A violinist played for tips Saturday on a busy sidewalk facing Mexico City's Zócalo. His song,"Bésame Mucho," was an ironic backdrop for the shoppers and tourists who wore surgical masks as they stopped to drop pesos in his violin case. On Valentines Day the famous Mexican ballad served as a theme song when nearly 40,000 people gathered to break the Guinness World Record for largest group kiss.
More than two months later, kissing and public gatherings are among the activities government officials are advising against as they fight to contain a mysterious swine flu. Also a victim of the outbreak - cultural activities. In addition to shutting down schools for students of all ages, the city closed all museums and cancelled most large public gatherings including two massive rival soccer matches.
With popular tourist destinations like Belles Artes, the Museo Nacional de Antropología and even the nearby Teotihuacan ruins closed, one of the only options for visitors was the centuries-old Zócalo, where soldiers handed out blue face masks on street corners and in front of the Catedral Nacional and the Templo Mayor, and people like 26-year-old Danny Hendrix, on holiday from Holland, could at least admire the architecture.
Hendrix arrived in Mexico City on Wednesday and was planning on taking a photographic journey around the capitol. Upon hearing that virtually all of the city's tourist attractions were shuttered, he decided to take a stroll around the Centro Historico, camera in hand.
"When I heard about the flu, I was shocked," he said. "If I take precautions, I will be alright. I feel healthy."
Hendrix also mentioned that a staff member at the hostel where he was staying advised him against eating pork and sent him on his way. In actuality, the nature of this particular strain of influenza makes eating one of Mexico's famously porky bacon-wrapped hot dogs a lot less dangerous than say, riding in a packed metro car.
In addition to Hendrix, travelers from Greece, France, New Zealand, Spain and South Korea tried to make the best of the strange day. Forty-year-old Virginia Cottrell of Australia hurried to re-board the Turibus, a two-level tour on wheels that allows passengers to sit in open-air seats as the bus passes by important landmarks , and one of the only viable options still open for tourists. Cottrell said that when she arrived at the airport on Friday, she saw no signs of a flu epidemic
"There were no signs anywhere. I only found out about it when a friend from Seattle texted me," she said. "They should at least have some things in English."
Indeed, while a tourist information kiosk adjacent to the Catedral had plenty of fliers on hand with tips like wash your "hands with soap" and "drink plenty of water," all of the information was in Spanish. When approached, the only advice an attendant had to give was "make sure to wear your mask."
Of course, the very nature of an epidemic is that it's unpredictable, and as authorities here continue to try to put the pieces together new information continues to emerge. In the mean time, if you are traveling in Mexico City and are looking for information, we've included some useful links at the bottom of this story. If you're headed here and wish to change your plans, The Los Angeles Times has announced that both Continental Airlines and US Airways are relaxing their rescheduling policies.
For local news coverage in English: www.thenews.com.mx
A list (in Spanish) of the current attractions and events that have been shut down: http://www.chilango.com/articulo/ver/285/a-tachar-de-la-agenda
A Crop of English-language bloggers is also keeping tabs on all things swine flu. Here are a few of note:
Find tips in English from the federal government: www.presidencia.gob.mx/en/press/?contenido=44396
People to follow on Twitter: @MexicoTimes, @MexicoReporter, and @elUniversalMX (Spanish)