Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mexico City

My temporary travelling companion, Kayo, has a compañero in Mexico City who put us up for a week following Cuba. It's a good thing to have a host in Mexico City. It is a megalopolis, monstrous and perplexing, with disconcerting traffic skirmishes over ribbons of highway that fray like sprung cable for miles, some propped fifty metres in the air on concrete stilts to clear the other roads below. Incongruous lilac jacarandas sprout amongst it all.

We caught the metro to Zócalo in the historic centre. At every stop hawkers got on and trawled the passengers, shouting refrains like paperboys to sell sweets and pens, or blasting music from eighties-era ghetto blasters to sell bootlegged CDs. They worked their way up the ageing turquoise carriages that shunted and jerked the passengers to the next group of hawkers waiting to board at the next stop.

Everyone has something to sell in Mexico. I have never met a people more entrepreneurial, more enterprising and more determined to trade than the Mexicans. And this is a national characteristic, not one of a specific culture; the poor indigenous of the South are as much tenacious vendors as the Hispanics of the north. There is a vitality in the streets. At a party in Mexico City, I spoke to a girl who commented to me: "I can't understand these Greeks and Spaniards I see on TV who complain that their economy has left them jobless. Why don't they get out and sell something?" This is the Mexican mentality: 'Yes, things are bad. It's the same for everyone! So do something about it.' I can not help but admire them.

The biggest flag I have ever seen wafts over the Zócalo, the Plaza del Constitución in the heart of the Centro Histórico, an expansive public square that fits the huge Catedral Metropolitana with enough space spare to taxi half a dozen jumbo jets. On one side of the Zócalo, the tidy streets are lined with upscale shops full of branded merchandise and chains like Starbucks. On the other side, half a kilometre away, the bustling streets are filled with street sellers hawking counterfeit brands, street food and tacos cooked over mobile stoves, and anything and everything else. Organ grinders in beige uniforms and captains' hats looking like unemployed bus drivers crank hurdy-gurdies on street corners while their unoccupied brethren ask cap-in-hand for donations to keep them cranking.

Then there are the intimidating federales. Black body armour cloaks their dark blue police uniforms, their faces masked beneath helmets. Pick-up trucks patrolled the streets with three standing in the bucket brandishing automatic rifles. These guys are not here to help. They are no-bullshit, dangerous, hard-arse enforcers.

Suddenly there was a ruckus on the street. A language of sharp whistles pierced the street din and vendors scrambled, grabbing the four corners of their groundsheets and bundling up their knock-off goods in one swift, practised motion. One man leapt into the intersection with a hand up to hold the cars like a traffic cop while watching over his shoulder a neat row of sellers sprint around the corner in versed manoeuvres. A few minutes later, two federales on foot patrolled the street. This must be the daily cat-and-mouse of life in downtown Mexico City.

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