Mexico...in small bytes

TRAVEL..........STORIES OF MEXICAN LIFE..........& MORE

Mexico...in small bytes this month is back again visiting Mexico.

As Sybille Burton found out over fifty years ago, the term is confusing. After a bus trip from the country's capital to Morelia, she was asked by the hotel manager, 'Where did you stay in Mexico?'

'We think we are still there,' she replied.

'Do you know Mexico?' she was asked.

'Less and less,' was her reply.

'But you have been there?'

'We believe we are there.'

'You are in Morelia.'

'Morelia is in Mexico.'

'No, no. Morelia is Morelia and Mexico is Mexico. Mexico is bigger, but Morelia is more pretty.' (A VISIT TO DON OTAVIO)

The confusion arises from the fact that what foreigners refer to as Mexico City is refered to simply as Mexico by locals.

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Mexico City has myriad faces. Out of that wealth of possibilities, Mexico...in small bytes

chose to investigate a few of the more offbeat options.

photo courtesy of Judy Cameron, jcshutterbug@msn.com

Wacky could well be the perfect adjective for Mexico City without specifically looking for the bizarre or unusual. In ON MEXICAN TIME, Tony Cohan wrote, ‘It's a crazy city, its barely contained madness erupting in strange ways.'

Many of our friends here in Pátzcuaro maintain that simply considering a visit to this megalopolis is madness itself. They have a point. No city this size can be totally sane or safe…at times not even minimally.

A recent Azteca TV news broadcast stated the population of the D.F will grow to 35 million in 2030. In the marvelous way of Mexican statistics, this could be interpreted anywhere from 27 to 42 million. No matter which figure you pick, it's still a goodly number of folks hanging in one place. The commentator went on to say that city planners concur that something has to be done within the next five years in order to prevent a case of permanent vehicular gridlock. Time will tell.

An aerial view showing current traffic conditions.

The horror stories reported in papers and shown on TV are endless. Just before we left, there was the chronicle of the fellow mugged and beaten so badly that he lost his sight. Since this story was shown at Christmas time, it had to have the requisite positive, uplifting spin but there are many such gory tales singularly lacking in the happy ending.

Much as visits to this gargantuan capital have started to grow on me, I try to keep in mind the words of one of my fellow students in Italian class in Morelia . He spent 16 of his 18 years in Mexico City until his family moved to Zinapécuaro, a small town east of Morelia's airport. One would think such a move would be the kiss of death for this motivated, gregarious, intelligent young man (he was working on mastering his fourth language). What could life be like in an isolated town in Michoacán after The Big City?

‘Frankly, a relief,' he stated. ‘I got tired of always being on my guard, watching what was happening around me, constantly checking my back. It got to be a real drag.'

 

Since this guy was no dummy, every time in the D.F., it seems a good plan to follow his check list for survival; not to the point of jumping at the least little bump on the street but generally being aware of my surroundings and keeping a low profile.

Enjoyable as Paul Theroux's writing is, I'm not much of an advocate of his theory that without danger, travel has no value. Looking for something different is not the same as being jolted by a few random shots in the kneecap.

In order to set off without tempting fate, I chose not to leave on Tuesday (bad luck in Mexico ), nor on Thursday (bad luck in Italy ) nor on Friday the 13th . Although this elicited some pithy comments from husband, Pablo, Wednesday it was. You want to start the year's first trip without a case of bad juju. But after so much time in Mexico , we've learned that things rarely fall into step with The Plan.

We left on Thursday and no sooner did we get to the D.F. than I lost my all-time favorite hat. Serves an Italian right for tempting fate and traveling on a Thursday. Despite the loss, the city still looked good to me.

My first goal in any city is the search for the perfect cup of coffee, a pursuit that can only be considered wacky by those who do not take their coffee seriously. This quest for the Holy Grail had actually come to a fortuitous conclusion last November when Pablo, two friends from Minnesota and I entered the Havana Café. Far removed from the image of the trendy cafes and franchises that dot the modern landscape, the Havana Café is a cavernous, high-ceilinged, utilitarian hall illuminated by long tubes of florescent lighting. It is said to be home to reporters, adventurers, writers, exiles, poets and the occasional politician. It is packed and noisey and serves the best coffee in this country. The sign outside, El Mejor Café en México means what it says.

 

 

Ready for picking.

A few days after our return to Pátzcuaro, we read that the powers that be had closed the place down. It appeared that the restaurant's previous owners had failed to enrich the city coffers by something like $30,000 (US) in back taxes so officials marched in and started loading up chairs, tables and sundry items into large trucks. One and all were evicted without even the nicety of letting patrons finish their morning brew. The steel grate of this venerable establishment, established in 1954, and the place Fidel Castro took his caffeine hits while planning the attack on Batista with his brother, Raul, and fellow revolutionary, Che Guevara, was most decidedly shut.

This story ought not to have been catastrophic news. After all, it should not be all that hard to find a really good cup of coffee in a country that exports beans all over the world. But one should remember that for years the closest a traveler could get to coffee was a spoonful of dry stuff scooped from the ubiquitous jar of Nescafe found on almost every table. Today, even in offbeat locales, one can find the snazzy, gleaming espresso machine. The problem for a serious coffee lover on the move is that most Mexicans don't seem to like the taste of coffee. Huge quantities of milk and sugar, various liquors and flavorings and all manner of fancy productions are utilized to mask the taste of the central ingredient. For someone who downs her espresso in Italy straight without even a hint of sugar this watered down brew is frankly insipid. I was devastated by the article.

 

 

 

How can something that starts off with such promise end up such a disappointment?

 

After numerous aborted attempts to find a replacement for the Havana Café, I found myself wandering forlornly toward the locale's old haunts at Bucareli and Morelos, rather like the pilgrim to the shrine. There it was, El Mejor Café en México AND it was back in business!

Once safely ensconced amongst the early morning crowd, happily hunched over my Havana doble, muy cargado , I asked the waitress how long they had been closed and mentioned the newspaper article. She looked totally shocked.

“Oh no,' she explained. “They shut us down for only about two hours…just to give the owners a little bit of a scare, that's all. We hardly noticed the break.'

 

 

So coffee aficionados, take note. For a serious and savory hit, head for the Havana Café on the corner of Bucareli and Morelos and hope you arrive when the city fathers are not trying to interrupt the flow of the mother of all coffees.

With a few hits from this venerable establishment, I can be ready for anything. We considered a soccer game but the 2006 season was a few weeks away. Plus being a spectator in the stands can never equal the experience of witnessing the spectacular non-save we saw in 1972. Those were the days when the sport was male-dominated both on and off the field so a woman in attendance caused quite a buzz with spectators and players alike.

An avid soccer fan since the 60's, I was unaware of the comments generated by my presence, especially since my Spanish was pitiful in the 70's. The action was rather lop-sided; so much so, in fact, that the goalie at one end felt no compunction about trotting off to the neighboring bushes when nature unexpectedly called.

Hearing the shouts of the crowd, he raised his head and saw the appalling spectacle of a player from the opposing team barreling down the field unopposed.

Leaping out to protect against this almost certain goal, he found his progress greatly hampered by the shorts that were entangled around his feet. Without my presence, the crowd would have been treated to a fantastic, if unconventional, save. As it was, he hesitated a little too long between duty and decorum and the opposing team was on the scoreboard. I became immediately popular with about half the crowd.

Yep, those were the days. Some things you simply can't repeat so we decided to forego futbol for this trip and go to a wrestling match instead.

 

 

When you are well aware that you are sure to be the only gringo faces in evidence, when the area where the match will take place goes beyond raunchy and when the sport itself is far from tame, you do think twice about attending. The words of Elisabeth Bishop, ‘Should we have stayed at home and imagined here?' ring true. After all, we could cheat and just watch it on TV.

There were no matches at La Arena in Colonia Roma near our hotel. Like soccer, they were between seasons. That meant we had to go to El Coliseo in La Lagunilla . A little old lady hearing us ask for directions to the area followed us and said, ‘No, don't go that way. My father took me to El Coliseo when I was only six. Then the area was only half ugly. Now it's totally nasty twice over. Better go this way.' She was only one of many capitalinos warning us off their own turf.

On the advice of the owner of Deportes Martinez , one of the only remaining places to buy quality hand-made wrestling paraphernalia, we went to the 5:00 PM event. He said this was frequented by couples and would be okay.

Here the owner of Deportes Martinez shows off the first wrestling mask made. It was ordered by Cyclon Mckey.

 

 

 

Two photos from inside the shop, showing the array of masks, boots and capes produced today, mixed in with a variety of wrestling paraphenalia. An even greater selection can be seen at the store's website...www.MTZwear.com... Anything that catches your fancy can be ordered direct via credit card and shipped.

The ower was right. Not only did we see couples, there were loads of kids running around in capes and wearing the masks of their favorite wrestlers. There were grandmas being escorted in with the help of family members and a cane. There were snobby juniors somewhat in a snit watching the enthusiastic reaction of their dates to the wrestlers There were middle-aged couples out on the town. There were fathers carrying tiny babies. There were not, on the other hand, more than two gringos.

El Coliseo is smaller than La Arena and every seat was taken. Some seats, it appeared, were taken more than once. All through the event, any number of people kept arriving with what appeared to be valid tickets for the same seat, perhaps evidence that the scalpers outside were not exactly operating on the up and up.

It true that this is not an area you want to wander around in sporting your Aunt Tilly's heirloom pearls, but on Sunday and during daylight, it can be done.

 

 

 

 

The are many parts of La Lagunilla (perhaps all) that don't particularly inspire confidence but that one particular Sunday afternoon, it wasn't particularly threatening.

 

 

You will generate almost as much attention as the performers themselves but that's all part of the show.

And quite a show it is. There is almost as much going on in the stands as in the ring. Unless you really like to be in the thick of things, quite literally, it's best to avoid the first row and the aisle seats up close. They are probably impossible to come by anyway being the providence of such solid regulars as the stately gentleman wearing black leather gloves and sporting a sweatshirt proclaiming Cien Por Cientro Rudo (100% rude) who rang a huge old-fashioned school bell with great gusto at the least provocation and enthusiastically greeted each player that was thrown out of the ring in his direction.

 

 

 

We left after about an hour and a half to let the remaining rays of daylight illuminate our walk back to the city center but things were just heating up. Action continued, we were told, until about 8:00 PM. Cheapest seats went for 30 pesos and the most expensive listed was 85 pesos which was a far cry from the price of the tickets to Cirque Soleil we had seen earlier in the afternoon in the posh Santa Fe neighborhood.

 

There were similarities, however. Both events featured acrobatic prowess, complicated choreography, feats of strength, knowledge of how to fall and a high emphasis on costuming. Where the two diversions parted ways was the magic generated by Circo Soleil. Many times I found myself with my mouth agape in a sort of gaga wonderment.

But then magic comes in many forms and to the kids rushing to get autographs of the wrestlers and struggling to maneaver into a position to touch their hero or shake his hand, there surely was as much magic as that generated earlier in the afternoon.

It was as much a day of similarities and contrasts as the previous when we started off at the Plaza del Danzón . This plaza, situated to the west of the Plaza José María Morelos in the Colonia Juarez, is one of my favorite spots in all of Mexico City . Starting around 10:00 AM Saturday, you can be transformed into something from another era, perhaps right out of the Cine Paraiso .

 

 

Music is amplified from CD's but this doesn't dim the enthusiasm of the participants one whit.

There were elderly couples looking like they might have just gotten off the metro. There were snazzy fellows with the classic Panama hat and two-toned shoes of a Cuba of the 50's. There was a man in Bermuda shorts, dark socks and black shoes whose partner's twirling long dress revealed heavy Oxfords with white ankle socks. There was the slim woman with black hat, bright red lipstick, form-fitting dress and red snappy sandals. The sheer elegance of her dance steps made you ignore her wrinkles and varicose veins. There was a ten-year old boy with stylish black fedora, formal suit and tie and the requisite two-tuned shoes dancing with a girl in a mini skirt and tennis shoes. There was a young girl in a chiffon type dress holding a fan dancing with a nattily attired boy at least a foot shorter.

 

 

The eleven steps of danzón made them all a picture of style, elegance and grace. A woman I talked to told me that today the fad is danzón adorado which is a jazzed up version of the basic steps of the classic square but with infinite variations.

 

 

The cuadra and variations are taught by members of various clubs who hold informal classes (25 pesos for as long as you want to learn) in various spots around the plaza.

Gringos are not in evidence but I was generously accepted readily into the fold. It's a great geezer dance. Cumbias, salsa and merengue are wonderful but, let's face it, after a certain age they must be done with a degree of moderation. On the other hand, as long as you can stand, you can do danzón .

If I lived in Mexico City , the first thing I would do is attach myself to any one of the danzón clubs that abound. It would provide an instantaneous community in this impersonal megalopolis. If you dance danzón or are willing to learn, that's all it would take to make you belong.

Shoe shines are much in evidence. Spiffy footwear is a must. Notice the two-toned shoes of the fellow to the left. The classily-dressed woman walking away is one of the instructors.

It was the same sense of community we saw later walking out of the Goya Exhibition into the Plaza Tolsa in front of the National Art Museum. At first, it was only a small group with a spokesperson explaining the meaning of the offerings on the stone plaza and outlining what was about to happen. People of all ages were coming from every direction in diverse garb. Footwear ranged from huaraches, New Balance, normal street shoes, high-top Keds and sandals to bare feet. A great number of participants sported ankle shell bracelets that jangled as their feet moved to the beat of the drums. There were bare-chested men and a young fellow in a Chicago Bulls jacket. Everyone seemed to know each other. When there was a break, those wanting to enter would greet a man holding a bannered staff, exchange with him an elaborate handshake and often an embrace and be directed to a spot in the circle of dancers.

 

 

The front of the National Art Museum had only a sprinkling of dancers around 6:00 PM but two hours later, there were three rings of over 200 participants, filling the entire plaza.

This was NOT a geezer dance although there were those in the group well up there in years. It was amazing to see the skill and stamina required let alone for ten minutes, to say nothing of the hour or more that many danced. It was a mesmerizing event that is repeated every Saturday night in the same spot. We were told that various schools participate in an effort to maintain Indian traditions. Anyone with such an interest can join the classes.

A veritable plethora of activities await the visitor to Mexico City . One can walk aimlessly through the streets with the assurance that something of interest is bound to happen or one can pack an endless number of events into the day. Either way, the possibilities are unlimited. We managed to combine a bit of the aimless with the structured and returned once again to Pátzcuaro unscathed, ready for a return visit. But when we go, I simply refuse to leave on a Thursday. Not only did I lose that doggone hat but I woke up on my birthday with a fat old zit right on my chin. At my age, there is no other explanation than bad juju.

Hanging out (on an earlier trip when I still had my hat) at El Cuadrilátero, Luis Moya #73. We went for info on where to purchase a good quality wrestling mask and were directed to Deportes Martinez. The masks displayed are gifts to the former wrestling star, Super Astro.

Here, Super Astro, owner of El Cuadrilátero and retired wrestler, poses with the largest of his creations. It actually is on the menu. During our visit, we saw two good-sized men digging into a couple of the smaller versions which looked to me to be enough food for a week. More important than the chow from my point of view, the owner servers up dynamite espresso. Having sampled liberally from the page-long coffee options at the Havana Cafe before checking out El Cuadrilátero, we left wired enough for the rest of the trip.

Coming next month: Mexico...in small bytes goes On The Beach, Mexican style. As winter winds down in other parts of the world, it's good to be reminded that there are options, especially when cold, snow and sleet have run their course and you, but not the season, are ready for them to go away. This is also a time with less tourism so you can have, in some cases, the beach pretty much to yourself.

Upcoming...Metro Tales from the D.F.

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