When you've been fed a diet of film and TV stereotypes about Mexico, from the innocent mouse Speedy Gonzales with his cry of 'Andale! Andale! Arriba! Arriba!', to the ubiquitous seedy, untrustworthy bad guy from spaghetti westerns, tipping his sombrero back from his face with the troublesome end of a gun, you have to blink a few times when confronted with the reality. Hey - Mexican people are just the same as my people.
Sure, there are differences. In my role as a woman on the doorstep of la troisieme age, the kinds of things that strike me as really different from my British upbringing are connected with home life. I present them here, these Mexican ways, not to say they're wrong. Just different. Examples:
- Babies must not be exposed to the air. They must be obscured by a blanket when in the outside world. The blanket must be draped over the baby, e.g. if baby's in the mother's arms, the blanket will be draped over him from the mother's shoulder.
- Should baby be outside in his pram, the hood must be up and the blanket - or a jacket, if no blanket is available - should be draped over the opening so the baby is hidden from view - and air.
- Air is also dangerous in the cot. Blanket must be balanced across the cot sides, encasing the baby within a safe tent-like cocoon. It is acceptable to leave a gap at the top so that the parents can see the baby's head.
Here are some others:
- A baby - no matter how new - who is not wearing earrings must be a boy.
- Baby clothes must be washed by hand in a separate sink and kept separate from the adults' washing. You may use the washing machine to rinse and spin but not in the company of adult laundry.
- Dishes are washed in the sink under running water.
- Lunch is the main meal of the day and is eaten about three o'clock.
- House windows can be opened to let in the heat. (But watch out for the air)
- Ground floor windows are secured de rigueur with immovable iron grilles. Try importing that habit to Scottish tenement flats and see how long it is before another fire in tinderbox city leads to a landlord prosecution.
In addition to these cultural differences are some which seem to me to make perfect sense. Examples:
Cleanliness is paramount. The recent Swine Flu scare has led to an even higher campaign for people to wash their hands regularly. When visiting a selection of public toilets (I am a woman with her foot on the doorstep to la troisieme age, as I said) not one person coming out of a cubicle skipped out of the loo without first giving her hands a good scrub. Compare that with Glasgow's Buchanan Bus Station toilets and I know who will get my rosette.
- Water is abundant and comes out of the tap; drinking water is sold and delivered in blue plastic water-cooler butts by men shouting, 'Agua! Agua pura!'
- Apples and tomatoes can be washed in tap water before eating but lettuce and strawberries have to be steeped for ten to fifteen minutes in tap water supplemented by eight to ten drops of some kind of iodine disinfectant. (Ruth told me strawberries can have a bug in them that paralyses your brain but I think she was joking. I think she was.)
- Fruit is so abundant and inexpensive that a blender becomes an essential everyday item, enabling the simple preparation of fresh papaya juice to drink with lunch, strawberry milkshakes (minus the brain-freezing bug, of course). And with entire stalls in the markets filled with red tomatoes, there's never any need to open a tin to make tomato sauce.
Perhaps the most interesting of all is the poor - a far cry from 'the improvident poor' of Britain's past, and probably even present (but I'll leave that discussion for another day). The poor in Mexico City work for their living. An endless, thankless round of labouring, hand to mouth.
Whether they're on the minimum wage of 50 pesos a day (£2.50), perhaps in a smart uniform, guiding you as you park your car in the posh new shopping centre underground carpark; or whether they're threadbare and threading their way between cars stopped at the traffic lights, offering for sale a selection of phone cards, disposable lighters or chewing gum; or whether they're spraying your windscreen with soapy water from a soft drink bottle then squeedgee-ing the foam away for a few pesos a car before the stampede begins as the lights change, they're working to earn their way. Even four and five year olds tout beads or simple toys round the restaurant tables, constantly appealing. In both senses. Surely someone must buy their charms.
As I type this, I can hear, in the near distance, sirens wailing, aeroplanes and helicopters passing and the spiky punctuation marks I've been told are probably gun shots. Perhaps some stereotypes may hold good.
But I haven't yet heard a mouse shout, 'Andale! Arriba!'
Interspersed with this text are some photos we took in one city oasis called Parque Mexico.