Alice in Xochimilco

mexico city at night Due to technical difficulties, I’m spending today sorting out photos so I can find them when I need them and not 3 posts later so today I’ve dug into my archives for this memory piece from my other blog, A Sudden Alarm of Donkeys.  

I was at that magic age when I first went to Mexico: I knew of mortality but it existed outside the magic circle of my friends and family. Laughter came easily, as did attention. It was that moment before life takes off the mask. It was a time when a friend could say ‘let’s go to Mexico for a few weeks’ and nothing in my life required arrangements more complicated than buying the ticket.

First stop on the adventure was Mexico City. If you go to Mexico City, make sure your flight comes in at night. Set in a bowl of mountain peaks, the approach is black velvet above, below and all around. As the plane crests the final ridge it climbs and then, levelling out, pulls the curtain back to reveal a brilliant carpet of light exploding beneath your feet, stretching to the farthest horizon.

mexico cityEverything about Mexico City was staggering. It was my first time in a country where, to quote Thornton Wilder, “people don’t talk in English and don’t even want to”. And so many of them. At that time the population of Mexico City numbered close to 10 million.

The atmosphere was rich and, despite the lack of oxygen at a mile above sea level, really, really thick: the pollution made Los Angeles look like a day on the high prairies. We stayed with a friend of a friend who worked for a German pharmaceutical company. Even though it was her maid’s week off, she was glad to let us stay in her place for the few days we were there.

By day 3 we’d learned to breathe well enough to go on an expedition to Xochimilco (the ‘x’ is pronouncedxochimilco like an ‘s’). This is where to find the waterways the original city was built on when the conquistadors rolled up to crash the party.  It was a festival atmosphere, living up to its name ‘where the flowers grow’.

Trajineras, large, flat bottomed boats, punted visitors along the canals that wind among the gardens and islands slowly decaying into the muddy water. Smaller canoes came by with food grilling over charcoal braziers, others with flowers, fruit and, every so often, a mariachi band. For a few pesos you could choose between digestive roulette or the music of cowboys.

Calacas_Mariachis_en_TrajinerasPerhaps it was the lack of oxygen or the cultural overload but it was as if I had stepped through Alice’s looking glass into a Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dali and Ralph Steadmen. More likely it was my voracious consumption of Philip K. Dick novels. Our trajinera was one of the most popular as people floated by to look at us; Genevieve was a tall, willowy blonde and I had hair the colour of an excited geranium. Georgette didn’t really stand out from the natives, being slight and olive skinned, so people would lean out of their boats to chatter at her while pointing at Gen and the mujer muy rojo.

Within a week we flew out to the Yucatan. We coughed around Merida for a few more days before heading south. Chichen Itza commanded our presence for a day and then we rested another week on Isla Mujeres, where I was serenaded by young men playing Guantanamera on their guitars.

Two years ago I went back to the Yucatan, a woman of maturity, with a family and my family’s family: not-much-has-changed-2-300x24330 years of accumulated gravitas (and adipose). The magnificent Chichen Itza has not changed much. Except it’s more crowded and the highway I remember walking down is now almost buried by motels and tourist development. The structures we scampered all over are now roped off to prevent erosion by Adidas.

The sky of the Yucatan is still the same, the gods still towering over their Maya, embracing them in the wind, the fierce sun. The people who once saw themselves as masters of the world now bus tables for wide hipped, whining tourists.

Looking back to that first time in Mexico I find it hard to believe I was ever that young. I know there are pictures somewhere to prove that time existed and, sometimes, if I am very quiet, I’ll catch a fleeting glimpse of that silly child but she never comes close enough to touch or to hold. She is in Xochimilco: the canals, the trajineras and the mariachi that are forever part of that time in my life before I saw behind the mask. When I was Alice and the world was a wonderland.


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