From The Fringe: Day Of The Dead

From The Fringe: Day Of The Dead In the morning a firework exploded. I put some bananas and a bottle of tequila in a bag and walked down a path into Pueblo Viejo. The residents of the town live behind high stone walls. The sun was catching the broken glass on the tops of the walls, and people were coming out from behind metal gates. A dog was sleeping in the shade on the pavement. I got on a bus and headed out of the town. The bus filled with morning commuters as it jerked along. We drove out along a green valley with stucco houses on the hills. The bus was full now, and a man with slick hair was pressed against my shoulder. He said something to me. People were filling the aisle and the steps in the doorways. There was a feeling of silent, mounting discomfort. The bus turned up Juarez Boulevard toward the Zocalo. In front of the Palacio de Cortes, men were sweeping the ground. I looked at the high battlements of the palace. Cortes decided to settle in Cuernavaca after inspecting all of Mexico. Aztec emperors had used the city as a summer retreat for centuries. The palace was a residence for Cortes and his descendants, and since then it has been a warehouse, a jail, a military barracks, and a government building. Now it's a museum. Near the Cathedral, the Jardin Borda is surrounded by tall red walls. In the entrance-way, a fountain had been covered in flowers. Papier mache skeletons stood with yarn hair and painted faces. It was cool and damp on the cobbled paths of the gardens. There were stalls selling marigold flowers and porcelain skulls. Down the path and beyond a shallow stone pool, a stage was being set up. People were arranging lights and speakers. It was quiet. I went out of the gardens to eat. I sat outside a cafe which overlooked the the State Government Palace, watched people sprinkling petals on the ground, and accidentally ordered too many beers. Each time I finished a beer, the waiter put a new one in front of me. The beer had been chilled, and the glass was foggy and perspiring in the heat. Finally I had the nerve to stop him. When I got back to the garden people were sitting around waiting for the music to start. A man sprinkled marigold petals down the paths leading to the pool, then around the rim of the pool, then he shook them furiously into the water. Stalls around the pool were selling candies and drinks. In the late afternoon, children with painted faces and skull lanterns lined the stage and started to sing. A man called Luis was selling ice cream out of a couple of coolers. I asked him if I should stay in town all night, or get a bus back to Pueblo Viejo. 'Is it safe?' 'Oh yes, it's OK.' A woman called Gloria had joined us. 'He's asking if it's safe. Do you think it's safe?' he asked. 'Oh, yes. It's not dangerous.' Luis and Gloria talked more in Spanish, and I tried to follow their conversation. An entourage of men was coming down to the pool, with photographers walking backwards ahead of them. 'El Governador!' said Luis. 'Of Cuernavaca?' 'No, of the whole state.' The children were still singing, it was dark now, and it was crowded around the pool. Fireworks were exploding. Each firework was louder than the last. The governor said a few words, and then a band with sombreros and trumpets and a trombone piled onto the stage and began playing quickly. A skeleton was floating across the pool in a small woven boat. You could see the moon in the water. We were sitting on the coolers. 'Will you make an offering to the dead?' said Luis. 'What should I buy for them?' 'Oh, bread, tequila, candies, a whole meal!' said Gloria. I remembered the tequila in my bag. I took it out. 'You shouldn't offer that tonight,' said Luis. 'Tonight is for the children.' 'Yes,' said Gloria, 'the 30th was for the monsters, tonight is for the children, and tomorrow night is for the adults.' We passed the tequila around and finished it. It was a small bottle. 'They're coming at midnight.' 'Who are?' 'The dead!' We walked up one of the paths and I bought a blue porcelain skull from a stall. Then I bought some pan de muerto; a flat, glazed loaf. Gloria carried it in a paper bag. I needed a candle to put inside the skull, so we walked around the terraced sections of the garden. It was raining. Lanterns hung on ropes, lighting the palm-fronds. We could not find a candle. I was about to add my offering to the other offerings in the entrance-way of the garden. There were petals on the floor, and burning candles, and fruit. 'You can't put it here,' said Gloria. 'These are only for famous people. You have to do it on a table at home.' We walked out of the gardens and down an alley. It felt good to be out of the crowd. Music came out of the bars and young Cuernavacans were smoking outside. 'Want to buy anything?' Gloria asked. We were outside a convenience store. Gloria bought cigarettes and I bought a six-pack of Coronas. We turned down a dark street where some boys were playing football on the road. 'My apartment is very simple,' said Gloria. The gate to her apartment block was unlocked. We went into her sparse apartment. She was an artist. She pulled rolled-up paintings out of their plastic wrappings, unrolled them and spread them on the floor, placing things on the corners. "I have so many," she said. She had not taken them out for a while and it made her very happy. Her small portable radio was playing the song Eileen. We stood and looked at the paintings. 'They're so good,' she said. We drank a corona. Gloria's English started to get worse. Eventually she talked only in Spanish, and I acted as though I understood. She seemed to be talking about people watching her and breaking into the apartment. I wasn't sure if she was talking literally or not. I thought that she might be crazy. We offered the porcelain skull on Gloria's table, and the pan de muerto, and two coronas, and some of Gloria's smaller paintings. In the morning the petals had wilted on the ground outside the Palacio. I walked to the bus terminal. Juan the taxi driver was outside. 'Friend! Where you want to go?' 'I'm going to Acapulco for a couple of days, like you recommended.' 'Oh, you'll have a good time. Plenty nice womens.' I went into the terminal and bought a ticket. I had 2 hours, so I walked down the road to a supermarket and bought a bottle of tequila. Juan saw me as I reentered the terminal. 'When are you leaving?' 'At 12. I just bought a bottle of tequila.' 'Ah, now you're ready, friend!' I got on the bus and it swiveled out of the terminal and out of the city. I watched the low, sprawling greenery with cacti reaching out of it like thin pillars. Patches of crop, mules on dirt roads. Rocks baked red by the sun, and vague mountains, blue, in the distance. I fell asleep. When I woke up we were further south and the cacti had been replaced by palms, and it was all taller and greener. Acapulco is surrounded by peasant villages; people who have come south looking for work and built their houses, stacked almost on-top of each other, up into the hills. The streets of Acapulco were humming with old Volkswagen beetles and jeeps with militias. 'Taxi?' 'Yes, can you take me to a safe, cheap hotel?' 'Yes, yes, let's go.' We were driving up the main strip, between rows of palms. 'I'd like a hotel by the beach Caleta.' 'Beach Caleta is in old Acapulco. You don't want to stay there. Not safe. I'll take you to new Acapulco.' 'Why isn't old Acapulco safe?' 'It's for locals.' We passed a faded Coke billboard. The driver explained that Acapulco had been a glamorous escape for rich and famous Americans in the 50s, but now, it was a place for the residents of Mexico City to get away to. High rise hotels had sprung up in the new area of the bay that tried to imitate the glitz of the waning American enterprise, but they catered mainly to middle-class Mexicans, and the Government was struggling to control a worsening crime problem. Mexico had reclaimed the city, like nature reclaims a manicured lawn. We were driving up the bay. The discotheques looked old. It all had a feeling of glacial ruination. We stopped outside a hotel. 'Watch this,' said the driver. We went in and he talked to the receptionist, but they didn't have any rooms. We drove to another hotel.. It was called the Hotel Doria. 'Watch this,' said the driver. He spoke to the receptionist in rapid Spanish. He seemed dissatisfied. 'You can have a room for 450 pesos a night, but only if you stay for three nights.' It was hot. People were coming and going from the faded lobby. It was furnished with a blue pool that looked too warm. 'OK. You accept debit?' I gave the receptionist my Visa Debit card. She tried a few times to process the payment, but it wasn't working. 'You need to go to an ATM?' asked the driver. 'Yes,' I said. 'Let's go!' We drove to two ATMs on the main strip. The first didn't recognize my card. The second told me I had insufficient funds. I got back in the taxi. 'Take me to an internet cafe,' I said. We drove to an internet cafe and I checked my account balance. Three withdrawals had been made from my account that day, leaving almost nothing. I printed a bank statement and we drove back to the hotel. I believed that the receptionist had charged me for a room three times. I tried to explain in Spanish, gave up, and the driver interpreted for me.. But he didn't seem to understand. Neither did the receptionist. 'Tell her I want to see the manager!' I said. The manager arrived and we all looked at a receipt from the Eftpos machine that said 'Declined.' The receptionist, the manager, and the driver, were all confused. 'I'm not making it up,' I said, sweating. The manager printed a list of all the transactions that day. He seemed to be telling me that I was wrong. 'Well, I'll just have to go to the American Embassy!' I said. 'Tell them I'm going to the American Embassy.' We drove off and pulled alongside pedestrians, asking where the embassy was. We found the building and I ran up to the glass doors, but it was 6 PM, and the embassy was closed, and it was Friday, and the embassy wasn't open on weekends. I got back in the taxi. We watched the traffic go by. 'You better leave me here. It's pointless driving me around anymore. I can't pay you.' 'Where you want to go?' 'No, you better leave me here.' 'Where?' 'Let me get your phone number. I'll pay you later.' He wrote his name and number in my notebook. His name was Guillermo. I got out of the taxi. The sun was setting. I walked down the main strip. A group of young Mexicans in crisp white shirts were parading through the heat, holding each other and laughing. They were happy and oblivious. I had some spare change in my pocket, but not enough to spend the night. I looked at a menu board. 'I need a very cheap meal,' I said to the waitresses. Disgusted, they showed me a table. I ordered enchiladas and a beer. My shirt was full of sweat. I saw a man who looked like an American sitting outside a neighboring restaurant. He was old and he had very tanned skin, but he was white. I thought about asking him for help, but when I looked a second time he was gone. 'I need change in coins,' I said, paying for the meal. Outside the restaurant, I slotted coins into a payphone and tried to call the New Zealand embassy in Mexico City, and then my bank. The noise from the street was too loud, and I wasn't sure if I had got through. 'Hello?' I called. 'Can anybody hear me?' I walked down the road a couple of blocks, realized I'd left my bank statement on-top of the payphone, and ran back. I crossed the road and walked down a side-street toward the beach. Lights from a high-rise hotel gave the water a blue glow. It all looked unreal. I sat down for a couple of minutes, then got up and walked up the beach to the road. I hailed the first beetle I saw. 'Take me to the bus terminal.' 'Which one?' 'Estrella de Oro.' I paid the driver and went into the terminal. The next bus to Cuernavaca was at 2 AM. I spent most of my change on the ticket. When the guard searched my bag, he found the bottle of tequila and confiscated it. I went down to the waiting area and watched lucha libre on a TV on the wall. I bought a can of coke from the small shop by the waiting area. Later I bought a magnum and a snickers. I sat in the waiting area and thought about praying. I felt as though people were looking at me and thinking that I was a foreigner who had made some mistake. I got on the bus, passed out of Acapulco through long tunnels, and fell asleep. I arrived in Cuernavaca at 6 AM. Juan the taxi driver was standing outside the terminal. 'Hey, friend!' He said. 'Why are you back here so soon?' Harrison Christian