Today mingled with the Mexicans. I didn’t hear a single English or American word until after 5pm. I spent the day feeling quite conspicuous with my blue eyes, camera and thick Lonely Planet book in hand. This is a guide to the whole of Mexico – I used pages 120 thru’ 165 out of 1054. The rest was baggage. The other feeling I had was of being almost above average height for a change. The Mexicans are a small people.
They are also very numerous and very poor. Wherever I went, I was amongst crowds, both in the street and in the subway. And everywhere, ordinary people are trying to make a small living by selling something or begging for money. There were women on the subway with large speakers in their rucksacks, playing and selling CDs. There was one guy walking down the train showing a DVD on a portable screen – he sold one for 10 cents (less than 50p to you and me). I was also offered notebooks, chewing gum and a raincoat on the train. This last one being particularly well target marketed as it was pouring down.
At pavement level, people were carrying or selling even more merchandise. I walked round several open and covered market places. Everyone seemed to be trying to retail. I could have had my shoes polished about a dozen times – if I hadn’t been wearing trainers. Some of these guys would put the spoiled Apprentices to shame with their tenacity and technique. Driven by hunger not by the fatuous trappings of fame and fortune. I resisted on the whole, but I did buy some crisps coated in sauce from a woman who had her two children with her, and some fruit from another. And two drinks from two others. All of that for less than £3.
There were almost as many just asking for money – either destitute or disabled, sat by the road, or simply holding out a hat as you passed. I Particularly remember a woman, stood on the steps of the subway, with two crying children, asking for help. There are too many to help, and there seems to be no welfare state. Some walk to America. On the way over on the plane I had watched The Grapes of Wrath about the ravages of poverty and hunger in 1930s USA. We have poverty and beggars in every country, but at least in the UK we have a safety net of sorts. Here there seemed to be none, and one wonders what becomes of those who cannot earn or collect enough to feed their families.
Despite all of that, Mexico is a city on the move. Amongst the fabulous Spanish colonial architecture, people swarm like ants. People carrying water bottles, ladders, mannequins, boxes, babes in arms. And there are endless cars and custard coloured VW beetle taxis – all of whom are polite and respectful to pedestrians.
It was impossible to escape the masses. Some people did wear masks – this city was of course the original breeding ground of swine flu. But on the whole we shared the same air. Air which is apparently thin because of the altitude. Mexico City is 3,000 feet higher than Snowdon, well over a mile high. The air did feel dry and fresh, and I did feel under less pressure than normal! But air is always thin isn’t it? Did anyone ever find any thick air? Nevertheless, I did find my muscles unusually tired when I broke into a steady jog as it started to rain. So that must be the air, not the vestiges of my American diet.
Of course, this is where the 1970 and 1986 world cups were played. 3-2 to West Germany in 1970 after Peter Bonnetti stood in for Banksy and Bob Charlton was substituted. That was the thin air. 2-1 to Argentina in 1986 after Maradona played volleyball with Shilton. That was thinly disguised cheating.
I had started the day following a prescribed walking tour, carefully noting down each photo I took. I bought a ticket for a courtyard containing an 8m statue, lots of fantastic smaller statues, paintings and a fabulous choir. I also bought a ticket for the Templo Mayor – an excavated Aztec temple site, literally unearthed in 1978. This had been submerged and built over by the Spanish when they razed Mexico City.
After a lunch break in my hotel room I walked west, taking in more plazas and impressive buildings. Then I took the subway to see the house of the famous Mexican artist Freda Kahla. The woman who sold me the 1054 page guide in Loughborough waxed lyrical about her. Kahla was married to Mexico’s most famous artist, Diego Rivera. She was a tortured soul, a victim of polio and an horrendous accident which she barely survived, and their marriage was by all accounts tempestuous. Very reminiscent of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Her art is remarkable. They were both enthusiastic socialists, and entertained Leo Trotsky. I went to see his house as well – half expecting to find the famous axe. My dad would have been proud of me. Today’s tune is courtesy of the Stranglers “No more Heroes” with the amusing line: “Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky? . He got an ice pick, that made his ears burn”. .
Well, I think there are plenty of heroes in this city. Decent people working their socks off to feed themselves. At no point was I accosted, approached or felt in any way under threat – despite being a conspicuous, wealthy tourist. Having said that, taking my big camera without a bag was not the smartest move. The only person to speak to me all day was a woman who said “Mister, watch out for your camera”. Have you ever tried secreting an SLR under your armpit? I did have the brainwave of removing the memory card and slipping it into my bum bag as I rode the subway home.
No great insights today – just a reminder of how much our lives are predetermined by where we are born, and how well off our parents are. If we start more than half way up the ladder, at least we are clear of the water.