Sunday was a day trip to downtown Mexico before watching the Ballet Folklórico de México in the beautiful Palacio de Bellas Artes at night. Mostly it meant getting treated to even more amazing architecture both ancient - like the preserved Aztec ruins of Templo Mayor - and modern - the stately National Palace that houses the politically-charged murals of Diego Rivera, the Cathedral with a near-blinding interior of gold detail, and the Zócalo, a huge main square which was once the main ceremonial centre of the Aztec city Tenochtitlan. With all the beautifully intricate reliefs and wrought iron details, we could have been walking through any grand European city.
Something that isn´t immediately obvious is that most of the buildings lean. Once you do, though, it´s pretty impossible to ignore. Mexico City is built on a filled-in lake; as a result, the entire city is sinking. The lean of the buildings varies in severity and direction, which gave me a vague Alice-in-Wonderland feeling as I wandered the streets with obligatory snack in hand - this time it was taquitos, fried tortillas with a spiced potato filling and covered in salad, guacamole, and a deceivingly spicy chipotle sauce.
And right about here I’m gonna take a moment to talk about the food. For someone who will always go for variety if given a choice and needs chilli on everything so it can have flavour, Mexico is utter heaven. When you order somethings like tacos from a street vendor, you usually only order the base ingredient (usually some kind of meat cooked a particular way) before going to town adding your own topping preferences, which have so far included guacamole, nopal (cactus), salad, pumpkin flowers, caramelized onions, cheese, home-made French fries, a vibrant rainbow of sauces, and lime to squeeze over it all. Between the bright, spicy food and joyful vibe of the music, I’m finding myself literally unable to stop doing a little dance every time.
There’s always a flip side, however, and here much of it is fear attached to Donald Trump’s inauguration as POTUS. Truthfully, though, it’s only more fuel to the fire of Mexico’s issues, which include 60% of the population living in extreme poverty, a convoluted and frustrating health care system, and a governing body rife with corruption. We witnessed first-hand a march of protesters that filled half the Zócalo over restrictions about oil, one of Mexico’s biggest sources of income. In class discussions and chats with locals I began to grasp just how harsh the reality is for many Mexicans, particularly those from vulnerable populations.
Our lectures have continued to be eye-opening, particularly as stark differences between Mexican and Australian culture became more apparent as time went on. Mexico is more community-orientated than the generally individualistic culture of Australia; one of our professors offered to tell us how much she earned, and all were very upfront and candid about private aspects of their lives I would usually only expect to know after becoming quite close to somebody. I was most surprised by the Mexican perception and subsequent treatment of people with disabilities. They’re simply not acknowledged. One of our lecturers described very bluntly the treatment she and her partner receive daily as a result of his disability. Anecdotes included taxis often not stopping for him, citing his walking cane as the reason because ‘it can be used as a weapon’, and people not vacating priority seats on public transport for him, even when he directly asked. I think that their openness really helped set the standard and made it safe for us to share our own personal experiences, even if they were painful. For me personally, it was the first time I openly shared having attention deficit disorder, something only my family and closest friends knew about until that point.
Our site visits this week were to CRIT, a rural public hospital, and an AIDS clinic. The AIDS clinic was a sobering experience and we scrubbed up to observe a hysterectomy at the hospital, but it was CRIT that truly made my occupational therapist heart sing. Painted in bright colours, made from environmentally friendly materials, lit wherever possible with natural light, and absolutely huge, the facility is a children’s rehabilitation clinic that processes around 1000 appointments per day. Although it had a lot of cutting edge technology like a Motion Lab and Lokomat, it was the effort taken to tailor the centre to the population it served that most impressed me. Every reception room was named according to how the reception desk was decorated (for example, the ‘Train Room’ had a cheerful train and carriages circling the length of the desk) which was both child-friendly and catered to those who are illiterate, as well as an area outside where children could learn how to navigate the many tricky terrains Mexico City has to offer – awkward curbs and unpaved, gravel footpaths are only some of the daily obstacles to be overcome.
Australia Day was on January 25 for us due to the time difference, so after some mojitos for pre-drinks with our host mama Ruchy, the three of us made our way to Peralta Bar for the annual Aussie tradition of listening to the Triple J Hottest 100. I learned my lesson from the student welcome party and so had a fairly tame night, spending most of the time getting to know the Immigrant and Migrant Studies students who had arrived earlier in the week (but I was more than happy to join in a Sound of Music round robin on the walk home).
The next day was a visit to Coyoacán, the suburb where Frida Kahlo resided with Diego Rivera in Casa Azul, a literal blue house now a museum dedicated to her life and works. I had been extremely excited about this visit in particular since I learned about Kahlo’s badassery in Year 11 art class, and I wasn’t disappointed. The house itself was beautiful, with no shortage of open courtyards filled with succulents and pathways shaded with tall trees within its brilliantly blue walls. The whole effect was incredibly calming and tranquil. There was a small part separate from the main exhibition dedicated to her iconic style, which was not only to proudly display her Mexican heritage and belief in feminine strength, but also to cleverly hide the many braces and straps she had to wear are a result of the horrific injuries sustained in a bus crash when she was a teenager. I left in a happy daze; later back at Ruchy’s house, the three of us girls had an impromptu movie night and took in Salma Hayek as the titular character of Frida.
Anyway, tomorrow we’re going to the city of Puebla for a weekend trip, so I suppose I should sign off here and get some work done on the presentation due at the end of the program.
(… or, maybe I’ll get a coconut paleta from the icecream shop on the corner instead…)