Beyond the Wall – Part One

Started by Jubal, March 12, 2024, 10:38:56 PM

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Beyond the Wall – Part One
By rbuxton

Which wall? Trump's wall.

In 2017 I visited my brother in Chile. After travelling together for a bit I set off alone and soon made friends with some European university students. They were involved in the university's International Society, which put on cultural events. I was invited to "France Night", a pleasant evening in which two French students talked for half an hour about their country's history and culture. "Mexico Night", on the following evening, was completely different. There must have been at least thirty Mexican students pulling out all the stops with food, music, games and a Zapateado dance show. I was struck by how good-natured, proud and interesting the people were. In that moment I realised how insulting the then-US president's rhetoric was – insulting to both Mexicans and those crossing it from other Central and South American countries.

A young organillero plies his trade.
My new-found interest in Mexico was strengthened by conversations with other backpackers over the next few years. "We spent a month just sitting on a beach eating tacos," said one, "It was amazing!" I realised that I was extremely ignorant about Mexico: like most countries in the world, it only gets mentioned in the UK news when something "bad" happens. From its portrayal on TV I had assumed it was a vast desert where drug- and people-smugglers roared around in dark trucks. So perhaps the "wall" I was now determined to overcome was more mental than physical; a product of my own biases and misconceptions. I finally touched down at the airport in Mexico City (henceforth referred to by its modern sobriquet, CDMX) in March 2023, with no plan and no onward flight. This time, my brother was not there to meet me.

I'd like to make one thing clear: Mexico is not a "developing" country. It has great infrastructure, huge cities and a booming tech scene. The streets of CDMX follow a grid layout – perfectly intuitive for most of the world's population but strangely confusing to the British. Music is all around, often coming from the Organilleros – an army of smartly-dressed musicians pumping away at organs and doffing their caps for change. They sometimes rub shoulders with busking saxophonists, while efficient recycling trucks whizz by and traffic wardens whistle to keep everything under control.

During one outing in CDMX I jumped on a double decker bus with another (male) backpacker. After a few minutes people started nudging us and pointing at the floor, but our Spanish was too basic to grasp what was going on. It turned out we were standing in the "women and children only" part of the bus, an area taking up most of the ground floor and demarcated by pink handrails (which were yellow elsewhere). In weighing up the pros and cons of this system, I felt, one could cover many of the gender and equality issues which have been thrown up in the UK in the past decade or so.

My favourite public transport story, however, comes from CDMX's metro. I was standing by the doors of the carriage with a young man to my right. He was seated and had very stylish hair, moulded into some complicated shape and looking wet as a result. Suddenly a few bubbles whizzed past us accompanied by a cry of "Cinco pesos!". What on Earth was going on? Looking up, I saw one of the many one-item salespeople who ply their trade on the metro; his product was children's bubbles. He had a neat trick: by holding the bubble wand towards the stream of air from a fan he could literally bombard his potential customers with his wares. Unfortunately for my neighbour the wax holding his hair in place was quite attractive to bubbles, so several stuck without him noticing. I didn't have the confidence – social or linguistic – to point this out to him, so I'm pretty sure he was still wearing them when we emerged onto street level a few minutes later.

In venturing beyond the Wall I got a little more than I bargained for. In reading this, you will too. You have been warned...

Around the Capital

I had decided to ease the culture shock by making my first stop in Mexico the small town of Tepoztlán. Getting there was not too much trouble but in order to find my hostel I booted up Google Maps. I was charged £72 for the privilege, having missed the text message from my network which said something like "Welcome to Mexico, we've turned off the data roaming cap you sensibly set yourself, wasn't that helpful of us?". On top of this I was struggling with the heat, the jet lag, a sore throat (probably my fault) and a bad back (definitely my fault). When I arrived in Tepoztlán a light dust was swirling through the cobbled streets and saloon-style doorways; some sort of festival was going on and a man in a skeleton costume waved at the local tourists. Mexico, it seemed, was not holding back.

Tepoztlán, it turned out, is turned out to be a "Pueblo Mágico" (magic town), one of several hundred in Mexico which have done much to preserve their heritage. Its old buildings, murals and mountaintop Aztec temple no doubt contributed to this accolade. I spent a day acclimatising and shopping around for a big sombrero to replace the weedy cap I had brought from the UK, eventually choosing one made of straw (the material of the peasantry; posher sombreros are of felt). The next morning I rose early to climb the mountain before the heat set in. The path was beautiful and led to some brilliant views; the temple wasn't overly interesting but the wheeling clouds of Mexican Eagles certainly were.

From Tepoztlán I backtracked to Cuernavaca, capital of Morelos state and an important cultural centre. It had some interesting churches and a nice cathedral but otherwise didn't hold much for a backpacker. The city's most interesting site is a squat castle built by the conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1528 (making it perhaps the oldest Spanish building in Central America) but it was closed during my visit. Like Cortés (well, kind of) I now turned my attention to the Aztecs' Tenochtitlan; Frida Kahlo's Ciudad de Mexico; Instagram's CDMX.

The Aztecs (technically the Mexica) chose the location for their city based on the omen of an eagle killing a snake while standing on a cactus; this image still adorns the national flag. The location was a lake, so they developed a land-reclamation system involving plants grown at the water's edge. This gave them a handy system of canals which helped the city become very efficient. When the Spanish conquered it, they built their city directly on top. I'm not really sure what this means, but the result is that the centre sinks by about a foot every year. This, combined with the tectonic activity of the area, has led to some buildings sitting at a jaunty angle. Over the next few centuries the city expanded into the surrounding mountains at a frightening rate; by 2005 it was (by one measure) the second most populous in the world. Recently there have been many efforts to address the social issues associated with such growth, including an extensive cable-car network.

I stayed in a hostel a few blocks from Zócalo, the city's main square and venue for both political demonstrations and free concerts. It's surrounded by beautiful examples of Spanish colonial architecture, including universities and a cathedral. Latin America in general is home to some amazing architecture which might look vaguely familiar to those of us who've visited Europe. These buildings tend to be on a significantly smaller scale, and this could be due to practicalities like sourcing materials, the aforementioned tectonic activity, and the desire to erect colonial status-symbols speedily. They helped form a national identity as independence movements swept the region, and I imagine the conversations going something like this: "You can't be your own country when you don't even have fine, neo-classical buildings", "Oh yes we do!"

Easter celebrations in the Zócalo.
I spent much of my fortnight in CDMX exploring the old buildings, which now house museums and the like. I took the metro to the neighbourhood of Xochimilco, or "Little Venice", where colourful boats ply the green-fringed canals which are all that remain of the Aztecs' waterways. Another trip took me to quiet Coyoacán, where I was hoping to visit the house of the famous artist Frida Kahlo. Unfortunately it is so small that it gets booked up for weeks at a time, so I had to content myself with the house of her friend and neighbour, Leon Trotsky. It was here that the Soviet politician and his surviving family members sought refuge in 1936, and here that he was assassinated in 1940. You can stand on the spot where his final struggle took place (CDMX was home to many contemporary Russian exiles during my visit, mostly men my own age fleeing Putin's draft.) I also visited the museums of Modern Art and Anthropology; the latter would really require two full days to understand both its Aztec artefacts and its dioramas about the indigenous groups who co-existed with the Spanish. I made several visits to the vast Chapultepec park, a forest in the city centre on the site of a famous battle between Mexico and the USA. I once got lost there in a graveyard and had to be led out by a local teenager who carried his bicycle between the tombs.

I spent three Sundays at an Anglican church near Chapultepec, which served some of CDMX's expats and digital nomads (the city almost irresistible to the latter due to its climate and amenities). On arrival I was confronted by a pie chart showing the ethnicities of its members, and was surprised to see Nigerian in third place (after American and Mexican). It was nice to be able to relax there and chat to people who had called the city home for most of their lives. Semana Santa (Holy Week) was approaching and on Palm Sunday we paraded around the church equipped with crosses and, for some, bagpipes. Easter Saturday found me back in the Zócalo watching a huge display of music and dancing, accompanied by a sermon from a very charismatic woman, who spoke so fast I could only really pick out repetitions of the phrase "pueblo de Dios". I had been advised to stay in CDMX over Semana Santa because, as in many countries, holiday destinations get very booked up. The city, Zócalo concert notwithstanding, was comparatively empty and I had some nice relaxed walks around the centre.

My first excursion was to the mountain Pueblo Mágico of Mineral del Chico. It was very nice up there among the pine trees but it was so hard to reach by public transport that I only had an hour there and had to spend much of that time on the toilet. My trip to the ruins of Teotihuacan was rather more successful. This vast site of stone temples, walkways and marketplaces was one of the largest, and most cosmopolitan, cities in the world in the 1st Century AD (so cosmopolitan, in fact, that it's not clear if it was the Olmecs or Toltecs who built it). What is known is that the Mexica, arriving in the region about a millennium after Teotihuacan's decline, believed it had been built by gods and modelled Tenochtitlan on it. The so-called pyramids of the Sun and Moon dominate Teotihuacan's skyline and are connected by the wide, temple-flanked Avenue of the Dead (we're not sure about any of these names, by the way). The pyramids would have had structures at the top, perhaps of wood, but were not used for human sacrifice, a practice which was mostly confined to the Mexica in the 14th and 15th centuries. More subtle are the stone animals, pillars painted with deities, and houses which show a cross-section of the building techniques used throughout the city's history. It was very hot and I was fortunate to have a sombrero to protect me from the sun, though it was dwarfed by those of the souvenir-sellers.

I had a blast in CDMX, but it didn't feel that way the whole time. I was preoccupied with my money, which was supposed to last nearly a year, and Mexico was significantly more expensive than I had expected (I had unwisely used my India trip of 2011 as a budgeting reference). I was also overwhelmed by the sheer size of Mexico and the fact that I was right in the middle. It turns out that having the world as your oyster is more than a little daunting. One day, sitting around in the hostel nursing an upset stomach, I was on the verge of booking a flight to Colombia when I received a WhatsApp message on a group which had been defunct for more than two years. It was an old travel friend asking where everyone had got to and the answers came back as follows: Mexico, Belgium, Tenerife, Canada and Mexico. It turned out that my American friend Henk was just a few hours away by bus! I mention this extraordinary coincidence because I had first met Henk under very similar circumstances; sometimes lightning really does strike twice.

The American and the Mexican

So it was decided: I would set off Northwest for my rendezvous with Henk, stopping off in the cities of Querétaro and San Miguel de Allende. The former is Mexico's fastest-growing city and its tech capital. On my first day I stumbled upon a crowd of people in traditional costumes, including rattling anklets, dancing to the beat of drums. I visited a number of churches and the Santa Cruz convent. The convent forms the terminus of the city's impressive colonial-era aqueduct, indicating how important these institutions were in the operation of early Spanish settlements. The bus journey to San Miguel de Allende was dramatic and afforded great views of the city and the famous pink church tower of La Parroquia de San Migeul Arcángel. Another famous site in the city is the house of Ignacio Allende, one of the leaders in Mexico's war of independence (1810 to 1821). The city is no stranger to war: it was a front line during the 16th century Chichimeca War and had to be abandoned several times before the Chichimeca leaders were bought off by the Spaniards.

Finally I reached Guanajuato, surely one of Mexico's strangest cities. This arid mountain town experienced a "silver rush" in the 16th century and was soon producing 30% of the world's silver. There was no planning so buildings popped up wherever they could; thanks to the region's wealth many of them were very grand. The result is a maze of staircases and alleyways giving out to cramped squares and neo-classical façades. With space at a premium the roads are all in tunnels below street level; I felt like Indiana Jones as I approached by bus. The city is popular with backpackers and international students, who are drawn here from Guadalajara by the promise of techno music and cocaine.

I met Henk on the steps of the market building and we caught up over pork sandwiches with plenty of offal. We donned hard hats to explore one of the mines and visited the church where some of its silver ended up. We joined a walking tour organised by one of the volunteers at the hostel and wound up at the museum of the artist Diego Rivera (husband to Frida Kahlo). We hiked up to a viewpoint where my sombrero was nearly lost to a gust of wind; Henk helped me to attach a chin strap. We spent several evenings at the statue of local independence-era hero El Pípila, from which we could watch the sunset picking out the many colours of the city. In the hostel we ate sopes, a kind of thick tortilla, and drank mezcal, a smoky cousin of tequila which is also derived from the agave plant. I did not visit the city's most famous attraction: a museum of naturally preserved corpses, exhumed and displayed in glass cases. My reluctance to visit surprised many Mexicans; their relationship with Death is certainly different to my own.

The finest busker in León, if not Mexico.
Henk's interest in Mexico went far beyond the charms of Guanajuato: he was living in León to further his footwear business. León is Mexico's capital of leatherwork and not on any tourist itineraries (it's worth mentioning it was the only place in the country I encountered anything resembling unfriendliness.) Henk and I arrived by bus and went straight to a small factory to inspect their latest boot prototype (more accurately it was just a part of the boot; the city relies on thousands of cottage industries specialising in the different parts of shoe production.) There I met Arturo, Henk's friend, landlord, and business partner, who acted as interpreter. We spent that afternoon, and many others, roaring from factory to factory in Arturo's small red "bocha", or Volkswagen Beatle. It was fascinating to get an insight into the leather industry and to begin to understand its importance, culturally as well as commercially, to the people of León. That evening I was also introduced to pulque, a thick alcoholic drink which has been distilled from the agave plant for at least two thousand years, and cumbia music, which is almost ubiquitous in Latin America.

Henk took me to a leather market where skins of cows, snakes, crocodiles and more could be bought. I was interested to find out that Iran is the world's biggest exporter of snakeskin. I asked one man where he had bought his elephant hide and he did not answer – I suspect this was not due to my poor Spanish skills. We also visited the city's triumphal arch and the church of El Templo Expiatorio, which was built in the 1920s. I'm no architecture buff but I could see this church was very different to others I had visited: built in a neo-gothic style it had the colouration of a Battenberg cake and eschewed fancy decorations in favour of simple stained-glass windows. Every evening, sunset would bring out brides-to-be and their entourages to have photos taken in advance of their weddings. I ventured into the extensive catacombs, which had a number of rooms dedicated to different saints. I was surprised to find them very brightly lit – how could anyone sleep? I also took a couple of buses to a big lake for some birdwatching.

It is impossible to overstate the generosity of my hosts. Despite often using his house as an Airbnb Arturo invited Henk and myself to stay for free for two weeks. Henk is a brilliant cook and would sometimes wake me up with pancakes before taking me to the local market to buy fruit and vegetables. Arturo invited me to Sunday lunch with his extended family, most of whom lived locally. There I met his sister Mariana, who had worked as a nanny in the USA. Her host family had given her a Scrabble set as a parting gift but she had not found enough English speakers to play it – until now (unfortunately we never got around to playing in Spanish). Henk and some of his friends, also one-time landlords of his, took me to a karaoke bar, where we – what's the word – surprised the local people with our renditions of Johnny Cash and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The bar "ran out of beer" that night, so we drank a lot of mezcal. At one point Henk asked me if I thought we were in a richer or poorer area than that of the cumbia bar. I guessed it was richer and more middle-class. How could I tell? Let's just say there's a correlation between physical appearance and affluence in Mexico which is depressingly familiar to those of us from the UK.

Henk left to attend to business in the USA and Germany, and I lingered. Over the next few days I encountered a number of people with very inspiring ambitions, some of which I'll reproduce here:

"I work in the leather market but I'm hoping to train as a teacher."

"I've been invited to Spain to do an interview on TV about my beauty products."

"I'd like to turn this place into a seafood restaurant, like the one outside of town. They have shrimp tacos there. Come on, let me show you!"

I have not covered half of my adventures in León here. They culminated with my desperate attempts to clean the bathroom on my final morning before my host returned from a friend's house. I had rocked up at 2 am the previous evening and blocked the sink with my vomit. Too much information? Let's get back to the backpacking.

From León I did two day trips, the first to Aguascalientes. I looked around some nice churches and the Museum of Death, which contained historical and artistic pieces relating to Mexico's fascination with all things morbid. I considered spending the evening at the city's famous festival, but since it was, in Arturo's words, "not very cultural: more about the drinking" I decided to give it a miss. A longer trip – and a night in a hostel – took me to Zacatecas, the northernmost city on my trip and situated where the Central Plateau gives out to semi-desert. It's another old mining town but, unlike Guanajuato, it has enough space for the grand buildings to really stand out. The most interesting site was the "Mina el Edén", or Eden Mine, which has some beautiful caverns running for several kilometres, and a train. The name is both deceptive and cruel: hundreds of thousands of indigenous people were killed while working as slaves in the mines, and in the associated wars with the Spanish (many African slaves would later share the same fate). While walking the streets of Zacatecas I stumbled upon an open-air display of traditional music and dancing. As far as I could tell it was actually a cultural exchange of sorts: the dancers were from a university in the distant state of Oaxaca (woh-ha-kah). With the exception of a terrifying dance on stilts most dances were calm affairs of ten or so couples in traditional costume. One seemed to tell the story of the Spaniards' arrival in Mexico: the dancers acted out some domestic scenes, gradually giving way to joyful twirling. Towards the end the "lead" woman took up position in the centre of the stage, squatted down and flapped her skirts around. Eventually she laid an egg, which her partner promptly ate, to much applause.

This is part one of a two-article coverage of rbuxton's adventures. You can read part two by clicking here.

You can also read about rbuxton's previous Accidents in Andalucía, or discover more travel writing from other Exilian members via our travel writing index.