Posted by Cila Warncke
Parties are a great way to get close to people, or places. Something always comes out in the wash of booze and adrenaline. I’d half forgotten about carnival until I went for a walk and found myself in the middle of it, camera in hand. Children, naturally, are everywhere, elbow deep in candyfloss and grease, scuttling between feet. A massive soundstage has drawn a crowd so I work my way through to see the action (not difficult, as I’m a foot taller than anyone here). Across the top of a sea of camera phones I catch what passes for Sunday afternoon family entertainment: a row of girls in go-go boots having a ‘sexy’ dance-off. In the middle of the blur of yellow bottoms and white breasts (the diversion is sponsored, loudly, by Sol beer) stands a middle aged man, high-waisted jeans belted around his ample beer gut, sporting a smug grin as the girls – young enough to be his daughters – thrust their humps, rumps and lovely lady lumps at him. On a massive LED screen next to the stage the Call On Me video is playing, offering larger than life gusset shots for the gentlemen at the back. Wriggling out of audience I feel sorry for the really beautiful little girls running around. They have serious Indian faces, jet black hair and obsidian eyes. It is going to take a lot of bleach and gunk plastered across their mahogany skin to make them look anything like the pornified, dyed blonde ‘beauties’ on stage. I am not optimistic, in the circumstances, that they will spot this press-on-nail femininity for the big fat patriarchal sham that it is.
Moving along the main street, Pasejo Montejo, the crowd gets more animated. There are stages set up at regular intervals and audience participation is in full flow. There’s sort of thrash/reggae band going on one stage, with a big knot of drunk teenagers in front of it. The singer has enormously long, dirty-looking dreadlocks and a bright robe. He is delivering an impassioned rant about smokers’ rights. “No necesitamos guerra contra narcos. No necesitamos ejercito en nuestros calles!” (We don’t need a war against drugs, we don’t the army in our streets). The band kicks off a rather catchy tune whose chorus runs “rasta solo ganja/rasta solo marijuana”. The occupying army is entirely indifferent to this call for their removal. A police watchtower next to the stage only comes to life when a kid in a blue-and-silver wrestling mask takes a wild swing at someone dancing next to him. The police whistle someone over to break it up the flurry of fists.
Notwithstanding the heavily armed police a man walks past me smoking a huge spliff. It is the only evidence I see of any so-called illicit substances. Everyone is just plain drunk. Sol, despite the heavy duty marketing, is lagging behind Modelo Especial and Tecate as the lager of choice. There is a lot of the slightly wall-eyed, wobbling drunkenness that happens after too much beer in the afternoon. Girls are propping up their staggering boyfriends and children drift after parents who are lost in their own world. In front of the stages playing sentimental Mexican pop everyone is dancing. The Meridians (if that’s a word) are – as one put to me – “small and fat” but that doesn’t stop them getting their groove on. Couples ranging in age from toddlers to grandparents are shuffling in cheerful circles through the detritus of beer tins and Styrofoam food cartons.
Everywhere I turn someone is selling something deep fried. Mexico is a cardiologist’s nightmare (or dream, depending on how mercenary he/she is). It rivals Scotland in its fascination with hot oil as a primary method of food preparation. I can almost understand the whole hot-and-battered business north of the border but I don’t understand how people can wolf churros, chips, taquitos, quesadillas and what appear to be pork cracklings in Merida’s tropical heat. An enormous chunk of sienna-orange meat rotates on a doner spit, making me glad I’m a vegetarian. The obsession with fried meat is matched by a passionate attachment to sugar. Paradoxically, they cut the sweetness of fruit by dousing it in salt, fresh lime and chilli powder but they pile sugar into everything else. Even plain yogurt, which took me by surprise; I thought my carton of Activia had gone off until I read the ingredients and realised it was packed with azucar. These lethal dietary attachments explain the general barrel-shapedness. Face it: even rangy, big-boned North Americans swell up like Violet Beauregard on this fare; diminutive Mayans don’t stand a chance.
As a comparatively lanky drink of water I find myself being steered involuntarily here and there as the low-centre-of-gravity contingent chart their courses. I also keep nearly stepping on children, they’re cute, and I feel bad. Lots of them are dressed up for the occasion. I see a Snow White pulling terrible faces from the kerb. A baby in a cat costume trails along behind her mother while a bumblebee catches the scene from his dad’s arms. The hustle magically melts away when I shy into a cross street. Police barriers at either end keep the traffic off. There is a good-sized knot of curious bystanders at this intersection, though, because there’s a fire two blocks down. Smoke is pouring from a building and there is a moderate but appreciative audience. Everything is a spectacle today. As I walk north three or four teenage boys appear to be changing their tops as they stand on the pavement, then they all duck behind the façade of the hospital. They’re wearing white tee-shirts hand painted with names and an affiliation. Fifty or so metres on, at traffic lights, police appear to have just broken up a fight. The matching tee-shirt crowd storm off down the street, their girlfriends flapping in their wake. If it’s gang violence it looks neither organised nor particularly violent. I can’t even tell who they were fighting with. Some of the tactically retreating party look like they’re still looking for trouble, but none of the bystanders hanging out watching the show take it seriously.
Back in my neighbourhood all is calm and bright. There are families hanging out in front of their houses. At one, two little boys hold bright green parakeets while their father looks on. The paint shop is shut, as is the tortillaria, but Restaurante 7 Mares is open, television blaring above the conversations. The world rumbles on. Merida abides.