El Circo Comes To Town

The moment I saw the large trailer arrive with the colorful words, ¨Circo,¨ painted plainly on the side; I waited like an eager, impatient child for the amusement to unfold. I was enamored by the endless possibilities my imagination afforded, from acrobatic clowns juggling awkward objects on a highwire, to fire breathers and talking dogs. Only once in my life have I been to a circus and barely managed to catch the final act, crudely titled, ¨The Wolf People.¨

Two sullen individuals wearing black suits staggered into the ring, their steps short and slow as if their legs were shackled with chains. Once in the middle, they stood there small and motionless as the audience observed with an unfaltering gaze; ordained by the cost of admission. Much to my surprise, there was going to be no theatrical undertaking. The performance had already occurred, and the result was exhibited plaintively to the audience staring dumbly at the hair that covered the performer´s face and hands. Soon the bewildered silence of the anti-climactic episode was broken by the melodramatic voice of the announcer, who explained,

¨What you are witnessing is a rare genetic disease known as hypertrichosis, characterized as an excessive growth of hair. This condition is so rare that it affects only 1 out of 10 billion people.¨

His voice droned through the tent, ¨The very first wolf man was diagnosed in 1556 and since then there have only been 40 cases registered worldwide.¨

¨They view their condition as a gift and feel it is their duty to show the world, ¨and concluded the narrative with, “and if you give me 10 bucks, you can take a picture with them, so come on down.¨

Altough, I left without a picture, I did go off with an everlasting curiosity towards those nomadic productions, known enigmatically as a Circus.

As I pedaled past the construction of the colorful tent, a lone camel knelt in a patch of shade, chewing on pieces of grass. A dog barked ceaselessly at the unperturbed foreign creature. I tried to peek into the back of the trailer for hints of other acts, but glimpsed only a shadowy void.

The small seaside town of Aticama is not your typical Lonely Planet attraction, unless, true to its title, the guide sent you to places like this, where there are no tourists (or attractions). San Blas, however, just a centimeter north on the map, does etch a small nook in the archives of Mexico guidebooks, but mostly as an echo of the past. A fishing village with a prominent history, it was to become a tourist Mecca in the 1950´s, reaching the notoriety of cities like Acupulco. President Miguel Aleman of Mexico, arrived for the dedication as the picturesque sunset engorged the sky, much like the promotional pictures that spawned the idea for developing tourism. Something remained unseen in those images, however and began aggressively attacking the procession. ¨Jejenes¨, or ¨no’see’ums¨, a biting fly, as small as fleck of sand, thriving in a marshy habitat nearby ensured the failure of large scale tourism in San Blas. The President and his detail smacked at the invisible enemy, but quickly retreated and left before sun-up.

Once the principle port for Spanish trade and eastern Pacific naval command, boasting a population around 30,000, the town has since shrunk to about 8,000. Why the Spaniards didn´t choose the more protected bays and bug free areas of Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta remains a mystery. Perhaps, General Nuno de Guzman, who first noticed the area in 1530, had a secret obsession with surfing, and noticed at nearby Playa Las Islitas waves that would eventually capture a Guinness Book Record for being the longest in the world, at around 5,700 feet. Today, more courageous travelers equipped with DEET, surfboards, and an irrational love for the sport still visit the coastal region.

Unguided by Lonely Planet, we found ourselves just about the only gringos in the town of Aticama, and began to wish the planet wasn´t so lonely. We were experimenting with a worldwide organization known as WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) where you can get experience on chemical free farms in exchange for room and board. We found ourselves ¨farming¨ in a place dubbed Wally´s World, after the ExPat who who owned it. We learned how to move dirt and more importantly how to mix cement for a road to his property, where we replaced the local labor working at a rate of 8 dollars a day. On another occasion we hacked at some weeds on his coastal property so that the Ejido (community land ownership) doesn´t take it away. The Ejido system is supposed to help prevent people from merely buying the land as an investment and letting it sit there, unused. After a day of ¨fulfilling¨work, we decided to head up to another ExPats house, for the sunset and some drinks.

We were following directions that amounted to a sunburned arm pointing a finger in the direction of the casa. “It´s at the top of the hill, you can´t miss it,¨ Francisco promised candidly with a goofy smile, unmasked by a large mustache and greying beard.

After crossing through a cemetery and over a few barb wire fences, I began to have surge of confidence in my unfailing ability to do just that, miss it completely, (though, truly impossible in the tiny village). I paused a moment near a leafless tree that towered overhead, and indulged in melodramatic thoughts inspired by the hundreds of vultures that were swarming overhead. Slow steps took us up a steep trail which wound through knee high banana trees. Cresting the hill, we saw a car resting under a canopy, sporting a handwelded frame that made it look like a flying machine out of the movie, ¨Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.¨ “Only a gringo would drive something like that down here,¨ I thought and knew we found the right house.

Francisco welcomed us with a beer, while his three long haired children ran out to trap our attention with their quirky dance moves and bicycle stunts. We were quickly introduced to his wife, Wang, a strikingly beautiful Phillipina lady who looked more like his daughter than his legal partner. He later mentioned that he met his 19 year old mail order bride when he was 41.

“All my friends said it wouldn´t last more than 3 months, and it´s been 13 years. And it´s worked out really well.¨

Wang seconded, ¨Yeah, life has been good.¨

Francisco told us about their honeymoon, ¨She first flew into Portland, and since she had lived in a stick house in the humid Phillipines all her life, she wasn´t used to the cold northwest. So we bought a beat’up old Cadillac Limousine and drove down to Mexico. The damn thing broke down half a days drive into the country. The driveshaft was bent and needed to be replaced. So I hitchhiked with this great big long driveshaft.¨ He gestured as if he is holding the part to emphasize its size.

“I got to a mecanico, and showed them the part. They told me that would be impossible to replace. If it was a VW, maybe a different story. But they sent me around the corner, said there´s a gringo there who might be able to help. When I entered his garage, I saw an exquisite machine shop that could make just about anything. I asked him why he has so much equipment, and he said that he used to work for NASA. I showed him the driveshaft and asked if he can fix it.

´No problem,´ he said, ´follow me. We need to get some beer first.´

We came back with a about 18 beers, and I was thinking about my wife sitting in the heat by the side of the road, while I´m getting drunk in a mechanics shop.

He said, ´Okay, now you crack open your beer and drink.´

The man worked for NASA after all, and l couldn´t dispute the wisdom of any body recommending that I drink so I began,¨ he said as he shrugged his shoulders.

¨He set the drive shaft up on a huge lathe, while this Mexican guy slowly heated it with a torch, finally when the whole thing was glowing red, the NASA guy said,

´Okay, now pour your beer on it. Good. Now, pop open another one.´

So we continued this ritual until all 18 beers were consumed and my driveshaft was straight as an arrow. Got back to my wife beside the road and had the limousine running in 15 minutes.¨

During the lull in conversation, I took a moment to look out at the ocean. Their house was perched on top of a cliff so steep that you can look down at the waves crashing below in a small bay filled with history.

Francisco continued his narrative, ¨Yeah, this place used to be an old pirate lookout point. I read about it in some old journals. During the 16th / 17th century, while San Blas was a booming port, Spanish Merchant ships would drop off their goods and send it by caravan towards Mexico city on the Camino del Real, back behind those mountains, where bandits waited for them.” He paused a moment to point to an imaginary road along the mountains, as if he was singling out a tree in a forest miles away.

“And after the ships were reloaded with gold and cargo the pirates would sail from this bay and relieve the galleons of their treasures.¨ He added as we all looked out at the sun twisting into the ocean´s horizon, and began to feel the jejenes making their advance on our exposed skin.

I imagined the stereotypical swashbuckling one’ eyed pirates stationed up here on the lookout, sitting around a fire. Naturally, they were singing pirate songs, drinking, and smacking at the hordes of invisible biting flies. Francisco would make an excellent pirate, I decided.

Francisco´s 11 year old son broke the silence, “At school, there´s a rumor that in a cave not far from here an old priest discovered a treasure, but died trying to get it out. Now his ghost haunts the cave and kills anyone who enters.¨

Francisco lit some coconut skins on fire to ward away the bugs and said, ¨More recently they used this bay for serious drug shipments. And until about two years ago there was no phone service; even if somebody saw something suspicious there was no way to get the authorities here. Electricity came only about 8 years ago.” He paused in contemplation and concluded, “This town has changed a lot in the 20 years I´ve been here.¨

Aticama began with only one telephone and callers were told to call back in 30 minutes. Over a tremendously ¨loudspeaker,¨ calls would be announced to the entire town and the receiving party would go and wait for the call. The owner of the phone relished the opportunity to relay messages to individual parties via the entire town, for example, “Armando, will you please come home, you are breaking your mother´s heart.¨ She still makes announcements, but, because of poor sound quality and my beginning Spanish, they are largely incomprehensible, though, always loud.

There was much competition in Aticama for the precious airtime. The town resembled a jungle of noises, where each bird had to perfect it´s own distinct sound in order to be distinguished from the others. Every morning I awoke to the sound of the camarones guy hailing the freshest shrimp around. The water guy with a short musical chirp, the gas truck bellowed a semi-musical electronic noise. These were the regulars that informed the town every day that their services were still offered. Foreign sounds often entered the endless cacaphony as well, trucks armed with huge megaphones were selling shoes and clothes, others with furniture, and even cars bellowing advertisements, with one about “El Circo,¨ that caught my ear.

I actually enjoyed our time in Aticama, despite my reservations about the moral utility of replacing the local labor (how strange it must have seemed to the locals for us to volunteer to work for even less than 8 dollars a day). We stayed in a small self contained housing unit with a van that had retired from it´s extensive travels across the Americas. One could easily look past the negative aspects of the shower that would routinely electrocute me, scorpions that hid under the mats I slept on each night, or the itchy rash that would inevitably develop from the mangos (same family as poison oak). The plot of land was a veritable tropical paradise with hummingbirds, orchids, and tropical fruit all around, ready to eat. But life on the farm was slow, and failed to offer the excitement of bike touring.

There was a friendly pack of dogs on the property, including a small black mut with a lame rear leg and two huge floppy bat like ears, one of which could stand straight up. The poor hobbling dog had no chance with the elegant and dainty female dogs in heat, but couldn´t resist and pestered them until they eventually snapped back violently. The females had to be separated from all the males inside the beautiful three story house adorned with floral vines, and would peak over the patio to see their potential suitors below, howling songs to serenade them.

For a few days, we got to hang out with Brett and Sean who are driving their beat up sedan nicknamed, ¨Your Mom,¨to the tip of South America. Brett seems to have a way with words (he came up with the moniker, Wally´s World). I´ve heard from them a few times since, with updates like, ¨Sorry to tell you, but Your Mom broke down about 8 hours after we left and cost 850 pesos to fix.¨

A girl named Anna, had been holding down the fort before we arrived at Wally´s World. She was an attractive young college grad enjoying some quiet time on the farm. Until, I suppose, 6 guys arrived and left her with no castle to retreat to. Nevertheless, serenading her with our absence of musical talent would likely be mistaken for a circus sideshow and humiliating for all parties involved. She left rather hastily for Oxoaca. And shortly after, Nate flew back to California and Sean headed for Cabo San Lucas to visit his mom. And life on the farm slowed even more, which is probably why I was so excited about the circus coming to town.

As the sun was about to sizzle the sea, and the jejenes frenzied into formation, ready to take flight; I figured the circus should be in full swing. With a spirited smile I rode my bike to the makeshift venue, only to see the roustabouts no further along in construction than earlier in the day. In fact, they were disassembling the tent altogether.

¨Damnit,¨ I thought, ¨how did I miss it?¨

The camel stood there awkwardly with its spindly legs, bulbous back and clay contorted face, as if it were some sort of cruel punchline to a joke I didn´t understand.

A one camel circus. And I missed it.


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