It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by the myriad contradictions and the hyper-surreality of life in Mexico City. Ambling homewards along a sun-dappled tree-lined street in La Condesa, the well-to-do district we have called home for the last few months since moving here from London, feeling simultaneously buzzed and at peace after a coffee in our local cafebrería, I encounter an almost entirely naked man. He has unkempt hair and an actually quite natty beard, and he is attired in a few remaining strands of what must have been a woollen jumper, and also in what I can only describe as a loincloth. He asks me for 5 pesos (20p) and I am so shocked and disoriented that I take a 500 note out of my frankly consternated pocket and try to hand it to him.
He lets it fall to the floor while telling me an urgent tale which seems to involve former President Benito Juarez, his family home outside the city, and some sort of exile or loss, all in a way I can’t follow the thread of, mainly because it becomes increasingly clear that there isn’t one, he has lost it, and as he talks (he actually has a very nice voice, kind of lilting and very well-suited for storytelling, although it would be a lot more entertaining if the story had some sort of a plot) he literally unravels his suéter to the point where it’s just a few strands of wool and his dark skin is almost, but thankfully not entirely, exposed.
I try to sympathise and also to interject and find out what sort of help he needs, but at the same time to try to extricate myself from the bundle of incoherence he is weaving around me. I am also trying hard to draw his attention to the note that has fallen to the floor, and is probably about as much use to him as my first-world anxieties, even though it would, if he was remotely in control of his faculties, be enough to buy him some new threads and quite a few street tacos. I have the impression of talking to, or rather being talked at by, someone from a long time in the past, or possibly, more realistically, the future. But the encounter is taking place right now, in the present, because I am in Mexico City, and I do not understand what is going on.
As he talks, gesticulates and repeats again and again the same apparently unconnected details people pass by shaking their heads sympathetically (mostly at my plight rather than his, it seems), and I realise that what is taking place is not a conversation, and that there is nothing whatsoever I can do to help this man. It is abundantly clear we are living in two separate universes, so I apologise with embarrassment and go home, to our oversized and frankly overpriced apartment. I pack my bag and then the following day we go off on a nice air-conditioned bus ride to a very pleasant holiday, during which no-one tries to shoot us with impunity, no one attempts to evict us from our homes, and at no point do we have to worry about where we are going to sleep or how we will find anything to eat. When we return home it is with our clothes and our sanity largely intact.