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TRAVEL..........STORIES OF MEXICAN LIFE..........& MORE small bytes visits Mexico this month - that is to say the city. Known variously as the Districto Federal, the D.F., Ciudad de Mexico, La Capital or, the more commonly used and confusing term, México.


The Central Post office, located across from the Bellas Artes on the corner of Eje Lázaro Cárdenas and Allende...well worth a visit, even if you're not buying stamps.

Brits are not known particularly for a gushing writing style. But even Sybille Bedford in A VISIT WITH DON OTAVIO moved a tad away from her characteristically uncluttered prose when she described Mexico City during her first visit. The reader feels compelled to start packing.

But the capital she describes in her classic narrative that has recently been reissued by Eland Press is the Mexico City of the early 50's. The suite of rooms she rented in the Hotel Cortez for mere shillings a day has been divvied up into much smaller and very pricey quarters bearing the Best Western logo.

A view of Mexico City in an earlier era.

The luscious hanging hams and cheeses housed in food shops with an array of delicacies rivaling a well-stocked Fortnum's as well as the campesino on the sidewalk selling six avocados have been replaced by luxury stores and ambulatory vendors selling a mind-boggling selection of items, none of which can be even remotely considered essential to human existence. The fleet of urchins that carried Bedford 's purchases has been replaced by children tugging at your clothes begging for a peso or sitting listlessly by their mother who is silently pleading for the same.

But the capital must have been a heady place indeed from the 30's to the 50's when an intriguing, if impoverished, cadre of artists and revolutionaries, both ex-pat and nationals, intermingled in a bohemian mélange. This was the era of Kahlo and Rivera, Paul Bowles, John Steinbeck, Rufino Tamayo , Leon Trotsky to name only a few.

Photo of Frida courtesy of Judy Cameron,

It's hard to imagine the same bunch today in Mexico City . Now the city is the home of politicians, wheeler dealers, entrepreneurs…the beautiful people that make up maybe the 6% of the population whose rampant consumerism fuels the country's economy. It's the home of legions of prosperous-looking employees who somehow give the appearance of having a comfortable life style while earning mere subsistence wages. It is also the home to huge masses of people living in abject poverty.

It's generally agreed that one needs at least five minimum wages a day (a little over twenty dollars) to survive in the Districto Federal or D.F. A limpiaparabrisas (the person who jumps out at an intersection to clean windshields) interviewed in El Universal (November 30, 2005) confessed that after the recent birth of his child, he needs to make 200 pesos a day so that instead of living on the street, he can put aside 100 pesos each day to pay for a small room outside of Mexico City proper. In this years job fair in Pátzcuaro, there was a position listed for a general practitioner in Uruapan that paid 4,400 pesos a month. One has to wonder how it's all managed.

One of thousands of limpiaparabrisas found all over Mexico in the larger cities, but especially in the D.F.

For a large portion of the population it must mean a furnished room somewhere in one of the outer rings. A tremendous portion of the day has to be spent getting from home to work and back again via bus, metro and combi. Food must come from a plethora of street booths where you can fill yourself with a number of inexpensive items low on variety and nutritional value but high on fat. Such a day leaves very little spare time or cash to fritter away in frivolity.

Satellite cities that ring Mexico City.

Maybe that's why when you hear Capitalinos (people born and living in the D.F.) and chilangos (those born elsewhere but now residing in the capital) talking about the denizens of this megalopolis, they have such disparaging things to say about its inhabitants. When I hear this, I always feel compelled to answer like I did to the fellow in the Internet phone center in Rome's Termini train station. After giving me detailed instructions on the operating procedures for both the phone and the computer, he proceeded to scrounge around for a map so he could illustrate the elaborate directions he was giving me. Then he asked what I thought of Italy and where we had been and why. I ended our little chat by saying we lived in Mexico mainly because we so enjoyed the people but we had found the Italians equally agreeable. He concurred that Italians, yes, are a great bunch but Romanos are a totally different breed.

‘Non é da cui?' I asked.

He assured me proudly that he was born and had lived his whole life in Rome .

Ma lei é molto gentile.'

Reflecting on all the help he had given me and our subsequent conversation, he had to admit that yes, he had been a friendly, agreeable guy.

The raised shoulder, uplifted eyebrow, palms up gesture serves as well here in Mexico as it did in Italy to express the rhetorical ‘And?'

‘But not everyone's like me,' he stated.

No, they're not. Just like everyone isn't as friendly and helpful in smaller congregations of humanity like, say, Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. But the smaller places get the accolades for friendliness and the cities get the rep for surliness.

What with the fear for personal safety, impossible traffic, public transportation packed to the gills, vile air, an enveloping decibel level of noise, an implacable sun and myriad other complaints, it's a wonder that the citizens of this capital can be civil at all. Yet they are. Downright friendly, in fact. Certainly not everyone and not all the time but this is one of the world's largest cities after all, not Disneyland .

For those that bemoan the proliferation of English in popular foreign enclaves like the Chapala Lake region and San Miguel de Allende, people actually speak Spanish almost exclusively to me here. For those with no Spanish, your changes of finding an English-speaker are great but if you start the conversation in Spanish, people continue in this vein. I'm not the only one who finds this refreshing.

Bedford wrote in the early 1950's that there were just ‘too many sheep in the pen'. What would she think today? The jump from at most 1.7 million inhabitants in those days to, depending where the line is drawn, anywhere from 20 to 32 million means a sizeable increase in the number of sheep without enlarging the pen significantly.

One can't help but wonder when everything will all implode. When will the water shortage already felt in many neighborhoods become critical? When will an ever burgeoning population and an increase in car ownership make getting from Point A to Point B a virtual impossibility. When will the drugs, the unemployment, the lure of making easy cash, the grinding poverty and the growing invasion of the narco world make crime completely unmanageable? When will the spiraling cost of living make the discrepancy between the general salary of most and the lifestyle of the super-rich a cause for a massive revolt? When will the cloud of contamination make breathing impossible? Logically one realizes that too many rats in a maze are like too many sheep in the pen. There comes a time when one reaches critical mass.

An arial view of just two of the major problems facing Mexico City.

In the meantime, I find the city an exuberant, energetic, incredibly poignant place, filled with an unending panorama of vignettes.

•••Sounds of haunting jazz float by at dusk from a saxophone played by a tall man in a suit and tie on Avenidad Cinco de Mayo .

An Indian man and woman in Aztec garb run between the parked cars and the downtown rush hour traffic; he carrying a lighted torch held high, she a small box.

•••A young woman who had earlier been begging coins with her young daughter lies asleep on the sidewalk covered totally with a couple of tatty blankets. It you didn't know she had been there earlier, you would have thought the mound was a pile of rags.

Across the street, an elderly woman in a wheel chair with a special bitterness etched into every wrinkle is pushed to a jazzy white, late-model Lincoln Continental stretched out at the curb two blocks from the Zócalo. A young man walks alongside carrying a number of packages in silence. The matriarch has a red knit glove on one hand while the other holds a cigarette at which she sucks long and deep. As she is manipulated into the car with great difficulty, she holds on stubbornly to the cigarette. It is only when all her various parts are arranged into the front seat and the door closed that she lowers the window and tosses the butt out without having taken another drag.

The car moves out into the street and glides by the sleeping woman and her child. Neither one notices the other.

•A white-haired, frail and bent old woman is surrounded by stray cats milling patiently about, some twisting between her feet and rubbing against her legs, as they wait for her to dispense cat food and milk.

•••A woman a few blocks from the Observatorio bus depot stands by a baby strapped into some sort of halter perched against a graffiti-covered wall next to a boy of maybe four sitting on the sidewalk. He is pulling at his mother's leg with one hand and reaching up with the other begging for a piece of the food the woman is eating. The mother bends over and wags her finger emphatically in the boy's face. When he continues to plead, she repeatedly pulls his ear and then kicks him hard. As she turns away, the boy lets loose his own kick. The woman swings around ready to do who knows what when a piece of the food she is eating falls to the sidewalk. She grabs it up, gives it to the baby and then suddenly disappears, leaving the baby chewing and the boy sobbing with his head on bent knees.

•After the finale of a performance of Carmina Burana at Bellas Artes , the conductor turns to the public to thank them for coming. He says it is exhilarating for the company to see such a ground-swell of support, particularly at a time when financial aid for the arts is at low ebb. He then invites the audience to stand and join in singing again the final number, O Fortuna, with the performers on stage.

As one body, tier after tier of spectators rises and the society dowager joins her voice with the voices of the student, the young couple, the family with tiny children, the occasional tourist, the pensioner and the man who leans forward and punctuates the beat with repeated emphatic punches in the air as he and everyone else belt out the words of the opera's finale with gusto.

One view of the Bellas Artes building across from the post office. Inside you can find the walls filled with murals by Rivera, Siquieras, Orozco and Tamayo.

Filled with a never-ending kaleidoscope of possibilities, five lifetimes would not be sufficient to explore all the options available in this most fascinating and baffling city.

Although tour guide has never been my particular mettle, here are a few suggestions and ideas and stories to give you a better feel for the D.F. designed to make a visit to the capital a fun and safe experience.

Crime & Taxi Lore

  Exploring the Zócalo

Upcoming: Wacky D.F. & Metro Tales P.S. As you prepare for the upcoming holidays, don't forget Susy Santiago's great recipe for turkey. If you can't be there in person for Mistongo's festivities in Pátzcuaro, you can find the recipe under Article Archives. Turkey never tasted so good.

All the best this holiday season. May 2006 bring you peace, joy and friendship. And many happy journeys.


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