I get rolled and then penned

Beth looked reproachfully at me and said that I was being way too conspicuous, but I guess my question is how do you take pictures here without being conspicuous? I am so huge, so white, and even just having a camera is unusual. Most people use their phones, and there are so fewer cameras in Mexico. It’s not like going to Iceland where every tourist has thousands of dollars of equipment around their necks.

We were getting into a Metrobus. I made a decision that perhaps the most interesting place to take pictures would be outside the Basilica where the Pope was celebrating Mass. But a small glitch happened – as we were getting on the Metrobus I was mobbed by a girl gang. It seemed odd that there was so much pushing and shoving to get into a not-so-crowded Metrobus but the point was stealing the phone out of my pocket, which they did quite skilfully (my pocket is tight!) I didn’t realize what had happened until a couple of stops, and by then it was too late. People here say “Welcome to Mexico City” but my sister writes that the same routine is used in Paris and that she’s fantasized about an i-Phone that would lecture to the thieves interminably.

Anyhow, that started the day.

Getting close to the Basilica was a no-go too. Getting there, other than having the phone stolen, was easy but as soon as we started approaching the Cathedral we ran into lines of security that forced us to turn south. There were three security levels we went through, and at the third level we were close to the street that the Pope would be coming on but penned – we could only move on that side of the street and on that block without going out again, and if you exited to the second level you were directed only to the pens that were further and further away.


The old Cathedral is with the gold roof, and the modern Cathedral, where the Pope celebrated, is just visible as a turquoise blue on the right. This photo, from a visit in 2013, show the scale of things with the downtown in the far distance. The street we waited to see the Pope on is just visible in the center of the photo between the two towers and the tree.


This panorama, which I posted once before, is the modern Cathedral and then the old one, to the right, which is also the same building that you see below, two pictures down. On the same site are at least two other (older Cathedrals) and a chapel. This was the plaza that we were naively hoping to reach. The Plaza was a gift of Carlos Slim, the Mexican businessman of Lebanese origin who owns a lot of South America’s telecom, along with Tracfone in the US (and many other things).


As a fall-back position I remembered this vantage point and was hoping we might be able to go around and get there. It’s hard to express how far from reality these plans were! This photo, also taken in 2013,  is just a regular day. The average per-day count of tourists is 14,000 people.


I took this photo quickly as we were being led to our pen – it looks back up to the old Cathedral. The overlook in the picture above is on the hill behind the Basilica. The telephoto compresses this space, we were actually quite far away.


These people had their act together in a way we didn’t – they could see! They also seemed to be feeling no pain as I watched them from my vantage point on the street.


This was what it looked like on the street. At this point I was worried if I’d even see the Pope. In order to get close the barricades you had to stay in place, and really I needed to be able to move around. I felt though that it would be a little silly not to even get a shot of the Pope, so I tried to box out a spot along one of the metal barriers. This is what it looked like in the area.


It was intimate quarters. There was a woman sitting on a stool in front of me who looked small and disabled. When she stood up she was stronger than a basketball center and held her space quite well too. So it was a challenge.


The Pope going by was almost anti-climatic. The speed of the caravan was so fast that if you blinked you missed the whole thing. I hadn’t noticed it before but there’s a perfect image of the top of my head in the person’s cell phone on the left. It must be hard to be the Pope doing these things, just miles and miles of waving under the hot sun. Anyway, I got the Pope picture done under hard circumstances.

I think really the most surreal part of this all was watching the screen that you can just see set up on the street to the right of the cellphone. It was broadcasting the image of the Pope’s motorcade – so you could see him coming towards you on the streets south of where we were, and then suddenly he pops up for a fraction of a second and just as quickly he’s gone again, and back in the screen.

The symbolism involved with Santa Maria de Guadalupe – the female saint that the shrine and complex of cathedrals commemorates – is controversial and a large part of the core Catholic/Spanish narrative in South America. In our earlier visit we had spent the day watching the devotion of people – especially indigenous women – to this shrine. As with many religious shrines, the church co-opted this site from the previous religion and created a story that served its purposes.

The next day (Sunday) was quite a different and surprising experience, and what I’ll post about next.

Posted in Mexico

Feeling small in a sea of people

On Saturday I decided to go for it and head up to the Basilica where Pope Francis was celebrating Mass at 5pm. Even though we were hours early we got no where close to the Basilica, and instead had to settle for the road his motorcade would take perhaps a mile south of where we had hoped to be. Even there the crowd was deep and was being managed in segments of blocks – once you were let into a specific zone we were boxed in and couldn’t travel any further. Above: waiting for the motorcade to pass.


Not being part of the official press cuts both ways. You have almost no “access”, but on the other hand you see a lot that the normal press misses in the frantic rush to follow the Pope. Unfortunately much of how the visit is being portrayed in media (here, at least) is the Pope doing cute things: putting on sombreros, interacting with children. There is so much more going on! It’s not that I wouldn’t have liked a little freedom to move – I would have. But I felt lucky too for what I could see and photograph. Above: part of the ritual. The Pope’s motorcade has barely passed and everyone breaks into groups to look at pictures and see what they captured. He goes by fast … so it’s a challenge. I too looked – the first time.

Over the next few days I’ll be posting about the actual experiences, and more.

Posted in Mexico

The challenges of getting around

More of the city closes down I guess I had envisioned that the Pope would be travelling between discreet events in Mexico City but in truth he is doing multiple criss-crosses and in the process will have visited many neighborhoods. This is quite wonderful but it effectively closes down this huge metropolis – there are posting of the metro station closings (many, and for long periods) – and major arteries are just simply closed to traffic for a couple of days. This forlorn woman was trying to find a way across this street, as were we.


El Papa is appearing everywhere now! There are concentric rings of security, so large swaths on each side of the streets he’ll travel are closed. Bikes and pedestrians are still being allowed to the barriers, but once you hit them you have a long trip to the nearest crossing.


Retail trade has been largely closed down because streets are empty but these women were trying their best to attract attention.


We were using a combination of bike and foot to try and reach our favorite Lebanese restaurant in the world. In the end we figured out a way to thread through all the barriers. This is the best falafel that’s ever been served, and it was served to us. There were only a handful of other people who had made it through too, and they were all locals.


On the way back, and in a different section of the city, we saw into this business as we were walking by. There was a long line waiting for service and we were curious. It was a custom-mix perfume shop (there are many in Mexico City). We stood in line for almost an hour and a half, attempting broken but humorous communication with people but mostly just soaking in the friendliness and old fashioned service that was going on. Most of the people at the counter who were placing orders were retailers, organized with long written lists. Everything was quite analogue – papers, pencils, carbon paper, and calculators (but fast).


The Pope’s plane landed precisely at 7:30 local time, we saw it flying overhead after the airport had been closed for about half and hour. Here I’ve lifted a photo from the local channel, as he hesitates (perhaps, with a bit of trepidation) for a moment before setting foot in Mexico. Bienvenido, Papa!

Posted in Mexico

Thursday evening photos, with a blast of color

Zócalo, getting ready for the Pope Usually Mexico City seems to dwarf any event, but the Pope coming has affected big sections of the city. The Zócalo (Thursday evening, 7pm local) is already all buttoned up with small lanes for pedestrians and still car traffic. Lots of technicians, security, military and even a few foreigners milling around. The newstands have switched to selling Pope paraphernalia and a lot of the shops are displaying Pope Francis photos. I counted 15 large pens in the Zócalo and then three big viewing bleachers. The National Palace is the long building across the Zócalo, where he’ll be officially greeted, before he walks over to the Metropolitan Cathedral.


Several posts ago I mentioned I run into boxes from Pastelería Ideal all over the downtown. Here is an example. Not one box but two!


Overnight walls and barriers have appeared everywhere. This wall is creating a barrier to keep people back from the National Palace.


There is always a protest going on around the National Palace. These women were part of a demonstration occuring just past the trucks in the above photo – there was one panel missing in the fence and they were blasting through, creating such a loud sound that even they thought it was deafening. They were demonstrating for the right to health and welfare services.


These are resin-cast heads from a major show of sculpture at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefoso by the Mexico-city based sculptor Javier Marín. I’ll post more about his work later – he has already created a huge body of work and he’s only 52. The show dominated this large museum.


Just a blast of color for all people enduring the northern climes.


Posted in Mexico

The Pope is coming

The Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe In the center of the photo, this enormous circular Basilica will be one of the places where Pope Francis celebrates Mass on his trip to Mexico. In Mexico City he will also visit a children’s hospital and celebrate mass further north, in a poor part of the city. The tippy Cathedral right center was built about 1700 and goes every which way – courtesy of the soft soil and multiple earthquakes. It’s odd and a bit exciting to be inside a building that is so askew.


Outside the Metropolitan Cathedral on Palm Sunday, 2015.


Mass in the Metropolitan Cathedral Taken at Easter Mass in April 2015.


These ads are currently appearing all over the city on telephone booths.


I haven’t seen many images of the Pope defaced, but these were, rather prominently.


Detail of Diego Rivera Mural Rivera painted a powerful set of murals depicting the history of Mexico between 1929 and 1935 on the walls of the National Palace, where the Pope will be officially greeted.


Archbishop Norberto Rivera Carrera after Sunday Mass, Mexico City, 2014. After the Pope is greeted in the National Palace by the Mexican President, he goes across the Zócalo kitty-corner to the Metropolitan Cathedral (where this photo was taken) where he will meet with the Mexican clergy.


Lottery tickets being sold on the street the week before the Pope’s visit.


Poster on the street outside the Metropolitan Cathedral This photo was taken in 2013 when Pope Benedict was still alive.


About eight years ago, as part of my application for Canadian residency, I was required to submit my American Social Security card. As a child I remembered having the piece of paper, but hadn’t seen it for about forty years so I had to get a duplicate. It’s not something that an American citizen would have to do too often; most people know their Social Security number by heart and that’s about all that’s required.

Burlington is Vermont’s only true city (small still) and the office I had to go to was there. I was a little shocked at what I saw. Vermont state offices tend to be relatively friendly places. Not exactly small town, but perhaps small state. This was a federal office and not only was it protected by guards, but it had small holes for talking to the “service” representatives and many written rules posted in the small waiting space. And guess what? Most of the people there were immigrants.

I got used to the idea of being an immigrant in the long process of applying for first residency and then citizenship in Canada. The idea that you are special – that you don’t have to go to these types of offices – pretty well melts away. But in the US if you are a born citizen you hardly ever have to notice what happens to people who aren’t. Some of the places to look, if you are interested, are at the larger land border crossings or at traffic stops, where skin color and legal status often become determining factors of how you are treated. Another place it’s in your face is should you take a bus across the border, where people are basically sorted by their appearance, before even the presentation of documents.

Being an immigrant myself in Canada has made me a lot more sensitive when I see people having trouble. I think that if you haven’t been an immigrant it’s difficult to understand what it’s like. What it’s like to learn a whole new culture, to be in a country where perhaps you have no real roots other than being there.

We have been lucky to have a core of people who have become friends, some close friends, by virtue of us having joined an Anglican parish in Montreal. We were drawn to this specific parish originally because of the outstanding music, but in the eleven years we’ve been part of this community there’s been much more than the music holding us there – and that’s not to downplay the music at all.  I’ve many other reasons to be there and also what Christianity’s good side is. But it’s not all easy – being a member of a church in Quebec is akin to having leprosy. The Catholic church abused Quebecers, and they returned the favor by abandoning the organized church with a vengeance. Most of the swear words in Quebec are church-derived, and being involved in any sort of church-related activity raises hives for many of our acquaintances and friends.

It might be surprising to note that quite a few of the people in the Anglican community I’m speaking about are Francophones born in Quebec. Obviously they are of a different stripe to be doing what they are doing, but so too are the rest of us. This parish, which is actually housed in the large downtown cathedral, has had a long history of social activism, and early on put up a large rainbow flag. The flag is not quite so controversial now but still periodically some unhappy person comes into the Cathedral and tries to tear it down. But it would be hard to tear down the tolerance and evolving understanding that’s part of why we have belonged to this parish, and why it’s meant so much to me.

I say this by way of introducing what will be happening in the next few days with the visit of the Pope to Mexico City. I don’t know enough to write a long intelligent commentary about the relationship of the Catholic Church to Mexico. I’ve seen so much, and so little. We’ve gone to services at the small parish church in the neighbourhood nearby, we’ve gone to fancy services in the Metropolitan Cathedral, we’ve watched and noted a lot of behavior, we’ve read. But it’s the same as applying for residency – I’m an outsider and will never really understand that much even in the big sense, much less the nuance.

Please add your comments.

Posted in Mexico, Québec

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How Many Roads? is a book of photographs by Jonathan Sa'adah, available for order, offering an unglossy but deeply human view of the period from 1968 to 1975 in richly detailed, observant images that have poignant resonance with the present. Ninety-one sepia photographs reproduced with an introduction by Teju Cole, essays by Beth Adams, Hoyt Alverson, and Steven Tozer, and a preface by the photographer.
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