Follow on Twitter

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Love in the Heart of the City

 Me and Mexico City, hopelessly and utterly head over heels in love. We go back a long, long way; 26 years, to November 1989, if you really must know. New Kids on the Block sat atop that barometer of popular culture, the Hit Parade, suggesting that the halcyon-haloed decade that was the 1980s, had already fizzled out and was imploding, quite unspectacularly, as a wet fart rather than a damp squib. 
Naturally, I use Mexico City - or el DF (day-efe) - as a case study for my A level geography students. I tell them that were you to put your ear to the pavement you'd hear - and feel - the city's heart beating, to a loud, dissonant and idiosyncratic pulse. It has a reputation for being dirty and dangerous but worse things have happened to me in the English countryside. In my own home, to be precise. 
In any case, the city has cleaned up its act environmentally, if not politically, judging by the number of tooled-up riot police lining the streets of the centro historico (or centro histerico, as one waggish taxi driver liked to call it). In any case, in Mexico as everywhere else, the presence of security forces on the street is usually evidence of the state protecting itself rather than its citizens. 
Though I now consider myself a 'veteran' of travel in Mexico and Central America, twenty six years ago I was pretty much a virgin, having never ventured beyond the confines of Western Europe. Thus arriving in Mexico City came as something as a shock to the system and although, like losing one's viginity, that experience of waking up for the first time in the world's greatest city is one that can never be replicated, the thrill is still there. Benito Juarez International airport - named after the contintent's first indigenous president - was once on the outskirts of the metropolis but has long since been swallowed up by the city's inexorable growth and is only a few kilometres from the centro historico. Although, at long last, the construction of a new airport was finally approved in 2014, until it opens in eight years time, travellers arriving by night will continue to enjoy one of the world's great nocturnal wonders, circling the illuminated City, light stretching out towards and beyond the horizon on all sides, pitching above Zocalo with tail-lights sparking like red stars in slow motion, vertiginuously below. After a long and interminable flight the heart skips a beat, it feels like coming home.
The first time, twenty six years ago, my close friend The Consultant and I were en route to  Nicaragua to spend some time with the Sandinistas whom we would subsequently witness being bundled out of office by a rag-tag, improbable opposition. Mrs Thatcher was still in her pomp, we were two of many who fled political reality to follow ideological flights of fancy elsewhere. After five months circumnavigating the isthmus we returned for a final week in Mexico City, our Sunday departure affording views of the sparkling, snow-capped summits of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl through the one-day-a-week clear air. 
In 1989 I was not who I now am and when I returned in 1997 my personal landscape was much altered and The Consultant was no longer at my side. I remained naive but now I was a lot more vulnerable, undermined by memories oozing from the crumbling edifices and the sinking soil. Everywhere I went I heard Sinead O'Connor's haunting tones: nothing compares to you. Was she singing about The Consultant or Mexico City? Or both? 
I passed through again in 2001 then in 2007 with my sister. Two sisters on holiday together; sounds like a nightmare but somehow it worked. She spoke no Spanish so I was in charge; the pain, if not absent, was now just simmering away, the past beginning to be drowned out by the present. Time was working its wonders. In 2008, following a disastrous attempt to migrate to El Salvador, I foreswore Latin America, told myself I'd never return and set my sights on Spain. 
Never say never, of course. I turned 50 and somehow squirrelled away a bit of cash; raging against the imminent fading of the light I yielded to the feisty temptress that is my inner physical geographer. She demanded fire and earth, I whisked her away, back to Mexico and Central America. It was supposed to be for one last time but we're already planning next winter's return. 
I'm now a tutor, psychogeographer and PhD student, specialising in landscape experience and cultural geograph so the first trip of the vacation seemed a logical one: a derive across the city to see whether, in the light of the seismic autoethnographic shifts that had changed so much of my character, it had changed.
The Cathedral, the largest in Latin America, stands in the heart of the city, by the Zocalo with its immense Mexican flag. If I were to delve deep into the recesses of my psyche, where landscape and memory dwell, these two symbols of Mexico City would loom large.

Alongside with the physical geography, I was also keen to explore the changing nature of religous place and space in Mexico and Central America, not least because the region played an instrumental role in reconfiguring and re-orientating my Catholic faith. Above, Julia Klug protesting, in the Zocalo, not against the Catholic Church per se but against its numerous abuses. A brave woman! Below, a nun selling street food.

The Clausura of the sixteenth centuty nun and proto-feminist, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, now a university catering mostly, it seemed, to catering studies

After the Cathedral, my next port of call is invariably the market, drawn by the noise, activity and chaos. The Latin American market remains, for me, a constant source of fascination.

The state protecting itself

Zona Rosa - the posh part of town
Edeficios borrachos: sinking and shifting buildings
Monument to the Revolution. Plus striking teachers.

The security quarter

No comments:

Post a Comment