just a little fiesta, and mexico city

June 3, 2013

The second week of my Spanish course at Habla Hispana went as smoothly as the first, culminating in a fiesta held for the third birthday of my host family’s grandson, Santí, on my final day. Maria described the party as ‘just a little fiesta. Only 120 guests’.

The day was a long and elaborate affair, beginning at 12pm in a church with a priest performing rites before a kneeling Santí who looked a little dazed, yet satisfied with the attention being laid upon him, and very cute in his white linen short and shirt combo.

The party continued on to Santí’s house which was decked out with multicoloured chairs and tables decorated with cactus plants, a jumping castle and a huge spread of food – mole, tortillas, barbecued pork, frijoles, pickled chillies. A 3-year-old’s nirvana of lollies was beautifully displayed on hay stacks and a large wooden cable reel, along with a cake featuring miniature, edible cacti, horses and a little cowboy. Everyone was dressed in their finery, the women in gravity-defying heels and the men in their finest shirts and sombreros.

Santi with his birthday cake

The children raided the lolly table and then ran riot through the garden and on the jumping castle, pausing briefly to play the piñatas or for a scavenger hunt. The mothers, unable to wrangle the children for musical chairs, ended up engaging in a fiercely competitive round of their own, tottering impressively around the chairs in their stilettos. For the most part, the adults drank beers and margaritas and watched the children tear around in the increasing velocity of their sugar highs. The night ended adorably with a glassy-eyed, sugar-highed Santí, dressed in a cowboy outfit complete with sombrero, initiating a slow dance with a little girl in a frothy, purple party dress.

By this time my compañero de casa – Luke – and I had begun a cute little romance. Through the course of our weekend day trips and afternoon homework sessions something had blossomed. The birthday party was our last day together so we spent it somewhat sombrely, secretly holding hands beneath the table like two clandestine teenagers. The following day I was set to take a bus to Mexico City, Luke had a further week of Spanish at Habla Hispana to go.

Karma:

The next day Luke saw me off at the bus station. The scene had an element of karma in it for me. It made me recall a similar scene, only in reverse, that I had encountered when backpacking around Europe. On my bus ride from Florence to Venice I ended up sitting next to a tearful and hungover Australian. As the bus departed she clammily leant over me and cried and waved out of the window to a similarly dishevelled-looking man standing by the side of the road. Once we’d lost sight of him, and the woman had composed herself, she explained that she had just had to say goodbye to her ‘boyfriend’. ‘How long have you been together?’ I asked. They’d met at a camp-site last week. As she dry retched into a plastic bag I passed silent judgement on the level of drama generated around the inevitable conclusion of a holiday romance.

Fast-forward 10 years and I`m ensconced in a melancholy last embrace with a man I had just barely gotten to know. Though in my defence I was neither dry-retching nor sobbing.

Fortunately, during his walk home Luke had an epiphany and realised that an adventure in Mexico City would be much more fun than a final week with the eccentrics at Habla Hispana. The following day Luke took a bus to Mexico City and a beautiful little week exploring the sprawl and wilds of the city ensued.

Walking the City:

We wandered the streets, making our way through the strange happenings unfolding in the Plaza de la Constitución. We saw traditional rites involving fragrant smoke, conches, bunches of herbs and drums performed by men and women in leather loin cloths, feather headdresses with taxidermy animal heads and rattling shell anklets. There was a tent city occupying much of the square, seemingly protesting something, however the subject of the protest and the protesters were always difficult to spot. On my last night in Mexico City the wind was high and there was a dramatic sunset spreading itself amongst the clouds and lightening. Hundreds of people stood in the square flying kites or lying on the ground and watching it all unfold. I went underground into the Zócalo Metro stop and encountered crowds of people with bandanas around their face who had co-opted the metro and forced the gates open. The masked people were shouting for commuters to enter through the barriers without paying. I went back up to ground level and found a dozen police cars and vans descending on the scene, amongst ash and smoke from a nearby fire. Alone at this point and a little spooked I made a hasty getaway.

Kite-flying in Zocalo

Normally visits to the metro were less tumultuous and Luke and I had fun negotiating the system, doing our best to devour rapidly melting ice creams whilst staying upright when the trains came to sudden and jerky halts. The metros were populated with Mexican couples locked in noisy, passionate embraces; PDAs that I hadn`t expected in quite the quantity that we encountered them.

We made the mistake of making eye contact with a clown in the middle of his act in a public park. Before we quite knew what was happening Luke had been incorporated into the act and cajoled into competing in a dance competition with some other innocent bystanders. Luke stood surrounded by a circle of around 100 onlookers, whilst I stationed myself nearby and considered escape routes. After `competing` in stages including the chicken dance, salsa and playing dead, Luke was declared the winner and festooned with gifts of balloons shaped into a crown, belt, revolver, magic wand and more. Winning a dance competition really is no small feat in a country where people are serious about their salsa and even a 3 year old instinctively sees the night out slow dancing with his lady. After the competition concluded and Luke was released several bystanders approached and requested photographs with the foreigner in his inflatable finery. Having performed his duties to his fans Luke and I distributed the balloons to a hoard of eager children and made a hasty getaway, never to look a clown in the eye again.

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Another day we spent taking the bus out to Teotihuacan, a complex of pyramids and location of what was once Mexcoamerica`s greatest city. The journey began and ended with thorough checks of each passenger`s bag and person, and the bus driver recording the face and seat of each passenger with a video camera. Apparently hijacking has become a problem on this particular route. The structures at Teotihuacan were grandiose and an impressive feat of 1st century technology and manpower. We spent the afternoon sitting atop the third biggest pyramid in the world, admiring the view and watching the sky.

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We adopted the Mexican habit of the siesta with relish, making use of the wifi in our hostel to have cultural show-and-tell YouTube parties. I got a crash course in rodeoing, skiing and the landscape of Colorado. Luke was introduced to Australiana via clips of Muriel`s Wedding, The Castle, Priscilla Queen of the Dessert and Strictly Ballroom. As far as cultural nous goes Luke probably had the upper hand. Whereas I have never really seen snow before, nor do I even really feel down with Australian culture at the best of times, it turns out that Luke is a Man from Snowy River fan from way back, and even dressed in theme one Halloween.

We had a few outings to some great bars that would easily have fit in the laneways and rooftops of Melbourne. I wasn`t expecting such an accessible, young and creative culuture in Mexico City. A highlight was a mezcal bar in which a very knowledgeable bartender took charge and lead us on a tasting tour of mezcals from across Mexico. Our drinks were accompanied by fruit covered in chilli powder and a meal of blue tortillas with melted cheese, crickets, cactus, chillies, salsas and beans. We found another bar atop various levels of exhibition spaces and studios with a great live band AND palatable wine (joy of joys).

We visited the house where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived their magical lives. For me this was something of a pilgrammage – I`d wanted to visit the blue house ever since I was little. The collection of artwork wasn`t remarkable, but the experience of being inside the space that Frida and Diego created and inhabited was profound and intimate. Poignant details included the tiny bed from which Frida painted when her body failed her, her workspace including a wheelchair and customised easel given to her by Nelson Rockerfeller, Frida`s ashes stored in her bedroom inside a pottery urn in the shape of a toad (a reference to Diego), and a poem written by Patti Smith to Frida Kahlo after Patti had visited the house (this was particularly timely for me because I`d just finished reading the beautiful Patti Smith memoir Just Kids):

Noguchi’s Butterflies

I can not walk

I can not see

Further than what

Is in front of me

I lay on my back

yet I do not cry

Transported in space by the butterflies.

Above my bed

Another sky

With the wings you sent

Within my sight

All pain dissolves

In another light

Transported thru

Time

By the butterfly

This little song

Came to me

Like a little gift as I stood

Beside the bed of Frida.

I give it to you with much love,

Patti Smith

More farewells:

With our time up again Luke and I said farewell, this time with Luke making his way back to Eagle and me boarding an overnight bus to Oaxaca. Again, I`m proud to note that I was neither dry-retching nor sobbing, though I did spend the 6 hour overnight bus trip mooching and staring out the window as if I were a teenager again, listening to music in an attempt at drowning out the incessantly coughing man and his crying baby son sitting behind me.

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