Madrid magic


For years now I have nursed within me a great fantasy about the Mediterranean region encompassing Spain, South of France, Italy, Greece, Turkey – the so-called gateway between “East and West” and North Africa – specifically Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.

Like most fantasies this one is fuelled by incorrigible romanticism, fed by fragmented, rose-tinted images descending thick and fast from travel brochures and magazines, books, movies and travelers tales. Visions of olive groves; orange scented, well laid out gardens, in European or Arabic style; beautiful white washed villas with over flowering window boxes; miles of sandy beaches; fast cars being driven smartly along picturesque, verdant mountain roads by Sophia Loren in those oversized sunglasses and that undersized dress; gorgeous old churches and mosques, beautiful palaces, museums and theatres surfeit with “history and culture,” good food, luscious fruit, great wines, and most of all, a balmy climate. And the amazing quality of light in these countries! That mellow, magical luminescence that the Impressionists strove to capture and indeed, succeeded.

I once briefly met a Turkish man who told me that the temperature range in his country was 10-25˚ C. Heaven, I sighed! I who have lived mostly through dripping, sweaty Mumbai summers, or that other variety of Indian summer – the blazing, hot and dry, continental killers. (In Mumbai, when it rains it pours.) I who now live in a city where minus 10˚C is the average winter temperature, and where these windy horrors last nearly half the year.

When I was in the Mediterranean, I would walk down the pebble stone path of an ancient city, my skin caressed by just that right amount of sunlight, a pleasing breeze teasing my hair, ever so lightly, while my eyes feasted on an architectural wonder. No gloves, no scarf, no layer upon layer of clothing, nor the constant effort to find shade, wipe a sweaty brow, quench a withering throat – would mar my triumphant journey of discovery, of what is surely one of the most live-able regions on the planet.

A dreary dawn

Eight a.m., Madrid. It is pitch dark and misty. The streetlights are on. The sun is still fast asleep. Like me, it seems to be on holiday. I have flown in the night before from Ottawa and installed myself in the hotel from where the conducted tour I have booked myself on is to begin, a day later. Madrid lies before my eyes, pale and limp.

I swoon like a rejected heroine in an old Bollywood film, say like Madhubala in Mughal-E -Azam, after she is dumped into a dank prison, her love affair with the crown Prince having been exposed.

I had planned to start my Madrid tour with a picnic at the famous Retiro Park, described by the Lonely Planet guide as a one-time “preserve of kings, queens and their intimates.” But now I must change my plan and head directly for the even more famous Prado Museum.

Experienced Canadian friends have warned me that it would be cold and damp in Spain. It is December after all. But the meaning of their words failed to reach me; my head was firmly in the clouds. A romantic is essentially a delusional creature, spurning facts and mundane reality, s/he must cling to illusions at all cost, and rapidly build new ones as the old ones splinter and crash.

Some people I will later meet on my conducted tour of Spain, Portugal and Morocco, pronounced that Madrid is unremarkable. I for one don’t know what they are talking about. Here is a perfectly lively city, choc-a-bloc with old buildings, some stately, some beautiful and some just old; museums, bustling boulevards, cafes and nightlife. People stop and chat with each other right in the middle of a pavement. And besides, it houses the incomparable Prado. What more could one ask for?

Madrid has the reassuring familiarity of a Great City – a Mumbai, or a New York or a Toronto. A Paris. An Amsterdam, a Mexico City. I know how to get around these places; how to make the most of them. Yes, people in such cities don’t give a damn about you. And why should they? Big cities are not made for sentimentalists or shrinking violets. They are almost without exception brash, loud and uncaring. But also fun loving, party animals. Luckily I have a similar personality!

The Prado – an enchanted garden of art

The Prado is a huge 18th century building, set a little back from the main road. It was built to house a natural history museum but ended up instead as Napoleon’s cavalry barracks for a while! Since 1819 it has been the repository of Spain’s considerable artistic wealth with a collection of 7000 European paintings. Less than half are actually on view at any given time. That still makes for a heck of a lot of paintings. No wonder I spent eight ecstatic hours here, gaping and at times gasping at the works of renowned Spanish artists like Velazquez, Goya, El Greco, Murillo, Zurbaran, Cano and Ribera as well as the mind blowing work of Flemish artist Bosch (the Garden of Delight among others), Rubens, Van Dyck, besides Italian, German, French, British and Dutch artists.

I have been looking at paintings for many years now and reading up on art history a bit. I find it extremely rewarding and pleasurous to let my eye roam over a complex work of art and then, having taken in much of the detail, to look upon it as a whole. Or sometimes, the other way around.

Why is this rewarding? There are many reasons. Visual art allows for escape, as well as a sense of freedom and mystery that few other art forms seem to allow. Literature, theatre, film uses words, hence are inherently less mysterious and tantalizing, as compared to painting. The lack of words also makes escapism possible. As a writer I essentially deal in words and painting liberates me from this marketplace of language. Suddenly the mind is freed up to speculate, to puzzle, to admire and to immerse itself in the sensuous act of looking, wordlessly.
What about dance you may ask? Isn’t it another wordless wonder? Dance is fleeting, at least on stage, but the static quality of paintings and photographs means you can visit them again and again, to add newer levels of meaning and insight, which simply cannot be fully captured in words.

When I view old paintings, whether inside an ancient cave temple or in a modern museum, I feel I am directly in contact with another era of human existence, almost transported into it.

This is how some of our ancestors saw the world, I think. The world not just in the tangible, but in the exciting, harder to grasp realm of metaphor, symbol, myth, belief, legend. The paintings in the Prado are definitely not “realistic.” Even the landscapes are tying to create a world that is not ordinary, but mythical. They are trying to convey a point of view, a vision.

Themes recur. There are many variations on the birth of Christ, Madonna and Child, the Adoration of the Magi, the Crucifixion, the Holy Family and the Annunciation. (This is the Biblical incident of the Archangel Gabriel appearing before the Virgin Mary to tell her that, oops; she was going to be the unwed mom of Jesus!) There are of course the monarchs – the heavily bedecked kings, queens, their progeny, their courtiers, their servants, their pets, their horses, their over decorated mansions, their possessions, etc. The layperson also makes an occasional appearance, often engaged in a trade. Christ as a child is sometimes shown in humble surroundings with his parents.

There are also the various stories of the various Saints, some of whom seem to have visions, with angels for example, appearing before them, floating in the sky. Others are involved, one way or another, with “miracles.” There are splendid nudes, their flesh sparkling and spreading – obviously not on any kind of a diet, nor even contemplating one! Some of these ladies symbolize Faith or Justice or Mercy and others are muses, etc. One intriguing painting had a stream of milk coming from the Madonna’s exposed breast and falling into the mouth of a kneeling priest!
Whoa! I wondered what Freud and his followers would make of that? This is the kind of painting that makes one realize that indeed these works of art were made in a time very different from ours. This painting is not trying to titillate. It is perhaps a depiction of Mary as the universal mother? Only an art historian would know. This is yet another image one tucks away into the subconscious. It ferments there and will someday inform a deeper appreciation of some other painting.

The backdrops of these paintings are endlessly complex – whether the scenes they depict occur indoors or out. There is drapery, often lush and elaborate, all manner of flora and fauna, shafts of light, rivers and plateaus, windows, doors, richly furnished interiors, tools of a trade. These paintings are often populated by at least 3-5 figures and sometimes by vast numbers of people.

Here are paintings commissioned by Kings to mark important events, paintings glorifying themselves and their reign. Here are family portraits and battle scenes, victory marches along with visions straight out of hell.

Just a couple of hours into this stuff and I feel as if I am on LSD. Not that I have ever taken LSD but friends have kindly described the experience to me, not to mention countless authors who have also been obliging. At this point I enter the Bosch room. Man oh man, that guy was definitely on something pretty potent when he painted his ultimately weird and fascinating images!

On to Goya: Francisco Jose Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), described by the guide as the “most extensively represented of the Spanish masters at the Prado.” Goya was a Spanish court painter whose best work was done outside of his official duties. He is known for depicting scenes of violence, especially those prompted by the French invasion of Spain (1810-14). What is hard to believe is how modern Goya’s works look! No wonder he has been called “the first of the moderns.”

The Prado collection includes large paintings depicting surprisingly cheerful pastoral scenes also done by him, etchings of that eternally Spanish subject – the bull fight, famous works done during the French invasion and the most intriguing of all – the Black Paintings, executed on the walls of Goya’s house, done in his old age after he went deaf. These paintings convey his darkest visions like Saturn devouring his son – where a wild haired, demented looking giant holds a small, headless, body just below his gaping mouth, as he looks, unseeingly, at the viewer.

Used as I am to thinking of Spain and other Western European countries as conquering nations – the colonizers – the paintings done during the French invasion are a reminder that these countries also invaded each other. The history of these invasions, particularly the incursions Spain made into North Africa and vice versa, reverberate in the art and architecture of this region. The marriage of the two cultures has led to the Moorish

I leave the Prado marveling at the European imagination, wondering how and why they had managed to go from a vision of life, rife with symbolism, to their present efficiency driven, computerized reality, and find myself pitying them for their “hyper rationality.”

Dressed for X-mas…

From the heights of the Prado I plunge into the depths of downtown Madrid – the Plaza Mayor. Oh how delightful is city planning in most European cities, which abound in beautiful and bustling “squares.” First I visit a Chocolateria in the vicinity, recommended by the Lonely Planet – certainly a very popular family hangout, where I dip strips of fried batter into a rather thin, and less than inspiring, chocolate sauce. Alas, my culinary experiences in Spain leave a lot to be desired. For my first meal out I order fried mushrooms dripping in oil and blasted with garlic (seemingly the only vegetarian item on the menu, save for a potato omelet which in hindsight would have been a better bet) and a chorizo (spicy sausage) sandwiched between two slices of dry bread. Not a good diet for a jet lagged stomach. Food here in general seems under spiced, and meaty, though I often eat hotel buffet dinners and breakfasts served up as part of my packaged tour, so it seems unfair to judge. However, I do recall a strong physical pang of regret the day we leave Morocco, arrive back in Spain, and line up for a sandwich in a small eatery. And though I heartily disapprove of Indian package tour companies who serve pure Indian vegetarian fare made with shuddh ghee, while traveling through whatever part of the world, I did long for an Indian food fix, that day. The other problem with the very lively eateries one encounters all over Spain is the volume of cigarette smoke they contain. Quite a shock after the smoke restricted pubs of Ottawa. All this brings home the fact that I have become, alas, a fussy, middle-aged, goody-two-shoes!

The chocolate does give me an energy boost, somewhat depleted after 6 hours at the Prado. I prowl the streets dazzled by the elaborate no holds barred X-mas lighting. I have seen nothing remotely like it in North America, which still has its puritan steak, despite its attempt at excess.

Suddenly, I am among a huge crowd of people – adults and children – some dressed up in masks and costumes, others handing out party hats, with a balloon seller or two thrown in. The crowd is facing what looks like a huge, toy store with a cutie-pie façade, comprising of cuckoo clocks in the shape of mini and merry toy houses. They are waiting for something to happen: some X-mas entertainment is to unfold. I can find no one who speaks English.

I duck into the toy store. Turns out to be a department store. I enter another shop. Downstairs they are mostly selling colourful Flamenco dresses in many sizes; upstairs there are costumes in a Halloween-like display. I notice one can dress up like Harry Potter or one of the characters in the series. When I come out the crowd is growing but no one has come on stage. So I decide to move on to a modern art museum called Reina Sophia.

This museum was open late and the entrance free. Here I see some great, modern works including mobiles made by Miro and Picasso’s Guernica. I also take in an exhibition titled Universo Gaudi. Antonio Gaudi is the brilliant Spanish architect (1852-1926) whose fantastic works I will be missing as the tour is not going to Barcelona – a city where the majority of the buildings he designed, stand. He is said to have freed “architecture from the laws of physics and defying gravity itself; his style is often described as a blend of neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau, but it also has surrealist and cubist elements.” I end my second day in Madrid with a hearty salad at a youthful pizzeria in the same square as the museum.

The Alhambra – a perfect vision of beauty

Spain is an ancient battleground. The Romans have swept through it and left behind distinct landmarks – bridges, half ruined monuments. Many conquerors have come after, including the Arabs. The blend of Arab and Spanish styles gives rise to Moorish architecture.

In the ancient, walled city of Toledo, which I view through a grey misty haze, are narrow cobblestone lanes, lined with brick and stone houses, roofed with tiny wrought iron balconies, with openings, here and there, that present views of a swiftly flowing river.

(I never completed this travelogue, which, if I had, would have wound its way from Toledo, through the incomparable Alhambra, going from Spain into Morocco, re-crossing the sea to Portugal, entering Spain once again, to pass through the enchanting city of Salamanca. Perhaps another time…)

Trekking diary: Algonquin National Park, Canada

17 July, 1995, 7.15 pm, Ramona Lake

Dear Amar,

Here I am in Algonquin National Park on the 1st day of a five-day trek, sitting on a cold, but dry, stone at a very nice “campsite.” It has an open, stone hearth, two metal, grill tables, two roughly wrought wooden benches and a marvellous lake view. Our tent is pitched close at hand; our clothes are drying on a line. We have a dying fire, which “O” has kept going pretty much since we got here at 1 pm. And which we used to dry our shoes on.

Have now changed my perch to a tree stump covered with raincoat, closer to the lake, partly to get away from the smoke. Our food is in a plastic bag, which is hanging from a tree. This is because bears and racoons try and get at the camper’s food at night. We’ve already had a food thief. While we were napping this afternoon, a chipmunk (like a squirrel but smaller, very cute with white and chestnut stripes) tried to get at our food bag! O chased it away and finally killed it; so persistent was it on getting our food. This is a tragedy of sorts. Two chipmunks had been running around our campsite totally fearless, all afternoon.

We walked about 8 km today – our shortest walk on this trek. But since we were partying last night it made sense to do less. (I finally organised a Holi Party where we actually played Holi! I had been waiting to hand in my thesis, and for summer to set in properly, to celebrate.)

The terrain on which we walked today was somewhat reminiscent of the Western Ghats [India] – up and down, though the trail is somewhat broader here. It has been raining and that’s what made it so Ghat-ish. It reminded me of the monsoon hikes we used to go on when I was at college. It’s definitely cooler here now than the Ghats are during the monsoons. We had four uphill climbs the steepest of which we named Rani. (O’s suggestion was Raja!) The steepest hills here are about 1700 ft. above sea level, which makes them, lower than the Western Ghats, but this is still quite hilly by Ontario standards. This is a mostly flat province.

It was a pretty manageable walk with a 25-30 pound load that I have (I am carrying all the food, plus my sleeping bag and very minimal clothes). O’s weight, with the tent, is nearly double.

Ramona Lake was beautifully misty when we arrived here. The rain stopped in the afternoon but the sky’s still grey. The lakes in Canada are gorgeous. The water is clear. The shore is lined with shapely, tall, coniferous trees, which are sharply reflected in the lake. The effect is peaceful and harmonious.

We passed numerous streams on the way. The trail was quite wet and muddy. Our first `wildlife’ sighting a hare – was spotted in the parking lot inside the Park, from where we began our walk. The unexpected treat was seeing Moose – not one, but two, grazing and drinking along the lake. These animals that look like a mixture of a cow, horse and deer are pretty large. Right now the male moose has what looks like four short horns. These will develop into spectacular antlers later in the year and will be used for aggressive combat between males, during mating season.

First we saw a small Moose, then a larger one. One of them came around from the opposite side of the lake, very close to our campsite. It must have seen/smelt us.

It’s been a wonderful day except that “O” cremated the chipmunk in our fire, against my wishes!

Noticed lots of lovely shapes, colours, patterns in the forest while walking – nature’s unique and unifying artistry!

19 July, Clara Lake

The sign for this lake is starring me in the face as I sit, gazing at the tranquil lake – home of at least the 2 loons we saw and heard since we got here. These interesting, large birds grace the Canadian $ coin (hence the Loonie!) and have many haunting calls. I just love loons who can perform amazing feats like dive 300 ft deep!

I couldn’t write yesterday. It was a tough day with rain, rain and more rain. Amplified the impression of being in the Ghats. Also brought to mind a very rainy hike in Thailand. Our bags are water resistant but not waterproof, so we had to shelter under clumps of trees during the downpours. We had just enough sunshine on arriving at our campsite at West Otter’s Paw, at about 5 pm, to dry our clothes and somewhat damp sleeping bags. It was a large, spacious campsite full of kindling – O’s a fire freak and gets one going soon after getting to camp!

But before we could make dinner there was a downpour. We piled everything into the tent and called it an early night. We munched on mixed nuts. We had had time to take a quick bath in the lake and discovered leeches between O’s toes! It freaked him out completely! I took charge and removed them, then checked my own feet. These leeches (I don’t know if there are many species) are tiny, black wriggly things except for the Mother leech who was about the size of a small coin. She was completely flat and dead looking.

We covered a distance of 16 k – twice what we’d done on day 1. The last part of this hike, from Rainbow Lake to West Otter’s Paw, was full of steep climbs and plunging descents. But the terrain was pretty. The effects of the long hike were evident today. I was exhausted after a much shorter walk, which took us through a lot of waterlogged terrain – both tiring and tiresome because you have to be mindful of every step you take. There were also fallen trees everywhere. The Park management sends a team to cut a path through these, from time to time.

As we were trying to cross a marshy area I caught my foot, ankle-deep in a bog! The mud gripped it hard and I couldn’t budge it. I sat there laughing because it’s always funny to fall (particularly if you haven’t hurt yourself). I might have been able to extricate my foot but not the shoe. O had to carry my bag across and then come back to pull my foot out by hand! The drill team arrived just as I landed in the bog. So we had help if need be. The sound of the drill and the seaplane are the only mechanical sounds you hear in the bush.

Today, at a small lake called Cashel, we saw another Moose. It seemed as unconcerned about human presence as had the other two. This Moose and the two Loons at Clara Lake are permanent residents here, more or less. O recalls coming upon them on earlier hikes through this terrain.

Clara Lake is a beautiful spot with a large rock outcrop and a river gushing by. The sound of running water is a constant here. I sat on the rocks, looking at the reflection of an interesting cloud pattern in the lake, for a long time. Also had the time to look at the river and a few species of small wildflowers that grew around here. Started reading `Watermark,’ about Venice, by Joseph Brodsky, a noble-prize winning poet. Rather pretentious, with enjoyable parts. (I brought it because it was the lightest book I had!)

This was our sunniest day. I was exhausted through it all till I took a nap in the late afternoon. There were neither people at this campsite nor the last one. We do meet trekkers on way and always stop to chat. The talk centres typically on where they’ve/ we’ve been on the trek/ how was it/ how many days are we/ they hiking and where we’re all from. The weather is of course discussed. The people we meet are friendly, but the interaction seems limited to these topics.

Discovering claustrophobia

On the first night I woke up screaming (I have no clear recollection because I was groggy) and made for the tent door, zipping it open. O panicked thinking it was a bear attack! I had been dreaming that the tent had collapsed around us. I had gone to sleep thinking how confined the space in the tent was. Waking to inky darkness confirmed my dream and so I made for the door!
What it all boils down to is that my claustrophobia (fear of confined, closed places/ spaces, apparently mom and grandma had it too) was acting up. Though I had slept in a tent, in the USA, not so long ago and not felt claustrophobic then. My friend Gill’s tent, which we’ve borrowed, is excellent – light, waterproof – but it’s small and has a low roof. The tent is bad enough by itself for claustrophobics, but it’s covered in a non-transparent plastic top sheet, which keeps the rain out, but worsens the claustrophobia!

I have started sleeping with my head near the door, the top sheet thrown back. I wake up a couple of times during the night to see the reassuring outline of trees against sky and fall asleep again. At times I fidget with the tent opening. I manage to sleep very well despite the claustrophobia, but my fidgeting keeps O awake!

Leeches, bogs, and claustrophobia – we’ve seen it all in just two days!

Food on the trek

Breakfast: flavoured pop corn cakes, tea
Mid morning snack: granola bars and/or the nut mix. Possibly herb tea
Lunch: dehydrated soups, perhaps noodles
Dinner: the most variable meal. Noodles/ rice/ couscous with peanut butter sauce.
O produced two toffees on the first day and some X-mas candy, which I stretched over the next two days. I ate a spoonful of sugar a couple of times, to appease my sweet tooth.
The food tastes divine, though we wouldn’t eat any of this in the city, save the nut mix.

20 July, Maggie Lake

This is a very large lake with a very small island, with White Pine, other tree species and rocks, at the centre. The wild looking White Pine, much painted by Canadian landscape artists, is my favourite tree here. Maggie is a popular camp, being on the smaller 32 k loop, which is often attempted by weekend trekkers. There are two other loops. The one we’re doing is 53 K and the longest is something like 78 k.

Our campsite is large, with a rocky outlook at the edge of the lake, which descends gradually into the water. The rock is pinkish with some lichen on it. It’s great to sit here and read and write. There’s a nice, wooded area on one side. There seem to be a lot of seagulls around and they’ve been cawing away. A bird we’ve heard a lot throughout this trip is the fever bird. By the way, every campsite has a pit toilet. This is North America – god forbid that you defecate in the open!

We had sun again today after we got here. The day started out wet and miserable. We packed up our tent in the rain, this morning. The soggy tent made O’s load really heavy. Walked through a lot of waterlogged terrain again. Beginning to get sick of it. A tough hike overall with 3-4 `killer’ hills. Part of the walk went through a pretty valley. We encountered lots of fallen trees again. I was much less tired today. The sun really helps; the rain and slush starts to get depressing.

O said that last night we had a chipmunk running over our tent because we hadn’t put the nut mix away in our tree bag! I slept through it all as usual. O is also a rain watcher and hears it minutes before it descends. A useful thing, that.

We identified this campsite because of a pair of boots at the entrance. An army chap we’d met earlier today had recommended it to us. In all there are some half a dozen sites at Maggie. We burnt the boots in our fire.

We saw a raccoon earlier today. These aggressive, rat-like animals are found in the city as well. But the ones in the wild seem much larger. We had a visitor who told us that two bears – mother and cub – had been spotted earlier today. They are not uncommon at this camp. I have mixed feelings about encountering a bear face to face though I’d like to see one from a distance! The way to drive bears and raccoons away is to make a din. We wear whistles around our necks at all times (except when sleeping.) These should help in the noise-making department! O pointed out the bony remains of a Moose by the trail. It must have died in winter. We see Moose poop on the side of the trail quite often. Looks like small, black eggs – such symmetry! We have also spotted Moose, deer and possibly bear paw marks.

25 July, Toronto

The trek was an intense experience. It’s taken me quite long to “emerge” from it. I still feel `different’ days after our return. Tiredness set in on the last day and the various little tender spots on my feet started to act up all together, causing me to limp for the last half hour! We stopped at two streams on way. It was our first sunny day and the walk felt hot.

We met lots of people going in, as it was Friday. On emerging out of the woods we bathed in the cool stream, under a bridge. Then we got into the car.

It was weird moving at that speed (100-120 kmph on the highway) when we had managed to cover just 53 k in five days! We ate pizza at an Italian restaurant, which felt very quite heavy. It felt funny even opening the door, as I had not seen a building for 4 days! The pizza we ate was as much food as we’d have eaten during a whole day in the forest. We also stopped for ice cream.

The ATM concept seemed weird too as we hadn’t used any money on the trek. (We’d paid $4.25 per night, camping charges before setting out.)

The real culture shock set in, in Toronto. The buildings seemed terribly closely packed. The place seemed overcrowded, shabby and ugly! I have never thought of Toronto in that way before. On the subway, the next day, I felt uncomfortable because so many eyes turned to me when I entered the compartment. There were shiny surfaces everyone, and mirrors! I hadn’t seen my face for 4 days!

At first I didn’t want to answer the phone though I was glad to see my neighbourhood and my home. I would’ve liked to have stayed on in the bush longer, thought I had started getting tired of walking in the slush.

Have been somewhat slowed down since my return, though I feel I am getting back into city groove fast enough. Want to try and walk every day. O’s been running every morning!

This is a travelogue-letter or a letter-travelogue. Both letters and travelogues are about bridging distances, short or long, physical or metaphorical. And so the two forms merge easily.

I WENT TO MEXICO FOR A WEEK IN MY FEBRUARY STUDY BREAK. (Meckhiko, to the Mexicans). To me Meckhiko is a vast, colourful, beautiful, tropical country.

From this short trip I developed a somewhat romantic view of the place. I remain largely ignorant of Mexican history and culture, though I have some sense of it and a very incomplete, but emerging, picture of countries South of the USA. I think what I got from my trip was a strong flavour of Mexico: many heady whiffs of it.

Though I got just a glimpse, I feel that I had an intimate and intense relationship with Mexico while I was there. (Mere romanticism? But then, I am a very romantic traveller.)

Tropical (s)kin

A sense of familiarity enveloped me soon after I got off the plane. At a tangible level, it was the tropical terrain and the climate that made me feel at home. These struck me forcefully because I had lived in Canada for six months, through a deepening winter.

But I think that the empathy ran deeper than that. When I went to Florida in 1990, after three months in Canada, for instance, there was that familiar topography again, but the ambience was wholly American. Mexico is closer to the chaos, the pulsating rhythm of India and the “developing world” than the “West”. Though of course, it is very, very different from India.

I felt the need to experience and enjoy both the similarity and the difference. At least some of my understanding of these dualities was subjective. It was akin to a private and pleasurous humming inside me that made me more responsive to all the new stimuli that surrounded me. This interest in comparison is one of my motivations for travelling, for wanting to see the world.

Enough of these “metaphysical musings!” This is supposed to be a “fun” piece, reflecting, at least, some of the energy, excitement and vitality I experienced when I’m on the road. Essentially, after my Mexican sojourn, my interest in South America, which was acute to begin with, has sharpened.

I chose Mexico because it seemed cheap (it wasn’t, but it was affordable) and because my friend Gillian, from my department, is there right now, getting some field experience with a Mexican NGO.

I flew to Mexico City (Mexicans refer to their mostly infamous capital simply as Mexico just as the Québecois refer to Quebec City simply as Quebec) on a cold (but what else?) Monday morning. At Mexico airport, one of the most fortunate coincidences in my life occurred – I ran into Gillian in the washroom. She was there to see a colleague off with Kelly, a Canadian spending time at the same NGO, and Margarita, her Mexican boss.

Margarita is an affectionate and lively person (confounded at first by my English, which she found too “fast”, according to Gillian) who took us to the central square (zocalo in Spanish) and then to a very late (Mexican style) lunch to a vegetarian eatery (a novelty of sorts in this country) where we had a delicious and wholesome meal, CHEAP!

The larger than life zocalo

The zocalo, literally meaning pedestal, is the largest in the Western hemisphere. (I finally managed to perfect the pronunciation of zocalo and be comprehensible, after several days. The word has a sort of lilt in it. It became a kind of magical, “open sesame” word which helped me get around on public transport in the Mexican towns I visited.)

The zocalo in Mexico city is a HUGE square flanked by the most imposing and important buildings in the capital, chiefly La Cathedral Metropolitana (enormous) built between 1563 and 1813 and El Palacio Nacional, once Cortes’ official residence. All the present structures are built unapologetically on the ruins of the Aztec empire. The remnants of the ruins are visible in one corner of the square. This used to be Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire.

The Aztec ruins (Templo Mayor) constitute a temple dedicated to the Aztec sun and rain gods. On my return to Mexico City a week later, I witnessed a sort of Indian bonding ritual at this site. A small crowd (there were chairs arranged in a semi-circle, so this was an organised event) had gathered to watch three Indians in traditional costume, worshipping, facing the ruins of the Templo Mayor. They carried incense pots and knelt and moved around the enclosed space to live music.

More people, similarly dressed, arrived in a bus a little later. Some of them looked Anglo-Saxon. I asked Ketza, a Mexican, Indian guy I’d met in my hotel, about this. He said the whites were probably expressing solidarity with the cause of the native Indians, to reaffirm their mangled heritage, by dressing like them and participating in the ritual.

Another time, in Jalapa (pronounced Halapa), I glimpsed a similar sort of ritual through a bus window. It was taking place at the foot of a statue of a stereotypical native Indian, feathered headdress and al. (I think he was on horseback.) There was the Indian costume again, worn by a woman, and incense, and garlands of flowers.

All this reminded me of the African artefacts and clothes I’d seen in Harlem, in New York – the Malcolm X caps, pirated tapes of “black music” tapes, incense sticks (good old agarbattis, glossily packaged!) small perfume bottles (they look exactly like attar bottles and probably are). All the paraphernalia for an ethnic revival coupled with the New Age back to roots and nature type of aspirations.

The zocalo was ALIVE, THROBBING, LIT-UP, ANIMATED that night, my last night in Mexico City. One whole side (and a broad side that is!) was occupied with protesters with banners and loudspeakers – men, women, children too, who seemed to be camping in front of the official buildings. They had rigged up temporary awnings for an all-night vigil. Nearby was a stage, probably part of this demonstration.

Ketza told me later that they were demanding housing from the government. There is an acute housing shortage here. (And overcrowding, pollution, a la Bombay, though of course nothing ever seems to touch the extremes that typify India.) Ketza, for example, lives in this downtown hotel because this is his only option. There was another couple in my hotel that had lived there for 17 years!

I witnessed other demos in Mexico City. One was framed dramatically against a large park in the city centre which had, on one side of it, this Romanesque, semi-circular, marble creation with pillars and “noble” statuary.

Another corner of the zocalo houses an informal bazaar where native Indians sell their crafts in makeshift stalls. I shopped for a bag, a shirt and a scarf here and bargained using my fingers and writing down figures! The Mexican shopkeepers bargained in a shy manner that I found quite charming. On the whole they seemed to me a very friendly, helpful, relaxed, happy-go-lucky people.

Riveting Riviera

I walked, late in the evening, into a couple of the official buildings around the zocalo. The most interesting is the El Palacio Nacional because it houses some of the vast murals of Diego Riviera. There are pre-colonial scenes of market places and magical cities and native Indians at work and play, and murals depicting the arrival of the colonists. They are greatly detailed and I saw them somehow as miniature paintings blown up a thousand fold, because there are the shared features of presenting multiple perspectives at once (flattened perspective as well) and the decorative element.

I saw other murals by him and other contemporary Mexican artists in the very arty opera house, which is all copper, chrome and glass, and seemed to my architecturally uninformed eye, a hodgepodge of design styles. The murals are completely riveting and it’s difficult to focus on smaller works of art (which the opera house also displays) after you’ve seen them. Apparently, Riviera and his fellow artists used them to “teach” Mexican history, particularly pre-colonial history, to a largely illiterate people. So they are obviously political in intent. Mexico seemed like a politicised and politically active country – a feature that I really liked.

The murals are obviously still used for that purpose. In one of the museums, I stumbled upon a group of children being taught Mexican history (in Spanish naturally) through what I thought was an interesting technique. The room was darkened and they illuminated selected parts of one of Rivera’s murals (the colours are so bright and bold that I had a sense of the whole painting even in the dark) and commented on them.

The little I saw of modern Mexican art seemed to suggest a diversity of styles, though there was a definitive inclination towards the figurative, particularly portraiture and a use of bold colours and lines.


One interesting place I chanced upon in Mexico City was a subway station, which functioned as a sort of a science gallery, with satellite pictures of Mexico and some North American cities and pictures of outer space and the planets, on the walls of one of the tunnels. One portion of the subway roof was designed to be a planetarium and as I was walking under it, the lights dimmed and it was like being not under a night sky, but in a sci-fi film.

On my first night in Mexico, I took an overnight bus from Mexico City to Jalapa, arriving there at 4 am! A prompt taxi service (operating from the bus terminus) took me through quaintly winding, up and down streets, as dawn was breaking, to a cheap but well located hotel. (I was using a guidebook written by Berkeley students, which I found very good.)

It was exciting to arrive there like that and I had an instant “good feeling” about Jalapa, which was confirmed as I spent the day looking around.

I am writing this at least a week later and my mood is far from upbeat. Bombay witnessed, indeed participated in, a series of bomb explosions yesterday that killed 200 people. I couldn’t help thinking that someone I used to know there may well have died in this random violence.

The violence that typifies so much of Indian life today is now at our doorstep, it seems. It’s almost in our homes. Today, I went to a very good panel discussion on “Democracy and secularism in India” held at York University. I couldn’t have spent the day more profitably. It was important to talk to other Indians about the current crisis in India as well as to analyse it.

I feel I have to start moving beyond shock, sadness and outrage to do something. One of the questions the panel posed to the people at this event is: What can we (Indians, people of Indian descent in Canada) do?”

Jalapa. Jalapa was described by my guidebook as a quiet, university town, and so it is. It has the second-best archaeology museum in the country, which I visited. I was struck once again by the expressive power of “tribal” (native or indigenous are the words used in these parts) arts and crafts.

In Jalapa I ate pancakes with condensed milk at a roadside vendor, and a yummy sandwich – torta – that had a special type of melted mild cheese, peppers, avocado, onion, and cost only 2500 pesos. (The staple is tortilla, corn roti. Practically every other dish is made of corn. Another favourite is beans. Marinated hot peppers, which are not unlike Indian green chillies but sort of fatter and very flavourful, are served with every dish.)

The Mexicans seem to have a desperate sweet tooth. The towns are thick with HUGE pastry shops, plus there are many other types of sweets. One milk-based sweet I ate was remarkably like a pedha.

Vivacious Veracruz

The next morning I went to Veracruz, a “hot, sweaty and alive” port town as my guidebook put it. It was and is Mexico’s chief port of entry, which Cortes used to enter this part of the world. There is a big fort just off the coast. Veracruz is supposed to be influenced by Spanish, Caribbean and indigenous cultures. The people are called Jericho and have a reputation of being happy-go-lucky.

The place was ALIVE, throbbing, pulsating with energy when I got there. It was carnival time (mardi gras) and there were people hanging around all over, in sidewalk cafes and the many gardens that dot the town, waiting for some action, which was a procession that took place around sunset. It was unreal – the colour, the costumes, the kids and young women and sometimes men all dressed up, either dancing down the street to the sound of individual bands or posing on floats. There were a lot of kiddies dressed up as kings and queens and church dignitaries and what have you. There were clowns with painted faces.

I tried to find out if there was any profound symbolism behind the fiesta. It had its beginnings in paganism and the rites of spring and the general idea is to banish unhappiness and bury bad humour. (It is also celebrated in a big way in New Orleans at the same time and of course in other parts of South America.)

It’s a mindless “bash” – unlike our own steeped in myth festivals. And why not? As if you need to justify having fun!

Before seeing the parade, I walked around the port area and through the markets, succumbing to my nth hat (actually I only had 6 at that point) – a mock-captains cap. In the main garden, I sat down to listen to the local music – the marimba – very sensuous jazz.

Here I was approached by a Mexican video photographer who mistook me for Spanish and who wanted to take shots of the city (he was covering the carnival) with my face in the foreground! I was pronounced very bonita (pretty) and asked if I was considered pretty in India. I assured him that India was brimming with good-looking women, doing my bit to promote tourism, you might say.

To make a very non-politically correct statement, the Mexicans tend to be somewhat overweight and are not particularly good looking. I suppose my looks took on quite a shine against this backdrop! I got comments in the streets in Mexico (in Spanish of course) but there was none of the physical harassment so common in urban India.

I was taken for Mexican – a boon – because they hardly get any South Asians here. People were quite “charmed” once it was established that I was Indian. They know very little about the country and the exotic image seems to dominate. Some Indian god men (including the Hare Krishnaites) have made it to the country. Later a farmer I met in Cuernavaca, through Gill’s NGO asked me about snake charmers!

My plan was to go from Veracruz to Cuernavaca, which is where Gillian and Margarita were. Enroute, I wanted to stop at Puebla, famed for its beautiful tile-work architecture, its colonial look, its food (stuffed cactus leaves said my guidebook) and its ceramic art.

Through a bus window

The scenery from Jalapa to Puebla was wonderful and varied. We went from lush green stretches to drier vegetation – open scrub dotted with cacti, descending from hilly terrain to plateaus and plains.

There are just the most beautifully symmetrical, conical, volcanic mountains in parts of Mexico. I saw one framed beside the setting sun, out of my bus window. It was like a Japanese painting.

You also pass through some very pretty towns. The bigger cities are much more westernised than the smaller towns, and you see tacky versions of North American malls in them. I parked my bag in a locker at the bus terminus at Puebla and explored the zocalo area for a few hours. I also went into a sweet shop and ate a whole lot of sweets, the most unusual being a dipped in sugar syrup lemon peel, stuffed with shredded, sugary coconut.

Then I went on to Cuernavaca, where I got a hearty welcome from Gillian and Margarita, and made friends with Kelly. There was quite an activist community at the NGO where Gillian worked, consisting mostly of Americans.

The next day we joined a group of Canadian farmers to look at the problems Mexican farmers are facing, in the outskirts of the city. Their water supply is badly polluted. They are well organised and vocal, but aren’t getting any help from the government. (Familiar story?)

That evening we went to a great nightclub (picked out from the trusty old guidebook of course) called Sammana, which played very good Latin American music and some American pop/disco stuff as well. I wore a bindi and so did Gillian and Kelly (bindis are a hit here. I should have got more of them.) We were let in free because we were three women alone. It was a typical Mexican yuppie hangout with waiters in bow ties and a women offering to freshen make-up, for a small fee, in the washroom.

Next day, I pottered around Cuernavaca. The crafts market with its painted pottery, masks, exquisite silver jewellery, etc, was particularly pleasing. I bought a pair of earrings.

All the Mexican towns I visited had one really huge central garden, besides other smaller parks. This really makes for habitable cities. The gardens are full of courting couples and chess players. Couples court openly and continuously in public places in Mexico, helping keep the “Latinos are hot-blooded” myth alive.

A friendly river resort

In the evening, I took a bus to Las Estacas, Morelos, to a resort, which Margarita’s family owns. It is situated on the prettiest riverbank I’ve ever seen (the water is crystal clear) among sugarcane fields and palm trees. We were put up and fed for free! It was good to spend time with a Mexican family.

Sometime in the afternoon, a troupe of Mexican dancers arrived from the countryside, dressed in traditional costume. They danced their way through the resort.

We also witnessed a birthday ceremony. A paper mache “pineapple” – piñata – was filled with sweets and hung from a line. The kids took turns at breaking it open with blows from a stick. The shower of sweets feels very festive indeed.

I gave Margarita Indian recipes and later sent her Indian spices through Gillian’s sister who went to Mexico. She loves Indian food. In fact, she had a suggestion: that I should help her set up an Indian food restaurant in Mexico!

Next day, one of her aunt’s drove me, through very scenic terrain, to the sound of opera and French music, to Mexico City. The rest of the story has already been told except for one thing.

One morning, I visited Teotihuacan, a pre-Aztec ruin, just outside Mexico City. The ruins contain MASSIVE pyramids, one of them being the third largest in the world (the pyramid of the Sun.) The smaller, pyramid of the moon is dedicated to a female deity. It’s an awe-inspiring site/sight. According to Ketza, the Spanish (and other European powers) started colonising the Americas when native Indian civilisations were at the peak of their glory. Who knows how things would have turned out otherwise?

On my last evening, I went to La Opera, an elegant bar-restaurant with old-fashioned décor, which was a hop, skip and jump from my hotel. There were musicians serenading tables and a bunch of happy, relaxed people, good food and great ambience. When told I was Indian, the waiter smiled at me all through the evening and as I was leaving, seized my hand and said something about New Delhi, in Spanish of course.

I was in supreme good spirits as I went from La Opera briefly to the zocalo, which was quieter that night. I gazed for some time at the good-looking La Cathedral Metropolitana, which has quite a presence at the zocalo, and then returned to my room, humming a song.

I felt so much at home in Mexico that after I boarded the plane to return to Canada, I asked myself: Why the hell is everyone speaking English here? What’s going on? I had trouble “recognising” the white stuff on the ground (snow, of course) on my ride home from Toronto airport. So that was Mexico- ohhh la la!

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