Monday, March 19, 2007

Teotihuacan: marketing the pyramids

They say that Teotihuacan, like Egypt, is plagued by terrier-like hawkers who will practically take the pesos out of your purse for you as they shove their wares into your arms. And ‘they’, in this instance, are absolutely right.

One hour after boarding, we disembark from the bus at a nondescript patch of dirt beside a tollbooth. The plain is populated mainly by cacti, with verdant scrub-covered mountains in the near distance. We pay at the booth and pass through a two-storey cafeteria/restaurant that opens up onto another stretch of dust – and the start of the pre-Hispanic ruins we have come to see. We quickly ascertain that the food and drink at the upstairs bar is priced for maximum profit (of course) and minimum value, so we content ourselves with a bottle of water and join the swarm of fellow tourists outside, hung with cameras and backpacks and armed with sunglasses and spreading straw hats. But first, we must run the gauntlet – a corridor of souvenir shops selling hats, Aztec icons, jewellery and emblazoned mugs and t-shirts. We only have to glance at a stand or an item for its vendor to overwhelm us with a list of goods boasting a litany of attributes: ‘pure obsidian’, ‘only 100 pesos’, ‘you want a hat? I have lots of hats’, or simply ‘please – come in’. The Husband genuinely wants a hat, but faced with the desperate flood of cajoling attracted by his interest, he soon gives up on the idea and flees, hatless, to where the ruins begin.

A trio of twenty-something French boys stand delicately amidst the dust, reading the first sign telling the history of the site. One of them brandishes a green umbrella over his head, parasol-like. A mocking macho voice issues from a clump of tourists in the far distance: ‘what’s with the umbrella?’
Our first stop is the remains of a square complex, La Cuidadela, believed to have been the residence of the city’s supreme ruler. We stand amidst the dirt, the sun harsh overhead, and gaze around us, taking it all in. If not for the roving vendors and ant-like swarms of visitors, we could imagine we were in the middle of nowhere instead of at the outer edges of one of the world’s largest metropolises.

Our first pyramid is here, in the middle of the square – the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (listed in the Lonely Planet as Templo de Quetzelcoatl). This temple was once thought to be dedicated to Queztelcoatl, the most important deity in pre-Hispanic culture, because of its many plumed serpents (associated with the god). According to the sign here, recent investigations have proved otherwise – that the building is instead dedicated to the computation of time and the calendar. The serpents carry a mythological alligator called the ‘Cipactli’, a symbol of time. There are 364 sculptures around the building.

We climb the platform adjacent to the remains of the four surviving steps of the structure’s earliest façade (as with many Mesoamerican relics, there were various stages of construction) and look out over the sculptures. A sign explains that unfortunately visitors can no longer approach the sculptures, as work is currently being done to preserve them. I quickly brush off my disappointment – it feels churlish to be annoyed that I can’t see something right now because it is being preserved for future generations. We peer over the surrounding wire fence.

As we make our way to the steep stone steps leading back downwards, another French trio approaches – a couple and a young child. We pass them to begin our tentative journey down, as they look away from something at the bottom of the steps and move on. To my horror, a stroller containing a curly-haired toddler is parked there. The child sits passively, but my mother’s brain can’t help but play a reel of the scenarios that could happen. The Husband and I exchange looks as we pick our path down. And then it happens. The toddler starts to wail and lurches out of the stroller, throwing himself at the steps. Howling, he begins to climb. I dredge up my high school French.
Arrete!’ ('Stop!') I call. ‘No!
He keeps going, of course. I drop my satchel on the nearest step and haul my camera from my neck in order to move faster, leaving it beside the satchel. The toddler looks at me in alarm and pitches his wail even higher, louder, running still more frantically up the steps.
C’est d’accord! (It's okay)’ I shout, helplessly, wishing I knew more exactly what to say. I reach for the child, but he dodges me and runs upward, tottering precariously. A woman below yells at me. Hotly embarrassed, even in my panic, I shout back: ‘he’s not mine!’ (I think she’s telling me to get the child down.) The French couple appear above us, the father running towards his son. He catches him as I run behind, trying to line myself up to catch the kid if he falls.
‘Thank you’ he says, in English, visibly shaken as he scoops up the child to carry him to the top.
I mumble something along the lines of ‘it’s nothing’ as I turn to join The Husband at the base of the pyramid. It takes a few moments before I am breathing easily again. Apparently the woman who yelled was calling for someone at the top to get the parents.

The Avenue of the Dead from above

We walk down the Calzada de los Muertes (Avenue of the Dead), the ‘main drag’ of Teotihuacan, past the dribbling Rio San Juan – barely a creek, let alone a river (rio), to explore the arteries of a ruined building that has been opened to the public. Surrounded by flourishing cacti, protected from the elements by an incongruous aluminium roof, the structure is artificially bolstered within by steel shafts and modern-looking columns. It interferes somewhat with the atmosphere, but it is mildly reassuring to know that the ceiling won’t come crashing down on your head. Obviously raised on a diet of too many pop culture plots revolving around ‘the mummy’s curse’, I pause before venturing underground. As it turns out, there’s nothing much to see.

The main attractions here are the two big pyramids – the Piramide del Sol and Piramide de la Luna. The larger Pyramid of the Sun, the third biggest in the world, is visible from most of the current archaeological zone. Though it looms large from any angle, it is the main feature of the east side of the Avenue of the Dead, and the point at which a path crosses the great avenue, leading to exits and souvenir stalls in either direction. It is in the approach to this pyramid (and the stretch between here and the smaller Pyramid of the Moon, at the dead end of the avenue) that the vendors are most numerous and most persistent.
‘It’s practically free today!’
‘Just one dollar!’

I am finally won over by the offer of an ornate obsidian turtle for a dollar (the turtle a silly private joke between me and my mother).
‘Okay’ I relent, pausing as the eager vendor withdraws the object from where he has thrust it, inches from my face. I withdraw the embroidered moneybag I’ve stuffed beneath my t-shirt to take out ten pesos (equivalent of a dollar). As I hand it over, he amends his offer.
‘Yes, that’s twenty-one dollars.’
‘Okay, I take one dollar off. Twenty dollars.’
‘But you said one dollar’ objects The Husband.
‘I meant twenty-one dollars.’
‘No, sorry.’ I put my money away.
‘All right, 150 pesos!’ he calls after us. We don’t look back.

The stairs leading down to the plaza before the Pyramid of the Sun are carpeted with resting tourists and displayed goods. An assortment of rugs is spread to one side. As we walk past the first-aid van bearing the universal red cross parked alarmingly at the base of the pyramid, a woman steps in front of us and, with a practised flourish, unfolds a lace tablecloth patterned with the Aztec wheel.
‘No, gracias.’
A sign at the base of the pyramid warns against children, pregnant women and people with heart problems climbing it.
‘I hope those French people don’t leave their baby at the bottom of this pyramid’ I huff, looking seventy metres into the sky to its summit.

View from first platform: Pyramid of the Sun

The Husband has been apprehensive about this climb. Stinging from my very uncool sobbing reaction to Mexico City last night, and well aware that he is unimpressed with my hedging fear of danger here, I am secretly (shamefully) delighted. This is my chance to be the intrepid adventurer I know I am in my heart of hearts.
‘You’ll be fiiiiiine’ I say, deliberately breezy. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
Impressively, after much thought between the first pyramid and here, he decides to feel the fear and do it anyway.
‘I’ll be so angry with myself later if I don’t do it.’
And he is fine. I quickly discover that while The Husband has a psychological hurdle to overcome here, I have a physical one. It’s a tough and breathless climb. There are four platforms, and the stubbly ruins of a former temple (now a heap of rubble) at the top. At the first platform, I sit at the edge and try not to wheeze. The high altitude and bad air quality don’t help matters, I’m sure. The view is already breathtaking. Looking down on the plaza below, surrounded by stone walls and marked at its centre with an immense stone platform, I begin to get a sense of the layout of the site. The Husband is safely edged up against the wall of the next level.

View from the top: Pyramid of the Sun

As I haul myself up (behind The Husband), I note the retirees so plentiful here having obvious difficulty with the task, and realise why the first aid van might be stationed here. At the top, we join the triumphant crowd stumbling over the uneven rubble, or sitting and enjoying the view. The Husband sits, while I stalk around the perimeter taking photographs. It’s not long before he joins me and we take turns posing in front of the Pyramid of the Moon. Smoke curls into the sky in the far distance – probably a cornfield burning off the remains of the last crops. The ground below is like a model city; the trees and people vaguely plastic and unreal from this height. Smog haze strokes the far mountaintops and smudges the colour of the populated plains in the foreground, as if slowly erasing them from a vast blackboard.

A couple huddle together, mugging for the camera, in the prime front-of-pyramid position we have just vacated as we prepare to begin our descent. They wriggle to position themselves so their lens will properly capture them, each stretching an arm out to hold the camera in position.
‘Would you like me to take your photo?’
My spontaneous burst of generosity is prompted by my memory of kind strangers taking my photo in front of tourist spots on my solo trip over, but I also plan to ask them to reciprocate for us. They are so pleased, though, that I don’t, deciding not to shatter the illusion of me as a wonderfully thoughtful person. As we climb the stairs downward, my eyes firmly on the rope railing and on my feet, I overhear two separate people telling their companions how they were too scared to climb this in the past, but are glad they did it now. When we reach the bottom, I relay this to The Husband.

We encounter a strange gathering as we rejoin the Avenue of the Dead: a crowd of white-clad pilgrims. Apparently, they come here every year around this time – thousands will be here in just over a week (March 19-21) to celebrate the vernal equinox. The white clothing is meant to absorb the mystical energies believed to converge here. Or something like that. Later, we trail behind the pilgrims at the on-site museum and I notice how incredibly upper middle-class they seem, their white clothing discretely expensive, gold and silver jewellery at the wrists and necks of the women.
‘They don’t look like cult members’ I whisper to The Husband.
‘They’re not’ he says. ‘It’s a pretty common Mexican thing.’

A pair of pilgrims, outside the on-site museum

In front of the Pyramid of the Moon are twelve temple platforms. Some experts think that the number thirteen (the platforms plus the pyramid) is symbolic – thirteen is a key number in the day-counting system of the Mesoamerican calendar. The largest platform, directly opposite and below the pyramid’s front flank, has already attracted a small crowd.

View of temple complex from Pyramid of the Moon

A grey-haired North American hippy in flowing clothes that partially disguise her ample figure stands dramatically at the centre of the platform. Her arms are thrown open and upwards to the sky, her head tossed backward in submission. Behind her, the great stone pyramid rises in sharp relief to her pale figure, gathering stormclouds still darker behind it. The sky is navy grey with streaks of white. A friend jumps up to join her, both of them seemingly howling at the sky. By the time we reach the top of the temple, the friend has trailed off and the original sky worshipper lies prone and silent on the ground, her eyes reverently shut.

In the place where she stood is a gaggle of Japanese tourists, young men on the border between adolescence and adulthood, excitedly waving digital slick cameras. The Husband and I each find one in our hands, a stream of chattering Spanish and English asking us to take their group photo. To our great surprise and amusement, they strike the same worshipping, Christ-like pose as the hippy, but with a rock star edge – more Jim Morrison than someone’s idea of an ancient Mesoamercian. This time, we ask them to reciprocate and get the typical tourist shot to frame in our lounge room at home.

The road to ruins

Our first morning in Mexico City begins with a free buffet breakfast at the hostel. Scrambled eggs with chopped ham, toast and jam, fruit salad, tea and coffee with powdered milk. A pair of twenty-something girls, a punk and a hippy chattering to each other in German, soon take the spare seats at our table in the cafeteria-style kitchen. The punk, a Swiss girl with cropped green hair, black-framed glasses and black skinny jeans, speaks English in clipped, confident tones as we exchange stories. The (German) hippy, huddled over a bowl of green tea, has dirty blonde dreadlocks loosely tied back with a fat tube of hair. She wears a loose, olive green cardigan and is more laid-back, less aggressive in her opinions. The flow of conversation is turgid.
‘So, is Mexico City dangerous?’
‘Yes, it’s dangerous, but no more than Costa Rica or Guatemala or Honduras. They’re really poor. In Guatemala City, the streets are empty after dark. Here, it’s okay to be walking the streets.’
We ask about food.
‘Oh, we don’t eat out. We eat street food. It’s delicious. And we’ve been fine.’
We talk about what we’re doing today. The Husband and I are going to Teotihuacan, to see the pyramids.
‘I don’t need to see any more ruins’ scoffs Green Hair. ‘We’ve seen Mayan ruins in the jungles of Guatemala, and in Palenque [in the south of Mexico]. Nothing could top that.’
While I’m fastidiously buttering my toast at the counter, The Husband talks about his upcoming trip to the Yucatan, where there are more Mayan ruins, as well as amazing beaches.
‘Why would you want to go there?’ sniffs Green Hair. ‘There are so many tourists!’

We part with the usual pleasantries. Back in our room, as we gather our things, we decide that Green Hair especially is too cool for school.
‘She’s got attitude’ concludes The Husband. ‘Just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s not good. And anyway, we’re all tourists. What do they think they are?’

Hostel interior: overlooking the TV lounge from the second level, near our room

Unsure about how exactly to get back to the bus station (to catch our bus to Teotihuacan) we approach an Information Counter near the hostel. The Husband begins in tentative Spanish. The uniformed attendant answers us in flawless English, his accent a curious blend of upper crust British and Mexican Spanish. He flourishes a map and points out how we can get to the quickest bus route, mentioning landmarks we will pass along the way.
‘You will see some beautiful buildings.’
He is charm personified, his easy professionalism and smooth conversational patter mirroring that of the tourism staff I encountered in the US.

The city streets are transformed from last night’s siege atmosphere. Most of the shops here open at 10am, but some of the roller doors are already rising, and the cafes and restaurants are buzzing with breakfast clientele. The smooth stone-paved roads and footpaths are clean and neat, crowded with suited professionals powering their way to work, tourists ambling, beggars sitting beside upturned hats or paper cups, and store and café owners splashing soapy water on their doorsteps. In fact, cleanliness is our biggest obstacle, as we gingerly step over foaming suds and gathering puddles. An aproned woman in a café doorway sloshes a bucket over her sandwich-board sign, looking directly at us as the water envelops our shoes as if to say ‘so what?’ The entranceway and half the tiled floor of a sports store, lined with sneakers and emblazoned with Nike, Adidas and Converse logos, swims in watery detergent. I can’t imagine how a customer could enter some of these places if they wanted to.

Pairs of uniformed police are stationed at every street corner, directing traffic with the aid of sharp whistles, which they blow with seemingly joyful abandon. At the great square just steps away from our hostel (the Zocalo, or town centre), another pair of police stand at alert, surveying the area for signs of disorder. I am both comforted and vaguely disconcerted by their presence: the Mexican police are notoriously crooked, renowned for their shakedowns. I’ve heard at least two direct personal anecdotes about tourists bribing their way out of trouble; the threatened arrest somewhat warranted in one instance, manufactured in the other.

The clean streets and courteous tourist officers, the noticeable police presence, are all part of recent attempts to clean up the city’s notorious crime statistics, and its corresponding world image as a den of vice. In 2003, a group of private business interests, headed by Mexico’s richest man, hired former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani, who had famously fixed New York’s similar crime problem a decade earlier, to advise them on how to do the same in Mexico City. Guiliani handed down 146 recommendations based on the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy he implemented in New York, which were enthusiastically embraced by then mayor (and recent presidential candidate) Lopez Obrador, along with the city’s police chief. A comprehensive makeover of the historical centre was a central part of Obrador’s plan – repaving streets, bolstering security and improving traffic flow.
‘This reminds me of New York’ marvels The Husband as we edge our way along the narrow footpaths of Avenue Madero.

Lazaro Cardenas, the central artery where we will find our bus, is crammed with street vendors and newspaper stands on either side of the road. Some of them spread their wares on the concrete, at the base of the city walls, others are more permanently set up with portable tables under rooves of flimsy plastic sheeting. It’s the usual fare of jewellery and knick-knacks, along with pirated DVDs and second-hand books (in Spanish, of course – sadly). Some vendors display an odd assortment of old shoes, random items of clothing and household goods.

Across the road from where we stand, on the corner of Lazaro Cardenas and Avenue Hidalgo, is the Palacio de Bellas Artes – an enormous white wedding cake of a building topped with a red roof and a tripartite sunset dome. It is flanked by manicured gardens at its front entrance and bordered by Alameda Park (Mexico’s version of Central Park) to its right.

View of Palacio de Bellas Artes (with Alameda Park border) from the air

The bus costs a few pesos and arrives every few minutes. We stand wedged between vendors and easily hail one down (or at least, The Husband hails it down). The journey is uneventful. I start to breathe a little easier about the whole danger thing.

As we enter the bus terminal for the second time in two days, we are addressed by a booming American accented voice. A meaty, broad-shouldered moustachioed man with mutton chops at his cheekbones leads a family of four – his wiry, bird-like wife, a pony-tailed, wholesome-looking teenage girl and a beanpole of an older brother, in glasses and a green polo shirt. The boomer asks us for directions, then, catching sight of the Australian flag pinned to my satchel, begins to enthuse loudly about Australia. When he hears that we are from Melbourne, his grin stretches so that his face can barely accommodate it.
‘Oh boy! Mel-born. I LOVE Mel-borrrn. It was our home base in Australia, especially north Melborne. We stayed in a hostel there – you know, the main one.’
I take a chance.
‘The Nunnery? In Carlton?’
‘That’s it! Oh, it was wonderful. We love Australia, it’s the place to go!’
I stayed in The Nunnery for two weeks when I first arrived to live in Melbourne, and ended up making friends there that would form my core for my first six months there (until they all wet home to England and Canada!) – so I join his enthusiasm. It turns out that they are going to Teotihuacan too, so we follow in the lead of the lanky teenager (who seems to be group leader, despite his relative youth) as he expertly locates the correct ticket office and orders tickets in Spanish. We talk about Australia to the father all the way to the bus, though we form two separate groups again as we take our seats.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Down and out in Mexico City (okay, not VERY down and out)

Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I was terrified of arriving in Mexico City. The worst crime rate in the world: drugs, pickpockets, bus hijackings, cab drivers who rob their passengers. City of slums; last and desperate refuge for Mexico’s poor. Overflowing centre of Mexico’s population explosion.

I think I probably read too much and listened to too many people beforehand.

‘Going to Mexico City huh?’ observed our not-Australian fellow traveller when he ran into us for the last time in Guanajuato. We were standing on a street corner eating ice cream, loaded down with all our luggage. ‘You’d better be careful or that camera won’t last long.’

The Mexico City bus terminal, scene of our first impressions, swarms with travellers. It’s 9.30 pm and raining for the first time since I’ve arrived in Mexico. Catching a taxi to our hostel proves complex. The Lonely Planet warns against hailing cabs on the street – it is not uncommon for cab drivers to kidnap passengers, drive them to ATMs and force them to withdraw all their money. Sometimes, they keep them overnight in order to get around rules governing minimum withdrawals. To get around this, you pay your fare in advance at a booth in the terminal, then queue with your coupon and wait for a cab to roll up. A man rescues us from the languishing queue to pull us ahead to a better position, explaining what to do in English. As the driver he flags down pulls up by the kerb, our guide scribbles on our ticket.
‘This is the cab number. If you have any trouble at all, phone this number here and tell them the cab number.’

It’s both disconcerting and reassuring at once to have such close attention paid to your safety. Comforting to know that someone who knows what they’re doing is watching out for you; not so comforting to know that danger is so prevalent that such precautions are necessary.

We drive past the national university, Universidad Autonomo de Mexico (UNAM). The walls are topped with menacing coils of barbed wire. It looks like a detention centre, without the gun towers. Of course, UNAM has planted the seed of more than one rebellion here. Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatista rebellion and continuing thorn in the side of successive governments, is among its alumni. The Mexican army infamously opened fire on student demonstrators in 1968, killing hundreds and jailing thousands. And as recently as 1999, the army forcibly ended a student strike that lasted eighteen months, in which the strikers barricaded themselves into the university.

The streets of Mexico City, or DF (federal district) as it is locally known, are eerily empty. Rubbish tumbles along the footpaths. At one street corner, it forms a lumpy pile on the concrete. The shopfronts, too, are forbidding in their absence of life; most of them are resolutely hidden behind garage-style roller doors.

Our monosyllabic driver winds his way through the city streets, moving in lazy circles. He has the name of the hostel and the street address, but somehow he still can’t find it. Eventually, we pull up in a lit doorway under the sign ‘MEXICO CITY HOSTEL’. As we buzz reception to be admitted past the iron gates, The Husband confides that he was getting worried about what exactly was going on. This makes me very happy.

The hostel itself is brilliant. Internet access, friendly staff, clean bathrooms, funky decorations – ceiling-high murals and Mexican tiled stairs. Our room is slightly weird in the typical Mexican way. We have four double beds and six lockers. A tinted, curtainless glass door opens out onto the iron balcony overlooking the unfriendly street.

We brave the streets for dinner, after gathering tips from the hostel staffer on where to go. Just finding out somewhere that will be open is useful. I grip The Husband’s hand tight as we make our way to the café nearby.
‘You’re really scared, aren’t you?’ he says.
‘Uh huh.’
We pass one other dark figure on our journey, and he seems utterly uninterested in us.

The windows of the café are crammed with pastries, donuts and cakes. The booths are packed with both Mexicans and obvious tourists. It’s not just the white skin or the accents that mark out our breed. It’s our sandals, backpacks, fleecy windbreakers and Lonely Planets. My order of tacos arrives, drowned in sour cream (which I hate), the tortillas slick with oil. I peel one open and recoil at the greyish scraps of chicken. A sad tomato rests on wilting lettuce at the edge of my plate. To my horror, I burst into tears. I slept for just two hours last night (too much thinking, too many roosters) and every meal I’ve ordered today has been horrible. I am tired and hungry and I hate Mexico City. The waitress avoids the table as I blow my nose into the serviettes and The Husband bewilderedly tries to comfort me.

In the hotel, I sniffle and sob my way to sleep.

Shabby chic: Guanajuato by day

In the daylight, Guanajuato is still impressive, but not so glaringly affluent. The buildings that first charmed in the flattering lamplight are still attractive under the sullen autumn sky, but less glamorous. From the rooftop terrace outside our room, the multi-coloured buildings are inviting in their old world shabbiness; seductively chic despite their fading paint and dishevelled demeanour. As in the rest of Mexico, dusty yards and rooftop terraces are hung with laundry and scrappy dogs bark from rooves or wander the streets alone. Imperious green and blue-tinged mountains loom above the patchwork landscape, occasionally punctuated by cross-topped chapels and grand stone buildings. A lavender flowering tree spreads its branches to dominate a dirt backyard below, rimmed by a crumbling stone wall. Cacti mix with leafy European-style trees, and the odd Australian eucalypt.

In the kitchen, an older couple are hunched over a spread-out Spanish textbook. The Husband chats amiably about learning Spanish and Mexican tourist spots while I prowl the terrace and snap photos of the scene below.

On our way from the hotel, as we pass through the plaza, I am caught short by the flat vowels of what sounds like an Australian accent. It belongs to a deeply tanned man in sunglasses and a blue shirt, with a white-grey moustache beneath dark grey hair. He is holding forth on some subject or the other.
‘Do I sound like THAT?’ I ask The Husband.
‘I don’t know’ he muses. ‘I’ve been told that I hardly have an accent at all.’
‘I’ve been told that mine is really strong.’ In the US, of course.

The day begins with breakfast at the café where we ate last night. The meals are generous – they come with coffee and orange juice for an average of 350 pesos (approximately $4 Australian). This morning, there are no fairy lights of course, and less students. Perhaps they are still sleeping off last night. Retired couples and families promenade the street below. Above us, on one of the cast-iron balconies, an older woman, her hair in curlers, emerges in a dressing gown to bring in her laundry. More directly above us, a missile of birdshit narrowly misses my hotcakes, hitting the table with an audible SPLAT and a splash of white. The couple sitting across from us, chatting in fluent Spanish, look over and laugh, shaking their heads in sympathy and anxiously glancing up. It seems that toilet humour is one of those things that transcends language and cultural barriers.

Below us, at the base of the sweeping stone stairway, an old man sits in the gutter. His grey beard contrasts with his dark skin; his bedraggled clothes stand out in this oasis of Mexican affluence. So – it’s not all tourists and students and those who serve them, here. I watch the old man as I drown my hotcakes in maple syrup and stir the cinnamon deep into my cappuccino. Schools of holidaymakers swim by, oblivious, as he stares at his feet. Eventually, a man with a clubfoot, noticeable by his misshapen black boot, stoops to drop something by the man’s feet and limps on. A few minutes later a squat, shabbily dressed old woman passes and stops to talk to the man. Soon, she is seated beside him in he gutter, deep in conversation. The man looks distressed; she seems to be commiserating with him. When we finish our breakfast and leave, they are still deep in conversation.

The big thing that The Husband didn’t get to do on his last trip was visit the Diego Rivera museum, so we head there first. I keep stopping along the way to admire a flash of multi-coloured cubes on the hill, viewed between road crossings, or simply the pattern of gently sloping buildings along the road – a pleasing configuration of colours of a particularly charming cluster of window boxes.
‘Sorry’ I tell The Husband as my camera stalls our journey, again and again.
‘That’s fine. I did the same thing when I first came here.’

We are sidelined by an intriguing little shop, stocked with peacock bright scarves, painted figurines dancing with colour, glittery kitsch Frida Kahlo matchboxes and jewellery boxes and a selection of beautifully produced art books and postcards. I resist temptation.

Our meandering journey comes to a sharp end at the Diego Rivera Museum, where a queue of mostly elderly, mostly North American tourists winds down the road. We decide to come back later and visit the market instead.

On our way, we pass an imposing stone building flanked by uniformed security guards.
‘That’s the other place I want to go!’ exclaims The Husband. It is a colonial granary, now a museum, the site of one of the bloodiest battles of Mexican Independence. Silver jewellery and junky icons – painted green frogs, wooden Mesoamerican discs – are lined along the base of the building, far below the stairs that lead to the entrance. A young boy playfully punches the covered head of a man who lies prone, bookended by merchandise. He could be any age. The boy’s mother frowns at him as we edge delicately around them.

On the other side of the granary building, people wander the plaza below the towering stone wall. More dark skinned women sell jewellery, huddled under patterned scarves that cover their heads. Below a cascade of carved stone steps, another vast grey plaza. It is packed with local kids playing a raucous game of soccer against the tremendous backdrop of the historic building and the sprawling patchwork hills.

At the bottom of the hill, stretching past the soccer game, is the commercial heart of the town. Tacquerias, ice-cream stores, souvenir shops of every kind, cafes and restaurants. The streets throng with tourists – like us – and street vendors, mostly indigenous, hawking paintings, rugs, scarves and printed t-shirts bearing the names of Guanajuato or Mexican soccer teams. Both groups are sharp-eyed, alert for opportunity; the tourists for a bargain or a unique find, the vendors for a sale. We have only to pause in front of a stand or casually finger a product to have a vendor appear, armed with a thick stream of cajoling Spanish. Prices often tumble as you walk away from a stand. ‘Okay, 1800 pesos. No, 1500 pesos.’

The market itself is vaguely disappointing. I’m beginning to learn that the markets (and many souvenir shops) in Mexico are all very much like each other. We see the same ‘hand woven’ rugs and multi-coloured fringed blankets, the same embroidered peasant tops and painted wooden boxes, the same soccer t-shirts and woven scarves. Still, there’s always the possibility of a find; usually something to charm the pesos out of your purse. I buy Felix and Jacob studded leather wrist bands, and nearly buy myself a cap. It’s too big, though the stall holder tries to convince me it’s just fine. Some things are always the same – from a changing room in Melbourne to a market in Mexico.

On our second try, the entrance to the Diego Rivera Museum is blessedly clear. The building is Rivera’s childhood home, restored and preserved as a monument. Cameras are allowed, on the proviso of no flashes. We wander into a series of sparsely furnished rooms, some bearing plaques in Spanish. A bedroom with an iron bed, snow-white linen, a crib and a rocking chair.
‘Look’ murmurs an American behind me, reverently. ‘There’s a crib. It must have been his parents’ room.’
A dining room, complete with wooden table and chairs. A long study, with a bookcase lined with leather-bound editions and an ancient typewriter. I snap photographs, even as I wonder why. I’m not horribly impressed.

Upstairs, things get interesting. The rest of the house is given over to gallery space – mostly Rivera’s work, but a small showing of other artists on the upper levels. In the presence of the artwork, I stow away my camera. It would feel disrespectful to snap away at paintings as if they were interesting buildings. The artworks displayed here range from early, very European still life portraits and realist landscapes to slight pencil sketches that were to give birth to paintings. There are portraits of Frida Kahlo, stylised depictions of peasant life and a series of interpretations of the Mayan Popol Vuh.

The highlight of the museum is in a small, dimly lit room at the top of the building – a seated mini lecture theatre. In this room hangs a reproduction of one of Rivera’s famous murals, Sunday Dream. The painting depicts almost one hundred figures from Mexican history and Rivera’s own life, gathered in Mexico City’s Alameda Park. Rivera himself features in it twice, once as a young boy, standing in front of his wife Frida Kahlo and holding the hand of a skeleton in woman’s dress. A mentor from his early days, Jose Guadalupe Posada, famous for his drawings of skeletons, takes the skeleton woman’s other hand under his arm. Other figures include conqueror Cortes, revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata and former presidents Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz, all connected in some way with the history of the park. A number key below the painting explains who each figure is.

The low point of the museum is the upper level of the main gallery, adjacent to the wide-open public bathroom. The stench of shit wafts through the rooms, presumably from the balled-up used toilet paper in the open bins next to the toilets. Truly the worst thing about Mexico – for the privileged middle-class tourist.

Down in the museum shop, we spend a long time choosing gifts. Tasteful and well priced. At least, I hope the recipient of the Frida Kahlo mousepad finds it tasteful …

It is 3.30 pm when we deposit our shopping in our room and descend the flights of stairs to the street, on our way to a very late lunch. I have become strangely accustomed to infrequent meals (hence the lost weight that will no doubt balloon back on my return home), but The Husband likes to eat three times a day and he is starving. We pass the Australian guy on the street, who we have since spotted in the hotel. The Husband says a casual hello, and asks if he is indeed Australian.
‘I’m a European citizen’ he says, in his unmistakable Strine drawl. ‘But I was born in Australia.’
‘We noticed your accent’ says The Husband.
‘Yeah. I noticed yours, too.’

We end up standing in the street and talking for well over an hour; nearly two. The not-quite-Australian travels the world full time.
‘I don’t want a job’ he says scathingly. ‘Who wants to work? Not for me. Go to the office every day – pah!’
As if it’s a lifestyle choice, as easy as that to make. We both wonder later where he gets the money for such a life. His litany of destinations and temporary homes makes my head spin. Mexico is no good for cheap living anymore, he says. It’s no cheaper than Australia or the US, really. The majority of Mexicans don’t use any of the services or facilities we buy here – they couldn’t possibly afford to. So luxuries like bottled water, restaurant food and toiletries are priced for the miniscule middle class and the tourists. Costa Rica and Guatemala are the Latin American countries to go to, apparently.

Our new friend talks about US politics, the border, strip searches, the relative cost of living on the ski fields of Denver and New Zealand, the Iraq war and much else besides. He takes us to a restaurant he recommends, opposite the university entrance, and we stand in the doorway talking until past 5pm.
‘We don’t have time to eat’ I say regretfully. ‘We were planning on getting to the lookout before dark.’
So we walk together to the Teatro Republica, near where we need to catch the hydraulic lift up the mountain. We stand and talk about New Orleans, San Francisco and homelessness in the US. It is 5.30pm.
‘I’m sorry’ I eventually blurt out. ‘But we’d better go before it gets dark.’
‘Oh. Okay, bye. See you later.’ He looks a bit hurt and disappears.
‘Did that seem rude?’ I whisper.
‘A little’ says The Husband. ‘But I’m glad you did it, or we’d never have gone.’
‘Do you think he’s offended?’

The hydraulic lift shaft is carved into the side of the mountain and it’s made of glass on three sides, so you can watch the town recede as you rise. Not recommended for anyone with vertigo. I peer past outgrowths of spiny, tube-like cactus as we jerk our way to the top, both marvelling at the view and imagining our crashing descent. The journey is swift and we soon emerge into a tunnel lined with souvenir shops.

At the mouth of the tunnel, we ascend a volley of stone steps, leading to a plaza overlooking a breathtaking view of the city and another row of souvenir shops across the road. The debt this picturesque town owes to tourism is abundantly clear. The Lonely Planet tells us that there is a restaurant/café, overlooking the amazing view, so we eagerly search it out. We find a ramshackle milk bar selling souvenirs, beers and soft drinks, run by a cranky old woman and her equally grizzly husband. I buy a Diet Coke for twice the normal price and sit at the edge of her tiled deck, peering at the buildings below and watching the light shift on the mountains. The pair glare at the drink-less The Husband, and we soon leave, after snapping a few hasty shots. The next nearest thing to the promised café is a souvenir shop down a flight of dim stairs, misleadingly boasting a foot-high ‘RESTAURANT’ sign painted on the side of the building. Perhaps this was it?
In the end, we seat ourselves on the paved stairs below the plaza, below the scaffolded statue of a revolutionary hero, and watch the sun set along with the rest of the camera-heavy tourists.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Guanajuato: Everything old is new again

We boarded the first-class bus for Guanajato in a burst of bad spirits, both of us exhausted from the start. I was recovering from a long-standing cold and the previous day sick in bed; The Husband battling a difficult uni course in a foreign language and dwindling funds. After half-heartedly squabbling over tacos about each other’s attitudes, we walked around central Guadalajara awhile with five days’ worth of luggage, searching for the bus stop to take us to the central bus station. Eventually, I collapsed on a red plastic stool outside a foul-smelling tacqueria while The Husband asked for directions. He emerged triumphant, bearing a scrap of paper with a bus route number scribbled on it. After a pair of burly moustachioed locals at the bus stop advised us on the quickest route, we finally found ourselves on the way to the bus station, aboard one of the scrappier buses – cracked windows, hard plastic seats. Every time the bus stopped (and even when it didn’t), us passengers were thrown about like pinballs in an arcade game, clanking against each other and the sides of the bus. Watching a months-old baby in his mother’s arms in the seat in front of us, I couldn’t help but wince as his tiny head wobbled about on his neck, his eyes and mouth wide.

I dozed for most of the five-hour journey to Guanajauto, my I-Pod headphones firmly clamped to my head, turned to full volume. Every time I pressed pause to speak to The Husband, loud Spanish-language conversation filled the bus – the dubbed soundtrack to the on-board DVDs (X Files episodes and In My Shoes). The Husband woke me when the latter movie began.
‘It’s In My Shoes!’ he said. ‘You like that.’
‘Oooh good.’ I shed my headphones and sat up straight, craning to see. ‘Is it in English?’
‘No. I don’t think so.’
I leant back in my chair, wrapped my scarf closer around my shoulders and closed my eyes.
‘I wish I didn’t know it was on then.’
(I SAID I was feeling grumpy.)

Our introduction to Guanajuato itself was vaguely surreal, and very Mexican. At the bus station, we collected our bags, used the pay toilets, and piled onto another bus, which would take us to ‘El Centro’ (the town centre). My sports bag sat rudely in the narrow aisle, where boarding passengers – and the conductor, a teenager in a soccer t-shirt and jeans - were forced to step over it. The bus sat by the side of the road for ten minutes or so, slowly filling with people. As it began to move down the highway, past sprawling shopping malls and neon-lit Oxxos and 7-11s, the conductor walked the aisle to collect our fares. It occured to me that, until now, we’d had no idea what the service cost. Of course, it wasn’t much – only a few pesos each. As I stared past The Husband, through the window to the increasingly rural-looking landscape of vast dark mountains, I felt a warm weight land on my right side. It was a young boy, approximately ten years old, leaning back against my seat to stand comfortably in the aisle. As I glanced over my shoulder to see what he was up to, he erupted into loud song, clicking a hand-held wooden instrument not-quite in time with his warbling voice. Meanwhile, we drew under a stone archway and into a vast slate-grey tunnel, snaking behind a long serpent of traffic.
‘There are lots of tunnels ahead’ joked The Husband. ‘So don’t get scared.’
‘As if I’d get scared!’

Nonetheless, as the bus crawled peripatically through the tunnel – for ten minutes, twenty minutes, more – past parked cars on one side and dusty roadworks on the other, never breaking through to the open air, I began to feel claustrophobic. Above our heads and to our sides, a great net of chickenwire held the ancient rock tight. The small boy mercifully stopped his singing, the bus fell quiet, and he moved up and down the aisle to collect his dues. The Husband dug out a few pesos for him, following the lead of a tall Mexican teenager dressed in the style popularised by LA gangs and copied the world over – a baseball cap and loose LA Raiders tee over baggy-crotched jeans. At the next stop, the boy disappeared off the bus and into the tunnel, his work complete.
‘Is this the only way into the city?’ I asked The Husband, staring disbelievably at the single lane of choked traffic.
Eventually, he peered at a sign by the side of the tunnel and nudged me.
‘This is our stop.’

We emerged, slightly dusty, and crossed the tunnel to climb a set of stone stairs to street level … where we materialised in an eighteenth-century European village. Or, so it seemed to my disoriented eyes.

We stand on a narrow footpath at the edge of a cobble-stoned street, thick with expensive-looking cars. On either side of us rises up tall painted buildings – maroon, ochre, rose-pink, sea-green – adorned with cast-iron balconies hung with potted geraniums. Just as the cobbled streets are incongruously packed with cars, the old-fashioned buildings house internet cafes, farmacias, hotels and bars. Snatches of Latin guitar music, interspersed with Western pop songs, drift from open windows and doorways.

It’s not far to the hostel we’ve researched. Beyond the charming painted doorway lies a neat front desk and steel flat-screen computers under an ‘INTERNET’ sign. The hip young thing behind the counter, dressed in jeans and a surf-brand t-shirt, greets us with a nod. The Husband asks for a room, in Spanish.
‘Sure, we have a room’ he replies, in perfect, American-accented English, looking up from the desk. ‘Just hold on a sec and I’ll show you.’ He leans in close to his work again; painstakingly applying Liquid Paper to a canary yellow reservation card. He leads us upstairs, through a squat lounge room where a young girl watches television to an empty dorm room lined with bunks. A wooden locker sits in the corner.
‘Looks fine.’ I am tired and want to rest.
‘Tell you what’ he says. ‘I can give you this room to yourselves for 120 pesos .’
The Husband and I exchange looks. Downstairs, he told us that he’d need to open up the room if anyone else turned up, but that it was highly unlikely. (It was after 10pm.) ‘How many nights do you need it for again?’ he asks.
It turns out that he has a full booking tomorrow night, and won’t be able to give us a bed after tonight. We trudge downstairs, our tails between our legs.

We check out the two places he suggests. One, across the road, turns out to be a cramped dorm room at the back of a restaurant. No common room, no kitchenette, and more expensive than our cheap and cheerful hostel. We leave. The restaurant smells good, and I am tempted to sit down, bags and all, and eat. (I don’t, of course.) The next place has an okay room, with a lumpy couch and a seventies-era television set, but it’s expensive. We sit under a tree in a plaza and read our Lonely Planet by the light of a cast-iron street lamp.

Casa Bertha is up a steep hill, through another plaza, where a lone guitar player in Spanish costume rests by a fountain, and up another steep, hairpin-bended cobbled road. The Husband raps on the door.
‘Oh NO, we’re too LATE’ I moan.
A little old woman opens the door and peers out at us. She has a room. Two, in fact. We follow her past a home study-like office where an old man, presumably her husband, sits behind a computer, past a dining room set with a table and chairs, to a narrow hallway housing dorm room. They’re okay, but expensive for what they are.
‘Let’s go back and stay in the hostel dorm for tonight’ I suggest, and The Husband agrees.
‘I have a rooftop terrace’ says the woman. When we don’t respond, she says: ‘I have one other room.’
Wearily, we agree to see it. We follow her up what seems like several flights of black-and-white iron stairs until we reach the rooftop terrace. A long table set with white plastic chairs and a laminex tablecloth looks out over the town. The lights of hundreds of tiered houses twinkle below. Potted plants line the silent terrace, including cacti and the ubiquitous geraniums. We pass through a neat communal kitchen and the woman opens one door, then another, leading to a spacious, orange-painted room. A couch covered with a Mexican-style woven rug sits beside a chest of drawers and a double bed covered in a cheerful rd-and-white striped bedspread. Above it, an open window, and above that, an iron cross mounted on a polished wood board. There is a television opposite the bed, a double bunk bed, and a single bed around an L-shaped corner. Behind the single bed: a separate toilet and bathroom in toothpaste-white tile. We take it, after bargaining the woman down to the same rate as for the rooms we refused.

Next stop: dinner. The Husband takes me to a cafe he frequented on his last trip here, only a few streets away. Down on the street, it is cooler than upstairs in our decidedly warm room, and I shiver a little in my t-shirt. The café is at the top of a steep set of stairs. It is joined to the stairs by a narrow balcony garlanded with fairy lights, which bridges the street below. Terracotta pots planted with flowers line the balcony railings. Acoustic guitar music floats from the open doorway, accompanied by an earnest voice belting out an Oasis track (Champagne Supernova) in American-accented English. We order and The Husband dashes back to the hotel for our jackets as I await our food. The Husband’s beer arrives. I sample it tentatively, as the singer shifts into Lullaby by The Cure. He does it little justice, his voice trembling on the high notes. Well-dressed hip young things move in and out of the café while I wait. Most of them are noticeably European; even the Mexicans look more Spanish than anything. Lots of blonde hair and English conversations. I see girls in precisely uneven haircuts and artful up-dos, leggings and fashionable boots, edgy retro gear. For the first time since I’ve been in Mexico, I feel self-consciously daggy in my nondescript travelling gear – slightly too-big jeans, peeling-apart sandals and a six-year-old t-shirt with a concertina neckband.

We are in university student territory.

The Husband arrives back before the food appears. And before I entirely freeze to death in the suddenly crisp mountain air. The food (pasta for me, chicken and rice for The Husband) is cheap and good, though not as good as I’d get at home. The streets below pulse with Friday night energy – and with young people.

As for us – thirty-one and approaching thirty – we go back to our hard-won hotel and sleep.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Missing my boy: kidwatching in Mexico

I’m missing my boy. I talked to him on Skype the other day, for the first time since I left him at Melbourne airport.
‘I miss your house’ he said.
‘Yeah, DON’T TELL DAD, but the Exoforce [Lego] is much better at your house.’
‘Oh. That’s nice. Okay, I won’t.’

The good news is that he is doing just fine without me. He is doing well at school – his teacher says that he has tested the boundaries a bit but there are NO SERIOUS PROBLEMS. This is an achievement. It’s the first time since he’s entered institutionalised care that a teacher or carer has begun the year with ‘no serious problems’. He won a Best Listener award in assembly last week. Two children in the whole school get one of these awards each Friday. My child, the dreamer, is not generally known for his listening skills. When he was four, his teacher insisted we have his hearing tested, despite my reservations that this was the source of his problems. (His hearing, of course, was excellent. It’s his ability/willingness to concentrate on the world outside his own head that has always been a source of classroom consternation.) So, Best Listener is quite something.

He has two regular playdates a week at friends’ houses (though, reading between the lines, one of the parents in question is not exactly loving it). His father has always been good at enthusiastically grasping any offer of childcare, to the extent that he once employed a semi-retarded woman he met in a playground as F’s weekly babysitter. (‘I make sure she comes at bedtime, when all she has to do is sit there and see to him if he gets up,’ he explained when I stumbled upon the arrangement and complained. For the record, he fired her soon afterwards for stealing.)

ANYWAY, F is doing well. In my absence, he has formed a lunchtime football team, started music lessons and lost his first tooth (sniff!), which he accidentally swallowed.


In his absence, I find myself mooning fondly at small children on the street, noticing their eccentricities or typical childhood mannerisms.

The day before I was due to speak to F on Skype, I was walking through a small plaza in my neighbourhood, an oversized traffic roundabout with a fountain, when a small boy came tottering towards me, arms outstretched. He was wailing: ‘Ma-miii, Ma-miii’. I glanced over to see a woman with two other small children smiling over at me, and presumed she was his mother. I figured he had walked the wrong way around the roundabout and gotten lost. I smiled at the boy over my shoulder. He continued to toddle my way, still wailing plaintively for his mother. I gave him a little wave, as the woman said something to me in Spanish. I smiled and waved at her, too. As we crossed the road, The Husband told me what she had said.
‘He thought you were his mother.’
‘WHAT?! But his mother was there.’
‘No, she was his carer, I think. She told you that he thought you were his mother. That’s why he was following you.’
I burst into tears, right there by the side of the main road, in the midst of the traffic and the shops and restaurants of Chapalita. The idea that the little boy had thought that his mother was walking away from him, while he stretched his arms out to her and pleaded, haunted me for the rest of the day - and part of the next. I guess it epitomised my worst fears about leaving my own son on the other side of the world, where I can’t reach him.

I was surprised, too. From what I’d seen of the children bagging groceries beside their mothers at supermarkets and sleeping in bassinets among clothes racks, I had developed the romantic view that in Mexico, children come to work with their parents. This, I thought, was a society where children are welcome, seen as an inevitable part of life, not lifestyle impediments. Why, I’d castigated myself, did I think that I couldn’t have my child at work with me? That, I’d decided, was one area where Australia could learn from Mexico.

While I’m sure that’s true to some extent, on reflection, I don’t suppose women on the production lines (which employ mostly women) are allowed to bring their children to work. And I don’t think that professional women would bring children to law firms or newspaper offices or hospitals.

I noticed a grandmother walking a toddler in a stroller the next day, on the same street where the child had mistaken me for its mother. There goes my idyllic fantasy.


Perhaps it’s when women (or families) own their own businesses that the child/work combination works?

In a tourist shop in Melaque, babies slept in bassinets among the racks. I saw one baby asleep by a table stacked with t-shirts as I stepped carefully around it, but was surprised by another at my feet as I approached the back wall to finger the fabric of a hanging dress. I gave a start, grateful I hadn’t stepped on the small figure. When I returned to buy the dress the next day, the young mother held one of the babies at her shoulder, wrapped in a blanket. Once again, it slept peacefully. The fabric of her t-shirt was visibly damp around the breasts. I asked The Husband to ask how old the baby was. Just a few weeks. I couldn’t help an admiring double-take at the mother as I took my plastic bag and left. The second baby was nowhere to be seen. Most likely, it belonged to someone else.

Buying a newspaper on the way back to the hotel after an evening in the town plaza, I stepped over pre-schoolers on the pavement, playing with an elderly man, possibly their grandfather. Behind the counter, a pony-tailed young woman watched in admiration as a small girl in a pretty dress teetered towards the doorway on oversized party heels.
‘That’s my daughter’ she told us (in Spanish). ‘Look at her.’
We duly admired her as she joined the young throng on the pavement.
‘She’s three.’ She shook her head and laughed fondly.
‘Bonita’ I managed. (Beautiful)

A five-year-old girl, solemn beneath her black braids, delivered my Coca Cola Light with my dinner at the Melaque beachside restaurant beside our hotel. When I thanked her (equally solemnly), she shot me the shy smile of a child, even as she uttered the practised riposte of her profession, obviously imitating her parents: ‘de nada’ (‘it’s nothing’). The next morning, as we ate hotcakes under umbrellas on the sand, I watched the same girl delivering cutlery to the couple a few tables away. She took pride in helping, in doing such a grown-up thing. And later she was in her bathers, playing in the sand at the foot of the restaurant. It wasn’t a particularly busy place. Her work seemed to be as much about making her a part of the family business (and perhaps occupying her time) as anything.

Down the sands at Barra de Navidad, The Husband and I were luxuriating on the fringes of a restaurant that boasted ‘THE BEST SUNSET ON THE BEACH’. Sucked in by the sign, we were stretched out in the ebbing sun, sipping sangria and Mexican beer, watching the light change over the water. At Barra, Melaque’s slightly busier neighbour, the beach vendors stop by more frequently – sometimes every few minutes – with their hammocks, jewellery and temporary tattoos. The instinctual reaction is to wave them off like insects, with a polite but firm ‘no gracias’. A woman in the unofficial uniform of her counterparts - a modest, brightly coloured traditional dress with a frilled apron in a contrasting colour over it – lopes by under the weight of a large cardboard folder hung with beaded jewellery. She thrusts it hopefully under our umbrella.
‘No, gracias.’
Behind her, comes a girl of about ten or twelve, in a similar dress. A long black braid hangs down her back. She shows us her armfuls of painted ceramic knick-knacks. This time, it’s hard to say no, but we repeat ourselves.

Next, without much hope but obviously duty-bound to try, an even smaller girl. She wears a mini-backpack over her pink t-shirt and shorts. Twin braids hang over her shoulders, over tiny pierced ears. Her face is solemn, unsmiling, as she tentatively pushes her wares, a painted ceramic fish in each hand, towards us. She and I look at each other. The Husband looks at me, waiting. I finger one of the fish.
‘Quanta questa?’ (How much?)
She tells me, still solemn. Her mother appears over her shoulder, turning back from her path down the beach. She unzips the backpack and lays out an array of ceramic shapes on the table. They are salt-and-pepper shakers. The sister stands quietly to my right side, looking out to sea.
‘I think my mother would like one of these’ I tell The Husband. He agrees.
‘How old are you?’ he asks the girl (in Spanish). She is four.
‘Gracias’ I say, as I count the money into her tiny hand.
‘De nada’ she whispers, as The Husband talks to the mother in Spanish about where they are from. Like most of the indigenous people working the beach, they are here from Guerrero, a poorer state in the south of the country. Acapulco, one of the glitziest resorts in Mexico, is located there, and we have wondered why they travel here instead. Now, The Husband asks her. Too much competition in Acapulco. They will return to Guerrero in Holy Week (Easter).

I want to give the girls something, not just a tip but something for them. As The Husband talks, I rifle through my bag and find a small hoard of wrapped sweets, collected from various hotels. Hurriedly, before they move on, I separate out two sweets and hold them out to the four-year-old. A smile appears as she takes them and murmurs ‘gracias’. I need to tap the older girl on the shoulder to get her attention, but she, too is pleased. I know it’s not much, and they could probably get sweets themselves, but it’s a gesture. I don’t know how to talk to them, or to tell their mother that her girls are lovely, so I hope the sweets say it for me, at least a little.
‘Adios, mi amigos’ (Goodbye, friends) waves the mother as she moves on to the next table of tourists, who I see pause to ponder her jewellery.

‘I couldn’t say no to that face,’ I whisper across the table.
‘I know’ says The Husband.

I wonder how long the girls have wandered up and down the beach in the hot sun, and if they long to play in the water like the holidaying children in bathers and towels, or calmly accept their lot - as my own child certainly would not.


Sunday is family day in Guadalajara. Children and parents throng in the vast paved plazas of the city. Ice cream shops are crowded with customers as we pass. An animal market - rows of caged birds (mostly pigeons) - is lined with curious small faces. That particular plaza is usually thick with (free flying) pigeons, but not today.
‘Do you think they captured the pigeons who are usually here and they’re in the cages?’ I ask The Husband.
‘Oh, probably.’ He is joking. So am I; I think.

You can’t walk far in the centre of Guadalajara without coming across a fountain. It’s strange that a city with no public swimming pools (or none that I can find) is so obsessed with fountains. Maybe it’s the lack of places to swim that accounts for the absolute fascination of the children here with the fountains.

Or maybe not. I recall always wanting to immerse myself in the (now defunct) fountain in front of the South Australian Museum as a child. In fact, until it disappeared, really. And F, aged four, once broke away from me in Rundle Mall to climb into the fountain there. I was so sympathetic to his motivations that all I could do was laugh, I’m afraid. (In between half-heartedly telling him off.) The Husband quite rightly told ME off for my lack of parental composure.

It’s not just the small children who like the fountains, either. Couples walk around the edges hand-in-hand. During the week, uniformed schoolgirls stage squealing water fights. Today, teenage girls in tight t-shirts above inches of exposed tummy do the same.
We walk around the city all day, from late morning to nightfall. We pass many, many fountains. At each one, children (mostly small) splash at the edges, or stand awestruck in the spray. In the shallower fountains, they wade triumphantly through the chlorinated water in their good Sunday clothes - parents permitting. Those who are not allowed in sit longingly at the edges. One small girl in a frilly, starchy floral dress perches mournfully at the far corner of a fountain that leads down into a narrow hallway of water where children noisily indulge themselves, her expression constrained.

As evening falls, we sit in a busy plaza lined with benches to drink bottled water and ponder our next move. An enormous fountain lies a few metres away. I sit with my camera trained on it, my lens zoomed in close, and contentedly take snaps of the action. The highlight is an older boy playfully pretending to hurl in his brother. Until a father and son walk by, and the father turns his son upside down, dashes back to the fountain, and dips him carefully into the water, just wetting his hair. The son is laughing admiringly up at his dad as they pass back in our direction.

The girls in particular are dressed in their best for the day. My head swivels to follow one junior primary school aged girl in a puffy dress sporting the biggest bow I have seen in my life at the back of her waist. Another similarly aged girl prances proudly beneath a tree for the camera lens of her adoring father, daintily pinching the hems of her green satin dress at either side. Other young girls wear denim mini-skirts and high knee-moccasin boots. Their hips and ponytails swing together as they walk, mini fashionistas in the making. One such girl, in a snug red t-shirt and knee-length denim skirt, walks in front of us awhile. Emblazoned across the tight-fitting behind of her dress is the slogan ‘SEXY’. She must be about eight years old.


On my first day in Guadalajara (over two weeks ago now), a uniformed schoolgirl approached our café table in the plaza and plonked a small illustrated card on our napkin holder with practised efficiency. I watched in bemusement as she moved on to the next table and did the same. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old. I peered at my card. It had a pretty, beribboned dog on it.
‘What is she doing?’ I hissed at The Husband. ‘Does she want money?’
‘I don’t know.’
The Husband had already filled me in on how to deal with the plentiful beggars and street vendors dealing in knick-knacks - ‘no necessito’ (not necessary) being more effective than ‘no gracias’. He had warned me that parents often recruit their children to help them.

But everything about this girl screamed good care and perfectly adequate wealth. Her uniform was spotless and neat. Her glossy hair literally shone in the sunlight. And her light skin, hazel eyes and pale amber locks bespoke privilege in a country where poverty and skin colour are more often related than not. The girl appeared back at the table while The Husband was in the toilet. She said something incomprehensible in Spanish and gestured at the card. It was obvious she wanted money, after all.
‘No necessito.’
She scooped up the card and disappeared, without so much as a wasted look.

Half an hour later, I spotted the girl again. She was sitting in another plaza, at the edge of a fountain, gleefully tucking into an elaborate ice cream sundae.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sick (and sooky) in paradise

The morning of our much-awaited wedding anniversary trip to the beach, I almost don’t make it out of bed. I’m in the second stages of a Very Bad Cold, and I don’t so much awaken from a night’s sleep as surface to consciousness for the millionth time since I went to bed. My nose is both blocked and streaming, my throat feels like sandpaper, my head aches and my ears are thick with fluid.

‘Do you want to go?’ asks The Husband, once his screaming air-raid siren of an alarm is switched off. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to go tomorrow?’
‘I’m sure.’
There is no way I’m having one less day at the beach, no matter how much I’d love to stay in bed.

I drag myself in and out of the shower. No time or energy to wash my hair – which I will later regret, because I’ve forgotten to pack shampoo and conditioner. Clothes thrown on, hat and sunglasses donned, enormous knapsack with laptop, 700 page book and notebook shouldered – and we’re out the door. Every part of me labours under the twin strains of the bag and the very act of walking. I sneeze and blow my nose into scraps of toilet paper as we walk to nearby Plaza del Sol and the bus stop for our ride to the terminal.

Ten minutes later, just as I’m starting to whinge, we’re at the appointed spot by the side of the road. The Husband flags down the approaching bus, which lurches to a halt long enough for us to clamber aboard, then continues its hurtling journey along the neat bitumen roads of Guadalajara. I squint into darkness, through my sunglasses, past the broad brim of my hat, and try to shove my ten pesos at the moustachioed driver, who steadfastly ignores me until the first stomach-churning stop, when I am thrown backwards.

The Husband, more street-smart than me (as ever) is waiting at the back of the bus. I notice as I sit down that the windows are tinted nearly black, explaining my blindness.
‘The drivers on this line are crazy’ says The Husband. ‘Lots of people are killed on these buses each year.’
I am strangely comforted by his qualifier. The bus is packed with passengers, even though it’s 7.30am on a Saturday. Maybe these are weekday city workers going home to their rural families?

The air at the bus terminal is choked with fumes, much more so than our temporary home in Chapalita. The clear blue sky is crisscrossed with dappled rays of light, illuminating the haze that blankets the crisp air. This is pollution, not moisture.

The terminal itself is airport-glossy, all smooth tiled floors and mall-style souvenir shops. The pay toilets, however, remind me that we’re in the third world, with their ubiquitous bins for toilet paper and signs about not flushing, accompanied by the unmistakable stink of shit.

After a side-trip to an adjacent hotel for a buffet breakfast, it’s time to board the bus. We’re handed small plastic bags of food as we hand over our tickets, dispensed by a uniformed woman behind a plastic cart, arranged with a selection of drinks – bottled water, lemonade, Coke. I choose water. Once on the bus, cushioned in our generous seats, we look through the bags and find a ham sandwich and packaged biscuits in each one. Not bad for a 250 peso bus trip (around $US25). We roll out of the bus terminal, passing rows and rows of empty buses on the way.
‘The hard part is over’ I say to The Husband. ‘We’re nearly there.’

Five hours later, we arrive in San Patricio Melaque, both of us sick and exhausted from the long effort not to vomit. I’d been excited by the opportunity to finally visit the mountains that form the backdrop to Guadalajra, but hadn’t imagined that the winding mountain roads would make me so ill.

The scenery is breathtaking. Fields of corn, wheat and agave (the plant that tequila is made from), mountainsides covered with squat, hardy bushes, tall, finger-like cacti, picturesque ruins and crumbling, brightly painted rural shacks. Dirt roads barely carved out of the landscape, lined with huts beneath thatched-palm rooves. The occasional sprawling adobe farmhouse among the cornfields. Children bouncing on a trampoline amidst the cactus. Mustachioed, leathery men in white cowboy hats and jeans, Mexicans dressed in the garb of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

Every tiny town, every clump of dusty houses, supports a tacqueria selling beer and street vendors selling vegetables and snacks. In some towns, tractors and utes chug along the road, young men standing in the back in groups or sitting atop piles of produce. Bus shelters with buckled corrugated iron rooves sit lonely by the roadside. Everywhere, all along the journey, small fires crackle in the fields; sometimes visible by flame, mostly only by billowing columns of smoke. Once, I feel a quick flash of heat on my left side and glance down to see orange flames teasing the side of the bus, inexplicably leaping from the roadside.

‘We’re here!’
I’ve nodded off, briefly nausea-free, when The Husband wakes me for our stop. I grab my hat from the overhead locker and spill hurriedly into the street, my sandals scuffling in the dust. I have landed beside a row of taco vendors beneath a blue plastic Pepsi shelter. At the end of the street, a line of dark little stores, brightly hung with inflatable crocodiles, fluorescent floatie rings, floral boardshorts and fish-strewn beach towels. To the far left, the mountains. Across the road, a tired-looking bus office. I expected to be greeted by the water, but so far the shops are the only sign that we have reached our beachside destination.

Heavy bags aloft, we trail listlessly past the row of mostly identical shops, interspersed with hotels and bungalows, Lonely Planet guidebook in hand. Glimpses of pools or poolside furniture tempt me. At the end of the road, we turn right towards the water and enter our first choice of accommodation, a complex of bungalows boasting an outdoor pool and a beachfront terrace. A squat, withered old man speaking broken English in response to The Husband’s broken Spanish shows us to the bungalow we MIGHT be able to get, if the scheduled guests don’t arrive to claim it soon.

We enter into a cupboard-sized kitchen area and stand looking at two worn double beds and a built-in wardrobe below a peeling ceiling fan. My heart sinks. In my fantasy for this trip, we find picturesque decay (or luxury, of course), not a seventies-era motel room. I don’t know why I was expecting that.
‘Where’s the pool?’ I ask, and The Husband translates into Spanish. Our guide emits a big belly laugh and shakes his head.
‘What do I need a pool for, when I got this?’ he gestures at the thatched-palm roof of the terrace, where deeply tanned bathers are gazing relaxedly on a glittering expanse of ocean, rocky islands carpeted in bush on the near horizon. Sailing boats bob in the far distance. It is, I have to admit, spectacular. Steps lead from the terrace onto the sand.
‘This is pretty good’ mutters The Husband.
‘I don’t know’ I pout. ‘The Lonely Planet said there was a pool. Not that it matters, I guess. And every other bungalow has a private terrace, but ours doesn’t.’
Our guide is calling the owner on his mobile to check if the room is available. I stand alone in the bungalow, frowning up at the black mould behind the ceiling fan. The man reappears, downcast. It seems that the booked guests are coming after all. The Husband is disappointed; I am secretly pleased.

We drag our feet back in the direction we came, the blue sky and hot sun savage overhead. I sniffle and sneeze as we go. We stop at another Lonely Planet listing, a hotel boasting ‘one of the best outdoor pools in the neighbourhood’. I can tell The Husband wants to please me, or at least to remove my scowl. The pool, an oblong of shining aqua in a tiled recess behind a dim bar room, is visible from the street. We follow the hotel clerk up stairways and along balconies, until finally we reach the proposed room. As badly decorated at the first, though slightly less shabby, it boasts multiple double beds, a cupboard and an okay bathroom. None of the seclusion of option one.
‘How much?’ asks The Husband.
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘I’d have to ask the owner.’
After much prodding, the clerk finally suggests 1000 pesos a night (equivalent US$100). The last place was 28 pesos a night.
‘Usually five people would stay in this room’ he explains, in slightly accusing tones. It’s a long and grumpy walk back to the street.

‘Where next?’ asks The Husband.
‘Let’s just go where your friends stayed.’ I am past caring. In my eyes, this trip is already somewhat ruined. This dusty strip of souvenir shops is not my idea of a romantic holiday.

We end up at the furthest hotel from the bus station, and the main drag (at least, the furthest listed in the Lonely Planet). It’s not on the beachfront, which doesn’t please me. Lobsterlike North American retirees spilling out of their bathing suits parade around the lobby and up and down the stairs, shouting to each other. The place is cheerful and clean though, fitted out in white and nautical blue, with plastic chairs and tables arranged invitingly along the balconies. Beach towels hang from the railings. I glimpse the ocean. We take the room.

The Husband and I lie on the double beds, side by side. We are each sprawled across our own bed, beneath matching painted headboards featuring lighthouses and seagulls. I blow my nose several times and try to ignore my now hopelessly blocked ears, made worse by the journey through high altitudes.

After ten minutes or so, we emerge in our bathers and shorts (actually, The Husband has brought no bathers to Mexico, so he’ll swim in his cut-off cargos) and head for the water. The beach is only a few steps away. I’m already feeling much better about things; more so when we hit the sand. The waves literally glitter in the sun, and gold flecks in the sand sparkle beneath our feet when we near the water. It looks like the fools’ gold I used to dig for in the playground as a kid. Restaurants with the ubiquitous palm-fringed rooves line the sand, set above the beach with steps leading down to tables topped with multi-coloured umbrellas. The mountains we have recently left are on the right; the left coast of the beach stretches to a far away ending: the twin resort town of Barra de Navidad, five kilometres away. The islands visible from the other end of the beach loom larger here, and the small boats are almost close enough to swim to. (In fact, we do see someone to swim to one.) More motorboats are lined up on the sand nearby.

We walk along the beach, past the vast ruins of the Casa de Grande, a hotel demolished by tidal waves resulting from an earthquake in 1995. We pass a row of beachfront restaurants and hotels and climb the hill past our original bungalows back to town. I now agree with The Husband that they were a good deal, and winsomely recall the beachfront terrace.
‘Will one be free tomorrow, perhaps?’ we ask the caretaker, who stands sentry at the gate, where he greets us as we pass.
‘Sure, sure’ he says. ‘I’m waiting for the owner to come now about the other place. He should be here.’
‘That’s a pity. So, we’ll come in the morning?’
‘Sure. Come at 9.’
I look at The Husband and shake my head.
‘Can we come at 12? We want to sleep in the morning.’
‘The owner should be here.’ He is distracted and not really listening. We say goodbye and move on to the main street, as he mumbles that he will see us at 9 tomorrow.

Back at the souvenir shops, free to browse now we’re not weighed down by our bags, we realise we need beach towels before we can swim. We find several Barbie and Disney Princess towels embroidered with ‘Melaque’, then eventually find plain coloured towels and marine designs. The woman who runs the shop eagerly pulls them down one by one and unfolds them for our viewing pleasure. I am horrified by one, which depicts a blue sea swarming with sharks. Like the others, it proudly bears the name ‘Melaque’. I choose fish instead.
‘Do you think there are sharks here?’ I whisper. The Husband laughs in response.

It is late when we finally swim, but worth it. I swim with my sunglasses on – partly because I was neck-deep in water before I remembered, partly because I need to keep my throbbing ear above water.

We eat at the nearest beachside restaurant, La Sirena. Its logo is Ariel the mermaid – the Disney character. Disney, Coke, Pepsi: all ever-present in Mexico. The Husband has steak, salad and rice with tortillas; I eat ceviche (diced fish with salsa). It’s good, but not great.

Back to the hotel to change. I lie in bed after a lukewarm shower, staring at the television, too exhausted to move. The Husband watches soccer beside me. I would stay here all night, nursing my cold and my ear and sleeping, but The Husband is keen to see the plaza, which his friends have told him ‘comes alive at night’. I should tell him how I’m feeling, but don’t.

In town, the shops are still open, children sitting in the footpath playing under the eye of their parents, babies sleeping in bassinets among racks of clothing. Now I can hardly hear from my right ear, and it’s throwing me off balance. I stumble from gutters and miss stairs on my way up or down. I beg The Husband to take me to a pharmacy to get something to fix it. Of course, most of the farmacias here, as in the US, are also supermarkets. Most of them stock more in the way of ice cream and groceries than medicines. Finally, we find a farmacia with a wall of medicines and The Husband explains what we want, in Spanish. It takes a while, and a willingness to persist on the part of the kindly pharmacist, but eventually he produces ear drops.

Plaza at night: photo by The Husband

We eat at a bar overlooking the plaza, its balcony garlanded with fairy lights. The Husband photographs the plaza below while I take my ear drops into the bathroom and shut the propped-open door behind me. When I return to the table, I drink my Sangria with my head tilted at right angles. On the street, the plaza is illuminated with lights, particularly the dolphin fountain at the centre. Families, couples and gangs of children congregate in groups; talking, laughing and eating. Taco stands have sprung up. A green-haired clown wanders the crowd. A small girl fondles a balloon animal. I go back to the bathroom to prod at my stubborn ear (now whistling like a seashell), falling off a step as I go. The bar staff must think I’m on drugs.

Small girl in plaza: photo by The Husband

At the hotel, as we climb the stairs to our room, we pass a white-haired, brown-skinned couple huddled on the stairs of the laundry room, giggling over open beer bottles like teenagers. Directly outside our window, a gaggle of similarly bronzed and leathered retirees are whooping it up at one of the tables. Their booming conversation is impossible to ignore as we try to sleep. Soon, we find ourselves hooked on listening, as someone called Fred regales a Doris and her husband about his yachting adventures in ‘Oss-straylia’ and New Zealand.
‘Ohhhh, it’s my DREAM to go to Osstraylia’ squeals Doris.
‘It’s wonderful, but I really loved New Zealand. You can go deer shooting there. They got too many of them. Killing the motorists.’
‘It’s the same in Canada. Moose kill more motorists than ANY OTHER CAUSE.’
When it’s finally time to part company, Fred asks the couple for their names again.
‘I always forget names’ he bellows.
‘Oh, it’s impossible to remember everyone in a place like this. Still, we’ll see you tomorrow, I guess.’
‘When you’re a MUSICIAN, you forget everyone. But they all remember you. They come up and talk to you and you think “who are YOU?” It’s just terrible.’

We almost miss them after they’ve retreated to their rooms. But not quite.