As an expat in a new city, every experience in a public space becomes a lesson, or several, to be learned. For example, a ride on the green line of the Mexico City subway system (el Metro) is a rapid transit tour through both Mexican history and culture. Zapata, Cuauhtémoc, Juárez, all indigenous heroes of earlier Mexicos, immortalized, to apolitical extent, as station names. Niños Heroes: a station commemorating the child soldiers who would probably be deemed victims of human rights abuses these days. Etiopía: named after a traffic roundabout donated by the country of Ethiopia as a thank you gift from Haile Selassie.
If history bores you, there’s always an array of impressive make-up tutorials to observe. The incredible precision with which women on the Metro manage to paint a perfect face, all while bouncing and rocking along in a speeding train, leaves me slack-jawed and staring every morning. Lip-liner, mascara, bronzer and all are applied in quick, deft movements that somehow anticipate every abrupt turn and screeching halt. This morning I watched a girl draw perfect eyebrows, all while the arm that held the brush was linked around the handrail to stabilize her. And perhaps my favorite technique is what I can only refer to as an ingenious use of a metal spoon to curl eyelashes in a maneuver I won’t even attempt to describe.
For the sociology and policy nerds out there is a contemporary display of the power struggle over public advertising. Lays chips (Sabritas, in Mexico) tries to convince me that greasy potatoes will “make my day shine,” just like the attractive people in the pictures, while the government chimes in a few inches below with the timely reminder that “1 in 3 children in Mexico will suffer from diabetes in their life” and we should all be fighting to “eliminate junk food from their world.”
And not to forget the all-important lesson of how one manages one’s movement during rush hour, la hora pico. In the midst of hundreds of people desperately trying to get to work at the same time, squashed into the same, compact spaces, not causing a breakdown in the flow of bodies becomes a matter of sanity and survival. As the train gets closer to the city center, the concentration of people increases exponentially. Scenes of uniformed guards helping to shove the last elbow and bum through the closing doors, or worse, struggling to pull people out of a vertical dog pile so they can get off at their stop, suggest the level of human strain one must endure for a morning commute. Like the metal spoon, words cannot do justice to this lesson, but try to imagine closing yourself like an umbrella for a start.
In the end, it’s all worth it for a cross-city commute and a beginner’s course on Mexico that only costs 33 cents a ride.