– Gameness til the End
Feike de Jong in Mexico City
Wednesday 11 November 2015 10.00 GMT
Last modified on Wednesday 11 November 2015 16.19 GMT
To get a sense of the true size of the megacity, Feike de Jong decided to walk around its entire 800km-long perimeter. In these extracts from his ebook, the experience takes him back to childhood – and confronts him with cockfighting.
The world has never known cities as big as the megacities of the 21st century. Big. That is the principal characteristic of Mexico City. So big that it has outgrown its own administrative limits, leaving the city as a whole officially nameless. So big that for some places of employment, it really it isn’t necessarily closer to live in the city at all – you might as well live in the provinces and cut down on your commute. So big that it encircles mountains, and families and friends can grow apart due to the sheer distance of living in the same city.
Though we know it is big, and can see its size on maps, we don’t really perceive its size. Like an ocean, we only see part of the megacity of Mexico, and so Mexico-Tenochtitlan is spoken of as infinite, boundless, limitless. So vast as to be unknowable, beyond comprehension.
I imagined the city as a whale and myself as some miniscule sea creature crawling over it
In reality though, Mexico City is not infinite. It has a beginning and an end. Patterns repeat themselves throughout the urban fabric. The city’s history is written on its walls and in the rubbish along its storm drains, in the names of subway stations and the little white crosses marking deaths on the street.
The way to know something too big to perceive is through its parts. So just like a seafarer of old who would sail around an island to see how large it was, this project deals with the edge of the greater Mexico City area, in the hope that it will tell us something about the size and complexity of the city it encircles.
To know how big Mexico City is compared to, for example, a living room, you need to bring both under a common denominator – in this case, the footstep. By walking around the edge of this megacity, I hoped to get an idea of the human scale of the city. I myself was the slightly overweight, at times frightened, easily distracted and often clumsy unit of measurement for this project.
As the walk continued and the city stretched out before me, determining my route – zigzagging, capriciously climbing up hills, slithering through ravines, day after day, week after week – it began to acquire a personality. I imagined the city as a whale and myself some miniscule sea creature crawling over it: the city moving slowly and gracefully according to its own laws; me frantically scrambling, a water flea on the skin of the leviathan.
I had been told it would be dangerous. At the end of my 800km walk, I understood that the dangers of getting run over while crossing a freeway, falling when clambering up some ravine, or twisting my ankle while crossing a field of tall grass were, in reality, greater than murder or mugging and harder to avoid. Lucky or not, I was not mugged or otherwise harmed and it was finally a hill, el Cerro de los Tres Picos, which sent me limping to a medical clinic.
As time went by, I found myself oddly reminded of my childhood. The edge of the city is full of odd in-between spaces – the space between the freeway and housing complexes, the space between a fence and a hedge, the space behind a playground – which you rarely visit as an adult. Children loitering and playing still find these places, and leave behind their childish scrawls. As time went by, I found myself regaining some of the quirks of childhood, stopping to look at ants carrying a twig to their anthill, or picking up oddly shaped pieces of metal or glass and, only with great regret, dropping them once more.
Feeling constantly vulnerable and exposed after weeks wandering the urban landscape left me exhausted. I felt the presence of people very strongly, as if they were amplified. I became increasingly understanding towards vagrants for whom the distance to another human being – the actual approach and talking to them – seems enormous. Their presence as a kind of background hum of the city was pleasant and comforting. I talked to myself, and became a person who sits on a sidewalk in the dust without apparent purpose, munching on a packaged muffin.
Normally, we are always where we want to be, or on our way there. We create our own image of the city, edited according to our wants and prejudices. But when you take a random route over a great stretch of city, you no longer see the city made up of things you want to see or places you want to be. You see the city as it presents itself.
In the end my voyage around the edge of the Greater Mexico City area took 51 days. This is the city I saw.
Diary entry 28: Naucalpan – the way of the rooster
The rooster is resentful, said the old man as we sat on a dusty street on the outer edge of Naucalpan, among the hills and gullies on the foothills of the Sierra Alto. He looked out over the dirt and gravel in front of him as if transmitting the essence of a lifetime’s experience in these few words. The cock does not forgive.
My entire walk around the edge of the city was sprinkled with references to cockfighting. Sometimes, I would see the covered cages in fields where fighting cocks were kept and bred, cages covered by galvanised steel to keep the roosters in the shade. Usually, these would be in out-of-the-way parts of the edge, somewhat hidden. Within the barrios, sometimes among the secondhand tools and cell-phone adapters lying for sale on a blanket next to the road, there would also be a tall, mesh cage with a thin, tough-looking fighting cock inside.
The man sitting next to me on the dusty sidewalk was a rooster breeder. His roosters were not visible behind the house and he did not wish me to see them. But we did talk about the world of cockfighting. He told me that the very best fighting cocks came from the farm of the widow Wilson in California, a well-know rooster breeder. He told me that sometimes millions of pesos were bet on cockfights and that the best cocks could cost hundreds of thousands of pesos.
The selection process of the hatchlings was ruthless, he said. A chicken could lay many eggs and out of each one would come a chick. The least apt chicks were destroyed, thousands of them, and only the fittest were allowed to mature into fighting cocks. The different kinds of roosters had strange names such as Kelso, Roundhead and Johnny Jumper. The cocks themselves remained nameless; what was the point of giving a name to an animal bred to die?
He told me that the stakes during the fights were enormous. Sometimes, trainers would be bribed to hobble their cocks and throw the fight. One technique was to hang the cock upside down the night before a fight with a dripping faucet next to it. That night, it would not sleep and it would enter the fight weak, and die. But the rooster is unforgiving. If a trainer did that once, his cocks would stop fighting for him. He would be jinxed and his roosters would lose. As if there were some great rooster somewhere, a god of fighting cocks, who avenged his own when he could. And like all small people of spirit, who must accept their lot and their suffering without complaint or redress, the god of roosters does not forget.
A few weeks earlier, I had seen my first cockfight. One imagines a clandestine cockfight, the betting, the men with sombreros, the roosters with their cruel metal knives tied to their spurs as something nocturnal, fuelled by tequila and gambling. However, the one I saw seemed more a neighbourhood event. I was walking into the hills by Los Reyes with my wife, who had joined me for that day. It was late Sunday morning.
First, I saw a young man with long hair and a fierce dark face crossing the Texcoco highway. He disappeared in the paths below me. As we went up to the mouth of the gully, I saw a teenager whistling high up in a big tree. I was surprised by this curious image and approached the tree to take a picture. Since he was in a tree, there was not much he could do about it. Only later when I came to the site of the cockfight did I realisee that the teenager in the tree had been a lookout.
The site of the cockfight was a dirt path in the ravine aptly known as the Barranca del Muerto. Informal self-built houses were built up the slopes. There was a group of about 20 people, some women, some young children, a cooler with beer and soft drinks and the general atmosphere of a Sunday picnic. I asked whether I could stay and take pictures. No problem at all.
The fierce-looking man I had seen earlier arrived with a rooster in a cage and a small box. Another man also was carrying a cage. The box was opened and the men fussed over its contents. I understood that the box contained the knives which would be bound to the roosters’ feet. Then the men stood apart with their roosters. They blew into the roosters’ beaks. Then they let the cocks go in a flurry of feathers. After about two minutes of rushing at each other with flapping wings, one of the cocks fell over dead.
The fierce-looking man with the long hair swooped up the victorious bird in his arms. Money passed hands. The dead bird lay in the dust. With brisk procedure, the contest was adjourned and the social event continued. We thanked our hosts and went on our way up the ravine towards el Cerro del Pino.
Later, I asked the man in Naucalpan if the roosters ever didn’t fight. He said that never happened. Fighting cocks know what they are for and never back down. Every animal, no matter how small, seems to sense its destiny.
The ebook Limits: Explorations on the Edge of the Megalopolis of the Valley of Mexico, by Feike de Jong, will be published bilingually in December 2015 by Nieve de Chamoy with a grant from Mexico’s Fondo Nacional de la Cultura y Las Artes.