Toluca Gringa

8,700 feet does more than simply turn you into a cheap date

Monday, January 22, 2007

What I learned about coyote fat

There’s a place in the jungle of the Sierra Madres where concrete stumps hold up waterfalls and spiral stairways ascend several stories with no guardrails and stop in mid air. In this place, you’ll find artists making well-intentioned pilgrimages, and stoner teenagers pretending to be profound, camping with little more than a blanket, a portly joint, and a can of beans. It’s called Las Pozas, and this was the masterwork of Edward James, a rich Brit who had more cash than knack for words or canvas. The story goes that he fell in love with this spot because he was led there by a cloud of migrating monarchs. And after a failed stint as an orchard farmer (farmer?), he set out to build a sculpture garden in the jungle that would make Alice in Wonderland twitch in dismay.

My friend Annie, who I had worked with in Albania, happened to be fluttering through Mexico and invited me to tag along…somewhere. I had never heard of Las Pozas. So, like any girl with an extra week on her hands I said, “Sure, I’ll spend ten hours on a vomit-trap bus winding through the mountains to go to a funky spot that I know nothing about.” The next day we found each other in Queretero and set out from there.

I knew the travel gods were on my side when, while smushed on the bus with a myriad of interesting odors, a teenaged girl stood before us to spin a sales pitch about some magic Aztec healing balm. She braced herself for each curve with one hand, held the little plastic bottle in the other, and never missed a syllable of her schpeel. All I needed to hear was mint and eucalyptus and I was sold. Two bucks. I figured this was just the balm I needed to rub below my nose to mask the sweat-soaked air. I paid her and scooped a healthy blob out of the container with my finger. It was pink and indeed smelled like menthol, a bit like grandpa’s arthritis ointment. Still much better than overripe armpits. Since I had eight or nine hours to kill, I read the label. Eucalyptus, yep. Beeswax, ok. Belladonna, yes I’ve heard of that. Coyote fat. Huh?? I began to experiment with the coyote fat, just for kicks. It made a great lip moisturizer, cuticle cream, and temple balm (with a tiny bit of tingle to keep it interesting). I put dabs of the stuff on some sand flea bites which had been a lingering souvenir of my trip to the beach. A few dozen pockmarks on my calves and ankles, red and hideous. I figured the coyote fat couldn’t possibly make them worse.

The next day, we made it to the nearest village to Las Pozas,. Xilitla. Not much happening in Xilitla. It’s the kind of village where everyone sits in front of their store gossiping and borrowing things from one another. Kids run amok in the tiny plaza, and old people just sit on benches and take in the day. Many of the old guys had to have been half in the bag by the time we arrived in mid-afternoon. So, we rounded the corner from the plaza to go to the hotel, which was at the bottom of a steep stone pedestrian walkway. A pair of boots, toes up toward the sky, poked above a stair step. And the closer we got, we realized a little old señor occupied those boots. He was flat on his back, a position he had obviously taken after gravity got the best of him trying to climb upward. I imagined the scene: climbing up the steep walkway as he had done each day his entire life. But today was different. His body wasn’t working and that last step was a doozy. His heavy trunk began to swagger on his short little legs until he plopped backward like a fallen tree. And there he remained until we came upon him. His mouth was agape, his cloudy eyes stared into the sky and he mumbled as he searched wearily for a handkerchief in his pocket. He somehow looked peaceful, despite the pool of blood collecting beneath his cracked noggin. Locals passed glaring and clucking their tongues with a disapproving “he’s fallen belly-up again!” face. As we were maneuvering him to normal position the police arrived, scolding him for being drunk. Meanwhile, blood dripped from the back of his head and he tried (unsuccessfully) to reach the spot with his filthy hanky. In the end, the police propped his against a stone wall and left him to fend for himself.

Once at the hotel, I had a peek at my legs – the bites had almost completely disappeared!! Maybe this coyote didn’t die in vain after all.

To describe the experience of Las Pozas in words would only lead to a series of predictable metaphors. Imagine the Escher print that everyone had in their dorm room at some point in their life. Then take all the stairs and the associated vertigo and put them in the middle of the jungle. Simply amazing. A million shades of green dripping in every direction. Tiny trails and steps leading in circles, putting you on such a twisted path that you lose all sense of direction and end up staring at a feral pig in a concrete pit. Edward James and his team of loyal followers spent a couple decades building dozens of stories-high sculptures. The demonstration of perseverance was astounding. I tried to wrap my mind around what the man must have been thinking, year after year, always saying, “OK, let’s start the next one.” So, rather than ramble on about Las Pozas, I’ll put some photos and needless commentary on my photo site, which is

[but give me a few days to finish loading them, I’ve got dial-up]

I said goodbye to Annie in Xilitla, rode a bus for 10 hours and arrived back in Toluca, where I spent my remaining days of vacation cleaning and watching black and white Pedro Enfante films (he wins every fight and there’s never any blood, even when he stabbed a man in the eye). Now, I’m battling a zit that appeared after the stuffy stinky bus ride. You can bet I’m smothering the thing in coyote fat.