How to Defy Time: Camping in Amatlan

“Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”

Albert Camus.  

Downtown Cuernavaca was nearly empty on Saturday morning when I found Neko and Honga huddled at the feet of a weary General Zapata. They sported matching denim jackets with psychedelic cats embroidered in multicolored yarn.

We waited in the chilly morning for the others to arrive, relishing the silence of the normally cacophonous plaza, when a middle-aged woman with a broad smile limped over.

“Buenos días, jóvenes, excuse the interruption. Have you heard of the Lord Jesus Christ?”

I tuned out while Neko and Honga listened respectfully. Behind us men and women made circles in the plaza, heads bent in prayer. Every few minutes, a circle disbanded and its participants scattered like irritating burrs looking for lost souls to cling to.

The irony that Jehovah’s Witnesses had intercepted our rendezvous was not lost on me. We were planning our own spiritual journey.

Guided by our guru Daffy Duck on a tiny magic carpet square, we would go camping just 20 miles away in Amatlán, the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent god of Aztec lore.


Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god of Aztec lore.

One by one the Cuerna crew arrived with backpacks, tents and sacks of food. With all present, about six in all, we moved on to nearby village of Tepoztlán to purchase supplies. Half took a local bus, while Neko, Honga and I piled into my old CR-V.

In Tepoztlán’s main square half a dozen youths shuffled around languidly, backpacks at their feet—the second contingent. At the margin of the group a tall young man pored over a yellowed paperback, barefoot. Magnus beamed with silent confidence. Meanwhile the organizer of the trip Enzo paced back and forth on his cell phone, frantically rounding up stragglers.

To kill some time and hunger pangs, we walked to a stall on Revolución de 1910 street and bought fish fritters, generously doused with mayonnaise, pico de gallo, and Valentina salsa. Cheap and greasy hit the spot. We washed it down with a drink of fresh lime and chia seeds from the market next door.

Agua de Limon con Chia

Fresh lime drink with chia seeds.

When we returned the entire posse was assembled and ready to roll. Magnus and Enzo joined Neko, Honga and I in the CR-V while the rest followed in a combi.

Bustling Tepoztlán behind us, we turned onto the narrow road to Amatlán. The sky expanded like a huge tarpaulin, held up by dramatic rock formations. The scenery seemed remote, like an oil painting. Enthralled, we daydreamed out loud of buying some land and building a commune.

The tiny civic plaza of Amatlán was empty when we pulled up around 3 PM, bathed in warm December sun. A colorful statue of Quetzalcoatl greeted us, imposing yet kind. The girls and I perused the meager selection of soft drinks and fruits at two tiny shops, while the boys bought ice and smoked cigarettes. Satisfied with our final purchases, we continued down the road until the pavement ran out.

Quetzalcoatl Statue

The statue of Quetzalcoatl in Amatlán’s civic plaza.

Xopilco Campground overlooked the bend of a dusty, tree-covered road straddling a dry riverbed.

The caretaker coolly greeted our arrival and showed us to a clearing surrounded by Flamboyant trees with green leaves like tiny fingerprints. In the center the caretaker piled logs in a humble fire pit, grey with the ash of previous camping expeditions. I assembled tents and unloaded coolers of food and drink while the others dragged nearby logs into a circle of makeshift benches. The site was both our canvas and our palette, full of possibilities.

Xopilco Campground

Xopilco Campground.

With preparations finally complete, our companions consulted their own guru Strawberries and Cream, at the bottom of plastic water bottles, glistening in sweet gummy candies. 3:00 PM. Anxious to explore, Neko, Honga and I delayed our appointment with Daffy Duck.

We broke off from the group. Past a narrow passage through the sentinel trees, a larger clearing unfurled beneath the same tarpaulin sky and towering rocks we’d admired from the road. The view was majestic yet intimidating, it called to us coyly, as if to say, “Are you worthy?”

The girls and I exchanged knowing glances. Time to invoke our guru. Crouched in the shadow of my CR-V, we each held fast to a corner of Daffy’s magic carpet and waited for liftoff.

5… 4… 3… 2…

The scenery burst with vitality in the ochre sunset. Returning to the larger clearing with fresh eyes, we found the benevolent bluffs presiding over a troupe of ancient trees dancing in the gentle breeze. Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl, the Feathered Serpent god as divine wind, breathed new life to the landscape.


Bluffs near Amatlán.

We lay down and sucked in the cool air, dry grass tickling our necks.

  • “We should all adopt a tree,” I said. “That one there is speaking to me.”
  • “Me too, babe. He’s got a good vibe,” Neko said.
  • “Watch how he dances, he’s so hardcore!” Honga giggled.

We remained on the ground for several minutes, awestruck by what we believed was the same, exceptional tree.

But once we untangled our lines of sight like fishing line, we discovered Neko’s tree was a handsome Kapok a few meters away. Mine was a knotted pine off to the right. Honga had connected with a skinny willow far away at the top of the bluffs.

Amigas, we have an important mission tonight.”

I spoke with newfound authority.

“We must find out if it’s possible to defy time.”

The girls pressed for an explanation.

“Time is the only constant in this world. It marches on, in spite of us. But what if we could defy it? Move faster, move slower, go totally off the rails? Tonight, we must find out.”

A wise boulder nodded solemnly behind us.

“…during every day of an unillustrious life, time carries us. But a moment always comes when we have to carry it…Yet a day comes when a man notices … he is thirty. Thus he asserts his youth. But simultaneously he situates himself in relation to time. He takes his place in it. He admits that he stands at a certain point on a curve that he acknowledges having to travel to its end. He belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Back at the campsite, a girl they called “Batman” rekindled the fire with a can of Aquanet and a lighter, while Enzo and the others hot boxed and giggled in a tent. The other girls who took the combi finally arrived and the mood was cheerful.

Magnus, tall and confident, smiled radiantly over his portable speakers, swaying to the ethereal beats of Pink Floyd, Zoé, and Radiohead. Sound pulled us forward through time as we dragged our feet, savoring the crunch of dry earth on our existential sneakers.

I sensed that Magnus could help us solve our conundrum about time, so when he darted abruptly toward the dark woods behind the campsite, I followed, pulling Neko and Honga with me. We scurried along a dirt path by a miniature cornfield.

“What are you looking for Magnus?”

“I don’t know, man, but I can feel it.”

He sat down Indian-style at the end of the path, meditating. We stood and watched, waiting for his revelation. The breeze rustled a few stalks of corn.

Suddenly a disoriented girl they called “Strawberry” (Mexican slang for a snob) approached us from behind, muttering about elves in the forest. “I know they’re here, I saw one.” She stumbled off into the brush; no one saw her until the next day.

Bored waiting for beatific Magnus to confer enlightenment on us, we turned back to camp, then I saw it. A single husk of corn tainted rust red.

I examined the husk with my fingers.

“This corn is different. Like us.”

Neko and Honga’s eyes shimmered.

“As children we eat tortillas. Sometimes, the tortillas have more red-stained corn, sometimes less. You can’t tell the difference because only the husks are red. But the red corn is what makes us different later on. ‘Normal’ people had less of it; we had more.”

The girls nodded in comprehension.

The indigenous inhabitants of Amatlán believe that the god Quetzalcoatl discovered corn and taught human beings to sow it. Thus our difference, our queerness, was also a divine gift.

We gave thanks to the corn and the Feathered Serpent god, and returned to the campfire, energized by our discovery.

Quetzalcoatl and corn

Quetzalcoatl (left) discovers corn (middle). From the Borgia Codex.

Our colleagues sat in silence by the fire, soaking in the immensity of the night at the foot of the benevolent bluffs. A boy with a face like a mouse crept around the circle, bumming grass from whoever would take pity on him.

In the distance, I detected the sensual tempo of house music. Not what one expects to hear in a tiny village.

“Do you hear that music? Someone must be having a party.”

The others perked their ears, then grinned impishly.

Huddled around the fire, we agreed to crash the party. If we asked politely, maybe they’d let us in. After all, anyone who plays soulful house music must be nice.

One by one the campers stood and shouted, “Fiesta!” By the time we reached the gate of the campground we were in a frenzy, orbiting one another like the particles of a dense atom, chanting,

“Fiesta, fiesta, fiesta, fiesta, fiesta!”

Treading lightly, we followed the music through adobe alleys to the civic plaza where the figure of Quetzalcoatl now lurked in shadows. We discovered the origin of the music at La Ceiba Restaurant. There was no private party. Jangling the spare change in our pockets, we staggered away, feeling like fools.

Yet I was undeterred. Seeing the restaurant awoke my hunger and I was concerned we’d already run out of fuel for the long night ahead, so I found a small shop that sold individual hotdogs for roasting. The astounded shopkeeper weighed 2.5 kilos of an already opened package of hotdogs, which I paid for by weight.

“El wero tremendo to the rescue!”

The crew joined Honga in a raucous refrain. I had saved the day.

As a treat for my boldness, I bought a cup of pinole (a drink of toasted ground corn with cocoa and cinnamon) for 10 pesos from an old woman selling snacks under a tree by the bridge.

I glugged the spicy-sweet liquid, a nectar fit for heroes and plumed serpent gods.

A few hours later, the hot dogs were gone, only a few charred bits remained in the ashy fire pit. Invisible dogs stalked the perimeter of camp, anxious to steal a forgotten morsel. Most of our group was asleep in tents. I put on a sweatshirt and trudged alone into the darkness, doubts lingering.

Could we really defy time?

The soft moon shone upon the immense boulder that now held court over the larger clearing. Its smooth, featureless face was placid. I peered up at the stars, the memories of every ancestor who ever walked the earth.

The Aztecs believed that, whatever sacrifices we made in life, the only way to settle debts with our creator gods was to give up our flesh and blood to the earth upon death.

“What are you doing, babe?” Neko strode up the path, followed by Honga.

“Look at this rock. The faces of all our ancestors. Someday, we’ll be there too.”

The boulder, strategically placed in the middle of the campground, was a crossroads for the ages. Every living creature was destined to graze its stony creases as a speck of dust, leaving behind a tiny, immortal scratch.

This is how we defy time.

You can’t stop it. You can’t skip it.

But you can survive it, even beyond death.

“And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on…”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

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