Flung into the unfamiliar

Russell Wangersky
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High up in the mountains above Mexico City, the world hits you sharply, because it is so different. Even just the noises: an aged Volkswagen Beetle zips by on a narrow street, a message in loud Spanish belting out of old-school bell-shaped loudspeakers attached to the roof, and almost every minute a sort of blackbird with a long tail shrieks a regular call that sounds like a child screaming.

Tepotzlan lies in a valley framed by ragged coned piles of volcanic pumice; on a Tuesday morning at seven, the place is waking up fast. Roosters have been crowing since six and the church has been dutifully counting out the passing hours with slow bells, but now there are two streams of amplified music fighting with each other from opposite sides of the town, and the February sun has only just crested the hilltops. There's a mist hanging in among the trees in the town valley, and trucks and cars are beginning to shift.

The air has the smell of resinous wood smoke, sharp but also almost perfumed. Wall-climbing lizards skitter and, despite the tangle of noise, sounds as simple as single curled and dry leaves dropping from citrus trees onto the tiles are clear and distinct.

I'm here for work, a writer's festival that, this year, features journalists who have crossed into fiction, but it sure doesn't feel like work: this place is so different that it makes you feel constantly alert and recharged.

Foreign creatures

Even the insects are different; fat stumbling bees look all too familiar, until you get close enough to see that their uniforms are entirely new. These bees wear almost solid black, and it makes them seem even larger, silhouetted against the bright sky. Even arriving, driving down into the town through a moonscape of jagged volcanic stone studded with yucca and other sturdy, prospecting succulents, lets you know you're not in Kansas anymore.

Some things are the same: renegade sparrows flit around you, seeking crumbs, and their head-tilting, black-eyed stares, their sheer impertinence, is the same as sparrows everywhere.

But the similar is hugely outweighed by the different; for every sparrow, there are a dozen different birds, the most recent a small, flower-seeking warbler with a crown so bright red it hooks your eye immediately, distracts from everything else.

And it's been that way since the airport, since the moment when, at customs, you meet up with the luggage lottery. Your luggage goes through X-ray - again - and then there is a red button on a table. You extend a finger, press a button, and if the screen turns green, you're done. If it turns red, your luggage is searched. Technology comes to the random search.

Mexico City lets you know you're the stranger at the moment you're fresh from the airport: it's a city that stretches, it seems, forever, rank after rank of rough buildings and graffiti, an all-encompassing whirl of small neighbourhoods meant to be navigated by their owners.

Outside of the familiar, the world of the daily neighbourhood, you could not help but be lost there, the geography no help, all possible anchor points lost. It makes you feel adrift immediately; everyone, every single person you see, has a sense of context that you lack. There are, there must be, people who love that sudden lack of roots or connection, just like there are people who like to jump out of airplanes and trust that their parachutes were packed properly.

There must, in fact, be people who thrive on it, and you can't help but be jealous of that, can't help but imagine them with their arms outstretched, a manic grin on their faces, pelting full speed into the out there.

For the more hesitant, the more tremulous, it takes far more screwing-up of courage.

It seems enough adventure to sit on a small iron-railed balcony and look at the tree right next to you, a tree that has, right now, no leaves, but a handful of pink flowers with red lines at the tips of several branches, a tree that also boasts, halfway to the top, a parasitic-looking ride-along succulent, well off the ground, its white rootlets girdling the trunk tightly, happy enough soaking up whatever rainwater it can collect as the water runs down the trunk, or else, that its white mesh of fine rootlets can grab right out of the air or the dew.

Across the valley, something is burning, and the smoke rises up in billows until it gets caught in the the ordered sheer of the valley wind currents and is ruled into a long and very straight line, heading almost directly for the mouth between the hills and the rising sun.

The great sin?

There is a tragic point where all of this would become all too familiar, all too routine; it would be what you saw and smelled and heard every single morning, and the sharp edge of its newness would be dulled to the everyday.

Right now, each new bird call is a wonder, and the fact that there is a specific horn on the handcart where a man shaves ice with a metal blade and pours flavours onto the cone of shavings he's made is still a particular experience - even though it's a just a man with a pushcart, a block of ice and a small rainbow of flavoured syrup in plastic jugs.

I wish I was better at this. I wish I could trust my parachute, head to the airplane door, and fling myself out with a slipstream-pulled smile.

Some people, clearly, are born with it. I can only hope that maybe it's something I can learn.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram's editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: RussellWangerskyis The Telegram

Geographic location: Mexico City, Kansas

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Recent comments

  • Just sayin
    February 25, 2013 - 18:30

    Russell fiddles while back home, Rome burns ( MHAs, so called honourable men and women, padding polls.The Premier in full support "you betcha". Nalcor spying on their critics, at taxpyers expense. And laws, like Orders- in Council, being kept secret, and on the road again to have-not status. And Russell, is at a writer's festival, about journalists crossing over to fiction. Hurry back Russell, we seem to be losing our democratic rights here.If Mexico rejunivates you, good. But get your ass back here. The goings on here may seem like fiction, but you couldn't make this stuff up. Bring some light into the darkness here. Uncle Gnarley is holding the fort while your gone.

  • Paul Smith
    February 25, 2013 - 17:30

    I liked this piece very much. I thrive on visiting new places both close to home and far away. And I love Mexico. Great work Russel

  • Michelle
    February 24, 2013 - 22:44

    Thank you Russell for coming to Tepoztlan, Mexico. You were so funny and entertaining. It was a pleasure meeting you. I'm looking forward to reading Whirl Away. I enjoyed this piece about Tepoztlan. It is a reminder to appreciate all of the details and miracles around us that we often begin to take for granted. That tree you refer to might have been a Flor de Mayo tree. They are beginning to bloom right now. However, you didn't mention the flowers' exquisite fragrance so maybe not. Hopefully we'll see you here again next year. Cheers

  • jim
    February 24, 2013 - 11:58

    So, you want on a trip to Mexico City. Beyond that, what is the point of this article?

    • Frank
      February 25, 2013 - 10:06

      Oh, I don't know Jim, maybe that ya might learn somethin'?