The gods told men; ‘dance and we shall observe’.
The first time I climbed the pole my father beat me. I was eight. My family were back at the restaurant, it was after the lunchtime rush, everyone was taking their siesta, so I slipped out the back and ran to the deserted town square.
Tito was shouting at me not to do it.
It didn’t take long to climb and I wasn’t afraid to fall. I sat on the capstan but didn’t dare to stand up, or lean back to acknowledge the glowing sun. Not yet. Looking down, Tito was a long way off almost in another world, and I felt like a brightly plumed quetzal bird, or the butterfly I was named after. I stayed there ‘til the light was fading from the day and the shadows were growing longer. I thought about tying the rope around my waist and jumping from the cuadro, but I didn’t dare, and was it part of the magic if the others weren’t there?
Tito eventually grew tired of shouting at me to come down from the bottom of the pole, so he ran and got my father, who threatened that he would come up there and get me if I didn’t come down right away. ‘It is bad luck for a woman to fly,’ he said as he beat me. But mother stopped him saying, ‘She’s not a woman yet Pedro, please stop. There will be no bad luck. Our family have been flyers for hundreds of years, of course Vanesa would want to become a voladora, of course she would.’
According to a Totonac myth, 450 years ago there was a drought that brought hunger to our people. The gods withheld the rain because they thought the people had neglected them. The ceremony of the voladores was created to appease the gods and bring back the rains. The tallest tree in a nearby forest is cut down (with the permission of the mountain god), stripped of its branches and dragged to the village. The trunk is erected with much ceremony. Five youths climb the pole and four jump off while the fifth plays music. The ritual pleased the rain god Xipe Totec so the rains began again and the fertility of the earth returned.
I’m the sixth child in a family of six boys and two girls, Tito is my youngest brother. Him and my other brothers will be the ones who get to carry on the family tradition of pole flying. It’s not fair. But like Papa says, it’s taboo for a woman to fly.
The first time that I went to Mexico was when I was 16. It was during what turned out to be the last holiday I took with my mum and grandma to North America where my grandma’s sister had gone after the war as a GI bride. She’d had three daughters and they lived in Florida, Tennessee and Texas. We visited all three states. Whilst we were staying with the cousins in Texas, we crossed the border into Mexico for a weekend, went to the Angel Falls. I bought a silver abalone ring for my mother which I wear on my little finger to remember her by.
Being forbidden to follow the family tradition, I went to study history in Mexico City and graduated with honours, then I got a job working at the Museo Nacional de Antropología. If I had thought going to the city would help me leave my family behind, my plan did not work, as just 100 metres from the museum there is a pole where every day flyers perform this very ritual. If I wanted, every lunchtime, I could go and sit a while in the shade of the trees surrounding the museum, listen to the snakelike pipe and pitta-pit-pit of the drum and watch a group of voladores perform their dance for tourist dollar.
The caporal leads with his flute and drum, the dancers start dancing in circles on the ground below the pole. Each melody relates to a request to the gods, asking to serve our people and humankind. Then they climb the pole and when they reach the top they sit on the wooden frame. As the caporal stands and starts playing, the flyers time their movements to his melodies. Then they make the leap of faith from the top of the pole; they attach the cord to their waists, and just let themselves go.
The next time I came to Mexico I ended up staying for good. That wasn’t the plan. I was taking a year off, I couldn’t face going to uni straight after mum died, so went travelling round South America with my girlfriend of the time. The trip had made us realise that we didn’t actually get on, and we had parted ways amicably in Ecuador, where she had hooked up with a bunch of surfing Italians. We still had our tickets to go home in about a month’s time on the same date, so we said we would see each other again at the airport in Mexico City. I made my way up to Mexico not without some problems, a single guy travelling alone seemed to be more of a target for unwanted attention than a group, and I was lucky that I only nearly got into the wrong taxi one time.
When I arrived at the beach at Playa Del Carmen, I quickly made friends with some of the backpackers there. I had a little fling with a redhaired Irish girl from London who had just got to Mexico and still had that pinkish burned tinge to her soft skin, but she was travelling in the opposite direction to me, so although we swapped numbers, I never saw her after she and her friend left to go and see the amazing animals of the Galapagos. I was enjoying sleeping all day in a hammock in front of the Caribbean, drinking beers and eating grilled cheese and ham sandwiches in the many bars, talking to chilled out Europeans and Americans, but I thought it was about time that I made my way slowly back to Mexico City to wait for Angela. When we saw each other again maybe we might find that splitting up had been a huge mistake. I did miss her on those long hot nights, lying in my hammock, as the palm leaf roof rustled in the breeze and the waves crashed on the shore. I wondered if she was still with the Italian surfers. She had been flirting with one of them from the moment we met. I wondered if they had got together.
You throw yourself into the void and lie on your back, the body weight of each voladora makes the cord unravel very slowly and as we descend, we lift up our legs and with our feet, we take the cord and just let ourselves go. Flying upside down I forget I have feet – what need do I have of feet when I have wings to fly? Our costumes have a profound symbolism related to nature and flight. The multicoloured streamers that flow from our hats symbolise birds, representing life and harmony. The colours symbolise blue for male, yellow for female; red means the beginning and the green colour symbolises nature. Our costumes are mainly made of white, which means the end, because everything comes to an end.
Before I went to the beach, I visited some of the Mesoamerican pyramids with Angela. When we first got to Mexico City, we were staying in this busy big old colonial hotel where there were sounds of building works going on all night, not far from the Zócalo. We went to Teotihuacan on a bus from the Del Norte bus terminal. We sat and ate lime flavour crisps on the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, and I got terribly sun burnt, as I had left my suncream back at the hotel and Angie’s was running out.
Playa del Carmen was not far from Tulum, which was the one historic site in the travel book that me and Angie had actually put both a star and a tick by before separating, so I got together with a group of German and British backpackers in the beach bar one drunken night and we decided to travel there the next day. Tulum was a very different experience to Teotihuacan. Maybe it was because I had been dragged round Teotihuacan on a sticky hot day and there was no shelter from the sun’s unforgiving beams, and we had no budget to buy bottled water from the sellers there, so I was slightly sun-mad. Or maybe it was because I was realising that Angie and me weren’t the real thing, that I remember Teotihuacan with more of a sense of emptiness than anything else.
Tulum overlooks the Caribbean Sea, and the water is as dreamily azure as you would expect, and the sand below the cliffs is suitably soft and white, and turtles crawl out of the sea when it’s their time to breed and lay their eggs on the beach below. I didn’t see any turtles, though I wondered if my Irish girl had made it yet to the Galapagos where she might see the very same turtles that would one day lay their eggs on the beach I was looking at. For the first time in this trip, maybe since my mum had died, as my temporary new friends were laughing and taking photos of the ruined fort, I sat looking out at the sea, and I felt that I could be happy again.
The second time I climbed the pole was after my father was dead.
I had gone back to our village for the funeral. My father had kept flying until he was in his fifties, but then a torn ligament in his leg meant he had to stop. For this strong healthy man it was the start of a fast decline and it was out of the blue when my mother phoned me sobbing to tell me he had died. Once he was no longer able to train with my brothers, he started sitting in the restaurant kitchen all day, drinking wine that was meant for the customers, and telling my mother that her chili needed more beans. He did not tell her how ill he was, that the torn ligament was an excuse, that the wine was for the pain, that it was down on his lungs and that there was no treatment.
After the funeral my mother handed me my father’s hat with its long many-coloured ribbons, each colour with its own meaning.
‘At the end he was sorry he never let you fly, Vanesa. He knew how much you wanted to. He was sorry he made you run away.’
‘I didn’t run away Mama,’ I said. ‘I wanted to learn about our heritage, I wanted to work somewhere that I could help keep our past alive.’
My mother clasped her hands around mine. ‘The way you must do that is to fly. Tito will show you how. Your father wanted you to. There are some women now; voladoras. It’s not bad luck, of course it’s not, it never was. The gods want women to fly just as much as men.
Back in Mexico City I couldn’t get over the green Beetles. All the cabs are green Volkswagen Beetles. I sat in the Zócalo, under the polluted yellow sky, having a beer in one of the bars facing the square, watching the steady stream of cars, horns blaring, tyres screeching as they circled, I thought to myself, this is my life, I am 19 years of age, I am an orphan, and I don’t want to go back to Bristol, I don’t want to go to university, could I stay here and never go home?
It was the day after my father’s funeral. We awoke early, my mother, my sister Linda and my six brothers all went to the square together before anybody else in the village. I was dressed in my father’s costume, which my mother had taken in so it fit. I had tied my hair into plaits and then pinned them close to my head. My brother Tito was our caporal, our sun. Me, my older brothers Mani, Pablito and Esteban would make the corners of the square around him; representing earth, air, fire and water. The twins Miguel and Luis had come with us to give support they said, but then they had to get back to the restaurant and start preparing food for lunch, they had never liked heights and when my father had gotten ill the family had to train another boy from the village, as the twins refused to take part.
My brothers showed me the dances at the bottom of the flagpole, but I knew them already, I’d been watching people fly since I was a baby, and even when I’d moved to Mexico City I’d been watching the voladores in the Chapultepec Park almost every day for the past four years. Tito played the pipe and drum to set our rhythm.
And then we climbed into the sky. And then we danced at the top of the platform to honour the gods. I saw nothing below, only the clouds above with their reddening blush. Tito danced on the capstan, playing his music. Then he stood still. And then one by one, my brothers let themselves slowly down and I tightened the rope around my waist and I leant back. I could hear my family below applauding in support.
As I let myself gently fall into the void, I felt the pole slip out of my reach. I slowly twisted and spun upside down. The ribbons from my father’s hat flowed out behind me as we circled the pole, spinning slowly, and as the sun rose I had to close my eyes, but even with them shut, I danced in the air and I knew this was the place that I was meant to be.
We circle the pole 13 times each, a total of 52 circuits, or the number of years in the Aztec calendar.
It was under a week before I was supposed to go back to the UK. I felt like there wasn’t much waiting for me there. My grandma was in a home, I had no brothers or sisters, and I hadn’t spoken to my dad since he left us. He didn’t even come to mum’s funeral. He sent some flowers. Irises. She hated irises ever since she’d had to draw them in art lessons at school and got an E. I went back to the hotel, there was still hammering from whatever work they were doing, which was probably why it was so cheap, and I lay on the big double bed. I looked through the Lonely Planet guide which Angela and I had bought in Waterstones in Bristol that weekend almost a year ago when we’d started planning our trip. There were the places with the ticks next to them that I wanted to see and the things with the stars next to that she had wanted to see. There weren’t many things that had both a tick and a star next to them, which perhaps should have told us a bit about our suitability, or lack of, as travelling, or maybe even life, companions.
There was still the Museum of Anthropology to see, I decided I’d visit it the next day, it was not too long a walk from the hotel, and I could take a look at the famous Bosque de Chapultepec, maybe sit and eat a sandwich there, then check out the National Art Museum as well.
When I throw myself off the pole to fly, I forget I am an individual, I am part of the whole. For me to fly is a sensation of freedom, I feel like I am a bird drifting on currents of air. My mind flies when I am upside down, I see the world from another perspective.
I decided that I would quit my job at the museum and move back to the village, where I would join my brothers as the first voladora in our family, keeping our traditions alive. I was working out my last week at the museum when I met him.
I was drawn by the music I could hear through the trees. It sounded odd, slowed down, a sort of rhythmic lack of rhythm. I followed the sound and I saw a spectacular sight. Four men suspended upside down, hanging by their heels, spinning slowly around a tall pole, as the man at the top of the pole played a spiky tune on some sort of flute.
I was walking towards them, looking up, so I didn’t see the girl that I bumped into. Her carton of drink and sandwich fell to the ground.
‘Lo siento,’ I say in my best GCSE Spanish accent. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I add, so she doesn’t start talking to me in Spanish.
‘It’s all right,’ she says, wiping bits of salad off of her chest. But she looks annoyed.
‘I was watching the… the display.’
‘The dance of the Voladores de Papantla,’ she says. ‘A Mexican tradition. They’re here every day.’
‘I’m going home soon, I probably won’t get a chance to see them again, but they are amazing,’ I say.
‘Where are you from?’ she asks.
‘Bristol. In England.’
She is much shorter than me. She has pretty dark eyes and long straight black hair. Her smart white shirt has been stained green by the sandwich.
‘Can I get you another sandwich, another drink?’ I ask.
‘I should go and try to wash this off. My lunch break is almost over. It’s my last week, but I don’t know what they’ll think if I come back like this.’
‘Oh, do you work at the museum? I was going there next. Any galleries you recommend?’
Without really noticing it, we have started walking towards the museum, away from the voladores who haven’t even finished their display and are still slowly circling the pole to that tune.
‘Sure, there are maps in the foyer, I can mark some things of interest for you, once I’ve washed my top.’
‘I feel bad that I’ve messed up your shirt and ruined your lunch,’ I have an idea so I stop and dump my rucksack on the floor, start looking in one of the pockets. ‘Here you go!’ I take out a delicate silk scarf that I’d bought from a bright-eyed girl walking along the beach at Playa del Carmen, thinking I might give the butterfly print fabric to Angela as a parting gift. I hand it to the girl whose shirt I’ve ruined. ‘If you wear this you could hide the stain.’
She looks at the scarf, then at me oddly. ‘I can’t take this,’ she says. ‘It’s lovely.’
‘You can give it back to me later,’ I say, with what I am hoping is my most charming smile. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Vanesa,’ she says. ‘It means butterfly.’
I never gave Luke his scarf back. He was waiting for me after work, and we walked to a favourite cantina where he insisted on buying me a drink and a taco. I noticed the shell ring that he was wearing and he told me about his mother and his life in England. He told me about his girlfriend and how he didn’t think they would be getting back together. I had never really thought about going to England before, but I thought it would be nice to visit him.
I told him I had quit my job to go back to my village and become a voladora. I told him all about the ceremony. We stayed talking in the cantina until we were both quite drunk. He kissed me and asked if I’d like to see him the next day. His mouth was soft and his beard tickled my bottom lip. As we walked back to my apartment arm-in-arm we must have made an odd-looking couple. Luke is tall and his hair has almost been bleached white by the sun, his skin is a golden brown. I am little and dark. Men rarely look twice at me.
I didn’t ever go back to work at the museum, I phoned them and told them I was sick, had the vomiting bug that everyone was getting. Luke and I spent the rest of the week together. We didn’t talk about what was going to happen after he got his flight back and I returned to my family.
It was not the same as it had been with Angie, it was not the same as it had been with the Irish girl, it was not the same as it had been with anybody else. Although I knew from the moment I met her, it was the day before I was due to go home I told her. ‘I’m not going to go, I’ve decided I’m going to get a job and stay here with you. If you want me to…’ She kissed me.
I kissed him. ‘Of course I want you to stay. But have you really thought about this? Your ticket…’
‘I’ll see if I can cash it in,’ he said. ‘Give me a bit of breathing space.’
‘What about Angela? She’ll be expecting to meet you at the airport.’
‘I’ll go, I’ll tell her. Say goodbye. There’s nobody waiting for me at home Vanesa, my grandma doesn’t know what day of the week it is. I had a place at the University of Warwick, but I can always do a degree later. You said your college here was excellent.’
‘OK, yes!’ I say.
To her the ritual is as important as breathing. I saw that the first time she took me back to her village and showed me how she flies. It’s not just a spectacle, but a ritual that has profound meanings, connects her deeply to her world.
Her family, and her village, all welcomed the tall British stranger in, and I felt that I had at last found a place to call home. A place to be me. Though I will never dare to climb the pole myself and I am always sick to the pit of my stomach ‘til she’s safely down, I understand how much a part of her it is to fly.
We have to be fit to carry out the dance. The ceremony could last three hours or longer. We dance on the ground, then we fly, then we dance on the ground again, then fly once more.
I belong to a family of voladores, our blood has transmitted this ceremony from generation to generation. It is part of my being. I have watched since I was a baby. It was very easy to learn the steps, but it was not until I was 23 that I started to fly, that I really felt free, that I really became myself.
As I tie the rope around my newly flat stomach I look down into the crowd, like ants below us. I see my husband Luke’s blonde-white hair, a head above any of the other people. I see the dark shape he nestles in his arms, held safe until I come to the end of the dance and have my feet on the ground again.
I think of my father, holding me as a baby in his arms as he watched the flyers, and I hope that one day our daughter may also become a voladora.