We descend through the last layer of cloud, and Mexico City is spread out below us, a red, white and gray metropolis covering the entire Valley of Mexico, and it’s climbing relentlessly up the sides of the valley. 21 million people – – isn’t it one of the planet’s biggest cities? – – live here.
Mexico City is, of course, a Spanish colonial city, built by Cortes after he had destroyed the original city of the Aztecs. The modern city has a European flavor: the tree-lined Paseo de la Reforma is modeled after the Champs Elysees; sleek cars stream down the boulevards and sleek people lounge and stroll.
We are staying in the Pink Zone, known for its bars and restaurants and its relaxed attitude. Trees here are decorated with little lights; pavement cafes are welcoming; men can walk hand in hand and feel quite safe in the Zona Rosa. Foreign tourists used to congregate here, but these days Mexico attracts few visitors.
Away from the center we plunge into a third-world country with alarming traffic (lanes are merely guidelines and Stop signs seem to be optional), garbage-strewn streets, spray-painted graffiti, garish advertising, beggars, and pervasive poverty.
Markets are everywhere – – the permanent kind that can occupy several blocks and the more spontaneous kind that spring up impromptu when someone has a few knick-knacks or home-grown vegetables to sell, laying them out carefully on the sidewalk sometimes with a makeshift plastic roof.
Soon we leave for Huamantla, a town in the state of Tlaxcala to the north of Mexico City. Along with the majority of ordinary Mexicans we take the bus, a long-distance luxurious bus containing all amenities including TV screens and a functioning restroom. It is jaw-droppingly cheap and a comfortable vantage point from which to watch the changing scenery. We head out of Mexico City and its choked traffic and up over the mountains to an eventual altitude of 8500 feet.
The road climbs and winds; we’re in agricultural country. On either side are fields of maize, beans and squash, their leaves shining in the rain. Low cloud and then forested hillsides. Recent storms moving west from the Gulf of Mexico have dumped an awful lot of rain on this part of the country.
We pass through villages on pot-holed roads. No trees. A stray dog walks purposefully across the road as if on a mission. Someone is making tortillas at a tiny stand under a homemade plastic awning. Where are the customers? I see no one. Small, rudimentary houses of gray cement cubes. They are either unfinished or dilapidated to the point of falling down. They all have a temporary look, though many sprout satellite dishes. Here again in the country are the ubiquitous hand-painted signs. One of them improbably advertises REFLEXOLOGY AND AROMA THERAPY as we hurtle through another impoverished pueblo.
Huamantla is a town that I am returning to after five years, but not much has changed. It is still full of life. Everyone seems to be outside; the streets are rivers of people out for a stroll or to buy some food. This phenomenon, I think, is common to poor countries. The luxury of staying at home, isolated in your own comfortable space, exists here only for the wealthy few. For the rest, there’s not much attraction to staying inside a small airless, overcrowded cluttered house. Much better to go the Plaza, the town’s center. Here you can while away an afternoon on a shady bench, relax and perhaps eat an ice cream.
In the Plaza Benito Juarez, teenagers flirt; children chase the pigeons; old men read or doze; lovers entwine themselves around each other. The bougainvillea blooms extravagantly and the starlings make a racket in the trees. There seem to be children and babies everywhere. The babies are always elaborately wrapped in blankets, even on hot days and I wonder why. I note with delight that the blind man who regularly watered the grass here five years ago is still here doing his job. The Catholic Church, Our Lady of Charity, is of course still here with its loud, clanging, oddly non-reverberating bell that sounds just outside our hotel window at least six times a day. It sounds like someone beating a metal garbage can lid with an iron bar!
There is a shop for everything: no department stores or supermarkets. A shop for plucked chickens hanging by their feet; a stationery supply shop; a shop filled with coffins; a shop whose walls are lined with backpacks. Doors are open and proprietors stand in the doorways ready to sell, or just to chat. I stop to buy a hat and the assistant speaks perfect English. “Where did you learn it?” I ask.
“In California, in Illinois, all over.”
“What made you come back here?”
“I was deported.”
This is a town without pretensions, though it celebrates every August with its feria, an annual homage to the Virgin Mary. Three weeks of merry-making, complete with fireworks, beauty queens, bullfights, marching bands and most spectacular of all, intricate “paintings” which decorate the streets, made of flowers, colored sawdust, or sand. The highlight is La Noche que nadie duerme, “the night when no one sleeps”.
Juan, who owns a coffee shop where one can sit for hours, and who once was an opera singer in San Francisco, says drily that the people of Huamantla have an inordinate love of fireworks. So irritated was he that he moved out of the town deep into the countryside, cycling in every day on his bike.
There is a delight in color here. I am captivated by walls painted in vibrant shades of yellow or blue or lime green; the extraordinary sand paintings are ephemeral works of art. Hours to create; destroyed in seconds. A quite ordinary restaurant will bring you a plate of fruit at breakfast time: slices of papaya, mango, melon and cactus pear, carefully cut and arranged, fan-like, with care and attention, with artistry. People passing your table often wish you politely, “buen aprovecho”: “enjoy your meal.”
Friendliness is genuine; there is almost universal courtesy, easy good manners and hospitality. And when you’re introduced to people (who perhaps you’ll never seen again), the unfailing ritual of introductions and handshakes all round. Eye contact. And then the same thing when you say good-bye. Murmurings of “Mucho gusto”, or “Encantado”, etc. Everyone is included. These are not the ultra-casual manners of the US and the UK. but their source seems to me to be an innate and natural courtesy. Small children know these rituals and shake hands shyly when introduced.
Mexico is a poor country with some desperate problems. But the richness and alegria of its everyday life is enviable. Mexicans seem to know how to “live in the moment” (something our mental health gurus are constantly urging us to do) and to be able to enjoy simple pleasures. We could learn something from them.
Retired high school English teacher Brenda Tipps joined OLLI-USF in 2007. Brenda has been a longtime member of the Great Books discussion group, has taught many courses for OLLI including Readers Theater, poetry and drama. In Fall 18 she is co-teaching Three Dramas from Three Centuries.