tradition.

Chef Monica Patino serves fresh quacamole.
Chef Monica Patino serves fresh quacamole.

So, after a nap and nip of duty free I hit the Cantinas, inadvertently ordering enough food to feed a peasant village for the entirety of 2011. Washed down with an array of fine cervezas, my belly bloated from a couple of transcontinental flights and farting like a spluttering gas stove on a windy beach.

I found myself in the middle of the Paseo De La Reforma, one of the most elegant and storied thoroughfares in Latin America, surrounded by a few million boozed up Mexicans dressed like they had just come from the set of Ice Station Zebra.

Christmas Neon

Christmas neon and enormous plasma screens dominated the celebrations but all eyes faced towards a central square whereupon a stage a 100 strong Mariachi band all playing from a different score sheet and quite obviously juiced up on pre ‘Ano Fin’ mescal belted out an unlistenable din while a witch cackled an unintelligible diatribe over the tinny racket.

Simply put…it was arse and my ears hurt. It was like listening to pre-pubescent helium voiced Disney character backed by Los Lobos with their fingers cut off…on peyote. My hotel beckoned. I was in bed by 10:30.

I woke briefly at five to midnight and gazed out of the hotel window at a 200 foot neon Christmas tree attached to a Godzilla like TV tower flashing in the urban nightly haze of pollution.

Mexico City is an amazing place. If you’re into old architecture and enjoy soaking up the culture then don’t let the violence, drugs, pollution, street gangs, guns, knives and general air of menace put you off. It’s well worth risking your life for, especially if you enjoy dunking freshly fried choros into hot chocolate first thing in the morning.

It was two days of wandering around the city wondering why I had an enormous headache and couldn’t walk for more than an hour without succumbing to exhaustion before I read that it was 2,500 metres above sea level and I was breathing arguably the world’s most polluted air. Ariba!! L.A.? You’re an amateur!
Shooting photos outside of the Soumaya museum.

woman-camera outside the Soumaya Museum, Mexico City.

Here I was in January when a delightful phenomenon known as thermal inversion occurs whereby the warmer air passing over the valley stops the cooler polluted air nearer the ground level from rising and dispersing, thus causing skin problems, nervous disorders, mental retardation, cancer and thousands of premature deaths each year. Yummy again!

In order to try and feel like I was making a contribution to the indigenous environment, I decided to take up smoking for the duration of the trip. I like to feel like I am giving something back whenever I visit somewhere new and this seemed like the most appropriate way of fitting in.

I know it was only a small gesture, a bit like offering Nikki Lauda a tube of Savlon, but every little helps is my motto. I like to think of myself as a bit of an eco-tourist and I must admit that I was feeling pretty “Green” by the end of the week.

It took exactly 58 hours from the time my plane touched down for Montezuma to exact his revenge on me….and I’ve never even met the man. I don’t know what I did to upset him, but boy was he displeased and seemed intent on upsetting me. I could have gone into business down there pebble-dashing the sides of houses.

Get a few Mexican breakfasts washed down with a couple of pitchers of the city’s finest tap water, start chomping down on gravel and I reckon I could have blasted the entire side of a small house in about 10 minutes flat.

Sitting on my hotel room banos was like witnessing the launch sequence of the space shuttle. First there’s a rumble, followed by a deafening roar as I was slowly raised from the toilet seat and all this then followed by an eerie calm. There were two different flush buttons on the toilet. Button 1 for liquids. Button 2 for solids. You can guess which one CSI Mexico City would have had a field day with.

To Teotihuacan
A chile vendor and her little girl in a big market.

chile-vendor and her daughter in a Mexico City market.

A day trip was planned, however, it was only once I was on the subway on the way to visit the third biggest pyramid in the world at Teotihuacán that I realised I had forgotten to put on any deodorant. As the first dribbles of perspiration slid down the sides of my torso I considered turning back for the hotel room. After a couple of seconds deliberation I decided upon the ‘Let’s stink’ option.

The hour long air-conditioned coach ride provided false optimism. The site was huge. It was a 2 kilometre walk to base of this beast. I stood looking up at it and had my second alarming epiphany of the day….no water. I searched vainly for an entrepreneurial soul selling water to the parched masses but to my incredulation my purchasing power extended only to fridge magnets, masks, toy bows and arrows and carved ornaments.

Do I turn back? Nope! Let’s stink and wither. I started the climb and with each step I got wetter. A quarter of the way up and my clothes were stuck to my body. Half the way up and boots were full. By the time I was three quarters of the way up there was a torrent of salty perspiration flowing down the side of the pyramid behind me.

Climbers were clinging on for dear life. After a few minutes the local spirit of enterprise finally showed some signs of life as a truck pulled up with kayaks on the back and they started renting them out to white water rafters. By the time I reached the top I was a husk. A stinking husk.

People were passing out from the stench and falling off the side of this monumental feat of ancient engineering. But I had made it. I had struggled with the steps at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London some years ago. I had faced my declining physical worth in a failed attempt to climb a volcano in the Philippines some time later.

I had approached this monster with trepidation and a readiness to accept defeat but I stood there at its apex, looking down on the litany of fatties turning their lard ridden arses back to the ground without experiencing the rarified air at the summit and for the first time in ages I felt a twinge of physical satisfaction. Maybe there’s life in the old dog yet. Then I collapsed in a dust ball of dehydrated skin and had to be carried down by a dozen peasant women with pegs on their noses.
The city is served by a fleet of green pedicabs.

green-pedicabs in Mexico City.

In Mexico they let love rule. Everyone is pashing. No wonder there are over 22,000,000 people here. Wherever you look there are tonsils in close proximity to tongues, larynxes being licked, cajones caressed, inner cheeks chewed, people preening their packages, pinching privates and generally perving the entire population. P.D.A. (Privately Discrete Amour) there is not.

This isn’t even the regular acronym…Public Displays of Affection…this is quite simply Possibly Depraved Actions….and I loved it! In a time when we say “Sorry” for brushing someone’s elbow in the subway, it’s gratifying to see park benches being fully utilised in the pursuit of carnal satisfaction and piazzas and squares potted from the flinted tips of cupid’s arrows.

Bring it on! This is the land where lumps are loved, cellulite celebrated and if you’ve got a deep crease V.P.L. (Visible Panty Line)..well, you’ve got it going on sister! It’s hombre on mujeres, mujeres on mujeres, hombre on hombre. It’s like a spaghetti western version of Caligula meets Urban Cowboy where people in large hats pose the possibility, nay probability, of public procreation at any second. It makes me want to squeeze, poke, prod and fondle…if only I could overcome my pathetic English reserve…now where did I put that bottle of Tequila?
A long Sunday lunch in the city’s historic district.

lunch in Mexico City.

Fried, Fried!

Fried, fried, I want it bleedin’ fried! In the spirit of my Latin culinary adventure, I want it all fried! To go with my fried enchiladas, fried eggs, fried tacos, fried steak, fried pork rind, fried potatoes and just to outdo everything else the ‘refried’ beans, I order them to fry, refry and then re-refry my lettuce and cucumber salad (can’t be too sure eating the greens in these places).

I’ll have some fried avocado on the side with a dessert consisting of deep fried strawberries and battered mangos. Not sure whether I’ll give blood the next time I see the Red Cross tent in the city square or simply contact Crisco and get them to build a pipeline from my arm to their factory.

I found Mexico City to be a metropolis of contradictions. Families stick together. They eat communally. They can be seen in their droves packing restaurants and spanning generations.

They appear archly religious with ecclesiastical iconography everywhere. Beautiful glassware adorns public nativity scenes and remains untouched, despite the raging poverty. At the same time the newspapers are full of graphic color front page pictures mutilation, decapitation, deprivation and murder. I watched as a well-dressed couple on the subway steal from a blind vendor who boarded the train selling CDs and no one said a thing.

I loved Mexico City. I’m not sure if I have it in me to adjust sufficiently in order to live there but it was a fanatically beautiful adventure. When you’re sitting in a red velvet booth in an ornately carved cantina being served mescal by a waiter in a white linen jacket and you’re looking up at the bullet holes in the copper ceiling that Pancho Villa shot there one night you just can’t help but be overwhelmed by the authenticity of the location. This is no third world city. It spanks the pants off any urban pretender in North America.

This is a city that loves its culture, its history and it’s deservedly proud of what it is. Mexicans may head across the border in their droves in search of a better life but I’m sure they’re surprised when they get to their destination and witness for themselves the squalor that we live in under the banner of urban living.

This is a city founded on French architecture and Italian design. How dare the Yanks look down on this place. It rocks! It’s more Madrid than Minneapolis and all the better for it and after visiting I can say with conviction that I am too.

Julian Cleator.

Julian Cleator is a 44-year old Englishman now living in Toronto, Canada. He left England on 6th August 1992 and has lived abroad ever since. The majority of that time was spent living and working in Tokyo, which served as a base for extensive travel throughout South East Asia with multiple trips made to Thailand (where I also lived for a year), Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, China, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Like this article? Share it with your friends!