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).

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