Journeys with Demons
Demons follow you everywhere. They manifest themselves in different ways — anxiety, angst, depression, rage, sadness... These demons follow you on your journeys, just on your shoulder, ready to chat into your ear when something unexpected occurs. How you manage them and their insidious voices decides how you will remember the journey — were you able to fight them off, or did you succumb to them?
After our standard breakfast on the veranda (chilaquiles, fresh orange juice and coffee), we decided to go on an adventure. We’d been told that the ruins at El Tajín shouldn’t be missed — they’re about a one-and-a-half-hour drive from San Rafael (and it was cloudy, so no pool time), so we wandered out to the Aveo and made our way out of town.
We had wound our way through the jungle to just outside of Papantla (once famous for vanilla) when traffic came to an absolute standstill on the little two-lane road. It was us and citrus trucks, piled high with fruit. After a few minutes, we all turned off our engines and sat around… and the time passed excruciatingly slowly. I was silently panicking — my need to control every situation was being questioned by the demon on my shoulder. "What if you run out of gas? What if the car breaks down? What if the entire road is blocked?"
Other drivers got out and wandered about, cracking jokes and fishing seeds out of the trees alongside the road. I caught the eyes of one driver — he smiled and shrugged, as if to say “Nothing we can do, right?” I smiled back and returned the shrug — the demon in my ear now defeated, my fear of the unknown abating. People began walking up towards the direction of the traffic jam to investigate, and just as they were out of sight, everything began to slowly creak forward. A massive tow truck passed us in the other lane, carrying a semi trailer. We crept for over a mile until we reached the source — a semi had caught fire, and the carcass was still there, smoldering on the edge of the road. The driver stood next to it, seemingly puzzled over what his next step was.
We finally reached the El Tajín entrance over two hours after we’d left Maison Couturier. We were exhausted, yet just beginning the adventure. As we slowly drove into the entrance, we noticed that the main road was blocked by cones and a man flagged us down and directed us into a field to park. “Veinte pesos.” I handed him a twenty and we lurched into the field, settling along a shady edge. We got out and wandered into a shantytown of market stalls, clustered around the entrance. We walked up the main road, once a grand boulevard and roundabout, now absolutely encrusted with tiny impromptu stalls. It almost seemed that the vendors had taken this space gradually, piece by piece, over a long time — and they all sold nearly the same things. Vanilla in murky bottles, neon-embroidered cotton dresses, Star Wars sugar skulls, bottled water, leather flip-flops. The area where buses were supposed to arrive was now filled with stalls, and so was the official parking lot adjacent to the main entrance. As we made our way up to the entrance, we saw the “official” vendor pavilion — and all of the pieces fell into place… A national archaeological site with a new museum was built a stone’s throw from a small village, vendors were chosen for the ten official shopfronts, and those who weren’t chosen decided to camp out and make it happen anyway. It felt a little like it could all just disappear, that these people were apparitions — we'd exit the ruins to a vast and empty concrete flat, void of the temptations and tests it held in spades just moments before.
The museum is really quite beautiful — a Mexican brutalist gem by Teodoro González de León (who worked with Le Corbusier in France), semi-open to the elements and reminiscent of the hulking stone temples it honors. We walked up to the ticket desk to meet the lone employee of the entire place — a tired-looking man from INAH, the national archaeological institute. He greeted us, sold us two tickets and off we went. A pit stop in the restroom found a psuedo-official attendant, who had commandeered all of the available paper towels and arranged them in neat piles on his desk (yes, desk) for sale.
We walked back into the jungle, to the ruins, exhausted.
The ruins are truly incredible, awe-inspiring. El Tajín flourished for 600 years in the middle of the jungle, built by an as-yet undecided Mesoamerican tribe (but it was most likely built the Huastecs, an offshoot of the Mayan civilization in the Yucatán). It controlled the flow of commodities across Mexico and became a rich, powerful city — only to be destroyed by fire and abandoned around 1200 AD. It sat, alone and undisturbed, in the jungle for 500 more years before being rediscovered by the Spanish. It is massive, sprawling — but it’s only half-discovered, at best. We wandered, a little overwhelmed. We are almost entirely alone.
It felt strange to be there, the air thick with heat and heaviness. It's what I would imagine walking through Chernobyl feels like, in a way — a formerly vibrant place, just left for nature to reclaim.
A stray dog walked beside us, wagging its tail — it was seemingly beckoning us further into the jungle. It made me a tiny bit anxious, as there’s a Mayan legend that a dog-demon would lead you into the underworld when it was your time to go — and where else but in an ancient temple complex would that be likely to happen?
We passed ball courts, temples, out-buildings — all delicately carved out of limestone, some protected from the elements by thatched palapa roofs. At one point, Mark said “Why are there complicated stone gutters everywhere?” I replied, “…Blood.” We both went a little pale. It was a little eerie to be alone inside of an ancient city — one that literally flowed red with sacrificial blood every day. Our dog friend had given up on taking us to the underworld, and had dozed off under a massive tree on the edge of the forest. Little old ladies silently proffered bottles of vanilla and orange juice from benches in the forest as we walked back to the entrance — everything seemingly charmed, quietly sinister.
We made our way back out to the entrance, through the market and the field to our car. The “attendant” smiled and waved as we drove out onto the main road.
“What a strange place.”
We stopped at a Pemex for gas and bottled water — a task made awkward by the fact that my entire Spanish vehicular vocabulary evaporated at some point in high school. “Verde, por favor?” I asked, tentatively. The attendant smiled and nodded, and filled the little car up.
We decided to detour through Papantla on the way back to San Rafael — the main square was apparently quite beautiful, and there were perhaps still places to buy Mexican vanilla. But our best intentions were foiled by an intense snarl of traffic in the little town, and the main square was packed with people. The quick shift from being alone at El Tajín to being overwhelmed by crowds was too much to handle, so we left. We stopped and started up a steep hill and turned around — I was now a fearless driver, unafraid of horns and collisions. Back to Maison Couturier.
Tacos, guacamole, queso fundido, stacks of perfect tortillas, Victoria beer — all necessary for decompression after driving for five hours through the jungle for the second time. We again walked into town for snacks after dinner, passing the cemetery, the gym and the bro-rock blaring from the open second-floor windows, the little snack stands and the napping dogs on the sidewalks. The routine had been established — and it felt lovely after a day of adventure, a day of drastic shifts, unknowns.
We fell asleep whispering about the day — in my exhaustion and waning English skills, “whispering” became “making small noises.” We laughed and drifted asleep beneath the crisp white sheets, the doors creaking in the breeze, the demons at rest until the sunrise.