A Whiff of Whimsy: Falling for Mexico's 'city of love'

*Jakarta Globe, Dec 2009

A country’s first impression is indelible. It leaves an imprint, like a lover’s first kiss. And more often than not, it is never quite what you expect.

When I think of Mexico, I breathe in the fire of the desert earth and the loneliness of immigrants who turn their villages into ghost towns by the borders as they strain toward the American dream. I dream of swirling sands and sad-eyed cows with bony hips, of people worshiping Maria statuettes by roadside altars and the idolatry of robed skeletons.

Then there is the Mexico of the movies. Filled with prayers and drug lords, it is one steeped in religion and violence. What I found in reality was nothing quite so dramatic.

But due to media influence, I was still apprehensive upon arriving in Mexico City and was pleasantly surprised to find an airport better looking than New York’s JFK. The vast modern space of shiny glass and metal was clean and orderly, and my immigration officer said “ bien venida ” (happy arrival) with a smile as we parted ways. At least the movies were right about one thing — the locals are friendly!

Ana, my couchsurfing host, picked me up at the airport in her little white Tsuru. We charged into the oncoming traffic of gold-and-ruby Volkswagen cabs, buses and trucks like an errant bull. “Here we have to fight,” said Ana, motioning to the vehicles zipping by with hardly a flicker of a signal as they overtook and switched lanes, just as they do in Jakarta. I felt at home already.

I pride myself as a culinary explorer. Some people scale mountain peaks for adventure, but I gravitate to whatever crowd is gathering around a street vendor and request the same. Unfortunately, my barely passable Spanish complicates matters as the names of Mexican cuisine are as familiar to me as sand is to an Eskimo. I discovered this dilemma is easily solved by simply pointing or saying “ uno, por favor ” (one, please). I was often left with a fiery breath that could put a dragon to shame. I soon noticed that Mexican dishes are basically different interpretations of the staples of maize and beans, the latter of which can cause enough flatulence to raise a king-size blanket off its sheets.

Ana lives in the Perralvillo area, where the surrounding streets have names like Beethoven, Wagner and Caruso. In the mornings, the narrow street near Beethoven market was jam-packed with cars of all shapes and sizes, and in various states of disrepair. Mahogany-skinned men were at work, repainting the vehicles. They had taken over the street.

In Ana’s neighborhood, food vendors lined the sidewalks, a stone’s throw away from each other. Around them the elderly congregated, children played and women chattered. There I was, bearing witness to the country’s culture of three C’s: cars, Catholics and communal gatherings.

Ana estimated that there were 20 million people living in the massive urban sprawl. With such a dense population, there is no room for personal space. Bumping, grazing, knocking and colliding into people on the streets is as normal as breathing. Doing so while standing still, I discovered, was also entirely possible. I only started fretting about the remnants of swine flu when I saw a herd of pigs transported on an open truck through the center of town.

I fretted for nothing. Like the airport, the city was spotless. The roads were devoid of trash despite the high number of bodies and the lack of dustbins. Furthermore, the presence of paupers was as rare as blondes in the city of darkly coiffed Latinos. I had stumbled over more beggars on sunny San Diego’s sidewalks. In their place were lovers abound, from youths to geriatrics, displaying their desire for each other in every public place imaginable. Mexico City seems to have overtaken Paris as the “City of Love.”

Performing the most minimal of my duties as a tourist, I visited La Casa Azul, otherwise known as the Frida Kahlo Museum. It is named for the vibrant blue of the home where the unibrowed painter and her lover Diego Rivera resided for 25 years. It was full of the usual paraphernalia of such famous artists, such as a letter of gratitude to Albert Einstein and a portrait of Diego by Italian artist Modigliani.

But what I found most interesting was a sketch by Frida called “Ruina” (Ruin). “For Diego,” she had written in the corner. The pencil sketch of a cracked face was Frida’s reproach of her husband’s womanizing.

Yet theirs was a great love and artistic alliance that survived the distress of infidelities. Looking at the lovers on the streets of Mexico City, it isn’t hard to imagine them sharing the same fate, even as commoners.

My first impressions of Mexico may not have been filled with the madness and mayhem promised by the silver screen. Hollywood is allowed her hyperbole but I prefer Mexico just as she is.

(Photo @Jeff Kramer (Flickr: Cathedral) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

columnsTitania Veda