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.



Hi Ardis, I'm very interested in your article on mid-century architecture. I've been collecting a file on Aztec Deco buildings (addresses all over the city), which I'd be happy to share with you.
Best wishes, Jim Johnston

2KoP said...

Wonderful, Ardis. As usual, your writing is a sensual feast — this time for the eyes. I can't wait for your other entries. Just FYI, I think the street artist you saw is known as a "fire breather". "Fire eaters" on the other hand were a group of pro-slavery southern politicians who favored secession.

Have a good safe trip and keep up the good writing. Susan

Girl on a Hill said...

Thanks, 2kop, for pointing this out. The person I saw was indeed a fire breather, not a fire eater. The term "fire eater" applies to artists as well, who place flaming objects into their mouths, as opposed to breathing through a combustible liquid at a burning torch.

Girl on a Hill said...

Hi, Jim. Thanks for your offer. I'll e-mail you separately about the article.