Mexico, D.F. – I’ve read that one pedestrian dies every day in Mexico City. It’s not surprising if you’ve ever tried to cross the street here. It’s rare that there are signs indicating when to cross. One must watch the traffic lights and pay attention to the flow of traffic. The former is fairly simple. Green means go. The flow of traffic and the orientation of the streets and alleys is quite a different matter.
The Mexican driver seems to go as fast as possible at any given moment, twisting and turning with seemingly little regard for anything but speed. Perhaps that is why there are speed bumps EVERYWHERE. On a camping trip over the weekend, after it took an hour to get out of Distrito Federal (D.F.), we were bombarded with what seemed like miles of speed bumps before making it onto the highway out of town. We must have gone over 50 speed bumps. And these are not your speed ‘humps’ as they would call them in the suburban U.S. These are the kind of speed bumps if, like us, you have five people in the car and the trunk fully loaded, the undercarriage of the car is going to take a beating. The bumps are covered in scars as a testament to their maliciousness.
The road trip is considered a national past time for us United Statesers. Sometimes there seems nothing better than hitting the road, putting the windows down, and cranking the music way up. Five dollar sunglasses get thrown on the dash as you stop at the gas station to fill up and buy a cold drink, some chips, a postcard, and a hat that says ‘Awesome!’ on it – because, you had to.
I had the privilege of experiencing the Mexican equivalent, as we set out for a night of camping in the State of Mexico. We stuffed the trunk with sleeping bags, water, food, miscellany. I sat in the front seat because ‘I have the longest legs’ but I couldn’t help but feel like the entitled United Stateser. It’s a complex. I did have a four-month-old golden retriever in my lap – Chipilín, which is a type of plant, but also a term used for a spoiled little kid. I don’t know what’s more cruel: to name a dog after a plant, or name it a brat. Anyhow, he was a good companion.
It’s surprising that we were able to find our way at all. (We did in fact take a wrong turn and subsequent fifteen-minute detour). The network of highways, roads, twists, and turns seems to the outsider to be some cruel Kafkaesque joke. Merging lanes seems to be an exercise in courage. I felt even more existentially powerless when I was wandering through the big market at Merced. Once I was able to maneuver my way out of the arts and crafts section, I found myself trapped in a dense jungle of candy. I squeezed past vendors and costumers alike for about ten to fifteen minutes before I was liberated. The stalls were not, as one might expect, organized in rows fitting into some sort of grid. All possible space was used, regardless of geometry.
If you read or watch much Spanish-language books or movies, you may have noticed that the word labyrinth is used a lot. (Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude, Borges’ Labyrinths, Garcia Marquez’s The General in his Labyrinth, for example). This word seems to become a reality in Latin America. In Paz’s sense, the Mexican is stuck in the labyrinth of his own identity, and in Borges’ sense you are confronted with layer upon layer of complexity in life and thought.
Perhaps it is coarse to call Mexico’s roads and markets labyrinthine. Perhaps they only seem that way because I got lost in a cramped market with no interest of buying anything and the oppressive Mexican sun got the better of me.
Of course, it’s not all chaos. Life is actually very calm. Muy tranquilo. People’s homes are relaxing and comfortable. Public spaces are full of people taking leisurely walks, sitting on benches, people watching, talking. Music is playing from some horrible music box. There are people selling things like bread and water and cigarettes and baskets and jewelry and…labyrinths and labyrinths and labyrinths.