The big Boeing banked, then straightened out, then banked again, as though reluctant to descend into the thick blanket of smog that hugged the high plain on which live twenty two million people. Welcome to Mexico City.
Passport and luggage business all taken care of I emerged into the terminal looking for a sign with my name on it. This is always the bad part: What if there's no-one to pick me up and take me to a hotel? But, relief, two women are holding a card with something that looks like a good approximation of my name. They look at me, then past me. I clearly don't fit their expectations. They are for a moment incredulous and clearly disappointed when I insist I'm me.
We struggle across the concourse and into the car-park to their waiting Toyota Corolla. Would I like to see the city and attend a medieval miracle play or go to my hotel first? The hotel is far across the city, and we would be late for the show if I choose to do that. So we head downtown.
There seems to be no parking space anywhere. There! One of the women points joyfully. I can see only a pedestrian crossing with a cop standing by it. The driver stops and backs onto the pedestrian crossing, the cop gallantly guiding her into position. "Lucky he was here," I am told quietly. We climb out and the driver slips the cop 20 pesetas. This is the recognized cost for parking on a crossing.
Fighting through the litter, and alert to the movement of the crowds, among whom are allegedly the world's most sophisticated pick-pockets, we entered the cathedral square. Wide, littered, and flanked by governement offices, and groups of soldiers with guns at the ready--their presence hardly a comfort. But why was I feeling a cold coming on? Throat sore and eyes stinging. I had heard about the pollution, but it took a while to associate it with this rapid corrosion of my accessible softer organs.
The miracle play was delightful, and very long. Live lambs and a donkey and mountainous bales of hay. Performed in one of the oldest and solidest buildings of the colonial era--now a school. As we emerged into the central covered courtyard, a group of men were hoisting into place a large peñata. The heavy rope by which they were hoisting it up flicked out of someone's hands and roughly pounded my face. The donkey and the Virgin Mary and Joseph were walking past, so I managed a numbed and no doubt horribly twisted smile, as though this kind of thing happens to one everyday in Canada too.
Admission to the Miracle play also bought one into the buffet that was prepared in the courtyard, just out of reach of the perilous peñata. I'm not one of those eat-anything-with-relish travellers, and I think most of the food was exotic for the locals too. I didn't recognize anything, but tried a few pasty white things that may have had meat from some near-extinct animal inside, though it tasted as I imagine blended moths might taste, with a slight and disturbing crunchiness.
Walking back to the car, we had to move off the sidewalk every twenty meters or so to avoid the two-by-fours propping up the sagging walls of buildings, within a block or so of the city center. Ah, it was explained, that is damage not from the last earthquake, but from the one before that. The explanation given with a weary smile that acknowledged that other countries deal with their destruction more expeditiously, but what is one to do?
Back at the car, the same cop was standing guard, and took another 20 pesos with such polished ease that a career as a conjuror might provide alternative employment. The proffered note was swept from the woman's hand and into the pocket in a single movement that combined grace and speed. You couldn't be sure it was ever there. It is an art form.
Hungry and tired, I was dropped at the hotel and given instructions when to be ready in the morning. I had dinner, carefully eating only well-cooked foods, avoiding all liquids that didn't come fizzing from a bottle, brushed my teeth with the Evian water I had bought at Los Angeles, and fell into bed.
About 2 a.m. I jumped awake with the phone roaring by my ear. Someone shouted Spanish at high speed. I apologized for not being able to understand. An hour or so later, another wrong number. I had the impression of hopeful telephone operators randomly connecting people aross this vast city in the expectation of now and then getting a hit. Sleep was interrupted again an hour later by the most awful screaming of brakes, then the sickening thud of crunching glass and metal, and a horn blaring for minutes before being fading away in a piteous sqeal.
My alarm woke me a few minutes later, it seemed. I was hardly refreshed by the night. My throat felt bad, eyes looking blearily back at me from the bathroom mirror. Good Canadian that I am, I was up and breakfasted and ready for the bus, along with the group of others who were to attend the conference. I chatted with a woman from McGill as we waited outside the hotel. A half hour passed, then another, then yet another. Eventually a mini-bus arrived and we were cheerfully bundled in to be driven to the National Pedagogical University.
The VW wound around back streets, picked its way by flaking walls and under bridges then over bridges. After about a quarter of an hour of this we turned onto a major highway. And passed just 50 meters from the front of our hotel. The growth of Mexico City and its roads has not been coordinated in the way the slow-growing cities of the north have experienced. The route we had taken was the quickest way to get onto this highway which was the only easy way to get to the University, which, it turned out, was not so very far away.
We drew up to the main gates. The campus was ringed with a massive metal fence, painted a cheerful blue. The main gate was like checkpoint Charlie; guards with heavy-duty guns (AK-47s the woman next to me mentioned casually) lounged around a sentry box, from which metal barriers were raised and lowered to allow or prevent access. In a little while we were passed into the concrete and tropical treed relative cool of the modern campus.
After the usual delays--running more than an hour behind schedule--the huge hall began to fill up, and the politicians on the extravagently flowered stage welcomed us; confident, they said, that we would inaugurate a new day in Mexico's reconstitution of primary education. Once the politicians were all done, I was to climb onto the stage. The overhead projector was not yet there, so I asked if it was available. The group who gathered on the stage ran off in all directions to look for it. A stunning expenditure of energy. But no-one seemed to know where it was. Eventually, as I was preparing to speak without it, someone triumphantly carried it on. It was placed on the long table, and the people who had been looking for it all returned to stand around, making sure all was now well. Someone tried to plug it in, but realised that its plug did not reach the wall-socket. The group again scattered to find an extension cord, some running to the sides of the stage, some leaping off the front and heading towards the rear of the hall. Puzzled, I picked up the projector and moved it a few feet closer to the wall-socket and plugged it in. Ah, yancqui ingenuity; the results of generations of familiarity with the products of technology bearing fruit. Relief all round.
The talk began, the overheads doing their reliable job of distracting the audience from what I was saying. But this audience nearly all had donned earphones and were listening to the simultaneous translation. This proved disturbing. My talks rely on quite a number of carefully rehearsed spontaneous jokes. The punch lines were followed by silence. I carry on bravely to make my major point, only to be interrupted by laughter. The translator was running about twenty or thirty seconds behind. Sometimes laughter burst out when I couldn't remember making a joke. Perhaps the translator had an entirely different script, or was peppering my dull talk with her favorite jokes?
The next night was alive with the random phone and screaming brakes of smashing vehicles. The mayhem and, surely, fatalities that I could hear from this one hotel bedroom, if occuring equally across the city must be making a dent on the surging population? I woke feeling even worse than the poor condition in which I had gone to bed.
I tried to phone my wife to let her know that I was still alive, and pretend to her that I was safe. I followed the instructions for international dialling very carefully. The first connection led to a brief conversation with someone who shouted at me in rapid Spanish. The next, I think, was Chinese. The third sounded like some African dialect I had once heard in a movie about the Kalahari. I gave up and hoped my wife would understand.
The next day I had a workshop. The rooms had an original method of numeration, that made things a little difficult if one followed the old 1,2,3,4 expectations. In this case I arrived very late for my workshop, and only a quarter hour or so before the first member of my cheerful audience. Most spoke only a little English, so I had a translator. It is not appropriate these days to observe, as in my antique way and with my antique and prejudiced aesthetic I did, that the translator was heart-stoppingly beautiful. She perched on a chair beside me and translated as I made my presentation. When it came to questions, she leaned forward and huskily, warmly, breathed the questions into my whorléd ear. In the circumstances, I thought I fielded them well.
The city seems to teeter on the brink of anarchy. One area of reliable employment is as a security guard. Every public building, bank, office block, was decorated by men in dramatic uniforms burdened by expensive munitions. In addition to the auto wrecking and the random phones, the acrid night air also carries the occasional crackle of what seems to an innocent Vancouverite's ear like gunfire. Unfamiliar in Kerrisdale just at the moment.
The black ruins of the old city, the Aztec city, poked just above the modern rubble here and there. What is one to make of them? The mind sags under the comparisons of the alien old and the familiar-alien new. There are automobiles, modern people in T-shirts and jeans and fashionable dresses on the present surface, with the occasional dark face and black eyes that seem to belong more with the stumps of the Aztec city.
My plane was at seven thirty a.m. and we were a bit less than an hour from the airport, so I asked the bus driver to pick me up at quarter to five. He had insisted that he wanted to take me, even though I had told him I would be happy to take a taxi. His honor and the honor of his forefathers and of the coutry apparently depended on it. In the morning I waited, and waited. Fortunately a taxi driver came to pick up someone who also didn't show. So, we had a deal. He set off at speed through the sparse early morning traffic. Clearly he was an aspirant to the Mexican motor-racing team. Or rather, I concluded, he was a reject from the team, desperately now trying to compensate. His problem was not speed, but rather had to do with a certain intermittency of reliability in the control-of-vehicle department. I can't remember how big a tip I gave him, in relief at not being one of the crumpling metal and glass punctuations of the Mexican night.
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