I’ve traveled in ten countries, including my own, and based on my three and a half months in San Miguel (and, five years ago, two weeks honeymooning in the Yucatán), Mexico wins the Warmest People Award. It shows in the little courtesies, like people ending even trivial interactions with “Que le vaya bien” (no exact translation, but it’s basically “go well” or “may it go well with you”), and saying hello when they come into a store or even onto a bus. It shows in the trouble they take to make even a juice stand beautiful.
Traffic in San Miguel makes way for pedestrians. No one seems to be in a hurry or to try to rush others along. The legendary easygoing nature of the people makes a dramatic contrast with the US at times, as in an incident we witnessed when we were coming along a busy street in a taxi. A driver ahead of us had been cut off, almost hit, by another car making a turn, and both men were shouting and gesturing out their windows. We couldn’t make out what they were saying, but they were obviously angry. And then, just when we were thinking they’d be jumping out of their cars and having a fistfight in the middle of the intersection, one said something that made the other laugh. In a few seconds they were both joking and laughing, and then they drove on. Joy and I grew up in the Northeast and live on the West Coast, and expected threats of lawsuits, if not gunfire. Northern Californians pride themselves on being relaxed, but Sanmiguelenses have forgotten more about mellow than Marin County ever knew.
While I also loved Mexico City, and found that as citydwellers go, its people were friendly and welcoming, there’s no question but that the Big City is different. Naturally, it has all the stress and noise of big cities everywhere (I guess I’m a country mouse at heart, because I just don’t believe people are suited to living 50,000 souls to the square mile. They start eating each other, like rats packed too closely in a cage). Add the bureaucracy, security-consciousness and self-importance of a typical national capital, and watch out.
Mexican bureaucracy is notorious, but it’s been mostly invisible to me in San Miguel, except in my dealings with Telcel. However, it comes into its own in the capital. Years ago, my rabbi, Benjamin Scolnic, observed that given a little authority, people will often let it go to their heads to a comical and annoying extent. The more trivial the actual power, the worse it is; his example was an usher in a movie theater, who, given a flashlight and a uniform, can turn into a strutting tyrant issuing orders and quoting ridiculous rules. We saw this officiousness in force in Mexico City. At two different museums, the guards fussed over our entering the exhibit the wrong way. These were not, please understand, packed-full mega-exhibits such as you encounter at NYC’s MoMA on a Sunday, where someone who tried to enter via the exit would be swimming the wrong way against 50,000 Impressionism fans. These were small museums, where in one case the guards outnumbered the people actually viewing the exhibit. I suspect that was the source of the problem: give a woman a uniform and a boring and practically pointless job, and she’s likely to start generating silly rules; but put two guards in view of each other, each with nothing to do but make sure they other isn’t being too lax, and no way will one of them allow the couple with the restive three-year-old to look in the rooms in the wrong order. In a third museum, a guard was all uptight about Joy’s and Munchkin’s sitting on the floor to watch a video. As Dr. Leonard McCoy said, with a characteristic disregard for the laws of physics, “The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe.” (They’re suckers for kids here, though, so the guard just said that Joy had to stand up. La niña could sit.)
The most exasperating illustration of McCoy’s Law, though, was our attempt to see the murals at the Department of Education. Diego Rivera’s murals are all over Mexico City, sometimes in government buildings and sometimes in museums. The most extensive are in this department, which is, coincidentally, guarded as heavily as if the Mexican Secretary of Education had been personally threatened by Osama bin Laden. We first went on Tuesday afternoon, where the soldier on duty told us to come back next day—you can only see them in the morning, he said. In one stroke he accomplished two of the tenets of bureaucratic unhelpfulness: give out wrong information whenever possible, and never give anyone information that they haven’t specifically requested. The wrong information was that the murals are not available only, or even especially, in the morning; the unrequested information was “. . . and is this building open on May 5?” Of course it wasn’t, and of course that didn’t occur to us until we returned, as directed, on May 5 and walked all the way around the block looking for an unlocked door. Right. Federal holiday.
I went back late on Thursday morning and was told by a guy in a green suit to return after 12. I said, with some heat, that Tuesday’s guy had said mornings only. No, that’s wrong, the new man said. “Doce a dos,” twelve to two. OK, the window narrows every time I come, but I’ll come back after 12. All three of us came back an hour later—are you keeping count? this is trip number four—to seek entry: 12:20. Sorry, we were then told, by the exact man who’d told me “twelve to two” earlier: you can only get in at exactly 12 or exactly 2, because you need a guide. At this point, we blew our tops. It’s possible that with my far-from-expert Spanish, I’d misunderstood, and that he’d said “doce O dos,” twelve or two, but he most definitely did not say “doce en punto,” twelve on the dot. Furthermore, when in sputtering Spanish I told the good cop who tried to calm us down that the one in the green suit had told me, not an hour before, to come back between twelve and two, Green Suit flatly denied having told me anything. We griped to them for a while about how we got a different story each time we came, and extracted a promise that if we came at exactly 10, 12, or 2 the next day, with our passports, needing nothing else, we would be admitted. I think Good Cop was a little taken aback that one of us could speak excellent Spanish; I hope he had good enough English to understand Joy when she turned to me and said, in our native tongue, “Every day we get a different f***ing story from these f***ing people.” We didn’t trust in the slightest that his promise would mean anything the next day, but we didn’t try to get it in writing.
Oh well. I saw the murals in the end, on my fifth attempt; they were stunning; the man who met tourists at the door at 10 on Friday was exceedingly polite and helpful; the tour guide was interesting and I could understand about 40% of her rapid Spanish; and we got a Mexico City Bureaucracy Nightmare story to tell, to boot.
To be fair, the juice stand pictured above is in Mexico City. So someone there has the patience we see elsewhere in Mexico.
When I got back to the hotel after my murals tour, we all headed down to Xochimilco, home of the Dolores Olmeda Museum. Olmeda was an art collector, and a patron (and occasional model) of Diego Rivera’s, so there are lots of Rivera and Kahlo paintings, including a room full of sunsets Rivera painted from her beachfront home in Acapulco that I found very beautiful. The Kahlo paintings were all off in an exhibit in Europe, unfortunately, but there were other interesting pieces, and the museum itself is a peaceful oasis. It also has peacocks wandering all over the grounds.
Watch for a few minutes, and one will strut his stuff. I think they’re pretty spectacular from the back too.
In Xochimilco, a few canals still remain of the hundreds that used to surround the city, and the boat tours are famous. One friend who grew up in Mexico City said to leave it ‘til last and bump it if we didn’t have time, because the boats aren’t as pretty as they used to be and the water is dirty. We went and were glad we had. The water was dirty, though we saw lots of people swimming in it and one person drinking it *shudder*, and the boats aren’t covered with fresh flowers as in the golden days, but it was still relaxing to be on the water.
Some houses were upscale, some little more than shacks. I was partial to this one’s solution to the everpresent “where to fit all the kitchen stuff” challenge.
The boats were all named for women–sometimes more than one woman–and usually had a few different countries’ flags painted on them, for reasons we didn’t discover. No need to pull over to a canalside restaurant to get snacks; vendors in their own boats pull up to sell things.
It was a pleasant, cool end to a pleasant but hot day.