Friday, November 7, 2008

Love ∩ Take care of dear friends

Yesterday evening, my friend Ross was supposed to meet me. Instead, I went to the last place he was on this earth. He was a true friend and a very fine man.

Ross Gordon, August 19, 1965 - November 6, 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Travel ∩ Reaching out to Chilangos*

Part 5 in a week-long series on exploring Mexico City through the five senses.

Class dictates touchable from untouchable in unexpected ways –

Human contact requires thinking outside the box

When I see Angeles for the first time on this trip to Mexico City, she comes through the gate that separates her apartment building’s front door from the sidewalk, takes my right hand lightly in her fingers and brushes my left cheek with hers. It is a greeting, Mexicana style, between two women who have not seen each other in a while. When I encounter other women of middle class, whether I have met them before or not, this is standard human contact. With men, there may be a heartier handshake, but usually no kiss.

Touch can be the most startling of the five senses for a solo traveler when a foreign place and its language(s) are barrier enough from other people. Few people bump into me in crowded markets, yet we are packed together in metro cars, hands slightly touching as we grasp a pole when the train lurches. With perhaps two exceptions, I am the only person of obvious northern European descent I see on the trains the nine days I am here, yet when I visit the tony colonias of Condessa and Polanco, I could be in Manhattan or on Rodeo Drive and feel the stark difference.

On Sunday, my cab driver warns me that I am going to a dangerous neighborhood when I request we drive to Mercado Jamaica. He keeps looking at me in the rear view mirror and telling me to be careful. The neighborhood we enter is full of broken concrete and is largely treeless, but so many colonias in Mexico City are this dense and crumbling. When I wander the market’s outskirts, a woman stops and asks me what I am looking for. The Jamaica flower market, as it turns out, is several miles south of the vegetable and meat market. She leans in close as we examine my metro map and repeats her directions to me, looking me in the eye.

When I arrive at the correct market and start searching for a friend among the miles of aisles and thousands of people, we miraculously find each other within minutes. She embraces me in a long, strong hug.

Later, after she has left for an appointment, I stay behind to find unusual things to eat. At one of the few stands I find that sell chapulines (fried grasshoppers), the young woman who runs it wants to know about Chicago and tells me about her town, Puebla, three hours away. She drives in to the market every Saturday and Sunday to sell fruits, peanuts and flour. She is a student during the week but has little time to study because she works. “My father lives in Philadelphia,” she tells me twice and grows quiet each time. I thank her for telling me about the chapulines.

Most people look away, hide their faces or whistle to their neighbors in warning when they see my camera. I can’t blame them because what is a novelty to me is their way of life not put on display for me to photograph.

Yet, some of the people running stalls at Jamaica break into smiles and laugh when I show them the photo I have just taken – one of the distinct advantages of using a digital camera with a large screen. An elderly lady blushes at first and then beams when I show her what she looks like in her dress, the color of the blue and white corn flour she is selling. “Abuelita! What do you think of that?” her grandson says looking from the screen to his grandmother.

Other encounters in this market are not so friendly. After snapping a picture of a pick-up truck filled with marigolds, one of the young men standing beside it waves me away shouting admonishments. I don’t dare show him his photo and feel like such a gringa as I slink away saying “yeah, yeah,” to show him I’m not rattled (but I am).

Monday night I am fortunate to be invited to an exclusive party at a hotel in Polanco, a neighborhood home to some of Mexico City’s priciest real estate, galleries and boutiques. It is a fundraiser for MexFam, a family-planning non-profit that raises funds at this annual event. This year they invited many of the country’s leading artists to decorate display boxes with multiple-hinged lids, which they will auction off. Some are painted with Impressionist-style landscapes or stark abstract lines. One is covered in cracked mirrors. Another sprouts black rubber tubes.

I meet some of Mexico City’s leading architects, society ladies and business people. There are government power brokers and celebrities all around me in costly clothes and stylish haircuts. Beautiful women eye one another, while men in beautiful suits sip cocktails. These people do not faze me because I don’t know who I am looking at. I speak broken Spanish as I take the occasionally proffered hand and juggle a flute of champagne.

The auction begins as a long line of waiters each takes a decorated box to the front of the room where he places it on a spotlighted, mirrored pedestal that rotates to show the audience its angles. The auctioneer opens the bids for each box at five thousand pesos and pushes the price higher and higher, looking directly into bidders’ faces. Their challenges bounce back and forth across the room. “Siete mil pesos! Diez mil pesos! Diez quinientos? Once mil pesos!

An untitled box with the wiggly, spare lines of a man’s portrait by famous Mexican artist José Luis Cuevas goes for more than three thousand dollars. Everyone applauds. Another box covered in exuberant blue, red and green paint by Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo goes for a bit less. And then a waiter sets a box on the flashing pedestal covered in profiles of priests or noblemen dressed in brocades and proffering gifts. It is painted in the style of the Italian Renaissance. I am excited about this box because it is called Los Cinco Sentidos – The Five Senses. This has been a fascinating evening – rare contact with Mexico City’s most privileged class. Yet I am just a voyeur. I take this box’s title as a sign that I have come to Mexico for the right reasons. The bidding starts and soon edges higher. “Six thousand pesos,” the auctioneer urges. “Do we have seven? Seven! Eight thousand, five hundred? Nine? We have nine! Do we have nine thousand, five hundred? Yes! Ten thousand? Ten thousand pesos? Nine thousand, five hundred it is!” The gavel bangs and the audience claps politely. The Five Senses has brought in nearly a thousand dollars for a good cause, but infinitely more for me on my last night in Mexico City.

*"Chilango" is slang for a resident of Mexico City. It can be affectionate or derogatory, depending on who is using it. In this case, I intend an absolutely positive meaning!

All photos by Ardis Berghoff. First photo: Two women enjoy one of the many benches along the Paseo de la Reforma on a Sunday. Second photo: A woman sells chapulines and more from her stand at the Mercado Jamaica. Third photo: An elderly woman sells corn flour at the Mercado Jamaica. Fourth photo: Cover of the auction brochure for Las Cajas Mágicas. Fifth photo: The box called Los Cinco Sentidos (The Five Senses).

Travel ∩ Mexico City’s good taste

From sour to sweet to crunchy, new food means a new world

Part 4 in a week-long series on exploring Mexico City through the five senses.

An army travels on its stomach and so do I. Some of Mexico City’s flavors are easy on the palate; others are strange and new. Here, in pictures more than words, are some of the ways the sense of taste can transport you through this city, especially during Day of the Dead preparations. (All photos are by Ardis Berghoff, who took most of them October 26, 2008, at the Mercado Jamaica in Mexico City.)

The official fruit of Mexico should be the lime. From the sweet-sour limonada made with sparkling water, to a wedge squeezed over chunks of watermelon, papaya, cantaloupe, banana and pineapple for breakfast, its addition is simple and delicious.

Chili powder can be dusty sweet on sopes de pollo (shredded chicken, lettuce and tangy cheese piled on small, soft corn tortillas). Molé can look like melted chocolate (because it often contains cocoa) but can carry chili’s hot bite, too.

Pomegranates the size of softballs quench a thirst.

Dark red chapulines (fried grasshoppers) are a Oaxacan delicacy, but a woman from Puebla was selling these in Mexico City. You can eat them straight – they have a pleasing crunch, then chew a bit like soft wood and release a salty, earthy tang.

This German woman has lived in Mexico City for twenty-five years and loves to cook chapulines with garlic and onions and add them to tacos along with salsa, saying she likes the way they crunch and appreciates their protein. She’d just bought a bagful to take home.

Nopalitos are chopped cactus paddles (nopales) that have been scraped of their thorns. They emit their own clear ooze. When boiled and then tossed with peppers, onions and other vegetables and chilled, they make a refreshing and nutritious salad.

Camotes [sweet potatoes] are slow-cooked in copper kettles and end up sweet and tender.

They may look like pan de muerto (bread rolls for Day of the Dead), but these brown twists are made from a paste of tart tamarind and lots of granulated sugar, which gives them crunch.

Dulce de calabaza is roasted squash that is so sweet Mexicans eat it for dessert during Day of the Dead festivities.

The fuschia-colored sugar of these galletas (cookies) represents the blood of Christ. These cookies were on display next to Day of the Dead sugar skulls, an example of Mexicans' penchant for synchronizing various religions and traditions.

Sugar skulls ornamented to celebrate Day of the Dead line up under their leader, whose colorful serpent plumes are the maker’s version of an Aztec king’s headdress. Families save these skulls to put out annually on altars to deceased relatives, while children love the chocolate versions for dessert. Note how Mexicans mix Day of the Dead and Halloween traditions.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Travel ∩ Led by the nose through Mexico City

Falling headlong into what is wondrous and dangerous about this place

Part 3 in a week-long series on exploring Mexico City through the five senses.

To someone who has been in Mexico City for a matter of days, a few aromas start to define it. There is the cozy, slightly nutty smell of corn tortillas cooking on street vendors’ griddles, the smell of wet stone as a woman scrubs away gritty pollution from a sidewalk with soap and water, and the scent of soap again radiating from warm bodies packed into a metro train, where the temperature reaches ninety degrees even though it is sixty-eight above ground.

My friend and fellow Mexicophile, Richard, cites warm tortillas, too, as an aroma that defines this city for him and practically transports him to heaven, he says. He also mentions the whiff of sewer gas as you walk over sidewalk grates. These are smells noted by someone on the move through Mexico City.

Then there are the aromas that define this place for people who have lived a lifetime here – the kinds of triggers our brains produce that bring back childhood or worry the mind every day. Cab driver Gilberto, a compact man with thick, silvered hair, fears the smell of contaminación, the pollution that burns his eyes and irritates his throat. He wonders if his cancer is connected to the poisonous gases in the air. He worries about its effect on his four grown children and seven grandchildren. “It is fatal,” he says. “It is worst November through January, because the cold air does not rise, and you cannot see the mountains or buildings in the distance.”

Gilberto acknowledges that he drives one of the thousands of cabs whose fumes turn the air sweet by 1 p.m. “There were five million people living in Mexico City when I moved here from Veracruz forty years ago,” he says in Spanish. “Now there are five million cars and twenty-five million people.”

Gilberto takes me to the Mercado San Cosme in the colonia San Rafael to show me what locals buy for the Day of the Dead on November 1. The holiday is almost as big as Christmas for Mexicans, for it is when they celebrate the memory of those they love who are no longer living. Among the things they buy as offerings to put on an altar are la flor del muerto, the flower of the dead – what we know as marigolds. When I ask a woman who runs a stall selling these flowers what aroma reminds her most of Mexico City, she scoops up loose marigold petals like water in her palms and breathes in their perfume-sharp scent. “This smell,” she says in Spanish, “because I have known it my entire life and it reminds me of my grandmother.”

I asked Gilberto to take me to this market because I want to smell copal, gray nuggets of tree resin that Mexicans burn in small pots as incense on their altars during this season. The acrid smoke hangs heavily in the air. Smelling a bit like church incense but earthier, this is the aroma that first defined Mexico for Carol Miller, the sculptress and book author I have interviewed for a profile I am writing. “It was so powerful, I had to know what it was,” she says. “It was my first time in a Mexican market, and it was during the Day of the Dead preparations. I could not believe all the color, all the life around me. I have associated the scent of copal with Mexico ever since.”

Indeed, in my next posting, I’ll describe the adventure that Carol, her husband, Tomás, and I had two days later at the Mercado Jamaica – the largest flower market in Mexico City – where copal leads you by the nose into a dizzying world of color, sound and tastes found nowhere else but Mexico.

Above photos by Ardis Berghoff. The first photo shows a small altar for Dia de los Muertos, with marigolds and copal burning. The second photo shows rows of marigolds -- or la flor del muerto, for sale. The third photo shows copal nuggets and nuggets of another incense known as lágrimas (tears).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Travel ∩ Exploring Mexico City by ear

Hearing voices from fifty years ago and today

Part 2 in a week-long series on exploring Mexico City through the five senses.

On one level, Mexico City sounds like any other metropolis to a traveler. Business people in restaurants discuss the day’s meetings over breakfast. A hundred cars idle at a light as you cross the street. Sirens wail and young men mutter comments to women walking past. Mexico City adds other sounds. Mariachi music bounces from a store on Genova Street, while one block down a club band plays Chicago blues. Peppers sizzle on a street vendor’s griddle. And subway trains emerge from tunnels with a muffled whoosh thanks to fat rubber tires.

But have a conversation with a long-time resident or simply sit in one place for two hours, and more telling voices emerge. Tuesday morning takes me to the home of Carol Miller, a prolific writer and sculptress who has lived in Mexico City since she arrived here by bus from Los Angeles more than fifty years ago. At the time she was a nineteen-year-old eager to write about the “real” Mexico and make her mark in the art world. She barely made a living selling ads for tourist magazines but started meeting at parties some of the people who had moved to Mexico City during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s to flee Nazism, war and McCarthyism. Mexico had just come through a decades-long revolution of its own that left tens of thousands dead, and its government welcomed intellectuals, artists, writers and other individuals who could lend their talents to creating a new, national identity for the country while celebrating its ancient past.

Among the people Carol became friends with were artists Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo, public health nurse Lini de Vries, gastronome Diana Kennedy and an architect who would become one of Mexico’s most famous, Louis Barragán. She turned small writing assignments into a full-time correspondent’s position with Life magazine and started writing books about Mexico’s people, civilizations and mythology. Soon she was traveling the world, comparing cultures in Asia, South America and the Middle East with the world she’d come to love in Mexico. And thanks to a Life profile she wrote about sculptress Charlotte Yazbeck, Carol learned to sculpt in bronze. Her human and feline figures “are another form of research,” she says, into learning about humanity and the forces that hold her fast to her adopted country.

Carol lives in Pedregal, a neighborhood thirty minutes south of the city center. Built on volcanic rock, while most of Mexico City rests on a spongy ancient lakebed that is highly vulnerable to earthquakes, Pedregal emerged in the 1950s as an exclusive neighborhood of walled homes designed by Barragán and several other Modern architects. Among their peers were the architects involved in the design of a new, central campus for the city’s largest university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Also in Pedregal, it represented the most modern thinking of the time while incorporating murals and other architectural details that reflected Mexico’s proud pre-Columbian heritage. Diego Rivera and Juan O’Gorman, another architect and artist, designed the campus’ most famous murals.

Today, college students walk past the murals chatting with friends and smoking. You smell weed in the air while other weeds grow between the volcanic paving stones and litter lies across lawns. The landmark buildings need cleaning and restoration. But as I sit on a low wall in one plaza, I hear groups of friends erupt in laughter, the persistent rhythms of student drummers practicing on a nearby lawn and dozens of simultaneous conversations coming from the open windows of classrooms in a long building with the starkness of 1950s Modern. Through a set of speakers perched by themselves on a balcony three stories above comes the distorted blare of a female voice reciting a speech. She talks of the university and their work. Then another female voice recites poetry about the sea, the sky and her place in the world. Students keep walking across the plaza below, smoking their cigarettes and holding hands. No one seems to be listening, but it is oddly comforting to see this makeshift sound system all by itself up there, while graffiti on the balcony above it reads, “Atención libertad: castigo a Fox, Peña, Nieto.” Look out, liberty: punishment for Fox, Peña, Nieto – a message for several Mexican leaders.

All photos by Ardis Berghoff. The first photo shows Carol Miller in her studio. The second photo shows the library, with murals designed by Juan O'Gorman on its walls, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico campus, University City, Mexico City. The third photo shows a classroom building on campus. The blaring speaker is the small, silver box perched on the third-floor balcony.The graffiti is barely visible on the uppermost balcony.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Travel ∩ Mexico City’s public displays of nudity and affection

The City’s a Feast for the Eyes
Part 1 in a week-long series on exploring Mexico City through the five senses.

The Valley of Mexico sparkles with a billion pavé diamonds as my plane comes in low over Mexico City late Sunday night. The white and yellow lights of neighborhoods, streets and cars run across vast flatland, over hills and up volcanoes as high as they dare go before the sides grow too steep for human civilization.

While I have flown into this city – one of the densest and most sprawling in the world – during daylight several times, I have never seen its 20 million people’s worth of buildings and pavement from on high at night before. The sight makes me smile while fireworks sprout and burst over some colonia celebrating something fantastic I am sure.

As my taxi takes me to my hotel, I spot a fire-breather at an intersection. He takes a swig of a combustible liquid from a plastic bottle and lights his breath with a torch. The flame shoots into the dark and is gone in a second. He repeats this act seven times and then goes car to car, but no one gives him change.

What a traveler sees through her own eyes makes the strongest first impression of a foreign place, and my first full day here is no exception. I know better than to expect this city to be the bright pinks, oranges, yellows and reds of travel posters. Instead, it is a visual barrage of concrete, coconut palms dulled with the thick dust of pollution, slick corporate high rises and crumbling Spanish colonial mansions encrusted with baroque limestone and rusting iron balconies.

It is the brown-skinned backs of dozens of shirtless campesinos and their naked wives I see as I walk up one of the city’s main drags, the Paseo de la Reforma, past boutique hotels and the U.S. Embassy. The men are wearing blue jeans and straw cowboy hats as they dance and raise fists from their perch on a traffic median. Their women wear their own straw hats and sandals as they stomp to a drumbeat that makes their sagging breasts and buttocks jiggle and the black triangles below their abdomens glint in the sunlight. These men and women are farmers from the country and they are protesting government indifference and high taxes. A thousand cars wait silently at the stoplight and passersby continue up the avenue with hardly a smile or smirk. The few laughs come from a thousand policemen dressed in black shin-guards and blue bulletproof uniforms as they stand in their own lines down side streets, scratched Plexiglas shields raised and ready.

I walk east on Juarez to the Torre Latinoamericana, where I take the elevator to the top. The doors open to let people out into gray-partitioned offices before we reach the observation deck, where Mexico City’s skyline explodes before my eyes in sunlight, sky, cumulus clouds and sprawl. Now I laugh out loud at the scale of it all.

I ride the metro a lot today. It is an easy-to-navigate system and at less than 20 cents a pop, is one of the best deals going. In the underground Juarez station, three rivers of humanity come at me as I search for my train. Soon I am flowing along with everyone, following the giant yellow arrows on the foot-polished stone floors that direct us through endless corridors to make trains on the pink, green, red and blue lines. Light-skinned faces with the thin-lidded eyes and aquiline noses of Spaniards pass me along with dark-brown faces whose square foreheads and magnificent chiseled noses remind me of profiles of ancient gods on Aztec petroglyphs.

I stand packed up against people swaying on the train taking us to Insurgentes. A blind man pushes through commuters as he hawks CDs, a boom box strapped to his chest sampling his wares at top volume.

The article I am writing about mid-century Modern architecture in Mexico City takes me from one end of the city to the other today as I find landmark buildings, photograph them and scribble notes. A friend told me before I left on this trip how affectionate Mexicanos are. I see middle-age couples entwined in parks, teenage girls and boys necking in subway corridors and two boys French kissing in the Zona Rosa. Still more couples in business suits sit at Starbucks, looking into each other’s eyes, holding hands, and stroking arms, cheeks, thighs.

What a sight.

Photos by Ardis Berghoff. The first photo shows an enamel mural, "Alegoría de los Símbolos Patrios y Solidaridad," by Adrián Brun, in Exposition Hall at the Centro Médico Nacional in Mexico City. The second photo shows the Mexico City skyline looking north from the Torre Latinoamericana.