Back in El Tule for the start of the town’s bi-annual fiesta celebrations, a religious celebration had commenced in honour of Saint Mary. Leanne and Calvin, owners of Overlander Oasis, chatted away to us in their usual style; unhindered with a lifetime of hilarious stories. Some anecdotes never failed to reach new levels of crazy, others were just unhinged! I adored Calvin’s sense of humour, the cheeky glint constantly twinkling out of the corner of his eye and an innate ability to turn his hand to practically anything. I chuckled when he casually mentioned his favourite factoid about the country: alongside Israelis, Mexicans are the largest consumers of hair gel. Love it! There were indeed many males who indulged heavily there.
Right by the town’s Baroque-style quaint church set in front of a small but bustling plaza, we walked past a charming set of creatively sculpted topiary trees, to take in the living legend that is Árbol del Tule. Or at least attempt to absorb its enormity. At 2,000 years old, Árbol del Tule is Mexico’s most famous tree, mayhaps the world’s biggest. The old gnarled giant has a 14-metre diameter and 58-metre circumference, yet stands just shy of 43 metres tall. You’d think it’d be higher, heck, I did…for some random reason.
With an estimated volume of over 800 imposing cubic metres, the living beauty weighs in at a hefty 636,107 tons. This thing has been around since Roman times and I couldn’t help but dwell on it as though it were a real life ‘Tree of Souls’ from the film Avatar. Bats and small birds would flutter in, darting for the black heart of the tree. A supreme sight that was as glorious as it was gargantuan; weather-tortured, bowed and twisted by the force of its own weight over eons of time it had endured. A person never really understands how big a Montezuma cypress is until they look up at one.
Four to five different brass bands raped and pillaged our eardrums upon entering the party-inspired plaza come evening fall. It was an accomplishment to hear ourselves think, let alone speak when the musical procession of pure enthusiasm on legs jollied past—belting out the full spectrum of screeching trumpet notes in stark contrast to the deep vibrations of the tuba. Local girls and women were adorned in traditional dress, skinny legs danced beneath super-sized brightly painted figurines and kids with their usual boundless energy ran around, somehow replenishing their resources at the same time. All the while we sauntered and strolled, lingered and lapped up every sight, colour and sound. The crimson sun hung molten and glowed above the treetops, shooting light out in gigantic copper-coloured spikes.
Mexican fiestas simply wouldn’t be Mexican unless they upped the ante. In front of an anticipative audience, out came these paper-maché bulls erected on a rectangular wooden structure, bearing ample room for someone’s head inside and loaded with fireworks. Are you kidding me? I kid you not. Without any head, facial or even eye protection, the fiesta’s volunteers donned the beasts, ablaze in spinning wheels of fiery flames and paraded on the outskirts of the designated area—‘Health and Safety’ constituting a cordoned off taped section, more or less—the fringes of which stood scores of spectators. Including us, right at the front; against all the warning fires burning uncomfortably in my soul, I couldn’t help but take a front-row seat. The fact that the locals—seasoned to the caper in store—were somewhat set back, didn’t dawn on me in the slightest.
Emulating a bull—as best one can when carrying a lit firework display around one’s head—in a skipping type dance, the volunteer grabbed hold of the structure. And swung it in a fast circular motion, purposely sending a 360 degree deluge of sparks jumping off into the crowd. Over and over, again and again. If they were trying to get a greater rise from the audience, it worked.
Pure chaos ensued when the fireworks exploded in a shower of every which direction; blitzing in between sandaled feet beneath park benches, buzzing amongst peoples’ ankles and zinging around human heads. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. It was in-your-face deliciously dangerous and overwhelmingly spectacular all at once. A swirling cacophony of disturbing sparks flashed up dark images, which left the air cloudy with smoke, while a thousand other flickers flew out at a thousand miles per hour.
The dazzling display of bulls went on for a couple of hours. And for the most part, the air was packed with as much uproarious laughter, outbursts of shocked-to-the-core whoops and screaming delight—that filled a sea of big brown eyes—as it was spurting with rockets, screaming firecrackers and Catherine Wheel’s worth of explosives. The sweet days of carefree childhood returned like spring leaves sprouting on a winter-bare tree. Occasionally, I’d see the embers of a dying firework singe someone’s shirt or skirt, or hands furiously slapping arms and legs to smother any rogue red hot sparks.
Amid one sensationally hotheaded bull, I found my body totally enveloped in an eruption of golden white sparks. The whole place lit up and I could discern Calvin and Leanne doing the exact same thing as me: jumping like a cat on hot bricks, yelping in helpless laughter trying to dodge any contact with those burning hot flashes showering down on us in an unpredictable spray.
Vaguely aware Jase was shooting away, capturing the moment behind the lens, I looked to my right and he wasn’t there. My peripheral instinct made me look down and there he was, curled into a ball with his palm shielding his forehead. He must’ve got smoke in his eye, being closer to the action than I was. “Jase, you alright?” Radio silence. “Jase. JASE!” I yelled. Crouching down to the floor, I began to experience a dark fluttering in my ribcage, the way I’d imagined bat wings would feel against my cheek. Jase removed his hand and blood poured through his fingers, splashing dark spots onto the concrete. The world vanished in a red roar of pain revealing his face etched in anguish.
I gazed into his eyes for a long moment, and a pain began in my chest, like a wrenching scream working its way up from my soul to my mouth. It came out as a sympathetic moan. Squeamish, the bloody flesh above Jason’s brow that looked like the work of a pastry cutter, made me squirm like a 5 foot 5 inch fish pulled out of the water. “OH MY GOD, Jase is bleeding! He’s BLEEDING!” I hollered in pure panic. The paramedics were already on standby, rushed promptly over and ushered him towards the ambulance.
A pallor of smoke in the air belched downward in a blinding opaque cloud, concealing the way ahead. I could almost taste the acrid air and crowd’s concern and as they watched us pass, yet their expressions told me this wasn’t the first time they’d witnessed such repercussions. It was like something terrific and exuberant had suddenly turned cold, all traces of bubbling excitement vaporised.
“What the heck happened?” I asked rhetorically hardly believing that a manmade explosive had made an ill-fated trajectory and smacked Jason on his left eyebrow; leaving a perfectly formed chunk of skin the size of a nickel hanging loose.
While the paramedics cleaned Jason up, removing fragments of fireworks from his broken skin— tirelessly working an intense shift—I clocked another guy with a fist-sized hole in his tee shirt. He lifted up what was left of the holey garment and revealed an expanse of skin perforated with a set of pinkish red burns. A young girl next to him was holding back a flood of tears as a firework had lunged into her neck, not puncturing the skin but leaving an angry purple mark, which would no doubt sting for some time to come. “Jase, did it hurt a lot?” I enquired. “YES! It hurt like hell.” Oh my, you singed little sausage, that’s gonna look swell in the morning.
The embers of my emotions still glowed hot, and I feared any more too-close-for-comfort excitement would ignite another nasty incident. Still, the biggest bull of all requiring five men to drag its dancing derrière around on castors had just began to make an appearance, as did the castillo—a breathtaking towering inferno of fireworks with moving parts—a Mexican man cycling and a woman grinding corn. Common sense finally kicked in and we stayed put at a safer distance. Boisterous and bright, multicoloured tendrils of fluorescent light illuminated the sky in glittering crackles and deafening pops. Holy smokes—only in Mexico!