Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Bridge Of God

AS ANY REGULAR reader of these articles appreciates, I love my dear Old Fella. He's always been there for me throughout my life, no matter what I've messed up or done wrong. And I've done plenty wrong. He's fixed my cars when they've broken down. He's always been patient with me. Well, apart when he was giving me driving lessons. I mean... driving lesson (singular). He's instilled values in me through his words and actions. And he's never embarrassed me or let me down. Well...he embarrassed me once by entering our school disco and walking through the crowd, to tap me on the shoulder to tell me that it was time to go home, as he'd grown tired of waiting outside in the car. I was twelve and busy snogging the face off the pretty girl who was sat on my knee at the time. Not cool, Dad. And he did actually let me down once. Badly. At Derby Baths in Blackpool, Lancashire. In 1978.

It was on a fine summer's day that we'd gone to visit that particular seaside slum; a grim, depressing town that should be bulldozed into the sea and erased from the map, the people with it (it's a football thing). But the now-defunct Derby Baths was an amazing olympic-sized swimming pool, with a series of high diving boards. They don't build pools with such boards these days, as the nanny state has decreed that it's unsafe to jump off high things into water. They'll ban swimming next, I shouldn't wonder.

My brother and I were halfway along the pool with a handful of other kids, messing about and trying to drown one another. I happened to look up to see the svelte figure of my Dad (like I say...it was 1978) climbing the ladders to the diving boards. Up he went. Past the second level. Further. The third. Up again, to the top board. One of the lifeguards blew a whistle to clear the area in the pool below. Dad approached the edge. My brother grinned at me; my little chest was bursting with pride as no-one else had dived from the top board all morning. "That's my Dad, that is" I gleefully informed the crowd of kids looking up at the figure with his toes clenched on the edge of the top platform, surveying the drop to the pool below. We waited. And waited. And then the unthinkable happened: he stepped back from the precipice and climbed down not one, but two, ladders to the third board. My face burned. Bollocks. The crowd of kids swam away, the biggest amongst them sneering over his shoulder "That's your Dad, that is..." 

But, hey...one let-down in 43 years isn't bad going, Dad? And besides, the distant memory gave me a laugh as I stood atop a 14m waterfall, looking down. The largest, most powerful fall was below me to my left, feeding a large pool surrounded by less powerful but higher cascades. The few rays of sunshine which penetrated the pit, cast warm patches on groups of rocks under the falls at the far side, where Mexican tourists baked like lizards. Kids splashed and swam about the turbulent falls; an X-shaped safety line criss-crossed the azure pool. The current from the falls drove swimmers to the rear of the pit where a tunnel leads to a further series of falls. A truly stunning place.

My toes gripped the rock, as I craned my neck to look at the drop into foaming water. I'd climbed a good few metres beyond the point people had been throwing themselves off all morning. As I picked my way across from rock to rock, I thought of the 1978 Blackpool Incident. What did for Dad was hesitation. Like the saying goes: He who hesitates...I wasn't going to make a shameful retreat. But in order to achieve this, it was essential to make the leap quickly. Don't think. Just jump. So I reached the point, found purchase with my feet, and leaned out to check the length of the drop. But I didn't jump immediately: the view was too beautiful, and such moments should be savoured. The tropical forest which rings the edge of the pit draped a fringe of green vines; the water boiled white in six different spots; the mist cast upwards powered a shimmer of iridescent rainbow; colourful swifts flew around the cavern, behind falls, skimming the water; where I was stood was amongst the trees. Mexico has taken my breath away several times: this time she took it away and held it. The Puente De Dios (Bridge Of God) is almost enough to make a devout atheist like me believe in the false idol. Time to exorcise the 35-year-old demon: I jumped, hanging in the air for a fraction of the time I'd expected. Steely water in the shade rushed up to meet me, rewarding my impudence with a slap. Right in the face. As I slowly surfaced, enjoying the subaquatic rumble in my ears, I thought Well at least I kept my legs together. Otherwise I'd have been wearing my balls like earrings. I floated to the surface, eyes open to appreciate the clarity of the water. Taking in a large lungful of air, I floated on my back to the safety lines, trying to pretend my face wasn't stinging. It was. It's only when you make a jump like that that you appreciate why people choose to kill themselves by leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Water is hard. It has surface tension. From that height, it's like hitting concrete. Impact usually kills them rather than drowning. Or the sharks get them. Ah...there was me telling you a nice story about natural beauty, and now I've just depressed you? Soz.

Climbing upwards from San Luis Potosi, we'd arrived in Tamasopo, a small town in the Huasteca region a few hours northeast of Mexico City. The name means water that falls in the Tenek language. We were at altitude now, and had expected a fresh mountain climate. How wrong can you be? We climbed down from the windowless bus into a wall of heat. I gasped, as did the Kid when his feet hit dirt. "Joder! (fuck!)" he exclaimed. "Bloody hell, I'm melting..." I retorted. We staggered to a cheap hotel, sharpish. And then sat in front of a fan each for half an hour, trying to breathe.

Murderous humidity and a lack of nightlife aside, this place is a must-visit if you are coming to Mexico. It's in my Top Five. Unforgettable is a word reserved for only the best places I've seen: this spot is on that list. The series of waterfalls and pools stretch for miles, and these are merely a few in this region. The town is sleepy, tand he locals standoffish unless you make the effort to speak to them. They don't get so many foreign visitors. But we struck up a rapport with the staff of a local seafood restaurant, and frequented that place every day. Great food...huge plates of fish. They even put the Champions League on the telly for us. Result. 

I had a pleasant and memorable chat in Tamasopo, too. Myself and the Kid had gone to pick up our laundry, only to find that it wasn't quite ready and that la senora would be back in fifteen minutes. Fifteen Mexican minutes, obviously. We waited in the park awhile, and she ushered us in with an apology and ordered us sit. Fifteen minutes to dry the clothes, she said. So we sat. Her husband turned up, and we fell into conversation. Mexico: where to go; where to avoid; political relations with the US; the drug war; how it was before. Very interesting, and he was a natural raconteur. We discussed the Conquest, Cortez and Moctezuma. I'd followed 80% of the conversation, as my comprehension was improving after a couple of weeks travelling with the Kid, whose English was limited. And I'd recently read Bernal Diaz's account of the Spanish campaign, so was keen to talk about it. And get the odd Spaniard-baiting joke in.

"Pinches Españoles! (fucking Spaniards)" I said. The woman cracked a smile.
"They came to steal all the gold" she said, nodding.
"And then the pinches English pirates took it from us" said the Kid.
Everyone laughed.
"The English were not stupid" I told them. "They thought that the Aztecs looked a bit fearsome, and decided to let Cortez and his Spaniards fight it out with them. They hung out at the beach drinking rum while they waited for the gold to arrive."
More laughs. The Kid laughed loudest.

My Spanish is getting a lot better on this trip. It's great to be able to crack jokes now. Sometimes people even find them amusing. I still trip over words, make repetitive mistakes, try to translate directly from English (forget it) and get embarrassed in shops sometimes (if you ask for durex in a pharmacy, you'll be handed a roll of sellotape...that is not going to be an effective barrier against pregnancy or venereal disease, I can assure you). But it's getting there, poco a poco. I just wish I'd had this grasp of the language years ago, it makes travel in the Americas a completely different and far more rewarding experience. And I likely wouldn't have blown it with the beautiful Colombiana I met in Medellin in 2009, who couldn't understand a word of my pidgin Spanish. Lessons learned...