First Stop in
The New World

Mexico City, the Capital
of the 21st Century

David Lida
(Riverhead Books)
They say that the population of Mexico City has now topped 20,000,000 --- but how to count all those people? We know about the ones in the condos, or in the Zona Roja, or out at Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, or going back and forth from ghastly Toluca ... but how about those living in the streets, or in the garbage dump, or hiding from the kidnappers (even though the author says people in Mexico City should not be worrying about kidnappers. The problem is much worse in Columbia, he tells us, or Brazil or Peru).

Mexico City is six hundred square miles in area, the minimum wage for the working stiffs is $5 a day, and there are an estimated 4,000,000 cars registered there. This last figure is more or less correct, I know, because the last time I tried to make it across Mexico City, to get from Toluca to the Puebla exit, all 4,000,000 were to be found on my expressway and the nearby cross streets. I was able to spend at least ten hours idling there, inhaling the healthful city air, wondering why I didn't choose to spend Christmas in someplace more peaceful; Baghdad, say: the Sudan, some peaceful town in Afghanistan.

§     §     §

David Lida is quite in love with Mexico City, has mildly interesting views on the prostitutes, the luchadores --- the Mexican wrestling stars --- and the saints. For instance, he tells of the recent invention of a new saint, Santa Muerte, thought up by one Enriqueta Romero. Saint Death's cry is Te ve, te siente, la santa está presente. ("She sees you, she feels you, the saint is right here.")

Mexico City reminds some of us of the exotic cities in the far east. Like Bombay, or Hong Kong: if you want electrical parts, you go to a street where all the stores sell electrical parts. If you want a wedding dress, you go to wedding dress row. The same for bathroom fixtures.

Then there are the Mexican whistles, horns and cries. The guy who sharpens your knife plays a pan flute down the street; they sit backwards on the bike to pedal the grind-stone round. The truck selling twenty- and forty-liter tanques de gas has its own piercing horn. The water truck guy cries "AGWAAAAA." The guy selling stewed plantains (the consistency of old Tampax; possibly the same taste) carries a lusty steam-whistle on his push-cart ... the horn and heat powered by fire-wood.

First Stop is a pedestrian introduction to an astonishing city. There is little mystery here ... and even less poetry. "Gritty" is probably the best word to describe it. When we think of masterful travel writing, we think --- for example --- of Apsley Cherry-Garrard and The Worst Journey in the World , or Edward Cameron Dimock's Journeys in India, or Hugo Williams gentle, rueful All the Time in the World, on going it alone around the world.

"Some of us judge a travel book by a single criteria --- whether we'd like to be going along with the author," we wrote a few years ago. "In Williams' case, we'd chose to join him in a trice, because he is fun, and smart --- but we wouldn't, even for a moment, consider his ridiculous itinerary. A truck across the desert from Jordan to Kuwait. Trains in India. By thumb through Australia. A terrible French pacqueboat across the Pacific. We suffer to travel, and we travel to suffer, but sometimes the pain is just too much:

    People imagine the obstacles mount as you get further from home, but the hardest country of all to travel in must be England, where everyone thinks you're barmy if you don't speak English in the local dialect.

In good travel writing, we learn of place, and at the same time, learn something of the writer ... and presumably, ourselves. We have little of those here. Lida's chapters on adultery, swinger's clubs and sex-toy shops are what might best be described as meandering, or even pandering; or perhaps both. His interview with Maldoror, a wannabe porn producer is tedious. The most lively parts of First Stop have to do with his demonstrations of the peculiarities of Mexican Spanish ... and of his being kidnapped.

When you're trying to find someone important like your lawyer you are told, No se encuentra. (Lit.: "He's not to be found.") And when you ask someone (who's fixing your drain, for instance), when it will be done, he says ahorita. Literally, it's a diminutive of the word ahora --- now. Lida writes, "That Mexicans trifle with the word implies that they have a familiar and flexible relationship with its meaning. It also distances them from, and unburdens them of, the responsibility it implies." He also gives us a list of dirty words and phrases that you don't want me to translate for you: joto, pendejo, me vale verga, me vale madre.

Then there is the kidnapping. What would you do if you and your beloved are kidnapped by a taxista in Mexico City? "We tried every ploy we could think of, mostly culled from soap operas to evoke sympathy. Yehudit began by telling the kidnappers she was pregnant, a fabrication that raised nary an eyebrow.

"I told them I had asthma and had forgotten my medicine, and began to wheeze ... 'Mother' is a magic word in Mexico, particularly if there are heartstrings to be tugged. I mentioned that mine was ill, and as my father and brother were both dead, I was the only one to take care of her."

    Unimpressed, the Gorilla [the kidnapper] assured us that they all had mothers, wives, and children.

"Finally, the gang met up with their diminutive, well-dressed accomplice, who had been unable to withdraw cash with my credit card."

    In retrospect, we were blessed, because I'd made a stupid mistake: I'd given them a bogus PIN number. People who engaged in smartass tactics like that had been beaten to a pulp, and even killed. However, at the time, cash machines were fairly novel in Mexico City and functioned only sporadically with cards from foreign banks.

§     §     §

Still, and perhaps, in his "Mexican Lexicon," Lida may have saved you the price of the book. This, on the mordita ... the little bite:

    "¿Cómo lo arreglamos?" (How can we work this out?) You're behind the wheel and a traffic cop stops you for an infraction, real or imagined. This phrase means you're willing to pay him a bribe so he'll let you move on, but you're no sucker. You're going to bargain over the price.

You have to be careful with this one, though. Once I let a drunk Mexican friend drive my car. The policeman caught him and brought him all the way back to my house. I asked, ¿Cómo lo arreglamos?

The cop asked me "No entiendo. ¿Qué quiere usted?" (I don't understand. What are you getting at?) Like Peter, I fudged three times, merely repeated myself. They can really stick it to you if you try to bribe someone who doesn't want to be bribed.

Finally, he let me --- and my friend --- off. Scot-free. Don't ask me why.

--- Carlos Amantea
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