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).

1 comment:

2KoP said...

Dear Ardis, it sounds like you had such a wonderful trip. I appreciate the structure you put on your writing, giving your days there a form that might otherwise have been lost in the deluge of sensory details. It was a brilliant exercise, and your photographs are exquisite. Thank you for sharing your trip with us. I hope the writing on your artist profile goes as well. — Susan