After I found out I had secured my first international teaching post, at La Escuela De Lancaster, in Mexico City; I didn’t think, “what about the cartel?” (unlike every other person I told). The first matter I wanted to tackle was, ‘how am I going to fit in?’. Tlalpan, the borough of D.F. (District Federal) was not going to be a holiday destination; but my home. I wanted to know it.
When you type the words, ‘become a local’ into Google the first page is full of adverts about how you could make a difference if you became a local councillor; then there’s one very interesting link to a page called, ‘Rent a Local Friend’. Dubious.
Maybe the Google results and I have something in common. Those adverts are about feeling like you belong. Tlalpan, used to be its own city but got swallowed by the sprawl of the capital and now supplies 70% of the water used by the 8.9 million residents. I doubted a place like this, double the size of my home city of Cardiff in the borough alone, would ever be home. When I realised it would take an hour and forty-five minutes to get to the historical centre of the city, I felt cheated! Surely, that huge disconnect would make my experience a strange satellite one, an inhabitant of a dreary place like Watford, Luton or Slough? In fact, Tlalpan had enough provincial prowess to dispel my assumptions and give me the mundane sort of belonging you don’t get as a backpacker; but always miss!
This is my guide to knowing if you’re a local in Mexico City:
- You can sleep through an entire night and not wake up with your heart pounding because of fireworks that are let off at random 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. (Except Bonfire Night!)
- You can continue teaching (applies to any work) without seriously considering the best way to protect your pupils (co-workers or yourself if in another field) from the murderous gunman that has opened fire on the grounds; as you now understand those loud bangs are fireworks being thrown in the car park.
- You don’t bother looking up to see if you can catch a shower of sparks from fireworks as you know that the firework of choice in Mexico is a Banger. (Unless it’s Independence Day or something really special; as if you will get bored of the beautiful colours but can never tire of the noise)
- When you walk past a car sales place you hope to see all the staff on the forecourt clapping, cheering and high intensity whistling if anyone has bought a car, even a little Golf. Knowing the ruckus will continue until the car is safely on the main road and all the staff will be waving emphatically, overjoyed for the new owner. (I still chuckle when I think of how much this improved my frequent marches to the supermarket).
- If you’re from the USA this one may seem odd to you, if you’re a Brit like me you’ll get it: You expect the unexpected of armed security guards and policemen in bizarre places, like the bakery. You no longer discuss this necessity at length when you spot one, or change your course to be as far away from the barrel of their gun as possible.
- You know to take directions with a pinch of salt as Mexicans like to ‘help’ even if they have no idea what you are saying to them. They will confidently send you in entirely the wrong direction just to be ‘polite’.
- You learn to appreciate that eating a ten-course meal, each wrapped in brittle paper, (that makes a racket at the slightest touch) in the cinema is totally normal. As are a few other things considered rude in the UK: answering your phone; talking loudly; laughing every 7 minutes religiously; even if you are watching a very tense psychological thriller, that the writer didn’t include a single joke in, is mandatory and, that the consistent loud noise of ‘affectionate’ slaps of a boyfriend on a girlfriend’s arm is all to be taken as part of the atmosphere and not reason to lose your temper and shout.
- You never get into a taxi and expect the driver to know where you live, even if he says he does. If you take the driver at face value you will not get annoyed that he takes you to entirely the wrong part of the city, is unapologetic, will leave the meter running while you try to find your home on Google Maps and the fare will have cost you double what you expected.
- When queuing in an ice-cream parlour you no longer spend ages waiting for your turn only to be looked at blankly because you haven’t paid, before purchase, at a till (concealed behind bars) in the most hidden away corner of the room.
- When you have violent diarrhoea at least once every 6 days you no longer fear it or question where or what you’ve eaten.
- You don’t bother going through the convoluted process of seeing a doctor when you get another parasite because Superama stocks a superdrug. It kills everything inside you within 24 hours and you don’t need a prescription to buy it.
- When getting the Metrobus you know that you have 5 seconds to get on or off. You accept your fate of the doors slamming into you if you dare to take longer than that; even if you are very old or disabled. You also never expect the driver to leave the doors open a moment longer if you are running for the bus; even if he is stuck behind 2 other buses and is going to be at the station for another 30 seconds whether you board or not.
- You have swapped fizzy drinks for ‘Limonada Natural’ and never expect it to be made of lemons as limes are called Limons in Mexico (and all of South America).
- It becomes clear to you that the only sensible way to transport a baby if you are using the Metrobus is in your arms, with a fleece blanket thrown over them; you start to think that prams are totally overrated. You admire the upper body strength gained from the permanent weight lift regimen and the close connection these parents have with their children. You also benefit from not having to move for prams.
- When you have a black friend or a blonde friend that you are walking with on the streets, you are totally unperturbed by all the stares that are directed your way. You no longer miss Britain for the ability to be anonymous, you embrace the fact that this sight is a rarity and let people stare because they come from a place of curiosity not distaste. (You do not however, ever get over the way strangers sometimes ask to touch their hair, or the fact that the hairdresser passed a bit of Deen’s ‘fro around for the other employees and customers to touch)
- You make sure you carry change, “cambio”, to give to the person who bags your shopping in the supermarket. You do not protest, even if you could have put your loaf of bread and parasite killing drugs in a bag yourself, because otherwise you know they don’t get paid. You no longer feel quite as overwhelmed about how even the poorest people tip the bagging staff as you have seen that Mexicans have big hearts time and again.
- If you buy something expensive in a fancy department store, think Harrods of Mexico, you don’t get flustered by 5 members of staff crowding the till to count your money, give you a receipt and confirm everything at least 4 times. You accept that they think you are part of the mafiosa as nobody else carries large sums of cash. (You have no choice, as it takes a loooooong time to set-up a bank account; you will be given a cheque to cash your wages in full while you wait and wait and wait…).
- You have fallen hopelessly in love with the way Mexicans use diminutives affectionately and started interspersing them in your own Spanglish conversations with abandon. (So, fat there is, “gordo” but they also use, “gordito”, masculine and, “gordita”, feminine, for what I can only translate as little fattie boy/girl. It’s used affectionately and can also apply to stuff like, “chica” becoming, “chicatita”, little girl)
- You stop cringing that educated and polite people are attracting the attention of waiters by calling, “joven!” (young) because it simply doesn’t have a patronising connotation here, even if they are 70 and you are 25.
- When walking in your neighbourhood you give up on the pavements and stick to the side of the roads as you know that the pavements are death-traps: every 5 meters will involve a sudden step down, or up, of at least 12 inches; tree roots will have brought up entire sections, and are given precedent (an idea you think you would endorse until you live with it); a huge lamp post will be put directly in the middle of the pavement meaning you need to turn sideways to pass it; and, if you’re lucky, there will sometimes be wires freely hanging from electricity poles threatening to snag in your hair.
- When you go to Condesa, because the food and gigs there are a ‘Fresa’s’ delight (directly translated as strawberry but used to mean a hipster/trendy/scenester type person); you will have your camera ready for all the dogs who have had their ears painted garish shades of Flamingo and are wearing bandanas, bow-ties or tutus.
- You will sync yourself with the traditions of your delegación. Maybe wander into Tlalpan Centro on Friday evening, just to see the couples dancing in the square; you know that if you sit at one of the chairs assembled around the band-stand you will be invited to join in. You quietly admire the grace of the elderly woman that always brings her fan. She snaps it out in perfect timing to the most significant beat in each bar.
Can you be a local anywhere, as long as your heart and mind are open? I think it’s unlikely. But entirely, refreshingly, possible in Mexico. Everyone feels like an outsider sometimes… As Frida Kahlo once said, “I paint my own reality”. Once I’d relinquished the rigidity of the traditions of Gainsborough, Turner and Constable, embedded somewhere unknown in my psyche, I felt comfortable in my own skin in Tlalpan and Mexico City; at home with the surreal.