Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bug Bite - Part 2 of 3

   We arrived in Queretaro on a Saturday, and that was by design. Jason had been there once before, and he'd come away with a decidedly favorable impression of the city's nightlife. So we figured we'd soak up the night spots there, and then have the following weekdays to explore Mexico City's museums, parks, ruins, and so on. But those plans had one big hitch that none of us had been aware of. The federal elections were going to be held on Sunday, and it is illegal to sell alcohol in Mexico on election day. So from Saturday at midnight, through Sunday evening, the bars that we'd hoped to visit would be closed.

   We had actually heard about this a few days prior to arriving in Queretaro. But I don't think we really believed it. My own disbelief was rooted in the impression that I had of the country's legal system in general. The handful of cross border excursions that I'd made over the years had taught me that "illegal" in Mexico, really just meant "expensive". And even the term expensive was relative. But the closer election day came, the more we talked to people about this one day prohibition. And the more we talked to people, the more we realized that the bars really were going to close.

Lucha Libre Flyer
   Of course we didn't have to go out drinking at night in order to enjoy the city. I could just enjoy the daytime wanderings through the streets and parks. We'd have a relaxing weekend and move on. But I'd got the idea in my head, and it wasn't going away. (Election day also happened to be my birthday, and that probably added to my stubbornness.) And then those daytime wanderings brought us upon an alternative. While walking down the street, Joe spotted a flyer for some lucha libre matches. There was a full slate of matches scheduled for the night of the elections, and our derailed bar-hopping plans had just been rerouted to the colorful world of Mexican free wrestling.

   Before the liquor sales shut down, we grabbed a bottle of Cuban rum. (Good rum that was illegal in the U.S. because of an outdated, misguided, and inhumane trade embargo. But was readily available at a great price in Mexico.) And with most of that bottle in our bellies and an excited sense of mischief in heads, we arrived at Arena Queretaro.

Myself and Jason at Arena Queretaro.
   Arena Queretaro looked like one of the old high school basketball gyms in the movie Hoosiers. Though time had taken its toll on the place. In the center of the gym was the wrestling ring. Well worn, tattered, and taped up, the ring stood empty when we arrived. As did most of the seats. The rows of aluminum folding chairs were about ten deep on each side. And behind them stood the cracked and dirty concrete walls of the old building. We took a few seats in the front row and watched the other fans and spectators trickle in.

   I was later told that we would have experienced a much larger crowd had it not been election night. But whatever the hundred or so person audience lacked in size, they more than made up for in intensity.

   As soon as the first wrestlers took to the ring, they were greeted by cheers and jeers from the fans. One woman in particular stood apart from the rest of crowd and earned a permanent spot in my memory. The venom that she aimed at her enemies in the ring was both frightening and comical. Her face was red, her muscled strained, and the animosity in her voice might give somebody the impression that she was confronting the murderer of a loved one, rather than an underpaid b-list entertainer. But that alone isn't what made her stand out. Throughout the matches, while she spewed out hate filled obscenities that filled the gym, a baby of about four or five months slept peacefully in her arms. Not once did she hand off the baby to one of the merely mildly ruffled women in her party, who seemed content to shout an occasional admonishment or perhaps shake a fist at the ring. And not once did that baby show any sort of alarm at the fury that was emanating from it's presumed mother. Which led me to speculate that perhaps she is like this all the time. That thought led my down a whole other rabbit hole of questions. For instance, what might life be like for that kid, and for the man that helped produce the offspring?

   But I did eventually pull my attention away from the woman, and return my gaze to the ring. The view from the front row provided an interesting perspective on the wrestling. The punches and kicks were clearly not landing with full force. And they tossed each other around with moves that were obviously choreographed. But it was equally apparent that these guys were taking a beating. The sweat was pouring out, the cuts and scrapes seemed quite real, and the labored breathes coming from the ring were evidence that they were giving everything they had to the performance. And then they took their battles beyond the ropes.

Lucha Libre @ Arena Queretaro
   The first time a wrestler was thrown into the seats, the crowd squealed with mock terror and delight, scattered out of harm's way, and left the two men to fight it out on their own. The wrestlers punched and kicked one another among the fallen chairs, before finding their way back into the ring. The second time, the same thing happened, but on another side of the stage. And at that point I realized that they would probably make their way around to our side at some point.

   As that realization sank in, the excitement and the anticipation began to mix with the Cuban rum, and I turned to Jason and Joe, and told them that I wasn't going to move if one of the guys got thrown our way. I wanted to get in on the fight somehow. And just a moment later they came flying my way.

   I think it was the "good guy" that landed in my lap, but I couldn't be sure. Either way, I grabbed him from behind and held him in a full nelson. This was a pretty big guy, and I have no doubt that he could have shaken off my little seventh grade playground move with relative ease, had he chosen to. But both wrestlers embraced the improvisational moment. The one in my lap pretended to struggle for his freedom, while his opponent tried to stifle the laughter that I could see behind his mask, all while delivering heavy stomps to the prone man's chest.

   After delivering those kicks, the standing wrestler grabbed his enemy and threw him back into the ring and I nearly pissed myself with glee. I looked around and saw the chairs that had been knocked over, the spilled popcorn and cokes that littered the floor, and I noticed that the fallen fighter had left some of his blood on my pants.

   The absurdity of it all was absolutely beautiful. In that environment I could just let go of any attachments that I had to the realm of logic and reason and I could embrace the honesty and the simplicity of impulse and sensation. It isn't a state that I want to find myself in on a daily basis, but there is an undeniably cathartic release involved in the process of giving yourself over to those elements from time to time.

   After the last match, I left Queretaro Arena with an easy smile on my face. It was a quiet summer night in the city, and we rode in silence in a cab with the windows rolled down.

   The polls had closed, and as we rode down the street we noticed that people were posting what looked like results from individual precincts. Big pieces of paper with names and numbers printed on them, were stapled to walls. And the people passing by immediately gathered around to take a look. But it was a close and highly contested election, and the results were far from final that evening.

   That following morning we packed our bags and once again set out for the bus station. We had one stop left, before returning to Jason's place in Monterrey. Mexico City was just a quick ride down the highway and I was excited to get there.

   Mexico City was the red letter destination on that itinerary for me. I love the chaotic energy of large cities, and I knew that this was one of the biggest in the world. And in theory, I knew that I was going into something that was outside of my realm of experience. I'd listened to Jason talk about the place. I'd read about it. I'd seen it portrayed vividly in one of my favorite movies. But in the end, nothing that I had read or heard about could convey the sights, sounds, smells, and the feel of that city. In order to get even a taste of the humanity that that city is teeming with, I had to stand in it.

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