Water Hyacinths


Our business was between times. In the mercury glow of cafeterias, break rooms, personal studies and transparent conference areas, amid empty and often unlit cubicles, we taught English to executives and tutored primary school students. On earth. In Distrito Federal (DF), Mexico City. Like termites, we worked around work, and moved through the hive on metro lines: olive 3; royal-blue 2; pink 1; orange 7; occasionally the grey-green B. For the first month at least we paused to breathe on climbs from station galleries to rare bright surface air, where the Celsius sine even in winter meant short sleeves at noon and jackets from midnight to sunrise. Is it a plateau if flanked by mountains, or is the oxymoron correct: ‘high valley’? Lessons were an hour and a half. We lived in permanent passive future anterior tense: what we had to say would always-already have been said by us.

People asked, ‘Where are you from?’

People asked, ‘You moved here? Why come here, when the whole world wants to go there?’

Our answer satisfied no one.


I


The Valley of Mexico held five contiguous lakes and an island megalopolis, with suburbs composed of floats buoyed by reeds. Large raised causeways maintained communication with the mainland. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, Montezuma received Cortés and his conquistadors on these bridges, where they exchanged salutations and commenced their short rapport. Tenochtitlán was an eminent city-state, on the tall middle ridge of the Central American strip of continent: a prominent commercial hub; the pride and envy of the civilizations that cultivated the region since pre-first-millennium BCE. At its heart lay a compound that comprised, among other stepped formations, three immense pyramids. Within four years of his introduction, Cortés laid siege to, decimated with smallpox, razed, and built over the ancient location. Where Tenochtitlán’s main temple had stood, the Spanish constructed an ornate late-baroque cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of Mary into heaven. Glass panels set in the Zócalo’s cobblestone let pedestrians peer at the buried remains of Aztec architecture.

Water levels varied to such an extent that sections of the capital were submerged during certain seasons—on one occasion for five years at a stretch—so the lakes were drained, and DF spread like lichen across the silt of their dry beds. The last four hundred years have witnessed a range of complex solutions to the floods that continue to visit the valley. One such plan was the Drenaje Profundo, or Profound Drain. With foundations in fine sediment, and frequent seismic disturbances, DF sinks at a rate near forty centimetres per annum. It is not uncommon for a peripatetic inhabitant to become disoriented and feel unsteady on his or her feet; the zone undergoes constant geological negotiations. This state of almost perpetual vertigo confers an anxiety no amount of vestibular inner-ear correction can abate. At 2,200 metres, the altitude alone is enough to unsettle and, in 1985, an 8.1 quake struck Mexico City. Plus the local stratovolcano, Popocatépetl—visible at sufficient storeys from any southeast window—awoke in 2012, and began to emit a steady stream of steam and smoke. Some days we crawled where we had to go.


II


The coincidence of tectonic distress with sites of hallowed cultural heritage is not specific to DF. Less than an hour north, Teotihuacán provides a more coherent specimen. Home in its heyday to several ethnic peoples, the city engaged in trade with Tenochtitlán, as well as Cholula, Monte Albán, Chichén Itzá, Mitla and others; but rather than conquer, Teotihuacán seems to have suffered fire and spontaneous abandonment. What stands at present: two pyramids, of the Sun and the Moon; the temple of the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl; a thoroughfare called the Avenue of the Dead. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest on earth. It is a common phenomenon that those who reach the top adopt acrobatic or yoga poses for their photographs. Flushed, we bask in the afternoon.

Our pictures have us in sweaters, with backpacks for the day out. We climb the Pyramid of the Moon, too, and descend to the rectangular space that terminates the Avenue of the Dead. As we circle its central plinth, we come upon a colleague, with his girlfriend and her kids. Our conversation is brief, though we have socialized otherwise outside of office. He is an autodidact, and likes to quote T.S. Eliot:


I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.


The first time he recited this section, on a return bus at daybreak from industrial Tlalnepantla, I replied,


There is shadow under this red rock

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock).


He quoted the Waste Land fragment again at an impromptu fête in Colonia Independencia, on the roof of our boss’s apartment.

‘Here is no water but only rock,’ I said.

‘Rock and no water and the sandy road,’ he responded.

We had partaken of tequila (Dos Lunas™), Doritos® and baked tilapia, on one of those sheer afternoons close to solstice. He insisted I read the ‘ultimate novels’—The Master and Margarita, A Confederacy of Dunces, The Castle, 2666—and told how he shot himself in the foot with a pistol outside a gazebo in the desert of an unintelligible Texan sunrise. We must have hugged.

But this was elsewhere, another time. In the square Moon Plaza at the end of the Avenue of the Dead, we chat, pass pleasantries, remark on our chance encounter and part. None of us is prepared to merge parties. Each prefers intimate company. The environment presses essentials.


III


Like the Giza group in Egypt, Teotihuacán’s structures imitate the arrangement of stars in Orion’s belt. The Avenue describes a trajectory, which, if superimposed on the actual constellation and extended, leads in one direction to Sirius, and in the other to the Pleiades. Ancient Egypt’s whole lunar calendar revolved around Sirius, the ‘Dog Star’, since its midsummer appearance on the eastern horizon at dawn signals the annual Nile floods. Sirius conjunct the sun means the ‘dog days’, the year’s worst heat, which its heliacal rise (dawn breach) appends; the deluge it heralds ensures fertility and abundance in future harvest.

For Mesoamerican peoples, the lynchpin celestial body was the Pleiades, located at the shoulder of the constellation Taurus. Their lunar calendar focused on the Pleiades’ culmination at midnight, the mark of the start of a subsequent year. The asterism travels the exact meridian at 19.5 degrees north (N), which is the approximate latitude of Teotihuacán, Popocatépetl and Tenochtitlán. From DF, however, the stars are scarce, their rounds veiled by the incongruous inland sea of light.

Zenith Pleiades at midnight, when the cluster is directly overhead, also occurs above Hawaii. The event initiates four months of Makahiki, a festival of bounty and communal cheer. At 19.5 N, Big Island hosts Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano on the planet; the entire archipelago, in fact, was born of eruptions. A pattern emerges. The planet’s largest pyramid by volume sits in the shadow of Popocatépetl, in Cholula, Mexico. Chichén Itzá, on the Yucatan Peninsula: 19.5 N. Emi Koussi, in Saharan Chad, is at 19.5 N. Trindade, an explosive volcanic island off the coast of Brazil: 19.5 S. Atiu, of the Cook Islands, and Agrigan, of the Marianas, are at the same southern latitude. And the northernmost tip of the Nile’s Great Bend, where it curves to run briefly south? Eureka. On earth.


IV


Despite philosophical issues with English’s linguistic monopoly in the world of finance, black market language tuition was our only recourse for sustenance without proper papers in order. With branches of multinational corporations’ concerns arrayed throughout the city, our daily rounds brought us to a variety of locales. DF possesses a vast and comprehensive subway system. Some stations burrow several storeys down. In Tacubaya, for instance—nexus of the 1, 7, and terminus of the 9—as one rides the many layers of steep escalators and traverses its daedal subterranean corridors, it is easy to see what sun filters in tinged with the black onyx of the skylights that illuminate the ceremonial chambers of the pyramids at Teotihuacán.

Crowds flow. (‘So many, I had not thought death had undone so many.’) There are an incomprehensible number of blind. Grooved yellow paths trace metro passages and platforms. Ground level apertures are occluded at irregular yet frequent intervals by the soles of feet. Buskers blast reggaeton and pop from backpack boom boxes or lie on t-shirts filled with broken glass on trams; they change at every stop. Who is not worthy, that navigates the fluorescent and halogen hollows in the slippage beneath the streets? Popocatépetl means ‘smoking mountain’. The Pleiades’ heliacal rise presages rain in the Valley of Mexico as well.


V


On earth, but not alone: Mars’ Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in our solar system, peaks near 19.5 N; Jupiter’s red giant vortex swirls about 19.5 S; Saturn’s big spots drift through similar parallel climes; SOHO photos show most sunspot growth at 19.5 N & S. How?

What says the rest best is an image.


VI


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