In the Heart of ‘the Monster’ – Eight days in Mexico City

Bhupinder Singh and Bhaswati Ghosh

PART 1

A welcoming refuge: Bhupinder

Cuba, and not Mexico should have been the first Latin American country I visited. In my youthful years, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara held a special place in my mind.

Mexico came to me much later — in the murals of Diego Rivera, the paintings of Frida Kahlo, the magical realism of Juan Rulfo and other writers like Rosario Castellanos, Carlos Fuentes and Mariano Azuela. It was the country that had provided refuge to the leader of the Russian Revolution Leon Trotsky, the Indian communist and radical humanist M.N. Roy and later to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolaño, among others. Mexico, therefore, held the promise of an exotic land that found a resonance in my literary and political imagination. It seemed like a welcoming home for those who were hunted and ostracised in their own countries.image00

The decision to make a trip to Mexico during the long Canadian winters when ‘snowbirds’ make short trips to warmer lands in the Caribbean was intuitive. What wasn’t as intuitive was our choice of destination. Much to the surprise of friends and colleagues accustomed to take vacations at beach resorts, we decided to travel to Mexico City. A few lessons in rudimentary Spanish provided me with enough confidence to take the plunge. Tripadvisor provided a good enough idea of the key sights to see.

It was with trepidation and expectation that we landed in Mexico City in the afternoon on Good Friday. The weather was perfect for our sun-parched eyes. The drive from the airport to the hotel reminded me of cities in India — New Delhi, Chennai — and also of how much at home I had felt on my trip to Tokyo. Being a holiday, the shops were closed and the traffic was relatively easy. The bright colours — green, orange reminded me of Chennai, the wide roads of parts of New Delhi and the easy walk of the pedestrians, in contrasts to the near-military gait of the Western people, reminded me of Tokyo.

The city purple: Bhaswati

I’ve come to the City expecting to see a riot of colours — bold reds, blues, greens and yellows. Yet, the colour that holds me in a dreamy sway all through my stay turns out to be purple. From the time we land in Mexico City on a warm Friday afternoon, the sky appears canopied on all sides with jacarandas in bloom. I instantly know what love is. It is to be in an absolute new place and not feel like even a traveler, much less a tourist.

This is home, right from the get go. In the sun’s rays warming the skin. In the brightly-painted houses. In the street-side kiosks selling everything from cut fruits to clothing, tapioca chips, lottery tickets, trinkets and magazines. In the boisterous swarm of locals living it up — walking, singing, displaying affection on public boulevards heady with hawkers, street music, the alluring smell of meat being fried for tacos. And in being serenaded by couples, suddenly getting up from their benches to dance to music in a public park in the middle of a weekend afternoon.

A blend of the exotic and the familiar: Bhupinder

As we settled down in the hotel room, drinking only bottled water, hunger struck. A five-minute walk brought us to a Chinese takeaway called Take a Wok. Our first encounter with Mexican food turned out to be what is locally called Mexchi — Chinese food with Mexican characteristics — think egg fried rice with jalapeño salsa. The menu was in Spanish and after some exchanges in English, which the woman at the counter did not understand at all, and me, who understood little more than uno, dos and tres in Spanish, we had our first lunch sitting outside in the sun. It could have been a little alley in one of the better neighbourhoods of Delhi, just a lot cleaner and quieter.

Mexican food, unlike what passes for Mexican food outside the country excited the taste buds. The hot salsas with generous amounts of tomatoes and hot peppers brought to the mouth memories of Indian food. Eating tacos and freshly-cut mango chunks at roadside kiosks was the best of both worlds — exotic yet being at home.

Of feasts and plots: Bhaswati

It’s our first day in the city and we’re eager to eat Mexican food the way Mexicans do. We head out to scour the area near our hotel in search for grub. Most shops are closed as it’s Good Friday, but five minutes of walking later, we are in front of Take a Wok, a small take-out place that’s open. It smells of Chinese food, but we’re desperate and get in. The menu is in Spanish, which I know not a word of. My husband knows a little, but not enough to figure out the menu. After a frustrating attempt to understand what means what, I take the menu card the lady at the cash counter has handed me and move towards the ingredient trays behind a glass counter. I point to something on the menu sheet and gesture the lady to show me the actual thing. And so I learn chicken is pollo, pineapple is piña, corn is maiz and jalapeño is, well, jalapeño.

The outlet is modeled on fast food places that let you build your own meal, with choices of different vegetables and meats alongside rice or noodles. The interesting twist is in the salsa with which all the ingredients are to be smeared — that’s the Mexican part of the Mexchi meal we’re about to have. We order a chicken-pineapple-corn rice with broccoli and cauliflowers in jalapeño salsa. As the food cooks, we sit outside, watching people walk by. The sun’s still bright, but the green foliage all around keeps the air cool. There are moments when I forget I’m not sitting in Delhi. Soon, the food arrives in Chinese take-out boxes. One bite and the love with the City is reaffirmed. The Chinese part is all there — in the fried egg and garlic and the crunch of stir-fried vegetables, but what explodes in my mouth is the tang and heat of the jalapeño salsa.

Most food we eat here is simple, made with fresh ingredients and enjoyed leisurely. From breakfasts of enchiladas with Mexican cheese in salsa verde alongside coffee and fresh fruit juice to quesadillas and taco samplers for lunch to tacos or a side of rice rice with a huge poblano pepper stuffed with potatoes and tuna for dinner, food in Mexico City seldom disappoints. Mole sauce refuses to agree with the palate of the unaccustomed but Agua Jamaica (hibiscus tea with ice and chia seeds) more than does.

My best food memories of the City aren’t any of the bigger meals but of the times spent enjoying  luxuriously laid back brunches in La Cafe Habana, an expansive cafe that invariably reminds me of Calcutta’s Indian Coffee House.

The similarity goes beyond the atmosphere, to the reputation the two places enjoy. As with the Coffee House, a hotbed for artists, writers, poets and filmmakers to sit in adda over coffee and smoke, La Cafe Habana saw many a celebrated Latin American personality not only sit in its precincts but even hatch serious plots. This was the cafe where Fidel Castro and Che Guevara met several times, chain smoking and drinking strong coffee, to plan the Cuban Revolution. As I enjoy eggs and hams with refried beans and look at old men being humoured by the cafe staff, I try to imagine those intoxicating times.

The past as a present: Bhupinder

Over the next one week or so, the feeling of Mexico being at once an exotic place and home continued to co-exist. Seeing Diego Rivera’s murals at the National Palace; walking through Frida Kahlo’s blue house, now a museum; taking a picture next to Trotsky’s tomb were among the most   exhilarating moments for me. I felt like I was entering spaces I had already visited in my imagination. Roadside kiosks selling nuts and cookies, negotiating the price of a taxi ride or crossing the road when there were no traffic lights reminded me of India.

There was the usual surprise that one expects of any new place — Zocalo, the city’s centre; the cobbled streets in the old historic district; even the little art shops that appeared with an unsurprising regularity.

Nevertheless, there were quite a few surprises. Considering that Mexico is part of what is called the Third World and Mexico City, a megacity with a population of 10 million, brings up images of a smog and pollution riddled city with the roads clogged by cars and traffic. Contrary to these images, we found that there was hardly any air pollution. The traffic during peak hours was slow but organized and sans any of the road rage that one sees on Indian roads. There was a little honking, but way less than in Toronto or New York. The people are easy-going and much less given to aggressive behaviour. On the contrary, they are quite expressive in showing their affections to their partners and children.

The roads, at least in the central districts of the Ciudad that we mostly confined ourselves to, were wide and the metro system, world class. We used the inexpensive and very efficient metro for most of our travel within the city. The taxi fares were not expensive, but the taxis were also slower during peak traffic hours.

PART 2

Frida sings the blues: Bhaswati

We’ve had a missed opportunity to see La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s Blue House as we picked the wrong day, Monday, when most museums are closed. That’s right, the house Frida was born and lived in all her life is now a museum, open to the public.

So we return the very next day, making sure to arrive early to grab a decent spot at the long line we’ve been warned queues up for tickets. This is the most desperate I remember having been to visit a museum.

As we enter, I realize why. This isn’t really a museum.

A garden is in sight, but visitors are streaming inside the house, its doors to the left. The first exhibit is a huge chimney Frida and her husband Diego Rivera built, its structure inspired by mesoamerican architecture. What follows is mostly art by and on Frida — paintings, self-portraits, photographs, items of daily use. As I take it all in, walking through the rooms, each carrying a quote from Frida on the walls, I am at a loss for words. Only a couple of days ago we were in the Palacio Nacional (National Palace) to see Diego Rivera’s epic murals on its walls. The sight of those had awed me, not only with their sheer scale and magnificence, but the deep empathy and creative fervour with which Rivera documented the history of Mexico’s indigenous people and their subsequent oppression.

But here at Frida’s blue house, that awe suddenly pales, even though there’s not a single work that matches those murals in scope or grandeur. Instead, La Casa Azul turns out to be the warehouse of one woman’s personal history that she shares with an openness that’s unapologetically candid, yet not meant to be sensational.

From her paintings dealing with her own infertility to the bed in her daytime bedroom to the ceiling of which her mother got a mirror fixed after Frida met with a serious accident at 18 that left her bound to the bed for the most part, to her photographs celebrating her body as well as the traditional pre-hispanic dresses she loved to wear, the blue house stirs me in a way no museum or even residence-turned-museum ever has.

Frida’s love of Mexico’s indigenous culture and common people, her wounded yet unabashedly honest musings on her physical suffering and limitations, her generosity of spirit in opening the doors of her house to anyone in need — from political figures to upcoming artists — all this is so engraved in the art and artifacts in La Casa Azul that as I step out into the tropical garden she loved to spend her time in, I don’t feel like it’s a dead person’s house I’m visiting. Frida is alive and kicking, it seems, welcoming the crowd into her personal space, not shy to share her tears, convictions and even scandals with us in a way that feels honest and liberating at once.

The garden is a delight in itself. The warm green foliage dazzles against the bright blue backdrop of the house’s walls. There’s a small pond, and I spend quite some time there as my husband sits at one of the tables in the garden. The pond is nothing special, but something I spot there strikes me, especially as I’ve just read a quote of Frida’s from a bunch of her reflections printed on forest green boards and perched on pedestals spread all across the garden.

No words can describe Diego’s immense tenderness for things of beauty…He loves children, and all animals–with a special fondness for hairless Mexican dogs–, and birds and plants and stones.

What I see on the pond’s outer wall border is a cat circling the pool of water. It dives down sometimes, takes a drink, then climbs back up. I try to capture its many moves with my camera. What I can’t capture is feeling that Frida’s watching the cat, too, and smiling, Diego on her mind.

The soul’s satiated but the tummy needs fuel, so I go to a cafe facing the garden. We have a small breakfast of coffee, croissant and corn muffin and move on. There’s a six-minute walk we need to take to reach the house of a man whom Frida had once hosted and had an affair with in La Casa Azul — Leon Trotsky.

On our way, we stop to buy freshly cut mango, spiked with red chilli powder and lime. Frida’s photo portrait in a gorgeous crimson shawl flashes before me.

Pyramids, people, struggles: Bhupinder

The only trip we took outside the city was to the Teotihuacan pyramids about 50 kilometers to the north. What a beauty to behold. In the middle of an arid land, beyond the hills surrounding the city, the pyramids rise out of one of the first planned cities in mesoamerica, dating to 100 BC.

As we walked along the Avenue of the Dead from the pyramid dedicated to the Storm Goddess towards the Pyramid dedicated to the Rain God, we were accosted by a Mexican-Indian vendor trying to sell us a pair of handmade figurines made of the black Obsidian stone.

He initially offered to sell them at 600 pesos and each time we turned away — for we had no inclination to buy the figurines — he reduced the price, halving it to 300 pesos by the time we changed our mind — struck not only by the bargain that he offered but also by the wrinkles on his sun-burnt cheeks and the deep creases on his forehead. That is the closest I came to meeting the characters of Mexican peasants and the rural poor I had read about in Mariano Azuela’s “The Underdogs” and Juan Rulfo’s collection of short stories, “The Burning Plains”.

Away from the Central Historic district, I got a peek into the life of the desperate — those who, like the Zapatistas in Chiapas and elsewhere continue to struggle against the entrenched power of the non-indigenous people. It was not just a coincidence that the few beggars and almost all the street vendors we noticed in the city were clearly Mexican Indians, and sometimes mestizos, but never the white Mexicans.

For all my liking for the Ciudad, I was reminded of how Elías Conteras, an Indian from the Chiapas, a Sancho Panza like character from the novel “The Uncomfortable Dead” by Paco Ignacio Taibo and Subcomandante Marcos sees Mexico City, calling it The Monster:

The Monster has big houses and small ones, tall ones and little bitty ones, fat and skinny, rich and poor. Like people, but without hearts. In the Monster, the most important thing is the houses and the cars, so people get sent underground, to the metro. If people stay up their in car country, well, the cars kind of like get very pissed and try to gore them, like bulls would.

In the city, they don’t really know how to speak the language, they don’t even know the difference between a mare and stallion; they just call everything a horse. Then there’s cool. When city people don’t know how to explain how they feel or when they are angry or when they are happy or anything like that, they just say cool.

***

Another neat surprise was the Cafe La Habana, a five-minute walk from where we were staying. I knew about this traditional cafe as it had been fictionalized by the Chilean-Mexican writer Roberto Bolaño in “The Savage Detectives” as the La Quinta cafe. What I did not know was that it had not only been visited by Octavio Paz, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolaño, but this: that it was where Fidel and Che had planned the final assault on Cuba that culminated in the Cuban revolution in 1959.

We went there for the first time for a late El desayuno (breakfast), consisting of mollete with the best Cafe Americano (black coffee). A day before we were to leave the city, we decided to have breakfast there once more — this time eggs with salsa, and Cafe Americano. As was the first time, the atmosphere was laidback, even languid as the sun rose higher at noontime. Families were enjoying a relaxed brunch and lonely old men read newspapers over coffee.

Outside the  Cafe, a camp had been set up by activists campaigning for agrarian reforms. A red banner proclaimed support for Venezuela’s leaders — the late Hugo Chavez and the current President Victor Maduro. Another asked for the release of their leaders taken prisoner by the state. A kitchen had been set up in one part of the camp. In another part, a young man had set up a sound system that was playing invigorating music. On the road, another person had spread out posters for sale on the roadside — of Frida Kahlo, Che Guevara, Stalin, Gandhi, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, the Mexican comic actor Cantinflas and the formerly-masked Zapatista leader, Subcomandante Marcos.

The struggles of the Mexican indigenous population, long reflected in the best literature the country has produced are still going on — in Chiapas and in the streets of the capital. My long association with Latin America had, in fact, begun with the Subcomandante interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the book “The Zapatista Reader” that expanded my interest in Latin American literature beyond just Marquez.

I went on to read many writers from the region that was remote and yet close, exotic and home at the same time. It was at La Habana that I could traverse this distance from its writers and revolutionists to the struggles of its poor indigenous people. Writers like Marquez and Bolaño who gave a literary voice to the continent once drank coffee inside the Cafe. Fidel and Che had plotted from its precincts the final assault to upturn the US domination of the island, providing a beacon to the poor and the oppressed in Latin America. The struggles of its indigenous peasants are still raging in the camps.

It was as if this whole distance in time, ideas and action all had collapsed within a few feet around me.

Only, it took me more than a decade and a half to get there.

First published, with pictures, at Cafe Dissensus (Part 1 and Part 2).

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