Izalco Mountain, El Salvador
MEXICO CITY: June 2003
I spent my last days in Central America in a state of suspended paranoia – the threat of violence seemed to pervade everything. El Salvador certainly hadn’t helped matters. Already on edge after my sojourn on Belize City’s ‘Murder Mile’, I flew to the capital city of San Salvador for an enforced stopover en route to Mexico. Fleeting impressions – shanty towns, badly-carved Christs writhing on crucifixes, dank oppressive heat, and the electric hum of danger….. sub-machine guns seemed to be the must-have local fashion accessory. I felt deeply relieved to get out of the place.
2003 June: Tuesday
However my arrival in Mexico City was no more reassuring. While in Belize, I had chanced to watch a TV programme on BBC Worldwide, in which the Irish comedian Graham Norton had presented a travelogue about the place. One of his reports mentioned the prevalence of a particular type of highway robbery in which thieves would ride up on motorbikes to cars that had halted for traffic lights. They would then aim their guns into the car and force the occupants to hand over their valuables. Sometimes, if there was resistance, they opened fire.
On leaving the airport terminal I hailed a taxi cab and set off towards the city centre. It was about 10pm and the road was relatively empty. At a tree-lined crossroads, the taxi halted for a red traffic light. Suddenly on my left a motorcyclist loomed up and halted his machine next to the window – a black helmeted shadow against the dark sky. Jaysus, all my nightmares coming true! Then the traffic lights turned to green and the taxi roared off. My heart thumped back to normal.
The Hotel Casablanca was a pleasant, quite modern establishment in a very central location. For the first time in ages I felt a measure of security. Then, as I waited for the lift to go up to the bedroom I saw a notice on the wall beside it: ‘DO NOT USE THE ELEVATOR DURING EARTHQUAKES’.
2003 June: Thursday
During breakfast, I decided to turn the whole day over to pure tourism. Admittedly, trying to explore the largest city in the western hemisphere (population 22 million) in one day was an ambitious project. However, by 9am, I had walked through the downtown Colonia Centro as far as the main square of the city, the Zocalo Plaza. This area had once been the old Aztec capital before being destroyed in the siege of 1521. The conquering Spaniards had not only eliminated the Aztec civilisation but had used the rubble to build a replica of a Spanish city in its place. Once, it had probably rivalled Granada. Now it had descended into shabby decay. This had come about partly because of the usual flight of the rich from urban hassle, but also from what seemed to be a delayed Aztec curse.
They had built the original town on a drained lake. The result of the dubious architectural idea of building on top of what was little more than condensed porridge could be easily spotted at the Cathedral on the north side of the plaza. The whole edifice seemed to be sagging towards the right, and I noticed some quite serious cracks in the walls – the thing was literally sinking into the soft ground. Despite the fact that it had been here for about four hundred years, I really didn’t fancy going inside. Downtown Mexico City seemed to have had a bloody enough history without my adding to it.
The Cathedral itself stood on top of an Aztec temple dedicated to the display of human skulls, the result of their practice of human sacrifice. However, the evidence of mass murder extended well into our own period. Ten days before the 1968 Summer Olympics, the dictator of the day decided to suppress a student demonstration by ordering government thugs to open fire on the protesters. Many people, including bystanders, died in the ensuing massacre. The Olympics went ahead unabashed, even if the Marathon had to be run over some suspiciously reddened tarmac.
The Alamedo was about five minutes’ walk westwards from the Zocalo. It was the central park area of the city, an oblong oasis of trees and bush-lined pathways, punctuated by statues, sculptures, and fountains. Even more ubiquitous than the assorted artworks were the benches occupied by snogging couples, a phenomenon I’d noticed all over Mexico City. Public displays of affection seemed to be the order of the day, and possibly the reason for the 22 million and rising population. The Alamedo itself had been an Aztec marketplace before the Spanish arrived; for the following hundred years it became the main venue for the popular pastime of witch-burning.
Turning a corner I came face to face with the world of spaghetti westerns. Three horseman cantered towards me, all dressed in wide straw sombreros, Zapata moustaches, and revolver holsters slapping against their saddles. I could have sworn that the middle one was Lee Van Cleef. However, they turned out to be tourist police.
The largest and most impressive of the statues was that of Benito Juarez, the Liberal leader who, amongst other things, overthrew the attempt by the French to colonise Mexico in 1863. Napoleon 111, taking advantage of the USA’s preoccupation with its own Civil War, sent his relative Maximilian with a French army to occupy the country. When in 1865, the USA demanded French withdrawal, Maximilian was left alone to face the rebellion. He met a predictably bloody end in front of a firing squad, an event immortalised by the French painter Manet. However, this episode had provided a link, and possibly the only link, between Wilde and Mexico. Prior to his departure for the New World, Maximilian had consulted Oscar’s father, Sir William Wilde, for an eyesight test. Not the most riveting of connections, I grant.
In return for a set fee of 500 pesos, I found a taxi-driver willing to take me on a guided tour of some of the capital. Ramon was a moonlighting graduate who spoke English well. His first choice was the Plaza Garibaldi – another shabby square of crumbling Spanish adobe. Its unique feature was the scattering of mariachi musicians dressed in their distinctive silver braided suits sitting around waiting for custom. Far from being an ancient tradition, mariachi music only went back as far as the 1930s. It originated from a cinema genre called ‘Charro’, in which the star would serenade his leading lady with a guitar. The films lost their popularity by the 1950s but the concept lingered on. Spotting my obvious tourist presence, one grinning group made a beeline towards us. As the first chords of ‘Guantanamara’ sounded out, we beat a hasty retreat to the car.
The next stop was the pleasant suburb of Coyoacan, an area of pretty villas, parks, fountains, and more kissing couples. Ramon said that it was also around here that the American Beat writers had made their temporary home in the 1950s. Jack Kerouac had written his novel ‘Mexico City Blues’, while William Burroughs had shot his wife Joan through the head in this vicinity. Despite Burroughs’ claim that the killing was the accidental result of a game of ‘William Tell’, he was convicted of homicide and only escaped the country due to lavish bribery.
Ramon’s last choice was the scene of an even more spectacular shoot out – the Trotsky Museum. This building had witnessed an almost incredible entanglement of art, politics, and sex. The incident had its roots in the 1920s and 30s, when the artists Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros had pioneered the avant-garde ‘Mexican Muralist’ movement. Siqueiros combined his artistic endeavours with military adventures, having fought in the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. When the famous split in Russian Communism occurred, Siqueiros became a Stalinist while Rivera and his wife, the painter Freda Kahlo, supported Leon Trotsky.
This commitment literally came home to roost, when Trotsky arrived in Mexico City seeking sanctuary from Stalin’s agents. Rivera and Kahlo offered him a roof and their protection. While both were renowned for extra-marital dalliances and Rivera was enthusiastically indulgent of Freda’s lesbian adventures, he drew the line when Trotsky began an affair with her. Trotsky was forced to move to another house a couple of streets away.
It was here that, in 1940, David Siqueiros and a small gang disguised as police officers burst into the courtyard and strafed the building with concentrated machine-gun fire. Convinced no-one could survive such a fusillade, they made their escape. In fact, Trotsky had survived without a scratch, but as a result now turned his house into a fortress with bricked up windows and his own machine-gun turrets. These precautions were to no avail as, a few months later, a Stalinist assassin gained entrance and killed Trotsky by smashing an ice pick into his head.
The passions were spent, but the house remained – a dark red blockhouse with a large photograph of Trotsky on the exterior wall gazing out across the road.
2003 June: Friday
The final morning was spent searching through the nearby shops for a suitable curio to take home as a memento. Maybe it was chance, maybe it was the norm, but I could find absolutely nothing which was not decorated in some way with a human skull. Ramon had told me yesterday that there was a Mexican belief that the constant reminder of death made one appreciate life more. Eventually I bought the only object that was not a nudge about human mortality – it was a clay replica of a cow’s skeleton.