A Weekend in Acapulco

A year in Mexico wouldn’t be complete without a road trip to Acapulco, and this weekend we ticked it off. We set off on the open road (approximately a seven hour trip from Puebla) with the wind uncontrollably knotting our hair and a good dose of excitement rushing through our veins, eager to see what the resort synonymous with the bright and boastful image of Mexican tourism had to offer. Having found fame as the playground of the rich and famous from the 1950s and hosting Mexico’s largest beach, I was full of high hopes and curiosity.

As we entered the state of Guerrero on Mexico’s Pacific coast, the temperature soared, and despite the hot climate all year round, I realised why July is not Acapulco’s peak season, which comes over Christmas. It became clear that we weren’t the only ones making an escape to the coast for the weekend because as we neared the city the traffic thickened and sweated head-to-tail for miles. Here the cars are huge and flashy beasts, and the public buses even more so with strikingly artistic graffiti in metallic shades of every colour blazing down their sides. Convertible or air-con or nothing at all, it’s not that nice sitting in traffic in thirty-four degree heat, but eventually we made it and headed straight for a bar on Acapulco’s main strip, the Miguel Aleman Boulevard.

Tourism has taken a bit of a blow in the last fifteen years thanks to Acapulco consistently being ‘awarded’ second or third place in the World’s Most Violent Cities lists. Perhaps for this reason (and that the panoramic Autopista del Sol highway means it can be reached from Mexico City in three-and-a-half hours), it’s now a holiday destination more popular for Mexican tourists than internationals, who these days tend to flock to Cancun and Los Cabos. Surprisingly, we were still subjected to the “oh my god, a gringa!” and “are you speaking English? Can I have a photo with you?” treatment, which I really wasn’t expecting given Acapulco’s global fame. In the tourist-packed centre there isn’t so much evidence of the notorious drug and gang-war related violence, but if you were to find yourself with nowhere to stay for the night at one in the morning having discovered that all of Acapulco’s hotels are fully booked, and try to get yourself a taxi to Pie de la Cuesta (a town about forty minutes north-west of the city centre), you’re likely discover that the taxis will refuse to take you on account of the danger.

Pie de la Cuesta is much quieter, cheaper and closer to nature than Acapulco Bay, so it’s perfect if rustic beach hut is more your style (and budget) than luxury sky-rise tower. Unfortunately you won’t find its hotels listed on any hostel websites, despite the fact that their prices and amenities are much more akin to hostels than hotels, but as you drive along the beach front all of the valets will try and wave you in, and at this time of year it’s not difficult to find a room and cram as many people as you can in it for a reasonable price. The beach is beautifully tranquil in contrast to Acapulco Bay; the sea is rough but there are plenty of (over-) friendly lifeguards, lovely cafés, and passing vendors offering refreshments. Given its difficulty to book ahead and to get to after dark, I would definitely recommend staying here but making sure that you plan to arrive in the daytime to avoid spending any nights on the beach. It might sound romantic, but Acapulco is definitely not the place to do it. We stayed at Quinta Karla and paid just 650 pesos for the room. They have a free pool for guests and great staff who are happy to bring any food or drink to you on the beach from dawn until dusk.

Acapulco is not a destination for those seeking history and culture, but is rather known for its entertainment and nightlife: the Mexican tourist board itself advertises it as the “largest, loudest and most boisterous resort in Mexico.” Among its attractions, a trip to see the clavadistas (cliff-divers) of La Quebrada draws hundreds of visitors each day with their four nightly shows. The divers first climb thirty metres up a sheer cliff face before praying at the two altars of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Then they choose their spot from which to jump, and crucially await the perfect timing when a big wave is coming, before leaping into an inlet only seven metres wide and four metres deep. Their bravery is awed by the spectators, and they offer signed photos and t-shirts before and after the twenty-minute show.

And so far too quickly it was time to head back to Puebla. Unfortunately our trusty steed named Chrysler couldn’t take the heat (or the weight of our beer-and-happiness-heavied bodies), and we were waiting for four hours at the roadside before being informed that rescue wouldn’t be coming that night but the following day. By the time we had made it to the nearest city, the bus stations were closed and no more buses were running to Puebla. Luckily, the friendly and helpful nature of Mexicans prevailed once again, and we managed to get a taxi all the way back in a trip that would have cost the price of a small house in Europe.

For someone in search of an adventure holiday full of fun activities and parties, Acapulco is the absolute dream with its beach, heat, bright lights and carnival atmosphere. But I personally prefer the calmer end of the holiday spectrum, and would highly recommend staying somewhere on the outskirts like Pie de la Cuesta where you can have the benefits on a budget and travel in to the city without feeling suffocated by it.

Danza de los Voladores: The Flying Men of Mexico

I had caught a glimpse of these flying ‘bird men’ once in Cholula, but they had grounded by the time I got close enough to have a good look. So as you can imagine, I was very excited to see them again in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City, just as they were about to take off.

The ceremony entails five men in brightly coloured, heavily-embroidered, traditional dress climbing to the top of a tall thin pole between eighteen and forty metres high. Four of them attach ropes to their ankles and launch themselves off while the fifth stays at the top and plays a flute and drum like a snake charmer, coordinating the mesmerisingly slow and controlled pace at which the men spin around the pole as they descend to earth.

The ritual dates back to Mesoamerican culture, when it was performed widely throughout Mexico and as far south as Nicaragua. The profession was passed from father to son, and it was performed only once every fifty-two years at the change of the Aztec century. The voladores (fliers) circle thirteen times each, making fifty-two in total, which represent the fifty-two years of the Aztec ‘calendar round’. The four voladores correspond to the four cardinal directions as well as the four elements of earth, wind, rain and fire, and the fifth, the orchestrator known as the caporal, symbolises the sun.

The origin myth of this captivating and beautiful ceremony is found in a great drought in the state of Veracruz some 450 years ago, which led to villagers to seek a way of sending a message to Xipe Totec, God of Fertility, to ask for help in restoring growth and nourishment to their lands. Five Totonac men from the village of Papantla ventured into the forest to find the tallest, straightest tree. There they spent the night fasting and praying  to the tree’s spirit before blessing it, cutting it down, and carrying it back to the village. They then created the fertility dance to express harmony with the natural and spiritual worlds.

The tradition was partially lost after the Spanish conquest and, despite continuing to be performed in secret, it has nevertheless undergone inevitable changes over time. It has become less important as a spiritual offering to the Gods and more about the public spectacle (the voladores request a donation from non-Totonaca onlookers), education, and preserving cultural heritage. Some women are now allowed to participate, but this continues to cause controversy in places where they adhere more strictly to the original tradition (when women’s contribution was believed to be unlucky).

In 2009, the Ritual Ceremony of the Voladores of Papantla was recognised by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage, which came with the responsibility of safeguarding the tradition and keeping it alive. The School of Volador Children was established, which teaches the Totonaca indigenous language and trains children in the art of ‘flying’ for ten to twelve years before they are ready to perform. There are now approximately six hundred voladores in Mexico; it continues to be considered by many as a lifetime vocation and primarily a tradition continued within families.

If you can’t make it to Papantla in Veracruz, where the ceremony still has a lot of meaning for the preservation of indigenous Mexican culture, it is performed each weekend outside the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. For more information from the perspective of the modern-day Totonaca Voladores, here is a really lovely three-and-a-half minute video: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24439200



Heart and Soul: The Mexican Family

“I’m writing about women in the Mexican family,” I said to my host mum, “is there anything I need to say?”

“¡Somos incomprendidas!” came the reply – “We are misunderstood!”

Is there any feminist sentiment more universal than that? What separates women from men is the very same principal that unites women across every other boundary: we are something they are not.

Debate rages on in the field of feminist anthropology as to whether there is really any such thing as ‘universal womanhood’, depending on where one sits on the scale from cultural relativism to cultural universalism. I can’t answer that question, but I do know that I have felt a very strong sense of shared womanhood in my time here. This most commonly manifests itself in jokes and sentiments (both explicit and not-so) expressed between myself and my Mexican counterparts where gender provides the glue where there are otherwise crevices in age, class and experience. So I have to admit my gender bias from the outset: the very fact that I am a female (and always have been!)  intrinsically impacts my experience in Mexico and I have a much greater insight to womanhood here than I do to masculinity. I don’t pretend to be impartial – mine is a study of women, by a woman, with all its implications.

It is the worst kept secret in Mexico that women rule the roost. Infamous Latino machismo is alive and well, but you really needn’t scratch far beneath the veneer of masculine dominance to see that social life, particularly with regard to the family, is almost entirely orchestrated by women. Women are the diary-keepers (one tía in my host family dished out an Excel Spreadsheet listing all the family birthdays at our last gathering), cooks and cleaners, they tend to run the household finances and purchasing, and are most importantly the party hosts and organisers. As families are typically large and extended, this involves negotiating between and arranging a lot of people. Catering for forty-plus people ruffles no feathers, and the entire event (which in classically Mexican style starts early and never has a preempted finish time) runs without a glitch, even when this includes moving all of the furniture outside to make space for everyone and conducting numerous seatings to ensure that nobody misses out on what is always a feast worthy of an Aztec emperor.

Families are not only large, but also very close-knit – it’s not unusual for children to live with grandparents, aunties or uncles for a time for one reason or another, there are frequent reunions, and they place great emphasis on togetherness. Anything goes as a reason for a fiesta, and ‘the more the merrier’ applies as a general rule. This, paired with the prevalent lack of gardens, culminates in the ‘party in the garage’ phenomenon. It’s an actual thing – it must be because there are Internet forums headed with titles like “why do Mexicans do everything in their front yard?” Well, let me enlighten you. Often there isn’t that much space inside, and for security the cars are normally parked in a gated forecourt, so it makes sense, doesn’t it? Whip out the trestle tables, plonk a tarpaulin overhead and wire up some badass speakers, and you’ve got your very own party venue completely gratis!

Mexicans love to have their family around them, and also don’t like to see people without family, so invitations are always extended and lots of people who aren’t technically family are affectionately referred to with family-like nicknames. This makes Mexico a fantastic place to be as an outsider, because even if I hadn’t been welcomed so warmly by my own host family I would almost certainly have been adopted by another.

The importance of family isn’t only celebrated within families but is also recognised nationally (as it is in many countries) with celebration days. But tellingly, Mother’s Day is a really big deal here, whereas Father’s Day passed almost unnoticed. At my old school we spent weeks in preparation for Mother’s Day, making gifts, preparing songs, dances, and poems, and a whole day was dedicated to their performance. Father’s Day was ignored. I asked why this was, and the teacher told me it was because almost all of the children have mothers, whereas there are a lot of children with absent fathers. This made me really sad. What kind of lessons does this teach little boys and girls? Aren’t you just perpetuating the problem by normalising the father’s absence and sending out a message that dads don’t matter? To my relief, at my new job they hadn’t celebrated Mother’s Day or Father’s Day but created Family Day to celebrate family in all of its forms, which in a very poor area where traditional nuclear family is the exception and not the rule seems like a good idea to me.

Mexico also celebrates Children’s Day on the 30th of April, to demonstrate how much they are loved and appreciated. From the celebration of Children’s Day to the constant string of family parties, there is a huge culture of care in the Mexican family, and the extension of love, warmth and appreciation is most noticeably demonstrated through food and giving, usually simultaneously.

The notion of ‘independence’ just isn’t assigned the same value or meaning here, it is not something to be achieved but more likely to be interpreted as a by-product of neglect. Those poor people all alone, why don’t their families look after them? They’re really independent? What a shame, why do they push their families away? Our 20s in the UK is a decade cherished for establishing independence, for getting away from home, achieving things by ourselves and exploring things we probably wouldn’t want our parents to know about. In Mexico, you are very much a child until you have children yourself, at whatever age this happens. In the UK there is huge stigma attached to young people living with their parents past their mid-twenties, and they rarely wish to do so apart from out of financial necessity and benefit. Here, on the other hand, there is far less desire, financial nor emotional, to move out of home.

On the plus side of independence is the freedom and sense of personal achievement it offers, but the flip side of the coin is the feeling of burden – there is a far greater sense of embarrassment or even shame when we need help from family, either in our youth, mid-life, or ageing. Moving back in with family is often perceived as a kind of regression, a personal failure of some sort or the result of a lack of financial resources. It is widely accepted that care homes aren’t ideal but more suitable in terms of convenience when relatives are busy either working or just with their ‘own’ lives. Here it is very common that when a grandparent (or in fact anybody’s spouse) dies, the person left alone moves in with the rest of the family to a part of their house or an adjacent one. There is no sense of shame or embarrassment in asking for help from the family, on the contrary it is more likely for family members to fight over who can offer more assistance.

If there’s one thing we can learn from the Mexicans, it’s that there’s enough love for everyone. My absolute favourite thing about the culture here is its inclusiveness. The young and the old socialise together, and care together, and coming from a culture where we are so fiercely independent and defensively self-sufficient, it’s very touching. Right from the start it was the people’s warmth that I noticed, and time and time again people’s kindness and generosity has exceeded my expectations, from doors opened to hands shaken and food offered. Who is to praise for this culture of love and care that is the social cement of the Mexican family? The women.