A celebration

It was the best of days and the worst of days to visit the famous pyramids of Teotihuacán. Yesterday was Benito Juárez’s birthday, a national holiday. It was also the spring equinox, when the sun lines up perfectly with the western wall of the great Pyramid of the Sun. Entry was free, and the site was thronged and festive. I read later that between 800,000 and 1.2 million visitors had shown up. As usual, my timing was accidental.

I arrived late in the afternoon and wasn’t challenged for a ticket, though technically non-nationals are supposed to pay. It’s not that I blend in; I hear a throaty ‘Hhhhello!’ or ‘Hhhhey jou!’ every few steps, which still annoys. There were very few tourists. We get swallowed up in the sprawl of Mexico City.

On the Avenue of the Dead most people were dressed head-to-toe in white, a million vestal virgins out to worship the sun. By wearing white and hailing the first rays of the spring equinox, they hope to be filled with good vibrations and energy for the rest of the year. I knew nothing of this custom and was wearing all black, as usual. As a concession, I bought a white baseball cap, which at least deflected the blinding sunlight.

The air was thick with copal incense. On each of the smaller pyramids, men with red headbands blew into conch shells. At each mournful cry, the crowds stood and raised both hands towards the sun in the southwest. A Mexican wave, I realized. Compact soldiers were posted on every corner. From high on a sacrificial altar, one aimed a souvenir bow-and-arrow at me, then clapped his own heart and laughed.

There were knots of dancers with bells strapped to their feet and huge feathered headdresses. There were army jeeps, Red Cross ambulances, and water trucks handing out sponsored bagfuls too precious in this heat to use as water bombs, though it was tempting. The entire site was littered with discarded water bags and the pyramid steps popped and squirted as they burst.

The crowds were too thick to get near the Pyramid of the Sun. From half a mile away, it looked like an elaborate cake topped with hundreds and thousands. From a quarter of a mile, I could see the little sprinkles moving slowly on the steep steps. The line going up crawled. No one wanted to come down, so I climbed the Pyramid of the Moon instead. The pyramid steps are a mystery to me: I’m a good foot taller than an 8th century Aztec, and long-legged to boot, but I have to bend a full 90 degrees to climb these stairs. Palenque was the same. Why so steep? How did they manage?

It was incredibly hot at 3.30, and the white clothes were now covered in brown dust from the swirls that kept whipping us. Still people were cheerful. Next to me, a group of bare-chested boys beat hand-drums and sang ‘King goff thee bongo’, a Manu Chao song.

I could see the whole way down the Avenue of the Dead, two miles or so, an elegant Broadway flanked by pyramids. It was good, I thought, not to be wandering Teotihuacán alone, communing with Mexica ghosts. Here were the descendents of the builders, thousands of them, scrambling over newly excavated sites, dropping litter everywhere, singing, and picnicking. The city was alive again. Down below I could make out self-styled shamans moving censers of healing copal incense over the bodies of the afflicted, or the merely discontented. I’d seen similar ceremonies in Maya churches in Chiapas; here they were a more light-hearted. Not a scrap of Christianity remained among these ad hoc sun-worshippers, at least for one day.

As evening drew in the sun focused like a spotlight on the western wall of the Pyramid of the Sun. The little white cake sprinkles saluted it energetically. Sadly, we were thrown out long before sunset, and our dusty caravan snaked back to the big city. Still, in these grim days, I was glad to celebrate spring at all, and it was a good end to a stint in Mexico.

Quito, Ecuador tomorrow.