Mexico City Stories: Insight into blindness, as the city stops for a shot at gold

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The Independent US

Mexico City's art nouveau Palacio de Bellas Artes has two exhibitions running, and, surprisingly, it's not the show commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of the ever-popular painter Frida Kahlo that you have to book five weeks in advance.

Art lovers in this city of 20 million know they can go across town to Coyoacan whenever they choose to see Frida's death mask and some of her bold self-portraits at the house she shared with radical muralist Diego Rivera. But few have experienced the insights into blindness offered by Dialogue in the Dark.

In the company of a marketing manager, two students and a designer from the city's Reforma newspaper, I am handed a cane and led into the first of a series of pitch-dark rooms on the second floor of the marble-decked theatre. It is the start of an hour-long experience that aims to show Mexico as it is experienced by the sightless.

Our guide, Sonia, lost her sight two years ago as the result of an allergic reaction, and her bright, clear voice immediately helps me to shed my fear. She led us into a room humming with cicadas that smells of damp mulch - a tropical forest - and then on into a burbling, traffic-snarled street much like the capital's colonial centre outside.

Running my hands over market stalls, I find a jar filled with pebble-hard frijole beans, and brush against a string of chillis. Stumbling up the street, we feel our way around parked cars and discover the shape of Mexico City's rubbish bins, which are large, plastic and shaped like outsized London parking meters.

As Sonia leads us back to the land of the sighted, she tells us that she makes the trip across the city to work here alone each day. For me, quite lost after two steps into a darkened room, it is the bravest, boldest thing I have heard.

¿ For Mexico City residents, the Olympics ended not with the traditional marathon event, but with the women's 400 metres: the country's best shot at gold. The whip-thin athlete Ana Guevara won the world championships in Paris last year, and as she slipped into the blocks for the finals in Athens on Tuesday, the capital shuddered to a halt.

Rapt office workers crowded round portable TVs plugged in at taco and flower stands across the city as they waited for the race to begin.

Among those taking a break were President Vicente Fox and his wife, Marta Sahaugun, who - press photos later revealed - crept ever closer to the edge of the sofa at the official Los Piños residence as she waited for the starting gun to sound.

Guevara came in just one-15th of a second behind her Bahamian rival, Tonique Williams-Darling, to sighs from across the city. But upbeat residents managed to find victory in second place by the following day.

"Ana may have got the silver," a cab driver told me on the run in to work, "but it felt like gold."

¿ Cinemas here fill up at the weekends, as residents pile in to see the latest subtitled americanadas churned out by Hollywood and a varied fare of European and Mexican releases. I opted to see a locally shot crime satire called Matando Cabos.

The frantic film's hidden joy was in its casting. Playing the wife of the feared gangland boss of the title was Jacqueline Voltaire, a British actress who has made Mexico City her home for the past three decades, and frequently appears in Spanish-language television soap operas.

I was recently introduced to Jacquie by a friend, and was delighted to see her play with such aplomb alongside a strong Mexican cast, including Ana Claudia Talancon, star of last year's The Crime of Padre Amaro. I can't wait to hear all about it.