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Concrete Jungle in Xilitla

Magic places loom in one's consciousness, confected with a plot and a set of characters. It was Leonora Carrington, a Surrealist painter in her eighties and living in Mexico City, who first told me of Edward James and Xilitla. Between 1949 and 1984, in a tropical rain forest, James built 36 concrete follies and named them Las Pozas ("the Pools"). Among these creations are the House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six, the House with a Roof like a Whale, and the Staircase to Heaven. A British aristocrat, James was rumored to have been the illegitimate son of Edward VII. He was a poet who married the dancer Tilly Losch, for whom he produced a ballet chanté with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill, and from whom he was divorced because she wanted no part of him physically. Unhappy at his family's country seat, a 300-room mansion at West Dean, in England's foxhunting ter-ritory, he had a vision of light, with trees and plants surrounding it, "the circle of all creation" turning faster and faster to the strains of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.

He traveled to Cuernavaca, and there fell in love with the manager of the telegraph office, Plutarco Gastelum. They bought sleeping bags and went in search of a valley where orchids grew wild. Xilitla (pronounced "hee-leet-lah"), a day's drive south of the Texas border, on the central Gulf Coast of Mexico, was the most exotic place they saw. Plutarco later fell in love with a woman of the village, married her, and had four children. They all lived with "Uncle Edward," as the children called James, in a house Plutarco had built, a mock-Gothic cement castle, now a hotel—La Posada El Castillo. This is where I stayed when I became acquainted with a fraction of the region named Huasteca, site of ancient settlements preceding even those of the Maya, beneath the cloaked skies of the Sierra Madre.

I had imagined a week in a small inn; the sound of birds; wandering a park admiring outlandish pavilions, terraces, porticoes, arches. I didn't know how wild and rampant the vegetation would be. The butterflies, the enveloping humidity, the sweetness of the air took me by surprise. It was a setting for an extravagant group of characters, starting with James himself, the presiding ghost (he died in 1984), whose curious doings still draw people to the remote village he called home for more than 30 years.

Those who come to live here are often eccentrics. There was a British painter, James Reed, who arrived one morning at La Posada El Castillo—beneath a straw sombrero and leaning on a stick with a serpent's head for a handle—and started shouting in flawless Spanish through the wrought-iron bars of the garden gate about the failure of his brand-new "ecological" oven to roast a chicken the previous evening. The cook Gloria emerged: she was sympathetic but had not herself fallen for the gadget some progressive Xilitlans had adopted. The dishes she prepared in the following days involved a few frying pans, with which she conjured up wonderful small handmade corn tortillas and cesina, dried beef rubbed with orange, then grilled, in the Huastecan style.

Donaji, a reedy young woman with long chestnut hair and almond-shaped brown eyes, also turned up. She was living at the time in Edward James's studio at Las Pozas, where a wall is inscribed with one of his poems: "My house grows like the chamber'd nautilus...."

In Xilitla, everyone walks, and the sound of a car engine is rare. From my window, I could see children heading for school wearing perfectly pressed red tartan uniforms with white shirts, their hair neatly combed; they walked in endless mist, for that is the climate of the rain forest, the mountaintops nearly always obscured by billowing clouds. The town's main adjoining streets, Calle Alvarado and Calle del Medio, offered a greengrocer, Cayos restaurant, a brothel, a doctor, and a coffin shop. I walked across the square, past the market stalls and down along a congested store-lined street to where a single car stood—the communal taxi. Seven people were already inside. The ride down the hill to the entrance of Las Pozas was mercifully brief.

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