Letter Home (16 November 2008)

The Cuernavaca bus leaves Mexico City at midnight; I wrestle with the back seat, trying to sleep while my partner, Richard, carries on a halting conversation with the buttery driver. Lowry, Richard says; the driver grunts. Malcolm Lowry famously hid away here, writing the novel which made his name, Under the Volcano – a story of a drunken expat, written by a drunken expat; a savaging of wealth amongst poverty. It’s Lowry’s women who interest me, following him, enabling, possibly writing drafts of his work.

I’m the woman trailing this time, while Richard researches eco-communities. Like Lowry’s women, it suits me to be here. I’m writing about belonging: about whether it’s place or community that makes home. There’s an anarchist eco-village on the outskirts of Tepoztlan, in the Morelos mountains, an invented village of voluntary exiles in a volcanic landscape brimming with indigenous history: rich pickings. A week in Cuernavaca in the rainy season gives me three fractious street brawls to ponder, but no sign of Lowry’s ghost.

We catch a bus out to Tepoztlan and wave down a cab to take us out to Huehuecoyotl, the Eco-village in the Sierra Tepozteco. Tin shacks cling to the edge of the road, while the driver does his best to leave it, wheels screeching. Swarms of children stand outside the shacks, waving. We turn down a long drive: ahead of us, a wide faced totem covers a curved adobe building. Balconies stretch along the upper floors, and metal-rimmed stairs wind around the terraced grounds. As we clamber out of the taxi, a woman calls down in an American accent, Habla usted inglés? Yes, we call up, Hola. She calls us up, and I suck my breath in at the unexpected luxury: carefully crafted furniture, heavily cushioned couches, a stainless steel kitchen. Is this the community house? No. This is Bea, and this is her house. She knows nothing of our arrival. The organiser has gone off. No-one is quite sure where. Later, Bea loads us up into her four wheel drive and heads us back into Tepoztlan; we zoom past the tin sheds of Santo Domingo Ocotitlan. I think of the reams of space in each of the Huehue houses, big enough for a sprawling family.

We walk out of Tepoztlan to the Pyramid of Tepozteco, an early Aztec temple, climbing up two thousand feet of forested mountain in the rainy-season drizzle. At the peak, a narrow ladder is wedged against a sharp rock face. The rain slips on to my hands, and the ladder appears incredibly flimsy; Richard’s face peers down at me with concern as I haul myself up onto a wide ledge, puffing with relief. As I lie in the wet, congratulating myself on my mammoth act of fitness, will and sheer courage, a local climbs up behind, pulling himself up the ladder with one hand while his toddler dangles casually over a shoulder.

The temple spreads out ahead of me, grey stone surfaces marked with careful engravings. Scores of small raccoon-like animals sniff about, their long noses poking into bags, pockets, corners. We ask a temple guide what the animals are: the word is unfamiliar to either of us. We try translations: dog? Skunk? No, the guide shakes his head. There is no other word: they exist only here, on this mountain, these little bandidos. This is their home, and they will go nowhere else.

When the rain eases off we head back to Cuernavaca and out to Xochicalco, an ancient Mayan city. Despite my derisive snortings, the eco-villagers have talked about Xochicalco as a pilgrim site of ‘mystical power’. I mutter something about the absence of either mysticism or pilgrims and stomp onwards. Groomed terraces abutt one another and guard the grey stone of the central fortress. There are few tourists; the whole place is oddly quiet. We wander separately, gazing at the carvings, the city quads, the hieroglyphic patterns of the walls. When I pass another woman, we look at each other, startled; my hola sounds abominably loud. I find my way to the top terrace where Richard is sitting in a sombre silence, gazing at a pair of eagles circling the site; I sit a little way off, looking down on a flat courtyard with a stone hoop at either end. An ancient basketball court, I think; but I’m flattened by a shaft of sadness, a sudden, desperate ache which takes the breath from me.

At the bottom terrace, we stop to read a note on the site’s history. The terraces were the setting for a game very much like basketball, but with one crucial difference. The winners – always from the lower classes – were sacrificed, there on the court, with the priests watching from above. We glance uneasily at each other, the cynic and the sceptic, surprised by this evocation of ghosts. Lowry’s novel of colonial decadence was set on the Mexican Day of the Dead; I left Cuernavaca without encountering his haunts. The ghosts of a far more brutal past found me instead.