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Time Travels Into a Lively, Distant Past

With its ruins and rituals, something's up in Papantla

April 08, 2001|JAYNE FREEMAN | Jayne Freeman is a freelance writer who lives in a motor home and writes frequently about the mobile lifestyle

PAPANTLA, Mexico — I thought about Jack climbing the beanstalk up to the sky as I watched the Totonac Indians begin their traditional performance. Four men in bright red costumes, wearing flowered hats and heavy black boots, slowly climbed a 70-foot blue-painted pole, using spikes on both sides as hand-and footholds. Their faces were solemn, befitting the keepers of an ancient tradition.

One by one, they moved up the slender mast, almost disappearing into the cloudless afternoon sky. The pole seemed impossibly high, and the knowledge that in a few minutes these men would launch themselves from its top sent shivers down my spine. As they climbed, a fifth costumed performer, acting as watcher or leader, stood at the bottom and straightened the long yellow ropes dangling from the open platform-really just a square frame-at the top of the pole.

Once these voladores (the word means "fliers" in Spanish) reached the platform, they positioned themselves and their ropes for their launch into space. Together they twisted the movable platform, coiling the ropes until all were wrapped around the top of the pole.

Then the leader walked through the audience of about two dozen, collecting a 20-peso (about $2) fee per person. I gave him a 50-peso note for my husband, Dan, and me, and as happens so often in Mexico, he couldn't change it. He gave me back a 20, and I gave him a 10-peso coin to make it come out right.

Money collected, he climbed the pole and took his place at its very top, on a surface hardly larger than the soles of his boots. The four voladores were in position on the four corners of the platform, just beneath him. The leader took out a little flute-about 6 inches long, with a miniature drum hanging from the end-on which he had accompanied the men during the ritual dance they performed before their ascent. He played a shrill, plaintive melody and stamped his booted feet. The notes floated down like bird trills, reminding me of the Peruvian song "El Condor Pasa."

Then simultaneously, from the corners of that tiny platform almost out of sight at the top of the pole, the four voladores flew out at the ends of their tethers, upside-down with outstretched arms, looking like giant red birds silhouetted against the deep blue sky. The ropes unwound slowly from the mast, bringing the men lower and lower in ever-widening circles. As they came close to the ground, they did a somersault, landed lightly on their feet and bowed.

The ceremony of the voladores is so ancient that its origin and purpose are lost in mythology. One interpretation holds that it is a fertility rite, with the four fliers making invocations to the four corners of the universe, then bringing down the sun and rain from the heavens as they fall to earth. Another theory is based on the revolutions of the unwinding ropes. The fliers revolve 13 times as their ropes unwind. Together they make 52 revolutions, and 52, besides being the number of weeks in a year, is also the number of years in an Aztec calendar cycle. Anthropologists believe these numbers were highly significant to the ancient participants in the ceremony.

Today the voladores perform for less mystical reasons-to earn money and entertain visitors-but their flight is still a heart-stopping wonder. Dan and I had come to this town in the Mexican state of Veracruz to see the voladores perform-something I'd wanted to do for years-and to visit the ancient ruins at El Tajin. Although the voladores' ceremony is performed in Papantla itself only on weekends and during the feast of Corpus Christi in late May or early June, it can be seen almost every day at nearby El Tajin.

As we drove into Papantla that morning, our passage was slowed by the press of pedestrians and cars, mostly taxis and small buses trying to make their way through narrow old streets. We drove cautiously through the traffic, looking for either one of two hotels recommended by our guidebook, the Tajin or the Premier. We circled Plaza Tellez-the main square, or zocalo-four or five times before I finally saw the Tajin up a hill half a block away. We decided to stay there because we couldn't even find the Premier.

We climbed a steep flight of stairs to the hotel lobby, where the desk clerk surprised us by speaking excellent English. "Would you like to see some rooms?" he asked. He said the most expensive ($50 a night) had air-conditioning and TV, while the less expensive ($40) had neither.

We didn't care about the TV, which would have taxed our limited Spanish skills, but the sticky tropical heat persuaded us that air-conditioning would be a relief. We selected a tidy little room with a tile floor, two double beds and a nice view of the town from our window.

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