lunes, 13 de enero de 2014

México, México

El DF... what comes to mind when you hear its name? Smog? Over population? Quesadillas that don't necessarily have queso? Protests? Rubbish? Congestion? All of those answers would be valid. Mexico City is one of the largest and most populous cities in the world, but unlike Tokyo or New York (I imagine, never having been to either), the capital lacks a sleek, streamlined feel. Like in most large cities, people always seem to be in a rush, often not even looking when they cross the road in the city centre, just wandering across.

However, at night Mexico City takes on a different vibe in the build up to Christmas.  The streets become packed with those more interested in dilly-dallying as they take the kids to see the Christmas displays and events in the zócalo, the central plaza. Fake snow falls in this main andador, pictured above, floating out of the buildings above. The crowd slows to a standstill, taking photos of themselves in the "winter wonderland" that surrounds them. Although it is winter, the snowy ideal of Christmas has to be manufactured here. People can't just feel snow fall; fake snow is spewed from buildings onto the footpath. Snowmen can't just be built here; a snowmen building area is put up with man-made snow and moulds provided.  Kids can't just go sledding here; an iced slide is constructed.  Mexico, so keen to live up to the Christmas expectations of kids and adults alike out does itself in trying to appease them. Consumerism, extravagance and exuberance; Mexico at it again.

viernes, 20 de diciembre de 2013

El Cumpleaños de Lupe...

The anniversary of the sighting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, almost five hundred years ago.  Perhaps the most incongruous and colourful event in Mexico, Lupe's birthday is a huge deal for many Mexican's, particularly those who undertake pilgrimages to sites such as this basilica in Mexico City.  I have talked about the Virgin Guadalupe before, here and there, but before this recent birthday of hers I had never seen her worship to such a scale.

Many people came to the Basilica dressed in a shirt or dress bearing the image of the Virgin while others have her portrait strapped to their back, or carry her image as a statue all day; any tangible way to prove the strength of their devotion to la reina de México.  My favourite were the kids with the Virgin capes and the Virgin stamps on their faces.

Prior to this, I had been unfamiliar with the idea of Christianity wrapped so thoroughly in feathers and shrouded in incense.  A paved expanse surrounding the main, circular church which is somewhat reminiscent of a circus tent, was filled with scenes like this one: feathered, colourful people dancing their praise to the Virgin in a haze of incense.

The contrast between the sombreness of the church and the brightly coloured, feathered people dancing is striking.  It reminds me of how the Lupe was used to legitimise the Catholic church in Mexico, to strengthen Spain's hold over the newly found land, but seems to show rebellion as well.  It shows Mexicans accepting her, and thus the Spanish religion, on their own terms.  With all the colour, flourish and jazz that they can squeeze into their devotion, Mexico has truly made Lupe, and this pedacito of Catholicism their own.

miércoles, 4 de diciembre de 2013

Los Conflictos De Los Toros

Los toros... An event at once horrifying, grotesque and an intricate game between man and beast.  A violent dance that is not even close to being fair, with the odds stacked against the bull.  Trotting in, the bull appears somewhat confused by the open arena and the eager crowd.  He's slowly weakened, poked and prodded, tired from charging around the arena.  Only after this does the real dance begin.  It is a shame: the best bit only happens after the bull has been worn down and injured.  Having said that, with a skilled toreador, the dance can be truly breath-taking.  A furious bull, charging, turning in tight circles, following the cloth, or turning firstly in one direction and then doubling back on himself, going where the cloth leads him: it is genuinely astonishing.  And even more so, when after this tight dance between enemies the toreador turns his back on the bull and walks away, arms upraised to the praise of the crowd.  How can he trust his opponent that he has been tormenting not to run him down?  I don't know, but for some reason the bull doesn't.  Maybe the bull doesn't understand it is a fight to the death.

It is really an emotionally confusing event.  The setting itself buzzes with excitement, the stabbing and the deaths of the bulls seems tragic - and even more so when the crowd celebrates it.  I often found myself on the side of the bull, cheering against the crowd, cheering on the underdog who didn't even necessarily know what he was fighting for nor the rules of the game.  But the archaic attire, the bold colours, the food vendors - all build an enthusiasm which sometimes left me sickened - enthusiasm for violence and death?  Like the gladiators of ancient Rome: in the end it is a spectacle.  Shocking, unsettling, exciting and above all else: dramatic.  I am glad we saw the two startling and conflicting faces of the event, but I have no need to go again.  And although once was enough for me, it wasn't enough to  understand the event, something I'm not sure I could ever achieve.  Despite all the associations with los toros - masculinity, sexuality, risk... I can't get past the violence at its core.

sábado, 9 de noviembre de 2013

México... de nuevo

Everything seems at once familiar and foreign.  Returning to a place that you once knew well, that was dear to you... It is not something I'm practised at.  It is strange, walking through streets that were once familiar, remembering isolated places but failing to recall how they interconnect.  A giant and unrelenting case of déjà vu.  Knowing places but not how they are situated in space.  Stumbling over words in a language left dusty.  Seeing phenomena that feels as though you had watched a documentary on it a year or two ago, not as though it were a reality you lived.

That is the unsettledness that has plagued me since returning to Mexico.  And while it is dissipating more and more everyday, it is slightly unnerving that it was ever there: almost two years ago I fell in love with this country.  Shouldn't it feel more natural, being back?

I arrived shortly before Día de muertos, and on going out to was not how I had remembered it.  I had forgotten that Oaxaca, where we had celebrated Día de muertos the year before, was very different to Guadalajara.  Where Oaxaca was indigenous, superstitious and extravagant in its celebrations, Guadalajara seems to treat the occasion as more of a big costume party.  Guadalajara takes the holiday and dresses it up in a cosmopolitan outfit.  Maybe the surprise of this was exaggerated for me because I was still getting used to the idea of being back in Mexico.  I think I had been dreaming of reliving my memories instead of making new ones; that was a mistake.  Nothing stays the same, even less when it is on the other side of the country.  Mexico, I'll give you another chance.  No more biases.  Lo prometo.

miércoles, 23 de octubre de 2013

The Door To Tomorrow

What is that old saying?  I can just hear Julia Andrews in The Sound of Music - when God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.  So often I find myself stumped, considering the future, laying out all of the possibilities before me.  It is always so hard to decide when there is so much unknown, so much at risk.  So often I find myself pleading internally for the door to just open that I don't think, or can't bring myself, to knock.  Knock and maybe someone will tell you the answer, solve all your problems.

I guess that would be the ideal situation... but in my experience they tend to just open more windows, adding to the array of possibilities already spread out before me, none of them markedly any better from those already there.  And at this point in time, having just finished my studies (for a while), I already have so many options before me... along with an apparent lack of decisiveness...  All I need is one door to open.  Maybe I should just relax, take a break from life, right?

Taking these photos, of course, I was not thinking so philosophically.  In the street in Trinidad, Cuba, I was more worried about standing on the road, in full blast of the sun's rays, and looking like a fool while I waited.  This fear of standing out, of drawing attention to myself, is deeply tied to my desperate want to avoid attracting the jineteros for which Cuba is also sadly famous.  I had already attracted them in Trinidad, being pounced on as soon as I arrived and followed around town for a while.  I waited slightly ill at ease, and after a moment the door to open for the lady, allowing her to enter with her groceries.  A door opened for her, why wouldn't one open for me too?

lunes, 14 de octubre de 2013

La Quinceañera del Parque

This photo always makes me giggle.  The quinceañera: Mexico at its most extravagant and ridiculous.  I didn't even know that dresses like this actually existed in real life before I arrived in Mexico.  Walking through the streets of Mexico City, I passed a store that sold quinceañera dresses.  I couldn't help but stare they were so... flamboyant.  Shaking my head, I told myself that it had just been some kind of fancy dress shop.  I managed to go on believing this for about three weeks, until in Guadalajara I found myself walking around "that part of town".  All up, there were about twenty stores selling these outrageous dresses, each one seeming crazier than the last.  There were all kinds of ornamentation: wings, leopard print, sparkles, but mostly there was plenty of poof.  This was when I knew that it was probably not just your average fancy dress.

It turns out the quinceañera is a girl celebrating her fifteenth birthday, when she is seen to go from being a kid to a woman.  Just like that, a flick of the switch.  Of course, this idea in itself is not so strange, after all in Australia we have debutantes.  I just love the idea of the quinceañera so much because it does the typical Mexican; it takes what is a fairly normal custom and then seems to have taken a step back, asking itself - but how can I make it more.... jazzy?  The result is a ritual which combines the church and community with a bursting forth of exuberance that seems to hit you over the head, leaving you wondering where it came from?

The quinceañeras are one of my favourite parts of Mexico; they pop up from nowhere when you least expect it.  For instance, this photo was taken on a casual picnic in the park; but I've also seen the girls posing in front of fountains and even once on a roundabout.  That they can just appear, so unexpectedly, is what I love about Mexico.  It takes the extreme, the extraordinary, the ridiculous and makes it the everyday.  Life in Mexico is really quite dream-like: dramatic, colourful, startling and sometimes scary things happen, but no one misses a beat, everything just keeps going on.  - Did you see the girl in the giant purple dress lying on the grass with people attending her skirts?  - Oh, what? The quinceañera? Yeah, I think so.

viernes, 11 de octubre de 2013


Serenity.  That's all I can think of when I see this photo, everything seems still.  We reached this lake in the Peruvian Amazon by canoe.  The jungle had been dense either side of the river, giving a sense of being boxed in by walls made of plants.  Casting shadows on the dark water, the morning sun stretched to touch the far side of the watercourse.  As we steered into the lake the world seemed to open up, leaving me with the conflicted feelings of being liberated from the confines of the jungle while also being very aware of how exposed I was.

We had made the trip to the lake in the hope of seeing some wildlife.  Sadly, no one was home.  While there was a far-off sloth, he didn't seem very enthusiastic about seeing us.  We paddled further around the edge of the lake, following its banks.  A loud holler erupted from our guide, shattering the silence and stillness of the lake.  He was calling out to the monkeys that were often around the lake.  They answered him, a distant call ringing back through the trees.  He offered to lure them down to the bank for us, coaxing them with offers of bread or some other treats.  We barely considered this before declining it: we were in the Amazon, not a petting zoo.  Bribing wild animals would sap all of the magic out of a place so unknown and so mystical.  Better to leave the place with some of its power.