Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Final Countdown

Our time in Mexico is finally coming to an end; on Monday evening we fly back to Stockholm and on to our apartment in little old Uppsala. The last few weeks have been a rollercoaster of emotions, firstly coming to terms with the fact that our time here is almost up, then for quite some time looking forward to getting the hell out of here, and for the last few days sadness about all the people and places we're going to miss. First however there's time for one last blog post, where I'll look back at some of the highlights of our trip.

By the time we leave we'll have been here 175 days, which equates to 47.95% of 2017, or 252,000 minutes, apparently. It took us all a few days to get settled in at the beginning, but after finally moving to our apartment in Cocyoacán a few weeks later and settling in to a daily routine, life began to feel somewhat normal, at least as normal as anything can be in Mexico City. 

We went on three trips, firstly to 'northern' Mexico and Mazatlán in February, my main memory of which now is eating disgusting quantities of seafood for breakfast. Towards the end of April we flew to the insane heat and intense beauty of Havana, Cuba and shortly afterwards a well-deserved break in classic seaside resort Acapulco. I wrote a few words about those trips here

As well as taking advantage of my parental leave to spend lots of time with my son (when I was able drag him away from his grandparents for a couple of hours), I managed to get out and about every now and then in the city, visiting several museums (the Leon Trotsky Museum, the National Watercolour Museum and the Museum of Memory and Tolerance to name a few), exploring bars, cafés and restaurants in Coyoacán and La Roma, going to events such as the rock festival Vive Latino 2017 and as always spending inordinate amounts of time watching football, including a trip to the Estadio Azteca to see a World Cup qualifier between Mexico and Costa Rica.

My time here was also dominated by classes; by my reckoning I gave 31 English classes to family and friends, took 28 Spanish classes over an intense six-week period towards the end, and 34 times dragged myself to 7.30am swimming lessons, despite some of the initial difficulties in getting hold of the necessary information.

Of course writing this blog was also a big part of my time here; my 18 posts thus far have a total of 3,916 views at the time of writing. My personal favourite post is the Pram-pusher's Guide to Mexican Pavements; I still regularly find myself with the uncontrollable urge to take photos of bizarre pavement fails, I've probably got enough material to write a sequel. I have noticed more recently that the phenomenon depends very much on the area of the city; on a recent visit to Polanco I was amazed at the smoothness of the walkways (that's the kind of thing I pay attention to these days). 

There were a few ideas that never quite developed into posts: the fact that almost all transactions still take place through cash, forcing you to regularly withdraw huge chunks before somehow making it home a nervous wreck; the fact that you're regularly scolded for not having the exact change, as if paying for something that costs 36 pesos with a 50 peso note were completely outrageous (where the hell are you supposed to get the change from in the first place if you always pay with the exact amount?); the fact that Mexicans seem to think that a plate of plain rice constitutes an acceptable dish in its own right between the starter and main course; the list goes on.

As for the future, I'll be starting a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Uppsala University in August. In the months leading up to our trip here I went through the interview process at Google, with a view to a job as an analytical linguist in the Zurich or London offices. Unfortunately the team I was going to be working for decided at the last minute, when my application was just about to go to final review, that they couldn't fit the job within their budget at the moment. After some initial disappointment we're delighted to be returning to Uppsala instead, our home, and I'm excited to be working in the Computational Linguistics group on a fantastic project known as Universal Dependencies

So it's goodbye, or adios, to Mexico for now. Our time here has been nothing if not memorable and I'm sure it's going leave its mark on me and my son for the rest of our lives. And of course we'll be back; perhaps not for such a long period next time, but there'll be plenty of Christmases and other reasons to return. Perhaps Noam will even choose to live here one day, and have to put up with visits from his parents, almost certainly slightly longer and slightly more often than he would like.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Family Fiestas

Undoubtedly one of the best ways to get a real taste of modern Mexican customs and culture is to get yourself invited to someone's family birthday party (or a wedding of course, if you really want to shoot for the stars). Fortunately my family-in-law is huge, so during my time here we've been to several such gatherings, and to top it all off we recently organised our own event for our son's first birthday. Our attempts to keep it low-key, picking and choosing only our favourite traditions and adding our own touch to the proceedings, were completely in vain by the time various family members had their say, and we ended up with an archetypal fiesta on our hands. In this post I'll go through some of the crucial ingredients for a successful Mexican party.

1. Tacos/Tamales

It goes without saying that the first question to ask is what kind of food will be served at the party. Fortunately this is also probably the easiest question to answer: people are going to expect to see either tacos or tamales or both. I'm going assume that everyone knows what a taco is; a tamale meanwhile consists of a corn-based dough steamed in a banana leaf and filled with meat, vegetables or chilies. They're extremely filling and delicious when done right; in the wrong hands they can be bland and extremely dry.

I don't think I've ever been to a party in Mexico without at least one of these two dishes present; I strongly suspect there's a law of nature that says that whenever half a dozen or so Mexicans congregate they spontaneously appear.

2. Birthday Cake

In Mexico they have this thing called a 'Birthday Cake'. It's like a special delicious cake that you only eat when it's someone's birthday. Crazy right? Ok, yeah so it's pretty much exactly the same as everywhere else. The only difference is the compulsory accompanying song: surprisingly not just a bastardized version of Happy Birthday in Spanish, it's a completely original tune, with it's own melody and lyrics and everything. It's called "Las Mañanitas" (The Little Mornings). I've heard it about 40 times and I still struggle to remember the words. There's actually a whole motorcade of songs to guide you gently through the cake cutting and eating process, from the classic opener "Queremos Pastel" (We Want Cake) through to the final chant of "Mordida, Mordida" (Bite, Bite). Seriously.

3. Piñata

No Mexican birthday party is complete without a piñata: a hollow papier-mâche capsule normally filled with sweets, hung from a rope and jigged about while guests take it in turns to smash it as hard as possible with a small bat in order to reveal the hidden treasure inside, all while wearing a blindfold (although small children are normally allowed the privilege of full sight). The thing is normally pretty sturdy; each person gets several turns before it finally breaks apart. There's yet another song, or chant, to accompany the proceedings; each turn lasts as long as it takes the crowd to get through it. It's all pretty good fun. Apparently in olden times the piñata was made from clay rather than paper, adding a whole new level of menace to events. It's not completely without danger even now: at our party recently one child ran directly into the line of fire as soon as the sweets started to drop, while the blindfolded teenager whose turn it was kept swinging frantically away for several seconds, unaware the piñata had fallen.

4. Drinks

Even at a child's birthday party at lunchtime on a Saturday, you can count on people to get through a significant amount of alcohol. I had thought that 120 beers for 60 guests, plus bottles of tequila, rum and whiskey, was going to be overkill at our son's first birthday party, given that a good chunk of those were children and there were plenty of non-drinking adults, but I needn't have worried. It was looking dodgy at about 8pm, most people had gone home and there were still probably 40-odd beers left, but a small group of dedicated drinkers managed to get through the remainder by the time we finally called it a night at 11pm (I refuse to disclose if I was part of that group myself). For the non-alcohol drinkers, flavoured water is the standard offering; hibiscus water (agua de jamaica) is always a favourite.

5. Guests

Any good party needs plenty of guests of course; just not necessarily those you invited. There are two complementary phenomena at work at any Mexican party: firstly, a decent chunk of the people you expected won't show up; secondly, a load of people you didn't will. The next-door neighbour of a friend of your aunt will be there with bells on, your childhood friend will get stuck in traffic and turn home after an hour and a half in desperation (or so she says).

If you're from Europe you might expect there to be some serious mingling at these events; if you're Swedish you'll assume you're going to spend the whole event purposefully placed at a table away from your friends and partner all in the name of socialising. For better or worse that's not the way things are done in Mexico, here you arrive and make a beeline for your group of closest companions. If you were hoping for some precious time away from the in-laws, you'll be bitterly disappointed. Of course if you make it far enough into the event, just like at the World Series of Poker, there'll be a moment when someone suggests the remaining stragglers get together round a single table and polish off any remaining drinks late into the night, falling one by one by the wayside until it's finally game over (see point 4 above.) This is the part of the evening when you might actually have some fun.

6. Entertainment 

Even a relatively small family gathering is likely to have some kind of (semi-)professional entertainment. The classic choice is of course a Mariachi band, guaranteed to get uncles, aunts and grandparents up on the dancefloor, shouting out horribly obscure requests which the band inevitably know by heart. Otherwise another solid entertainment choice is a guy with a keyboard belting out Spanish language pop classics, normally singing pretty well but not as good as just listening to the record of course. He'll often want you to partake in some kind of choreographed dancing, a conga or hokey cokey type thing, every sane person's idea of a nightmare basically. Once that's over it's time for the inevitable karaoke, hopefully by this point you're drunk enough to make the whole thing bearable.

7. The goodie bag and the doggy bag

No Mexican party, particularly if it's a child's birthday, would be complete without a goodie bag filled to the brim with chilli-flavoured sweets (I still can't get used to these), some little toys and souvenirs from the day. Of course half the guests forget to take theirs with them, so you're guaranteed to be left behind with 30 of these carefully curated gifts, with enough sweets to last a lifetime (or till next Wednesday, depending on your sweet-consumption habits).

Slightly more unusual is the fact that guests normally take away large quantities of the party grub with them in a doggy bag. It's almost rude not to offer up enough food to get through to the end of the weekend at least. If you're going to a Mexican party make sure to clear your fridge out first; you'll need the space for all the taco fillings, sauces and bits of cake that will be hoisted on you before leaving.


Having written this list I'm starting to think that Mexican parties are not so different from other countries I've experienced after all. You basically can't go wrong with food, drink, and dancing wherever you are in the world. It strikes me that the line between a children's party and an adult affair is surprisingly fine here, but that may be more due to the fact that I'm suddenly being invited to an array of such events for the first time since I was a child myself. Perhaps all the adults were pissed back then, I was just completely unaware.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Unlearning Spanglish

As some of my readers will know, language learning is a big passion of mine. As well as going through the tortuous and mostly futile experience of learning French at secondary school back in Jersey, in recent years I've got pretty fluent in Spanish and Swedish, as well as spending hour after hour, drinking coffee after coffee, helping non-native speakers practise their English at language exchanges and tandems in Uppsala. Here in Mexico I've given numerous English classes to family and friends, and for the last few weeks I've been taking an intensive advanced Spanish course at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico). As well as giving me a pleasant place to go for a couple of hours every afternoon and some new friends to hang out with, this has the added bonus of providing me with a valuable student ID, allowing me to pretend I'm 22 again, pay cheap entrance to museums and get 10% off some of my coffees.

While my Spanish vocabulary has undoubtedly grown during our visit (Swedish not so much), I find more and more that improvements come from understanding small subtle differences in the way certain words are used in English and Spanish. Take two of the most basic words imaginable: ir (to go), venir (to come). You learn these in Spanish 101, memorise the irregular conjugations, learn when to use subjunctive, and think you've got it nailed. You can formulate sentences in impossible tenses like "I had gone before you would normally have come". Then suddenly after five years you start getting corrected all the time: "you mean ir, not venir". As if I didn't know whether I'm coming or going. After several prolongated and prickly discussions you finally figure it out: "venir" is in fact used much more strictly than "come". In English, if we're in the supermarket buying ingredients and I say "What time's Dave coming?", it's pretty clear from the context that I want to know what time Dave's going to arrive at our place for dinner tonight, not what time he's going to arrive AT THE BLOODY SUPERMARKET. Obviously, no? Well not so in Spanish, apparently. If I enquire "A qué hora va a venir Dave?" I'll be told in no uncertain terms that Dave has no plans to join us on our shopping trip. A similar thing applies with traer (to bring), and llevar (to take). If you want to know what Dave's going to traer with him, you better be damn sure you're pretty much standing on the exact spot to which the bringing will be done, otherwise you'll get barked at that you mean llevar, idiot. N.B. Dave is a fictional character. Any resemblance to any real Dave, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.

I've also started to realise just how cruel some of the tricks are that Spanish and English play on each other when it comes to pronunciation and its relation to the way words are spelled. One common misunderstanding is that the Spanish letter "y" is pronounced like an English "y". So English speakers saying "yo" in Spanish often sound suspiciously like Jesse from Breaking Bad (minus the subsequent expletive of course), when in fact the sound is more like if you were to say the word "jogging", stopping just before you get to the "g". Conversely, if you ask a Spanish speaker what their favourite colour is and get the answer "jello", it doesn't necessarily mean they've misunderstood the question. I normally advise Mexicans to pronounce words beginning with "y" in English to pretend they begin with "hi" in Spanish, so "yellow" starts pretty similarly to "hielo" in Spanish, which happens to mean "ice". To confuse things yet further, in Spanish the "h" is silent, while "j" is pronounced like an English "h". Confused yet? Add all that to the general insanity of English spelling and it's not hard to see why many foreigners have difficulties getting their pronunciation right. Incidentally, during one of my recent classes I came up with an explanation of how to pronounce the word "foreigner" in English: just say "forin" followed by the sound you make when punched in the stomach. A surprisingly large number of English words end with this sound, regardless of the vowel that we actually write.

To conclude, learning and perfecting a foreign tongue, whether it be English, Spanish or any other of the world's thousands of languages, is a tough challenge. I'm really enjoying my course at UNAM, even if I often feel that each new rule or tidbit we learn just opens up a dozen more questions and exceptions. It's easy to get frustrated and think I'll never understand everything or speak perfectly in any other language. But then I remember that no-one speaks perfect Spanish, nor perfect English for that matter, because such a thing simply doesn't exist. I can only hope to get a little bit better each day, and as months and years pass the distance between my Spanglish and the 'real' Spanish of a native speaker will get shorter and shorter. With that, I'm off to eat some jello.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Havana & Acapulco

While Mexico City is teeming with enough possibilities, places to go and things to see to easily fill every day of a six-month stay with something original and engaging, it's always good to get away from the chaos for a couple of days, a long weekend, and take advantage of being on this side of the world to enjoy some of the once-in-a-lifetime places that are within a few hours' travelling time. In the last couple of weeks we've been lucky enough to visit Havana in Cuba and Acapulco on the south coast of Mexico (although as I mentioned a while ago in my post about our trip to Mazatlán the whole north-south-east-west system is pretty hard to apply in Mexico). I'm actually writing this post, or a draft of the first couple of paragraphs at least, from the lobby of our Acapulcan hotel (see above), drinking bog-standard beer out of a tiny plastic cup (the downside of going all-inclusive), while waiting for Rosalía to join me for dinner.

Travelling to Cuba turned out to be pretty straightforward, perhaps as things there have opened up significantly since Raúl Castro took over power from his brother in 2008, perhaps because none of us were US citizens. We travelled in a group of four: me and my son who are both British, and my wife and her friend who are Mexican. We'd read about the need for visas, travel insurance, exit taxes, Canadian dollars or Euros, and various other complications that had me worried up until the moment we arrived safely back in Mexico City and could state in retrospect that it basically was as easy as just buying a plane ticket, booking somewhere to stay and showing up on time.

Some practical information: We did have to buy something called a tourist card (Tarjeta de Turista) for around 350 Mexican pesos, but we did it last minute at the airport in Mexico City, after checking in. No need to arrange a meeting at the Cuban embassy in advance as I originally believed. At no point did anyone ever check our travel insurance, supposedly a necessity for entry into the country. Exit taxes were included in our ticket (we flew AeroMexico), meaning there wasn't in fact any need to keep back a big chunk of Cuban pesos until the last minute. Try spending $100 in the departure lounge at Havana airport, there are only so many sausage sandwiches and beers you can get through in an hour and a half. We'd heard that Canadian dollars and Euros were the best currencies to take, with the most favourable exchange rates; that might well be true, but a couple of quick calculations on the back of an envelope (I mean on our cellphones obviously) showed that we were better off converting our Mexican pesos directly into Cuban pesos rather than going through any another currency. The combined commission and dodgy rates from carrying out two exchanges outweighs any potential gains. At any rate (pun, yeah!) it was actually pretty easy to find ATMs in Havana--again somewhat contrary to what we had read beforehand--so we ended up coming back with several thousand Mexican pesos in cash, the stupidity of which was highlighted by the fact that in the confusion of getting off the plane with baby Noam we left behind a bag with a good chunk of aforementioned pesos under the seat (at least we made someone's day presumably).

Havana itself was a unique and wonderful experience which I'm sure none of us will ever forget. Apart from the baby of course, he's probably forgotten already. We stayed in a great Airbnb apartment, surprisingly modern and fully equipped with everything we needed, including, crucially, air conditioning. My wife's first reaction on seeing the place was 'This is better than most of the hotels we've stayed in in England' (for some reason we always end up in one of those dingy B&Bs round the back of Paddington station). We were in a mostly residential area, somewhat removed from the tourist zone, which allowed us to see a little bit what life is like for normal Cubans, and meant that we got to experience several thrilling taxi rides to the centre in 1950s era cars, which felt like little more than metal cages on wheels, driven manically by cocky young guys in tank tops and sunglasses blasting out the latest cheesy Cuban pop music on the stereo.

We spent two days exploring the city, making sure to tick off all the plazas in the old town, the key monuments of the revolution and the famous malecón (sea front). We soaked up the atmosphere in bars and restaurants and listened to talented local musicians. We admired the curious mixtures of old and new; of young and old; of run-down and preserved. We suffered in the heat, humid and oppressive from the moment we woke up till the moment we went to bed. The trip was difficult for Noam, he struggled with the change of scene (much like our first few days in Mexico), the lack of familiar food (it was surprisingly difficult to get hold of decent fruit in Cuba, the one thing we thought we would find in abundance), and being carried around for hours on end in the blistering heat with nowhere to crawl or practise a bit of toddling. The highlight for me was watching vintage cars cruise down the wide avenues; it really did feel like being transported briefly to a bygone era.

Our final day in Cuba we decided enough sightseeing was enough and instead paid to spend the day lying round the pool at a nearby hotel. This seemed to be more up Noam's street, he had a whale of a time splashing round in the water. It also proved to be great practise for our trip to Acapulco, where we rocked up at the hotel mid-afternoon Friday and stayed put until check out lunchtime Monday. To be fair, after driving five and a half hours and 380 kilometers to get there from Mexico City, I feel we deserved the break. I did get to see a bit of the city on the way in and the way out and it's undoubtedly a fantastic place if you like the seaside (who doesn't?). It's much bigger than I imagined, with bay after bay lined with luxury hotel after luxury hotel. It's easy to see why Frank Sinatra sung about flying down to Acapulco for a honeymoon back in its heyday in the 1950s.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Moving safely around Mexico City

One of the first questions many people have about Mexico City is what the quickest and safest way to move about here is. I've personally crossed the city by metro, bus, metrobus, taxi, Uber, and in our own car, and experienced many of the quirks, frustrations, dangers and advantages of each mode of transport. I also walk about quite a bit, often with baby in tow, and have written about my despair when it comes to Mexican pavements in a previous post. The only one I haven't dared try yet is the bicycle; normally one of my favoured ways to get around but bordering on total insanity here (you do see the odd nutter cycling hopelessly against the flow of the rush hour traffic--presumably the rest have been removed by Darwinian selection).

I should also say that four months into my third trip to Mexico, despite the handful of near-miss stories you'll hear about below, I've yet to experience anything particularly dramatic when it comes to crime while out and about in the city. My own feeling is that people worry too much about the risk here; yes, bad things can and do happen, but with some basic precautions to avoid being pickpocketed in crowded places you're as safe as in any other big city (Mexico's famous drug cartels basically stay clear of Mexico City, in case you were wondering). Perhaps I'm not really qualified to write about safety and I've just been lucky so far, but here goes.

Option 1: Your own ride

As mentioned there are numerous options for moving around the city, with wildly varying prices and associated levels of comfort and security. Perhaps the safest of all is to have your own car, but this comes with the downsides of spending hours stuck in horrendous traffic and searching furiously for somewhere to park the damn thing, and being reduced to a nervous angry wreck by the actions of other drivers, cutting in from three lanes across to make an impossible turn, while equally not allowing you to cut in from three lanes across to make that crucial exit you only saw at the last minute (bastards).

The parking situation is sometimes alleviated by the fact that many places have valet parking where you just hand over your keys at the entrance and a professional will park your car for you. It strikes me as something of a contradiction that the same people who tend to keep such close guard of their valuables are willing to hand over their cars worth hundreds of thousands of pesos to a complete stranger. A few weeks ago we left our car (actually owned by my parents-in-law) to a 'valet' parking guy in the street in San Angel after a long fruitless search for a better option. Arriving back several hours later and with no sign of the guy anywhere in sight, we realised we had essentially been stopped by a random person, not wearing any kind of uniform or in any way official-looking, and just surrendered the car, keys included, in exchange for a flimsy bit of paper masquerading as a ticket. We approached a more official looking valet nearby who pretty much laughed and declared no knowledge at all of this person. Panic began to set in, but the story ends happily: our guy was a few hundred meters up the road smoking a cigarette with his mates and retrieved our car in perfect condition for a few pesos. We'll probably be a little more careful next time in any case.

Option 2: Public transport

At the other end of the spectrum is Mexico City's public transport, consisting of the metro, 'regular' buses, and the metrobus (a special bus with its own lane). This is by far the cheapest option: the metro 5 pesos (a whole 20 British pence), the metrobus slightly pricier at 6 pesos (you do the math), and the bus varying between roughly 4 and 7 pesos, depending mostly on the whim of the driver as far as I can make out. This can be a pretty effective option in certain cases; from our place to the historical centre for example the quickest option is a quick bus ride (hailed down directly outside our front gate as I described here) followed by a dozen or so stops on the metro for a grand total of 11 pesos. I have seen the metro and metrobus relatively calm--late at night or just after the morning rush hour--but for the vast majority of the day they're uncomfortably overcrowded. The phrase 'packed like sardines' couldn't be more appropriate. You should be careful of pickpockets, especially while getting on and off where it's really easy to lose concentration for five seconds. My pro trip is to put all you belongings in one place; phone, wallet and keys in a single pocket or a bag which you guard with your life with one hand; the other hand to cling on for said life to the nearest railing.

A little while ago my wife and I witnessed something very fishy at a metro station: a young guy swiftly exiting a train before furtively handing off a handbag to another guy waiting at the top of the stairs, who immediately hid it from view. Out of their sight we decided to tell a nearby police officer, bolstered by the fact that there are signs all over the place encouraging any suspicious behaviour to be reported. Big mistake. The policewoman insisted that we shouldn't have reported something that hadn't directly affected us. When we explained as calmly and politely as possible that we just wanted to let someone know what we'd seen and it was up to her whether or not to do anything about it, she turned on us, accusing us in a raised voice of being rude (we really weren't; she really was). Her reaction put is in a state of paranoia, wondering if we'd inadvertently walked into some criminal conspiracy, and for the next few minutes we were convinced we were being followed by pretty much everyone who happened to come close to us (this was all while lugging several suitcases and a baby home from the airport after our trip to Mazatlán). Thankfully a short time later we were safely home and left to reflect that it was probably just a particularly moody police officer we happened to catch on a bad day who didn't want to do her job properly. But this experience reinforced something many people have warned me: it's best to avoid authorities here as much as possible. Only interact with police officers and other security personnel if absolutely necessary. It's just not worth the hassle.

Option 3: Taxi/Uber

Traditional taxis are also relatively cheap in Mexico, more expensive than the metro of course, but we rarely have to fork out more than about 50 pesos (£2) for the privilege. Personally however this is the form of transport I feel least comfortable with. I only take taxis during daylight hours and on short routes that I know well. As I said earlier, I think the risk of anything violent happening is very small, but I generally prefer to take the higher risk of having my phone snatched on the metro to the smaller risk of being kidnapped by a rogue taxi driver. I can always buy a new phone.

During my first few weeks in Mexico I was standing in line at the post office to collect a package when a young frantic-looking guy burst in and wondered in a broad American accent "Do you speak English?" His story was that he'd just been robbed by a taxi driver, who'd deliberately driven off with his backpack in the trunk with all his belongings including passport and money. He'd only been in Mexico a couple of days and needed to borrow enough money to get back to his hotel and call his Dad in the US. The police who he'd try to report the story to hadn't been at all helpful (notice the pattern). To this day I'm not sure if this is a story about a guy getting robbed in a taxi or a story about me getting scammed. There seemed something odd about the guy and his story and the way he approached me, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and enough money to get home (and a little more). When I think about what happened, 50% of the time I think I'm a bad person even for questioning this poor guy; the other 50% I think I'm an idiot for believing him. The one surefire moral of the story, invented or otherwise, is don't put stuff in the boot of a taxi.

That just leaves Uber--the newest player in the game of course. I was an Uber virgin before arriving in Mexico but we've been using it more and more as time has gone by. It's more expensive than a regular taxi of course, roughly twice as expensive I estimate in most cases, but it certainly feels a lot safer. I have heard stories of people having bad experiences, being driven round in circles or even falling asleep and having their driver steal from them (posts on this Facebook group for Foreigners in Mexico City), but for me it's worked very well, even with the odd glitch in the software. The extra layer of safety compared with taxis comes from better, newer cars, including the presence in most cases of seatbelts (almost impossible to find in taxis), a review system for drivers, and the display of the map and GPS location at all times on the dashboard. It's perhaps not perfect, and I don't really like supporting a company which seems to have serious issues with the way it treats its female employees, but in terms of getting home safely after dark I think it's the best option out there at the moment.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Only in Mexico

Barely a day goes by here in Mexico City without my noticing at least one thing that strikes me as peculiar, interesting, or at least different from how things are in Europe. Sights, sounds, behaviours; Mexico is certainly not short on idiosyncrasies. Of course many of these things are probably not really unique to Mexico--they strike me as quirks because I'm comparing to Sweden and the UK, and not to other Latin American countries or elsewhere (an example: the 37 different options for type of coffee, type of milk, size and shape of cup, and toppings, all of which add a few cents to the price of your drink without you realising it, are also common in the US). So the title of this post is surely misleading, but the idea is to compile a list of stuff I've only seen here (as well as a couple of things that are noticeable by their absence--bus stops I'm looking at you).

In the flat

Looking around our apartment, there are a few objects that would immediately stand out at home, not least the giant plastic water bottles known as garrafones (according to Google Translate the English translation of which is 'carboy'--I can honestly say I've never heard that word before). Tap water is not potable here, so roughly once a week we go through the rigmarole of fetching two of these monsters from a local shop to ensure that I don't go through the horrid experience of waking up in the morning and not being able to make a cup of tea (I'm still an Englishman at heart). The garrafon even sits in its own special ingeniously designed piece of furniture ensuring that water can be poured with minimal effort using the magic of physics.

Also in the kitchen we find the comal, a handy extension to the stove used to re-heat tortillas, which are bought by the kilo here and consumed with pretty much every meal. Even imported dishes have to be accompanied by a healthy pile of at least 3-4 tortillas (I once wondered out loud why on earth my milanesa and chips came with extra tortillas only to be immediately and fiercely rebuked by my Mexican wife). 

Mexicans also go through a pretty impressive number of lemons, bought in a kind of bulk that would bankrupt you in Europe (20 pesos for 3 lemons on special offer in Sweden, 10 pesos for a kilo here). Along with the tastiest tomatoes I've ever eaten and a range of exotic fruits such as papaya and vegetables like jicama, they certainly give the kitchen a bright cheerful feel.

Looking further around our place things are relatively normal, two bedrooms, a decent lounge, and a little office/TV room with all the regular amenities. Even the bathrooms are the same for the most part, with one disturbing detail: cushioned toilet seats. I haven't seen these in public places but they're weirdly popular in people's homes. Some even go as far as decorative flowery covers for the lid and tank. I suppose it's supposed to hide the horror of what really goes on there, but I find it more disconcerting than anything.

While the visual differences between our place here in Mexico and our apartment in Sweden may be minimal, it's the audio component that perhaps is most striking. It's hard to overstate just how bombarded we are with sound 24 hours a day. Firstly, the non-human culpables: dogs. Several of our neighbours have dogs cooped up in their apartments all day, and the poor buggers take out their frustration by barking incessantly at each other throughout the night. People seem to actively treat their pets badly here to deliberately make them more aggressive; it's incredibly sad, and frankly scary to be startled every other house you walk past by a frantic animal.

Then there are the human culprits with their cohetes, a type of small firework. It's remarkable just how often they find a reason to celebrate by letting these instruments of mild torture off at semi-regular intervals. Mostly religious festivals, I'm led to understand, being observed at the local church. What better way to celebrate the feast day of St. Whoever-the-fuck by keeping the whole neighbourhood awake all night. Surely one of these people must be the patron saint of sleep? 

On the street

The range of sounds on stepping out into the real world is equally impressive. As well as the constant background noise created by the well-documented traffic chaos, there are the cries of 'viene, viene' from the gangs helping you (obligatorily) to park or negotiate a narrow street in return for a few pesos, the gentlemen playing highly irritating music boxes on every corner (I'm often tempted but haven't yet dared to offer them money to stop), the variety of entertainers and sellers at every set of traffic lights, someone walking along a street ringing a bell (which I've now learnt means the rubbish man is coming) and the now oddly reassuring sound of the guys driving round in trucks filled with random bits of scrap blasting out a pre-recorded tape over the speakers, the exact same one all over the city, requesting people to sell their old washing machines, microwaves, fridges, etc ("lavadoooras, micro-oooondas, refrigeradoooores"). 

As well as parking cars and buying and selling second-hand junk, the number of different ways in which people make a living in Mexico City is striking. There's someone for every little job here, to open the door for you, to pack your supermarket bags, even to hand you your toilet paper (just smile politely and try to avoid eye contact). There are little stalls all over the place open all hours selling everything you might need in an emergency. Fancy some tacos at 2am in the middle of a sleepy residential area? You can guarantee someone is selling them out of their kitchen window three doors down.

Shops and services tend to be highly-specialised, so rather than taking your car to the garage for example, you need to take it to the tyre place, or the suspension place, or the brake place. There's a weird clustering effect where similar shops tend to be found on the same street. We live opposite a row of about 12 flower stalls and just up the road are a number of dog-grooming places; recently I stumbled across a mariachi street with an inexplicable number of mariachi bands for hire, and even a funeral street with a generous sprinkling of funeral parlours. I don't remember if one of the chapters of Freakonomics was 'Why do funeral parlours cluster together in Mexico City?', but I feel like it should have been.

Then there are the weird combinations of services that people offer: the man in the park near my parents-in-law's house selling ice lollies and rat poison, the stall by our place selling quesadillas and cigarettes, the "polleria-joyeria" (poulterer/jeweller) I once saw, and the place in Coyoacán tripling up as a vet surgery, café and gallery (to be fair, the sign "Coffee & Dogs" is at least accurate).

If you decide to venture into a store here, even after being forced to leave your bag or backpack at the entrance in the "paquetería", you'll likely experience the sensation of two eyes burning into the back of your head. There are security guards everywhere, and they have no qualms about following you at five yards while you browse. At least if you and your partner disagree whether or not that T-shirt suits you, there's a burly dude on hand to cast a deciding vote. Along with the large number of armed police and military sporting massive guns, this security overkill will either make you feel extremely protected or extremely paranoid, depending on your take on things.

Nowhere to be found

As promised we come to a few things that you won't find in Mexico City. As I hinted at earlier, bus stops, and for that matter bus timetables, are practically non-existent here. The buses, which are often little more than knackered combi vans, fly past at arbitrary moments with half-arsed signs stuck in the windows telling you roughly where they're heading, and you just hail them down wherever you happen to be standing. No worries if stopping in the middle lane of a busy road causes chaos and near-crashes all around you, that's just part of the fun. I actually quite like the system, being able to just step out of my front door and accost the nearest bus. Hell, the world is my bus stop. It's going to be tough to get used to having to walk 500 meters and form an orderly queue when we finally head back to Europe.

Sticking with the travel-related theme, you'll be lucky to see a seatbelt in your time in Mexico City if you only travel by taxi and public transport. We've actually gone as far as to ask several taxi drivers why they removed the seatbelts from the back seats, and were told, unbelievably, that they get in people's way. Apparently they're only legally required in the front seats anyway, so why the hell bother. These days Uber is widely used here and I'm pleased to report we've had a better success rate with seatbelts there, not 100% mind, but a lot better than in your bog-standard taxis. Probably safer in a load of other respects too, so it's really worth getting on Uber if you're coming to Mexico.

Finally a guest observation from my wife about something you'll never see in Mexico. Not something that I would have ever noticed, but she swears that people don't eat bananas in public here. And that it's common back in Europe. Apparently bananas have a completely different status here; it's perfectly acceptable to eat an apple on the street for example but a banana is a big no-no. There's presumably all sorts of interesting cultural and historical reasons why that might be the case, so much so that she's hoping to study the phenomenon as part of a post-doctoral project.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Estadio Azteca

As I described in a previous post, football is a life-long passion of mine (for me football will always refer to soccer, even if I do quite enjoy the Super Bowl spectacle once a year). And as much as I used to love the intensity of 5-a-side kickarounds during work lunch breaks or the excitement of playing half a match (maybe less) for my tiny college team in Oxford on a Saturday morning, these days I'm happy to sit back on the sofa, preferably with cold beer in hand (not too cold of course, I'm not a philistine), and watch the professionals show me how it's supposed to be done.  

For the most part, I'm irrationally attached to the English Premier League above all other competitions. I might make the odd exception for El Clasico from Spanish La Liga, but otherwise I'm happier sitting watching Crystal Palace v Stoke City on a rainy Monday evening (at least it's not raining on my sofa) than a top game from Italy, Germany, France or anywhere else. Normally I find it even harder to get excited about international football outside of the buzz of the World Cup or Euros: qualifiers just don't do it for me, friendlies even less so. 

So when I realised a couple of weeks ago that club football was about to go on hibernation for the latest international break, my first thought was how I was going to fill the void left behind by my team not playing for a whole 13 days (don't get me started on what's going to happen when the season eventually finishes in May). It was at that point that I noticed out the corner of my eye that the Mexican national team had a fixture against Costa Rica on Friday night. It took several seconds for it to dawn on me: Mexico playing at home...this the Estadio Azteca...I'm in Mexico City...I could go to the game! Scratch everything I said 15 seconds ago about international football!

I had actually been to the Azteca once before, three and a bit years ago, to see Club América v Atlante in the Liga MX, the top division in Mexican club football. The third biggest football stadium in the world, behind Barcelona's Nou Camp in second place and the Rungrado May Day stadium in North Korea (learn that one for the pub quiz), the Azteca is home to both América, one of the most popular, successful, and thoroughly hated clubs in Mexico, and the Mexican national team. It is one of only two stadiums in the world to have hosted the World Cup final twice, the other being the Maracanã in Brazil, where back in 2010 I witnessed surely the first 0-0 draw in the history of Brazilian football between Flamengo and Vasco da Gama. The Azteca was also the venue where in 1986 Diego Maradona scored twice in quick succession against poor old England in a World Cup quarter-final: the first "Hand of God" goal being one the most infamous and the second "Goal of the Century" one the most famous in football history.

I was massively keen to return to the Azteca, and pleasantly surprised to realise it was just a short 15-minute ride south from our place. After almost three months here in Mexico City, I'm only now starting to get the vaguest idea of where different parts of the city are in relation to one another. Rosalía and I arrived at the ground with plenty of time to spare before kick-off, enough for me to buy a knock-off classic green Mexican football shirt in order to really feel part of the occasion. Just as we were about to enter the ground, I remembered a peculiar rule at Mexican football stadiums: you're not allowed in with a belt. Luckily, there are dozens of little stalls around the edge of the arena, where as well as selling said merchandise they will look after belts for the duration of the game for the bargain price of 10 pesos (about 40 British pence).

We slowly made our way halfway round the stadium to our seats to find that I had inadvertently chosen the section right next to the away fans. Los Ticos, as the Costa Ricans are affectionately known, were impressive in number and noise-levels, cheering their team wholeheartedly from start to finish, even when it became clear early on that Mexico were dominating proceedings. The remainder of the stadium was a long way from being full; despite the huge numbers of people gathered outside, the sheer size of the place meant that even a crowd of 40-50,000 (I'm guessing) felt somewhat sparse. At other stadiums around the world I've been to they'll often close off certain sections when it's not sold out so the fans are more tightly packed to create a better atmosphere; that wasn't the case here, the Mexican crowd was pretty evenly distributed around the ground.

Similar to our experience at Vive Latino the previous weekend, a wide range of snacks were available without having to move an inch from our seats (yes, even soup again!) thanks to the multitude of waiters wading hazardously through the crowd. Unlike in the UK, alcohol is permitted in the stands, although we were forced to actually get off our asses and hunt the beers down in the bowels of the stadium. In an even greater crime against humanity, the only available beer was Corona.

The match itself was low-key; Mexico scored the crucial opening goal after just 7 minutes through Javier Hernádez, El Chicharito ("Little Pea"), who in the process became Mexico's joint all-time top goalscorer. Chicharito has been a favourite player of mine since he signed for Manchester United in 2010, scoring several crucial goals in Sir Alex Ferguson's final years in charge of the team and always giving 110% (as football commentators love to say); I was particularly sad when he finally left for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany a couple of years ago. It was worth the ticket price to see his special moment alone. Mexico continued to dictate the game, and when they scored on the stroke of half time the contest was effectively over. A further win away against Trinidad and Tobago a few days later puts them in a very strong position to qualify for the World Cup. Fingers crossed for England v Mexico at Russia 2018.