Mexico No.6 – Michoacan

Sunday, May 22nd, 2015


From this distance you can’t see the shore. The sea rolls away in a single perfect curl, a seamless wave machine, and when one line crashes on the sand another has already risen to take its place. Here at the mouth of the ocean, I tread water beside a jagged rock, where a pelican shyly hides its head under its wing. The craggy peninsula up which we scrambled is left exposed by the receding tide; on its southern face, a few hardy cacti boldly grow.

It feels very peaceful here. The water below me is an even turquoise, and surprisingly opaque: I can’t see my kicking legs. It occurs to me that the bottom could be only four metres below, or full fathoms five. I would have to risk it in order to find out. In the same vein, I wouldn’t have known about this view if I had stayed on the beach – it required the journey. The question is, how far out do you want to go? That depends on how much you want to risk. However, the difference between real risk and perceived risk is sometimes difficult to measure. The decision of whether to travel to a place with a dangerous reputation is a tricky one. With some exceptions – North Korea and Venezuela swim to mind – travelling out of safe harbours is sometimes a matter of diving in. 

                                                                                                                    

Within Mexico, the south-western states of Guerrero and Michoacán have a reputation of being mad, bad, and dangerous to know. The shocking kidnapping and murders in Iguala; the cartel violence that erupts, bloodily and without warning, in the northern highlands; the arbitrary bus raids; Harry Devert. In contrast to these lurid stories, the bus journey we took into Michoacán was muy tranquillo. Once past the border town of Coahuayana, the passengers drifted off, and beyond San Juan de Alime only three of us remained: Elodie, me, and an old man slumped against the window, his white sombrero propped over his snoring nose. The wind sped past us and we curled up along the curving route until Kilometre 153, where we were deposited beside a saturnine truckers’ stop with awnings drooping in the heat.

Bougainvillea shimmered in the dusty breeze; a dog lay on its side in the shade, panting. Boys idled through town with their rickety bikes. Everywhere, faces turned towards us, curious, smiling. The everyday feel that permeated Maruata village rubbed up against the magical surrealism of the coast it bordered. We found a pearl-white virgin beach, hidden from view by fringes of corrugated sandstone. Towards the east, the stretch of sand was terminated abruptly by a jagged peninsula, which held within its rugged palm a bay: overtaken by a witch’s whirlpool of seething jade waters, a cauldron from which rose a jagged stack poking out from the sea, resembling perhaps the discarded hat of a venerable warlock.

The other tourists had vanished by the afternoon, and Elodie and I remained. Throughout our stay we were approached and made welcome by the locals, who treated us with kindness, curiosity and gentleness. Dahlia sold us sweating bottles of water. Carlos graciously agreed to let us string hammocks from his palapa (a simple shelter made from tree trunks and palms). Jorge accompanied us on a stroll through town. I am afraid that we made poor conversationalists, as I had to ask him to repeat his questions at least three times over. A simple ‘De donde viene?’ (‘Where are you from?’) passed through the narrow gap of his lips in a slurring, syrupy whistle, bubbling from deep in the throat and arriving richly seasoned with the cigarette smoke of forty years. Alongside Jorge ambled four or five teenagers, stealing us quick and sharp and shy glances. One of them, slightly bolder than the rest, translated two of Jorge’s many questions before they all turned, suddenly, and scattered down a side street.

                                                                                                                    

‘Nosotros hablamos Nahuatl, pero hablamos más el español porque es más facil”*  he said. I asked him to speak some of the Aztec language, Nahuatl. He pronounced something in a liquid, flowing tongue, and repeated in Spanish, ‘Como te llamas, me llamo Juan‘. Nahuatl sounded completely different from any other language I knew. Earthy, thick, obviously but impalpably ancient. We practised words for a while, but all I learned was ‘lawal’, meaning man, and ‘sigwal’, woman.**

Juan was the best of our strange encounters. It was eight p.m.. Elodie and I had bought two Coronas and sat on the beach drinking, watching the twilight change from civil to astronomical. A slightly-built impish man approached us: did we want to see the turtles nest? We did. Well, he could show us, and he would be around should we wish to find him. Elodie and I thanked him, and he melted back into the shadows of the town. We stayed talking. It was now dark, and on the peninsula to the east a light stood out against the black rock. I supposed it was a large tent, and guessed that someone must have lit a large lantern inside it, for it glowed with a strange and hypnotic brightness. 

Some time later Juan returned. The tent had blown up over the horizon, so that it hung suspended in the air: it was the moon, rising red. We asked him why it was that colour. Atmosphere, he said, and told us that it would grow paler as it rose. Eventually it would be bright enough to light the beach like daylight. 

By the mid-morning light of 10 p.m., Elodie and I walked along the beach. The village lights diminished in strength and numbers as we proceeded. Finally, there was the military outpost, with its red light standing sentinel. Beyond it the highway bended away from the coast and up towards the mountains. Once in a while a car would pass and light the way; otherwise it was dark and silent. The sand extended in front of our feet, one kilometre, two, until it reached a rocky barrier of many dozens of hundred metres in height. There was no way we could go further. Our torch beams lay weakly on the sand, a pale reflection of the golden moon that shone like a spinning coin in the sky. It drew its trails on the black mirror of the Pacific, fluttering over little waves that broke rhythmically on the sand. I watched the psychedelic ripples, imagining that each break of black in the glass of gold was caused by the coursing back of a turtle, flippers like spatulas, swimming for the shore. It was a great moment and, at the time, I imagined as good as the night was going to get. 

We returned to the village, a little disappointed not to see turtles. It was perhaps eleven p.m. and we sat under a palapa consuming guacamole. 

‘Hola chicas!’ Juan came into view again, and the night got brighter. His broad grin persuaded us that there was perhaps more to be seen. As we retraced our earlier steps along the beach, Juan regaled us with stories and advice, opinions and legends. He tried to teach us Nahuatl. Next he told us about the turtles. Yesterday had been full moon, and he had seen four. He pointed out tracks that we had not noticed before. They appeared like the marks of 4×4s, marked by a central depression, and each was wider than I am. These creatures were clearly enormous. 

He was even more eager than either Elodie or me.
We will keep going to the end of the beach until we see one, and then we will turn back and see them all on our way back!’

It seemed as if the man never stopped talking. He told us of his readings about peyote ceremonies. He told us of his mother, a Nahuatl speaker from an indigenous tribe in the mountains, and how you could hunt wild boars in the woods around her village. He told us about the high season in Maruata, when tourists would camp on the beach, and how they would wake up in terror at scrabbling noises at 3 a.m.: the nesting turtles, who would climb up the beach oblivious to intruders, and tear the trembling tents with their enormous claws. His voice and his mannerisms, the engaging flutter of his hands, all served to capture our full attention. We moved forward, all four of us – for we were accompanied by a stray dog, who had initially taken a liking to my packet of tostadas, but had soon given up and sought entertainment in hunting the crabs who hid in the sand. A short attention span; but the animation of Juan had entranced all of us, and the dog now stood looking up at the man, whiskers quivering in the moonlight.


We moved forward. The moonlight drew us to the end of the beach, and I marvelled at our strange quartet, ragged and flamboyant. I thought – and then Juan shouted, suddenly: ‘Hay una por alla, está al punto de irse’, and he began to run, the mutt raring after him. A line of footprints typed out. I turned to Melo and said (I remember it now clear as night) – ‘I’m never going to forget this’ – and then we were running to, charging towards a slick little mountain that was molten with the moonlight, and moving slowly, and approaching rapidly, and then we were there, and the turtle was enormous, a blackened trunk shrivelled and alive and with a face that was wrinkled and ancient, wise but made frantic by the dog that was teasing him, prancing around and sniffing his face. I was dancing, too – this was something magical, an enchantment conjured by the warlock who had left his hat behind. The amazing creature had climbed up the beach, ten metres in, and decided now was not the time to nest: it had turned to continue back to the ocean. But its way was blocked now by a curious bewhiskered enemy. The turtle sniffed in confusion. Wasn’t it was time to go? Quickly, Juan and I acted as a team, dancing around and fencing in the turtle, batting away the dog, while Elodie snapped pictures. It was only a few steps to the safety of the water, but the turtle lumbered its way with the grace of an arthritic rhinoceros. He reached the shallows and was transformed. His lumber increased to a scrabble, and then a slither, and for a few short seconds his carapace quivered on the surface, breaking the light as I had imagined before. Then he was gone. 

We walked back after. No music, only a roaring in my ears that almost drowned out the crickets to my right and the waves on the left. I found myself unable to stop smiling, unable to attempt to answer Juan’s talk. Only half-way home did I begin to pay attention to where he was pointing. A small fishing boat, a lancha, was passing us in the dark. Juan explained. They knew their way along this coast, where the rocks were, where to dive. If they were fishing for langoustines, they would take small torches with them, and jump off the boat in the dark. If they wanted fish, they would anchor the lancha and leave a small lamp at the surface, which would attract the fish that would be caught.  

We looked back to Juan, and I saw his smiling, cheerful face. There was no danger here: all he wanted to do was to pass on his knowledge, to impress us with a view that Maruata was a peaceful and beautiful place, unspoilt by its state’s reputation. How could we argue? The beach, the sea, the turtle: all of it had been magical. I couldn’t say for certain whether I would enter a risk zone again, but this time, I was glad to have done it like the fishermen, and dive straight in.


*‘We all speak Nahuatl here, but we speak more Spanish because it is easier.’
**Did you know that Nahuatl affects us more than we think? This is fascinating. Apparently many words with which we are familiar, in Mexico and in the anglophone world, are derived from this ancient language. Avocado, chocolate, peyote, axolotl, chile, chayote, are all Nahuatl words.

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