The Mystical Yoga Course. School Yoga Institute, Sacred Valley, Peru, 5-25 February 2020.
The old saying that the teacher only appears once the student is ready has rung true – the offer of personal transformation came at exactly the right time for me. My husband had died fourteen months before and I admit that sometimes I was struggling with it. I’d met Garth, a School Yoga Institute alumni, on Christmas day in La Paz through a mutual friend, and as Facebook algorithms go, the SYI advert kept popping up on my phone for weeks afterwards and I was intrigued enough to look into it. At the time, I was in the far north of Bolivia, in Riberalta, the Bolivian capital of the Amazon but it wasn’t a good place for me. I was very isolated and I had hit rock bottom emotionally. If I’d been drinking, I’d have drunk a whole bottle of wine, gone up to the roof and looked for the quickest way down. What stopped me was I knew that I didn’t want to die there.
Sobriety brings insights and I knew then and there I needed some radical change. What appealed to me was the fact that It promises more than just yoga. It weaves in shamanism, using a schedule based on the Andean medicine wheel, with four directions represented by four different animals – serpent, jaguar, hummingbird and condor- all with their own qualities and teachings.
Since the New Year I’d already given up drinking and smoking and I had been getting up early and meditating and doing yoga in the morning. Six months ago, to be in this position would be inconceivable but for the first time in my life, I was primed and half way there.
As soon as I’d committed to the course, I felt some of that grey heaviness slide away and I was excited to find myself in Cusco a fortnight later, being picked up by a minibus, along with nine others, and driven through the Peruvian countryside to the retreat.
Around the firepit for the opening ceremony, we chose an instrument, a drum or rattle, got sage smudged and picked a tarot card. Mine was ‘medicine woman’ which represented the healing found within and trusting inner intuition – it resonated with me deeply. When we had to introduce ourselves, everyone was vague, just describing their reasons for being there as a generalized ‘trauma’. My turn to speak and I was emotional, I could barely talk, everyone was quiet as I squeaked that my husband died, it was incredibly real- I’m grieving and it was very obvious.
As the course began, we were up at 5.30 am every day, even without coffee I felt bright as a button. Straight on the mat in the temple, half an hour meditation flew by, then an hour and a half yoga class. The schedule was intense but compelling – pose analysis, spiritual lessons, Ayurveda, ceremonies. Four days on, following the timeline of the four qualities, then one day off. The setting is wonderful, in the Sacred Valley in a flower strewn site tucked between the green mist-shrouded hills of the Peruvian Andes. The teachers are knowledgeable, approachable and supportive and there was also a lot of love in the room from my fellow students.
I began to feel nourished on all levels, from the delicious and copious food, to the morning birdsong, to the fragrant jasmine climbing up the walls of the pretty buildings. Bit by bit, my grief was slowly but surely being transformed. In the powerful shamanic journies we shared, my husband greeted me lovingly- I woke tearful but grateful, it felt so profound and real. My special cat, Little Bear, who died six months before my husband, appeared as my spirit animal- which confirmed what I always knew. We embraced in the trance and it also felt as vivid and nurturing as if he were physically there. Before, he was black, but this time he had turned white- he’s become an angel, one of the facilitators explained. He followed me everywhere, just like he used to in real life.
This was deep, powerful work which resonated on many levels and slowly nudged the shadows from my dark corners. At night there were songs around the campfire and specific ceremonies, new moon, cacao, and gratitude. These were heartfelt rituals – special and memorable moments, full of meaning which felt empowering and connected us altogether as a group.
There were also copious opportunities throughout the course to have readings, massages, healing sessions and plant medicines, all infused with a strong sense of spirituality and a change of perception.
By the end of the three weeks, people were commenting that there was a noticeable difference in my face and eyes. I felt lighter and cleaner in my mind and body and it is obvious that there had been a profound shift in my personal understanding of death and the meaning of life. Besides having deepened my practice of yoga, meditation and pranayama and strengthened my spiritual resolve, I feel confident the course has given me the tools and the knowledge to be a capable and growth-orientated teacher. However, there has also been a recognition and acceptance of the most important lesson of this past twenty-one days – to truly live in the present moment, as it’s the only one that really counts.
I was pretty hungover if I’m honest. It had been quite a
late night, I’d got rather overexcited at the decent cheap wine in the
supermarket and I didn’t know if I’d find any more in the village where I was
going next. So, it may have been partly that reason that my heart started
pounding as soon as I entered the ‘Mercado de Sonora’- the magic market of
Traditional Mexican herbal medicine has been linked to
religious and occult practices for centuries. This cheerful yellow building
with large, hand-painted letters declaring ‘medicinal and mystical plants’ was built
by the government to cater for it and has been around for over fifty years.
In the middle of a massive traditional shopping area, like
most markets in Mexico, all the sellers of one type are clustered together in the
same area. Here there is a concentration of stalls supplying occult and magical
objects. Anything and everything that could have a magical significance to
anyone is here. Yoruba, Voodoo, Santa Muerte, Santeria, the Egyptian gods. It’s
a bewildering and eclectic mix of influences and traditions.
The area around the outside of
the building is busy and full of sellers too- people are milling around with
flapping chickens under their arms and huge boxes tied up with string. It’s a
rough old place, the broken and potholed paths are filled with puddles of
questionable substance and as everywhere here, there are wafts of strange
Stepping from the open, bright
sun, it’s a dazzling contrast to the gloomy labyrinth within and it takes a few
seconds for my eyes to adjust.
It thrums. Two steps in and its obvious. There’s
something almost tribal and powerful, it has an underlying erotic intensity. I
take a deep breath- my nipples stiffen, my heart starts pounding, sweat
prickles my forehead.
Thick with copal and frankincense smoke, the narrow doorways
are piled high with stalks, grasses, long branches of fresh leaves and flowers.
A woman stands in front pulling herbs from each pile and wrapping in newspaper.
Immediately there is a choice of several aisles to go down. I turn right on
It feels almost medieval, the corridors are tall and narrow
and even though the ceiling is high and there are skylights, there is so much
stuff hanging over the aisles, not much light is filtering through. It’s
intense and claustrophobic, walking through tunnels of magical objects. I realise
I am saying ‘Fucking hell!’, and ‘Jesus Christ!’ a lot, in awe of the displays.
Knick-knacks are piled in baskets, hung and draped over every possible surface.
Everywhere there are huge open sacks of herbs, seeds, chunks of bark and wood,
knuckles of ginger, giant black beets and baskets of eggs- some dyed lurid
The smaller booths, lined with shelves, are crowded with
gaudy bottles of potions, in vivid purple, lime green and dayglo orange. Row
upon row in varying sizes, from large room sprays to smaller boxes of perfume
all with graphic, 70’s -style pictures- lots of moustaches- and names like ‘Triumpher’
and ‘The Stallion.’
Shrink-wrapped Voodoo dolls and ready prepared spell bags of
various sizes and contents are stapled into handy bags onto cardboard sheets
and hang floor to ceiling. They contain some dubious coloured powders, a few
seeds, a small amulet, a candle and an instruction on a small slip of paper. According
to the illustrations, most of the products seem to be about love- how to find
it, keep it, control it.
On my left, a cluster of small plastic bottles contain a
bright, oily liquid, with a few colourful pellets and the inevitable chili
seeds. On the front there is a black and white photo of a woman with a gag over
her mouth and the legend ‘trapaboca’ – ‘mouth-shutter’.
Most stalls are so cluttered with products, you can barely
see the people manning them. I just hear the same sentence over and over again,
‘What are you searching for Guerra?, just ask me.’
A few strings of soft green hummingbirds dangle into my line
of sight. ‘good for love spells!’ explains the disembodied voice behind the
Amongst all the tiny booths, there are a few larger stalls
that display increasingly bizarre stuff. That one has a complete wolf pelt, armadillo
shells, shrunken heads and spatch-cocked lizards hanging over the entrance. Skulls
of every kind hang on the wall, flanked by sculptures of Santa Muerte in
different costumes. One’s a bridesmaid, one’s plastered with dollar bills, the giant
ones are at the back, descending in eight sizes. There are small piles of rusty,
antique metalwork- padlocks, chains, horseshoes, great fat nails.
A thick black hook holds half a dozen, long, severed horses’
tails, each bound tight at the root with bright fabric and beading. Sat
underneath, a white- haired old man has his feet up on a block and is cutting
his horny toenails with a machete.
Above him hangs elaborately dressed African dolls in
traditional costumes, several sizes of drums and a whole range of wooden instruments.
Native American dreamcatchers sit next to classic witches’ cauldrons next to
cartoon plastic garden gnomes.
Hanging above the counter in front of me are some life sized,
and larger, cocks encrusted with chili-pepper seeds, in plastic bags. ‘For love’,
winked the woman. I couldn’t quite tell what they were made from so I asked how
it was used, ‘It’s a candle..’ she paused, ‘…you burn it’, she continued, cackling.
I could feel my face redden slightly. I have to move on for some other people
coming the other way, jostling for space in the narrow corridors.
A few people are lurking. Leaflets are thrust in my hands
from all sides, offering readings of chamalongos, personal cleanings and pacts
with ‘holy death’. They speak to each other in Nahuatl, their eyes not actually
moving but somehow still darting backwards and forwards between them. Beaded
curtains rustle at the back of a stall. There’s a piece of paper with a
photograph pinned to it advertising that a dark beauty can read the ‘Spanish
Cards’ for a fiver.
I catch the eye of a short indigenous woman with a peaceful
countenance. Somehow, I am drawn towards her. She is calm, petite, serious. Silently,
she slightly nods and steps aside. In one quick movement she pulls a curtain
back and ushers me inside her little booth. It’s a tiny space, barely enough
room for the small rickety table with an altar, covered in jam jars and vases filled
with plastic flowers and draped with beads. Prominent in the middle is a foot-high
resin statue of the national icon, the Guadalupana. On her right, at two thirds
of the size is a plastic figurine with a moulded label saying San Miguel in scrawly
writing. On the left stands an equal sized, rainbow striped sculpture of the Santa
Muerte. In front, between a couple of candles already burning in glass jars is
a small package wrapped in a cloth. There’s a low, plastic stool slightly under
the table to the left. The blue painted walls have small framed images of
angels hanging from a nail, sellotaped newspaper cuttings and naff cartoon
angel plaques. The whole thing is outlined with a string of flashing fairy-lights,
attached with drawing pins. On the righthand wall are two small shelves covered
in a random assortment of dusty jars, packets and bottles.
She points for me to sit on the stool. She has a thin white
candle and several strings of colourful beads wrapped around her left wrist and
hand and is continuously muttering under her breath. She touches the candle to
her forehead and chest in the sign of the cross and then gives me the candle to
hold, indicating to clasp it tight with both hands. After a minute, she takes it
from me and strokes me all over my face with it. Short strokes on my fore head,
cheeks, side and back of my head. Then I
have to lightly kiss the wick. She turns to the altar and lights it from a
flame already burning. It sputters out straight away – ‘because you have too
many tears inside you’, she says. Wordlessly she relights it and places it in a
jar on the altar.
She picks up the small package and puts it in her left hand,
waving it above and all around me. Carefully, she unwraps the cloth with her
right hand, revealing a small battered paperback, a pack of cards and a rosary.
She indicates for me to hold my hands out, putting the cards face down and draping
the rosary over.
She opens the book at a heavily dog-earred page and reads the
few brief lines. She closes it, putting it on the alter, on its cloth, the rosary
I’m asked to shuffle the pack and then to cut into three. She
spreads them out in a spiral face down and I have to pick nine that feel right.
She quickly lays them in a cross pattern. Straightaway, she says, ‘ah, the only
way to cure lost love is with a new love.’ I gulp.
A man comes up. There’s lots of cups, lots of coins- I know
what that means, its positive. Another man- ‘but there is a rival too’, she
says, ‘there is another, younger man, with money, or an older man with no
money.’ I’ll have to decide between them within the next few months.
As usual, there is another side, conflict and dilemma- nothing
is ever so simple. There are lots of
daggers on the card, it’s all beginning to sound a bit hectic. I feel slightly
overwhelmed with it all. Some parts of what she is saying are resonating at a
very deep level.
The prescription for this dilemma is multi-pronged. She reaches behind her to the top shelf and lifts down a half-litre plastic wine bottle of a mouthwash blue liquid. Firstly, I need to wash myself daily with this magic lotion –‘ It’s all natural’, she says, untwisting the cap and thrusting the neck under my nose. It smells of the hairdressers in our street when I was a kid so I very much doubt that. She screws the lid back and hands me the bottle to read. There’s a peeling photocopied label on the front with a cartoon of an angel and ‘contra danos’- ‘against dangers’ in large celtic-style font. I turn it round to a prayer on the back with blanks to fill in the missing names. It’s definitely for hands only, if anything, as it looks like it would give you a serious rash. Without looking down I put it on the floor between my feet as she continues. I must also wash daily with this, for love, she says, as she picks up a dusty box from the bottom shelf. She wipes the dust away with one finger and gives it to me. I can see it claims to be a bar of the ‘famous, multi-purpose’ black chicken soap. I somehow feel that surely they’re missing a trick by not calling it ‘black cock’?
I must also keep three
whole nutmegs in my bag for the next month and read a copy of a prayer every
day for 33 days of which today is the first. All these things will help heal
and protect me from the inevitable chaos which is coming.
Her mellifluous voice
has started to make me feel sleepy. I’m almost in a trance like state. It’s making
me feel pretty uncomfortable and I think I’m having a hot flush. I’m a widow of
three months and suddenly feel every bit of it.
I get up intending to head towards the shopfront, to try and
get some fresh air. I stand up too quickly and get a headrush that my
grandmother would describe as going all ‘swimey’. The copal incense becomes
cloying and my throat has dried into a squeak. As I stand, I jog the table and
the sculptures and candles wobble, threatening to topple. I hold my arms out,
trying to steady them, silently mouthing an apology. I fish out a 100 peso note
from my pocket and hand it to her. I try to turn, pull aside the curtain and
step out into the rest of the market all in one movement. My clumsy feet catch on
a large sack of corn on the step, scattering the contents in a loud whoosh. Spinning,
I snag a small pile of ceramic cups with my bag, clattering them loudly from
their basket. I hold my hands up in apology, feeling completely disorientated. I
have a really bad sense of direction and take a wrong turn almost immediately
and find myself in the live animal section. In the distance ahead though I
recognise the small outline of an ajar door with bright sunlight streaming
around it, so I stumble towards it. Before I get there it becomes darker and
dingier with thick dust swirling in the beams of light from the meagre
skylights. Ramshackle wooden pens begin to line the wall and there’s straw and
pine twigs on the floor. The corridor is filled with live chickens and turkeys
standing on and in boxes and crates. They’re quiet and passive as I walk past,
aside from the fluster of feathers when they get sold and are unceremoniously
grabbed by their feet and held upside down. There are pens filled with ducks
and geese, cages of budgies, parrots and peacocks. Single exotic birds are
crammed, their long tails leaving no space to turn around.
Certain areas are dedicated to particular types of animals. It
feels like an ark, it’s almost shocking because of the sheer number and variety
of animals on offer in such a small space. Cage upon cage, piled high with eerily
quiet and very young drooling puppies, bundles of baby bunnies and some exotic
rodents like giant rabbit-sized gerbils in a long tank. Huge trays hold docile doe-eyed
kittens lolling in little piles. They seem like they have been drugged, or
perhaps it’s the herb Melissa, to make them so peaceful. It seems slightly
unnatural and a little bit sinister.
There are tankfulls of toads, turtles and terrapins. Axolotls,
lizards and snakes. A little boy cradles a turtle, but sadly it’s easy to
imagine not all of the animals are destined to be pets. A man is kneeling in a straw
covered pen and peels bananas and feeds them whole to a dozen boisterous kid goats.
I ponder their fate, noticing a hook with a load of pelts hanging from it. Shakespeare
pops into my head – ‘Eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of
dog’. Are they for ritual sacrifice? To make potions and spells and cures? I
read somewhere that the market has been raided a few times in the past by the
police for dealing in animals in danger of extinction. Unwittingly, it reminds
me of a market I found myself in, in China once. Horrible: swathes of cute kittens and puppies for sale,
right next to stalls selling kittens and puppies split on sticks and dried and
I feel slightly nauseous at the thought of it. The hangover
is kicking in a bit now. It feels like the smell round here has suddenly become
more feral, greasy and visceral.
A woman stands on the corner with a plastic bowl full of
cooked chicken feet. She picks one out and starts chewing on the shank causing
the foot to claw grotesquely.
The reptiles start scuffling,
slapping their tails against the side of their tanks. A squabble erupts. The
avian section all seem to start squawking and flapping at once, swirling up the
dust in the light. There’s a scurry to gain control. It feels as though something
surges, all the animals wake together. The spell is broken. There’s yapping and
mewling and bleating – the noise level goes up more than a notch.
I am sweating like a pig- its roasting hot in here and my
head is thumping. I need some fresh air
more than ever. I am at the wide rectangle of a doorway. I am out. I lean on
the wall, my mouth watering but I’m not actually sick. I jump in a taxi, get
back to the flat in a blur, sleep for 12 hours straight and wake up starving.
Later on, I read in a
free magazine how Mexico’s development means humungous shopping complexes so
traditional market areas are being razed. The next page has an article on a bar
in the city that has turned tarantula venom sourced at the market into a
cocktail ingredient. Another creative bar owner uses the ritual herb for a
spiritual cleanse as a distillate in their concoction, with a tarot card
garnish. In the wider world, there’s a chef in Chicago, inspired by a stroll
through Sonora, who has taken a native grass back to incorporate into his
dishes, providing a taste of home for his Mexican customers. As these things
become absorbed into a wider culture and are losing their meanings, isn’t this real
cultural appropriation? In such an atmosphere, I wonder how much longer such an
original place as Sonora can survive.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
This is the main reason I came to Mexico City. The young tattooed artist who runs the airbnb in the middle-class suburb of Coyoacan warned me of the danger of kidnappers. I take my jewellery off on the way and pull my hat down low. It’s in a rough neighbourhood, on a par with many of the shitpits of India I’ve visited. An hour on the metro and I come out to the cacophony that is Tepito. There’s a massive market going on, crowds of people pushing & shouting, blaring music, unrecognisable meaty smells. Very few tourists come this way. ‘Where’s the temple of the skinny lady?’ I ask one man, ‘Where does the bony lady live?’ I have to ask another. I’m glad I can speak enough Spanish not to sound too green. ‘ Psst, psst guerrita’, I hear from dark doorways. In the quieter back streets, shabby stalls cook up big chunks of meat in vast pans of hot fat on the pavement. A cowboy with extra shiny boots, sunglasses and a cowboy hat, spits out a lump of gristle as I go past. No time for photos, I walk quickly, feeling incredibly conspicuous and slightly vulnerable. It’s a densely populated poor area, a shanty town where every doorway reveals a scabby courtyard surrounded by a maze of flats and washing lines, inevitably fronted by a giant glass box containing statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Santa Muerte is still an underground figure, even though over the past twenty years she has become the symbol of the fastest growing religion in the Americas. I’ve waited a long time to see her. Mangy dogs jump up at the open-air butchers, flies buzz around the slabs of meat. Down one side street, then another, the buildings, shabby-chic bright colours emblazoned with hand-painted adverts, look desperate. A group of evangelists on the corner eye me suspiciously, the Catholic church still doesn’t approve. Past abandoned warehouses, burnt out buses, a truckload of chavos hiss, ‘Guerra, smoke, smoke?’ They know I’m only here for one thing. Then I see the temple, just a shopfront really with loads of bunches of flowers piled up outside. The altar already has candles burning, along with fruit, lit cigarettes, cans of coke for offerings. There’s a couple of tables full of resin sculptures of varying colours and sizes, along with different trinkets, necklaces, spell bags. I tell the woman behind the counter I’m here to light a candle for Little Bear, my missing cat and, more importantly, one for my dead husband. So it’s a green one for the cat and a white one for Keef. That’s £2.50 then. I’m feeling pretty emotional. The sculpture of Santissima Muerte is behind glass, life-size, a skull face with shiny gold robes and hung with beads and jewellery. She is surrounded by goblets, mirrors, fruit, knick-knacks, trinkets and gifts. It’s a powerful moment as I light my candles and place them there. As I think of my lost loves, other people come in, touch their chests with the sign of the cross, mutter and add to the altar. People stream in constantly, wheeling babies, supporting their sick family members. I give them space and focus on the shop. A few people are suspicious, give me side eyes so I feel uncomfortable waving a camera around. As usual, there are keyrings, necklaces, candles of all colours and huge old-fashioned cans of spray, each claiming special powers for a certain use. I’m travelling with a rucksack so I pick the smallest things I can find, two 3 cm images of the skinny lady herself. The woman behind the counter says they’ve been dipped in holy water. She turns her attention to some new arrivals as I slip back to the hot dusty street, past a concrete construction on the corner filled with religious icons and back to the bustle of the market.