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Travel in music: Chapter 34 - 2010-2012, Mexico

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!


2010-2012 – Chapter 34 | Towards the middle of 2010, an opportunity arose to move to Mexico. The consulting firm I worked for gave my direct boss responsibility over the Latin American offices, because of the success he had had in building up the African practice in Cape Town. He knew I spoke Spanish and loved Latin America so he asked me if I wanted to look after the Mexican office. This was a bigger decision than all other previous moves. We had spent four years digging roots in South Africa and I was no longer alone. I would be dragging a family along and taking Leanne away from her beloved radio career. Luckily, I had married an adventurer and she did not hesitate long in supporting this new change wholeheartedly. She signed up to Spanish lessons and encouraged to me to take up the job.

I went ahead on my own to scout our new surroundings, find a suitable place to live and a crèche for Guy. The change of scenery was monumental. Cape Town is a sleepy little jewel, surrounded by the best nature has to offer. From the gentle slopes of a mountain time has chiseled to scenic perfection, its leafy neighborhoods gaze upon the wild, cold currents of the southern Atlantic crashing into white sand beaches and rocky coves. In contrast, Mexico City is a sprawling urban metropolis of 22 million people. Almost nothing is visible of the original Tenochtitlan the Aztecs built on a lake in 1325, except the canals in Xochimilco and the excavated ruins of the main temple. Invading Spaniards leveled it completely two centuries later, drained the lake and laid the foundation of Mexico’s modern capital on the resulting swamp. Nowadays, 1.500 km2 of concrete jungle surround the Zócalo, the historical town center. That represents an area barely smaller than Mauritius or three times bigger than Malta. The first thing you notice when you reach Mexico is how long you are flying above city lights; even from the sky, you cannot make out its boundaries.

In this modern, emerging city, whose population grew sevenfold over five decades, authenticity was nevertheless easy to find. We settled on Coyoacán precisely because of its historical quaintness. The neighborhood, once a village in the southern outskirts of the capital, had an endearing bohemian feel. Frida Kahlo once lived here, as did Octavio Paz and Leon Trotsky. Musicians, writers, intellectuals, academics, and film industry professionals are still its main inhabitants today. On the weekends, Coyoacán’s population swelled with foreign and Mexican tourists, who loved to linger on the old twin square in its center, walk its cobblestone streets and stroll its markets. We rented a cute, colonial house with arched windows and a rooftop verandah on the intersection of Convento and Mártires Irlandeses streets, named after the martyrs of the Saint Patrick’s battalion who had famously deserted the US army and crossed enemy lines to fight alongside the Mexicans in the battle of Churubusco.

The ghosts of this historical episode were popping up in the pages of Serna’s El Seductor de la Patria, the biographic novel on Santa Anna I was busy reading then. I evoked them as well with the staff of “El Rey del Taco”, the local hole-in-the-wall taquería on División Del Norte where I ate my dinner every night before Leanne and Guy joined me. They're the ones who told me why volunteers played bagpipes on the forecourt of the convent on Sundays. Walking home from the taquería, I met my neighbor one evening. The next day, I was dancing at a Día de Los Muertos party in the rehearsal studio under her flat with a boisterous crowd. They remained our core group of friends throughout our two-year stay, even after we moved out of Coyoacán to Condesa to shorten my commute to work. When they were not showing us a new area of the city or taking us out to a puppetry or theater performance, we spent time cooking and playing boardgames on endless afternoons and evenings. Mexico may have bestowed us many, many gifts, their friendship is certainly the one we have cherished the most.

Friendliness was just a staple quality of Mexico. It poured out of everywhere. Some of my colleagues became close friends but it also came from unlikely sources. I regularly took the same taxis from the stand behind my office. After a few conversations veered towards football, the drivers ended up inviting me to play in their very official taxi Sunday league. I played religiously, every weekend. They loved to remind me I was the first “foreign hire” in the Liverpool team of the Benito Juárez amateur championship. Likewise with a French ex-colleague, now married to a Mexican. Their family welcomed us into their cosmopolitan group of friends and soon we were regularly attending kiddies birthday parties and restaurant outings in their company.

Our family grew in Mexico. Guy became an adorable little toddler who gobbled down chapulines (crickets) with relish and blabbered animatedly with strangers. The first word he said was “taco”. In our street market, he was a favorite of the stall owners who would shower him with candy in spite of our helpless rebukes. When his little brother Max joined our household, he would sing lullabies to him in Spanish. Because he was born on Mexican soil, Max actually holds Mexican nationality. To this day, it remains a badge of honor. When he was about six, I challenged him and claimed that holding a passport did not mean much since he had only spent the first year of his young life in Mexico. Calmly but defiantly he just retorted, “Dad, you don’t get it, I don’t just have a passport I have a Mexican personality!”

Whatever that meant, I understand his pride. When we regretfully left in 2012, we felt we had barely skimmed the surface of what this country had to offer. Yes, we had biked every nook and cranny of Mexico City. We knew all the parks, many of the neighborhood markets, most of the museums. We were regulars of the Cineteca and the Zoo. We knew what to sing when beating the piñatas and when blowing birthday candles. We had eaten a thousand new and strange delicacies, from escamoles (ant eggs) or mole at the very traditional San Angel Inn, to tacos de barbacoa or nopal, or empanadas de camarón from the street stalls. On the Riviera Maya, we had lounged on Puerto Morelos’ beaches, marveled at the Tulum and Chichen Itza archeological sites and dived in the cenotes. We had visited the colonial towns of Mérida, Taxco, San Miguel de Allende, Puebla, Tepoztlán, Cuernavaca and others. We had attended dozens of live gigs: Lila Downs on the Coyoacán square, Buena Vista Social Club at the Plaza de Toros, Pearl Jam and Radiohead at the gigantic Foro Sol, or Natalia Lafourcade and Rodrigo y Gabriela at the more intimate Plaza Condesa, to name but a few. Yet we felt like we would need another three lifetimes at least to discover more of Mexico’s infinite cultural wealth – and perhaps four to translate all the ‘chilangismos’ from Café Tacuba’s emblematic Chilanga Banda.


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