Escapar

Personal recollections of Méxican adventures and near misses.

Chapultepec shrouded in a late glow of yellow haze. I’ll never forget that cast. That blurred stretching shadow, low and long down the Avenida. It was well after four and in the long tale of the day and this particular day I’d finally found escape.

As much as I loved the big city, I missed the solitude of space. I often discussed this with Big G’. What it takes to leave. What it takes to escape.

Big G’, or Giorgio was a monster of a man. A native Uruguayan, an émigré, who like me had also come in search of hope.

Ciudad de México has always been an ‘arrival city’. A destination for migrants seeking fortune, Big G’ and I were no different. We, like the long line of those before us, had arrived in advance of our respective peers and families. To establish the most fragile of footholds of a life in the new world.

He towered no less than six four and all that in width, with the beating heart of a lion. We became pilgrims and comrades with a shared care for common people, and as tough as things became for the both of us, that big heart of his kept beating. Not because it could, but because it wanted to.

“Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas.”

He was right.

Escapar el norte

Silence and Sundays. Lest the disquiet of a distant rumble of traffic, the lifeblood of city consistently flowing past my ear. Urban tinnitus.

I sit on my rooftop a witness to the early morning mustard filter of sun over Plaza Luis Cabrerra. Somewhere distant a church bell and the barrenderos (sidewalk street sweepers) call pilgrims to prayer.

My arms wrapped in my own embrace against the early morning cool, I drew out the last of my Marlboro and black coffee, taking it all in. Then scratching, I break the crust cover of a tattoo and swear. Bloodied, I venture back down the darkened stairwell to the apartment. It’s time to ride north.

I take my old Kona and follow that familiar route up Paseo de Reforma, to mercardo Lagunilla and the barrio bravo called Tepito. Where, within its wilding the way becomes Calzada de Guadalupe – the way of the pilgrims. And there were always peregrinos on the road to Tepeyacer and the Basi­lica. Whole pueblos make there way here from all over of this big land. Heads bowed in quiet devotion, they stream behind their own gilded reproductions of the virgin of Guadalupe.

This particular December day I weave my way through this endless festival of chaos for another four kilometres. To the entrance of the Atrio de las Americas, the Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe and the chapels beyond. Where the great swell of peregrinos flood the gates, then disappear through the smoulder of burnt incense and on into the kingdom of heaven. There the guilty drop to their knees and crawl over the weathered granite in prayer to the Virgin for their own salvation. Another timeless display that forever bonds poverty to Catholicism.

It’s enormously humbling to be there. A blessing blowing fresh oxygen over an old ember deep within my mortal soul. I belong here.

After an eternity I crossed myself and waded back through the repentant for the gates. With salt on my lip I pushed on, heading north over the broken back roads at the heal of El Tepeyac for the barrios and Ecatepec. I still sought escape.

Backroad barrios

North and east are nothing but the fringes of fresh arrival cities. Those informal yet to be made formal sprawls of dust and concrete communities squeezed between the diesel of the interstates. Fuchsia coloured mercados line the approaches, as formally attired families, fresh from Sunday prayers gather under the canopies for food. The smoky air from the coals swirl around in a restless blue, rich with the sweet scent of corn and carnitas. I moved through this haze towards Tepexpan and Alcoman beyond until at last I reached it… the very limits of the great city. At last I had found escape.

I’m on that edge that separates the wild from the tame. The informality of the sprawl from the formality of the field with its rigid lines of green and gold. I’ve now replaced broken seal for dusty trail and I grinned at my success. “I wish big G was here to see this”.

Abandonment

An unnatural symmetry rose up from the valley floor, ominous and monumental. The pyramids of Teotihuacan dominate the landscape, subjugating the present, just as they had in the past.

Teotihuacan – the city of the gods is a massive Meso-Américan ruin and the equal of any other from antiquity. It is estimated that at its height it domiciled more than one hundred and fifty thousand people and became a centre of influence that spanned future civilisations.

I had arrived, and quickly made my way through the cactus lined palisades to enter its interior and the echos of ghosts trapped within its dusty quiet. Somewhere at the periphery of my vision a skink scurried light-footed across the masonry of the temple of Quetzalcoatl – the feathered serpent. It was unnerving. I’d never stood in the remains of an abandoned city before, “Is this place a warning for our modern times” I wondered as I squinted through the shimmer of heat haze up the Camino de Los Muertos to the distant pyramid of the moon beyond.

And there at its roots was ritual. A new generation of adorned ancestors and Aztecas in feathered plumage, head dress and robe, that spun spun spun in bare-footed thunder. I was witnessing another devotion the equal of that I’d left earlier in the day. The scent of smouldering salt sage and dust was rising in a whirlwind of their making to the gods above.

Suddenly a whip of blue smoke reached out and drew me in. The world disappeared in its greyness and with it the realisation that my escape that day wasn’t a spacial one, it was a spiritual one.

I returned to my old Kona resting under the shade of the cactus palisades. I smiled at my old friend, then saddled up and made my way back through the yellow haze of big city. Back home.

Chapultepec retrospectivo

Personal recollections of Méxican adventures and near misses.

I remember the first time I flew into Ciudad de México (CDMX). Five am, September 2010.  Below me all I could see were the stars and scattered patches of pueblos, slowly merging like frayed fabric into one single blanket of light, smothering the vast valle de México. And later in the yellow glow of afternoon sun, I was held close within the swirl and sway of a smokey Norteño in the heart of Alameda Central… I was smitten. I had fallen in love with this place. A love affair that would make me call its faded edificios ‘my home’.

Ciclovia

I’d arrived with transport, my old Kona ’93. I knew that ‘to survive one needed to move’, and they were very prophetic words on more than one occasion. CDMX is vast and equally congested. Daily I needed to commute from apartment to office, a distance of eight km via that great formal avenue Paseo de la Reforma to Lomas de Chapultepec up on the ridgeline.

Racing a life and death slalom through three lanes of coaches, cars and chaos. Everyday living a very everyday life, with all its colour and unpredictable drama. I recall numerous times where I ended up either at the wrong end of a bus or worse, a gun barrel, but that was normal back then.

There wasn’t much in the way of cycling culture, but Ecobici (CDMX sponsored bike sharing programme) and Ciclovia changed all that. As every Sunday (since 2011) a network of major inner city avenidas are closed to traffic, so that Chilangos (CDMX natives) can ‘retake the streets’ on a bike, or on foot.

Over those few years I lived there, the expansion of Ciclovia was nothing short of explosive, where getting out amongst it on a Sunday became almost religious.

Any given Sunday

There’s waking with that fuming raw claw of last nights mescal and malboro, followed by a rolling morning tear as I stumble round and around stairs out into the world. That familiar ‘shlack shicker shicker’ of steal gate snapping closed behind me as I stare out into the warm mustard light of Plaza Luis Cabrerra . It’s said if you want to talk with God you speak Spanish. Well today is Sunday, Domingo, God’s chosen day.

I ride streets and passeos, a cross stitch of side roads and secret ways to where the formality of Reforma bows before the majesty of Bosque de Chapultepec.  It’s there I join the rough river of Chilangos making their way down the broad avenida under a gentle rain of jacaranda flowers. The gutters awash in mauve, gently filled by the slow swoosh swoosh of barrenderos at broom.

It’s hard to describe Mexico City, you have to live it. Be taken and swollowed whole by it. Accept you are a mere flicker of flame for the briefest moment of time within its timelessness. You hate to love it, but you do.

You are drawn into the flow down to centro where old meets the very old. Where asphalt seal gives way to weathered cobble that have been worn huarache smooth over a millennia and more. Where congestion of the new is replaced with congestion of old – car with bike for bike with Trejo. All competing for space and relevance within the narrows of La Merced.

I stop at a corner and lean lazy against a sun warmed wall, setting light to another cigarette. It’s bright glow and ever so slight crackle audible above my first deep inhalation.

I’m alone, well beyond the boarder land where Emiliano Zapata meets Jesús María, down deep within the cacophony of the barrio. Where the street vendors banda competes with the bored beige clad organilleros leaning hard against their high-pitched and mildly mistuned street organs. And away beyond the Jesús in a rising smoulder of ashen covered corn I watch as one Zapoteco woman openly argues as the other eats the days profits.

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I shove off in a haze of blue smoke towards the Iglisia of La Santisima and Calle Alhóndiga in search of fresh tamales. Jostling as I go through a thicket of small semi-coiffured indigenous woman fresh from the Callejón de los milagros beauty market towards my chosen tienda. Where inside an old matriarch leans out at me over her bottle ended horn rims, expectantly rubbing thumb against fingers. I nervously place an order and in a whip of street spanish and cuss, three generations rapidly replace my pesos for plastic plate and steaming corn husks.

I nod and slowly back off, making my way to the concrete partition between her and the world where I pull up a red plastic stool within a swarm of niños to unwrap my steaming tamale pollo con mole.

Stuffed full, it’s time I negotiate the mercados and rejoin the city peloton. It’s ‘los siete puentes’ or seven bridges (overpasses) on this given Sunday and a 40km inner city circuit. I make good my freedom and escape to the Avenidas.

We took back the streets. We the people flow with all the hydrological science of a river in flood. At times still, running deep and slow. Others like a rough wash of white water scouring through the narrows. And at its edge people bump, jostle and bruise in spiralling whirlpools against smokey Sunday street vendors.

The streams and lakes of old now replaced by these great rivers of humanity as they flow around the valle through Coyoacán to return again to the city’s colonial heart. And nothing seems to beat beating a gringo. As machismo boys not yet men throw provocative sideways glances and whip past me at pace. Ever so close I can clearly whiff their brill creamed quiffs. “Puta madre!” I mutter under my breath and gripping hard at my handles I give chase – the race has begun.

Two, three and at times four of us contesting the northbound of the Circuito Interior. I’m feeling like Gene Hackman in the French connection, as we whoop and weave our way through the mayhem of bicicletas, racing the three lanes and risking all to get through the intersections before the signals change. Sometimes successful and others not.

I pull up at one red light slightly ahead of one heavily panting bandito. He looks at me grinning, mouth agape and gulping down more polluted O2 from the thin city air. In the change we are both racing again, mad, mad, mad with winning. Then in the briefest of moments I loose him. He cuts a break and takes his chances, to squeeze through the apprehension of a yellow light and is gone. I see him away up in the dusty distance, twisting high in the saddle of his battered Benotto, peering back with that grin and an arm raised in triumph.

Finally we make Avenida Mazatlan in Colonia Condessa. Dismounting at Nevería Roxy, I lean into that familiar formica counter and order a single mandarin sorbet in a cone, then push my way east along sun cracked sidewalks towards where Avenida Tamaulipas meets Michoacán.

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“Otra mas por favour”

With a screech I drag a stool across the floor and pivot back against a weathered wall, before setting alight another cigarette. This local mescalaría supplies my favourite tribute as I spend the rest of Sunday, Gods day, making my offering. I drink mescal from vasos veladoras, or the glass of a disused church candle with its distinct base a reminder of my own mortality. Every sip preceded with a whisper of a prayer “gracias Jesús” and with it my soul is slowly intoxicated within its distinct and earthly aroma.

For me another Sundays circuito receives closure. “Otra mas por favour”.