Of pilgrims and pilgrimages (translation)

I parked the car in a crowded alley, aided by strangers while making a seemingly interminable reverse, after long minutes parading through streets too narrow for so many cars, peddlers, and pedestrians. In the air one can smell the chicharrón, the tortilla and the crowd. From the people who passed me by, I kept, above all, the smell of fabric softener. It was a smell that contrasted with their dirty shoes and with a weather always too hot and humid, the kind that makes us start sweating as soon as we leave the shower.

The commotion was such that I almost regretted having decided to go there on October 12 to see one of the largest pilgrimages taking place in Mexico. I wasn’t sure about what would await me. But I did not expect much of what I found. I quickly discovered that in Guadalajara, the Dia de la Raza (which actually celebrates the day in which Christopher Columbus arrived to America) coincided with the day of the pilgrimage of the Virgin of Zapopan. And looking around, it was difficult to discern to which of the celebrations the paraphernalia that was sold on improvised stalls actually belonged. Nor was it clear what which festivity had attracted each one of the pilgrims. However, it was obvious that the sacred and the profane were mingled in the same that as the Christian and the Pagan rituals were.

In the distance, chants dedicated to the “Generala” while, just a few meters away from me, in the “tamales” tent, the reggaetón in loud volume called the customers who were, perhaps, undecided between savouring that paste of sweet corn and the golden tacos nearby, which stall didn’t even have any music. On the dusty ground, on an old cloth, crucified christs were sold alongside other bibelots like life-size roosters and rottweillers in resin, ornate for the fight. Some of the women wore laced white or black veils while others wore revealing feathered  Aztec costumes and rocked themselves on paradoxically high heels, too daring for the dance moves they took without too much effort. Aside from parental and family responsibilities, groups of men gathered in front of the stalls, drinking beer, laughing out loud, only interrupting the joyful talk to chew.

In the centre of the square, in front of the Basilica of Zapopan, with a child by the hand, stood the statue of John Paul II,. Perhaps in tribute to the two billion people who joined the world population during his pontificate. And, as a living example of Mexican devotion to Wojtyla, children were everywhere. Many babies and toddlers who endured, more or less patiently, the chaos to which they’d get used to in the years to come.

I recall Fernando Vallejo and his pet hatred for Wojtila’s sinister figure, who preached till death the idea that a life lived in the most absolute misery was better than the use of contraceptives. Misery and inequality are not sins around there. Free will is.

The streets were ripped wide open. I wasn’t sure if such dystopian scenario was due to the negligence of the local authorities or to their excessive zeal in the wrong timing. They were the main stage for a babelian parade of typical customs from everywhere around Mexico.

The bright colours flashed through the retina and resonated inside one’s skull that a chromatic noise composed by clothes, sarapes, cakes, excessive makeup, toys and walls of houses. The senses could not rest on anything around me and due to the heat and the thick dust, it was difficult to process so much information.

 I turned away from the cathedral and instinctively headed to one of the parallel, traffic-locked streets. I was hungry and wanted to sit somewhere. I figured I wouldn’t be lucky, but I’d be happy to find a decent toilet. The toilets in Mexico are the cleanest I’ve ever had the opportunity to use. It does not matter if they are in a public garden, a trendy restaurant or a provincial “botanero”. Everything is scrupulously clean and the smell of the detergent is an appanage to all them. They are usually cleaned by middle-aged ladies and it is normal to give them one or two Pesos after we use them. The first time I used a Mexican toilet, I was so impressed by the extreme hygiene – which, according to the stereotypes, is only characteristic more Northern countries – that I gave a twenty-peso notebill to the lady. For me, this was a reasonable and fair amount as a retribution for such a hard, although disregarded work. From her face, I realized that it was not common, and later I was told that, by the end of a lucky day, that might be the amount she would take home. For me, the pleasure of entering a neatly tidy public toilet is worth much more than that.

I asked for a “granizado” at the counter of one of the candy stores that bordered the road and headed to the park. The terraces were filled with extended families who did not seem to be willing to move easily out of shade and leave behind the chair which had been so difficult to conquer. In the distance, I could already hear the caroucels that make, universally, part of any local celebration. I sat down on one of the benches, beside a sleeping dog, oblivious to the racket that surrounded him. In Mexico, there are countless abandoned and stray dogs everywhere. They follow a course that only they know and, many, have already overcome the fear of being at the mercy of strangers and manage to blatantly ask for food. Maybe on a day of pilgrimage, the passers-by would be more generous. I never resist and I always give. And each time I felt a lump in my throat that made my eyes burn.

In front of me, a tiny old woman in a Huichol dress played a small colored “jarana”. I realized the resemblance between her and the image of the “Pacificadora”, the indian Virgin, created in the image of the men who gave her shape. Her solemn, austere expression contrasted with the festive melody she played, and even without needing to ask, people gave her money as she passed them by. Maybe they made the same association I did. Or else, pilgrims’ generosity is a fact.

In spite of the strong impressions that all that newness had caused me, I was tired. Of the dust, the sun and the noise.

I thought about going back to the car and, as soon as that thought crossed my mind, I was already trying to figure out a strategy to find it amidst the crowd and the gutted streets.

I left behind the park, the sleeping dog, the tamales, the children, the Virgin, the reggaeton and the Pope. The epic adventure of reaching the centre of a 5 million- inhabitants city, where public transport is purely theoretical, in rush hour, was a much more profane procession.

Queuing up

Tote bags in one hand, wallet under the left arm, supermarket trolley ready to roll.

I am standing in a supermarket queue on a rainy Saturday morning. It seems that,when it rains, there’s a higher propensity for shopping so, the queue is longer than usual. The same appears to apply to me since I usually only fill up a basket but, this time, I needed a trolley. The pace is pretty fast and there’s really no reason to complain for waiting too long. I’m, definitely, not used to that. Where I come from, waiting in endless checkout lines is part of the whole experience of going shopping at the weekend. People are used to waiting and,even if they mind, they do not really tend to complain. At least, not loud enough for the bad service to change.

At the checkout, there’s a woman in her mid-fifties who is mostly efficient but who still manages to attempt a smile before repeating a formula which isn’t yet completely familiar to me.

In the line, waiting with me, there are half a dozen people, some of different origins among the majority that is most obviously German.  The young couple in front of me, with their trolley full of different types of sodas, crisps and appetizers which allow me to guess that they will be throwing a party of some sort, speak in Turkish. I can also hear English spoken with a Spanish accent coming from the end of the line and the man who’s paying is, at the same time, enthusiastically speaking on the phone in a Slavic language. However, they all keep a reasonable distance between themselves. Maybe because no one from the adjacent queues seems particularly interested in jumping in line and everybody appears to resist the temptation of pushing the fellow customer in order to hasten the pace.

It’s my turn to put my shopping on the conveyor belt right behind the divider that the young Turkish mother placed on the belt with a smile. I have been noticing that, here, placing the divider on the belt once you’ve have emptied your trolley is part of the tacit knowledge shared by decent supermarket customers.I remember that once I have forgotten to do it and the lady behind me gave me a look of disapproval which, for a couple of minutes, kept me wondering about what I could have possibly done wrong. After a few times at the supermarket, I realised my mistake and never repeated it ever since. That’s how primates learn and I am not an exception.

After amonth in Germany I guess I will no longer do what isn’t expected of me while queueing up.

I move the trolley forward and go to the end of the checkout counter. My bags are open and I’m ready to clear my stuff as fast as possible, like everybody else.  The lady behind the cash register greets me in the same fashion but there’s no smile on her face. She tells me something in German which my A.1.1 level still doesn’t allow me to understand. It’s pointless asking her to repeat so I say in English that I don’t understand hoping that she’d be tolerant enough with my lack of knowledge of German which always makes me feel guilty. Instead, she gets visibly upset, raises her voice while repeating the same sentence. That wasn’t exactly helpful and the only thing I know is that I am a source of some sort of disappointment to her. So, in a sudden movement, she gets up from her chair and places my trolley right at the end of the counter so she can throw the goods in it, directly after registering them. The trolley, placed in an oblique position, geometrically fits the design of the counter and then, I realise I am not supposed to waste time putting my shopping in the bags while standing in the line.  That should be done afterwards, and that’s why there’s another long counter by the window. That is what all the customers with trolleys are doing. How could I have missed that?

Mental note made, since it is my goal to completely assimilate the German supermarket organization culture once and for all.

Reharsing an escape

My imagination decided how fast the trees passed by. I evaded fictitious obstacles and winded through a road which curves only I knew.

I was under my father’s desk. A massive, dark brown piece of furniture in the centre of the study room, ornate with twisted columns so shiny and smooth it was hard to believe that are were made out of solid wood.

 I was 4 years old and I fitted perfectly inside the cubicle between the two lateral sets of drawers.

The saucepan lid that I turned around a non-existent axis made a perfect make-believe steering wheel. I felt safe. I was on the run. I felt safe despite being on the run. I, definitely, felt safe because I was on the run.

I could be the driver of my own wooden car for hours and enjoy landscapes only I could see. Sometimes, I used to take Bolacha with me – a red, plushy clown, half my size, dressed in a tartan overall. But mostly, I liked to drive alone.

This is my very first memory of wanting to escape.

I was 6.  On Friday afternoons, I was particularly happy. No more school and a whole weekend ahead of me. The idea of what a weekend could be and the expectations of doing something special like going for a walk somewhere new or eating ice-cream at my favourite parlour were enough to make me happy.

On Friday afternoons, I loved to throw empty plastic bags out of the kitchen window. If they were light enough, on windy days, they’d quickly set off from out of my sight. It was such a pleasure watching them inflate and fly away! I wondered where they’d go and who would see them apart from myself. I liked to imagine they’d go high enough to land somewhere else and twirl around distant trees.

I wished I was one of them to take off from the brown window sill of the kitchen window up into the blueness of the sky.

Obviously, this was before their odysseys inspired Herzog and Sigur Rós and emblematic short films anddefinitely long before plastic bags were considered highly pollutant. So, I was allowed to empty the drawer from all the transparent ones and free them into an exciting and unknown world.

I was 13. I was crossing the Portuguese border into Spain by car. Our final destination would be  3 days away, in distant Germany, where I had never been. On the front seat, next to the driver, my sister started to cry, like she always did as soon as she left the country. On the back seat, a thousand tons are lifted from my shoulders and the air feels lighter and the horizon broader and I couldn’t be happier. I had never been freer. The further and faster we’d go, the better it felt. From the back window I saw the sign that draws an imaginary line between the two countries vanish in the distance, and despite I then felt as light as a flying transparent plastic bag in the wind, I was already dreading the day I’d see it again.

But, in the meantime, I would have a couple of weeks to fulfil my dream of travelling abroad, beyond the small Spanish border towns where, sometimes, we used to shopping during the summer vacations.

I was absolutely positive that everything I would find along the way, between Lisbon and Frankfurt, would be so much nicer than the place I came from. All those places, whichever they were and whatever their name was, meant freedom to me.

Hardly did I know that, almost 30 years and many simulated homes later, it would be in Germany which, for the first time, I would stop wanting to escape.