Mexico’s Island of the Dolls

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The first in a series of articles for Wanderlust Travel Magazine based on my Latin America journals takes me to Mexico City.

Mexico's Island of the Dolls

Notes from the Americas: Mexico’s Island of the Dolls (Words and pictures by Thomas Rees for wanderlust.co.uk)

Mexico’s Island of the Dolls

Thomas Rees uncovers a dark secret in the sleepy canal district of Mexico City and finds a culture fascinated by death and decay

http://www.wanderlust.co.uk/magazine/articles/destinations/the-island-of-the-dolls-mexico-city

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Mexico City

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IMG_0165I arrived late after a white-knuckle taxi ride in a battered white taxi. A hotel receptionist regarded me without interest, handed me a set of keys and gestured to a staircase in the corner of the entrance hall. Music drifted in from the bar next door where the tequila was flowing and two men in woollen ponchos stood serenading the clientele with strained voices and battered old guitars.

Dumping my bags, I went in search of food and stumbled upon a packed taco stand in an otherwise deserted street, a hole in the wall with a narrow wooden counter and red plastic stools set out on the pavement. In all my time in Mexico I never once saw the hard-shelled cases that pass for tacos back home, these are the soft variety; warm, supple, maize tortillas filled with flash-fried steak or salty, paprika spiked sausage, sprinkled with coriander, sharpened with lime juice and topped with fresh salsas. Breathtakingly delicious. The perfect welcome.

Street food is something of a religion in Mexico City, vying with Catholicism for a place in mens’ hearts. In homage to these twin faiths I spent the next few days nosing around colonial churches and eating at street stalls, wondering in equal measure at the great vaulted ceiling of the Metropolitan Cathedral with its ebony skinned christ and at crisp enchiladas with salsa verde or tortas thick with sliced avocado, washed down with a glass of hibiscus tea.

There are vast markets too, as fascinating and frenetic as the city itself. At the end of a road snarling with traffic and lined with preening prostitutes lies La Merced, the largest market in the city, crammed with colourful stalls heaving with fruit and vegetables, sacks brimming with brittle dried chillies, bowls thick with unctuous spice pastes, and baskets of cactus paddles scraped of their spines to reveal the emerald flesh beneath. In  places, the floor is a carpet of papery corn husks and torn banana leaves.

North of the Cathedral is the so-called thieves market, a warren of tents rife with pickpockets and stall holders frantically competing for your attention. The air is thick with hoarse voiced sales pitches. I ate tacos with cactus and a scorching hot salsa and wandered past stalls selling car parts, cds, clothing and miscellaneous tat. A child dragged his mother towards a cage full of mewling blonde puppies, their eyes barely open. In the meat section, a man trimmed chickens feet with a pair of pinking-shears and nearby, a pair of abuelitas (little grandmothers) sat knitting in a stall abundantly stocked with graphic pornography.

A market stall in Mexico City

On my last day in the city I escaped the bustling centre and spent an afternoon drifting along the canals of Xochimilco. We slid past a wedding party and a boat full of mariachis in sombreros and black suits with sequined trousers, past summer houses and women in dugout canoes selling sweetcorn with chilli and lime. The suburb is a relic of the Aztec world, of Tenochtitlan, the city on the lake, sacked by the Spanish and buried beneath modern Mexico City, a past that is commemorated by Rivera’s vibrant murals in the Palacio Nacional and by countless exhibits in the fascinating Museum of Anthropology.

A Wedding Party on the Canals of Xochimilco

Mexico City is a place of contrasts and contradictions, of ancient canals, of ruins, of faded colonial architecture and hawkers with old family recipes, of high-rise buildings and congested streets where the scent of herbal remedies and smouldering incense mingles with the acrid smell of exhaust fumes and the cheap perfume of working girls.

I miss it, and I still dream about the food.

Mardi Gras

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The narrow streets of the French Quarter are crammed with people. People in purple wigs, patchwork waistcoats and hats festooned with brightly coloured feathers. Music spills out of the bars and in one of them, a giant of a man with a sousaphone wrapped around him like a silver python hammers out a bass line. Outside, people call up at the wrought iron balconies with hoarse voices. Their pleas are answered with strings of coloured beads that they hang around their necks: already heavy with plastic.

We make our way through the crowds and the drizzle to Bourbon Street, a place where inhibitions are a distant memory. A graveyard for morals and good taste, it’s so brash and garish that it makes your eyes water. But then it always has been, ever since the days of speakeasies and cat houses: the early days of jazz.

The rest of the night is a blur of bright lights, music and alcohol as we follow the mass of people lurching from bar to bar. The gutters are thick with discarded plastic glasses and bead necklaces.

New Orleans is in the grip of Mardi Gras, the greatest party on earth, a fortnight or so of festivities leading up to Mardi Gras Day after which lent begins and belts are tightened, or are supposed at any rate. I’ve arrived with a group of friends for the final four days of the party.  It’s my first Mardi Gras and my first time in the city. The driver of the shuttle from the airport grins from ear to ear when I tell him. ‘You all gunna have a lot of fun up here’ he says.

The heart of the festival and the source of the beads that choke the city streets are the parades. They have been going on for weeks but the weekend before Mardi Gras things begin in earnest. Each parade is organised by a krewe, a private club initially designed to support members and their families in times of financial difficulty or family tragedy but now primarily dedicated to the building of pirate ships or animals out of fibreglass. The krewe chooses a theme for their parade and elects a king and a queen who board special floats dressed in suitably regal attire that’s usually heavy on the sequins.

On Saturday night the Krewe of Endymion traverses Canal Street with a stream of fairy tale themed floats; ‘The Frog Prince’, ‘The Gingerbread Man’, and on Sunday, the Krewe of Bacchus comes out to play in uptown. Their floats are decorated with bunches of grapes and scenes of revelry and they have appointed Will Ferrell their king. He grins inanely and waves to the crowds sporting a gold crown and a crimson cloak.

Thousands of people line the parade routes waiting to catch the bead necklaces, spongy footballs (the American kind) and cuddly toys thrown by the krewes. There are families gathered around barbeques roasting corn and crayfish, gaggles of old men with coolers of beer, and children raised above the crowds on step ladders painted with Mardi Gras colours (purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power). Even in rough parts of town the spirit of Mardi Gras abides. I walked without a care around housing projects and into liquor stores populated by men with rheumy eyes and prison tats. At any other time of year you would be lucky to leave with your wallet.

That’s not to say that, even during Mardi Gras, this is a town without problems or divisions. Among the Bacchus floats were a pair of giant apes, their features clearly intended to caricature those of a black male and female. Beneath their furrowed brows were startled eyes, blue eyes like those of the children of black women fathered by slave owners. The atmosphere was one of confusion and of deep discomfort. Was this an awful joke or a clumsy attempt at excoriating racial stereotypes? The crowds elected to vent their disapproval with a hailstorm of beads.

In stark contrast, the famous Zulu parade on Mardi Gras day is a explicit celebration of New Orleans’ African heritage. We watched as floats decorated with palm trees, leopards and Zulu warriors trundled under an underpass that echoed with the pounding bass of a gigantic sound system and the shouts of the crowd. The hand-painted coconuts thrown from the Zulu floats are one of the great prizes of Mardi Gras. Fighting through a forest of raised arms, I catch three and have the bruises to show for it.

But parades are not just about floats and throws. There are pompom waving high school dance troops in outfits sure to make their fathers weep, men on horseback topped and tailed with cowboy hats and spurs, and of course the marching bands. The sound the bands make is unbelievable, it hits you like a wave and you can’t help but smile. On Mardi Gras day, I watched in awe as a young trumpeter, his brow shiny with sweat, took in a great gulp of air, forced his trumpet onto his lips, pushed in his marked cheeks with his free hand and screamed a note above the rest of the band. My knees went weak.

This is a city obsessed with music, a city in which marching bands have police escorts to get them to parades on time and surely the only city in the world where being a respected tuba player makes you a minor celebrity.

On our final afternoon in the city we set out in search of the famed Mardi Gras Indians. In tribute to Indian tribes who aided runaway slaves, members of New Orleans’ African American population take to the streets on Mardi Gras Day dressed in elaborate costumes hand stitched with feathers and thousands of sequins. Each Indian tribe consists of only a few members; a king, a queen, a child scout and sometimes a witch doctor dressed in animal skins. If two tribes happen to meet, they stage a fight for the entertainment of the crowds who follow them. I’m told that it wasn’t always so staged.

All too soon, Ash Wednesday dawns and the party is over. An army of street sweepers descend on the city and New Orleans goes back to work.

Almost everything about Mardi Gras is tacky but it’s unashamedly tacky and therein lies its greatness. No one makes apologies for the bad taste, excess, or the mountains of discarded plastic. They’re too busy having a good time.

Tequis, Querétaro and Bernal

A few photos from Tequis and the nearby towns of Querétaro and Bernal to whet your appetite.

The Quince Años

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Three hours north of Mexico City, in the state of Querétaro, the quaint little town of Tequisquiapan sits amidst dusty farmland and desert scrub. The thermal baths for which it  was once famous dried up years ago when the water table dropped but it remains a popular weekend retreat for well-heeled Mexicans from the capital who come to play golf and waddle around in shorts and sandals. It’s a little shabby and worn but all the more charming for it. The central square is flanked by arcades of shops and adorned with manicured hedges, a bandstand and a pretty, pink sugared almond of a church. In the rambling neighbourhoods, trees and telephone wires hang with scraps of bunting from religious festivals.

I’m staying with Juli and Pete who speak Spanish with Leicestershire accents and know more about Mexico then anyone I’ve ever met. They’re impossibly kind. I’ve been here all of 5 hours and they’ve already got me an invite to a birthday party and a present to take along. It’s not just any birthday either but a 15th, a quinceaños, celebrated throughout Latin America as the point at which a girl makes the transition into womanhood, the point at which, traditionally, she might take a husband or choose to live a life in the service of God. 

The afternoon begins with the religious side to the proceedings which involves an uncomfortable half hour sat in a stiflingly hot church, with the whirr of inadequate fans, feeling my shirt grow damp and watching dust hang in the yellow light of the stained glass windows. Dani, the quinceañera, kneels before the priest while he delivers his sermon about boyfriends and the virtues of a godly life. There are vows and dedications to The Virgin and then it’s out into the sunshine and off to the party at a nearby hotel for tacos and cake and dancing.

It’s a lavish affair. There’s a marquee, a free bar and French pâtisserie. There’s even a chocolate fountain and, in a delightful twist, a second of chamoy, a sickly, sweet chilli sauce that mexican children seem to like to eat with everything. Dani and her friends take to the stage and perform a dance routine to the backdrop of something whiney and forgettable by Jennifer Lopez. A performance is expected at a quinceaños and I’m told they’ve been practicing for weeks. Then comes the waltz, the emotional climax, in which the quinceañera dances with her father and the rest of her male relations. A stooped old man with a bewildered look is lifted to his feet by his grandsons so that he can take his turn amidst much rummaging for tissues and dabbing of tearful, mascara marked cheeks.

For all the glitz and the glamour, the elaborate outfits and the expense, the 40-year-old women in tight-fitting leather whose husbands strut around with their BlackBerries out, there’s something very moving about the Quinceaños and its demonstration of the centrality of family in mexican life. In fact, it’s probably one of the nicest birthday parties I’ve ever been to. If only there was jelly and ice-cream.

USA Photos

Texas

The road from New Orleans to Houston snakes its way through moorland, forest and monochrome swamp. Pylons stride across vast tracts of grey water broken by the trunks and stumps of skeletal trees fleshed out by mud brown pelicans and slender white herons with yellow bills. Beyond the water, the countryside is flat, wooded and otherwise featureless, a no–mans land before the onset of casinos and malls, neon signs, billboards and, at last, the glass and steel of the Houston skyline with its tangle of highways and flyovers.

Everything about Houston is vast; buildings, cars, people and portions. The city exudes an aura of brazen American confidence and is testament to a continual quest for comfort and convenience. Tower blocks are connected by tunnels to save you walking in the sun and there are even drive–through cash points and pharmacies so you can pick up your beta blockers and your insulin without leaving the air–conditioned cocoon of your 7 litre Dodge pickup.

I’m staying with Amy, an old school friend who lives in the historic heights, the only part of the city where the buildings look more than about 20 years old and don’t have a flat–pack aesthetic of ruthless symmetry or vast attendant parking lots. Even china town is brand new and scrupulously ordered. We drove there one day for noodles followed by a massage though I expect it’s probably more comfortable to do it the other way round.

I’d never had a massage before and I can’t say that I’m in hurry to do it again. My masseur, a fat, bald, chatty Chinese man prone to making unnerving little grunting noises, spent the majority of the session cracking jokes about the size of my feet and telling me how much I look like characters from movies I’d never heard of. After enduring a good hour of him digging his finger tips into various parts of my anatomy to no apparent end other than to provide Amy with the opportunity to take a series of photos of me lying stricken on a faux velvet chaise longue with my feet wedged in a bucket of lukewarm water, the ordeal was over and we emerged blinking into the sunlight with our complimentary lollipops and bottles of mineral water.

At least the noodles were good. Pretty much everything I ate in Houston was good in fact, but best of all was the barbecue.

As luck would have it my visit coincided with the Houston World Championship BBQ Cook-Off and, as a consequence of spending large amounts of time in bars looking glamorous and hamming up her British accent, Amy had managed to befriend a group of hard-drinking rednecks from east Texas who appointed themselves our guides. We picked up Grimsey on the way. He entered the car alligator skin boots first in a fog of aftershave, having prepared for an afternoon of beer and barbecue by dining on steak and washing it down with 4 margaritas. He handed me a beer and prized off the cap with a heavy gold ring emblazoned with the year of his graduation from Texas A and M, alma mater to all self-respecting rednecks of the past generation or two.

The cook–off takes place in the parking lot behind America’s first domed stadium, a badly aging lump of grey concrete that promoters once dubbed ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. We were greeted at the entrance by a little golf–cart train and a jovial Texan in a broad-brimmed hat who informed us that the last train back was at 11pm and that we should take care not to miss because, he paused for effect, ‘its a looooong walk back’. By long he meant 300 meters maximum. But then everyone knows that Americans don’t walk, especially after spending several hours drinking watery beer and gorging themselves on buttery étouffée, ribs and barbecue beans, not to mention the corn–dogs and deep–fried cheese cake sold from the stalls dotted among the fair ground rides.

The food, the brisket in particularly, sticky and charred on the edges and pink in the middle, was sob–inducingly good and impossibly moreish. I made up for my conspicuous lack of a drawl, a Stetson or cowboy boots by consuming it in preposterously large quantities.

While a lot of the teams were just there to drink, talk about rifles and country music and complain about the democrats, there were some serious contenders who stayed hunched over their barbecues while our redneck friends worked their way through another few cases of Miller Light and began shrieking whenever anything in a short skirt and a cowboy hat walked past. As the sun set and the clouds melted into pools of orange and pink light the serious teams were still there, perfecting their marinades and daubing slabs of meat with sauces and seasonings that clung to the bristles of thick painters brushes and the dull metal edges of well–worn tongs. In the half–light, the blackened steel barbecues, with their barrel-shaped bodies and long chimneys, looked like slumbering locomotives.

If you want a stereotypically Texan experience, you can’t do much better than the cook–off. It was everything I’d hoped it would be. But if you do go, be sure not to miss the 11 o’clock train, I’d hate for you to have to walk that 300 metres.