Chapultepec shrouded in a late glow of yellow haze. I’ll never forget that cast. That blurred stretching shadow, low and long down the Avenida. It was well after four and in the long tale of the day and this particular day I’d finally found escape.
As much as I loved the big city, I missed the solitude of space. I often discussed this with Big G’. What it takes to leave. What it takes to escape.
Big G’, or Giorgio was a monster of a man. A native Uruguayan, an émigré, who like me had also come in search of hope.
Ciudad de México has always been an ‘arrival city’. A destination for migrants seeking fortune, Big G’ and I were no different. We, like the long line of those before us, had arrived in advance of our respective peers and families. To establish the most fragile of footholds of a life in the new world.
He towered no less than six four and all that in width, with the beating heart of a lion. We became pilgrims and comrades with a shared care for common people, and as tough as things became for the both of us, that big heart of his kept beating. Not because it could, but because it wanted to.
“Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas.”
He was right.
Escapar el norte
Silence and Sundays. Lest the disquiet of a distant rumble of traffic, the lifeblood of city consistently flowing past my ear. Urban tinnitus.
I sit on my rooftop a witness to the early morning mustard filter of sun over Plaza Luis Cabrerra. Somewhere distant a church bell and the barrenderos (sidewalk street sweepers) call pilgrims to prayer.
My arms wrapped in my own embrace against the early morning cool, I drew out the last of my Marlboro and black coffee, taking it all in. Then scratching, I break the crust cover of a tattoo and swear. Bloodied, I venture back down the darkened stairwell to the apartment. It’s time to ride north.
I take my old Kona and follow that familiar route up Paseo de Reforma, to mercardo Lagunilla and the barrio bravo called Tepito. Where, within its wilding the way becomes Calzada de Guadalupe – the way of the pilgrims. And there were always peregrinos on the road to Tepeyacer and the Basilica. Whole pueblos make there way here from all over of this big land. Heads bowed in quiet devotion, they stream behind their own gilded reproductions of the virgin of Guadalupe.
This particular December day I weave my way through this endless festival of chaos for another four kilometres. To the entrance of the Atrio de las Americas, the Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe and the chapels beyond. Where the great swell of peregrinos flood the gates, then disappear through the smoulder of burnt incense and on into the kingdom of heaven. There the guilty drop to their knees and crawl over the weathered granite in prayer to the Virgin for their own salvation. Another timeless display that forever bonds poverty to Catholicism.
It’s enormously humbling to be there. A blessing blowing fresh oxygen over an old ember deep within my mortal soul. I belong here.
After an eternity I crossed myself and waded back through the repentant for the gates. With salt on my lip I pushed on, heading north over the broken back roads at the heal of El Tepeyac for the barrios and Ecatepec. I still sought escape.
North and east are nothing but the fringes of fresh arrival cities. Those informal yet to be made formal sprawls of dust and concrete communities squeezed between the diesel of the interstates. Fuchsia coloured mercados line the approaches, as formally attired families, fresh from Sunday prayers gather under the canopies for food. The smoky air from the coals swirl around in a restless blue, rich with the sweet scent of corn and carnitas. I moved through this haze towards Tepexpan and Alcoman beyond until at last I reached it… the very limits of the great city. At last I had found escape.
I’m on that edge that separates the wild from the tame. The informality of the sprawl from the formality of the field with its rigid lines of green and gold. I’ve now replaced broken seal for dusty trail and I grinned at my success. “I wish big G was here to see this”.
An unnatural symmetry rose up from the valley floor, ominous and monumental. The pyramids of Teotihuacan dominate the landscape, subjugating the present, just as they had in the past.
Teotihuacan – the city of the gods is a massive Meso-Américan ruin and the equal of any other from antiquity. It is estimated that at its height it domiciled more than one hundred and fifty thousand people and became a centre of influence that spanned future civilisations.
I had arrived, and quickly made my way through the cactus lined palisades to enter its interior and the echos of ghosts trapped within its dusty quiet. Somewhere at the periphery of my vision a skink scurried light-footed across the masonry of the temple of Quetzalcoatl – the feathered serpent. It was unnerving. I’d never stood in the remains of an abandoned city before, “Is this place a warning for our modern times” I wondered as I squinted through the shimmer of heat haze up the Camino de Los Muertos to the distant pyramid of the moon beyond.
And there at its roots was ritual. A new generation of adorned ancestors and Aztecas in feathered plumage, head dress and robe, that spun spun spun in bare-footed thunder. I was witnessing another devotion the equal of that I’d left earlier in the day. The scent of smouldering salt sage and dust was rising in a whirlwind of their making to the gods above.
Suddenly a whip of blue smoke reached out and drew me in. The world disappeared in its greyness and with it the realisation that my escape that day wasn’t a spacial one, it was a spiritual one.
I returned to my old Kona resting under the shade of the cactus palisades. I smiled at my old friend, then saddled up and made my way back through the yellow haze of big city. Back home.