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“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” G. K. Chesterton
I left the hotel on foot and headed towards the zócalo, unable to ignore the irresistible pull of the town square any longer. It was my third day in Toluca and my first morning off, and I deliberately woke up early just itching to explore, knowing that I would want as much time as possible to myself before I was needed at the university around noon.
A few blocks from the hotel, I was scanning my eyes for something to eat or drink when I spotted a man with a burro on the other side of the street. On the burro’s back was a large barrel, and the man was holding a bottle of what looked just like horchata. My stomach growled, and without thinking much of it I crossed the street and approached the man and his burro.
“Cuanto?” I asked, pointing at the barrel.
I reached into my pocket. The man seemed rather surprised, his expression a combination of curiosity and confusion. “Quince?” I confirmed as I handed him my coins. He nodded, and poured a bottle from the barrel, plugged it with a crudely-made but beautiful cork stopper, and handed it to me.
I smiled and thanked him, and started to remove the cork to take a drink. He said something in Spanish to me at that moment of which I failed to catch a single word, and I simply nodded and smiled as I had already become accustomed to doing when I didn’t understand what was being said to me. I thanked him again, turned around, and started to walk away, pulling at the cork. He repeated himself in Spanish, I again failed to understand him, turned to nod and smile at him again, and as my stomach growled I took a big swig from the bottle.
It was most definitely not horchata.
It suddenly occurred to me that whatever the man had been saying in Spanish might have been relevant to what I was drinking. I turned around again, and he was still staring at me with that same curious expression. In the moment, it seemed necessary to both express politeness and save face, and so I smiled and thanked him once again and took another big gulp. He raised his eyebrow at me and nodded, obviously impressed.
I was impressed at myself too, impressed I was able to even keep the second sip down. The taste was memorably awful, seemingly a mix of sour milk, yeast, and lemon, with a strange thickness to it. But I wasn’t one to waste either money or food, and I badly needed something in my stomach, so I chugged the bottle as quickly as I could and tucked the empty bottle into my bag as I continued on toward the zócalo.
As I walked on, I became quickly drawn into and engrossed by my surroundings, and was distracted for several minutes until I realized I was starting to feel a bit tipsy. A few minutes later, just as I could see the zócalo in the distance, I suddenly felt very drunk.
It wasn’t even ten in the morning. No wonder the man with the burro had seemed so surprised at me.
I walked onto the zócalo, and into a sudden cacophony of noises and activity from all directions.
It was only a few days before Dia de los Muertes, and the public square of Toluca was packed with adults and schoolchildren alike, crowding the square and the adjacent market in a mad dash for sugar skulls and other holiday treats. I was suddenly overwhelmed, dizzy, and slightly scared. Getting drunk first thing in the morning had definitely not been part of my plans. I needed to center, calm down, keep myself safe. I looked around in all directions, looking for a place to stop, and out of the corner of my eye I spotted a figure waving to me.
A group of children next to me spotted the figure at the same time. They pointed to him and chattered excitedly among themselves. “La Parca, La Parca,” they repeated while giggling.He made quick motions with his hands, coaxing me over, and I timidly approached the costumed figure. He did not look like a traditional grim reaper, but I know better than to argue with children and he had a strong energy of magic and death all the same.
At his feet was a bowl filled with pieces of paper. He pointed at me, and pointed at the bowl. I reached into my pocket, pulled out a few pesos, and threw them into his coin dish as I bent down to choose my fortune.
“Dos”, he said to me.
I took two, one with my left hand and one with my right. I stood up and realized he was staring at me intently.
“Bruja”, he said. It was a statement, not a question.
I nodded and smiled, this time because I actually did understand.
He then pointed to my left hand and addressed me in English. “That one is for now,” he said, motioning toward my left hand. He then motioned towards my right hand. “That other one is for later.”
“How much later?” I asked.
He shrugged. “You will know,” he replied.
I placed the paper in my left hand in my pocket, and I tucked the paper in my right hand deep in my wallet. I then turned to walk away but had a second thought. I pulled the bottle of mysterious liquid I had downed out of my bag and showed him the bottle. “What is it?” I asked.
He opened the bottle, sniffed it, and started to laugh. “Pulque,” he replied. “Alcohólica.”
Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I thanked him again and stumbled on through the zócalo, shaking my head in awe at the moment and at the circumstances that had brought me here.
A week earlier, I had been at home in Eugene, printing in my studio, when the phone rang unexpectedly. Am old friend and former employer was headed to Toluca in a few days to attend a conference on indigenous healing plants, and was having cold feet about traveling alone. Would I accept a free trip in exchange for acting as a personal assistant? I had never been south of the border before, and despite my other obligations, I said yes immediately without even thinking. Three days later, I was boarding a plane to Mexico.
Toluca is the capital of the state of Mexico, located about 45 minutes southwest of Mexico City. The city has a reputation for being a center for administration much more than tourism, and I had been warned my friends who knew the area that there was “not much” to see in Toluca. But my trip happened to coincide with two significant events: Mexico’s 200th anniversary and Dia de los Muertos, and the combination of the two occasions turned a ordinary state capital into an extraordinary visual feast.
I had seen snippets of the attractions and celebrations over the first few days as I went back and forth between the hotel and the university, but I hadn’t had enough free time to really take it all in until that morning on the third day, when an open-ended exploration turned into an intoxicated romp through downtown.As I continued to walk through the zócalo that morning after my run-in with the reaper, I was immediately drawn to music coming from the inside of the main buildings surrounding the square. Forgetting about my obligations at the conference, I headed towards the music, and when I walked through the door I found myself in a wonderland of color and celebration. Never in my life had I seen anything like it.
The entire building had been transformed into a Day of the Dead marketplace, with stalls as far as the eye could see filled with sugar skulls, Catrinas, household decorations, baked goods and pastries, candles and other offerings, and brightly colored thematic toys for children. I was quickly sucked into the atmosphere and spent the next few hours walking through as though it was a museum, taking in every detail I possibly could as I drifted through the crowds. Between the intoxicating nature of the market itself and my own physical intoxication, I forgot about time and obligations, and I completely lost myself in the atmosphere.
As I continued to walk through the endless halls and eat many sweet things, I eventually started to sober up and to suddenly remember that I was supposed to be back at the university at noon. I looked at my phone and realized I was already an hour late. The university was a half hour away on foot. I stood there for a moment, taking it all in one last time, and then quickly headed back towards the university.I headed back the same way that I had made my way there, taking the most direct route between the zócalo and the university. It was about five blocks west of the route I had been walking the past three days between my hotel and the university, which had taken me through a neighborhood that contained nothing but car repair shops, block after block. As I hurried back, I noticed that the neighborhood I was walking through on this route contained almost nothing but dentist’s offices.
I stopped for a moment and looked around, and as I turned around I saw someone approaching me, waving. It was one of the students from the conference, who I had met at lunch the day before.
“Hey, there you are,” he said once I was in earshot. “The rest of your group was wondering what had happened to you.”
Dammit, I thought to myself. “Are they pissed? Did I just screw up royally?”
“No, no”, he assured me. “The noon panel was actually cancelled. Most folks decided to go out to lunch instead and we noticed that you weren’t around. I was headed downtown and told them I’d keep an eye out. And here you are so there is nothing to worry about now. Are you okay?”
I nodded. “Yes, I’m okay. I accidentally got drunk, met the grim reaper, and then found myself surrounded by music and candy. But now I feel okay again although lunch does sound good.”
“I was on my way to lunch,” he replied. “There’s an amazing little place a bit west of here down near all the suit shops. Do you want to come?”
“Yes, thank you,” I said, and we headed back towards downtown for a few blocks before taking a left towards the church. A few minutes later we started to come across various suit shops.
“Is the whole town organized this way?” I asked him as we walked. A different industry in every neighborhood?”
“Pretty much, except for the town center,” he replied. “Where I live it’s mostly barbers. I thought it odd when I first moved here but it really makes life much easier.”
We came up upon a bright red hole in the wall with a picture of a turkey leg on the side. There was only one dish, slow-roasted turkey leg with a side of cabbage. We each got a plate and sat down at the nearest table to eat.
Partway through the meal, I remembered the two slips of paper that I had taken from the reaper. I pulled out the one that I had stuffed in my pocket, the one I was supposed to read now, and handed it to my friend across the table. “Can you translate this for me?” I asked.
He stared at the paper for a moment and then smiled. “It says: Pay attention to advice that is offered in kindness. It may lead you to magical places.”
I sat with that for a moment as we ate, oscillating between brushing off the message due to its vagueness and feeling a need to take it seriously due to the nature of how I came upon it. I took the paper back from him, scribbled the translation on the back, and put it back in my pocket.
We headed back towards the university, and a few blocks away we started to heard drums in the distance. We turned towards the drums for a moment but kept on our path until another friend from the conference frantically ran up to us.
“Do you want to see something that you will never see again?” he asked. I immediately thought of the message on the slip of paper. Without waiting for an answer, he then said, “Come with me, you want to see this,” and grabbed my arm. We followed him as he broke into a jog.
“We have to hurry,” he said. “It’s is about to begin.”
We came over a hill and there were dozens of people gathered in a field, some with cameras and many others with small children on their shoulders. Not far past them was a group of indigenous dancers in traditional costume, moving in motion to the beat of the drums. There was a square on the ground in front of the crowd was covered with carefully arranged fruits and legumes. In the distance a procession was slowly headed toward the field.I looked around and suddenly realized that my friends had disappeared. I then looked next to me and a woman was looking back at me. “Do you speak English?” she asked.
I nodded. “Oh, good. I’m really getting tired of speaking only Spanish,” she said. “I’m a professor here in Mexico but I grew up in Texas and I do miss English sometimes. So hello, how are you? Do you know what this is?” she asked excitedly, pointing towards the dancers and the procession in the distance.
“I have no idea,” I said. “But it’s beautiful.”
“It is called the Dance of the Fishermen,” she said, and then pointed to a group standing a few feet away. “Those are my students. We traveled from Mexico City to be here for this.”
She made a hand motion out toward the field. “They are all from Joquicingo, which is an hour south of here. This is a traditional ceremony that is rarely ever performed outside of their village.”
I nodded and then stood watching as the ceremony unfolded before me. The procession contained a beautiful mixture of Catholic and indigenous imagery, and throughout the line were children dressed as fish. The procession made its way to the center of the field, where the drums eventually faded out as both indigenous and Catholic priests started to bless the children and dancers. At that moment, I remembered the piece of paper in my pocket. I pulled it out and read it again.Pay attention to advice that is offered in kindness. It may lead you to magical places.
I looked around again and acknowledged the magical place that I was experiencing just then, grateful to both the friend who had dragged us over as well as the morning events that had led up to that moment.
“This is absolutely magical,” I said to the professor.
“You like magical?” she asked. “You need to go down to Malinalco if you have the time.”
“Malinalco? Where and what is that?” I asked.
“It’s a small village in the mountains not to far south of Joquicingo, maybe an hour and a half from here,” she replied. “It is known as a place of magic, of sorcery and witches and spirits. You can hire a cab to take you there for about 500 or 600 pesos, and it’s worth every penny.”
“Malinalco,” I said to myself out loud. There were two days left of the conference but then I had a full day off before we flew back. “I will try to remember that. Thank you so much.”
I turned my attention back to the ceremony, watching as children in fish costumes filed past me carrying flowers and altar boxes towards the center of the circle. And once again, I thought about the message on the slip of paper, and was then determined to follow up on the professor’s advice.
The next few days went by quickly. I didn’t venture off campus much in an effort to save my money and energy for the adventure I wanted to take once we had a day off. My traveling companion didn’t have any specific plans for that day, and it was easy to convince him that it was best spent wandering through a supposedly magical city in the mountains. I told him of the reaper and the translated fortune, and admitted that part of the reason I wanted to take this trip is because it was in line with the message. I don’t know if he took me seriously at all, but he seemed curious enough and agreed on the trip.
We walked downtown and found a cab willing to take us to Malinalco for 500 pesos, and within minutes the landscape transformed from the urban center to a rambling, desert-like countryside. We zipped up and down narrow roads that hugged the sides of hills and mountains, passing by and through a number of small towns as we made our way down and through a large valley. After an hour or so, we could see a decent size city in the distance. Our driver pointed to it and smiled as he took a sharp turn down towards the city.A few minutes later the city was directly in front of us, and immediately we were both overcome by its energy and its charm. From the backseat of the cab I could tell we had made the right decision. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.
We wandered the streets for hours, with every single interaction having a feel of enchantment to it. Every building we walked into, ever alleyway we turned down had a distinct taste of magic. We had lunch in the market in the town square, where random people came up to us and gifted us with candy and flowers. When we decided to wander off the main roads and into a residential area, we were randomly invited inside an old stone house that looked like it came straight out of Faery. And it was quickly obvious that owner was as pleased with our reactions as we were pleased at what we were seeing.
After we left, we stumbled upon an old church that contained a shrine to Guadalupe, where I left her flowers and then thanked the reaper for the message as we walked past the graveyard. At that moment I remembered that the second message, the one that was “for later,” was still in my wallet.
We treated ourselves to pastries at a coffee shop and ended up lost in a fascinating conversation with an American expat couple who had moved to Malinalco because it felt like a “spirit magnet” to them. They had also ended up here due to the random advice from a friend, and moved there permanently a few months later. Looking around, I could understand that pull, as I was feeling touches of it myself.“This place feels like a dream,” I said out of nowhere.
“Oh, yes,” one of them replied. “And the dreams themselves are very vivid here, more so than in most places. Are you staying the night?”
“No,” I answered. “I would love to, but we need to get back to Toluca tonight.”
“Oh, well you better do that soon then,” the other replied. “Cabs don’t run here all night. And they’re a bit pricier than they cost in Toluca, just so you are aware.”
My companion and I looked at each other, slightly alarmed. We had put aside exactly 600 pesos, assuming that the ride back would be comparable to the cost of getting there, and we had just spent the rest of the money we brought with us on the pastries.
We thanked them and headed towards where the cabs had been gathered. Sure enough, most of the cabs that had been parked there earlier in the day were gone. The drivers were huddled at the end of the street smoking cigarettes, and as we approached them a large man emerged from the crowd and addressed us, acting as though he was in charge of all the other drivers.
“Can we help you?” he asked in English.
“Yes, can anyone take us back to Toluca?” I asked
“Absolutely. 800 pesos.”
We looked at each other and shrugged and sighed before I turned back to the man in charge. “We only have 600 pesos on us. Would anyone be willing to take us back for 600?”
The man turned towards the drivers and started yelling at them in Spanish. Most of them shook their heads no. And then after a moment, a younger, smaller driver emerged from the back of the crowd with his hand up.”
“Ah, see, Joe will take you there,” the man in charge told us. “He’s still learning his way around, so he charges a bit less. But it’s an easy route. He shouldn’t get lost. Right, Joe?” he asked as he turned back around towards the driver and laughed.
Joe the driver laughed back. “No, I won’t get lost,” he said a bit nervously. My companion and I looked at each other and shrugged again. We didn’t have much of a choice but to trust Joe at this point.
We got in the cab and Joe sped out of town. The sun was just starting to set, and the countryside was beautifully illuminated as we made our way back up and through the valleys and mountains. Staring out the window, I started to briefly drift off when my companion shook me awake. “Do you hear that?” he asked.
I paused to listen and heard a very prominent grinding noise coming from underneath the car. “Yup,” I answered. “That is not a good sound.” I tapped Joe on the shoulder and pointed down towards the noise. “I’m a little worried about that noise,” I said to him.
“Oh, I’m sorry, so sorry about that,” he quickly replied in an apologetic tone, and proceeded to turn up the radio loud enough so that we could not hear the noise coming from underneath.
I felt like both laughing and crying at that moment, and neither of us knew what to say to each other nor was there much we could do, so we simply stared out the window. I started to silently pray to whoever was listening in hopes that we would get back safely.
Not long after that, Joe turned off the main road and suddenly we were in a small town, one we had not passed through on the way there.
“Umm, where are we going?” I asked him. He ignored me and rolled down his window as several people ran towards the vehicle, smiling and waving at him. A woman leaned into the car to give him a long kiss, and I realized that we were witnessing a family reunion of sorts.
“Are we in his hometown or something?” my companion asked me.
“I think so,” I answered, and strained to listen to the conversation going on through the window. “And if I’m understanding correctly, he’s asking that other man for directions back to Toluca. ”
A few minutes later, we were back on the main road, radio still at full volume, heading for Toluca. I was tired at this point, but paying attention just enough to notice that as we approached the city, the driver went right past the main exit for Toluca. I tapped him on the shoulder again.
“Excuse me, but I think you missed the exit,” I said.
“Oh no no, no worries, I know the way,” he assured me. Hoping that he had been given an alternate route when he stopped for directions, I leaned back into my seat again, but then it became clear very quickly that we were lost.
It was dark at this point, and while we were somewhere on the edges of the city, nothing looked familiar. We both started to feel nervous. Not knowing what else to do, I reached into my wallet and pulled out the other slip of paper from the reaper. I then pulled out my Spanish dictionary and started to translate the slip of paper in the back of the cab.
“What are you doing?” my companion asked me.
“Hoping this piece of paper holds the answer,” I answered as calmly as possible. By then we seemed to be driving in circles, and I could tell that the driver was also nervous at this point but trying his best to hide it and stay calm.
“But why are you doing that now?” he asked.
“Because I don’t know what else to do,” I answered. “I was told by the reaper that I’d know when to read it, and right now feels like that time. Have you got a better idea at the moment?”
“Fair enough,” he said. “What does it say?”
The driver pulled over to make a phone call just as I finished looking up the words of the sentence. I read it to myself a few times, digesting it before reading aloud.
“It says, “When in trouble, trust your intuition. It might make the difference between life and death.”
“Well that’s just lovely,” he replied. “Could you possibly have produced anything more ominous?” I shot him a dirty look, and he paused for a moment before continuing.
“Okay then,” he said carefully. “What does your intuition tell you right now?”
“I think we should get out right here and make it back on foot before we end up even more lost,” I said quickly, the words pouring out of my mouth before I could really think them through.
The driver was still on the phone, his voice sounding even more panicked. “We are going to get out here,” I told him. “Can you find your way back the way you came?”
He nodded, looking relieved. “I’m sorry,” he said, obviously embarrassed.
We hopped out of the cab, and as he drove away we looked around at our surroundings. We had ended up in the neighborhood that specialized in funeral supplies. There was nothing but coffin and urn stores as far as we could see in either direction. Other than us, the neighborhood was deserted, with barely a street light to guide our way.
“And how is this any better than being lost in the cab?” he asked me. “We are literally surrounded by death.”
He was terrified, but I thought there was something beautiful about it. It was two nights before the Day of the Dead, and there I was, lost in a mid-sized city in Mexico in a neighborhood filled with coffins. I thought back to all the crazy twists over the past week that had led up to this moment and started to laugh uncontrollably.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked me, sounding both annoyed and nervous. “Have you gone mad?”
“Probably,” I replied. “But I do think I might know how to get back from here. Someone mentioned this neighborhood the other day and I’m pretty sure it’s not far from the area with all the suits, and if we can find that place I can find our way back to the hotel.”
We walked in the dark for the next hour or so, wandering up and down the deserted, coffin-filled streets until the funeral supply shops finally faded out and the rows of pantsuit shops began. Eventually we came across an intersection that I recognized from my lunch at the turkey shack. From there we could see the lights in the town center, and we both breathed a sigh of relief. We had found our way back.
“Do me a favor?” he asked as we walked up to the hotel. “Can we get through the rest of this trip without you relying so much on reapers and little slips of paper? Please?”
“Oh, come on.” I replied. “That entire adventure was amazing and you know it.”
“It was something, all right,” he answered. “That was all definitely something.”
The next morning, I woke up somewhat early, feeling the need to head downtown one last time before we had to head back to the airport. Part of me wanted to see the displays of sugar skulls again, and another part of me was hoping to run into the Reaper again, though I wasn’t quite sure why.
On the way back towards the zócalo, I once again passed the man with the burro. He recognized me and waved me over. I shook my head and thanked him without stopping, wanting to acknowledge his role as the catalyst for my series of adventures but not wanting to end up with another bottle of pulque.I continued on, and as I approached the zócalo I kept my eye out for the reaper, but he was nowhere to be found.
Inside the market, I found a small Catrina figure inside a coffin, which I felt the need to have given what had occurred the night before. After I purchased it, I went out onto the square again to observe for a few minutes. Government employees in suits were walking quickly between the buildings as children in costumes darted between and around them. I took it all in for a moment, thanked the place itself for its role in my experiences there, and then headed back to the hotel for the last time.
* * *
This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.
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