Friday 6 August 2010

More (very) random cultural observations

Here's a great one we learnt in Kenya - I'm not sure if Tania already spoke about it. When we were present at community meetings organised by Pamoja Trust, the NGO we helped out in Nairobi, we noticed that instead of clapping, everyone would gesticulate, making what we can only describe as 'jazz hands', whilst murmuring ¨umeme¨. This is because originally such meetings had to be held in clandestine fashion and loud noises avoided. What's interesting is that umeme means both electricity and lightning.

If you see a crowd of men running after one man in Africa (or at least the Eastern parts we visited), it´s likely that the people are self-policing against a thief.

Something that must be seen to be believed - a group of giggling Mexican men pushing onto an empty metro train, desparate to get the free seats. Normally fairly civilised, offering seats to women and the elderly, something clearly (almost literally) goes out the window when a threshold of numbers on the platform is reached and there are empty seats available. Mind you, India takes the cake when it comes to trying to get on and off public transport. Instead of waiting to let people off (something which we just about - grudgingly - manage in Mexico City), everyone goes hell for leather at the same time, making the whole process longer and fairly exhausting. My humble theory is that these are examples of people (ok, men) just wanting to get a little boyish frolicking into their lives.

In the Mexican Metro, they have big fans, through which at certain times of the day, some kind of spray is pumped out, presumably to kill some kind of harmful little bugger. Folks seem quite unfazed by this, often reaching up to get in a free hand clean. I wonder how that would go down in Waterloo Station, with no explanation. Mind you, swine flu did basically shut down this city for a few weeks, only a year ago.

Here in Mexico, you hear a lot about Quetzalcoatl, an ancient god who had the form of a feathered snake. You see the image all over the place - at archaeological sites, in murals;
in fact one of our ex-flatmates is going to get a tattoo of Quetzalcoatl, amongst other national symbols. Quetzalcoatl has been worshipped all over Mesoamerica, since well before the time of Christ. There was a period where he was supposed to have lived as a man, although Monica told us that, paradoxically, by this time he was already being worshipped as a god in other areas. He was said to have a very white face and therefore looked different to the rest of his people. Which is why, when Hernán Cortés led the Spanish invasion in the 16th century, the indigenous people thought that Quetzalcoatl had returned in the form of Cortés.

Monica told us about connections between Mexico and Asia, particularly interesting being sort of reflections in iconography. Firstly, let me say that sometimes Mexicans do look remarkably similar to Asians - both racial groups share Mongolic genetics. In the Anthropology Museum we saw statues in Buddha-like poses, yet dating from BEFORE the birth of Buddha. And this is great - the Ancient Sun Stones (e.g. this one, covered by Wired), of which you see many reproductions in tourist hotspots, were bounded by a two-headed snake. Turn the whole thing upside down and you quite clearly see a Chinese dragon. Freaky, eh?

For ancient Mesoamerican cultures such as the Maya and the Aztecs, 20 was a very important figure. Their calendars divided periods into 20 and their abacus was base 20. The supposed reason for this is because, with their open toed sandals (huaraches), they could easily count to twenty using all the digits of their hands and feet.

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