I passed over the hills of Xochimilco determined to end this trip. I had decided to reach San Francisco Tecoxpa on the longest night of the year, the 21st of December. I had been walking for 51 days now and I was tired and fed up. After Xochimilco I followed the roads towards the hills along the city’s southern rim where buildings sprawled out into the mountains.
I passed the vast jail of Xochimilco, the Reclusorio del Sur, surrounded by fences and towers. It seemed a little nicer than the other jails on the route. I went on and reached a small village, with a creek running through it, just attached to the city. In the fields behind it I saw the distinctive box cages of fighting cocks with roofs of corrugated steel to keep them out of the sun. I was now in the countryside and I moved eastwards down the slope of the hills towards an informal colony built in the forest below me. Electricity cables, like spider webs, went from house to house. Some men drinking from a plastic bottle called “¡Hey, güero!” but I no longer had any interest in anything beyond advancing towards my destination. No more stops, no more interviews.
I passed through this woodland informal settlement and reached fields surrounded by walls of loose, stacked, stone. Some of the walls still under construction had lines pulled along them to make sure they were straight. In the fields were neat shacks made of wooden pallets and bits and pieces of mattresses creating the illusion of doors and walls. Nobody was there. It seemed odd. The stone walls lining the fields gave an appearance of an old settlement. The shacks were new but nobody seemed to be living in them. Looking at them more closely I saw they did not have doors. There were also no footpaths going to the shacks, not even a worn patch in the grass. I walked through the unusual, uninhabited village of squatters, with houses without doors surrounded by fields and walls of stone. Then I saw a telephone number painted on one of the walls. It suddenly made sense.
These shacks were ways of reserving a space, like a sweater hung over a stool. As time went by they would acquire greater legal standing. The stone walls lent a sense of antiquity as well as being hard to get rid of. The village was a fake, built to fool authorities. It was a land stake.
Further on some houses in the fields were inhabited and I came to a cluster of streets around a cobblestone avenue called San Juan Labrador. As I walked down the slope among the houses a donkey passed me by. I found it strange that it was unaccompanied. I didn’t pay much attention until a second donkey with water bottles tied to its sides also passed me without any apparent owner. Looking back and seeing donkeys up the hill by the houses and along the road down the hill I realized that the animals were a water transportation service. I asked a man passing by about them. He said the municipality was preventing water from being brought to this squatter colony. So they had started using donkeys. The donkeys would walk down the hill to a large cistern. People by the water tank would fill the water bottles and the donkeys would return.
I asked whether the donkeys ever escaped or got lost. He said that never happened. In reality the donkeys seemed quite happy walking at a leisurely pace down the road to the water tank, sometimes pausing briefly to nibble leaves of some low-hanging bush. I was intrigued by the potential of donkeys for the solution of such urban problems.
Having reached the bottom of the hill by the water tank I surveyed the landscape. Either I could go inwards to the city and walk around some hills or I could go over them, in what would surely be a short cut. Since I was tired and in a hurry I took the shortcut, a dirt road up the hill to reach Milpa Alta on the longest night.
The shacks and little houses became less and less frequent. More stone walls crossed fields. Finally I took a small path toward the setting sun that I supposed would bring me to the other side of the hill. It led to small pasture of grass surrounded by yet another wall. On the other side of the pasture was a path going in the general direction of the road to Milpa Alta, which I followed. The darkness deepened as the sunset and after about 15 minutes I decided that this path among the cacti and agaves was not going anywhere and I had best return. I followed the path back to the pasture in a hollow of the hill. It was now dark.
I could only see a vague interlacing of dirt around clumps of grass, not the path I had entered come on. I had no flashlight. I saw a lamp blink on in a shack up on some rocks above me. I was sure I would be able to find the path out of the pasture in the dark, but I was wrong. After spending more than half-an-hour following false leads, walking the complete circumference of the rock wall and wandering through the lush grass I still could not find an exit from this hollow.
In my frustration I decided to scale the rocks towards the shack. With one arm I made it up to a rock wall just under the construction of plans and corrugated steel. I paused, like a soldier in a war movie about to jump out of a trench. I realized I would scare the wits out of whoever was in the shack, jumping out from the dark, completely unexpected into what basically was a small backyard. Accidents might happen. I descended once more down the rocks to the dark hollow, balancing to compensate for the loss of my right arm.
I had been feeling pretty confident after all I had learned during my trip but now I realized I had learned nothing. I was still a fool. I was still in the pasture and it was night. The interconnected walls of stacked rocks separated various pastures. I decided to walk over the tops of the walls reasoning I must at some point reach a dirt road. This new strategy worked and after walking over the top of wall after wall I finally saw a dirt road beside me. I jumped down. Once again I was in the vast kingdom of navigable roads reaching from here to Alaska. After having lost several hours going nowhere I walked downwards to the highway at the bottom of the hill, full of cars and traffic going to pre-Christmas celebrations in Milpa Alta.
I had called El Chorri to tell him I would be arriving but now it was much later and the battery of my cell phone was empty. When I finally found a place along the highway where I could recharge my battery and call El Chorri, he did not answer. It was late for him, he being an early riser like all farmers.
I continued my route along the highway, amid the halting traffic with its ballet of brake lights, reaching the village of San Pedro Actopan, famous for its mole. I went up along the freeway over the small ridge of the volcano Teuhtli separating Actopan from the village Villa Milpa Alta. As I limped up the ridge all I could think of was finishing this trip. I had almost made it. Happily I continued down the slope though Villa Milpa Alta. It felt momentous.
After passing through the quiet streets of Villa Milpa Alta I arrived at the entrance to the village of San Francisco Tecoxpa. It was now past midnight and the streets were empty. I saw the neon cross and floodlit blue of the church of San Francisco Tecoxpa, which had marked my point of departure. I walked toward it through the silent avenue into the village. Swift creeks and fields of cacti crossed the rocky site of the village.
I had imagined that when I reached this that the gates of heaven would open, that bands would be playing, that the village notables would have come out to greet me. But like some soldier returning from an unknown war all that greeted me was silence. Divine intervention had not prepared any special mystical event for my arrival at the church.
Since I hadn’t been sure I would be arriving this particular night I had not asked my wife or friends to pick me up. I sat down and looked at the street, tired, and alone, without anybody to see me, and laughed. Little had changed. I stood up and headed towards El Chorri’s house. I knocked on the door but nobody opened, they had all gone to sleep. There I was in Milpa Alta in the deep of night and I had nowhere to go. I heard a car drive up further down the street and turned around.
A young man stepped out. He shouted: “Hey Feike, what are you doing here?” He was slightly tipsy. He was a cultural organizer I had interviewed several years ago and not seen since. He remembered me. He told me that there had been a party at work and he had a few beers. Since the party ended late he had had to take a taxi to his home. I explained my predicament, I was here alone, and had no place to stay. He told me graciously that though his house was simple he could offer me a bed.
We walked to a small second story apartment in the village. I entered and saw two small beds in the living room. He was divorced but sometimes his children came to visit. My host had short blond hair and fair skin. He told me his father had not been from the village. His father had been an alcoholic and his family had sent him to Milpa Alta with the idea that country life would do him good. And though my host had been born in in the village, had grown up with the rest of the children, had fought with them in secondary school, had done everything to be part of the village, he was never accepted. Even now he remained an outsider.
He poured me a glass of water. He told me he was a carpenter and had gone to the United States for several years. It was there that he had asked himself where he was actually from, and he had realized that despite being rejected, Milpa Alta was his home and he would not let local prejudice take that away from him. He returned and started investigating the history of Tecoxpa. He said that even in Aztec times the people of Tecoxpa were known as shape changers and witches. Now there was an abnormally large population of doctors and nurses. Maybe San Francisco had a vocation for medicine.
He himself was a carpenter and poverty was grinding him down. He was thinking in his desperation to perhaps join the military, though he hated the idea. In the military he would learn how to bear arms. He did not know what he was going to do.
I first met him years before when he organized an exposition on pre-Hispanic artifacts that people from the village had found and kept hidden in their houses. He was unfailingly polite, intelligent and dignified. He had studied the history of the village and knew all its customs. Yet now he had no economic future.
We finished our glasses of water and I went to sleep on a couch.
The next morning we awoke early and said goodbye. I wandered half a block through the village center. Then I saw a small bus stop in front of the church. Without thinking I ran toward it and lumbered in through the sliding door. I sat down feeling the close presence of the other passengers hunched in their seats. The bus accelerated. It felt like taking off in a rocket.
The city in all its detail passed by in a blur. Whole blocks disappeared in the blink of an eye. The deep growl of the engine echoed in my bones. I sat there looking out of the window with my bag on my knees. Dozens of people passed by in instants. The great sorcerer Mexico-Tenochtitlan once more turned to shadow.