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On Set in Cuernavaca, Mexico

POPOCATÉPETL WAS REVEALED QUITE SUDDENLY ON MY THIRD DAY. The whole horizon came out of cloud and mist, and there they were, the two volcanoes— Popo and Iztaccíhuatl (in Spanish, La Mujer Dormida, "the sleeping woman"). Seeing them was unexpectedly moving: the glass-walled lift that climbed the back of the Hotel Sumiya had been designed to exactly frame Popocatépetl. The mountain was never two days the same: the clouds changed, over it, round it; the snow changed, the smoke changed, the light changed.

I became obsessed with watching it, like Monet watching the Rouen cathedral. I talked about it to Hector López, the film's producer in Mexico, who sat in an office near the swimming pool faxing and fixing. He was pleased that I was so excited, and told me one version of the legend behind it. Popocatépetl was an Indian hunter who loved the beautiful Iztaccíhuatl. She fled from him upon discovering that she had consumption; she didn't want him to see her beauty destroyed. She was found far away, dying in the snow. The two were transformed into mountains so they could be together eternally, and he leans protectively over her sleeping form. I gave Hector the volcano poem, which he was glad to learn about.

I also went with the film crew to a small village, Real del Puente, to watch them audition locals as part of the crowd that gathers around the minibus accident: firemen were wanted, swimming boys, old women. In the village's concrete square were the remains of a tiny fair— two Ferris wheels, child-size, a bandstand, some sideshow booths. There was a queue of prospective extras, mostly children with pleasant, unsmiling faces. The directors sat behind a table under a balcony. The extras were chosen according to whether they looked markedly Mexican-Indian, as opposed to unidentifiably Mediterranean.

I began to worry about the rejected little boys, who hung around and joined the queue again. I remembered auditioning for the York Mystery Plays and being rejected, as I was neither blond enough for an angel nor dark enough for a demon. Films are about appearances. The genial drink-seller in his white apron was recruited, as was a wonderful gray-bearded man who just happened to be passing by, holding an archetypal sickle and a bunch of herbs. There was a very drunk drunk in a glaring red-ocher suit, gyrating slowly round the square and shouting: "Hey, man. I'm your man, kiddo."

The villagers were calm and courteous. They asked no questions about the película— everyone behaved as though movies were part of normal life. Later I discovered that Cuernavaca still remembers the filming of Under the Volcano with Albert Finney. Hector worked on it. Hotels and bars have been renamed for it.

I explored the area, both with the Haas family and later with Señor Flores, who hires himself out as the most courteous of guides. With the Haases I heard the Sunday brass band play in a high bandstand in Jardín Juárez, surrounded by peddlers with snakes on strings and jumping metal frogs. I went to the covered market under the railway arches, tunnels and lanes of stalls that go on forever. I love markets, but they have lost their individuality in most parts of the world. There are the same plastic dolls, cotton socks, nylon bras, pink plastic radios in Cuernavaca, Birmingham, Hong Kong, and Toronto. Even in the elegant little Mexican crafts market next to Cortés's palace, the clay whistles and painted dishes are not surprising. I have seen them in markets and gift shops in London, Paris, and Cologne.

I found myself doing more and more deliberately what I call "micro-tourism"— looking at beetles, ants, butterflies, and birds that can't be replicated or exported. A plant I particularly hate is the poinsettia, a dismal papery Christmas offering in England. In Mexico it is brilliant and flamboyant, bursting out scarlet and crimson from huge bushes. The cheese plants and tradescantias of urban offices ramble and explode here. I listened to little flocks of striped birds tumbling and crying in the jacarandas in the evenings; I watched great carp and goldfish in Barbara Hutton's Japanese ponds. Best of all was a small frog with tiny black glittering eyes that Belinda found under a balcony one night, the size of a medium coin, the color of clear yellow English butter.

SEÑOR FLORES HAS A LOT OF WHITE HAIR AND A WHITE MUSTACHE. We drove to Taxco, a silver-mining town in the dry mountains. It is a small town perched on hills where iron and tin have been mined since the days of Cortés, and where José de la Borda made a fortune mining silver in the 18th century, lost it, and made another. The elegant rose-colored church he built, Santa Prisca, stands high above the plaza named after him. The outside is Baroque; the inside full of the writhing, dazzling abundance of churrigueresque carvings. There is a particularly terrifying image of the scourged Christ, with his crown of thorns, in what is popularly known as the Chapel of the Indians.

Conversation with Señor Flores was dignified and inhibited at first. Then he began to tell me stories. The history of the Bordas, who built the Jardín Borda in Cuernavaca. The history of the haciendas: how the Indians were enslaved by the priests, how they were all forced to stand until one confessed to having stolen some grain dropped by harvesters on the roadside. The guilty one was imprisoned for 40 days in a cage— "each hacienda had its prisons," Señor Flores said. He told me parts of the history of José María Morelos and Benito Juárez, who rose up against the Spaniards; stories with which I was somewhat familiar concerning the ruthlessness of Cortés's conquerors and the ruthlessness of the Aztecs and the Maya before them. "It is a bloody history," he would say, reflectively and grimly.

It is not a history the British learn. Latin America is perhaps the most alien part of the world to us. Suddenly, too late, I was curious about everything Mexican, listening to Señor Flores. He told me about the doomed French emperor, Maximilian, and his wife, Carlota, who came to Mexico to bring justice and order, as they saw it. When Carlota first saw the valley she described it as "a golden bowl filled with sunshine." Señor Flores took me to the artificial lakes of the Jardín Borda, where Maximilian and Carlota spent holidays. We walked under shady trees and looked at the waterfowl and the small, shabby boats. Carlota, who went mad when Maximilian was imprisoned by the forces of Juárez, had something in common with Barbara Hutton, retreating to her artificial Japanese garden. Señor Flores had known Barbara Hutton. He had driven to Sumiya when it was isolated at the end of a dirt road, and had been requested to dress in a kimono, as were all of Hutton's visitors.

I had never felt any desire to find out about pre-Hispanic culture— the gruesome popularizations of it in films and novels, the little I know about blood sacrifice, had always seemed enough. I went to the pyramid of Xochicalco with Señor Flores early one morning, because it was there. It is a formidable site, almost 5,000 feet above sea level and 427 feet above the plain. It seems to have been a great city, a meeting place between cultures, with buildings from the first century through the 14th. In the seventh century there was a great gathering of astronomer-priests from Mayan, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Aztec cities; the imposing central Pyramid of the Plumed Serpents combines several building styles. As we walked up and over the staircases and grassy slopes, Señor Flores told me about the ball game that ended in the sacrifice of the loser, and the observatory where they watched the stars.

MICRO-TOURISM CONTINUED— vultures circled, a slate-blue, red-breasted parrot rose out of a bush, and Señor Flores described how tequila is made from the agave cactus. I was comforted by the vultures. I could not at all imagine the people who had built this place, or the world as they had thought it was, requiring spilt blood to make the sun rise. Vultures make sense. The plumed serpent was unreadable, unconnected to me. It is good to meet things you cannot at all understand. It is the opposite of the ubiquitous pink plastic music.

I was nearly too tired to go to Cortés's palace in Cuernavaca— which would have been a disaster, as it is what I remember best. The oldest secular Spanish building in Mexico, it was begun in 1533 and is solid and imposing without being grand. It now houses a regional museum, with everything from saber-toothed tigers to modern photographs. There are artifacts from Xochicalco, and the irons with which the Spanish branded Indian slaves. Most surprising was a display showing how there had been trade with the Far East before the arrival of the Spanish "discoverers." I had been wondering why Mexican and Korean embroidery colors have so much in common, and this suggested that the global village was always a fact of life. Long before Barbara Hutton devised Sumiya, Mexican women were wearing Philippine shells.

The best thing of all is the series of murals in the upper loggia by Diego Rivera. I had seen reproductions of his work, but never anything to match the way in which Mexican history is deployed to fit the spaces and arches of the palace. Here are the Aztec troops, dressed as eagles and tigers; here are the Spaniards, being led across a deep valley by an Indian in a wolfskin. Here are the slaves on the sugar plantation, the tortures, the Inquisition; here is Zapata leading the peasant revolt on his white horse; and here is Morelos, with Rivera's features. The patterning is a mixture of Mexican embroidery and receding perspective reminiscent of Utrillo. It is powerful and alive. It is bloody history and beauty and utopian vision.

I ASKED SEÑOR FLORES TO SHOW ME THE RAVINE where Lowry's fictive consul was tossed to die like a dog. It is full of twining plants and green energy. On another dark night in history, the conquistadors had crossed that same barranca. Images get layered, real and fictional. The faded photographs of the real Zapata mix in my mind with Brando's screen fighter, Señor Flores's stories of the brutality of the Zapatistas and Rivera's heroic revolutionary on his white stallion. When I left for London the film had reached a violent death in the projected paradise of lovers: one more layer of reality and unreality, inextricably merged. We live in a world of filmed images as well as universally portable artifacts. I like to think of the butter-yellow frog on the concrete, and the vultures going up into the empty air.


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