In working quarters in Rome, one often sees a woman or a boy start a charcoal fire on the pavement. On winter evenings the slums are full of small braziers flaming with twigs and kindling, fanned and watched over until the coal has caught and the embers are carried indoors for the actual cooking. Then the food goes out again a panful of macaroni, a bowl of minestrone wrapped in a dishcloth, a length of bread, an infant, carried by a family to a wineshop where for the price of a measure of wine they may enjoy light, moderate warmth, a table to themselves and conversation with their fellows.

Dinner at Morelia is quieter and more simple. Single Indios wander up to the cook-booths at all hours, carrying neither dish nor spoon. They buy their meal, have it wrapped in a pancake, walk on a few steps, then sit on the kerb, lean against a lamp post, and eat. Later they may push through the low swingdoors into the drinking places or squat in groups bent over some game of luck. The night is packed, but the animation is sombre, the business of eating and selling subdued. There is no gaiety.

As usual the town lighting is poor. Clustered globes of ineffectual street-lamps fail against the night, against white acetylene hissing from the cookshops and the softer glow of coals, and thus the scene is both shadowy and sharp: small pools of light and immense distorted shadows on the walls, the lighting and movement indeed of Goya. Figures are decorous and silent; squalor is transmogrified into the fantastic. There is no singing, no music, human or mechanical, there are only smells. Smells of goat and garlic, smells of acetylene and charcoal, and the sickening smell of tequila raw alcohol with an underwhiff of festering sweetness as though chrysanthemums had rotted in gin.

After eleven, activity ceases. Lights and fires are put out, booths shut down; here and there on the kerb sits a soldier in arms or a beggar, quite still, a handkerchief tied across his nose and mouth to exclude the night air. Our footsteps sound loud on the pavements, and again I feel as though I had seen the ghost of Spain.

We stayed four days at Morelia, depressed and captivated by its atmosphere. E. said she liked Morelia the way people say they like a grey day or a cemetery. Then we wired Anthony to join us at Lake Patzcuaro, and set off in search of summer quarters in a vehicle so preposterous, so crowded, so lumbering, so smelly, that we decide that our friends in Mexico City must have been out of their minds to recommend such transport. How can it be so frightful?

"Señora, it is regular," says the driver.

"Not regular for a first-class bus, surely?"

"This is not a first-class bus."

"But the tickets say it is."

"There is no first-class bus to Pazcuaro," says the driver.

"Then why say first-class on the tickets?"

"Because that is the only class there is."

"They shouldn't say that when there is no first."

"Yes, yes, first. The first class there is."

A well-grown sow lies heaving in the aisle. My neighbour has a live turkey hen on her lap and the bird simply cannot help it, she must partly sit on my lap too. This is very hot. Also she keeps fluffing out her surprisingly harsh feathers. From time to time, probably to ease her own discomfort, the bird stands up. Supported on six pointed claws, one set of them on my knee, she digs her weight into us and shakes herself. Dust and lice emerge.

On my other side, in the aisle, stands a little boy with a rod on which dangles a dead, though no doubt freshly caught, fish. With every lurch of the conveyance, and it is all lurches, the fish, moist but not cool, touches my bare arm and sometimes my averted cheek.

E. has found a seat in the back where, she being of the build of Don Quixote, her knees touch her chin. On one of her feet sits a little old man, obviously very tight. He has a stone crock standing next to him on the floor, which from time to time he lifts to his lips, an operation which pervades the entire vehicle with strong alcoholic vapours.

Sometimes he bumps the crock back on to the floor, and sometimes on E.'s free foot. She winces and twitches, but hasn't got the room to extricate herself. He seems a kind old man. He crawls out at the stops and returns with the crown of his hat dripping with muddy water which he takes around to the children on the bus to drink, and when poor E. lets out a small squeak of pain as the crock is once more slammed down on her exposed foot, the old man with an angelic smile lifts it and presses it against her mouth. She takes a polite gulp. It was very strong, she said afterwards, and quite sweet. Then the old fellow scrambled up, tumbled over the sow, hugged the driver and began addressing the air. He was making rather a nuisance of himself. Nobody paid the slightest attention.

Then two men got up, seized him, opened the door of the moving bus and with the driver stepping on the gas hurled the old man out into the road. Someone threw the crock after him; everybody craned to get a receding glimpse of a man lying bent double in a pool of blood. Then the whole bus burst into laughter.

--- From The Sudden View
A Mexican Journey

Sybille Bedford
©1953 Harper & Brothers
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