Wednesday, June 30, 2010


The magical world of the little people...

in the interests of coherence, I have moved the posts about 'Chaneques' to a new blog:

The Night the Petrol Station Caught Fire

I’ll never forget the time the petrol station caught fire. Nobody who was in Las Culebras that night will.

I was at Don Gerardo’s house that evening. It was his son’s ‘novenario.’ One year previously his son had died trying to get to ‘el otro lado’ - the other side, the USA, the American Dream. He had been part of a group of about forty, who’d been abandoned by the ‘coyotes’ who took them across the border, and left to fend for themselves in the vast, empty desert. After a few days they died of dehydration. All of them.

It had even made the news on British TV, where they’re usually too concerned with which celebrity has split up from their celebrity partner, preferably with sordid details of affairs, and hopefully including mildly deviant sexual practices, to worry about such trivia as faceless, dark-skinned peasants dying in horrible ways in far distant, god-forsaken lands.

In fact, it was soon after that had happened that I met Don Gerardo. Having recently arrived in Mexico, I was at a friend’s farmhouse for my first Temazcal, or Mexican sweat-lodge, which is something else you never forget. Don Gerardo was there, a fairly well-built, middle-aged man with an honest face. There he was, weeping, sobbing, regaining his composure before bursting into tears again. Yet still he seemed dignified.

We sat in a circle on the mud floor, about a dozen of us, in the small, steam-filled, igloo-shaped tent. The only light was the dull red glow from the hot stones, fresh plucked from the embers of a large fire, where they’d been heated over a couple of hours. A Temazcal is an intense experience. Especially when Pepe keeps splashing more and more water onto the stones, and the steam rises up in the middle before following the roof back down onto you, almost suffocating you. Almost. Intense. Especially when there’s a man in there grieving for his lost son, that terrible inversion of the natural course of things which predicts that we shouldn’t have to grieve for our children, they should be the ones who’ll one day grieve for us. One day.

We sat for a while absorbing the heat, adjusting to the quiet darkness, the splash of the water on the stones, and the hiss of it evaporating the only sound. Then everyone has a chance to introduce themselves, and say why they have chosen to enter the Temazcal. One by one we say our names, give thanks for being there, add a few words of explanation or philosophy. Then it comes to Don Gerardo’s turn.

‘Ya es muy fuerte el calor,’ (The heat is very intense now) Don Gerardo says firmly, his dignity rising now towards a crescendo.
‘Pero nomás pienso que esto no es nada ¡no es nada comparado con lo que tuvo que sufrir mi hijo!’ (But I just think that this is nothing, nothing compared to what my son had to suffer!)
The tears flow again, but this time from many more eyes than just two. In the Temazcal we are one, and his dark pain now burns in the pit of all of our stomachs.

* * *

Now a year had passed since my first days in this country of which Buñuel said, ‘In North America and Europe, surrealism is a school of art. In Mexico it’s part of everyday life!’

A year had passed since Eric crossed the border, with no papers, but full of hope. A year since he was left to turn painfully into a dried husk in the land of the free.

So here we were at the ‘novenario,’ nine days of praying the Rosary, crowded into Don Gerardo’s front room, facing the alter set up to Eric’s ghost. A simple table with a cloth over it, Eric’s photo, memorabilia from the Aguilas de Americas football club - the team he supported, plenty of flowers. A picture of Christ on the cross, and of course, Nuestra Señora De Tepeyac. She had to be there.

She is everywhere in Mexico, she always has been. The Aztecs had already worshipped her on the sacred hill of Tepeyac for hundreds of years before the Catholics arrived and called her La Virgen De Guadalupe. They used to call her Tonantzin, and knew she was the mother of all the Gods. But she was, is, and always will be Nuestra Señora, ‘Our Lady,’ whatever nicknames different tribes and cults invent for her.

In Mexico she’s never far away, painted on a random wall in the street, set up in a little shrine between two stalls on the market, on display behind the counter in shops, stuck next to the driver’s seat on the bus - a much surer protection against accidents than any profane driver training programme!

Even when you can’t see her, she’s still there. If you are quiet you can hear her speak to you in the wind that rustles the high branches in the depths of the forest, in the gurgle of the mountain brook, in waves lapping the shore of a white virgin coral beach, in the patter of the raindrops on lush green leaves, in the soft swishing of a field of sugar cane with the breeze. If you are quite still when you sit to rest on a rock or fallen trunk, or when you lie on the soft Earth, perhaps you can even feel her fingers running gently through your hair.

So here she was, Nuestra Señora, Tonantzin-Guadalupe, and here we all were, to remember one who had crossed over to ‘el otro lado’ in quite a different way to that which he’d anticipated. Here we were. Praying. Hail Mary. Blessed art Thou amongst all women. Plead for us who are sinners. Plead for us now and in the hour of our death. Our Father. Forgive us our trespasses. We who are sinners. Plead for us who are sinners. In the hour of our death. Our trespasses. Plead. Forgive us. Sinners. Death. Trespasses. Death. Sinners. Death!

Again and again, the prayers slowly, relentlessly piled onto this poor lad’s memory. This is the Catholic path to Enlightenment - transcendence of the ego through numbing the brain with interminable repetition of the litanies. The only Mantra Yoga in the world that’s specially designed to make you feel as guilty as possible, and then some more, on the way to Nirvana!

And just when it had already gone on forever, when it felt like it would never end, suddenly it did. So then we sat outside in the street on chairs placed in two rows facing each other on opposite pavements, and Don Gerardo’s wife and daughters did the rounds with trays of tamales and sweet black coffee in polystyrene cups.

After a little while, I noticed that people started going over to others, saying a few words, then leaving, causing the people they’d just spoken with to get up, walk across to others, and after a few words also disappear. Something was amiss!

‘¿Qué es?’ (What’s happening?) I asked someone.
‘Es la gasolinera, (It’s the petrol station) ¡se está quemando! (it’s on fire!)’
‘¿Cuál gasolinera? (which petrol station)’
‘Pues ¡la nueva! (The new one!)’

This was bad news indeed! The new petrol station had opened just a few days before. When I saw it being built I had thought it wasn’t a good idea. Just four blocks from the main square in the town centre, it was surrounded by houses, if anything happened there it would be a real disaster.

The news spread rapidly, and with it an atmosphere of foreboding. People rushed home to save their families and most valued possessions, before the imminent conflagration destroyed all in its path. Half eaten tamales lay abandoned in their banana leaves on disposable plastic plates, strewn amongst cups of coffee spilled on the pavement. Soon people were telling the few of us left in the street to get out of there while we still could.

But the room I was renting was in a house only three blocks from the new petrol station - where could I go? Then someone suggested going up the hill for a better look at what was going on down in the town. Don Gerardo’s house was at the foot of the hill, which commands an excellent view of the houses below, so we immediately began climbing the path towards the summit.

After a couple of hundred yards, I was astonished by the most spectacular sight I’ve ever witnessed! The whole sky, horizon to horizon, was filled with an intense flash. From my vantage point halfway up the hill, I looked down and saw the town below me lit up as bright as day. Then the bang shook the air and even the ground beneath my feet. The strangest thing of all was that the light wasn’t going out. The sky and the town remained perfectly illuminated for several seconds, five, seven, maybe more, it was very hard to tell at the time, but certainly long enough for me to think, ‘OK, it’s blown up with a huge flash, but why doesn’t the flash stop, as you’d expect it to?!’

Before the brilliant glare dimmed, the people who’d been walking up the hill ahead of me suddenly came running back the other way. ‘¡Córrele!’ they shouted (Run!), ‘¡Que viene la lumbre pá acá! (The fire’s coming this way!)’ I paused for a moment. It had been an almighty explosion, but up here on the hill, amidst so much lush greenery (rainy season was almost upon us, and some rains had already come, so the hill was far from dry), surely it would be all right, the whole hill couldn’t catch light! The fire would have to advance more slowly here than down in the town. Still, those who’d been further ahead might have had a better view of the explosion, and in that kind of situation it’s probably not worth taking any chances. If I burnt to death on that hill just because I wanted to see what was happening I’d feel very stupid. Not to mention very burnt!

I turned and made my way back down the cobbled path to the top of Don Gerardo’s street. His wife and daughters had disappeared towards his brother’s house, down another road that leads away from the back of the hill and off into the countryside. Don Gerardo had driven off in his beetle to look for his mother who lived near the petrol station. I went back to Don Gerardo’s house and waited outside for him to come back, somebody had to tell him where his family had gone, or he might start to get worried, as it was now impossible for people to phone each other.

In a small place like Las Culebras, everybody has a brother, cousin, aunt or close friend in every part of the town, and suddenly they were all trying to call loved ones who lived near the petrol station. So the entire phone network, both mobile and land lines, had been completely saturated with calls, until the whole system collapsed and nobody could get through to anyone. Anyway, there was no sign of flames leaping from nearby rooftops yet, so I still felt fairly safe.

Finally I was left alone in the street, standing in the middle of the scattered meal, wondering what would happen next. A few minutes later a white beetle pulled up, and Don Gerardo got out with his thankfully unharmed mother, and some good news. The initial panic, as so often happens, had distorted accounts of events. The petrol station that was on fire was the old one on the edge of town, not the new one closer to the centre. We all made our way to Don Gerardo’s brother’s house, and sat in the front room nervously drinking coffee.

All the way down the road, even here on the far side of the hill a good two miles or so from where the fire was raging, people were standing around in small groups, frantically praying Hail Marys and Pater Nosters, and crossing themselves again and again - as if we hadn’t already done enough of that for one day!

Don Gerardo’s brother worked in the Town Hall, and was part of the ‘Protección Civil,’ so he had a radio, a handheld walkie-talkie, from which he was able to tell us what was really going on. The news gradually came through that fire engines were on their way from the state capital - Las Culebras had no fire service of its own. They would still take some time to arrive, even though the capital wasn’t far away, the fire station was on the other side of it, and they would have to negotiate the city traffic before even getting onto the main road. So a helicopter was sent too, and started dropping water on the houses around the petrol station that were already consumed in flames.

As it became apparent that we were in no immediate danger, everybody began to calm down, and after a while I made my way back home. From the window of my room on the top floor I could see the glow on the edge of town where the fire raged on, but was now being brought under control.

Over the next couple of days the story of what had happened began to crystallise into a coherent account. The petrol station that had caught fire was the one that had been closed for several years. It was closed down after they had been caught selling stolen petrol. In Mexico hijacking petrol tankers on the highway, out in the middle of nowhere, can be a very lucrative business. So for years this petrol station had been to all appearances closed. But if you’re prepared to run your business on stolen petrol, I guess you’ll also be prepared to open it clandestinely at night, which is exactly what they had been doing since shortly after it had ‘closed’!

On the night of the fire owner of the petrol station had received supplies of stolen diesel and petrol. As the illicit fuel was being pumped into the underground storage tanks, somehow some spilt diesel had caught fire, setting the whole tanker alight. That was how the fire started. Contrary to what everyone had thought, the huge fireball that was seen for over ten kilometres around had not been the whole station going up, it was just one tanker of petrol. One tanker! In the movies, when a tanker explodes there’s a big flash and a bang, and in a second it’s all over. What we had witnessed had been such an incredible blast that many people had thought it was judgement day and had immediately fallen to their knees begging God to forgive their sins!

About a dozen people perished in the blaze, including the garage owner, who, to his credit, had stayed in the fire pulling others out, and was taken to hospital afterwards where he later died of horrific burns over about eighty percent of his body.

Apart from that, several people had suffered minor injuries tripping over things in their haste to get away. The panic was so great that many sought refuge with relatives in neighbouring villages, and only returned the next day!

After the fire was extinguished the authorities started to pump the fuel that was stored in the underground deposits back out. It took the best part of a week. I dread to think what would have happened if that lot had gone up too, especially considering that there is another petrol station about a hundred metres up the road, which could well have been caught in the ensuing conflagration.

And that was the most exciting thing that’s happened in Las Culebras since the Revolution, until a policeman was gunned down in the street by machine-gun fire a couple of years ago. But that’s a story for another day!