Saturday, November 22, 2008

Dust and Stone

Finally, after 25 days in Mexico City, I managed to escape.

Not that there's anything wrong with life in the district--it's just, due to a combination of overarching buildings and tangible smog, my gaze never penetrates the boundaries of the D.F. An indistinct, hazed outline of a distant mountain now and again, nothing more.

So when the school where I've been taking Spanish classes for the past three weeks announced a trip to the ancient city of Teotihuacán, I was first in line.

Getting there was its own adventure. Despite the fleet of first-class buses available, we chose a real clunker, which in turn chose the back-road route. And apparently, Mexican backroads are sprinkled liberally with speed bumps. Every 100 meters or so, we passengers were treated to a symphony of point and counterpoint: squealing brakes, revving engine, over and over.

But there was also music of another sort, which made the ride worthwhile. At one of many intermittent stops, on jumped a norteño-style trio: accordion, guitar, and electric bass. Though off a bit instrumentally (it can't be easy to play an accordion standing in the aisle of a moving bus), their three-way vocal harmonies were fantastic.

As the transmission cracked and groaned, we were serenaded. Three quick songs and off they hopped again, a few pesos richer for their trouble.

At last, we crested the final speed bump, and the bus shuddered to a halt. Beyond the wide parking lot, we could already see Teotihuacán's glory: the Pyramid of the Sun, third-largest pyramid in the world.

Much about Teotihuacán remains a mystery: who built it, what was its precise influence on contemporary Mesoamerican cultures, and what caused its spontaneous decline? Yet archaeologists are certain that construction began before Christ and that, at its height hundreds of years later, Teotihuacán was likely one of the largest cities in the world, 150,000 residents strong.

Today, there's dust and stone. Most structures flank the kilometers-long Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead), with the Pyramid of the Moon, the smaller of the pair, marking its northern terminus. Foundations and wall fragments of residential complexes, marketplaces, temple buildings, and sacrificial altars fill out the site.

A number of strikingly well-preserved murals, dating back at least 1,500 years, are accessible to tourists. The bright greens and deep crimsons in which resplendent dieties and mythical animals are portrayed make it easy to imagine the awe the city must have struck in visitors and locals alike when every inch of stone was likewise covered in color.

For modern visitors, the majority of color originates from the wares of trinket vendors: stone masks, plumed arrows, wooden flutes, intricately woven blankets, embroidered sombreros. Armies of uniformed field trippers--baby blue, navy, and brown--march here and there, kicking up the grey dust that covers all and gasping for giggling breaths as they ascend the 264 stairs of the Sun Pyramid.

As late afternoon sinks in, things quiet down. The stepped stones, framed by spiky nopal and maguey, are bathed in the golden light of sunset.

Our faces raw and red from sun, wind, and dust, we cast a final look over our shoulders before boarding the bus home, just in time to see first the pyramids, then the entire city itself, fall into shadow.

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