Veni Vidi Vegas

Each city has its unique appeal or charm. And some cities are magnetic. The legend of New York is that if you can write or act or paint and work very, very hard you might be rewarded with some measure of fame, or at least a kind of niche recognition. Like magpies attracted to a shiny glint in the desert, those who find the pull of Las Vegas irresistible are primarily not those with the ferocious work ethic needed to make it in a regular metropolis. It’s a magnet that attracts the shiftless. Wealth has to be instant. To earn it would be ridiculous. It’s a kind of reverse ambition. The ambitious in Las Vegas yearn to “make it there” but remain completely anonymous, the antithesis of someone who’s culturally ambitious, a person who can live in poverty for years as long as they’re somehow renowned. Las Vegas offers a series of mirror fragments stuck in the sand that reflect the glow of this unearned wealth and glitter. In that sense, it shouldn’t exist. But it does exist. In contrast to the rest of modern society, suckers aren’t those who toss money into the bonfires of casinos. Suckers are people who earn money by working for it. There is, at least in Las Vegas, a kind of honour in gambling and losing. The point is to gamble. Dishonour falls on those who would never dream of gambling, losing every cent they can lay their hands on.

A few years ago, before the collapse of the subprime mortgage bubble, I stood on a half-empty lot watching water trucks hosing down the ground so as to prevent a dust storm (legally required by the municipality for construction projects) and listened while the man responsible for building these homes pointed at an airplane flying overhead: “See that? Another plane load of suckers.” He said this every few minutes, each time he saw an airplane.

I once had a friend who taught philosophy at UNLV (he’s no longer there), and while we dined on cheap steak and 99 cent shrimp cocktail at the Golden Gate restaurant on Fremont Street I asked him, “So, is it just like teaching regular philosophy or what? What can you really tell anyone about philosophy in Las Vegas?” The place really seems to either embody or refute the deepest concerns human beings could possibly have about being alive. He replied, “Well, it does change the way you teach when you know that everyone in the room believes that the best you can do is to work as a valet at Caesar’s Palace.”

Las Vegas’ tug on the imagination for the bachelor rests on its centrality as a playground for the Rat Pack, and the shallow/profound morality of those men. The film Ocean’s 11 answers the question, “What’s more amoral than gambling?” with the response, “Robbing casinos.” One shouldn’t discount totally a philosophical approach to Las Vegas, however. Continental philosophers have amused us (see America by Jean Baudrillard and the probably unintentionally great Zabriskie Point by Antonioni) by trying and failing to “get it”. The secret is to inhabit the place, geographically and otherwise, without trying too hard. The Zen master of a place like Las Vegas is Dean Martin, a man who understands the paradox of expressing something deep by saying something stupid. The more overtly profound entertainers of his day are hopeless in this regard, especially in hindsight.

For my most recent visit, it seems appropriate that the show I had tickets to see, Charo‘s Musical Sensation, was cancelled owing to a twisted ankle she suffered during the most recent, increasingly unhinged Jerry Lewis telethon, and that furthermore I had to console myself over that devastating loss with a show the next night by Bob Dylan, a man who has identified himself through his radio show as a great admirer of Dean Martin. This sphinx of a town was the perfect setting in which to watch a triumphant, spellbinding concert by the nation’s sphinx. The other highlight was the Atomic Testing Museum.

One thing about the place, on or about day four, you really will run out of things to do if all you’re doing is hitting casinos and drinking.  But there are other activities that are well worth seeking out.  You might even remember some of them later.

If you go:

– As stated, the Atomic Testing Museum really is worth your time.

– If you’re mobile, drive all the way north up Las Vegas Boulevard to the municipality of North Las Vegas.  At 2930 N. Las Vegas Blvd. you’ll find the Broadacres Swap Meet.  It closes at 3:00 p.m. on Fridays (cost 50 cents) and 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays (cost $1), but it’s definitely worth rousting yourself out of bed to get a couple hours in investigating it.  It is approximately two football fields worth of Mexican wrestling masks, excellent and inexpensive Mexican food, pony rides for the kids, cheap haircuts and a whole lot of off-brand clothing, crafts and electronics.

– Boulder City is Las Vegas’s virtuous twin, separated at birth.  The town’s pious founders made a decision a long time ago to remain dry and not permit casino development.  Such a short drive away from Las Vegas, and a starker contrast cannot be imagined.  You are in Leave It to Beaver land, essentially on another planet.  You could say that what happens in Boulder City stays in Boulder City, but it’s the kind of place where you feel bad jaywalking.  And there’s almost no traffic.  There are some great little diners along the main drag.

Mon Ami Gabi, located in “Paris”, is a nice little “French” place.  Actually, the food is very good and if you can sit on the terrace, you’ll get an eyeful of the Bellagio’s dancing waters while you poke listlessly at your brunch boeuf bourguignon in a hungover state.  Tip: tastes really good the next day if you’ve got a microwave in your room.

Bouchon, a Thomas Keller enterprise located in the Venetian, is worth hunting down.  Really excellent food, wine and atmosphere.

– I’d love to be able to tell you to go to the Liberace Museum, but it’s gone.  It was great while it lasted.

– Binion’s, the ex-home of the World Series of Poker, is worth hanging out at for a while if only to observe real gamblers at work.  But if you’re in the mood for a punishingly large steak, get on the elevator and head up to the 24th floor and Binion’s Steakhouse, with its dark, old-school interior and excellent view.

– Afterwards, stroll down Fremont to the Lovo hand-rolled cigar factory.  Nothing is better than the night air with an inexpensive, high-quality cigar.

– Cross the street to the local hipster enclave, Beauty Bar.  Ask the rosy fingered dawn to point you home.

Mexico City is big (D.F. es grande)

At customs, I often respond to interrogation, trying not to appear glib about it, Q: Purpose of trip?  A: Fun.  As long as it doesn’t anger the interrogator, it can sometimes deflate the atmosphere.  It can also backfire.  But the pleasure of gambling lies in the stake, and in the possibility of watching it disappear, of losing.  The American border security official checking my passport this time offered a small warning about my carefree attitude towards travelling in Mexico.  “Be careful,” he said.  “Isn’t it mainly in the north?” I asked him, “it” referring to the drug-related murderfest that has become the only thing that anyone knows on the subject of Mexico anymore.  “No, it’s everywhere,” he corrected me firmly after verifying my identity and sending me on my way.  This incident capped off weeks of concerned looks on the faces of friends asking, “You’re going to Mexico now?”

So waking up the next morning in Mexico City, the usual sense of anticipation and joy I associate with travel was mixed with a mild dose of paranoia and dread.  Wandering the urbane, beautiful, tree-lined streets of the Zona Rosa, the only hint of the violence that had been vexing the nation was distilled into the tabloid imagery of corpses twisted into unnatural positions and the mute faces of murder victims staring out from lurid Weegee-style photos plastered over ubiquitous newsstands.  I ordered an espresso at a sidewalk café and began to map out my day.  Later on, while I ate a plate of tacos at one of the many excellent sidewalk food stalls that are omnipresent in the city, birdsong permeated the flower-scented air, and I settled in to the relaxed overload that constitutes the rhythm of the Distrito Federal (D.F. for short, and not pronounced “Dee Eff” but “Day Eff-ay”).  Hawkers of merchandise along the pedestrian thoroughfare of Génova called out as I ambled towards the Insurgentes Metro station, where a man sat getting his shoes polished in the bright sunshine amidst the throng of pedestrians in the circular plaza.  Menace could very well have been lurking everywhere.  It never once tapped me on the shoulder during my time in Mexico.  Lots of people did ask if they could shine my shoes.  I said, “Sure,” once, without much incident.

There was a moment, on the third day, after attending the flea market at Lagunilla, a vast hub of inexpensive goods, clothing and food, and then wandering aimlessly for a few minutes outside of its territory, that I sensed a sketchy atmosphere.  For these occasions, the Metro exists.  If you’re feeling even a little wary and the “M” sign is visible to you, follow the stairs down into the immediate safety of the subway.  The Metro sign that caught my eye and offered me a retreat on this day was labelled Tepito.  Later, I met an American full-time resident who confirmed my wariness.  “I’ve never been to Tepito,” he said.  “I just don’t need to deal with it.”  Not only is the Metro clean and ostentatiously staffed by police carrying light artillery, it is also easy to use and reliable, and covers more or less the entire city, including stops at the airport and bus stations, including Tasqueña in the south of the city, which was the terminal I would need in order to get to Cuernavaca at the mid-point of my trip.  The Metro also costs the incredible sum of three pesos, not even a fraction of a gringo quarter.  For female travellers who crave segregated transport, there are women-only cars in the Metro system, as well as pink taxis driven by women and women-only buses.

On the Metro, hawkers stroll up and down each subway car, pacing their shouts so as not to compete with fellow hawkers.  On each subway journey, you will be propositioned by men selling small hammers, CDs, chewing gum, pictures of wrestlers, etc.  Anything that can be bought and sold and carried on your back is bought and sold in transit by people monotonously shouting their pitches at you.  Consider it a small price to pay for an inexpensive and otherwise immaculate journey.

To begin with, Mexico City is big.  I have the feeling that I’m not even really scratching the surface of the place.  There are many neighbourhoods I meant to explore and specific things I wanted to do but never got around to.  The good news, after all the wariness imposed on me by the voices who regard Mexico City as a frightening and violent place, is that I wouldn’t hesitate a moment if the opportunity to return presented itself.  I already miss the place.

Hemmed in by the sprawling boulevard Paseo de la Reforma, the Zona Rosa is tourist-friendly enough to feature high-end shops and nightclubs without the congestion of the Centro Historico.  By night, the Zona Rosa is also renowned as a hub of gay life.  Wander down Ameres between Paseo de la Reforma and Chapultepec as the sun is going down, and the entire street has become an open-air pleasure dome, dedicated to trance music, necklaces, and tank tops.

The Centro Historico, however, shouldn’t be avoided.  Here you’ll find the excellent 150-year-old Tardan hat shop, which is as effective a means to acquiring proper streetwear in the form of a tasteful, inexpensive Panama hat as you’re ever likely to find.  You will then likely notice, walking out into the sunshine with your new hat, that you’re on the Zócalo, the enormous public square that represents the heart of the city and contains at its centre the largest flag that has probably ever existed.  You won’t be alone, either, in that many men still do wear hats in Mexico.

Nearby, you will probably never mail a postcard from as memorable or beautiful a location as the golden interior of the post office on Tacuba Street.  Wandering down that same street, you’ll notice a concentration of perfume shops, where the scents are made to order.  Nearby is Sanborn’s, a chain restaurant started by a couple of Californian brothers a century ago, the flagship location of which, here in the Centro Historico, is covered with beautiful blue tiles and looks almost vaguely like the exterior of a Middle Eastern bathhouse in this context.

One Sunday morning, in the tangle of streets adjoining the Templo Mayor I witnessed vendors engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase with police, their goods spread out on blankets which they could quickly and easily bundle up and run away with when cries from vendors farther down the street warned that the cops were on their way to sweep them out.  For a while, I was surrounded by vendors shouting and running and then by police, trying to sort out who in the crowd they could nab.  Obviously, vendors who had been used to claiming the open streets of Centro Historico as an overhead-free place of business were being made to shove off by a concerted municipal effort.  Your attitude to Mexico City’s politics is probably nonexistent, but that goes to show how completely overshadowed such issues are by our media’s depiction of the Guns and Gangs problem, at the expense of all other aspects of life.  Several years ago, I read a story about a literacy program for the city’s police force.  The idea of training up semi-literate police officers with the goal of instilling the qualities of empathy and openness to humanity that one gets from reading fiction, absorbing the dynamic of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, for example, and then employing those skills on the street would be ridiculed in almost all North American cities as hopelessly pie-in-the-sky.  And so it’s to be applauded where it exists.

Several people remarked to me that during the previous decade, the air in Mexico City was oppressively polluted.  I was impressed by how clear it was in 2011, and what a change that must represent in the lives of residents.  You can’t help but notice the recent appearance of light-rail projects, the Metrobús, and the Ecobici bicycle share program and then associate those with a certain lightness in the life of the city.  While the program mainly exists in the Centro, Roma and Condesa neighbourhoods, Mexico City has plans to triple the size of Ecobici in 2012.  The city’s traffic is still vicious and impossible, but there appears to be a municipal appetite to curb the sheer quantity and lawlessness of motorists (policy that would be characterized as a “war on cars” elsewhere).  Reputation is difficult to shake, however.  I was told explicitly, for example, never to approach a police officer, which I did several times in my naïveté, asking for directions.  They’re widely regarded as corrupt by residents.  Personally, I found them nice enough, but they may have simply been taken aback at being approached by a gringo holding a map.  And all told, although I think very highly of making any city easier to navigate on a bicycle, riding one in Mexico City strikes me as recklessly dangerous.  Gambling when the stake is death is a little outside my comfort zone.

On the road in front of Plaza Garibaldi, Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas, I witnessed (without actually seeing) a woman struck by a car.  Facing away from the street, I heard the screech of brakes followed by an impact, and whirled around to see her body fly into the air (“like a ragdoll” is the cliché, but that is exactly what it looked like) and then land heavily on the pavement.  It was one of those heart-stopping, adrenaline-producing moments.  Slowly, in the middle of the road, onlookers roused her to consciousness.  The police arrived and began stopping traffic in preparation for an ambulance’s arrival.  I stood on the side of the road beside a group of mariachis and watched.  A couple hours later, the police had dragged the woman onto the sidewalk, standing over her and chatting on walkie-talkies.

Walking along Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas between Plaza Garibaldi and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, there is a string of sketchy cantinas, the male clientele of which are drunk well before noon and the women are either willfully garish or decked out for work.  I wasn’t sure that this would be the best introduction to cantina life that I could have hoped for.  I ended up wandering into a place called La Mascota, at Mesones N° 20, at the intersection with Bolivar, in the Centro Historico.  It was agreeable looking from the outside, and I was in need of a place to sit and collect myself over a meal and a drink.  The atmosphere inside didn’t disappoint.  I still haven’t figured out how cantinas work (my Spanish is no good), but the menu hangs on a chalkboard from which you can order food in small portions, which are served along with your drinks.  The trick being that as long as you have a fresh drink in front of you, the food is gratis.  So I ordered a mescal, and then a dish of sautéed crevettes (which were large, like crayfish).  A father and son walked in and looked so familiar and easy with the ritual of the place and each other, that it seemed like a pleasant family habit.  At the end, the bartender made it clear I should leave a little something for the guy who brought the food.  Or at least that’s how I interpreted it.  I didn’t get the sense that I was being shook down meaninglessly for extra cash.  I left extremely happy and full.

You can splurge on food in Mexico, but the quality of the average taqueria (which are abundant all through the city) is excellent.  A plate full of tacos filled with various meats, often of the al pastor or pork variety, runs anywhere from 30 to 70 pesos, depending.  Lime wedges are served on the side for squeezing over top, followed by a sprinkle of salt, and either a red or green chilli sauce.  I wish I could eat this way every day.

Plaza Garibaldi is a large, open square, hemmed in street side by the white-cubish architecture of the recently opened Tequila and Mescal MuseumThere are stray dogs all over Mexico City.  I was entranced by several regulars who make their home at Plaza Garibaldi.  The square is also home to a school for mariachis and is filled with idle players wandering around, occasionally strumming their guitars.  They play with slightly more conviction at the bars on the square during the evening, when they serenade tourists.  I saw one standing on the side of the road trying to hail a taxi.  One of the dogs recognized the mariachi’s plight and sprung into action, stepping out into traffic and herding a taxi, gently nosing the fender and positioning it towards the curb.  A young pair of dogs pranced together through the square, ears and tails happily up, begging from people sitting on benches and occasionally intimidated by a lone, hierarchically superior dog.  There’s possibly a worthwhile project in investigating the social dynamics of stray dogs in Mexico City.

At 69 Allende Street, nearby the Lagunilla Market, is Café Allende, established in 1957 and rather beautifully frozen in that year.  When my server asked if I wanted my coffee “con leche”, I thought he was just asking if I’d like milk with it, a couple of tiny plastic cream containers thrown at you, as you would get in North America.  I said, “Sure,” and thus had my first “café con leche”, discovering quickly enough that it’s a whole other kind of drink, sort of a coffee and milk prepared separately from each other and then united in a single cup which will likely have a hot-milk skin plastered over top.  This was a pleasant and fun discovery, which marked out Mexican coffee custom as distinct.

One of the great places to enjoy both a coffee and a view in Mexico City, funnily enough, is on the eighth floor of the Sears Tower, which faces the western edge of Alameda Central, the huge park which contains the Palacio de Bellas Artes.  It feels like bad advice, but trust me; enter Sears, take the escalator to the eighth floor, find the café, and then take a seat on the outdoor terrace overlooking the golden domed Palacio de Bellas Artes, with the city and mountains sprawled out behind.

Eventually, I got the impression that the city is simply too large to explore fully, that even if I lived here for years I’d never see it all.  I’m not sure if there are informally circumscribed areas that out-of-towners and wealthy locals frequent (Centro, Zona Rosa, Condesa, Roma).  Then again, I’m not going to try and figure out why it’s okay to venture as far as Lagunilla, but not okay to keep walking into Tepito.

Back in Roma, walking down boulevard Jalapa, I came across a large record store called Retroactivo.  Meandering the stacks, and seeing a lot of the usual pop music suspects, I asked the guy behind the counter if he had any recommendations for local music.  He put forward a 45 by a local garage rock group called Los Explosivos.  I discovered later, after looking it up online, that the shop has a large record press in the back room and that this 45 was one of the records cut there.  It’s excellent.  He also sold me an LP of songs by various artists from Chiapas.  It’s a bit heavy rock for my liking, but great to hear that the young folks of that region are keeping themselves culturally occupied.

All told, I ended up spending a lot of quality time in Colonia Roma and came away convinced that this was a neighbourhood I would actually enjoy living in, if push came to shove.  Grant Cogswell opened D.F.’s only English-language bookstore, Under the Volcano books, in October of 2011 in Roma Norte, and I dropped in on him to see if he had a better sense of the lay of the land.

“Nobody really knows how many native English speakers there are here.  I think the best guess is probably about 20,000.  They’re not concentrated.  They’re spread all over the place.  And as this store starts to penetrate, I’m starting to pick up information from different parts of the city that I didn’t even know about, you know, things that are going on out there because people are sort of coming and explaining it in English, where I can pick up the subtleties.  So I think this is going to develop into something really fascinating.”

It must be interesting, I suggest, discovering the city through this particular cross-section.  “We have these Friday nights where people come over,” he explains, “and I wouldn’t call it an expat clubhouse, but there is that element.”

I’m also eager to hear from an outsider who’s lived here long enough to settle in.  I’m still walking around in the enchantment phase, not yet able to imagine how the place might feel after an extended period of time.  I ask how he came to live here.  “In the U.S. there’s a reputation of this city, partially justified, over the last 30 years of it being dangerous:  you get kidnapped, there’s crime everywhere, it’s dirty, the smog is really heavy, it’s chaotic, blah, blah, blah, blah.  Over the years, I’d run into people, knowing what Americans know about D.F., and somebody would be like, ‘Oh, I just spent six months in Mexico City,’ and I’d be like, ‘Whoa, you’re hardcore!’  And they’re like, ‘Oh, no, it’s the greatest place in the world.’  And I kept hearing this again and again and again.  And I just got fascinated, and I proposed to a friend of mine that we go.  And over the course of a couple days of extreme paranoia I realized it was completely unjustified, and settled in and relaxed and just totally fell in love with it.”

I mention that I’ve fallen a little in love, too, and suggest to him that the city often reminded me of Paris, albeit a much less expensive version with much more insistent traffic.  In fact, the resemblance is often striking, right down to the blue street corner signs on the sides of buildings in the Centro.  In fact, beside the Palacio de Bellas Artes, there’s a Parisian Metropolitain archway.  I’m pretty sure the only other city in North America that has one of these over the entrance of a functioning Metro is Montreal, so it’s nice to connect the two.  (There is a third Metropolitain sign in the sculpure garden at MoMA, standing uselessly over no subway entrance.) But it’s really in the relaxed cosmopolitan neighbourhoods like Colonia Roma, envisioning your own life transposed here, that the likeness really opens up.  My assessment is that Mexico City is like a post-apocalyptic Paris, if Paris was relaxed and fun and didn’t close at 11:00 every night.  Paris could, in fact, take a note from Mexico City on joie de vivre.

“It’s kind of uncanny,” Cogswell says.  “I think a lot of people come here for the same reason that people went to Paris in the ‘50s.  It’s a cultural escape hatch.  This city has absorbed refugees and expats for a century, and is so friendly.  I mean, you’re bringing a sort of cultural privilege here, as a North American, that is something people are hungry for.”

Before suggesting that his shop could become the Shakespeare & Co. of D.F. if things really were to pan out, I ask whether he’s travelled much outside of the city, since I’m about to head for Cuernavaca.  “You’re so close to so much mind-blowing natural splendour.  It’s unbelievable.  I’ve been places, San Luis Potosí, which isn’t even in the Fodor’s guide, it’s amazing.  It’s not even an internationally acknowledged destination.  People in the city go up there camping and stuff.  You get close to the U.S. border, the quality and the attitude of people definitely goes down.”

I tell him that the Roma neighbourhood appeals to me immensely and ask for an assessment, “Roma is kind of a down-market Condesa.  Condesa can get a little Richie Rich on the weekends.  I tend not to drink there.”  The shelves in his shop are lined with English-language classics, so I grab an anthology of Mexican poetry compiled by Octavio Paz and translated by Samuel Beckett, thank him very much and wander back out along Orizaba boulevard.  It’s a beautiful street, packed with bars and idyllic parks.

I end up drinking later that night at Pulqueria Insurgentes, which has some association with the excellent local arts magazine Generacion.  It’s easily recognizable with its distinctive sign featuring a bell in red.  A man steps forward as I approach the entrance to pat me down and speaks to me in Spanish.  Upon realizing that I speak no Spanish, he summons his fellow security guy who does a perfunctory frisk, asks where I’m from, pats me on the shoulder and then ushers me inside.  “Enjoy yourself.  Drink some pulque and have a good time.”

Pulque, which I really knew nothing about prior to this trip, was the sacred beverage of the Aztecs, that they only gave to sacrifices and priests who were in need of a ritual tranquilizer to make their mutual roles bearable.  I already knew plenty about mescal and tequila, but had been woefully ignorant on this drink.  I managed to do a lot of catching up on my education in sampling every variety of pulque that was available in the bar (there are several different flavours), and exited the bar quite late and satisfied.

At the risk of suggesting that I preferred Colonia Roma to the point that I shunned Condesa, I did find many quality things to do in that neighbourhood.  For brunch, I went to the absolutely great El Pendulo, at 115 Neuvo Léon, which has an excellent bookstore on its ground floor with a restaurant upstairs.  If you’re lucky, you can score a seat on their beautiful terrace looking down onto the wide boulevard below.

Nearby, walking along avenida Mazatlán, I came across Nevería Roxy, a neighbourhood time machine that looks straight out of the mid-20th century.  Mexican ice creams are called nieves. I had a flavour called mamey, which had a kind of earthy berry quality about it.

In the nearby Parque México, you can find, depending on the day, outdoor stalls selling goods ranging from clothing by upscale local designers to quality bags, shoes and art supplies.  There’s a small train for the children and the place overall has a relaxed, green air of timeless beauty about it.  Grant Cogswell says that if you can catch this park around dusk, “I think it’s the most beautiful place in the world.  I really do.”

Continuing on from Condesa into the vast Bosqe de Chapultepec park, I wander in the direction of the vast and extremely worth visiting Museo Nacional de Antropología.  On the way, I pass through the Jardín Botánico, with representative plant species from all over Mexico laid out over beautiful grounds and several expansive greenhouses.

The National Anthropology Museum is a thing unto itself, and if I were to recommend one mandatory thing to experience (aside from eating the street food), it would be to visit this museum, in which you can position yourself first with the Aztec natives of this land and then wander through the history of each region, well represented with informative dioramas, through the Spanish conquest, absorb the Aztec frescoes out in the courtyard, to be confronted at the end with the justly famous Aztec sun stone, unearthed from under the present-day Zócalo.  This is a world-class museum, well worth reserving an afternoon for, especially since it might help smooth the edge of bewilderment you no doubt feel over how Mexico came to be the way it is now, this insane swirl of people, music, food, history.  I hesitate to use a word like “madness” to describe life here because it sounds like I’m trumping up a charge of groundless exoticism.  However, you wouldn’t need to be told that the city is built on top of the soft, pliant soil of a dried out lakebed and that it is gradually sinking to know that life feels exhilaratingly temporary and immediate here.  And while I didn’t experience any overt huffing and puffing because of high altitude that many people report, I wonder if the thin air didn’t feed into a certain light-headedness on my part.

Also in this park, on the recommendation of a friend, I walked through the Zoológico de Chapultepec.  Admission is free, and if you have children to entertain, better to book out a couple extra hours to explore this exhibit of exotic animals.  The pandas are obviously very popular.  There are giraffes, monkeys, birds of various types and a nice aquarium.  Myself, I toughed it out for about an hour.  It is a very good zoo, as zoos go.  But as an adult, seeing animals cooped up for public display seems a vaguely depressing pastime, both for them and a little for me.  Watching children react to these creatures, though, seemed at least to redeem the time spent wandering the grounds.  You could definitely find worse things to do with an afternoon.

Back in the Centro Historico, I went shopping for a typical Mexican shirt, hoping to score decent Christmas presents for my brother-in-law and his son, my nephew, in the form of identical guayaberas shirts.  These are popularly referred to as Mexican wedding shirts, and the prominent pockets on the front are apparently designed to contain a guava fruit, “guaya” meaning “guava”.  At 13 Lopez is Guayaberas Carr, seemingly a family-run business.  An adorable elderly woman calls the shots here.  No English is spoken, but somehow we signal our intentions to each other.  She has shirts and I would like to buy two of them.  Having guessed the right sizes and then having to choose among three colours, I find myself asking out loud (in German, I think, which makes no sense at all, but at this point in the trip my language faculties are completely mixed up), “Hmm, which colour will I take?”  She replies, without missing a beat, “Todo.”  It’s just about my first good laugh in a normal conversation with a native of Mexico City during my entire time here.  I want to buy both sizes in all three colours, exactly as she demands.  Hell, I’d like to be her grandson at this rate.  I choose blue, pay and move along.

Also in the Centro are several bakeries that are worth visiting, both for a snack and for staring at golden art deco interiors.  Really good bakeries are all over the city, but they’re especially magnificent in this neighbourhood.  Dulcería de Celaya, at 39 Cinco de Mayo, or Pastelería Ideal, at 18 avenida 16 de Septiembre, are both gorgeous examples of these shops out of time.  On the second floor of Pastelería Ideal is a surreal display of wedding cakes.  The more quotidian baked goods are downstairs.

The next morning, I head out to the Coyoacán neighbourhood, getting off at the Viveros Metro stop, in order to visit both the Frida Kahlo museum and then the Trotsky museum.  Trotsky was killed here, after at least one unsuccessful attempt on his life by a gang of gun-wielding mercenaries.  Finally, the famous ice-pick, on order from Stalin himself, struck the even more famous eyeglasses of Leon Trotsky, here in this compound that he lived in with his family.  In the Joseph Losey film The Assassination of Leon Trotsky, you can gauge how vastly the city has changed.  It was shot here, on location, and the view over the wall depicts practically a rural scene in the film.  Now it’s hemmed in on its north side by the avenida Río Churubusco, which is basically a highway, and the city has expanded outward to surround everything out here.  On the day Trotsky was killed, he had an appointment with Saul Bellow, making Bellow the last person who arrived at the compound expecting a cordial meeting, only to discover that Trotsky was unable to lunch.

Coyoacán is a very beautiful neighbourhood, and I’d like to explore it a little more fully on my next visit.  While this part of town is a little more scenic and restful than in the centre, anyone who’s used to the pace of traffic in North America will still be absolutely shocked by the persistence and recklessness of traffic in Mexico.  If I had to name a drawback to life in Mexico, that would be the one.

Speaking of traffic, I should mention that I walked past the Frida Kahlo museum and would probably have gone in if the line hadn’t been out the door.  I predicted this would be the case, and anyway wasn’t so crushed, as I’m not completely taken with her work but would have been curious to at least see the place.  Luckily, the Trotsky museum is just a couple blocks away and is a whole lot less busy.  Staffed by Marxists, there’s a small gallery space in the entrance building, but the main attraction is the house where he lived.  No attempt has been made to plaster over the bullet holes in the walls from the previous attempt on his and his family’s life.  Everything remains just as it was left, books on the shelf and a writing desk ready to be used, as if the owner had been sitting there the day previous.  Outside in the courtyard is his and his wife’s grave, with a Soviet flag hung overhead.

On my final evening, I attended a show at the incredibly beautiful Palacio de Bellas Artes, a vast art deco complex with an architecture exhibit on the fifth floor and a lovely gift shop downstairs.  Shows that are staged in the theatre often feature folkloric dancers, which might be an ideal experience for a tourist.  I was lucky that I was able to catch a show by Laurie Anderson, who was touring her latest show, called Delusion, a kaleidoscopic work on the subjects of life, death, family and the imaginary glue that holds these things together.  To see such a modern and multi-faceted work in such an ornate and gorgeous theatre was just about as appropriate a note as I could have hoped for to close out my journey.

View the full photoalbum here:

If you go:

Tardan hat shop, Plaza de la Constitución No. 7, on the west side of the Zócalo

Post office (Palacio Postal), corner of Tacuba and Eje Central Lazaro Cardenas

-La Mascota cantina, Mesones N° 20, corner of Bolivar

Tequila and Mezcal Museum, Plaza Garibaldi

-Café Allende, 69 Allende Street

-Lagunilla Market, Libertad (between República de Chile & Calle Allende)

-Café on 8th floor of Sears tower (for the view), Av. Juárez 14, Centro

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Avenida Hidalgo 1, Centro

Retroactivo Records, Jalapa N° 125, Colonia Roma Norte

Under the Volcano Books, Celaya 25, Col. Hipódromo Condesa

Pulqueria Insurgentes, Insurgentes Sur N° 226, Colonia Roma

El Péndulo (bookstore with great brunch upstairs), 115 Neuvo León

Nevería Roxy ice cream stand, Mazatlan 80, Colonia Condesa

Parque México

Jardín Botánico, Chapultepec Park (slightly east of the Anthropology Museum)

Museo Nacional de Antropología, Chapultepec Park

Zoológico de Chapultepec (Zoo in Chapultepec Park)

Guayaberas Carr (shirt shop), 13 Lopez, Centro

Dulcería de Celaya (bakery), 39 Cinco de Mayo, Centro

Pastelería Ideal, 18 avenida 16 de Septiembre, Centro

Leon Trotsky Museum, Rio Churubusco 410 Del Carmen, Coyoacán

The Olfactory Floor: Perfume Mixologists of Calle Tacuba

You’ll inevitably notice scattered around the Centro Historico in Mexico City a lot of perfume shops.  While this is hardly a remarkable feature in a city of any size, these shops distinguish themselves from your average scent counters in that they are more hands-on affairs.  In a typical perfume shop, you walk in demanding a brand name scent in a box with a logo on it, pay and get out.  In Mexico City, you can ask for a scent by name (even by brand name), but what happens next is that the alchemists behind the counter consult their recipe books and custom build something for you.  It would be unkind to think of these places as knock-off shops.  Whereas an imitation product will boldly print a lookalike label with a subtly different name on it (Chamel No. 5 or something) and sell it as if it were the real deal, the shops in Mexico City will custom mix a bottle of perfume, cologne, eau de toilette or whatever you request, put it in an unremarkable bottle with a plain sticker for a label and your mixologist’s handwriting on the front.  Naturally, this costs a fraction of buying brand-name product from a perfume counter.

When you first begin to notice these places, you’ll likely think to yourself, “Wow, Mexicans are really into perfume.”  But it’s really on Calle Tacuba walking past a string of these shops, their window displays looking more like chemistry sets than displays of luxury goods, that you begin to realise the uniqueness of this enterprise to Mexico City.

I wandered in to a shop called Perfumes (No. 13 Tacuba), attracted by the Art Deco entrance and the window display, which looks more like it’s selling to home darkroom enthusiasts than perfume addicts.  The place was crowded.  Each customer looked to be on a mission, engaged in deep discussion with the women behind the counter who would take their orders and retreat to their mixing stations and return with their goods in small bottles.  My meagre Spanish skills and the long queues intimidated me into exploring other shops on the street, convinced that even if I managed to reach the counter and speak to someone, the conversation would be meaningless.

So I crossed the street to No. 14 Tacuba, otherwise known as Alquimia Perfumes Y Esencias S.A. de C.V.  Much less busy, there was no trouble getting the attention of an employee, and then several employees as my inability to communicate became a group decoding project.  I would have liked to ask them questions about their lives and the nature of their trade, but ended up just pointing at things and mostly being met with a kindly shake of the head.  I’ve really got to learn Spanish.  All the same, they handed me a binder full of brand names and it became clear that I could pretty much pick something out and ask them to replicate it.  So I chose a certain French brand of men’s fragrance.  The women went away and performed their magic, measuring out substances from a variety of bottles, weighing things on scales and putting the final product into a bottle that would easily cost, oh, I don’t know, a couple hundred bucks standard retail for the size I was getting.  A sticker was slapped on the front, and the word “Hombre” (a literal translation of the French brand name I had asked for) written on it by hand.

As the lady rang up my purchase, she showed me on a calculator the amount I’d be paying: 460.0000-something pesos.  I nodded.  “Well, that’s still a pretty good bargain, I guess.  Not bad.  Well done,”  I thought to myself as I walked over to the cash register, where I was then asked to pay 46 pesos and change.  I must have looked confused.  I’ve paid more for a cup of coffee.  I took my bottle home and compared the Mexican version done up by the alchemists with the real deal which I had a very small quantity of already.  If there’s a difference, my untutored nostrils can’t detect it.

So, while I’m not so sure a hand-made imitation brand perfume from the D.F. would be the ideal gift for that special someone you’re trying to impress (because nothing says “I love you” like handwriting on a sticker slapped on a bottle), this should certainly cause some kind of excitement for the perfume fancier in your life who is kept from her/his favourite scent by a lack of cash.  We all know someone who fetishizes brand names to the point where the bottles on display in their bathroom are mainly intended to intimidate visitors.  The forces of marketing press the vulnerable into a perverse rationalisation that equivocates an “I’m worth it” message with the kind of phantom value that can only be redeemed by a coreless persona.  If that’s where you’re at, then Calle Tacuba, and Mexico in general, can do nothing for you, for it is by and large an off-brand way of life.  Otherwise, I can recommend a street full of alchemists in Mexico City who will happily provide you with a lifetime supply of your favourite odour for pocket change.  One more item on the long list of things to love about this metropolis.

Day of the Dead, Mexico

I ended up in Mexico during the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, more or less as the by-product of some literary tourism, sparked by a longstanding appreciation for the novel Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, which is set in the city of Cuernavaca, on the Day of the Dead in 1938.  Cuernavaca is about an hour south of Mexico City by bus.  Fairly quickly upon arriving, I abandoned the idea of following a strict itinerary or chronology, retracing the events depicted in the book, in favour of maintaining a steady intake of mescal and immersing myself in this peculiarly Mexican festivity, about which I knew practically nothing.  The mescal was meant to keep me close to the spirit of the book, whereas ignoring the actual events and timeline of its narrative seemed to me a reasonable surrender to both the spirit of the place and this most unusual “day” which was about to swallow me up.  I felt this method could possibly guide me more meaningfully towards the centre of the book than if I just walked where the Consul walked and saw what he saw.  Drinking what he drank and then wandering more or less blindly would have to suffice.  With luck, I wouldn’t end up like he did at the end of his Day of the Dead, in 1938.

To begin with, the Day of the Dead is not just a single day, which threw my plans a little.  The contrast with the average North American holiday, in which everyone acts cute for a day and then goes back to work, couldn’t be greater.  The Day of the Dead is far more beautiful and primal and complex than any comparable group experience I’ve ever seen.  To begin with, its significance has not been tarted up for the purpose of selling greeting cards or goosing the economy (cf. Christmas).  Its continued existence remains an expression of the feeling of a people, rather than a duty imposed from above.  It can last for a week depending on where you are in Mexico, culminating over the first two days of November.  Its penultimate day coincides with All Souls’ Day, a Catholic celebration, but its origins lie in an Aztec festival which once took place during summer.  What we have now in Mexico is decidedly a mix of pagan and orthodox, with some unusual additions, such as the appearance of a woman named Catrina, a sunhat and gown-wearing skeleton lady who looks like she’s either throwing or attending a garden party.  Also unique is the laying out of ofrendas, or offerings, in which a sort of altar-like arrangement of mementos is placed in a spot significant to the departed, sometimes including a replica of the person represented by an empty suit of their clothes, or perhaps a significant object, along with a photo, some bread, candles, marigolds and incense.  If the person played music, for example, there might be a guitar.  I saw an ofrenda at the Jardín Borda in Cuernavaca for Malcolm Lowry, which featured a couple of bottles of mescal on either side of his photograph, one of which was called Mezcal del Consul.

During the week leading up to the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, there were many ofrendas on display, often in public institutions, such as the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where a large mirror-ball skull sat in the middle of the lobby.  I had forgotten that Damien Hirst took the idea for his jewel-encrusted skull from a trip he made to Mexico.  At the magnificent post office on Tacuba, glass-topped coffins displayed the preserved corpses of children who had been dead for decades.  The fact that this wasn’t immediately creepy or shocking in this context is testament to the festival’s power and authenticity.  All over Mexico City, however, I was seeing it mixed with a decidedly Halloween-ish vibe, an indication that the cosmopolitan dwellers of upscale neighbourhoods like Condesa had less time for the serious nature of the Day of the Dead.  I would not discover how much more serious it could be until I spent the day at the La Leona cemetery in Cuernavaca many days later.  Until then, the Day of the Dead had an air of kitsch about it, with its sugar skulls and funny little displays of skeletons wearing suits or smoking cigarettes.

As interesting as the buildup to the Day of the Dead was, I got the impression that in order to get a fuller experience of it, I would have to head to a small town to really take its measure.  I was lucky to discover, after a full day of observing events and displays at the Zócalo and Jardín Borda in Cuernavaca, that I was near enough to a town called Ocotepec, about 40 minutes to the northeast of Cuernavaca, which was renowned for taking the Day of the Dead very seriously indeed.  So I made my way there just before sundown, at which time the entire town appeared to pour into the main street and all the quiet little residential streets leading to the doors of people’s homes.  Households that have lost a loved one during the previous year have constructed a homemade archway in front of their door, declaring over the top, “Welcome home, X,” the X standing for the name of the loved one.  For example, “Bienvenida a tu casa, Mamá,” or “Jonathan” or whoever.  On the ground leading up to these archways is a pathway of orange marigolds, which provide the vivid and ubiquitous colour for this festivity.  This bright orange pathway, lit by candles, is there to guide the loved one’s soul to the front entrance of their former home for one more evening among friends.  And the friends are already there taking their turn offering either bread or candles in exchange for a tamale or perhaps a drink, with many more people lined up out front of the house and into the street.

Ocotepec’s Day of the Dead was a lively mix of children running around, dogs barking at fireworks exploding in the air, and the agreeable throng milling around the main street or sitting in the church courtyard watching projections of home movies featuring recently deceased family members on a screen in the open air.  I ended up leaving at around midnight.  Many of the residents of the town would stay out all night, until the next morning when the next and final phase of the Day of the Dead would kick into gear: the visiting of cemeteries, for the purpose of a little housecleaning around the grave and in some cases a bit of light maintenance, like repainting, as well as socializing among family members, eating and entertaining.

As early as I could the morning after the night spent in Ocotepec, I headed to the Panteón La Leona, across a bridge from Cuernavaca’s Centro district.  In crossing the bridge, I looked down into a very wide and deep barranca, a verdant ravine full of ramshackle homes.  On the other side of the bridge, doorways in what otherwise looked like a normal building facade opened on to an array of staircases leading down to the ravine and what amounted to a second, almost underground city.  Kids played soccer in the courtyards at the top of those staircases, glimpsed by me through carelessly open doorways facing onto the street which, if they had been shut, in the same way that the swimming pools of the wealthy in Cuernavaca are hidden behind high walls, would have kept this world invisible to me.  Annual festivities at their best can produce a Brigadoon-like effect, revealing a place within a place or the wellspring of a town which surfaces temporarily and then disappears, returning the residents to their normal lives, only catching a glimpse of their real selves.  The graveyard would, the next day, be silent again.

In the morning of the homestretch, everyone arrives at the cemetery for a riotous celebration, mostly joy shot through with the occasional expression of sadness and adorned with the omnipresent blazing orange marigolds and smell of incense, the smoke of which was everywhere.  What struck me most about spending the day at La Leona was how joyful it all was.  Everyone together in a cemetery, playing music, eating, children running around.  People did not even seem to resent the gringo observer snapping photos during what were probably private moments, but in fact appeared to be quite welcoming and mutually curious.  The power of the Day of the Dead lies in the fact that it’s taken seriously, but not solemnly.  Albert Camus noted (literally, in a footnote to his essay “Love of Life” about travelling in Spain), “There is a certain freedom of enjoyment that defines true civilization.  The Spanish are among the few peoples in Europe who are civilized.”  I would not suggest that the Mexican attitude towards death is more grown-up or enlightened than ours.  But I would say that the freedom of enjoyment extends in all directions, encompassing all of life and death.

The default attitude to death in North America is to simply not refer to it at all, for fear of appearing morbid.  Funerals are occasions for intense grief and nothing else.  And yet death is never a terminal condition, and never unburdened by transitional metaphors.  Our dead pass on, they check out, they’re in a better place, etc.  Thornton Wilder was once asked by Montgomery Clift, “Is there a God?”  Wilder responded thoughtfully to the young man, via a letter which Clift treasured:  “There is a bridge between life and death which you can call ‘God’ and the only thing we know is that that bridge is traversed by our love of those who die and go on to another world.  As long as we remember them, and as long as we love them, they’re alive.”*  These are two major artists, and Wilder’s attempt to make a harsh reality palatable to the young Clift and satisfy his yearning for something greater than the mere here and now has the appearance of a parent soothing a frightened child.

The Day of the Dead in Mexico has a phantasmagorical quality about it, almost a cartoonish aspect at times.  But one thing you cannot say about it is that the average person, not even the average child, is trying to look away from or soften the categorical nature of death.  There is no confusion that the people who are being celebrated, specifically loved ones that have died during the past year but more generally all of the dead, are living somewhere else or making some kind of journey.  They are dead, almost as gone now as during the eternity before their birth.  The ability to accept the definitive nature of death, to look it in the face, acknowledge its inevitability for each of us, and moreover to use the occasion to declare a solidarity between the living and the dead, is part of the remarkably expansive character of a culture that is secure in its own temporality.

Trudging home after the hours spent at La Leona, I eagerly wanted to eat and then sleep, possibly forever.  I walked past several taquerias and cantinas, trusting that the right place would present itself to me.  A pozoleria whose fluorescent bulbs cast a green light across its front finally beckoned to me.  A pozole is essentially a corn soup, using the same part of the corn that Southerners refer to as hominy.  The proprietor of the place was a man called Rafaelo, who asked me in English if the soup was to my liking.  It was delicious.  After a long conversation on a wide range of subjects, during which the sun slowly set, I asked Rafaelo how he came to speak English so well.  “Celine Dion,” he replied.  He had spent years listening to and transcribing her lyrics, learning an entire language mainly through her songs.  I will not hear or see this woman again without thinking of Rafaelo, diligently learning the English language by this arduous method.

An explosive noise boomed from the road, and startled me.  Rafaelo knew what was going on and we wandered on to the balcony to watch a convoy of loud motorcycles accompanying a convertible car in which were seated a man and woman who waved to children and bystanders on the side of the road.  She was wearing devil horns and they had clearly been nominated the “king and queen” of this tail end of the Day of the Dead.  “They’re going to a party,” Rafaelo said.  He shook his head as if to regret that he couldn’t go with them.  As eager as I was to sleep after these intense days, I paid my respects to Rafaelo, wandered off, and wanted nothing more than to go to that party, too.

*Quoted from a DVD extra for the film I Confess.

Photo gallery of Cuernavaca:

Photo gallery of Ocotepec:

Drinks Tourism: Mexico City’s Tequila and Mezcal Museum

Opened in December 2010, Mexico City’s Tequila and Mezcal Museum is based in Plaza Garibaldi, a large public square with something of a reputation for fun, being the headquarters for Mexico City’s mariachis and generally a hangout for dancers, loiterers, stray dogs and other sorts of night-time denizens of this colourful neighbourhood.  A friend of mine who knew it before the construction of the museum describes an incident that occurred in the midst of a large crowd of people dancing at night during which, for whatever reason, a knife was drawn.  He describes the crowd splitting like a school of fish sensing danger, instantly creating an empty space around the threat where a moment earlier existed a multitude.

The building itself is essentially a frosted glass cube decorated with silhouettes of the distinctive maguey plant.  The admission and gift shop are on the ground floor, with the main exhibit on the second.  Among other things, the museum displays pages from the official diary of the 30th session of the World Heritage Committee’s meeting, held in Vilnius on August 23, 2006, which secured the tequila producing region’s place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, granting it the same cultural privileges enjoyed by Gros Morne National Park, the banks of the Seine, and the Great Wall of China.  While the museum itself is disappointingly small, the exhibit is basically complete, explicating the stages of harvesting the maguey plant and its processing into either tequila or mezcal.  The exhibit makes an important distinction: that the distillation process was introduced to Mexico by Spaniards, overshadowing pulque, the predominant beverage produced before the Spanish arrival, which to my shame I had never tasted or much thought about before my arrival in Mexico City, obsessed as I was (as a result of my worship of the novel Under The Volcano) with mezcal.  Grant Cogswell, owner of the Under the Volcano bookstore in Colonia Roma, insisted to me that tequila and mezcal are “less serious beverages” compared to pulque.

Pulque was, indeed, serious as a heart attack, given that its primary role in Aztec culture was as the facilitator of ritual sacrifice, equally taking the edge off the extremely unpleasant acts engaged in by both killer priests and victims offered up to please the gods.  The Aztec goddess Mayahuel, closely associated with the maguey plant, and also incidentally regarded as the giver of life, was regarded as an endless supply of mexcalli, aguamiel (honey water) and pulque.  Really, what these colonial processes of distillation amount to is the cooking of the maguey heart, either steam-cooked or earth-roasted.  Tequila is made using only the blue variety of the maguey.  Mezcal takes its name from the nahuatl word for “cooked maguey”, or mexcalli.  Archaeologists know from finding maguey fibres around Mesoamerican settlements and in period feces that the plant is intimately affiliated with the goings on of the earliest human settlements in this part of the world, which corroborates the unsurprising fact that humans will ferment any substance at all other than rocks and drink the result.

The trick in harvesting maguey plants for tequila or mezcal production is to get the mature plant immediately before its flower stalk (quiote) blooms, so that the fuel that would have been used to produce flowers becomes the source of mezcal.  Jimadores, workers who harvest the plant, can also spot when the heart of the plant (cogollo) is thinning.  The stalks are cut with a machete, exposing the stem, which is then cut either with a machete or chainsaw.  The plant is taken out of the ground, the remaining stems removed, exposing the heart of the maguey, the piña.  This maguey can be left to sit for a couple of years, thus concentrating its sugars.

Cooking the agave hearts breaks down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, allowing for fermentation.  Cooking techniques vary by region and era.  During the Industrial Revolution, tequila making involved steaming the hearts in brick kilns.  The only difference between then and now is that the agave can be steam-cooked in a mere 12 hours in gas-heated stainless steel autoclaves.  As pure tasting a result as this produces for tequila, the characteristic smokiness of mezcal would be lost without the traditional method of cooking over several days in hermetically sealed, cone-shaped earth pits for ovens.  Agave hearts are placed on heated stones, covered with palm leaves, straw mats (or simply grass or canvas).  Then the pulp must be separated from the fermenting juices and sugars.  This can be done industrially or by stone, axe, mallet, or whatever means can be employed to grind the cooked maguey.

On the third floor of the museum is a lovely open-air bar, where with your ticket you can claim a free sampler of both tequila and mezcal and chat up the staff about product.  On the ground floor, the gift shop sells an extensive array of both tequila and mezcal, from well-marketed high-end brands like Los Danzantes and Patrón, to much more obscure, less expensive and equally high-quality marks.  The gift shop employee I quizzed not only spoke excellent English, but also had some highly specific opinions about her wares.  I believe that she steered me right in the end, the heartbreaker being that you have to make a choice at all, owing to draconian laws for “importing” alcohol depending on your home country.  Canada allows something punitive, slightly more than a litre of spirits.  This really must change.  Write your MP.

I couldn’t resist two days later further burdening my luggage buying a true mom-and-pop make of both mezcal and tequila at the Jardin Borda in Cuernavaca on the Day of the Dead.  More on that to come.


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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965