There are an extraordinary number of street-cries in Mexico, which begin at dawn and continue till night, performed by hundred of discordant voices, impossible to understand at first.... At dawn you are awakened by the shrill and desponding cry of the Carbonero, the coalmen, "Carbon, Señor?" which, as he pronounces it, sounds like "Carbosiu?" Then the grease-man takes up the song, "Mantequilla! lard! lard! at one real and a half." "Salt beef! good salt beef!" ("Cecina buena!") interrupts the butcher in a hoarse voice. ...Then passes by the cambista, a sort of Indian she-trader or exchanger, who sings out, "Tejocotes por venas de chile?" a small fruit which she proposes exchanging for hot peppers. No harm in that. .... Towards evening rises the cry of "Tortillas de cuajada?" "Curd-cakes?" or, "Do you take nuts?" succeeded by the night-cry of "Chestnuts hot and roasted!" and by the affectionate vendors of ducks; "Ducks, oh my soul, hot ducks!" "Maize-cakes," etc., etc. As the night wears away, the voices die off, to resume next morning with fresh vigour.This is from the excellent Life in Mexico, written by Frances Calderón de la Barca, wife of the first Spanish diplomat to Mexico. It's a collection of her letters while she lived in Mexico City from 1839-1842, and it's a must-read if you're interested in this city and its history. The book is in the public domain, so you can read it for free online -- UPenn's digital library has a full copy, or you can listen to an audio version LibriVox. Or if you're like me and you like turning physical pages, you can order the book on Amazon.
If you’ve ever wandered near the eastern edge of the Zócalo, over by the Templo Mayor, you might have heard them: street vendors selling scarves, hats, sunglasses, purses, desk items and whatever else might be useful from tarps spread out on the sidewalk. As people pass, the vendors call out: “10 varos! 10 pesos mire! Todo le vale 25 pesos!” The vendors all have slightly different cadences, so when they shout at the same time, their voices turn into this sort of chaotic roar, almost banshee-like at times. It's amazing, annoying and slightly terrifying if you've never heard it before. What is all that noise in the background? Is it really people? Moneda Street in particular -- where the photo above was snapped, looking down Moneda from the Zócalo -- is so crowded it’s often impossible to walk on the sidewalk. Pedestrians walk in the narrow strip of space between the cars and the gutter. Or they just walk in the street. For the past few days I've been listening to the vendors' cries from our second-floor kitchen at the Fundación Herdez, where I'm taking a cooking class. Today on my way home I recorded a snippet of what it sounds like to walk through there. This was taken in the small area of space that borders the Metropolitan Cathedral, at the head of Moneda Street. I'm not necessarily complaining about these vendors, by the way. I'm just sort of... in awe. How do they not lose their voices at the end of the day?
I heard this guy while I was sitting at my desk a few days ago. Do you know what he's saying? I think he wants to buy old iron or metal stuff, similar to the La Lllorona lady, but I can't be sure. Incidentally, I saw a guy in Condesa today pushing a cart full of metal scraps while yelling, "Hierro viejo!" So I stopped him and said, politely: "Excuse me, I'm a foreigner. Do you mind if I ask what you are going to do with those scraps?" He said he planned to recycle them.
I was at the nail salon in Polanco yesterday when I thought I heard a rooster crowing. Then I realized, wait -- that's not a rooster, that's a man. He was yelling the same phrase, something unintelligible, over and over. I asked the nail lady who he was, and she said, "Oh, he fixes curtains." A wandering curtain-fixer! We don't get those guys near our apartment. Even though I live next door to a fabric store. When I left the salon, I found him: a guy maybe in his 30's, wearing a backpack and nice jeans. To yell, he'd cup his hand on one side of his mouth. Then he'd walk on, whistling a little tune. Listen below -- I think he's saying "Arreglo cortinaaaaaaaas!" Sometimes he'd throw in a "persianas" as well, which is the Spanish word for venetian blinds. You can also hear him whistling. I'm not sure exactly what "arreglo cortinas" would mean in this instance. Does he hang curtains? Measure them? Fix broken curtain rods?
Mexico's Bicentenario celebration, marking 200 years of independence from Spain, is next week on the evening of Sept. 15. It's going to be the biggest party of the year. There'll be concerts, music, and a bunch of people running around in fake mustaches and sombreros. I'll personally be wearing a tri-colored headband and earrings, which I bought from a street vendor. There's one big downside to all this fun: the insane, soul-crushing traffic. The city closed off a portion of Reforma earlier this week for "security reasons," so every major thoroughfare nearby has turned into a parking lot. A few days ago I stared at the line of cars on the avenue near my house and remarked to Crayton: "This feels like Christmas." (Christmas is another time of the year when traffic is particularly horrible.) On top of all of that, there was a manifestación on Reforma today that shut down the area near the Angel. The drivers this morning weren't having it. At around 8:30 a.m., I captured a serenade of angry (and sometimes mournful) honks from my office window. Amazing how loud it was. Please don't stop listening when the track gets quiet -- the drivers are just resting. They'll start up again in a few seconds.
I've posted before about unique Mexico City street sounds. In our old place, the gas vendor yelled "Gaaaaaas!" every morning at 7 a.m., and you had to run downstairs and flag him if your gas tank was empty. There was the pandulce guy who tooted his bicycle horn in the mornings, and the raspy-voiced tamales oaxaqueños vendor who came at night. In the new place, the most common street sound is something I'd never heard before. It's a woman who says over and over that she'd like to buy old junk -- specifically washing machines, mattresses and stoves. The weird thing is… she sounds scary. Like, she should be up in a haunted house somewhere, lamenting that she has no children to eat. Jesica heard it for the first time a few days ago, while we were at my house working on Eat Mexico stuff. I'd assumed Jesica would've heard her before, since we don't live too far from each other. But apparently the wailing woman does not make it to certain parts of Condesa. "She sounds like La Llorona," Jesica said. I don't know if the actual vendor is a woman, or even if it's the same person every day. I've peeked my head out the window but I can't see down to the street. All that wafts up to my window is that haunting yet eerily catchy voice. I think this tune may have the power to displace the famous tamales oaxaqueños. What do you think? *Photo above is not of the wailing mattress woman, but another mattress-buyer spotted on Rio Lerma earlier this year.
Every morning at 7 a.m., we hear a loud, screechy bicycle horn honking right outside our window. It sounds like this: Originally, I had no idea what this horn meant. Then I checked the Internet and realized it was a neighborhood vendor selling pan dulce. Of course! Every service-provider has his own sound here -- the trash man with his bell; the gas guy who yells "Gaaaas!"; the camote guy whose little cart sounds like a teakettle that's about to explode. I've been wanting to run down and meet the bread guy for months, but I'm never awake and lucid by 7. Today, the stars finally aligned. Crayton had gotten up at 6:30 because he has the early shift this week. I'd been tossing since 5:30, thinking about India, my writing project, this blog, and whether I might be able to squeeze in a haircut today. At 6:30, I got up with Crayton and made some tea. I put on tennis shoes and a fleece, because it's freaking cold in my house. Then I walked to my desk and realized: Holy god, it's 6:45 a.m. and I am completely dressed and ready to meet the pan dulce guy! I excitedly Twittered about it. Then I put my camera, my tape recorder, and some change in my pockets. (The fleece happened to have pockets, another sign from God.) Then I waited. At about 7:02, I heard a faint honking sound. eee-eee. eeee-eeee. I flew out the door. By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, though, the sound had disappeared. I stared out the window and thought, a little sadly: "Maybe he's not coming today." So I walked back up to my apartment and puttered around. Checked email. Sipped my tea. At about 7:08, the sound came again, but stronger this time. eee-EEEE eeee-EEEE eeee-EEEE I wasn't expecting to hear it. I ran out the door holding the waistband of my flannel PJs, which were loose and about to fall down. Immediately outside my door, and a little to the left, was the bread vendor: a young man of about 25, sitting on a bicycle outfitted with a large, gingham-lined basket. My flour-filled pretties sat inside. The man looked at me kind of funny, because I was the only person outside in pajamas. But he didn't say anything except "Buenos días." I tried to act professional and said, "Buenos días" back. But inside, I wanted to shout to everyone walking by, "I FOUND THE PAN DULCE GUY!" With a dumb grin on my face, I picked out a chocolate concha and a bisquet; a knobby, rounded piece of bread covered in sugar called an "español," and a muffin. (Normally I wouldn't have bought so much, but I was on a high.) He placed everything in a blue plastic grocery bag and handed it to me. "Este…." I said. Este is the Spanish word for "um." "Sí?" "Este…. le molesta si tomo un foto del pan?" Do you mind if I take a picture of the bread? He smiled and said he didn't mind. I pulled out my camera from my fleece… and promptly discovered that the battery was dead. Oh, crap. I could not miss this opportunity. This was the actual pan dulce guy, standing right here in front of me. I had to have visual evidence of our encounter. So I asked if he minded if I went up to my apartment real quick for my other camera. "Are you going to be long?" he asked. "Oh no," I said. "I live right here." I pointed. He nodded, and I took off running to my apartment, where I rushed up the stairs, holding my pants, and unlocked the door and grabbed my iPhone. Fifteen seconds later I was back downstairs, standing in front of the basket. I took a few photos and recorded his horn. He told me the bread comes from a bakery near Tacuba, one of the Metro stations in the Centro. "Anytime you need bread, I'm here," he said. Then he took off on his bicycle, honking his horn the whole way. As a postscript: The concha was very good. Not Bondy quality, but up there.
Yesterday some girlfriends and I had coffee in Polanco, and we decided to take a pesero home. I love taking peseros -- they're the rumbly, green-painted mini-buses that go everywhere in the city, usually for around four pesos. Since the routes aren't mapped anywhere, you usually have to ask the driver, "Oiga! Van por...?" if you want to get to the right spot. Jesica asked, and we ended up on the side of Presidente Masaryk, waiting. (As a sidenote, pesero knowledge is valuable stuff, and exchanged among my car-less Roma and Condesa friends like a good taxi service number. If someone knows of a neighborhood pesero that stops at a major location, like the Centro or Polanco, this fact is discussed and shared.) After a few minutes of waiting, a pesero rolled up, but it wasn't like any pesero I'd ever seen before. It was lowered. And boxy, like a Toyota Scion. Cheap black tinting film covered half the windows. The drivers-side door opened -- squeeeeak -- and reggae, the kind I've heard at Kaya, wafted out, the bass booming. The three of us girls exchanged looks (whaaa?) and got on. You have to get on quickly, or else the driver will hit the gas and you'll end up half-hanging out the door. For the next 20 minutes, until I got off at my stop, the twenty-something-year-old, spiky-haired driver kept the reggae blasting, fast-fowarding past the Pitbull and the Will Smith. (Guess this was a mix.) Everyone in the bus ignored the music and stared straight ahead, but I kind of danced in my seat, which I'm sure made everyone think I was a wierdo. Then Alice, who was kinda jamming out too, had a great idea. "I wonder if we can rent out this pesero as a party bus?" DUDE. Imagínate! A pesero-pub-crawl along Presidente Masaryk. Rolling up to Celtics and Irish Pub Concept in the tinted-windowed, Scion-esque mini-bus. It'd be worth it just to see the look on people's faces. (Of course, we know this could never happen, but the idea made us laugh. ....Unless maybe.... ?) As my stop approached, I desperately wanted to get a photo of the pesero's low-rider exterior. But I couldn't get my camera ready in time. As soon as I jumped off -- peseros stop for like three seconds, and not completely; it's a California-stop kind of thing -- the bus rumbled off down Rio Mississipi, reggae tunes fading away into the distance. Oh well. Thanks for the great ride, dude. *To hear a snippet of the ride, click on the link under the photo.
Sometimes I forget that Mexico City is an assault on the senses. Everything is loud -- the cars honking, the parking attendants whistling, the branches of homemade brooms scraping the sidewalk, the peseros roaring down the street (they are the only thing that moves with urgency in this country), the vendors yelling about their latest deals. In the air, odors layer upon odors: Grease, sizzling meat, car exhaust, dirt, garbage. Maybe urine, depending on if you're walking through an empty section of a park. Sometimes you get stuck in a truly foul-smelling pocket of air, and all you can do is walk faster and hope that it goes away. On Sunday, bleary-eyed after a late-night dominoes game with friends, Crayton and I went to breakfast at Sanborns at the Casa de los Azulejos in the Centro. The food there is average, but the inside looks like it hasn't changed in 60 years, so it's worth it. If you eat at the counter, they'll serve you coffee in a little stainless steal creamer. It's adorable. Anyway, we couldn't easily find a sitio cab afterward because of all the craziness of the Sunday cicloton, so we decided to walk back. This is what we heard while walking along this spot at Calle Hidalgo (it takes a second to load):
Spotted this truck yesterday morning while we were walking to the supermarket. We exchanged our tank for one of theirs (the thought of grilling steaks that very day was too exciting to pass up) and they promised to bring our tank back on Tuesday. Unfortunately, when we got home and tried to connect their tank to our grill, the fittings didn't match. Our tank has threads on the outside, their tank has threads on the inside. We're crossing our fingers that somehow they'll fill up our tank and bring it back on Tuesday. If not, guess we'll start hunting for an adapter... OR A CHARCOAL GRILL.