A trip to the charming Coyocan, in the south of the Capital. ‘Coyohuacan,’ from which the Spanish derived the current name, means ‘place where they have coyotes’ in Nahuatl. I am particularly taken by the sculpture of two circling coyotes in the centre of the Zocalo’s fountain: are they fighting each other? Or is it a mating dance? All the water is angled inwards toward the centre, around which the dogs pace.
In the Casa Azul I read a quote of Kahlo’s on the wall (all of which were splendid – she should have been a poet) that is really the first time the arrangement of words in a language other than English has affected me with grammar, semantics and sound all at once, without having to laboriously back-translate it first, erecting a barrier:
‘Pero yo no creo que las margenes de un rio sufran por dejarlo correr’
Which means something like: ‘but I do not think that the banks of a river suffer for letting it flow,’ which is quite beautiful, and about Diego, of course. Leaving Casa Azul, I am hailed by the inevitable cabbie, who asks me, ‘quieres taxi?’ ‘No,’ I reply, ‘prefiero camino.’ ‘Caminar,’ he grins and corrects me, ‘prefiero caminar.’
The equally tranquil suburb of San Angel is just next door, but I went there almost two weeks later. I am sat on a bench in a small plaza, in front of a small, old stone church, a man balanced on the rim of the fountain picking at his guitar, not apparently for money (a rarity here) but for practice and pleasure, a large number of sparrows hopping industriously between bushes, and everything seems impossibly peaceful. Insurgentes, possibly the longest urban in the street in the world, running from the north to the south of the city, is only a few blocks away, but for some reason is barely audible; just a low drone. One building is bright orange; another faded red. But there is the inevitable guard, half-visible around the corner of the church.
This is something noticeable about museums here – an unnecessary number of gun-carrying security men or women who have clearly been told to keep each visitor within sight at all times. Judging by my experience this morning in the houses of Rivera and Kahlo, joined by the famous walkway signifying marital unease and compromise, and designed by Juan O’ Gorman, the attitude towards tourists is similar to that towards prisoners on parole. It can make it quite difficult to concentrate on the art or history or whatever one is supposed to be appreciating. You walk into a room, position yourself in front of the first exhibit, prepare to look and think, and there’s a clump at the other door (there is always another door); a guard strolls in, and you are expected to not think about his pistol and baton. Some of them see the funny side: walking in the orchard of the Carmelite Monastery in San Angel – a wonderful maze of stone corridors and odd-shaped rooms – I turn around to get a fuller view of the whole structure, its beautiful mosaic dome and crumbling stonework, and my man for the orchard leans from a second story window, grinning and waving, as if to say, ‘don’t worry, I’m here!’
These days, nearly three weeks in, I am in a comfortable routine that will have to be interrupted soon, before it petrifies. But for now, it is perfect. Language school in the morning, ten minutes walk. Round the corner to the perfect inside/outside seat in the perfect cafe, where you get two small cakes with your latte, to write and read. Then half an hour’s walk to Parque Mexico, a cup of various fruit on the way up Michoacan from the regular man who knows me by sight and pleasantries (‘qué tipos de frutas hoy?’).
All this time, as well, thoughts have been bubbling around, from reading Paz and from conversations i’ve had, about the confused national identity of Mexico. How could it be otherwise, with a nation whose culture and life is the product of violation, and its make-up integrally hybrid? A couple of visits to the immense, overwhelming Anthropology museum in Parque Chapultepec send the mind further back, but don’t resolve anything. Paz, typically critical, has this to say about the political obfuscation that drives the museum’s central focus on Aztec civilisation, presenting them as direct ancestors of contemporary Mexico:
‘…all the diversity and complexity of two thousand years of Mesoamerican history presented as a prologue to the last act, the apotheosis of Mexico-Tenochtitlan…the image of the Pre-Columbian past which the Museum of Anthropology offers us is false. In no way do the Aztecs represent the culmination of the diverse cultures that preceded theirs. Indeed, the contrary is true: their version of Mesoamerican civilisation simplifies it on the one hand and exaggerates it on the other, and in both ways it impoverishes it.’
Walking around this museum, one thing that stands out is the extent to which, as in the Hindu pantheon, these civilisations found it important to represent animals in their religious art. There is an important division between animalistic pantheons and those that are mimetic of humans, a really fundamental difference in the ways that societies conceive of the beyond-human realm, and to an extent structure themselves in daily life as well. Those who see their gods as empowered versions of themselves, versus those for whom the sacred is other, as unknowable as the animal forms they take on.
Speaking of animals, natural history update: grey, small, dusty birds, with comparable habits to pigeons but pretty and not at all verminous, delicate-billed and everywhere in great numbers. Red undersides to their wings and white tail-bars, visible only during their frequent, short, hopping flights. What are they?