Designated a so-called ‘magic town’ for its unique cultural interest, it is high in the mountains, three hundred kilometres east of Mexico City. It’s been almost twenty years since I was here last. The journey didn’t bode well, a fire had closed a section of road up ahead so we stopped and got stared at in a small town for a couple of hours while waiting for the road to be re-opened.
When we finally got the go ahead, the sun was going down but the scenery was spectacular-the mountains created a giant bowl full of thick white smoke, stunning from above but scary having to drive through it in the dark once we got lower. The visibility was atrocious and I knew some of these narrow mountain roads have no edges. It was nerve-wracking, I was sitting right at the front just behind the driver, eyes straining to see the tiny section of kerb that he was slowly following.
Even though I was 4 hours late and out of contact, I was relieved, Esther from the AirBnb was still waiting. We had to get a cab to go to her village, San Miguel Tzinacapan, 15 minutes away. It’s pretty basic compared to Mexico City but she is friendly and welcoming, speaks no English. I’m going to get some good Spanish practise in.
The weekly Sunday market in Cuetzalan is pretty special, traditionally dressed indigenous people from all over the area come to set up shops there. The main square has a series of stone steps and every possible surface is taken up with somebody trying to sell something. Women with hair in pigtails and pom-poms, bright embroidered shawls and thick black skirts wander around with armfuls of textiles while children holding babies hassle to sell keyrings and purses.
The open-air butcher sets up his little stall on the corner, just a thick wooden table with a pole at each end and a piece of wood suspended over the top. Serene pig faces and clusters of trotters hang from metal hooks. Huge white sheets of fat and pigskin are stretched out to dry, ready to be fried up as pork scratchings, and dominating the chopping block is a long, thick spine with a lump of meat and a big fat cock dangling off the end of it. There was also a mound of something black, visceral and hairy which made me shudder as I walked past.
Next to him a toothless old man is sitting on his haunches behind a blanket piled up with fresh red and green chillies. Beside him a young girl is selling wicker baskets and hand -carved spoons.
A wiry old boy scurries by, hunched over with a crate of oranges on his back, supported by a ‘trampline’, a strap round his forehead. A young kid whistles in a sing-song behind a white table studded with fat discs of watermelon on a stick, soaked in chili sauce.
There’s a strong smell of leather and copal, always copal.
Everything is cloaked in a thick mist and there is a non-stop clamour of tinny songs, voices and birds.
This takes me back to those days I was last here, in early October 1999 at the big annual festival dedicated to Saint Francis. I had been travelling around Mexico as a jewellery maker with my much younger Mexican lover, Carlos. We had hooked up a few weeks before with another couple, Joel, a Brazilian guy and Marjorie, his American girlfriend. They did a show with fire poi and sold jewellery so we all decided to go to the festival together.
We had been having a good day or two, had sold a bit- the market was much larger and busier than usual and we had found quite a nice spot between a couple of florists on the steps in the centre of town. We also played some music and helped with the fire show for a small crowd most nights.
On the Saturday afternoon we went to get some tacos in a cheap cafe at the back of the market.
The famous flying acrobats, the ‘Voladores of Papantla’, had been doing their show, the mood was jovial, the atmosphere good, it was a great place to be.
Whilst we were eating, it started raining and didn’t seem to want to stop. It lashed down for three days straight, it was a total wash-out. Everything shut down. Rain stopped play. Once the storm finally broke, all the people came out and hundreds of people were gathered in the town square not knowing quite what to do. Someone official came out, somehow Carlos got the job of quietening the crowds and stood up amongst all the people that thronged the square to announce, in a big, booming voice, that all the roads had been washed away, no one would be able to get out for a while. Hundreds of tourists were stranded.
We had become a little band of a few of us artisans so we decided to entertain them. There was a guitar or two and a couple of bongos. I’d given fire poi a go a few times, swinging a pair of potentially dangerous torches on chains. I was not a natural but as I often said to Marjorie, who had been doing it for a couple of years,and was amazing- I was the warm up act.
Maybe I was really nervous in front of so many people and possibly had not been as careful as I could have been but I dipped the torches in the liquid and flicked them once to remove the excess fuel. Then I lit them, swung them in a wide arc, and then, literally, was on fire.
There was an audible gasp of shock from the crowd.
I’d had dreadlocks for years, so there was always a halo of split ends. Fire whooshed around my head in one spectacular flash.
Spots of ignited fuel spattered on my chest, arms and back- I was on fire in multiple places and I could tell it could have gone pretty badly quite quickly.
Luckily, it was superficial and looked a lot worse than it was. Marjorie rushed over and helped pat me out. It had tidied my hair up nicely actually, gotten rid of all the fuzz but left lots of little crispy wisps and a horrible burnt smell. Later on, on the other side of the square, people walked past and were heard to exclaim that they couldn’t believe I looked ok. ‘Was that the girl that got burnt?’, Carlos said they were asking.
On the way home, giddy with the whole thrilling night, I wasn’t looking where I was going and stepped in a hole in the pavement. My ankle cracked, loudly, reinforcing an old injury. I knew I’d done something bad but we were staying in a house at the top of the hill above town and we were all so exhausted we just continued home. They didn’t have a freezer, or even a fridge, so a bag of frozen peas was out of the question to put on the strain. I think I just went to bed and I was probably so knackered I may have even forgotten about it for a while.
The next morning, Carlos brought me a cup of tea in bed. I sat up and got an awful shock when I looked down at my feet under the blanket. Something was seriously wrong with that silhouette. Nervously I pulled the blanket off my legs to see my right foot wrenched at an unnatural 90-degree angle. Although it wasn’t painful, it looked pretty gruesome. There wasn’t much we could do – no one was going anywhere for a while, I couldn’t walk around at all and after the night befores embarrassing fiasco, I was happy to stay out of sight for a bit. I spent a few days hopping around the house. It was a pain in the arse, literally, as one of my arse cheeks ached so much, it got such a workout.
After a couple of weeks, things were getting quite desperate. Shelves were empty, shops had ran out of food. A queue of over a hundred people waited outside the government office to pick up some corn massa to make tortillas.
Luckily our friends had been given a massive pumpkin a few days before the festival. We had taken the piss out of it a bit at the time but by the end, we were glad to have pumpkin soup to eat for 3 weeks.
Rumours were flying around about how everyone was going to get rescued. They said they would send helicopters in to save the tourists- that was exciting! I’ve never been in a helicopter before.
This was the first time I went to see a ‘curandero’, a natural healer in Mexico.
We had to wait for about 2 weeks before we could get out of town to see him.
Carlos and I got a minibus to a fairly remote area, the roads were deeply rutted and missing in parts so it was quite slow going. They dropped us off at the end of the road where there was a big gaping hole and they could drive no further. With one arm around Carlos’s neck, I hobbled down a dusty back street to a shack with a small garden around it. We were welcomed warmly and taken inside. There was a wood fire burning with the smoke only partially escaping through some slats in the ceiling. Mixed in was a strong smell of copal as well as him puffing continuously on a cigarette.
I sat on the edge of the bed and he sat down on a plastic stool in front of me, picked up a small bottle with a handpump, half-full of some gaudy yellow liquid. He dispensed some into the palm of his hand and rubbed it on to my twisted ankle. All the while he was muttering, smoking and making snorting noises. Then he blew the smoke from his cigarette on to my foot. It was denser than usual, dark, smelt lethal and slightly warming. When the cigarette was finished, he dropped the stub in a nearby empty sardine can, rubbed both his hands together and grabbed hold of my ankle. For nearly an hour he patiently massaged, rubbed, and slowly twisted my foot until it was straight.
Whereas I had limped in, I managed to walk out, albeit carefully and stiffly.
It was a week later before we could leave Cuetzalan proper. All we had eaten for weeks had been pumpkin soup which by then had got pretty tedious. My ankle was still strapped up with some thick bandages and I was limping but at least my foot was facing in the right direction.
Eventually we were allowed to get out of there. They summoned a few of us European tourists together, we gathered all our things and set off in a group walking in single file on narrow paths up and down the hills.
It was a bit of an obstacle course, my ankle ached with the effort because the road was broken into giant chunks in places and the ground was uneven.
After forty-five minutes, a couple of minibus rides, then a quick lift in the back of a truck we ended up on the banks of a fast-flowing river which had since become 130ft wide. There, we were divided into small groups and put into two little boats with two men already in each. A rope had been slung across the river and they used this to manoeuvre themselves around the big slabs of concrete from the broken bridge which were dotted in the water. On the other side, they were throwing cables across ravines, as broken roads disappeared down mountainsides.
There were just a few more convoluted paths to follow and eventually we emerged through the woods into a clearing on the edge of a town. We appeared to be safe and on the other side of the destruction. There were a few American journalists with big cameras wandering around, watching the trail of people reaching civilization. We were wild-eyed and delirious with the adventure and the freedom and happy to be interviewed by them. Afterwards we headed straight to the market for something else, anything, to eat other than pumpkin soup.
Luckily, it all still looks normal and I’ve not had much trouble since from my ankle. Occasionally it still clicks a bit when the weather gets damp and misty but that only helps me to fondly remember my time in Cuetzalan.