Stuffetcetera The website of Jeremy Kearns-Watts.

4Sep/130

An Englishman, Without a Car, in Mexico City

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Previous Title: The only man without a car in Mexico City.

Englishmen, amongst their wealth of peculiarities, have the rather odd and unique distinction of, when walking, appearing to be surveying their land as a lord surveys his property. This ability manifests wherever Englishmen might find themselves in the world and only disappears when they are rushing to get somewhere in particular, which is a rarity of an occasion.

Mexico City, the largest single metropolis in the Western Hemisphere, has almost twenty million inhabitants. It has a efficient subway system, with drawbacks in its limited number of stations, and an extensive bus network, which fills in the gaps and covers the vast sprawl up mountainsides and over underground rivers that were in the open air within living memory.

Through a car window, the world is a rushing blur, even when stuck in traffic. But walking allows you to stop and admire, to glance, sidelong, into buildings and alleyways. Those narrow and pointed corridors of vision, a glimpse into someone else's life, into someone else's world, so far removed behind a single pane of glass or sheet of mosquito netting. The finely honed tunnel vision is allowed to widen for a moment, before crashing back in at the non-sight of a street urchin or beggar.

Guilt is something to be swallowed delicately, like so many tacos burnt on wide hot plates on street corners. The Catholics can manage this guilt in confession, and the plentiful churches, even amongst towering new builds provide opportunities for this. Like the subtle embarrassment of being caught by a woman while looking at the crude pornographic magazines on the sides of the newsstands, the guilt sticks in the back of your throat and refuses to be swallowed.

This city is caught in the throes of modernity, and has been for a hundred years. Yet the conservative outlook is gripped tight. Uncondemnable, unfathomable, and pleasant. Other places have thrown themselves, or been thrown, into the hazardous maw of the twenty-first century, with the young, downtrodden by the old, rebelling even against themselves in a wrathful uncertainty. They create, first in their own minds but then realised into the world, a host of anxiety and pain. They torture themselves, and spill forth, gushing overflowing with emotion and permanent disorder.

The excuse, as it has been for a thousand years, is that these things, these places that we are going to, have already been explored, and we are re-treading those steps and must be allowed to do so. Its understood by the children that they are building their own hardship, but if independence can be grasped and maintained, then maybe, through hard work and with a little luck, everything will be okay, things will work out well. The American Dream.

The Latin-American Dream. There is a place, up in Chapultepec Castle, on the winding road up the hill where the NiƱos Heroes perished and the view into the polluted haze is endless precisely because of its limits, where there is a small curving garden, with watered grass and cactus plants. And even with the endless sound of traffic far below it is somehow silent and you can just sit there, back against the wall, looking out. From nowhere dozens of dragonflies appear and flit about, never stopping. For a moment there,, you're in a different place. And then you get up and turn, and the Mexicans are milling back and forth, up and down the main path.

So I get up and turn, and walk back down the winding road. Past the immense marble memorial to those young army cadets from a hundred and fifty years ago, across a bridge over a six lane freeway, and onto the Paseo de la Reforma. The grandiose design of Emperor Maximilian leading directly to the centre of Mexico City. And I survey the land.

On either side of the road great silver monoliths spring forth like trees seeking water high above. In this surging city, full of life and coursing with effort, even the once imposing US Embassy seems small and outdated compared with the new towers of telecommunication giants, taller for every dollar more. And down below, those cars, beautifully kept relics that wouldn't look out of place on the streets of Havana mingling with the shining and powerful imports from Germany, Japan and the United States.

Six million cars. Twenty million people. And they are used all the time. For six pesos you can jump on a converted truck posing as a bus as it goes towards the Zocalo. But I jump off early and wander there on foot, in search of food.

Which is plentiful and cheap and good. The small stands with their big black plates to sear and heat your selection. With a string held tarpaulin at a height perfect to garrotte any unsuspecting person above six feet tall. Larger, box stands, with seats, sometimes attached to the wall of the stand, and small circular windows for you to receive your Torta through. Ricos Tortas. Who is Rico? And why are his Tortas preferred?

Rico means tasty. This fairly basic nugget of Spanish is probably essential to entering Mexican Street Food as a serious means of nourishment. Sometimes the Torta huts also claim to sell hamburgers, this is sometimes a lie as you receive something that looks suspiciously similar to the beef Torta that the guy in front of you ordered. If you don't like it throw it to one of the stray dogs that will be begging for scraps. A Torta is a Mexican sandwich.

The clouds loom large in the sky. They are just as high as they are anywhere in the world, but here you are closer. When they get dark in the afternoon you know the rains are coming. Far off Tlaloques burst their clay pots in the clouds and rolling thunder follows. Soon the rain comes, in big and hard drops, sending rivers down the streets and pounding on rooftops.

Sitting inside, with a coffee, especially if you've got a view, it can be perfectly inspirational. The rain knocks the heat out of the air. Tiring of watching I open an old book, something small and packed for the journey. Something I haven't read in years. Flicking through I come to a bookmark, its a small piece of card rough on one edge, in an unremarkable page. Further on are half a dozen more, the remnants of a torn up cigarette packet.

I sit back, kick up my feet and start to read. Resting my elbow on the arm of the chair, it hurts, like a knife stuck into the bone. I look and find a massive sore, red and painful to touch. A little ways further up the arm my skin is peeling like a snake's. I catch a glimpse of my pale face in a reflection in a window. I am an Englishman in Mexico City.

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