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Dreams of Mexico City 1968

Often the first sense assaulted upon arriving in a foreign land is smell. Each place exuding its own distinct odor; tropical plumeria and gardenia to the not so sweet smell of industrial waste, auto exhaust and burning trash. Stepping off the train into Mexico City my first memory is of burning eyes and a smell that to this day I simply cannot find words to describe but would recognize in a moment if it were to drift past my nose again. My sinuses did adjusted; but I challenge anyone to accurately describe  in words the scent of a developing country in the mid 60’s.

Although I  don’t remember I am quite sure I had stayed in a hotel prior to this trip just as I am equally sure I hadn’t called one home for a two-week stretch. I remember this one as enormous and white with the highest ceilings I had ever encountered. It felt grand to my young sensibilities (although grand was probably far from reality). We also had our own driver upon arriving which felt very fancy indeed having come from a life not use to such things. I don’t remember if he toted us around every day but I do remember heading out into the country side to visit a small craft village where we were outfitted in hand-woven wool ponchos. And of course for a day spent at Toetihuacan wandering the Avenue of the Dead whilst begging our parents permission to clamber to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun because we were sure we were old enough and capable of the assent. Alas we were only allowed to venture up the puny little side pyramids. As a parent now understand their wisdom; we probably would have gotten half way up and started whining about being too tired to continue and they would have had to haul our lazy asses back down.

Avenue of the Dead
Avenue of the Dead
Pyramid of the Sun
Pyramid of the Sun

I remember our hotel room faced the busy boulevard below where I would look out the window and see a girl my age sitting on a worn blanket with her mother and brother selling Chiclets gum and begging. I don’t know if I had ever seen anyone begging let alone a kid my size. I remember the soaring height of our hotel room because the helium balloons we got at the fiesta on Christmas Eve came lose from their tether and floated to the ceiling where they could not even be retrieved by dad as he stood on a bed. We waited days for them to slowly loose their grip to the ceiling and drift back into our hands. On the last day of our trip I gave the girl on the street my balloon and my few remaining pesos.

I have come across so little documentation of this trip. I have found a smattering of grainy home movies of us kids running around the zoo at Chapultepec Park and Toetihuacan, mom in the background looking like a model, so mod and hip, as if she had stepped right off a magazine page. Several years ago while watching this video, seeing mom dressed in a short Merrimeko dress (which she probably sewed her self) and the twiggy bob hair cut I was struck not by just how amazing she looked but I also wondered if Victoria Beckham has somehow seen these old videos and was trying to imitate my mom. Honestly, Victoria Beckham looks like she was copying my 1968 mom minus the bitchy attitude face which I don’t think anyone other than Victoria can pull off.

I asked dad why I couldn’t find any photos and he reminded me there are boxes of slides somewhere that may contain pictures from that trip. Hell I’d forgotten about those and the evening slide shows we used to have. Does anyone take slides any more? I have yet to be motivated enough to hunt down these slides and figure out where to find a projector and instead turn to Google in hopes of finding clues as to what Mexico City was like in 1968.

1968 is often referred to as the most pivotal year in modern history. The unrest was not limited to the United States as protests sprung up worldwide. The Vietnam war was in full swing and 1968 was perhaps the bloodiest year in that war’s history with the Tet offensive and slaying of innocent civilians in many other massacres. Civil rights disturbances and anti-war demonstrations took place on university campuses around the globe. Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy were assassinated, we sent the first manned Apollo rocket ship into space, the Wizard of Oz was televised, and we elected a new president amidst riotous conventions. Olympic games were held in Grenoble, France and Mexico City. And just meer months before our arrival there was what was described as a massacre and ‘blood bath’ of demonstrating students in Mexico City. Perhaps the fact that we lived just a block from the University of Illinois campus and were used to seeing Walter Cronkite showing us nightly the unfolding unrest taking over the world that my parents didn’t give a second thought of taking three children into a potentially volatile area.

I remember thinking Christmas was much more exciting in Mexico. It was a P.A.R.T.Y complete with carnival rides, mariachi music, dancing, pinatas, fireworks and fire crackers, food and drink. It was a mad celebration on Christmas Eve that went on all night. On Christmas day we saw miles of the pious on their knees slowly making their way  to the Cathedral Metropolitana. According to my diary we spent Christmas day at the zoo.

I think the funniest family memory from this trip was the Mexican’s fascination with our hair, in particular my youngest brothers. We were 3 blonds heads in a sea of black hair but Paul’s hair was beyond blond, it was white and fine. Strangers would come up to him and touch his hair all day long. Boy did he get pissed, and he had a temper! He was baffled by the fascination with his hair. The low point of the trip was dad coming home with hepatitis. It was bad, I remember him bed for what seemed like a good month watching him turn yellow and then watching the yellow gradually recede. As we were all exposed to dad we were treated to gamma globulin shots which really pissed off my brother Eric;  after receiving this epic shot the Dr said…oops, I think you may already have hepatitis too (although his was not nearly as bad as dad). Gratefully both fully recovered.

I think in many ways the trip to Mexico moulded me into the adult I have become. The excitement of exploring new culltures, their people and traditions, even the adventure in just getting to your final location left me with a longing for more such experiences.  Up to this point we had been told there are people in the world that are less well off than us but nothing tends to adhere to the eight year old brain better than seeing with your own eyes that true poverty exists outside the comforts of your own life.I don’t think an up close view of  poverty was our parents intent but I’ve often wondered if children wouldn’t grow into more compassionate adults if they witnessed this  first hand. Besides the memories I hold in my heart I also left Mexico with a few souvenirs in hand that I have to this day.photo

Pictures, movies and memories

Each time I sit down to transfer a memory from the past, committing to paper my travels through life, I also reach to the top shelf in the spare  bedroom closet to riffle through the boxes of memories looking for proof of the past in the form of old photographs. Amongst the boxes on the top shelf also sits a small brown suitcase (vintage ’70’s and once belonging to a much larger set) stuffed with ancient fading dog-eared photos, some so old that even the few remaining people who might possible recall names, places and dates have long forgotten the faces staring out. Pawing through literally thousands of photos one would come to believe we hardly ever left the confines of our home let alone traveled to far-flung corners of the globe. Instead I find snap shots of birthday parties, first communions, an array of Halloween costumes as well as the requisite bare-naked-baby-on-the-bearskin-rug shots but not one shot of us standing before the ancient Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan or skipping down the Avenue of the Dead. 

It gradually dawns on me why there are so few still photos of  our travels. Sometime in the mid 60’s my father abandoned his bulky Rolleiflex (oh how I wish we still had that one!) so that he could capture our every movement on Super 8. In fact, on the floor of the very closet that houses the small brown suitcase sits a battered cardboard box which at one time held 1/2 gallon jugs of Almaden Mt. White Chablis now straining to contain an overflow of home movies. Never mind that it has been literally decades since we have owned a  functioning movie projector this box has crisscrossed the county in overheated moving vans, spent years gathering dust in garages far from climate controlled, finally landing in my closet. Mom had become the chronicler of everyday moments with her Brownie Instamatic, dad the movie maker while I became the journalist committing our travels to paper.

We returned from Europe the summer of ’63, adding the third and last child to the mix in 1964 (from the math it doesn’t appear mother smuggled another child into the country). Our family was now complete and the adventures would resume. I can say from a child’s perspective having a parent in  academia was pretty ideal, not sure how it is from the adult perspective but we thought it was a great deal. Christmas and spring vacations off not to mention long summer breaks beckoning travel and adventure. Living just a few block from the university campus most of our friends enjoyed the same parental perks. No one thought it the least bit odd that families would often disappear for months at a time.

We spent the next few years learning to camp, exploring the east coast from Martha’s Vineyard to the Great Smokey Mountains. During this time we also learned our mild-mannered professor dad could cuss like a sailor who’s been out to sea too long. Trying to get the pop-tent set up was to say the least, trying. It is my understanding this new fangled self-erecting pop-up tent was supposed to make camping hassle free. Simply get yourself inside this deflated tent and either push or pull the lever situated in the top center of the dome until the tent magically erected itself. I can’t say for sure whether the lever was pushed or pulled as we were kept far off to the sides with our little hands over our ears so as not to hear the offending language coming from the deflated tent with dad trapped inside. Large swaths of my childhood was spent traveling from coast to coast camping but in 1968 my parents got the wild hair to hop a train with  tow-headed children in tow and head to Mexico City for Christmas…