A Ringside Riot

Monday nights don’t normally offer much in the way of entertainment, but in the centre of Puebla you’ll find the world famous Lucha Libre in full swing. Mexican free wrestling is something of a cultural institution, and can be loosely compared to the English pantomime for its blend of family appeal, audience participation, vibrant costumes and fun heroes and villains narrative.

Lucha Libre is most notably characterised by the colourful masks that most (but not all) wrestlers wear, which create a stylised identity for the luchadores (fighters), add to their heroism and mystery, and allows them to achieve fame and reputation. The wearing of masks dates back to the early twentieth century and has become symbolically sacred: the unmasking of an opponent during a match is grounds for disqualification, but the elaborate threatening constitutes an important part of the drama. The mask of Lucha Libre is often used as an emblem of Mexican culture, honour and moral spirit, and frequently features in Mexican art and forms a part of public murals.

The wrestlers mostly fight in tag teams of three called trios, which make for fast-paced matches with as much action outside of the ring as in it. The teams come in two categories, making it very straightforward to follow. The rudos are the ‘baddies’, who fight in a more brawling style and tend to bend or break the rules, goad the referee and their opponents, and generally make themselves unlikeable. The técnicos are the ‘goodies,’ who fight with greater technical ability and display more complex and spectacular manoeuvres, including impressive high flying attacks.

As much as anything else, a night at the Lucha Libre offers an interactive lesson in Mexican slang, insults, swearwords and groserías – essential education for any trip to Mexico. Don’t miss the delicious esquites (sweetcorn with mayonnaise, cheese and chilli) for sale outside, and of course your very own mask which shouldn’t cost more than 150 pesos.

The Charitable Conscience

Take a closer look, the above photo isn’t digitally altered. The wealth gap in Mexico is shocking and obvious, and it’s not uncommon to see the rich and the poor live side by side like this. Mexico isn’t considered First World (despite joining NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, 20 years ago) nor Third World, but rather sits in the vague and variable ‘developing country’ category.

  • According to 2013 government data, 45.5% of Mexicans currently live below the national poverty line.
  • The World’s Richest Man is the Mexican magnate Carlos Slim, whose fortune increased from $74.5 billion to $79.6 billion between the 1st and the 11th of July this year, that’s a jump of $5.1 billion in just 10 days.
  • Mexico ranks second only to Chile for Worst Income Inequality as measured by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

In Britain, we like to pretend that our society is much more equal than it really is; we want to believe that we live in a thoroughly modern, civilised, just society. We don’t want to see poverty: if we must deal with it on our doorstep, it’s veiled as ‘regeneration’. It’s hidden behind confidentiality clauses and highly sensitive lists of children receiving free school meals, just a glimpse caught in the odd homeless person being swept off the street by a bobby on the beat, and begging is illegal – if you’re poor, better just not to show yourself in public at all. Poverty is a foreign problem, and even then we arm ourselves with numerous distancing mechanisms: charity campaigns are glossed up, large scale events put the ‘fun’ into fundraising, and the causes are glamourised with endless celebrity endorsements. It all makes poverty sickeningly palatable.

General advice tells foreigners not to use the Metro, the figurative and literal underground of Mexico City. I believe this is less to do with the impending ‘danger’ and more to do with the discomfort of being visually assaulted with the desperate poverty of Mexico’s poorest citizens. The devastating reality chokes your throat and crushes your heart. Be prepared to be approached by people with shocking disfigurements, infected gun wounds, exposed catheters, and filthy children crawling the carriages with no shoes. Some have something to sell, others are purely begging, but it is impossible to look away. What do you do? What can you do? And what should you do? What if by giving money you are perpetuating the problem rather than helping to solve it? Many children have shoes, but they look more pitiful and are given more money by going without them. The more money they return home with, the more hours a day they are made to go out begging. The horrible truth is that a lot of children are abused and exploited by their families, who are themselves the victims of mental health problems or drug or alcohol addiction. There’s a real likelihood that your good gesture is doing more harm than good, so how do you give responsibly?

A few weeks ago, I passed a boy of about 10 crying in the street. “What’s the matter?” I asked, and he replied that he had lost his wallet and couldn’t get home. Pobrecito, I thought, and asked him how much money he needed. “50 pesos.” FIFTY PESOS?! This wiley little weasel was having me on. “How many buses do you need to take?” “Three,” came the reply. Well unfortunately for him, I know very well that three buses costs 18 pesos (it’s also highly unlikely that he really needed to take three different buses). I gave him the 18 (just under £1) and went on my way, rather confused by the exchange that had just taken place. Were they crocodile tears? Does he know exactly how to make some easy extra pocket money after school each day? Or does he have a sick parent or many younger siblings at home that he has to care for? I will never know. Giving money to people is the most direct form of giving, but you still don’t really know where your money is going.

The nature of charitable giving in the UK has undergone huge changes in the last 30 years: as the third sector has increasingly shifted away from alliance with the public sector to be more closely aligned with the private sector there has been a dramatic rise in demand for the transparency and accountability of charitable institutions. Charity is increasingly competitive and funds are hard fought for under strict requirements of impact assessment and evidence of effective spending. We are also much more personally concerned with responsible giving, and it seems that no type of contribution is without its criticism. Social media has hugely increased accessibility and awareness, but is also criticised for its swing towards ‘slacktivism,’ where a click, ‘like’ or ‘share’ is the newly favoured form of being seen to be supporting without really doing anything impactful. There is cynicism towards international aid as recent exposés have revealed instances of foreign funds being squandered, fostering corruption, destroying local enterprise and creating a dependency culture. Even direct volunteering is often attacked as ‘voluntourism,’ where short-term programmes are accused of benefitting young, privileged white Westerners more than the needy communities they recklessly flit in and out of.

These dialogues raise important issues, but mustn’t become an excuse for apathy or a “my money won’t do any good so I won’t give any” attitude. Instead they ought to be used as an opportunity to harness much more deeply engaged giving. It’s great to see the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge raise so much awareness and money having ‘gone viral,’ and simultaneously be closely scrutinised and called to account for how their funds are directed. When deciding how to donate, it is a good idea to think about where there is the greatest need for support, where your money will have the biggest influence, and what are the most urgent problems. We all prioritise differently: do your research, choose your cause. Every kind of aid is political, so it really is worth thinking carefully about. And when you’re abroad, you can do your bit by not just staying within a resort but travelling and spending money in the local community.

Photo credit: http://petapixel.com/2014/05/15/shocking-aerial-photographs-show-stark-economic-divide-mexico/

Querétero and San Miguel de Allende

The Mexicans have got tourism Down. To. A. Tee. Whatever you want, they’ve got it, and they don’t just do it, they do it really, really well. There couldn’t have been more contrast in my travels so far, from the wilds and Mayan ruins of Chiapas; the indigenous craftsmanship and pristine beaches of Oaxaca; the religious and colonial history and culinary fame of Puebla; the vibrancy of life and juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in Mexico City; the flash and glamour of Acapulco. Just a few hours north of Mexico City, a trip to Querétaro and San Miguel de Allende offered yet another entirely different experience with their clean streets, immaculate parks, pretty plazas, chic cafés and cosy accommodation perfectly tailored to the needs and desires of expats and international travellers.

First stop Querétaro, capital city of the state of the same name. Originally a settlement founded by the Otomí people in the fifteenth century (hence the dolls in the above photo), it was soon absorbed by the Aztecs and then the Spaniards. It reminded me a lot of Oxford with its open air International Jazz Festival; of Brighton with its andadores (pedestrianised streets lined with neat little stalls selling jewellery and bags); and both with the plethora of handsome, bearded,  20-something male waiters. Querétaro is a beautiful city for wandering: there’s a tranquil, cultured air to the streets (unlike the chaos of less touristy areas), and it’s brimming with lovely squares, quality cuisine and interesting museums. Even the taxi drivers seem that little bit higher up the scale of contentment. All in all, it’s very, very pleasant. But this comes at a price: ninety-five pesos (almost five British pounds) for an 80 gram bar of ki’XOCOLATL “directly from the cacao tree groove bean-to-bar artisinal criollo chocolate,” to be precise.

We found our green boutique hostel Kuku Rukú a little disappointing. On arrival they had lost our reservation (shouldn’t complain, we bagged a free upgrade for the night). Despite numerous recommendations we found the hostel breakfast on the stingy and minimalist side, and the attached restaurant wasn’t serving food at all while we were there. No use crying over spilled milk, we soon discovered that there was no shortage of great places to eat. After seven months without a good Full English or anything remotely like it I was disappointed to discover that Sunny’s All English café has now closed, but if in search of comfort you could still head to Bhaji, which serves “the Great British Curries  of traditional UK Indian restaurants.” It was very tempting, but we were on the hunt for something a little lighter so headed for the Calle Cinco de Mayo where most of the cafés and bars are situated. There’s a far less distinct line between cafés and bars here than in the UK, so you can still grab a light bite to eat or a coffee without paying ‘restaurant’ prices, and soak in the lovely early evening atmosphere as dusk turns to night. I highly recommend U:La La for bagels, salad and fresh-if-a-little-bitter mango juice; Kaluna café whose very reasonable prices reflect that they are situated slightly off the far end of Cinco de Mayo; and Bisquets Querétaro for a really authentic Mexican breakfast and cantina atmosphere.

Beware: (almost) everything is closed on Mondays. This is mildly irritating, but the lady in the tourist information office was still incredibly lovely and helpful about it. So the museums had to wait until the following day (on Tuesdays, almost apologetically, some offer free entrance). Luckily it’s such a nice city that we quite happily whiled away the day just moseying around. María y su bici is a Mexican restaurant with a few branches dotted around the city, each uniquely decorated in a mix of traditional and contemporary Mexican style décor. I had the most delicious Tamal Maya with Cochinita Pibil (spicy pork) and a jug of Tejate – an ancient drink from the markets of Oaxaca consisting of cocoa, maize, mamey (a Mexican fruit similar to papaya) and corozo (a Latin American nut like a chestnut) mixed with iced and charmingly served in the traditional jícara cups made from coconut shells.

Like all of the Mexican states’ capital cities there are lots of museums and churches, and it’s easy to tick off a handful in an afternoon. Templo de San Francisco is worth a peek, especially as it’s right next door to the Museo Regional: to be honest, it’s no competition for Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology which completely knocked my socks off, but it’s interesting on the state’s indigenous groups and Querétaro’s role in the independence movement and post-independence history. The Museo de Arte is set in an eighteenth century baroque monastery and is home to a great mix of European and Mexican works spanning the sixteenth to twenty-first centuries. Querétaro also boasts an impressive eighteenth century, 1.28km-long aqueduct made of sandstone, Los Arcos, which features heavily in the city’s postcards.

Over-state into Guanajuato, we were eager to visit the famously pretty San Miguel de Allende. In keeping with the Mexican trend for setting cities in deep valleys surrounded by imposing mountains and volcanoes, the approach to the city gives a great view and adds to the excitement of the arrival: San Miguel de Allende’s biggest attraction, its Disney-like church complete with pink towers, La Parroquia, is clearly visible (I won the prize for first-spot) from the highway. Having the name of a notorious prison and a prominent sign at the entrance stating that no refunds can be given once you’ve seen the room had my senses on high alert, but our stay at Hostal Alcatraz was surprisingly enjoyable. The facilities are basic but perfectly clean and pleasant, and the staff very friendly and helpful. I’m surprised that more hostels don’t seem to have cottoned on that a good breakfast is a sure-fire way to a great review.

There isn’t all that much to do apart from shop and eat, but if you’re on holiday that’s a pretty good start. The Mercado de Artesanías offers beautiful Mexican handicrafts and folk art, but its prices are more expensive than you can find for similar items elsewhere so be sure to haggle your socks off. To get a glimpse of ‘real’ Mexico head to the food market, where you can buy a pot of fresh fruit for fifteen pesos rather than paying sixty for a fruit salad in a café. Vía Orgánica  is a lovely little restaurant offering organic local produce, and is also engaged in not-for-profit initiatives with local farmers. But the highlight for anyone with a sweet tooth is San Agustín’s hot chocolate and churros. There’s normally a queue outside but it doesn’t take long to whittle down, or you can hustle your way to the front to make a reservation for a bit later that same day. I am a stern advocate of trying different things, but we may have gone there twice in less than forty-eight hours.

San Miguel is surrounded by various hot springs just a short bus ride away. We went to La Gruta which has three small pools, a tunnel and a steamy cave. Entrance is 100 pesos, there’s a café, restaurant, massage parlour and good changing amenities, but it’s very busy, touristy and not as natural as we were expecting.

In summary, don’t go to San Miguel if you’re in search of a really ‘authentic’ Mexican experience, but it’s definitely worth popping by if you’re passing through from Guanajuato to Querétaro. And if you can, leave it to last so that you can spend your last pennies freely (you will want to) without the bitter taste of sore temptation and fear of over-spending.



Being British: Through the Looking Glass

From my sun-singed-scalp and freckled cheeks to my pasty little toes, there’s no doubting that I’m as English as a crunchy Cox, and it’s not the first time I’ve written about it. I was (quite rightly, it transpires) terrified of missing English tea. I like order, precision, making lists and reading books. I appreciate it when people are timely, committed, modest and honest. I spend a lot of time observing the weather and (failing at) dressing accordingly. There are things about myself that I knew were very British before I left, and some that have transpired since. At times the line between my Englishness and my personality is far from clear. One thing’s for sure: after six months abroad I’ve learned not only a fair deal about Mexican culture, but through being the foreigner, dealing with people finding me funny and strange, and having the new perspective of looking from the outside in, a lot about my own as well.

I was funnily enough in a second-hand bookshop in Australia when I first came across Kate Fox’s book, Watching the English (2004). I snapped it up and chuckled my way through as she attempted to unearth ‘the rules of English behaviour’. I initially agreed with a lot that she had to say, but now being a Brit away from home with new insight, hindsight and general all-around-sight, I also believe Fox leaves her analysis a few cups short of a teapot. She claims that at the core of being English is social ‘dis-ease’ owing to our obsession with privacy and the home on the one hand, and crippling politeness and restraint on the other. “We do everything in moderation,” and are “the most repressed and inhibited people on earth,” apparently. Maybe so from the outside, but for me it is exactly the contrast between the image and the reality that makes being English so entertaining.

We love more than anyone else to ham up the stereotypes (intentionally or otherwise), but bag yourself an invite to a gathering of friends and you’re just as likely to see complete and uninhibited freedom of expression. Take sex, for example. Of course it’s taboo to talk about it with strangers, in public. But behind closed doors it’s another story altogether, and more often a case of TMI (‘too much for information’ for the over fifties) amongst my friends than evidence of the cautious, embarrassed behaviour we are more famous for. And that’s precisely what makes it so funny when we behave ‘out of character’. Sure, English culture is enigmatic and may seem inaccessible to those outside, but really it’s just like one huge inside joke. Work on getting that invite, it’s worth it.

Despite being English herself (and casting herself and her partner in starring roles), she titles her book Watching the English, and offers a very observation-based, distanced perspective. I, however, am talking about being English, what it is and how it feels. She offers commentary on how baffling our behaviour is to outsiders, but I think it is precisely our odd little ways that make us so intriguing (and, dare I say, enchanting) to foreigners. They don’t want to merely watch the English, but to be the English: every Mexican I meet is dying to get in on the joke. They don’t just want to go to England, but to know the Queen, to talk like James Bond and sing like The Beatles. I can understand why. There’s a lot of debate on ethnocentricity in anthropology, and it’s generally not the done thing to champion your own culture for fear of being perceived not only as self-centred (how horribly un-English), but to be harbouring some secret imperialist, colonialist, supremacist, even racist agenda. I don’t give a hooty toot, I’m not blowing our own trumpet but our Royal Philharmonic ORCHESTRA: being English is bloody hilarious!

People often ask me what I miss about England, and once I’ve reeled off the obvious, family and food (Marmite, ginger nuts, Branston pickle and cheddar cheese, English breakfast, warm scones and clotted cream, jacket potatoes and Heinz beans, to name but a few), it’s hard to define. But I spend a lot of time alone, pondering and wandering, and I think I’ve cracked it. It’s not the weather itself – of course, like every other Brit, I’ve spent enough light years complaining about it – but the quirky associated rituals. We can boast and laugh about picnics eaten in the car, barbecues cooked under umbrellas, and year after year after year as the nation is crippled by an inch of snow, all normality grounds to a halt and, love it or loathe it, everyone is comparing how much they’ve got, how long they were stuck in traffic for, and how tall their snowman is. I can’t complain about the weather here, but I have to admit, for the first few months I did find the eternal sunshine monotonous. What blasphemy – Brits are desperate to seek the sun! But I know now that it’s not the weather I found boring, but the lack of sunshine-worshipping activities – people in Puebla don’t even wear shorts for goodness’ sake. I missed ridiculing people in the parks flashing their flesh and slathering themselves in suncream, but really I was dying to be one of them and I longed to find companions to join me in my beloved silly English behaviour.

Each year, newspapers are predictably smothered in photos of Brighton beach at the first sign of a ‘heat wave,’ or of scantily clad teens shuffling through the snow in stilettos for their £2 Jaeger bombs, and we are still laughing at THAT faux pas from Michael Fish. Nobody pokes fun at us like we do. Whether we’re huddling around the pub’s open fire scoffing on a steaming pie; emptying our purses for this year’s must-have wellies and rain macs to style out the rain; urgently pulling sickies (aka ‘snowed-in’) to dash out with a sledge; or panic-buying disposable barbecues and sprinting for the beach for what could potentially be the only sunny day of the year, there’s no denying that being British comes with innumerable rites and rituals according to the weather. Our calendars are brimming with annual events we wouldn’t want to miss, rain or shine, heat or hail: it’s not talking about the weather but braving it that is the Great English Tradition. “I’ve heard the weather there is terrible” is something I hear a lot. Yes, it may be terrible, but there’s an associated activity for the best and the worst of it and everything in between. There is a general indifference to the weather here, and that makes me miss home.

Roger Scruton (England: An Elegy, 2000) claims a demise of traditional Englishness and miserably declares that there’s nothing to replace it, while Krishnan Kumar (The Making of English National Identity, 2003) states that the English have never in fact had a strong sense of themselves. And just to twist the knife Kate Fox claims that our rites of passage leave a lot to be desired. You’re telling me between them they don’t own a barbecue, paddling pool, gazebo, sledge, wellington boots or fluffy dressing gown? Poor writers, how silly they must feel, they published their books before the wonderful year of 2012 which saw the United Kingdom celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and host the Olympics. In your face, global recession of 2008, everybody I know celebrated quintessential British living that year. And you know what, the sun even shone (not that it would have mattered).

Disclaimer: yes, I use English and British interchangeably. I know the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish would probably take some issue with this, but for me, I’m both without distinction.