Life in ruins: Mexico

Karen Kissane digs through the complex layers of Mexico’s modern life and discovers ancient mystery and wonder.

The young man with gelled hair and artfully torn jeans leaves his girlfriend on the sidelines of the dance floor and takes up with his little sister. He holds himself proudly, with the machismo of the Latino, as his hands move her and spin her around. She is half his height but holds herself like a princess, concentrating so as not to miss a step, her face alight.Near them is a small Mayan man in black pants so old they have shiny patches. In his pork-pie hat he wears a jaunty feather. He holds his stout wife as she snake-hips her way through the salsa. Beside them is a four-year-old with her mother and grandmother, swaying to the music, her gaze distant, her body moving with the rhythms of the band.They all dance under a simple awning erected in the square outside one of Oaxaca’s churches. The Mexican evening is warm and benevolent, like the mood of the people sitting in rows of plastic seats to watch and clap and gossip. Oaxaca is a big town but this is a village moment; when communal happiness seems a simple thing, easily grasped.Two weeks later, when I was long gone, charming Oaxaca exploded into riots quelled with troops and tear gas. The riots are linked to those of last year when teachers went on strike and “occupied” the centre of town. Back then, gunmen allegedly killed three people and the federal government sent in 3000 troops to end the protest by force. The clampdown saw several protesters killed and fuelled local fury about social inequity.

As with so much of Mexico, the beautiful city of Oaxaca is bewitching and deeply volatile. This is a country in which history may be built upon or even subsumed, but it is rarely forgotten; in which a sense of injustice at oppression runs deep, through many layers of society; and in which death is celebrated in a way that makes life more vivid.

The ancient ruins are magnificent, the modern plumbing erratic. The humour comes dry and the margaritas come in goblets the size of fishbowls. For the Western tourist seeking relief from Anglo blandness, it doesn’t get much better than Mexico.

It didn’t seem like that at first. My first stop, Mexico City, or Distro Federal, is grey and crowded. The severe architecture of its huge square, the Plaza de la Constitucion (known as the Zocalo), bounded by the presidential palace and the cathedral, is grand but dour. The charm of the shops in its historic precinct is compromised more than a little by the security guards with submachine-guns lounging in doorways – not just in the high-end shops such as jewellers but even in chemists and bakeries.

One night, when I’m tucked in bed with a guidebook, the reason for the tight security becomes clear. Mugging and carjacking are common in Mexico City, and on regional roads whole busloads have been hijacked. A decade ago the country was also notorious for its kidnappings, though these have been reined in.

So I fear the worst when woken at 3am by gunfire and police sirens in the square outside. Another member of the tour pokes his head out a window and is confused by the sight of someone sitting in a fold-up chair in the middle of the chaos outside. We ask about it at the front desk next morning and are left feeling sheepish; it had been the shooting of a TV show. That is the closest any of us – six Australians travelling with a local guide, a driver and minivan – come to a crime over 15 days and 3800 kilometres in Mexico.

I learn that Mexico City wears its colours on the inside. Behind many of those dark facades of fume-stained stone is a riot of decoration – Moorish Spanish colonial tiles and arches, ironwork, fountains, paintings, balustrades.

The city holds fast to its sense of history. A statue near the hotel depicts the story of the city’s founding. The Aztecs had a legend that they would establish a great civilisation in a marshy area where they would see a cactus growing out of a rock and, perched on the cactus, an eagle eating a snake. Their priests saw this when they first arrived here and in the 14th century the Aztecs built Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City. Today the eagle, cactus and serpent appear on Mexican paper money.

As I am here on a tour of ancient sites I start to wonder about the interweaving of this old world I would visit with the modern Mexico that is all around me.

At the graceful art deco Palacio de Bellas Artes there is an exhibition of the work of Frida Kahlo, the tortured artist who painted bluntly and beautifully about unlovely things: her miscarriages, her operations, a friend’s suicide. Here, I learn about the Mexican passion for colour and for life.

At the city’s world-renowned museum of anthropology I lay my hand on a huge carved stone with a scooped-out centre in which the ancient Aztecs burned the hearts of enemies and those of their own who were sacrificed to the gods. I learn about blood-lust and the belief that death for some brings life to others.

At the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Catholic Mexico’s holiest shrine, I learn that it was once the site of Aztec worship of the mother of all the gods, Tonantzin, who was identified with the moon. The church is believed to be on the exact spot where her pyramid once stood. Some anthropologists believe that the Virgin, who is said to have appeared in visions to a native Mexican 450 years ago and left her image on a cloth, is a “christianised” Tonantzin and that this is an example of how ancient Aztec beliefs have blended with Catholicism.

Tonantzin, too, had an immaculate conception: she picked up a special feather and found herself pregnant with a magical child.

The Virgin is now a potent symbol of national identity. “Many Mexicans despise the government,” says our guide. “They change the words of the national anthem, or don’t sing it at all. But everyone stands tall and proud to sing the hymn of the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

In common with its pyramids, which can have many levels of buildings from different eras, one on top of the other, Mexico has layers.

The pyramids aren’t really pyramids, the guidebooks will tell you, because they are flat-topped and were not built as graves. Then the guidebooks tell you the pyramid of the sun at Teotihuacan, the pre-Aztec city, is the world’s third-largest pyramid.

It is more than an hour’s drive to get there, past kilometres of grey, boxy houses in the poverty-ridden outer circles of the smoky sprawl that is Mexico City. Many have steel reinforcing rods sticking up out of their flat roofs in hope of a second storey, a triumph of optimism over income.

The Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon are unprepossessing from a distance and extraordinary close up, when their scale and proportions leave humans feeling like ants. The steps on the pyramids are narrow and deep; they had to be in order for the pyramids to rise. Halfway up the smaller Pyramid of the Moon, vertigo gets the better of me. I sit down and gaze out at the temple remains that line the imposing Avenue of Death that leads to the Pyramid of the Sun. The surrounding plain stretches to the horizon.

The view is commanding. I feel like lord of all I survey. “This,” I think, “must be what it feels like to hold power. Heady. Fierce. Invincible.”

The hubris lasts right up until the baking heat makes me want to get down, a task that requires me to abandon all dignity and step sideways at a snail’s pace.

Several days a year, the sun’s trajectory sends the Moon pyramid black and lights the Sun pyramid golden. The ancients who built this city 2000 years ago, who knew so much about the sun and the moon and the stars, must have thought they would be here forever. Now we don’t even know their people’s name.

The dark stone and severe lines of Teotihuacan give it a grim, brooding air. At the paler mountain-top ruins of Monte Alban near Oaxaca, the mood is peaceful and reflective. Its height gives it a sense of stillness and solitude, as do the 360-degree views of valleys and distant hills.

These ancients were into blood sports. Their ritual ball games resulted in death. In some cities it was the death of the loser, in others, the decapitation of the winner. Human sacrifice was also important to propitiate the gods and to give dead royals company on the path to the next world.

At Uxmal in Yucatan I ask if I can be photographed on a stone throne in the middle of a quadrangle. “If you sit on it we must sacrifice,” the guide says. I take that for a no.

The most impressive archaeological site in Mexico is said to be the huge Mayan city of Chichen Itza, voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in a recent internet poll.

It has a deep well in which the bones of 800 men, women and children have been found – they were sacrifices to rain god Chaac. Its enormous central pyramid is an embodiment of the mathematics of the Mayan calendar and, twice a year, the position of the sun causes the shadow of a serpent to slither up and then down one of its sides.

For me, though, the most beautiful spot is Palenque, also in Yucatan. The graceful ruins here have only recently been taken back from the jungle and 80 per cent of it is yet to be uncovered. This is the site that feels most like a city, its buildings close together, surrounded on one side by jungle and trees wrapped in thick vines, and on the other by views across a valley.

As we stand at the highest point a toucan lollops its way brilliantly across the sky, its bright yellow beak a flash of gold against the blue. The heaviness of the beak puts the bird permanently off-balance but those beating wings keep it moving despite its ups and downs.

Palenque is a place for lingering. It is haunting. I leave after the others do, tearing myself away.

The exit path curves and twists in hairpin bends, down through Palenque’s jungle. I walk alone in the steaming heat surrounded by vines and moss-covered trees with giant tangled roots. The sky is obliterated by a thick green canopy and all around is the the noise of jungle life – cawing, croaking, trilling and a big-cat kind of roar, from the howler monkeys.

At the end of the trip I want to bring home something to remind me of all the things I love about Mexico: the waterfalls and volcanoes, the bright colours of every building whose owners could afford paint, the manicured squares at the heart of towns, the insistence of even the poorest people that life should still have colour and music.

I find it in Oaxaca. There, in one of its craft shops, sits a wooden triptych with nine images of self-portraits by Frida Kahlo, whose life was an expression of her art. When her final exhibition opened she was too ill to leave her sickbed, so she had it moved to the gallery and accepted accolades while lying in it.

The frame of the triptych is painted with joyful Mexican extravagance. Over-the-top flowers are scattered all over its edges and it is topped with carved pink roses. From nine squares within it, the uncompromising Kahlo stares out with her slanting gaze. As with the layers inside the pyramids and the goddess behind the Virgin, the painter whose work used the folk art of her people has now, in her turn, been subsumed back into folk art.

Karen Kissane travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures on its Mexico in Depth tour.


Getting there: Qantas flies non-stop from Melbourne and Sydney to Los Angeles, then non-stop to Mexico City with Mexicana from $2199, plus tax of about $620. Air New Zealand has fares from $2142 plus tax via Auckland and Los Angeles. LAN Airlines flies from Sydney to Santiago in Chile via Auckland, then to Mexico City or Cancun. This fare is $2299 from Sydney and $2399 from Melbourne, with a Qantas connection to Sydney. On this fare it is possible to stop in Tahiti, Easter Island and/or Santiago. Fares from Cancun to Mexico City start at $216 plus tax one-way. Conditions apply and taxes vary depending on itinerary, destination and exchange rates.

The tour: Peregrine’s 15-day Mexico in Depth trip begins in Mexico City and includes stops at Teotihuacan to see the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, the city of Oaxaca, the towns of Merida and San Cristobal, the Mayan ruins of Palenque and the ruins at Chichen Itza. The trip finishes on the beaches of Playa del Carmen, near Cancun. Prices start at $2595 a person twin share and include a tour leader and local guides, accommodation, breakfasts, transport, sightseeing and entrance fees. Phone Peregrine Adventures, 1300 854 500, or see .

First published in The Age.