Friday 13 November 2009

Adventures in Mexico Part 3 – Impressions, People and Culture

Picking up where I left off in my last post, I felt really at home in Mexico City. In different parts it felt like being in Bombay, Singapore and Spain. In wealthy parts the upmarket restaurants and shops could’ve been in any hot country in the world, except of course it’s not really that warm in the winter!

The similarities with India however, abound; from the wealth disparities to the myriad small street shops and establishments. The one major difference being that there were very few individuals begging on the streets. Just people selling small things like lollipops and chewing gum. There’s also not many people milling around. The city is too big and everyone uses some form of transport, since there are lots of different types of cheap buses and of course the metro, which costs just 2 pesos (10p), making it accessible to even the poorest people.

The Metro


Another similarity with India is “Mexican time”, which is very much like “Indian Standard Time”, where if you want people to arrive somewhere for a certain time, you have to arrange it for about an hour earlier – that’s assuming they even make it! Foreigners I met found it very frustrating that people don’t commit to things if they can avoid it, and change plans at the last minute so it’s almost impossible to plan ahead. I experienced some of this too, but coming from Bombay I’m pretty used to it. The only successful alternative is to force people to commit to things days in advance, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes them!

But the similarities end with the style of housing; there are trees everywhere (it is the most tree-lined place I have ever seen); and the massive sprawl of the city... so big that most of its inhabitants have only seen small parts of it. The feeling of awe this inspired in me is difficult to explain. You drive for hours on big straight roads, and you’re still in the city, which is made up of the central Distrito Federal with about 9m people, which is then surrounded by Municipales that spread out around it, accommodating another 20m people, all living in low rise unpainted concrete housing. The west appears to be the wealthier, nicer part of the city, and when people talk of north or south, they mean north or south of the west part. The east has Iztapalapa and Ecatepec and other areas that are economically depressed and not considered too safe to travel around as an outsider, even if you are from the city.




I approached the city with caution triggered by warnings of security risk – of taxi drivers that will rob you, to the risks of being downtown, to the dangers of being a rare foreigner on the metro. There were hairy moments of being driven down routes I didn’t recognise, of journeys taking longer than expected, and of being overcharged… but all unfounded. Without exception I was treated unfailingly well.

Talking of people and culture, I was touched by the friendliness and warmth of everyone I met. I was offered 5 places to stay within 3 days of arriving. I was also impressed by the dedication to sport. Friends I met were training for Iron Man competitions and triathlons and marathons. Everyone was into Football, American Football and Baseball.

And of course there’s the Luchas. There seems to be a love hate relationship with them. Mostly love from the looks of it :) You can buy the masks anywhere. They are made from a sort of synthetic material that holds it shape and the mask covers the whole head and can be stood up with no support. The Luchadores events seem to be held on Tuesday or Friday nights and bookings don’t open until the previous one has finished. I really wanted to go, but we never made it in the end, which means I’m really going to have to back at some point!

Las Luchas


I was also moved by the way Mexicans remember and celebrate those how have passed away on the Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead). It is a day all peoples should have. A collective day to talk about and remember those who have passed away, in positive and re-affirming ways. Too often once people have died in other cultures, they are only remembered in the memories of those who were close to them. No one asks about them anymore, but on the day of the dead people sit around graves richly decorated with flowers and food and drink and photos, and there is an open space and time to talk about and remember those who are no longer with us. We talked to an old lady who told us about her parents and the past, sitting beside the altar in her daughter’s restaurant in Santa Maria near the office. The decorative skulls (all smiling) and happy skeletons were amazing and the chocolate and sugar ones really fascinating. In downtown there’s even an exhibition of decorated skulls on display for free.

Skull Designs from Dia de los Muertos



Other cultural things I noticed… it is not desirable to be Indigenous Indian; the “real” Mexican hairstyle is gelled and slicked back; ‘Thanks’ is an inside out hand wave; ‘Yes’ is indicated by crooking your index finger a couple of times; the traditional greeting between guys is a handshake with a couple of pats on the back, and the hip version is a hand slap and fist bump, while a hello with girls is one kiss on the cheek.

Even more randomly, the use of dollar signs for pesos is really confusing at first. Everything looks really expensive - $70 for a cheap but decent meal! Also 15 is a big birthday for girls. It is called a Quinceanera. They go all out in events like mini weddings with tiered cakes and floating dresses. Everything is pink, and the birthday girl has 6 dates. One for each dance. The girl usually asks the guys they fancy and the guys can't really say no. Each date has to perform one dance, which is choreographed and has to be practised. Having had to learn a dance for a friend’s wedding, I have to say I really don’t envy the poor guys who get roped into the mission!!

Rich Mexicans look strongly descendent from European ancestry, but they are passionately Mexican and there is a definite anti-Spain vibe after the colonisation. First there was the revolution where Mexicans broke away from the Spanish. and then the Reforma where the state broke away from the church. Roads still bear the legacies of history. Many of the streets around Condesa bear the names of heroes of the past including Juan Escutia who was a young kid who stood up to the Spanish with a band of six boy soldiers who died defending Mexico from invading US forces in 1847. Then there are the big roads with the names I loved… Insurghentes and Reforma, and places like Barranca del Muerto that serve as reminders of the past.

But the city is a focus for my next post. So for now, adios amigos!

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