Friday, February 25, 2011

stolen notebook better than a stolen wallet (right?)

Mexico City. We walk and we walk. Anyone who knows me knows I have no sense of direction, so that means R walks and I follow (which doesn't, however, prevent me from striding out ahead now and then or arguing with him that we're going in the wrong direction). R likes to choose the less well-travelled streets which is fine by me most of the time. Get away from some of the astounding cacaphony that rocks this city. Other times we're picking our way along pieces of broken sidewalk, squeezing past ad hoc tortilla stands--a wok of hot oil over a bunsen burner, a half-rotten crate with a chopping board, a sack of onions, a child curled asleep on the onions--or around the pieces of plastic people throw on the sidewalk to demarcate their pile of shoelaces or ankle socks or belts or pirated CDs--their store. Keep an eye on the ground. Ignore the noise. Every store with its own ghetto blaster on max. All the retro music I haven't heard since the 70s and 80s. Neil Diamond. Gloria Gaynor. The accordion grinders who get so exhausted churning their arm around and around that their already melancholy tune gets downright pathetic. At some street corners the pedestrian crossing clangs with an electronic sound like aliens zapping you dead with supersonic ray guns. And always there are smells if the high level of traffic exhaust hasn't killed your nose yet. Hot oil is a constant. Roasting corn or cornmeal a close second. The occasional whiff of sewage. Actually, that's not bad considering it's dry season and there's a water shortage and there are just so many people in this city.
SO MANY PEOPLE. At 3 or 4 pm the streets erupt. Trying to cross a main street feels like broaching a tidal wave of shoulders and heads. At every tortilla stand--both the metal stalls and the sidewalk burners--cluster a group of regulars who eat standing up, licking green or red chili sauce off their hands. I haven't tried to eat standing up yet. I know my gordita would end up down my front. I need a table and napkins. (Spoiled white brat.) People like to shop. People like to neck. (More on that below.) They love ice cream. And pastries. You walk into a pastry shop and grab an aluminum tray and tongs at the entrance, circulate up and down the rows of tables displayed with buns and breads every size and flavour. (Well, seemingly every flavour. We've tried a few and they more or less taste the same--nothing to impress one, such as myself, of Sachertorte heritage who now lives in Montreal.)
Yesterday was R's birthday. We had a good meal, most of which we could identify when it was served to us, though we couldn't find any words from the menu in our dictionary when we tried to order. Well, okay, we know fish and beef and chicken. But what kind of fish? Dunno. I had some absolutely delicious greens in my salad that looked tough and weedy, but tasted tender and nutty. We finished the evening with a tequila in a karaoke bar. Left before the karaoke got underway. The bartender was disgusted that we couldn't tell her which brand of tequila we wanted. We told her to choose for us. It was smooth. We drank it straight with a Fresca chaser. Guess that's why I don't usually drink in bars. Fresca? But she wouldn't let us drink it without a chaser.
That old question about which ten books would you take to a desert island? Mine is which ten words should you know if you find yourself among people who speak only that foreign language. Here are two at the head of my list: left and right. You need those or you will never find the hidden bathrooms in tiny hole in the wall restaurants. No one is so indelicate as to point in the direction of the toilet. They murmur a long complete sentence and smile at you politely. Listen hard and you should hear iskierda or deretcha.
Mexicans enjoy necking in public. They must because they do it with such reckless abandon. Full-tongued, open-mouthed making out. On benches, against walls, in doorways. You want to kiss? Go for it. Legs over legs, between legs, fingers trailing down cleavages. But not down belts. There seems to be a line where one doesn't touch in public view. But there is absolutely no restriction on the energy with which you can root your tongue into your lover's ear or bite the neck.
When you buy a fruit cup with wedges of papaya, pineapple, and watermelon, you might also find chunks of white vegetable with a taste and texture similar to raw potato. It's actually called ayote. (I think.) It goes better with the fruit if you've followed the vendor's advice and added chili sauce.
We're visiting tons of museums. Mexico City--with its long, rich, intricate history of civilizations and conflicts--is museum town. Yesterday we spent almost the whole afternoon in the Anthropological Museum and didn't get through a third of it. Excellent displays. My particular fondness is for ancient glazes--ochre and turquoise and green--that have survived hundreds of years under dirt and buildings.
In yesterday's museum visit my wee notebook was slipped from my back pocket. I suspect it was the guy who fake-bumped into me, pretending to take a photo. Well, bully for him, making off with my notebook of details in shorthand English scribble. I mean, sure, I miss my notebook, but I'd sooner lose a notebook than my credit card or money.
Lots of police here. Guns and bullet proof vests sometimes just to stand in the entrance to a bookstore. Riot police too. The first time freaked me out. Uniformed men with their plastic shields, bully clubs, and guns tumbling out of a bus. A couple of blocks away about 30 people were waving green flags and shouting... well, we don't know what. Then again today. More riot police. Off to quell more chanting. 
So necking is okay, but forming a group and chanting isn't.
Another thing which is not okay is going out the in door in museums or galleries. So that's another word that's handy if you know only ten and come to Mexico City. Salida. It means exit. If you accidentally move toward the wrong roped line, the museum guards descend. Two of them with rigid arms pointing you the right way. (Pointing is okay in this instance.) Or if you don't follow the correct direction during a museum visit. There are guards in every room to direct you. I suppose it's a make-work program. They take their responsibilities very seriously.
Actually, forget needing to know the word salida if you're only going to learn ten words. People will let you know quickly enough whether or not you know the word.
Our hotel is an older building with an amazing vagina shaped staircase done in brass poles. That image will make more sense once I can post a picture. Our room is enormous with a king-size bed. Triple-sheeted which means there's a bottom sheet, a top sheet, another top sheet over the blanket. Don't know what the purpose of that is, but it feels luxurious. Of course, we can't normally afford such luxury, but R spent quite a while poking around Expedia.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

24 million people in the subway at rush hour

Is it true that the population of Mexico City is 24 million? At rush hour you could believe it. The subway system is extensive and cheap (25 cents). We've taken it to get to far-flung areas of the city to see the Diego Rivera Museum, to the bus terminal to travel to the pyramids at Teotihuacan, to visit Frida Kahlo's blue house. Today we joined the crowds heading into the underground maw at rush hour. Wow. At rush hour there is a designated section of the subway platform and cars for single women only. That means that the few women who happen to be travelling with a man have to get on the cars packed solid, body to body, with men. Makes you wonder what must have happened to have brought in those kind of stringent rules. Security men with batons making sure the men stay out of the women's only section. So, okay, I clung to R. Actually didn't have much choice since we stood clammed up against each other. Strangers clammed up against me all around. Have I ever stood so close to so many other people at the same time? Watching the sweat glisten on faces and necks and arms. Human slow cooker. Everyone has to mind their manners--allowing for the shove of people having to get through six dozen bodies tight as salami slices clutching knapsacks and gym bags in the doorway. Luckily everyone was wearing deodorant.
We're having a great time exploring Mexico City. I don't care if it's a cliche, I've become an ardent Frida Kahlo fan. My thigh muscles ache from climbing the steps at the pyramids--and I didn't even DO the pyramids. They were too high for my yammering heart at this high altitude to attempt. R couldn't go up to the top either because the severe steepness of the steps made him dizzy. He was seriously worried that he'd get partway up and they'd need to call in a helicopter to lift him down. No matter. There were thousands of steps to climb up and down just to walk the grounds. To get to the frescoes. Look at carvings.
Food has been great, though we don't always know what we're ordering. Even when we tell people that we don't speak Spanish, they resolutely speak whole sentences at us. No pidgin Spanish or baby talk for the tourists. Yesterday R got a soup for starter followed by a larger bowl of soup for his main meal. Oh well. I was hungry and wanted a woman at an enchilada stall to make me something. I could only tell her that I didn't want chicken. No pollo (pronounced poyo). Si, quesa (or is it queso for cheese?). I wanted beans and tried the word refritos. Si, she assured me, the enchiladas would be fried. Oh lord, I moaned out loud, what's the word for beans? A passing stranger threw out frijoles. Of course, frijoles! But the woman had no frijoles. Jugo, she asked me? I thought jugo was juice. I had an idea it might be tomatoe sauce. No I said. She looked really puzzled. I did my best to assure her that I was ravenous and would adorato anything she would make me. And I did--probaby the best meal I had yet. Enchiladas, cheese, sour cream, hot green sauce (which a friend in Montreal once told me was made from tomatillos), guacamole.
I had a really good mole sauce with chicken and tortillas the first evening we arrived. I let the waiter decide to bring me what he wanted. I now want to make a mole sauce which, made properly, is only delicately flavoured with chocolate.
I can't begin to write about Frida Kahlo except to say that I wish I had the time not only to write fiction, but also to model amusing clay figurines, paint pottery, embroider colourful tunics, make papier mache skeletons. It's possible that I've become so enamoured of her work and personna that my taste in jewellery is going to get very gaudy.
It is so thoroughly wonderful to wear short sleeves and open necks and sandals in February! To sip a beer on a convivial patio that looks onto a park with palm trees and flowering bushes.
Music and traffic is loud. Music from the 60s and 70s. That restaurant where the waiter brought me chicken with mole sauce? In front of me was a video screen blasting Saturday Night Fever. John Travolta doing up the zipper of his tight pink bellbottoms.
Okay, I still haven't had the shower I need after my rush hour in the subway experience.
It's a bit frustrating to be writing this and not be able to include any pictures.
Last comment... Hair gel is a growth industry here. Some men have so much slicked through their hair that at first glance they could be wearing bicycle helmets.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

tools to advertise

Yesterday I was walking down the sidewalk behind a man carrying a plastic bucket filled with various tools and rags. I recognized the trowel--a flat, diamond-shaped blade attached to a wooden handle. It's used for scraping mortar across bricks or stones to build a wall or a structure. My father had trowels. He built the cinder-block shells for the two houses we lived in while I was growing up. 
I had to get to work, but I couldn't get past this man with his bucket and trowel... tromping through the dirty, ankle-high snow along a Montreal sidewalk. The path was too narrow to pass him, the snow on either side piled too high. I had to follow his bucket until we got to a street corner where I leaped across the pond of frozen slush that skirts every Montreal curb at this time of year. I wondered if he was on his way to a job or returning from one. I was impressed by the portability of his trade.
I was reminded of the buckets we'd seen in Agadir in Morocco. We'd walked far from our hotel to look for the bus station. In 1998 it used to be in the center of town--no more than a street where ancient, rusted buses groaned to a stop and took on passengers who waited with threadbare bags tied with twine. People didn't wait in a lineup. When the bus lumbered up, sagging to one side, everyone rushed the door . Elbows, bags, butting heads. Whatever modesty hijabs represent in theory did not translate into civil bus manners. Men smoked with manic intensity, not jumping on a bus until it had already started to pull away--which the driver seemed to know since he kept the door open. The plaster wall along the street was black, pockmarked and corroded with bus fumes. The men hawking tickets rattled off sounds with no vowels. Not a single name we could recognize. We finally asked, "Marrakech?" The man barked something like "Brrrksh!" A bark from deep within his throat, though his mouth never really opened. He peeled off two wee bits of paper with something scribbled across in Arabic and took our money. We tried to ask where we were supposed to wait. He jabbed an imperative finger at our feet. Like... here? He didn't mind taking our money but felt no compunction to enlighten us. We were white people. Strangers. Foreigners. We were supposed to take one of the expensive tour buses down on the beachfront, not hike up into this dirty part of town.
That was the bus station in 1998. By 2008 it had been moved into a large building of several stories (three?) with ramps where the buses pulled up. It had been moved too--far enough from the center of town that tourists weren't supposed to find it. We had to walk very far from our hotel. When we stopped along the way to ask for the "gare d'autobus", we were already so far from where foreigners were expected to wander that no one understood French. (Or seemed to understand--a subtle distinction with which I'm familiar, living in Quebec.)
Along one of the main streets we saw a display of buckets on the sidewalk, all in a row. The buckets held hammers, wrenches, rakes, trowels. Each was arranged with fanciful inventiveness to display the maximum number of tools to advantage--also to catch the eye because there were so many buckets to choose from. At first I thought the tools, splattered with hardened mortar, dirt, and in some cases maybe even broken, were for sale. Then a small truck pulled up, a man darted from the shadows, grabbed his bucket, and jumped in the back.
These were workers, advertising their trades. Each bucket was a concrete affadavit, a pledge of willingness, a record of ability. Each bucket, examined individually, was as interesting as any installation piece.