Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Indelible Sensory Imprint of Mexico City and the Pyramids of Teotihuacán

PQ perched on the Pyramid of the Moon overlooking the Pyramid of the Sun and the Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacán, Mexico.

"In this twilight age of all the disciplines, in which beliefs are dying and religions are gradually gathering dust, our sensations are the only reality left to us. The only scruple that need concern us, the only satisfactory science, is that of sensations."

That's Fernando Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet describing the sensations of living in the city of Lisbon (a place I got to visit in 2014). Pessoa's poetic detailing of the sensory world of a modern city explored throughout The Book of Disquiet rung resonantly with my experience of Mexico City on a 10-day trip this past June. Looking back on that trip, it's the sensory experience that sticks out to me. Mexico City is such a vast, bustling, densely populated, and beautiful place. The experience of being there brings so much to bear on the senses that you end up filtering so much of it out so as not to get caught up in focusing on every little thing. As I've continued to digest the experience of being there, certain things that I overlooked or forgot about come floating back up in my memory.

Little details return, like the way the sunlight comes down through the trees. Mexico City felt like a metropolis inside of a jungle while surrounded by mountains on every horizon. It's a gigantic place with variation across each neighborhood, but the parts we mostly stayed in (La Roma and La Condesa neighborhoods) were so full of lush green, tall thriving trees that there was often a canopy for the sunlight to creep through. There were so many miniature parks with jungles of trees and plants alongside old statues and fountains. Giant, lush bougainvillea vines climbed lampposts and hung on electrical wires. Palm trees clustered together. Many of the buildings had porches full of plants like this place:

The streets and sidewalks were often rugged, wavy, sometimes crumbled due to recent earthquakes. Buildings and rooftops jostled together, some were abandoned, others razed and being rebuilt. The streets were as busy and byzantine as any city I've seen. And there was always this intermingling of trees and vines with hanging electrical wires, which you can get a little sense of in the above pic. Even though we were closer to the equator, it wasn't terribly hot. No worse than Austin, at least. The air was cool, partly because of the shade provided by the many canopies of trees and partly because Mexico City is way up in the mountains. At 7,382-feet above sea level it's higher up than Denver and the air is thin and dry. Although when it rains, it gushes down buckets pouring over palm fronds. The yellowish-green colors of everything during the downpours made it feel like a jungle.

The constant presence of mountains on the horizon always lent the place an exotic feel. The pervading sense I had throughout our time there was that this enormous, bustling metropolis was nestled in a lush, green valley surrounded by mountains on all sides. Somehow, I had never thought too much about Mexico City before, had never placed it on my mental map of the western hemisphere, so the whole time we were there the place felt like a revelation. Flying in, you float over huge mountain ranges and smoldering volcanoes, before the vast city grid appears below and then as you approach the airport (which is essentially in the middle of the city) the view from all sides becomes a city grid expanding out as far as the eye can see. Diffuse jumbles of streets and buildings upon streets and buildings and all, again, bordered by huge mountains.

I spent the first two-thirds of my life in New York City. I've been to big cities like Chicago, LA, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Barcelona, etc. None of these places can compare to Mexico City. The only comparison I could make is that Mexico City felt like NYC, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco combined. There's 25 million people there. The space extends out endlessly with varying neighborhoods, parks, markets, business districts, museums, etc and as you leave the city, the hills become covered with densely packed piles of pastel-colored buildings. It was tough to get a good pic of the latter but here's a glimpse:

That photo was taken on our bus ride through the outskirts of Mexico City to the ancient ruins of Teotihuacán on one of the last days of our trip. Not only was Teotihuacán the ultimate highlight of the trip, it had to be the coolest thing I've ever witnessed firsthand in my life. I'll talk about that more in a bit. Overall, being in Mexico City gave me a strong sense of the ancient history of this continent. The place felt very much in tune with its deep historical roots. Whereas in the United States, the land's distant history is hidden and overlooked, amputated or paved over, everything having begun in 1776 or maybe 1492; in Mexico City the ruins of an Aztec temple, the Templo Mayor, sit right in the heart of the city center. The city has a gigantic, architecturally beautiful anthropology museum containing one of the world's biggest collections of artifacts. The museum was especially interesting and fed into the feeling of the distant past being present. You learn about the bustling marketplaces in the pre-Columbian metropolis of Tenochtitlan (incredibly, a city that was an island in the center of a giant lake, accessible by long bridges---it was one of the largest cities in the world when Cortés invaded and destroyed it---and Mexico City was eventually built on its ruins), then you walk out into the park next to the museum on a Sunday afternoon and experience the busiest, most dense and loud assemblage of merchants and food vendors you've ever seen.

Mexico City had more vendors, merchants, hawkers, buskers, entrepreneurs, etc than I've ever encountered anywhere else in my life. Spend anytime walking or driving around the city and you'll be completely bewildered by the number of fruit stands, pop-up street food shops, magazine stands, candy stands you pass on the sidewalks. It's a place alive with commerce like no place else. Every morning I saw a dude driving a half-motorcycle, half-food stand to go set up in a park. Among countless street buskers, I heard many heartbreakingly talented musicians pouring their souls out through music. A memory that sticks out is from later on that Sunday after the anthropology museum, walking through the La Condesa neighborhood there was a kid sitting on a bench rapping with a mic plugged into an amp along with his extremely old, feeble looking grandmother sitting next to him. I'm not fluent in Spanish but it was clear this kid wasn't doing some braggadocio rapping, he was cathartically pouring out his pained soul through rhymes over beats. Doing it for his sick grandma.

The best glimpse we got of real Mexico City was when we went on an "Eat Like a Local" food tour where a local tour guide named Astrid took us all around the entire city sampling the best street tacos and specialty cuisines and took us on the subway to the different markets. I wish I'd taken video of our trips through these markets. They were enormous with dozens upon dozens of local vendors offering a myriad assortment of what seemed like the best of and unlimited quantities of any foods you can think of. Just piles and piles of fresh produce, much of it exotic, unfamiliar. Barrels and stacks of herbs and roots. Mountains of candy or chocolate or soap or flowers or pork rinds or cake or bread or what have you. Or there was a shop offering the best juice you've ever tasted. Or exotic mixtures of pulque, a traditional fermented alcoholic drink. We would weave deep into these densely packed markets, stepping thru narrow corridors between vendors whose products overflowed. I marveled at "the toomuchness, the fartoomanyness," to use a phrase from Finnegans Wake. And then we'd find an obscure little family grill and eat amazing tacos and traditional specialties. 

That tour of the city's foods and markets took place in one day and left me with impressions to digest and absorb for weeks. Amplitudes of color and flavor. And that was just our first full day of the trip. We stayed in the Roma neighborhood in a beautiful penthouse apartment with a big balcony which gave a perfect view of the jostling rooftops, skyscrapers, abandoned buildings, old churches and, always, the tall mountains in the background. We watched Alfonso Cuarón's masterpiece Roma from the living room of our Roma apartment then later walked five blocks down to see the actual house where it was filmed (across the street from the house Cuarón grew up in). The sounds of the Roma neighborhood in that film, a depiction of the 1970s, still echo today. Vendors hawk their wares. Garbage men ring a bell. Even the same knife sharpener's cart from the film that blares its shrill whistle, even that thing is heard still now throughout the Roma district.

Besides the food tour, we also did a street art tour which was enlightening and informative. My lady and I always find street art tours to be ideal ways to get immersed in the true essence of a city. Mexico City is filled with all kinds of cool murals and art work. Much of it carries deep messages illustrating the soul of the city. Getting to learn the history behind some of these pieces gave a glimpse at the soul of this place, the tragedies it has suffered recently like the devastating 2017 earthquake which took place on the 32nd anniversary of the devastating 1985 earthquake or the Iguala kidnappings where 43 students were kidnapped by police and given over to elements of organized crime, never to be seen again. The same struggles between people and corrupt power structures that are happening in communities all over the world. We absorbed all that heavy historical background through learning about works of art painted on the city walls.

The ultimate highlight of the trip was without a doubt the pyramids of Teotihuacán. It was one of the coolest experiences I've ever had, something I've been thinking about everyday since. Teotihuacán is an archeological site outside of Mexico City where an ancient pyramid city was uncovered by archeologists only about 100 years ago. This ancient city was originally built around 100 BC and reached its apex sometime around 300 AD, so it precedes the Mayans and the Aztecs. The Aztecs discovered the site as ruins and named it Teotihuacán meaning "the place where the gods were created." (A fascinating coincidence is the echo between the root "Teo-" in Aztec and "theo-" in Latin or Greek, both meaning "god.") Over centuries the ruins were forgotten about, covered in trees and cactus plants, blending in with the hilly, mountainous landscape over hundreds of years until they were rediscovered in the modern era. Archeologists are still making new discoveries at the site, they recently uncovered a tunnel 30-feet beneath one of the pyramids, containing precious gemstones and even, oddly enough, liquid mercury.

To be there seeing this place---a stunning, intricate architectural achievement from 2,000 years ago that became a lost civilization---is to stand in awe at mankind and history. This city, with enormous and beautifully constructed pyramids that reach as high as 240 feet, was built before there were horses on the continent. Most of it was constructed out of volcanic rock. The rock that remains now is faded but the pyramids were supposed to have been covered in colorful plaster. The anthropology museum had impressive renditions of what the pyramid panels would have looked like in their heyday. Zoom in and look at the intricacy of the faces on these panels below. Notice the serpent god and then the bizarre, boxy, almost digitized rain god:

All of the pyramids were incredible but the site also had the ruins of old living spaces in the city and even a few times there were recently uncovered spots that had been paved over back in ancient times and thus were well preserved with their smooth surfaces and colors. Being there it is impossible not to envision or try to in some way experience what it must have been like to live in this ancient civilization, a pyramid city that was one of the most impressive architectural achievements in the world at that time. The pyramids had temples at the top and were used in ceremonies. Sitting in front of each pyramid is an altar. In front of the Pyramid of the Moon, sort of in the center of the plaza, is what's called a quincunx. What remains are just the bones of the building but it was likely a priests' quarters shaped in the form of a quincunx, the ancient cosmological map that saw the universe in a geometric pattern with four corners and a fifth point in the center. Here's a view of the quincunx looking down from the Pyramid of the Moon at the heart of the Avenue of the Dead.

A glimpse of the quincunx.

Here is a map of the Teotihuacán site where you can see the Avenue of the Dead, the Sun Pyramid on the right and the Moon Pyramid at the top:

Scattered all throughout the space are the still standing foundational structures of old dwelling places. When the city was alive and thriving, Teotihuacán was surrounded by lush green land and they had even redirected a river so that it ran through the city. While no archeologist is certain about what exactly led to the collapse of this society, the generally accepted theory seems to be that they had exhausted their natural resources, over-farmed the landscape, ran out of food, and the people revolted against the ruling class, burning down their temples, looting and then abandoning the city. Can't help but take this as a precautionary tale for our current crisis.

To witness up close what was once a thriving and technologically advanced Mesoamerican city of 2,000 years ago, even in a state of faded ruins, was a powerful experience, one that's kind of tough to describe. This was a people with an entirely different cosmology than we can fathom. We learned that the site was covered with the buried remains of sacrifices, many animal and human sacrifices, especially in the vicinity of the pyramids. So many sacrificial burials. The tour guide emphasized how different their perspective would've been, that these ancient peoples would have seen it as a boon to their society to be sacrificed to the gods. Whether or not it seems primitive or gruesome and wrong to us nowadays, this was a people whose whole world was represented by their own mythology, their own cosmology. A lens inspiring brilliance and brutality alike. Sitting in the Plaza of the Pyramid of the Moon, surrounded by so many of these precisely-built layered pyramids, flanked by the astounding enormity of the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun, there's a feeling you get where you can just barely start to fathom the foreignness of this alternate world.

The strongest "vibe" we caught while there was when we reached the summit of the Pyramid of the Sun. At the top of that thing you could see out for miles and, being at the top of the third largest pyramid in the world with a bunch of mountains in immediate view, it felt like you were one with the sky. It was easy to feel the inspiration this space provided. Although, again, difficult to capture in words. Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet writes of "the sacred majesty of buildings devoted to the knowledge of the depths of the human soul"---that "sacred majesty" is a good approximation of what we felt.

Two other literary references kept popping up in my head while we were there and commingled with my reflections afterwards. In Pynchon's novel Mason & Dixon, which takes place in America in the 1760s, the characters frequently encounter Native American structures and mounds leading to speculation on the notion that "alternating Layers of different Substances are ever a Sign of the intention to Accumulate Force." This is a recurring idea throughout the novel, that layers accumulate some kind of telluric force or power. In Kathryn Hume's essay on Mason & Dixon (in The Cambridge Companion to Pynchon) she writes, "If we accept Dixon's statement that layers always accumulate power, then Pynchon's frequent invocation of these layers seems meant to intensify something---our openness to non-material realities and sensitivity to their paranormal energies, at the very least." Standing atop the Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacán, with unfathomably dense, bricked and packed layers upon layers of heavy volcanic stone at our feet, I definitely had an intuitive inkling that the people who built this place knew something that we have forgotten.

Another constant literary presence in my head as we traversed the Avenue of the Dead was Finnegans Wake. Of course. I was visiting Mexico City to deliver a paper on Finnegans Wake at the annual James Joyce conference being held there and my paper touched on ancient rites and rituals. I was also wearing an Austin Finnegans Wake Reading Group t-shirt when we visited the site. More significantly, the Wake is mainly a book about archeology and anthropology. At the heart of the text is a mysterious document dug up in an archeological excavation. That document is a stand-in for the Wake itself. The book is loaded with references to ancient megaliths and pyramids, it essentially brings to life all of the dead civilizations in history. It's a songbook of dead voices that frequently invokes the Egyptian Book of the Dead. And perhaps more than anything else, I kept thinking about Finnegans Wake as an abandoned temple because Joyce himself once expressed his worry that "perhaps in the years to come this work of mine will remain solitary and abandoned, like a temple without believers." It all felt so perfectly resonant.

That sense of resonance was evident in every corner of our Mexico City experience. Our time there abounded with coincidences. To close this recap in a way that might further express the subtly mysterious feeling of both unfamiliarity and welcomeness we had throughout our time in Mexico City, I want to note some of the many coincidences we experienced while we were there.

- During our Eat Like a Local tour, our tour guide, a local girl named Astrid mentioned offhand that her best friend lives in Staten Island, New York and that she'd visited there a few times. My lady, her mother, and I were all astounded to hear this since we had not yet mentioned to her we three are all Staten Islanders. So our local tour guide in Mexico City, a place that felt like an entirely alternate world, was perfectly familiar with the place we all had originally came from.

- While I was down there, my parents back in Staten Island happened to catch themselves in a convo with their nextdoor neighbors outside. They mentioned I was in Mexico City and it turned out their son Daniel, a kid I grew up with, lives in Mexico City and married a girl from there.

- There was a really cool place in La Roma that was part-restaurant, part-bookstore. It's called El Péndulo (The Pendulum). Since we were in town for a James Joyce conference (taking place at the university building just up the street) it was a little shocking to see Ulysses (in English) appearing on the front cover of the restaurant menu.

- The German philosopher/mathematician/polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz ended up becoming a recurring figure in the essay I presented at the Mexico City conference. This was a paper I'd been researching and writing for about six months, doing practice runs and discussing it with friends frequently, and the Leibniz part always seemed to stand out for people. So I thought it was hilarious and weird to see a street named after Leibniz in the middle of Mexico City:

- On our tour of the pyramids of Teotihuacán, there was a girl who was a friend of a friend of my lady's. They realized this through Facebook when a mutual friend saw both of them were posting pictures of that place at the same time, so they all linked up. It turned out this girl and my lady actually knew who each other were, they'd just never met. We learned this after having taken pictures for the girl and her father on the tour. So we were in the heart of Mexico, basically out in the middle of the desert at an archeological site and somehow ran into someone we know.

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