The fear ebbed somewhat the moment I stepped off the mini-bus and began to foot my way to the waterfall. The fear transfigured itself into focus, into concentration, into an awareness, an intensity, a will. But then, as I found myself lost, wandering some obviously wrong backward way, the fear reasserted itself as fright.
Confronted, fear becomes pliable. Even the act of confronting fear transforms it into concentration, into action. But this is only transformation, not elimination. Fear will re-transform itself given the right circumstance. And its favorite form is fright, immobility. This is what happened to me. When I stepped off the mini-bus I channeled the fear I had been feeling into a concentration and an action. But when I found myself lost I felt the fear rise again. This time I could not channel it. I was on the wrong road and I knew it. I was lost in some hamlet that was not even shown on my map. This was fright, immobility.
Such a situation, however, does not allow for immobility. Such a situation compels action. It compels one to fight through the immobility and channel its fear into action. I saw a taxi. Yes. One single taxi, parked, driverless. A quick escape, it would be. The action was before me then. But, just having the action before me neutralized the immobility. I decided to skip the taxi. I decided to retrace my path back to where I had debarked the mini-bus, to begin again from the beginning. A lean man on a raw-boned horse clopped by me then. He had a pointed beard. A squat man on a well-nourished burro clopped by me then. He had a floppy hat. I pondered this. I pondered what a raw- boned horse and a corpulent burro on an otherwise quiet road meant, what that squat man sitting astride that burro in that wooden saddle meant, what his swatting at his burro with a stick meant. I looked for other vehicles. But these were the only moving vehicles on that road. There were two large flatbed trucks, yes. But they were at rest, engines dead, loaded with cylinders of liquid propane, being off-loaded of their cylinders of liquid propane. One young man shouldering a cylinder glanced at me curiously. I suffered the immobility again. For I apprehended what it all meant. Remoteness, it all meant. Vulnerability. I was very alone. I was off the map. I was lost. But what could I do? I could only continue on. The situation compelled me. Then the little girls. Three little girls appeared just to reinforce for me how obvious was my state of aloneness and vulnerability, how undisguisable. They stood in print dresses in a doorway. Seven, eight and nine years old, maybe. The eldest glimpsed me. With great round eyes she elbowed her younger sister then, or her cousin, or her playmate, who elbowed the third. They all three gazed on my passing. With ogling wondrous eyes they gazed on my passing, as if I were some icon brought to life. Their astonished staring stripped me of any illusion that I was not conspicuous. I could not pretend, even to myself, that I was not a neon light on a medieval signpost. Exposed, it blinked. Alone, it blinked. Güero. Long hair. Immobilized. But again the fear could only be expressed as action, as striding, as a continued striding back toward where the mini-bus had delivered me.
It was in these instants, I think, in the lee of the three little girls, as I came to a knee in the road, that fear found its perfect balance, that fright and action became simultaneous, commensurate. I was frightened, immobilized, naked, but because of it, concentrated, focused, intent on acting, intent on my end. In thirty minutes I achieved it. I stood where the bus had delivered me, I arrived to where I had begun. No bus to be found now. No traffic to be seen. And I had no alternative now but to forge ahead again to the left instead of to the right. No opportunity for cowardice, really. Indeed, had such an opportunity presented itself, I would have seized it. And, yes, behold, there a pink church. And further on I approached a small concrete shrine to the Virgin. And these were the landmarks given by the guidebook, the signals that I had achieved the right way. The balance between the fears tipped to action then, the immobilization dissipated. No elation yet, but all a focus now, concentration; all an intensity and a will.
I began to trek down the bumpily cobbled road. Here a cement yard. Here a yellow bungalow. Then a paunchy middle- aged woman I squinted in the distance. She squinted me, too. She froze for an instant. She looked around. She called to someone. A little boy came scuttering out of the bush. The woman hurried the boy then into a shack and disappeared silently after him. I remembered a nearly identical scene in the highlands of Puebla state. I had hiked a muddy road toward a famous waterfall then too, with my Mexican girlfriend. An old woman saw our coming. She shooed a little boy away from his muddied games and into their shack. She panted after him. She closed the door behind her smartly. What did she fear from us, I wondered then. What does she fear from me, I wondered now. But I moved now in the right direction, I knew, so I felt my focus solidify. I almost relaxed, chiding myself for my terror, embarrassed at myself for my terror, for having to battle it even. What was there to fear? A floppy hat on a burro? Three little girls?
A mountain mist shrouded the course of this walk. I followed the road and followed it. Coffee bushes eight feet high and dripping with eternal dew stood to the right and left of the bumpily cobbled road. Banana trees hovered over the coffee bushes. Coffee is a delicate plant, my Mexican girlfriend told me that day long ago--she, the daughter of a coffee grower. The banana trees nurse the coffee bushes, she explained, protecting the green and red beans from the sun. I followed the road and followed it. Coffee leaves shine a vivid medium green and rubbery, with plicate folds. Coffee pickers sang in the distance, as I trod, whistled among the groves. Alien bird calls, I heard. Crickets. A burro laden with sacks of beans roped to a banana tree stood. A man in rope sandals moved. I followed the road and followed it until at last I arrived here at this restaurant. At this restaurant! An open air restaurant at the end of a nameless cobbled road! An earth floor restaurant near the edge of a gorge's cliff! A restaurant in the middle of a rain forest!
And so the fear, the fear which eagerly stretched its legs the moment I left my hotel room this morning, which followed me then through the Jalapa city bus trip, through the forty minute mini-bus ride then into nowhere, through my getting lost and unlost, that plaguing indefatigable fear had hounded me to where? To a chair from which I could observe a deferential round-faced waiter tramp up to me; and mole Xiqueño order from him, and then consume; and now, coffee, ask for. El Buscador, the restaurant is named, The Searcher. Mole is a thick spicy chocolate sauce. This mole was ladled over a chicken thigh and leg. Orange-colored rice accompanied. A wilted salad. Very delicious. Ranchero music, of course, plays over the restaurant radio. The roar of the falls resounds through it. And now my grail of coffee he brings.
Even as beautiful and green and lush as was the long footing to this surreal restaurant table, it was no preparation for the drama of the gorge below. Oddly, the depth and color of the vegetation carpeting the gorge walls is just as arresting to me as the violence of the fall itself. That vegetation so dense, its hue so profound, even hypnotic it becomes. Transfixing. So green as to be sensual. So sensual as to be erotic. Throb. Magnetic. A vertiginous affect it wreaks. Magical. A spell. As if it were some witching brocade from some parallel dimension that, once beheld, restructured the very biology of seeing. Absorptive.
A long downward flight of steps you scale to a dirt path through undergrowth and trees that leads to the blueblack pool into which the falls rage. I found a dry boulder and sat for some ninety minutes tasting the sharp air, watching the cool mist of it leap from the riotous waters, envisioning Domingo limp slowly through that early mystical scene. The setting could not be better placed, but I cannot even begin to list the details I omitted. When I wrote the scene for my unfinished novel I based it on my recollections of that waterfall in Puebla state. Those recollections lie prostrate now before notes scribbled in a cataclysmic moment. I sat dizzy from the violence of the falls, scribbling the description, suspended in time, trying to ride the essence of the vigor of the scene, trying to seize the life of it in words that would resurrect it later in the unfinished novel. When first I looked down from the viewing platform above I felt dread and hesitation. Awe, I felt. I could not recreate this. I was right--I have not. But maybe my scribblings suggest that at least it cannot be recreated.
Now Pre-Colombian flutes from the restaurant radio. Or maybe it is a recording. No, a commercial now. I will revisit these falls at least once before continuing on from Jalapa, for a second attempt at re-creation. I enjoyed hot water for my shower this morning. Last night I did not. I will probably rouse myself earlier before my next excursion here to enjoy another hot shower and arrive here earlier. Next time I won't get lost. At three this morning the festive street below my hotel window woke me. So much noise and traffic passing that I thought it morningtime, seven a.m. or thenabouts. It was three.
Beyond the restaurant canopy I can see now another young man tourist descending those steps to the viewing platform. American, he looks, maybe European. I encountered him last night, too, crossing through the arcade of the Jalapa governmental palace. His body language offered conversation as we passed one another. I inclined my head. I smiled. But I continued on, stride unchecked. Young man and solo traveler. Just like me. I can see him out on the viewing platform now taking a quick photograph of the falls and gorge. That snapshot will fail. In fact, it will probably be less true to the scene than my scribblings. I never take photographs anymore. They have that reproduction problem I mentioned yesterday, that dimming of the life of something. And they also distort memory, I think. A year from now that young man will be back in some foreign city and he will recall this trip to these falls and when he recalls this trip to these falls he will probably remember the snapshot pinned to his wall before he remembers the events he now experiences, this stirring awesome reality now surrounding him. The life of the scene, in fact, may end up completely lost, buried in the dull photographs he takes so promiscuously. He is trying to record the experience on three-by-five squares of paper. This is impossible. The experience is fluid, is aural, is bodily and has taste. Photographs break up the experience, circumscribe it, freeze it. They record sight, badly; and in doing so shunt memory from the wholeness of the experience, from the meaning. Like that weight of this musty sweet air, I feel. It will not be in that photograph. Or the thunderous powerful all- encompassing roar beyond. That will not be reproduced. I suppose a great photographer might translate all this into a photograph. I believe this is possible. But then it is the photographer translating it more than the photograph itself. And then it is a piece of art, not a reproduction...
I'm back in my hotel now. That ellipses above represents a long gap of time which included my conversation with the young male tourist who suddenly appeared before my round restaurant table; my retracing my steps then up the long nameless cobbled lane; my locating and boarding a conveyance back to the outskirts of Jalapa; and then, my dithering before the Jalapa city bus and final decision not to board it. I decided to try to find my way to the center of town by foot. The Jalapa centro sits on a mount from which you can see most of the city. I knew this. So, I thought, walk toward the mount. A long backwards meanderingly circular route I groped through. No map. But the halo of mountain mist was cool, the shadowless gray light even. And, finally, quite footsore, I arrived.
The young male tourist was not a tourist at all but an American student studying at the University of the Americas. Dan was his name. Dan from Cincinnati. He had a long weekend from school, he said, because of "The Day of the Constitution"--a Mexican holiday. Though all of his comrades went on to Veracruz for Carnival, he stopped at Jalapa.
"Were you in Veracruz for Carnival," he asked.
"No," and I paused. I was already seeking to end our colloquy and leave. Dan from Cincinnati was quite self- satisfied. This daytrip of his, his trip to Mexico in general, I think, was a kind of conquest for him, and a proud one. It showed: Chest puffed out, smirking to himself with an affected, overdone worldliness. I saw a hint of it yesterday under that Jalapa gallery. The phase is natural. I went through it, too. He does not want to converse with you as much as he wants to hash over his daring, his resourcefulness, his mettle. The whole time he talks to you he smiles at you collusively, as if to say, "Well! Look at us!" It only means he's not yet been ground down by traveling. It only means he's not yet really traveled. Seasoned solo travelers are offish until pitched together by some circumstance. They brood. They never glad-hand.
"Being in Veracruz during Carnival was a coincidence," I said. "I'm not the party type."
We answered the basic questions: places of origin, destinations, sites visited. He spoke his Spanish well, with a crisp gringo accent, and the waiter moved on. He did not have time enough, really, to pose any probing questions like Frans from Holland. So I was able to avoid revealing my would-be writer status. "The first stop of a longer trip," I simply said. That was as far as my characterization of this journey went until pressed. But once pressed, and once, from pressing me, Dan from Cincinnati grasped the length and scope of this trip, Dan from Cincinnati became offended. This follows the pattern. Such neophytes see themselves as adventurers, as having swilled from the ardent spirits of danger. Their egos thrive on this illusion. So when they encounter someone a little more experienced than they, a little more exposed, their self-delusion buckles. They anger. That I am unimpressed with myself or with him probably heightened the offense. In a way, this trip is the most comfortable one I've ever taken, with its hotel rooms, with its padded budget. I would never call it dangerous. I would be reluctant even to call it adventurous. I am here to work.
"Alone?" he asked, his tone irritated by now.
"Alone," I said.
"Well," he said, and a distinct note of vindictiveness found his voice, "Watch out for the cops."
I did not even answer this.
His mole Xiqueño arrived--thankfully. It gave me my exit line.
"Provecho," I said to him graciously.
A good friend of mine first visited Mexico in exactly the same way Dan from Cincinnati is visiting Mexico--through that university outside Puebla, the University of the Americas. I worked as an intern at a Mexico City newspaper the same semester she attended school there. I did not even know she was in Mexico until she contacted me. What a surprise. A hand-written, unaddressed, unsealed note from a central Kansas friend--and in my Mexico City mail box! We met secretly some weeks later, at the pond on the university's campus. We met secretly because she was living with my old girlfriend, in Puebla, sleeping in fact in the same room I had slept in the month I stayed there. I had a crush on that farmer's daughter for many years. She lives in Buenos Aires now. A beautiful one. And named for Pasternak's greatest heroine.
Traffic noises through my window now. And that aroma of eats curls up tantalizingly from the restaurant directly below. And a poorly blown saxophone. And I hopefully will not have to sleep through marimbas again. But...and now they begin, the marimbas, as if on cue. They're early tonight. But it is already dark, I suppose. On with the desk lamp, I guess. That light bulb hanging from the ceiling needs some company if I'm going to continue working. Remembering Lara brought to mind The Sandra Texts. I will try to draft one or two scenes now. This, I think, is what Dan from Cincinnati has not yet faced. This lonesomeness. A beating, it is. A scourging. A whipping. Too gregarious, Dan is; too transparent; too superficial still to have faced it. Unending when you travel alone. It strips away the fat of one's personality--those proud illusions, that narcissism. It forces one inward. It's why solo travelers brood.