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Posted on July 14, 2024, 02:58:22 PM by indiekid
The Edge of the Edge of the World

The Edge of the Edge of the World
By rbuxton

The Pacific beckoning over the beach.
"Have I reached the Edge of the Edge of the World?" The thought crossed my mind as I looked across a wide beach to the Pacific Ocean. In the distance I could see great breakers throwing up spray against a cliff. Beyond the breakers was nothing but ocean – nothing until New Zealand, that is. It was 2017 and I had been backpacking in Chile for about two weeks. I had left my travelling companion (my brother) far behind and I was running out of food. I realised, nevertheless, that my assessment of the beach's remoteness owed more to my own point of view than to geography. The world does not have an "edge" but my understanding of it does, and in this article I hope to push that edge back just a little further.


As a child I was taught that Christopher Columbus "discovered" the Americas in 1492, ignoring the 50 to 100 million people who already called them home. I'm pleased to say that this narrative has changed over the past couple of decades, but as an Englishman I can't escape the fact that my country is, typically, printed centrally on world maps. To help recreate the eye-opening nature of my journey I'd like you to humour me by opening Google Maps. Go on, it's not that difficult, even if you're reading this on a phone. Type "Chiloe" into the search bar but don't panic if you misspell it – you'll probably still end up in Chile.

You should now be looking at Gran Chiloé, the second largest island in South America and the largest of the Chiloé archipelago (I'm going to be lazy in this article and refer to it as Chiloé, since I never made it onto the smaller islands). Zoom out a little and you will notice that Chile itself is an odd shape: 4300 km long but never more than 350 km wide. Its border with Argentina is defined by the Andes mountains, which I'd like you to follow south for a little while. You will find that "mainland Chile" almost ceases to exist, breaking up into a multitude of lakes, fjords and islands. You'll see very few settlements but a host of national parks. In fact, the region is so dominated by the sea and a few pesky glaciers that these last 1000 km lack a continuous road. Residents of Punta Arenas typically fly to visit other cities. This makes the island of Chiloé the end of what I'm going to call "easily-navigable Chile", and we'll return to that idea later.

The calming presence of the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores.
To the east of Punta Arenas you'll see that South America's largest island, Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), is shared by Chile and Argentina. It was named, somewhat foolishly, by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520. While navigating between it and the mainland, through the strait which now bears his name, Magellan saw smoke which turned out to come from cooking fires (he, or at least his crew, went on to circumnavigate the globe). Trace your cursor along the strait from the Atlantic side – it's easy enough for us, but for Magellan it was 570 km of very choppy sailing. He was so relieved to find a calm ocean on the far side that he named it "Pacific" – one wonders if his ability to name things improved at all later on. Before we move on, try retracing your cursor through the strait in the opposite direction. While the Atlantic side had a very clear entry point, you'll notice the Pacific side is a labyrinth – one which has claimed the lives of many sailors.

For the next part of the tour, zoom out until you see a patch of white at the bottom of your screen. That's right: it's Antarctica, about 1000 km from South America. I'm told that a change in wind direction on Tierra del Fuego can bring about a dramatic change in temperature. Not far from Argentina you'll see another large archipelago: Las Malvinas, known to the British as the Falklands. For our last stop on this tour, scroll or drag yourself to the very top of South America, to the border between Colombia and Panama. What do you notice? That's right: there's no road linking the two. The wild "Darién Gap" has never been developed; this has been a boon for wildlife but a disaster for migrants attempting to cross it. It's physically impossible to drive from North America to South America, but this does not stop people travelling the Pan-American Highway.

Before I talk about the highway I'd like to mention the wider idea of Pan-Americanism. In hindsight, the abrupt end of colonial rule in the Americas in the last few centuries provided an unusual opportunity: a chance to re-define the term "country". Are countries, and their associated borders, even necessary? My understanding of Pan-Americanism is that it was a somewhat romantic (and very socialist) effort to unite all the former Spanish colonies of South America into a single entity as part of the re-organising process. I believe the former Portuguese colony of Brazil was excluded, perhaps because of the language barrier and perhaps because its population was already greater than that of all the other countries combined. Proponents of Pan-Americanism held talks (on a variety of subjects) with leaders of countries in the North and they agreed, in principle, to build a single road running the length of the two continents. The road never saw the light of day but the idea of it remains. Adventurers make a point of following it south from Alaska, though there are now many branches and possible end points. One of them is in the south of easily-navigable Chile: on Chiloé. So although the island is not the Edge of the World, it has a pretty strong claim to being the End of the Road.

An Island and its People

Palafitos - traditional wooden fishing houses - on Chiloe.
Let's now scroll or slide back to Chiloé, pausing to admire once again the sheer length of Chile (all the more impressive when you consider that the capital, Santiago, is home to one third of its population). Chiloé is rugged, wooded and sparsely populated – home to a little over 180,000 people according to recent projections. According to legend, it was formed during a mighty battle between two elemental serpents: Trentren Vilu (Land) and Caicai Vilu (Sea). Its air of mystery is enhanced by the mists and rains which often engulf it. Chiloé, like much of Chile, experiences colder weather in general than might be expected from its latitude. This is due to the cold air brought to it by the Pacific Humboldt Current – an effect comparable to that of the Gulf Stream in the British Isles. Chiloé is sufficiently removed from the mainland to have developed its own unique flora, fauna and cultures. British travellers sometimes compare Chiloé to Scotland's Outer Hebrides, but with penguins.

According to Wikipedia Chiloé has been inhabited for over 7000 years. By the time the Spanish arrived (there's my European lens again) there were broadly two cultures living there: the Huilliche, the southernmost people of the Mapuche macroethnic group, and the Chonos, a tribe of nomadic seafarers. Many indigenous traditions survive on Chiloé, including stone and wood representations of folkloric characters. These are a colourful bunch: in addition to the aforementioned elemental serpents there's La Pincoya, the mermaid; El Caleuche, the ghost ship and Voladora, the crow-shaped messenger of the witches. Perhaps spookiest of all is the Rumpelstiltskin-like troll El Trauco who lays ambushes for unsuspecting travellers in the forest. In so doing he performs a useful social function: he acts as a scapegoat for any unexplained pregnancies on the island.

You may have noticed some similarities between the above characters and those of European folklore. This is not a coincidence: "Chilote" culture is considered one of the most egalitarian fusions of indigenous and colonial cultures anywhere in the Americas. In addition to Spaniards, Chiloé was colonised by Germans and Czechs. The colonisers were very impressed by the natives' skill in crafting boats of larch and cypress. In combining these skills with European architectural ambitions, the people of Chiloé (under the influence of the Jesuits) built some extraordinary wooden churches. These churches vary across the island but have some features are common: arched porticos; towers which seem to change shape from base to top; and objects typically made of stone, such as pillars, reproduced faithfully in wood. Sixteen of them have been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). This, for the benefit of British readers, puts them on a par with the likes of Stonehenge. One of them – I forget which – has a painting of Christ surrounded by the aforementioned folkloric characters.

My Ancud Adventures

A view through the windows of the Convento.
My base for my week on Chiloé was Ancud, the island's second largest town. It is situated on a sheltered part of the north coast, close to the ferry port. It is a sleepy place of low wooden buildings, with a square full of stone statues of the local folkloric characters.. I enjoyed walking down to its rocky beach and visiting the weekend market, where some of the island's brightly coloured potato varieties were on display (it's possible the potato originated on Chiloé). During one of my walks I encountered a marching band of school-age children, and followed them, along with a growing crowd, to the town centre. We joined a number of other parades in the grounds of the former Convento de la Immaculada Concepción. It turned out to be the celebration of the life of a Chilota nun who had famously travelled to Germany; I was told she was a saint but, frustratingly, I've been unable to find anything about her online. The convent's museum is dedicated the island's wooden architecture, and I remember being impressed by the sheer variety of wooden joints on display.

With the help of the staff at my hostel I booked a place on a penguin-watching tour. We drove directly onto the beach at Puñihuil and boarded a small boat. The sand, sea, rocks and drizzle were all grey; the penguins' coats, I suppose, averaged to grey. The most striking animals, therefore, were the bright orange starfish, revealed on the rocks as each wave receded. Given that Chiloé is an important colony for both Humboldt and Magellanic (named after the explorer) penguins I was a little disappointed with how few we saw, but they were very cute. A second tour from Ancud took me into the forest to watch tough pangue leaves being collected for curanto. Our guide then took us back to the garden of his restaurant where this traditional dish was ready to be cooked. A number of white stones had been heating in a fire for some time, and these were placed in a pit. They were then covered first with shellfish, then chicken, pork, sausages, purple potatoes, dumplings, the pangue leaves and, finally, earth. The resulting mound steamed cheerfully for two hours, at which point it was gutted and the curanto served. The fresh shellfish, positioned at the bottom, seasoned the meal to perfection. Our host and his daughter then showed us some traditional salsa-like dancing.

The Penguins of Puñihuil.
The next day I set off early to hunt for wooden churches. I followed the Pan-American Highway for a bit then turned off for the town of Dalcahue. Before long I was picked up by another bus and arrived in the old port (the dalcas which lent their name to it were a type of ancient canoe.) I walked along the seafront and admired its handicraft stalls, in particular the woollen clothing. Striking inland (churches were often built on hills to serve as navigational aids) I soon found the beautiful Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, which was built at the end of the 19th Century on the site of a former Jesuit chapel. It was tastefully painted blue and white, with an elaborate pattern of archways at the front. The interior was calm, quiet and very much like the churches I was used to at home.

I went on to Castro, the capital and largest town of Chiloé. Facing its main plaza was the Iglesia de San Francisco, the largest wooden church on the island and the only one (as far as I'm aware) painted in vomit-inducing yellow and pink. It was closed for renovation during my visit so I took a walk to see Castro's famous palafitos. These wooden fisherman's houses were built on stilts to better withstand the island's extreme tidal ranges. Afterwards I caught one more bus to the nearby town of Chonchi, where I visited the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Rosario. This one was pretty but I was a little alarmed by the hefty pieces of wood leaning against one wall and apparently holding it up: the churches, it seems, need a lot of maintenance.

In the National Park

Curanto: from festival meal to tourist feast?
A series of national parks dominate the west coast of Chiloé; I left Ancud for Cucao, gateway to the Parque Nacional Chiloé. In true backpacker fashion I turned my nose up at the "luxury" hostel by the lake and headed towards the village in search of an alternative. I pushed open a gate and followed a long, sandy path to a series of wooden cabins by the river. Despite being equipped for large groups (each cabin was stuffed with triple bunk beds) the place seemed deserted and it took me a while to find someone to pay for a two night stay. With accommodation at last secured I crossed a bridge over the river to what passed for the village centre. The only shop had a sign in its window reading No Hay Pan (There Is No Bread). It looked like it had been there for a long time. I bought some crisps to complement my remaining pasta and lentils. I returned to my cabin and sat down under a weak electric bulb with my diary. "I feel a little lonely and unprepared," I wrote, "Here at the edge of the edge of the World."

I was not as alone as I had first assumed: in the morning I met Diego, a keen birdwatcher, and "Snorty", a sea lion who liked to chill in the river around breakfast time. My first stop of the day was a nature trail showcasing some of the endemic plants unique to Chiloé (the island is home to unusual "temperate rainforest" habitats). I found it quite disconcerting to approach a clump of vegetation which, from a distance, looked familiar, only to find every plant completely alien to me. After the nature trail I followed the beach north and, with a bit of unplanned paddling, located the start of a hike I had read about online. The sun was shining brightly on this occasion and I set off in high spirits along the bank of yet another lake. I passed a number of small wooden houses, all of which seemed to have some cute puppies, piglets or similar outside. When the path turned inland, and into the rainforest, the going became significantly harder. I was beginning to see why the website had recommended hiring a guide. I decided against trying to reach the viewpoint at the end of the hike; as I prepared to descend I was rewarded with the sight of a small brown object hanging in the air. Despite its darting into the trees I recognised it as a hummingbird – I had never seen one in the wild before.

Some of the fluffier residents of Cucao gathering to bid farewell to our correspondent.
My objective for the following day was to reach the village of Cole Cole, deep in the national park. I had to make several enquiries about getting there and found myself grumpily standing on the main road at 7:30 in the morning. I had been told to wait for a man to walk past then bring the bus around; I had already paid a rather large amount for a ride, so I hoped he would appear. Fortunately everything worked as promised, and I was soon bumping along dirt roads in a minibus. We didn't stop to pick up any other passengers, and after about half an hour we emerged onto a beach and continued driving north on it. We passed strange rock formations on either side; I couldn't see anything else because the rain was by now quite heavy. I had to admit to myself that spending all day around Cole Cole, getting rained on until the bus returned at 4pm, did not sound very appealing.

As we approached the village – I could only make out a few wooden houses – I prepared to say something to the driver in Spanish. One of the biggest parts of learning a language, especially when you're short on vocabulary, is working out how to twist the words you know into an understandable sentence. Telling the driver that I had changed my mind and, having fought so hard to reach Cole Cole, I wouldn't be getting off the bus was a new challenge for me. I managed to make myself understood but I think what I actually said translated as "I want to stay with you forever". Shortly after this resounding success we finally stopped and picked up a hoard of children. This shouldn't have come as a surprise: of course the bus serving a remote village twice a day would double as the school bus! The children had a lot more energy than I and, though they were speaking Spanish, from their appearance I guessed that they had very little Spanish ancestry (one shouldn't make judgements like this, of course, but it's hard to avoid). The children took no notice of me throughout our journey back to Cucao and I learnt an important lesson that day: no matter where you are in the world, kids on a school bus behave like kids on a school bus.

A few bus rides later I was back on the ferry to the mainland. I was sorry to be leaving Chiloé but I had a date with my brother at the "third most photogenic" volcano in the world. This, at least, was how it had been sold to us, but I still haven't worked out how "photogenicity" is actually measured (Japan's Mount Fuji apparently tops the list). On the ferry I was, ostensibly, looking out for whales, but my eye kept being drawn back to Chiloé. The island's hills rolled into the sea in a blur of grey and green; it was easy to imagine the two great serpents locked in battle for eternity. I thought of Diego, Snorty and my friends from the hostel in Ancud. I thought of curanto: once reserved for weddings and special occasions, now mostly cooked for tourists. I thought of the wooden churches and how easily they could succumb to rot, fire or earthquake. In this, at least, we can be grateful to UNESCO for supporting conservation efforts and raising awareness of "intangible cultural heritages" worldwide. It's thanks to organisations like them that we live in such an open and well-educated world; a world which goes on for ever and ever and has absolutely no "edge".

Thank you for reading this article; most names have been changed. I couldn't rely on my memory for this one so I'll include some of the websites (besides Wikipedia) I found useful below. There are likely to be a few factual inaccuracies in the text so please point them out if you see them!


For Chilote folklore: and
For identifying penguins: (highly recommended!)
For the wooden churches: and

Editor's notes: Pan-Americanism is a topic complex enough for many historical dissertations, but some short notes for the interested reader follow. The early South American pan-Americanists to whom indiekid refers arguably pre-date socialism in its modern sense: Bolivar's Congress of Panama which aimed to unify all the former Spanish colonies in a supranational union happened when Karl Marx was still just eight years of age and a good twenty years short of writing his most notable works. Since then, pan-Americanism has shifted somewhat chimerically between a Bolivarian revolutionary ideal transcending statehood and, notably in the form of the Monroe Doctrine and its developments by men like James G. Blaine, a very grounded foreign policy tool often driven by the United States as the hemisphere's richest country. The concept of a Pan-American highway perhaps owes more to the latter than the former, being an idea pushed first in the form of a railroad in the 1880s and then, from the 1920s, as a road highway: construction eventually began in earnest from the late 1930s onwards, though large sections, as noted in the article, were never completed.

More of indiekid's travels in the Americas can be found in a two-part article with part one here and part two here.

Posted on June 24, 2024, 09:26:57 PM by Jubal
The Problem of Focus II: Focus and Magic

The Problem of Focus II: Focus and Magic
By Jubal

A while ago (longer now than I'd like to think) I wrote a piece called The Problem of Focus, in which I outlined the concept of high and low focus as separate from high and low fantasy as a way of categorising fantasy settings. To give a very short definition, in a high focus setting, cause and effect are consistent and recognisable, whereas in a low focus setting they are nebulous and mysterious. This especially applies to magic: a high focus magic user casts a spell with a defined cost and outcome, and it happens. A low focus magic user meanwhile performs something closer to miracle: a situation where the rules of the world are not utilised to do something, but set aside or broken in a moment of revelation or awe. Where high focus magic users are often experts with particular skills, low-focus magic users are often paragons whose virtue or connections to items or external powers enable them to produce magical outcomes.

Games tend to be high focus in how they deal with magic and the fantastical. But are there ways we could de-focus fantasy in games – and would there be advantages, or at least a different player experience, in doing so? That's what I want to try and answer in this article.

Casting spells - practical toolbox or mystical revelation?
Why drop the focus?

To consider why and how we could use more low focus magic, we first need to re-examine why high focus is the norm. There are two connected but distinct key reasons for this. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, it assists gameplay from the player's perspective. If you want a game with any sort of strategic element to it, then knowing what you can or cannot do is very important. Low focus mystical moments are more often the stuff of cutscenes: it's harder for a player to use a singular, strange effect repeatedly and have it maintain its sense of mystery.

The second reason for having high focus fantasy in games is a matter of bounded creativity. Because low focus magic is in part defined by its being outside the usual cosmic rules, stopping it feeling like a cheap and unearned way to solve problems requires very careful handling. It's hard to write low focus as well when you have a strong protagonist, and games usually do: this is because people want to make a meaningful impact on the world around them. Low focus stories - often fairytales and folklore – often have very ordinary protagonists or point of view characters, for whom their interactions with magic feel numinous and special rather than being part of their every day lives. (Low focus in this sense can share more elements with some kinds of horror, though I want to focus here more on the folktales and mythic side of things).

So low focus, in contrast, can give us a different feel for the players of a game. One of the keys a lot of game try to aim for is senses of wonder and emotion, and those can end up disconnected from the fantastical when magic is turned into a specialist's toolbox rather than a wondrous discovery or revelation about the world.

Low focus in magic

Magic has been our starting point here – so how do we reduce its focus whilst still keeping it playable? It's a tricky problem: take for example wishing for things. This is a key sort of low focus magic: it's not bounded, the effects are often unpredictable, and it can be a singular grant of mystical power rather than something you wake up with every morning. But this creates problems: for a game we have to in some way bound the effects of a wish to avoid it being either an instant problem-fixer or accidental world destroyer. This can then box the player in, and make it feel like GM fiat (at the tabletop) or an annoying menu exercise if a computer game gives you a list of what you're allowed to wish for or not. D&D makes Wish quite a high level spell for this reason.

Making magical abilities more singular is probably a good way to start resolving this. High focus magic tends to have big toolkits of specific function spells: in a low focus world being The Guy Who Can Turn Into An Otter may well be enough in and of itself. If played right this sort of thing can also produce some interesting problem solving in games, where a smaller toolkit forces some innovation in the player's approach. Low focus magic needs to click into character and narrative much more closely than high focus magic, because its expression needs to feel earned by those things: it's not bounded by hard rules, so it needs to be effectively bounded by the plot or it will start feeling like a cheap and gimmicky deus ex machina rather than an earned numinous or emotional moment.

How do you defeat the bad guys when your gift is talking to rabbits?
Magic in low-focus worlds is also best used in ways that are perpendicular to an immediate obvious function. By this I mean that rather than the player being given an ability to "tool up" for likely challenges ahead, they are given a skill or ability (like the aforementioned ability to turn into an otter, say) and encouraged to work out how it might help solve their problems. This makes magic more a rooted feature of the world that the player must deal with, rather than a focused tool in their hands, and so emphasises the sense that there's something special and mysterious about it.

Predictability may be another element to play with. In D&D terms, wild magic with its panoply of random side effects is less high focus than regular magic, because it leans much more heavily into the idea that magic is not something that plays by predictable rules. The downside of this approach is that unpredictability is frustrating for players, but sometimes the sense that you are genuinely channeling a power beyond your ken and that you're not fully in control is something worth giving to the player to support the sort of story that you want to tell.

What you tell the player also matters a lot. Whilst concealing aspects of the game can be frustrating, it can also be important in creating certain effects. For example, magical effects in a game could be tied to player decisions: if this is a world where piety and miracles are connected, pious acts might make it easier or more likely that they can. In this case, a lot of the difference in focus might be made by the exposure of that logic: you could give the player a visible piety score and they'll have a high focus system to work with. Alternatively, hide the score and make it a more narratively framed effect where the player gets an extra option at a key game moment, and the system will be much lower focus. (This does lead to a question about whether focus can be externally increased: in a computer game, someone is likely to ultimately produce a game guide for example, but that's a whole other area slightly beyond our scope here.)

A final thought is that low focus magic is often well placed with some external or physical element involved. Having a mysterious artefact or gift from nature or the gods helps remove the element of "but how does this work" from the picture as far as possible: we may be able to tell how this specific artefact works, allowing the player to work through the game, but we can avoid a wider detailing of exactly how magic as a whole works. Low focus means avoiding and rejecting systematisation and clear logic in favour of unique elements, mystery, and emotion as ways of building payoff.

Low Focus in stories

Odysseus getting some help - deus ex machina, or recognition of virtue?
Fundamentally, in games, mechanics are there usually either as challenges, as aids to storytelling, or both. When thinking about low focus mechanics for our magic, we might therefore want to think about the impacts they could have on what the player can do and what sort of stories that fits or results in.

Emotion is something that I think is very key to low focus magic. Effects need to feel earned in games, and in a low focus game we're ditching the idea of earning them through pure skill. It's therefore very important that the payoff feels like it has been earned emotionally, precisely because the character will not have earned it through sheer power and ability. The fundamental difference between well written low focus magic and hand-wavy problem solving is that sense of pay-off: a sense that the character has earned the effect, even if they didn't consciously plan the effect.

Linked to the idea of emotion is the idea of virtue. What virtue means varies a lot between cultures historically, and types of virtue can differ. Virtue can be both affirmed by, and make viable, mysterious and magical interventions. The Greek concept of kleos for example could absolutely include help from deities: the original deus ex machina showed not that a hero was getting a free pass on solving a problem, but that the hero was worthy of being chosen by the gods. In some cultures virtue requires giving up thoughts of revenge, in others seeking righteous vengeance is treated as an obligation. Whatever the character's virtue system is, low focus magic should work in relation to it: this may be magic showing the character's worth, or alternatively magic as a darker representation of their willingness to depart from the virtue system. High focus, by systematising magic, tends to externalise it: low focus needs us to take magic back into a more social and natural context.

A further key idea we visited in the introduction to this piece is that we may want to make lower focus games also lower in the status of their protagonists. This doesn't necessarily need to be the case: mystery and magic can happen to high status characters too. However, given lower focus reducing conscious, direct control over magical effects, it can be a better tool for permitting a character who we might less expect to understand and manipulate the inner workings of the world to still have influence or impact. The greater sense of odds and struggle that a weaker or lower status character faces can make high focus magic feel stranger in their hands, but can make lower focus magic feel better earned.


In this article we've covered a range of features that might help you implement a low focus magic system in a game or story, and help you decide what sort of story best suits this kind of magic. We've seen how the aim of low focus is to imbue magic with a stronger sense of mystery and awe, and how we need to focus on making that feel earned through emotion, virtue and story beats rather than through skill, power, and functional utility. Some sorts of characters and stories may be better suited to that kind of system, allowing us to re-evaluate who our ideal protagonists might be.

In terms of implementation, we've covered a number of key points. Using magical effects that are somewhat externalised through objects, or represent a singular grant of power not necessarily directly connected to a single functional task, can help emphasise the idea that magic is here as a strange form of power rather than a toolkit amenable to study. Not always making the cause-effect relationship of a game decision entirely clear, or making the outcomes of a magical action more random, can reduce the extent to which the player feels like magic is a simple, controllable effect. Tying such effects more closely into the plot can help make such impacts feel earned rather than frustratingly random.

That's all for this article: hopefully that was interesting, and I'm keen to hear about any instances of trying to implement this sort of magic in your stories and games! I'm not sure when or if a Problem of Focus part III is coming, but I may look more at how particular settings and games currently deal with the problem of focus, or perhaps give some ideas on how the gods and creatures of a setting could be aligned with high and low focus systems – let me know what you think. And, of course, thanks for reading!

Posted on April 12, 2024, 07:51:55 PM by indiekid
Beyond the Wall – Part Two

Beyond the Wall – Part Two
By rbuxton

Editor's Note: This is the second part of a two part article. You can read part one here.

Arturo's Quest

Timmo on his horse.
I'm pleased to report that hitch-hiking has made a comeback, albeit with a 21st Century twist. Unlike other ride-hailing apps, BlaBlaCar genuinely links people driving long distances with potential passengers, and Mexico is the only country outside Europe where it's available. I had been nervous about using it because of my weak Spanish but all of the drivers I met turned out to speak English. My first ride, and the first stage of my journey towards Parícutin, took me south from León to Morelia. Arturo had recommended I visit the city but cautioned that its state, Michoacán, is the capital of drug-related crime in Mexico. Drug-related, however, is not tourist-related, and I felt perfectly safe for my whole visit. In Morelia I visited a museum dedicated to sweet-making and the house of yet another revolutionary leader, Miguel Hidalgo. On Sunday I plucked up the courage to attend mass in the cathedral, where the 4000 pipes of its organ were put to good use. The towers of the cathedral have a bewildering array of features: they took so long to build that their tops were finished in a completely different architectural style to their bases. Inside I was touched by the little shrine to Santa Niño de Atocha, a child saint who is given offerings of toys when children are in need of his care.

My bus ride from Morelia to Patzcuaro was not altogether smooth. I followed the journey on Google Maps until we got to the northern outskirts of the town. I asked the driver if the stop was close and he nodded and said "Estación". The next stop appeared to be the middle of nowhere so I didn't get off, only to find us whizzing out of Patzcuaro the next instant (the town is very narrow in the north). I had assumed the driver's answer meant we were heading towards a "bus station", but they don't use that phrase in Mexico and he was actually referring to the small, freight-only train station hidden beyond the trees at the stop. I decided to stay on the bus as far as the next town, where I might be able to get off and make some enquiries about tours to Parícutin. The journey through pine-covered hills was long, and in the end I just hopped on a bus back, this time to the centre of Patzcuaro.

Patzcuaro is a lakeside Pueblo Mágico (magic town) full of low, whitewashed colonial buildings with red signs and eccentric tiled rooves. It's also the capital of Day of the Dead celebrations, but I was there at the wrong time for those. I stayed in a hostel in a traditional building just off one of the main squares, which had an inner courtyard and colourful streamers hanging everywhere. I climbed several hills (actually extinct volcanoes) to get views of the town and lake. There were cobbled streets and old buildings aplenty to explore. I went to a craft fair organised by a Canadian artist where I tried my hand at weaving on a huge, pedal-operated loom. One morning I stumbled upon a parade in honour of one of the saints. A lot of people were in traditional costume, which included long ribbons tied into women's pigtails. I couldn't stay for the whole thing because I was due to watch the Eurovision song contest remotely with some friends back in the UK.

I took a number of trips out of Patzcuaro by collectivo (shared minibus). I went further into the mountains to Santa Clara del Cobre, a centre for copper working. I also visited Tzintzuntzan, a name which means "Place of the Hummingbirds" and is often abbreviated, conveniently, to TZN. It is a unique ancient site overlooking Lake Patzcuaro, dominated by a series of connected semi-circular platforms. Historically it was one of the few cities strong enough to resist domination by the Aztec Triple Alliance during their heyday. I actually saw more hummingbirds at Ihuatzio where a pair of temples look over the islands of the lake, their bases encroached upon by farmland.

My biggest trip out of Patzcuaro, however, was to Janitzio Island. I got up at 5 am and made my way through the cold and mist (the town is more than 2000 meters above sea level) to watch the white herons and other birds of the lake in the dawn light. The first boats from Janitzio began to arrive, disgorging secondary school students and loading up on crates of beer. I took one of these boats with the rest of the morning's tourists and we were treated to a display of the traditional fishing technique, which involved what I'd call a giant butterfly net. The steep-sided island was crammed with buildings: there is an entire town there, where the indigenous Purépecha culture is still very much alive. It seems odd, therefore, that the island is dominated by a giant hollow statue of Hidalgo, a champion of Mexico as a whole. I did some more birdwatching and spotted a number of butterflies and a snake. Then I followed the main (only) road as it spiralled up towards the statue. On the way I met an old woman, Carolina, sweeping her doorstep. She was wearing traditional clothing and was missing a lot of teeth. I told her I was from England and I wanted to visit Guatemala and El Salvador; she described all of these places as "far". Otherwise the conversation was mostly about whether I was married, though after a few repetitions of "Dinero para mis tortillas" I realised she was asking for money. I felt I had to oblige her but I couldn't bring myself to ask her for a photo – this is not really appropriate any more.

I was sorry to leave Patzcuaro and its lake but I had to get on to Uruapan. The city is not particularly interesting but I was lucky to bump into yet another parade when I arrived. A short walk from the centre is the Parque Nacional Barranca del Cupatitzio, which follows several waterfalls of the Cupatitzio river to the beautifully calm pool at its source. The valley is densely wooded and the water has been diverted into all manner of channels and "fountains". I spent a happy morning birdwatching and trying to remember what my dad had taught me about the relationship between shutter speed and running water when aiming for specific effects on my compact camera. I still had not found out much about Parícutin: there was frustratingly little information online and Uruapan's wooden "tourist information" box remained so firmly shut during my visit that I began to suspect it was really someone's TARDIS. I decided to go there a day early for some reconnaissance and took a collectivo to Angahuán. I walked past the small town's church to the viewpoint and there it was at last: Parícutin.

The story goes that in 1943 a farmer named Dionisio Pulido noticed a hole appearing in his cornfield and attempted to plug it with stones. He was soon repelled by the ash, smoke and sulfurous smell emerging from the widening fissure. By the end of the day the nascent volcano was two meters high; after one year it was closer to four hundred. Three people were killed and two towns buried by lava over ten years of intense eruption; the volcano is still active but much calmer today. It stands as a squat, unfinished cone, dark against the surrounding mountains; black lava fields stretch from its base into the avocado plantations below. I had been determined to get to the top since Arturo first told me the story, and I appreciated that, at 80 years old, the volcano proves my grandmother is "as old as the hills".

My guide for the day was a local man named Timmo, who recommended I ride one of his horses to Parícutin's base. Horses are a popular means of transport through the pine-clad hills of the area because the roads are so soft with sand and ash. I had read, however, that the journey is extremely uncomfortable for those unaccustomed to the saddle, so we set out on foot. I sorely missed the walking boots I had left in the UK. Timmo set a brisk pace and we quickly cleared the forest and started grappling with the crumbling, otherworldly sculptures of the lava field. A few plants had taken root on the volcano but for the most part it was a steep, dark heap of loose stones, sending occasional plumes of steam into the grey sky. The crater itself was spectacular if a little smelly. There was nothing interesting at the bottom, just the end of several scree slopes, but the views out were spectacular. I appreciated Timmo's pace then, because the day's first peels of thunder came very close just as we were preparing to descend.

We slid down a softer slope (skis would have been useful) and took shelter in a small building used by the guides. Rain was pelting down and it had mixed with the ash to form a sticky paste in my shoes – it would be many months before they regained their normal colour. Timmo dug around for plastic bags and bin liners to fashion some waterproofs for himself and we set off again. The weather gradually improved as we passed from lava into avocado fields and we stopped for my packed lunch of, appropriately, avocados and wheat tortillas. We passed a couple of small villages and Timmo taught me the Purépecha words for the fruit growing by the road (including, to my surprise, blackberries and cherries). Eventually we reached what is possibly the area's most photographed site: the church of San Juan Parangaricutiro, which is buried up to its neck in lava. It was interesting to climb around inside and wonder what the parishioners thought of the biblical-scale destruction being wrought upon their village. Finally Timmo and I made it up the last hill and sat down outside the stables at the visitor centre.

"Este es para ti," I said, handing over our agreed sum, "And this is for a new raincoat."

"Or some new shoes!" he laughed, lifting his foot so that I could see the extent to which the rubber was peeling from his plimsoles.

With that Timmo mounted his horse and rode off into the (almost) sunset. I went to Domino's for a pizza.

The next day I took a BlaBlaCar north to Guadalajara, the second city of Mexico. Famously the home of Mariachi music, the city now has a modern, studenty feel. I could not, however, enjoy exploring the old town: I was there on a Saturday afternoon and it is genuinely the most crowded place I have ever been. I suppose this is inevitable when a city with an attractive centre expands too quickly for the infrastructure to keep up. On Sunday I made my way to another church of expats; this was made difficult by the closure of many roads for a cycling event (Sunday closures like this are common in Latin America). I met some nice people and enjoyed the service: it was truly bilingual, with English and Spanish sometimes alternating on a sentence-by-sentence basis. After church I went to the expansive Bosque los Colomos, where the Japanese Garden was a particular highlight (as an aside, apparently Japan once tried to buy the Baja California peninsula from Mexico to give itself some leverage over the USA ahead of the Second World War. I'm not sure if this is true but there's certainly evidence of cultural exchanges around Mexico.)

I was in Guadalajara for one reason: to take a flight to the South. I had not taken an internal flight like this before and I was hoping to treat both of my bags as hand luggage. This presented me with the problem of smuggling my penknife through security. In an effort to disguise the blade I wrapped all of my metal possessions around the knife and secured them with electrical tape – to my amazement, and alarm, this worked. I was not so successful, however, with actually getting to the airport. My usual bus station strategy of seeking help from as many people as possible let me down: I asked one too many conductors and found myself bundled onto an inappropriate bus. The conductor obviously hadn't realised that when a tourist asks for the "airport", they mean the terminal, not the god-forsaken stretch of motorway on the far side of the perimeter fence. By the time I realised my mistake I had given myself a walk of several kilometres. I had a similar problem when I touched down at Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport: emerging into a beautiful, and noticeably more humid, evening I looked around for transport to the city. There was none, because the airport is very small and in the middle of nowhere. A single stretch of barbed wire was all that separated the airport access road from a field of cows. I trudged towards a junction in the hope of picking up a collectivo before nightfall. "It's nice to be met at the airport," I said to myself, "Just not by cows."

The Sweaty South

Marimba night in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
This is the biggest part – you've seen nothing yet.

The southern state of Chiapas has had a turbulent history. As independence movements surged across Latin America it briefly considered becoming part of Guatemala. When Mexico achieved independence its first act was to subdue Chiapas by force. I've often wondered what it must have been like for the soldiers in the new Mexican army: having thrown off the shackles of their colonial masters they immediately marched south to defeat a very similar independence movement on their own turf. Chiapas did not go quietly and most of its contemporary history has been violent. At one point the government relocated large numbers of indigenous groups to Chiapas, ignoring those who had lived there for millennia. In the late 20th Century the Zapatista Army of National Liberation was born, a complex fusion of Marxists and indigenous groups. Chiapas was a no-go area for tourists as recently as the noughties but, for better or worse, it's now extremely popular with them.

I arrived in the capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, at night and was given a warm welcome at the rooftop bar of my hostel. The next morning the mountains which separated the city from the Sumidero Canyon were clearly visible. I visited a coffee museum and the botanical gardens, where I was struck by the sheer variety of endemic plant species. I also caught several marimba performances in the city's plazas. The marimba is a large percussion instrument, comparable to a xylophone but with an individual soundbox for each note. It is usually played by three people and combined with brass and other instruments; local people salsa the night away, especially at weekends. The origin of the instrument is unclear: it's either indigenous, brought over by the Spanish, or a hybrid of the two.

The highlight of my visit to Tuxtla, however, was my tour of the Sumidero Canyon. It started with a boat ride upriver to where the canyon juts onto flat ground like a wall. It's thirteen kilometres long and, in places, one kilometre high; it's home to birds, monkeys and American Crocodiles, some of which I managed to photograph. There were many interesting formations on the sheer rock walls and someone had put a shrine to a saint in one of the caves. The canyon opened out onto a beautiful lake where pelicans skimmed the water's surface. After boating through the canyon we had lunch in the Pueblo Mágico of Chiapa de Corzo, which is known for its handicrafts. After that we piled into minibuses to ride to the viewpoints above the canyon. Since it was May the views were obscured by haze, but we could still enjoy the sight of sight of mighty eagles, much diminished by distance, wheeling below us.

The collectivo journey from Tuxtla to San Cristóbal de las Casas took just over an hour but the two cities could not be more different. While the former is very modern the latter was, to me, a more touristy version of Patzcuaro: all colonial buildings and funny streets. In Tuxtla I couldn't sleep without air conditioning; in San Cristóbal, more than 2000 meters above sea level, I had to ask for an extra blanket. The city has been an important junction for backpackers for some time. Every night, from about ten o'clock, groups of them walk the streets with big bags on their backs and determined expressions on their faces. They are inevitably on their way to catch a night bus to the Yucatan Peninsula, Oaxaca State or even Guatemala (I did not join them – night buses are my least favourite means of transport).

The hardest thing about travel is, for me, the social pressure, or "fear of missing out", which I feel on arrival at a new hostel. Everyone seems to have loads of friends already; they've all got more energy than you and they all speak better Spanish (the Germans also speak better English). This anxiety is misplaced, of course, because by your second evening you've made a lot of friends yourself and you're in a position to extend a welcome to the next road-weary traveller to hover uncertainly outside the communal area. I went through this process on arrival at my hostel in San Cristóbal, a beautiful old school building on one storey and with a large central courtyard (a lucky find – I had not booked ahead). In the centre of the courtyard was garden of sorts with a feeder to attract the resident hummingbirds (known in Spanish as Colibrís). One morning two travellers, one Irish and one Austrian, pulled chairs into the sunny part of the courtyard and started seeing to each others' dreadlocks. Watching from the shade, pen hovering above diary, I felt that this, too, was a little slice of history. A few days later I celebrated my 31st birthday with a traditional barbecue cooked by one of the Argentinian volunteers at the hostel. Between the nine of us we represented nine different nations; our ages ranged from 18 to 83.

I lingered for a long time in San Cristóbal, enjoying its churches, markets and murals. I went to the Museum of Amber, which contained both natural preserved flora and fauna and handmade jewellery. The translations on the labels of the former described them as "shapes from nature's whimsy". I took a collectivo a little way out of town to Parque el Arcotete, a mountain park which is home to a cave with a river running right through it. A thunderstorm started while I was exploring the cave systems above the river, and the sound of it echoing off the rock walls was awe-inspiring. Upstream I sat in a meadow and must have seen at least twenty different species of butterfly and dragonfly. Later I played a game of chess at the Centro Cultural del Carmen and met José, a guitarist who was playing duets with a double bassist (they had a great arrangement of Libertango by the Argentinian composer Villa-Lobos). José invited me to listen to his solo set at a bar that evening, where he was delayed by a passing parade. This parade was "not very cultural: more about the drinking", as Arturo would say: it consisted mostly of backpackers and had some silly connection to the full moon. They made a lot of noise and it was a relief when José was able to resume playing.

José (left) at the Centro Cultural El Carmen.
Perhaps my favourite building in San Cristóbal was the Casa Na Bolom, a grand residence on the outskirts of town. In the early 20th Century it was home to a European couple who would now be described as ethnographers, environmentalists and political activists. The house contains many objects from their work; their primary interest was in the Lacandon people (or Hach Winik, as they called themselves). This indigenous group live so deep in the jungle that the first few hundred years of Spanish rule largely passed them by. Helping them to maintain their independence became a priority at Na Bolom, and the artefacts there give a fascinating insight into their culture. Here's a Lacandon myth I found particularly interesting: a god once fashioned a wooden stool for himself and showed it to another god, who was cooking. The second god thought it would be hilarious to turn the stool into an animal and watch it carry the first god around. Thus was born the armadillo.

My biggest excursion from San Cristóbal was to the mountain town of Chamula. I had been told it was a place where the indigenous culture was very much alive and tourists had to adhere to a strict code of conduct – taking photos in the church, for example, could lead to permanent confiscation of the offending camera. I took a collectivo to the turnoff for the town and was faced with a huge concrete archway reading "Bienvenidos al Pueblo Mágico de Chamula". There was no one else around; the only movement was the literal dust cloud being thrown up by my rapidly retreating bus. I felt a sudden sense of foreboding, as if I was about to enter the Fey World or something. Taking a deep breath I passed under the archway and followed the hairpin bends towards town, camera safely stowed at the bottom of my bag. I was soon reassured by the familiar sight of whole chickens roasting over charcoal. Less familiar were the outfits of the men: despite the heat each wore a long woollen tunic and carried a hat and staff. The colour of tunic (white or black) and style of hat and staff seemed to denote which village the man came from. It was market day and the men had assembled on a platform while the women saw to the buying and selling. The unassuming white and green church, the Templo de San Juan, stood at the far end of the market.

I bought my ticket and stepped into the darkness of the church. There were no pews, and the floorspace was divided in two by cabinets containing effigies of just about every saint in Mexican Catholicism. There must have been over a thousand candles burning, but they were releasing so much smoke it was still gloomy inside. The biggest, meltiest, droopiest candles were reserved for spaces on the floor, which was otherwise completely covered in a carpet of pine needles. Family groups stood or knelt at these candles, their heads bowed in prayer. They brought offerings with them: in recent years water has been replaced with a cheaper alternative, Coca-Cola. For music they had a small tinny speaker playing such Christian classics as Silent Night and Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer. I didn't witness the most interesting of the San Juan practices: the in-situ sacrificing of chickens. San Juan, if you hadn't guessed, is one of the more striking examples of Catholicism adapting and mixing with indigenous religions in the Americas. Although it sounds weird to write it down, actually being there felt perfectly normal. It was, as I reflected while sitting on a bench in the market, just ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. As if to reinforce this point, a toddler at whom I had been quietly giggling suddenly stopped whatever adorable activity he was engaged in. He looked at his family and pointed at me in a "Look at that man, isn't he funny" kind of way. I couldn't deny that in Chamula I was, indeed, strange.

I left San Cristóbal expecting to take the road north to Palenque, so I was surprised when the bus set off south-west, towards Tuxtla. We were on a "three sides of a square" type journey, and I managed to gather that the direct road had been deemed unsafe. I wondered if this was related to a recent drug-related shooting I had heard about. A film was showing on the bus's entertainment system: something about police busting up crime gangs. It did not lighten my mood: suddenly, after so much success, it seemed the naysayers had been right about Mexico after all. Should I have stayed safely behind the Wall? I later found out that this diversion was routine because the Mexican government was not "fully in control" of the road in question. Gangs connected to the cartels sometimes set up blockades and rob tourist buses – I think this technically makes them brigands. We stopped at a military checkpoint – the first of four – where my passport would have been taken out of my sight had I not kicked up a fuss. The diverted bus route did turn out to be a brilliant tour of the mountains of Chiapas, or at least it would have, had the next film on the entertainment system not been Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon. Talk about divided loyalties.

(Talk about a divided paragraph. Don't worry, we're nearly at the end.)

After a loop through green and banana-ey Tabasco State we arrived in Palenque and I booked a tour for the following day. My bus picked me up at 5 am and we set off into the Lacandon Jungle. It was proper jungle, with Tarzan-style vines hanging everywhere. Every so often the silence would be broken by a sort of wave of insect song or the roars of sparring Howler Monkeys (the loudest land animals in the world). We transferred onto boats for a journey down the Río Usumacinta (meaning "howler monkey") which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. I felt a long way from civilisation and it was nice to imagine the ethnographers from Na Bolom making journeys like this themselves – the river is still the only way to access the ruined Maya city of Yaxchilán. The main buildings of the city occupy a hill which would once have had a commanding view over a great curve of the river; now, having been reclaimed by jungle, everything is obscured. After disembarking at a beach our first sight of the city was a very green stone wall emerging from the vegetation. The site is not huge but is incredibly atmospheric; its inaccessibility means that it is not crowded with tourists. There were a number of small houses, temples and stelae (stone blocks carved with mythological figures and records of royal successions). A beautiful, wonky and overgrown staircase led to an extraordinary building at the top of a hill. Its roof was adorned with a huge stone lattice, which would once have been visible for miles around.

Our pilot with Guatemala (left) and Mexico (right).
We returned to the boats and headed to our lunch stop. My Mexican companions complemented me on my choice of "Pollo con Mole Negro", which was very nice. I didn't tell them it was the only option I had understood when the driver had read them out in the morning. Afterwards we jumped onto a different bus for the journey to Bonampak (I was lucky: the road is sometimes impassable in the rainy season). The change of bus was a condition of my visit: part of the Lacandon's agreement with the Mexican government is that anybody arriving on their land does so on their transport. A young man joined us and started telling us about the site in Spanish, his second language. Bonampak felt very different to Yaxchilán, but equally dramatic. It is dominated by a much neater stone staircase, punctuated by several small buildings. Inside these are the world's finest surviving Maya murals. These show brightly-coloured gods, kings and musicians taking part in ceremonies. I could not see the second room because I had fallen foul of that most famous of Lacandon traits: their strict timekeeping. Perhaps if I had understood our young guide better I would have used my time more strategically, but I couldn't complain. The Lacandons, like many in Mexico, Beliz and Guatemala, are not descendants of Maya: they are Maya, and Bonampak still holds a spiritual significance to them. Several villagers were selling souvenirs as we returned to the bus, with their children, clad in simple white tunics, running around at their feet.

Back on the main road our driver turned to us and asked who wanted to watch a film on the big TV screen. Everyone else – I'm not exaggerating – lifted their hands and cheered, so I pressed my face against the window and, in the gathering jungle gloom, thought about the Maya. In their heyday they were a collection of city states with such complex interrelationships they make A Game of Thrones look like a picnic. Several hundred years before the Spanish arrived the Mayan cities, but not their culture, collapsed. We're still not sure why this happened, but one possible explanation has a certain appeal to me: in clearing ever-increasing swathes of jungle to support their ever-increasing population, the Maya may have realised they risked causing irreversible damage to their environment. Perhaps its wishful thinking to suggest that they chose to go back to a simpler, more village-orientated lifestyle, but even so there's possibly a lesson for us here. As a bit of a tangent, I'd like to point out that American civilisations were not as technologically backwards (that really feels like the wrong word) as they're sometimes portrayed. Although the Maya didn't have them, metallurgy and wheels both existed on the continent. The latter are not much use without roads, and roads are hard to build in mountains and jungles, so perhaps it's unsurprising that the only wheels I've seen were on an artefact which was actually a child's toy. One thing the Maya did have is writing, and this posed a bit of a problem for the Spanish colonists. In order to justify their atrocities towards indigenous peoples they had to portray them as savages. So they set about "re-educating" the Maya scribes and destroying every Maya book they could get their hands on. Three survived. Three. Three books. If there's one thing this trip brought home to me it's the sheer scale of the histories and voices lost to the European land grab. If the Spanish come across badly in this story we can be sure that things would have been at least as bad under the British or another colonial power. I'm not sure if that's much of a defence, but what do I know? I'm just a backpacker.

I had one more set of ruins to visit: those of Palenque itself. These are much tamer and more touristy than Yaxchilán and Bonampak, but still breathtaking. On arrival at the site I was confronted with a steep hill covered in vegetation: an unexcavated temple. To date less than a quarter of Palenque has been excavated and it was interesting to be see part of the city as it would have appeared before work began in the 20th Century. Palenque had a ball court, a royal palace complete with tower, and some truly immense temples – no cheating by running up the side of a hill here! One of the most spectacular temples is the tomb of K'inich Jabaal Pakal, better remembered as Pakal the Great. Maya kings liked to equate themselves with gods, so Pakal's sarcophagus shows him curled in the foetal position and emerging from a seed in the style of the god of maize. It also has a jade likeness of his face which is one of the finest examples of Mayan art in existence. Visitors can't access the original but the site's museum has an excellent replica, as does the Museo Nacional de Antropología back in CDMX. After my visit to Palenque I walked down its nature trail and thought longingly of my upcoming dip in the pools of the Roberto Barrios waterfalls.

Throughout my time in Palenque the heat was excruciating. On the second night I abandoned my bed in favour of a yoga mat on the floor with two fans over me. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and attempting to have a cold shower, only to find the "cold" water getting warm after a few seconds. I also fought a losing battle over my breakfast cereal with an army of Small Ants (the Medium Ants and Big Ants were significantly more peaceable). I was not the only one struggling: passing one of the few other groups of backpackers I heard one say to another "That's his third ice cream this morning." I jumped on the earliest air-conditioned bus I could. I went back to Tuxtla the long way around then changed for a bus to Tapachula, Mexico's southernmost city – a journey of fifteen hours in total. At about 11pm I checked into a hotel.

I woke up late. I watched some Mexican TV. I turned my air conditioning on, then off, then on again. I ordered a pizza. I had planned to do nothing other than relax on my final day, but Mexico had one more surprise in store for me. In venturing onto the balcony to watch the approach of the evening's thunderstorm I met my neighbour, Rodrigo. He told me his story: as a young man he had spent ten years working in the USA. It was hard work and he never had the opportunity to learn English: even the American taskmasters spoke to him in Spanish. Nor was the work steady: a job for someone "from El Salvador" was, he told me, easy for someone from that smaller country to obtain, whereas those "for Mexicans" are hotly contested. At some point, his passport and papers were taken from him. He met and fell in love with a woman from Guatemala; they married and had a son. His family was all he had left but they were now in Guatemala and refusing to tell him exactly where. He was trying to find them, and he asked me if I thought it would be easy to cross the border. I told him, sheepishly, that for a tourist like me it probably was. I didn't know what to say to Rodrigo. He seemed harmless enough but it was possible his wife had good reason to hide from him (the position of women in Mexico is – how can I put this – complicated). I had set out to find out what life was like Beyond the Wall and it seemed, in Rodrigo, I had succeeded. The evening with the students in Chile suddenly seemed a long time ago.

The next morning I crossed a bridge over the Río Suchiate on foot and entered Guatemala. I had been in Mexico for nearly three months and had left much undone. It was a shame, for example, to have flown straight over the mountains and beaches of Oaxaca. I was already devising two more three-month tours: one around the Yucatan and Caribbean coast; the other across the desert and up the Baja California peninsula for a spot of whale-watching (both tours would, of course, have to include a visit to Arturo in León). The latter presents the possibility of arriving in the USA in some style: by crossing the physical Wall into California.

Thank you for reading this article to the end, especially if English is not your first language. Thanks also go to my proofreaders and to Jubal. There are probably some factual inaccuracies here so, as ever, please do point them out if you see them. I have changed all the names of individuals. Mexico has stayed with me, and I do expect to go back. No wall lasts forever.

Posted on March 17, 2024, 11:30:50 PM by Jubal
How to think about history in your games

How to think about history in your games
By Jubal

Even very "historical" games can produce wild ahistorical outcomes. Does that matter?
As someone in the unusual position of being an academic medieval historian professionally and an indie game developer over a number of years, I've written and am currently writing a number of academic papers on the relationship between history and game development. However, most of that work tends to be pointed at historians – so for a change (and because it's currently NotGDC, the online game dev conference) I'm going to attempt a version of this with more of a game developer's hat on and address this to game developers as a basic piece on how to think about games and history. If people like this, there's much more I could say or actually do as talks in future pieces or NotGDC iterations, so please do let me know if you found this interesting.

The thing that people always expect of me as a historian is that I will talk about accuracy, and will mostly be here to complain about games getting things wrong. "Oh, you must be so annoyed at all the things Total War gets wrong" is something I've heard rather more times than I care to remember, or the sometimes even more awkward "oh, I bet you love Kingdom Come Deliverance!"

This hits a pretty rapid problem though: making a totally accurate simulation of the past is impossible. I think most people and certainly most game developers understand this on some level: the demand for medieval RPGs where the player character has to take a dump regularly is pretty low, despite the fact we can be pretty sure that's a period-accurate thing for them to do.

Even if you did make a terrible game where you were doing everything 'accurately', there's a further problem: your player is not, themselves, a medieval person. Growing up in medieval cultures, people had different thought processes and mental structures – different assumptions about how the world worked, what was important, and what was valued. They had a whole lifetime to grow up into that world, and learn huge amounts of expected knowledge about things the average player today can't be expected to know. A medieval person's knowledge of how one gathers moorhen eggs or the right conditions for digging peat turves or of stories and folk tales many of which are now lost aren't to be judged better or worse to a modern person's knowledge of how to use a spreadsheet or which stores one buys cheap clothing at or what the order of Marvel movies to watch is, but fundamentally you cannot, in a ten or even hundred hour game, replace one lifetime of knowledge and assumptions with the other.

You may be wondering, then, what the point of my research into history and games even is, if we can't produce accurate computer games. They're often seen as just an entertainment medium in the end, after all, and most gamers don't actually understand games as a good way to learn about history. Should we not just decide that computer games are so much fantasy, and not bother thinking about how they relate to history?

My answer to that is "absolutely not". The relationship between games and history is far more complex than a question of accuracy, but the relationship between games and history is there and it matters immensely. Games are just there as entertainment in the same way that paintings are just there to be pretty: which is to say, they're not. They are art, and do project ideas and influences, whether we choose to acknowledge that fact or not. Games are a space where imagination, selections of ideas from history, and a selection of modern ideas and concepts all frequently collide. That makes them an amazingly fertile space for imagining and reimagining the past, and taking past concepts and imaginations seriously in that matters a great deal.

Hades' "Ancient Greek" underworld has medieval stained glass windows: history inspires in places we don't expect.
This is, incidentally, something not enough people realise about academic history. Historians are often assumed to be the "one damn thing after another" guys, and working out as well as we can what really happened in the past is a core part of what we do. Also important, though, is working out how that past got recorded, remembered, and reinterpreted ever since it happened. We need to unravel that not just to get to what we can know about original events, but because all human societies use the past as a reference for the stories we tell about who we are, our countries, identities, ideologies, and ideals. Games can embed those sorts of stories and bring in history to support them, and that role in carrying ideas makes them matter. As well as bringing in history, games choose (as we saw when discussing accuracy) when to leave it out: and keeping an eye to what from history you're picking and why is the best way to understand the role history is playing in your development processes.

In other words, rather than thinking of your games in terms of whether they're accurate, as a historian I'd encourage you to think about them as a selection process. Even if you're not setting a game historically there's a good chance you're including a number of historical elements and ideas, and that collection helps signal various things to your players about the sort of world your characters inhabit and your contribution to their wider imagined past.

There's a dark side to all this which I want to discuss head-on: extreme ideologues, especially on the nationalist and racist far right, love using games and their iconography to sell their ideas. People at far-right rallies hold up Deus Vult flags as much because of its popularisation into internet culture via games like Crusader Kings as because they're actually reading any serious literature on the crusades. People may not think of the games they play as accurate, but they're still taking parts of that curated collection away and re-using them, and we're still building expectations about what the past can and can't look like. In a world where people often hold pre-modern history up as a grim age of human misery, or as a golden age of "pure" nations that we should hark back to, or indeed as a grim age of human misery that we should hark back to, the sorts of imagined pasts we tell stories about do matter.

Understanding games as a selection process helps us understand this and helps us ask the right questions about how it works. Accuracy here can be a double-edged sword: some games that sell themselves hard on "historical accuracy" very much use accuracy in specific areas to cover for the things that they left out of their curation of the past in other areas. A really nicely 3D modelled historical sword is a lovely and very exciting thing, but it doesn't 'counterbalance' having a world which takes over-simplistic and ahistorical pictures of faith, rulership, gender, and identity. For that we particularly need our curation approach, to ask what's missing from the historical picture. Note that I'm not saying that games should be moralising in this regard, or always contain modern assumptions about what's good or bad regarding those things, or always contain as many medieval elements in the curation process as possible on the other hand. I'm a firm believer in the idea that there are many routes to a good game. I am saying, however, that devs could do more to recognise which ahistorical tropes are likely to be beloved of those who would use history for bad purposes, and consider that when it comes to design, community engagement, and talking to writers and historians alike about our work.

I don't want to give the impression, though, that thinking about games as curation of the past is solely about the modern political impacts and tropes. I want to give the positive case as well: thinking better about what we include and exclude can be a way of unlocking new ideas for our games, new parts of the past to explore and new ways to see them. There are immense amounts of untapped potential in building imagined pasts and historical or historical-fantastical settings that aren't worked into modern games effectively, and I'd be very excited to see more of that rich diversity of human experience tapped more effectively by game developers.

A medieval 'grotesque', British Library Arundel 83 f55v. The medieval imagination is a wonderful place to explore!
To look at the area of history I know best briefly, we have far more art and stories and ideas from the medieval period than ever appear in modern games. Looking at the past and discovering what else can be used from it can unlock a huge amount more that you might never have considered. That might mean looking at how you build your maps and moving away from north-facing, or point-accurate, map styles, or it might include thinking about characters with disabilities and how they navigated those issues and lived in the medieval world rather than solely leaving them as figures of pity. It might involve moving away from having taverns as an assumption in your setting, creating new spaces of gameplay as a character navigates the rights and responsibilities of being a guest in their society, or looking at specifically medieval relationships between people and their rulers which were often more fluid and surprising than the absolutist autocracies that "medieval" states are often depicted as having. It might mean looking further beyond Europe for inspiration into the vast swathes of the premodern world that have never been seriously touched in many game genres. It can mean exploring the medieval imaginary, too, from looking at how we make less sceptical and cynical protagonists in more religious worlds to finding spaces in modern fantasy for the headless blemmyes or for the bonnacon, a mythic cow that farts fireballs.

For me, that's all a more positive approach to history in games, thinking about what we've got – and whether we really want it in our collection – and thinking about what we haven't got and what's still there to be discovered and used. Using history in games better should be a win for everyone, unlocking new stories and spaces: more different things for players to relate to, history-interested folks to discover, and developers like us to build great narratives and gameplay around.

It's also something that's not as hard to do as you might think: if you're sitting there thinking "that sounds great but there's no way I can find anyone to talk to about history" or "I'm too small to pay a historical consultant" – well, here I switch to my historian's hat and say talk to us anyway. Whilst I'd love to see more devs hiring historians as part of their narrative and design teams, if that's out of reach there are plenty of historians out there who'd love to share ideas with small and independent developers, and spaces like Exilian's Coding Medieval Worlds workshops or the online Middle Ages in Modern Games conferences where there are resources and networks available.

To sum up, if there are three things I'd like you to take away from reading this, they are these:

> History in games matters. It helps us unlock new stories and material, and affects how our game takes part in wider discussions and imaginations of the past and present, whether we want it to or not.

> Rather than thinking about overall "accuracy", think about the history in your games as a curation process. Considering what's there, what isn't, and why you're using it are key to working out how to use history better.

> Remember that you can talk to historians! Academics are often keen to engage with the public and there are many more fruitful connections that can be made.

I'm an optimist about what we can do with games and history – and I think there's a huge amount still to be done and a great many fascinating stories to be told, fresh historical and fantastical worlds to discover, and more besides. I hope this piece has helped give you some new tools to look afresh at your games and game settings, and that it'll help you to explore building games in a wider array of medieval worlds.

Posted on March 12, 2024, 10:38:56 PM by indiekid
Beyond the Wall – Part One

Beyond the Wall – Part One
By rbuxton

Which wall? Trump's wall.

In 2017 I visited my brother in Chile. After travelling together for a bit I set off alone and soon made friends with some European university students. They were involved in the university's International Society, which put on cultural events. I was invited to "France Night", a pleasant evening in which two French students talked for half an hour about their country's history and culture. "Mexico Night", on the following evening, was completely different. There must have been at least thirty Mexican students pulling out all the stops with food, music, games and a Zapateado dance show. I was struck by how good-natured, proud and interesting the people were. In that moment I realised how insulting the then-US president's rhetoric was – insulting to both Mexicans and those crossing it from other Central and South American countries.

A young organillero plies his trade.
My new-found interest in Mexico was strengthened by conversations with other backpackers over the next few years. "We spent a month just sitting on a beach eating tacos," said one, "It was amazing!" I realised that I was extremely ignorant about Mexico: like most countries in the world, it only gets mentioned in the UK news when something "bad" happens. From its portrayal on TV I had assumed it was a vast desert where drug- and people-smugglers roared around in dark trucks. So perhaps the "wall" I was now determined to overcome was more mental than physical; a product of my own biases and misconceptions. I finally touched down at the airport in Mexico City (henceforth referred to by its modern sobriquet, CDMX) in March 2023, with no plan and no onward flight. This time, my brother was not there to meet me.

I'd like to make one thing clear: Mexico is not a "developing" country. It has great infrastructure, huge cities and a booming tech scene. The streets of CDMX follow a grid layout – perfectly intuitive for most of the world's population but strangely confusing to the British. Music is all around, often coming from the Organilleros – an army of smartly-dressed musicians pumping away at organs and doffing their caps for change. They sometimes rub shoulders with busking saxophonists, while efficient recycling trucks whizz by and traffic wardens whistle to keep everything under control.

During one outing in CDMX I jumped on a double decker bus with another (male) backpacker. After a few minutes people started nudging us and pointing at the floor, but our Spanish was too basic to grasp what was going on. It turned out we were standing in the "women and children only" part of the bus, an area taking up most of the ground floor and demarcated by pink handrails (which were yellow elsewhere). In weighing up the pros and cons of this system, I felt, one could cover many of the gender and equality issues which have been thrown up in the UK in the past decade or so.

My favourite public transport story, however, comes from CDMX's metro. I was standing by the doors of the carriage with a young man to my right. He was seated and had very stylish hair, moulded into some complicated shape and looking wet as a result. Suddenly a few bubbles whizzed past us accompanied by a cry of "Cinco pesos!". What on Earth was going on? Looking up, I saw one of the many one-item salespeople who ply their trade on the metro; his product was children's bubbles. He had a neat trick: by holding the bubble wand towards the stream of air from a fan he could literally bombard his potential customers with his wares. Unfortunately for my neighbour the wax holding his hair in place was quite attractive to bubbles, so several stuck without him noticing. I didn't have the confidence – social or linguistic – to point this out to him, so I'm pretty sure he was still wearing them when we emerged onto street level a few minutes later.

In venturing beyond the Wall I got a little more than I bargained for. In reading this, you will too. You have been warned...

Around the Capital

I had decided to ease the culture shock by making my first stop in Mexico the small town of Tepoztlán. Getting there was not too much trouble but in order to find my hostel I booted up Google Maps. I was charged £72 for the privilege, having missed the text message from my network which said something like "Welcome to Mexico, we've turned off the data roaming cap you sensibly set yourself, wasn't that helpful of us?". On top of this I was struggling with the heat, the jet lag, a sore throat (probably my fault) and a bad back (definitely my fault). When I arrived in Tepoztlán a light dust was swirling through the cobbled streets and saloon-style doorways; some sort of festival was going on and a man in a skeleton costume waved at the local tourists. Mexico, it seemed, was not holding back.

Tepoztlán, it turned out, is turned out to be a "Pueblo Mágico" (magic town), one of several hundred in Mexico which have done much to preserve their heritage. Its old buildings, murals and mountaintop Aztec temple no doubt contributed to this accolade. I spent a day acclimatising and shopping around for a big sombrero to replace the weedy cap I had brought from the UK, eventually choosing one made of straw (the material of the peasantry; posher sombreros are of felt). The next morning I rose early to climb the mountain before the heat set in. The path was beautiful and led to some brilliant views; the temple wasn't overly interesting but the wheeling clouds of Mexican Eagles certainly were.

From Tepoztlán I backtracked to Cuernavaca, capital of Morelos state and an important cultural centre. It had some interesting churches and a nice cathedral but otherwise didn't hold much for a backpacker. The city's most interesting site is a squat castle built by the conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1528 (making it perhaps the oldest Spanish building in Central America) but it was closed during my visit. Like Cortés (well, kind of) I now turned my attention to the Aztecs' Tenochtitlan; Frida Kahlo's Ciudad de Mexico; Instagram's CDMX.

The Aztecs (technically the Mexica) chose the location for their city based on the omen of an eagle killing a snake while standing on a cactus; this image still adorns the national flag. The location was a lake, so they developed a land-reclamation system involving plants grown at the water's edge. This gave them a handy system of canals which helped the city become very efficient. When the Spanish conquered it, they built their city directly on top. I'm not really sure what this means, but the result is that the centre sinks by about a foot every year. This, combined with the tectonic activity of the area, has led to some buildings sitting at a jaunty angle. Over the next few centuries the city expanded into the surrounding mountains at a frightening rate; by 2005 it was (by one measure) the second most populous in the world. Recently there have been many efforts to address the social issues associated with such growth, including an extensive cable-car network.

I stayed in a hostel a few blocks from Zócalo, the city's main square and venue for both political demonstrations and free concerts. It's surrounded by beautiful examples of Spanish colonial architecture, including universities and a cathedral. Latin America in general is home to some amazing architecture which might look vaguely familiar to those of us who've visited Europe. These buildings tend to be on a significantly smaller scale, and this could be due to practicalities like sourcing materials, the aforementioned tectonic activity, and the desire to erect colonial status-symbols speedily. They helped form a national identity as independence movements swept the region, and I imagine the conversations going something like this: "You can't be your own country when you don't even have fine, neo-classical buildings", "Oh yes we do!"

Easter celebrations in the Zócalo.
I spent much of my fortnight in CDMX exploring the old buildings, which now house museums and the like. I took the metro to the neighbourhood of Xochimilco, or "Little Venice", where colourful boats ply the green-fringed canals which are all that remain of the Aztecs' waterways. Another trip took me to quiet Coyoacán, where I was hoping to visit the house of the famous artist Frida Kahlo. Unfortunately it is so small that it gets booked up for weeks at a time, so I had to content myself with the house of her friend and neighbour, Leon Trotsky. It was here that the Soviet politician and his surviving family members sought refuge in 1936, and here that he was assassinated in 1940. You can stand on the spot where his final struggle took place (CDMX was home to many contemporary Russian exiles during my visit, mostly men my own age fleeing Putin's draft.) I also visited the museums of Modern Art and Anthropology; the latter would really require two full days to understand both its Aztec artefacts and its dioramas about the indigenous groups who co-existed with the Spanish. I made several visits to the vast Chapultepec park, a forest in the city centre on the site of a famous battle between Mexico and the USA. I once got lost there in a graveyard and had to be led out by a local teenager who carried his bicycle between the tombs.

I spent three Sundays at an Anglican church near Chapultepec, which served some of CDMX's expats and digital nomads (the city almost irresistible to the latter due to its climate and amenities). On arrival I was confronted by a pie chart showing the ethnicities of its members, and was surprised to see Nigerian in third place (after American and Mexican). It was nice to be able to relax there and chat to people who had called the city home for most of their lives. Semana Santa (Holy Week) was approaching and on Palm Sunday we paraded around the church equipped with crosses and, for some, bagpipes. Easter Saturday found me back in the Zócalo watching a huge display of music and dancing, accompanied by a sermon from a very charismatic woman, who spoke so fast I could only really pick out repetitions of the phrase "pueblo de Dios". I had been advised to stay in CDMX over Semana Santa because, as in many countries, holiday destinations get very booked up. The city, Zócalo concert notwithstanding, was comparatively empty and I had some nice relaxed walks around the centre.

My first excursion was to the mountain Pueblo Mágico of Mineral del Chico. It was very nice up there among the pine trees but it was so hard to reach by public transport that I only had an hour there and had to spend much of that time on the toilet. My trip to the ruins of Teotihuacan was rather more successful. This vast site of stone temples, walkways and marketplaces was one of the largest, and most cosmopolitan, cities in the world in the 1st Century AD (so cosmopolitan, in fact, that it's not clear if it was the Olmecs or Toltecs who built it). What is known is that the Mexica, arriving in the region about a millennium after Teotihuacan's decline, believed it had been built by gods and modelled Tenochtitlan on it. The so-called pyramids of the Sun and Moon dominate Teotihuacan's skyline and are connected by the wide, temple-flanked Avenue of the Dead (we're not sure about any of these names, by the way). The pyramids would have had structures at the top, perhaps of wood, but were not used for human sacrifice, a practice which was mostly confined to the Mexica in the 14th and 15th centuries. More subtle are the stone animals, pillars painted with deities, and houses which show a cross-section of the building techniques used throughout the city's history. It was very hot and I was fortunate to have a sombrero to protect me from the sun, though it was dwarfed by those of the souvenir-sellers.

I had a blast in CDMX, but it didn't feel that way the whole time. I was preoccupied with my money, which was supposed to last nearly a year, and Mexico was significantly more expensive than I had expected (I had unwisely used my India trip of 2011 as a budgeting reference). I was also overwhelmed by the sheer size of Mexico and the fact that I was right in the middle. It turns out that having the world as your oyster is more than a little daunting. One day, sitting around in the hostel nursing an upset stomach, I was on the verge of booking a flight to Colombia when I received a WhatsApp message on a group which had been defunct for more than two years. It was an old travel friend asking where everyone had got to and the answers came back as follows: Mexico, Belgium, Tenerife, Canada and Mexico. It turned out that my American friend Henk was just a few hours away by bus! I mention this extraordinary coincidence because I had first met Henk under very similar circumstances; sometimes lightning really does strike twice.

The American and the Mexican

So it was decided: I would set off Northwest for my rendezvous with Henk, stopping off in the cities of Querétaro and San Miguel de Allende. The former is Mexico's fastest-growing city and its tech capital. On my first day I stumbled upon a crowd of people in traditional costumes, including rattling anklets, dancing to the beat of drums. I visited a number of churches and the Santa Cruz convent. The convent forms the terminus of the city's impressive colonial-era aqueduct, indicating how important these institutions were in the operation of early Spanish settlements. The bus journey to San Miguel de Allende was dramatic and afforded great views of the city and the famous pink church tower of La Parroquia de San Migeul Arcángel. Another famous site in the city is the house of Ignacio Allende, one of the leaders in Mexico's war of independence (1810 to 1821). The city is no stranger to war: it was a front line during the 16th century Chichimeca War and had to be abandoned several times before the Chichimeca leaders were bought off by the Spaniards.

Finally I reached Guanajuato, surely one of Mexico's strangest cities. This arid mountain town experienced a "silver rush" in the 16th century and was soon producing 30% of the world's silver. There was no planning so buildings popped up wherever they could; thanks to the region's wealth many of them were very grand. The result is a maze of staircases and alleyways giving out to cramped squares and neo-classical façades. With space at a premium the roads are all in tunnels below street level; I felt like Indiana Jones as I approached by bus. The city is popular with backpackers and international students, who are drawn here from Guadalajara by the promise of techno music and cocaine.

I met Henk on the steps of the market building and we caught up over pork sandwiches with plenty of offal. We donned hard hats to explore one of the mines and visited the church where some of its silver ended up. We joined a walking tour organised by one of the volunteers at the hostel and wound up at the museum of the artist Diego Rivera (husband to Frida Kahlo). We hiked up to a viewpoint where my sombrero was nearly lost to a gust of wind; Henk helped me to attach a chin strap. We spent several evenings at the statue of local independence-era hero El Pípila, from which we could watch the sunset picking out the many colours of the city. In the hostel we ate sopes, a kind of thick tortilla, and drank mezcal, a smoky cousin of tequila which is also derived from the agave plant. I did not visit the city's most famous attraction: a museum of naturally preserved corpses, exhumed and displayed in glass cases. My reluctance to visit surprised many Mexicans; their relationship with Death is certainly different to my own.

The finest busker in León, if not Mexico.
Henk's interest in Mexico went far beyond the charms of Guanajuato: he was living in León to further his footwear business. León is Mexico's capital of leatherwork and not on any tourist itineraries (it's worth mentioning it was the only place in the country I encountered anything resembling unfriendliness.) Henk and I arrived by bus and went straight to a small factory to inspect their latest boot prototype (more accurately it was just a part of the boot; the city relies on thousands of cottage industries specialising in the different parts of shoe production.) There I met Arturo, Henk's friend, landlord, and business partner, who acted as interpreter. We spent that afternoon, and many others, roaring from factory to factory in Arturo's small red "bocha", or Volkswagen Beatle. It was fascinating to get an insight into the leather industry and to begin to understand its importance, culturally as well as commercially, to the people of León. That evening I was also introduced to pulque, a thick alcoholic drink which has been distilled from the agave plant for at least two thousand years, and cumbia music, which is almost ubiquitous in Latin America.

Henk took me to a leather market where skins of cows, snakes, crocodiles and more could be bought. I was interested to find out that Iran is the world's biggest exporter of snakeskin. I asked one man where he had bought his elephant hide and he did not answer – I suspect this was not due to my poor Spanish skills. We also visited the city's triumphal arch and the church of El Templo Expiatorio, which was built in the 1920s. I'm no architecture buff but I could see this church was very different to others I had visited: built in a neo-gothic style it had the colouration of a Battenberg cake and eschewed fancy decorations in favour of simple stained-glass windows. Every evening, sunset would bring out brides-to-be and their entourages to have photos taken in advance of their weddings. I ventured into the extensive catacombs, which had a number of rooms dedicated to different saints. I was surprised to find them very brightly lit – how could anyone sleep? I also took a couple of buses to a big lake for some birdwatching.

It is impossible to overstate the generosity of my hosts. Despite often using his house as an Airbnb Arturo invited Henk and myself to stay for free for two weeks. Henk is a brilliant cook and would sometimes wake me up with pancakes before taking me to the local market to buy fruit and vegetables. Arturo invited me to Sunday lunch with his extended family, most of whom lived locally. There I met his sister Mariana, who had worked as a nanny in the USA. Her host family had given her a Scrabble set as a parting gift but she had not found enough English speakers to play it – until now (unfortunately we never got around to playing in Spanish). Henk and some of his friends, also one-time landlords of his, took me to a karaoke bar, where we – what's the word – surprised the local people with our renditions of Johnny Cash and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The bar "ran out of beer" that night, so we drank a lot of mezcal. At one point Henk asked me if I thought we were in a richer or poorer area than that of the cumbia bar. I guessed it was richer and more middle-class. How could I tell? Let's just say there's a correlation between physical appearance and affluence in Mexico which is depressingly familiar to those of us from the UK.

Henk left to attend to business in the USA and Germany, and I lingered. Over the next few days I encountered a number of people with very inspiring ambitions, some of which I'll reproduce here:

"I work in the leather market but I'm hoping to train as a teacher."

"I've been invited to Spain to do an interview on TV about my beauty products."

"I'd like to turn this place into a seafood restaurant, like the one outside of town. They have shrimp tacos there. Come on, let me show you!"

I have not covered half of my adventures in León here. They culminated with my desperate attempts to clean the bathroom on my final morning before my host returned from a friend's house. I had rocked up at 2 am the previous evening and blocked the sink with my vomit. Too much information? Let's get back to the backpacking.

From León I did two day trips, the first to Aguascalientes. I looked around some nice churches and the Museum of Death, which contained historical and artistic pieces relating to Mexico's fascination with all things morbid. I considered spending the evening at the city's famous festival, but since it was, in Arturo's words, "not very cultural: more about the drinking" I decided to give it a miss. A longer trip – and a night in a hostel – took me to Zacatecas, the northernmost city on my trip and situated where the Central Plateau gives out to semi-desert. It's another old mining town but, unlike Guanajuato, it has enough space for the grand buildings to really stand out. The most interesting site was the "Mina el Edén", or Eden Mine, which has some beautiful caverns running for several kilometres, and a train. The name is both deceptive and cruel: hundreds of thousands of indigenous people were killed while working as slaves in the mines, and in the associated wars with the Spanish (many African slaves would later share the same fate). While walking the streets of Zacatecas I stumbled upon an open-air display of traditional music and dancing. As far as I could tell it was actually a cultural exchange of sorts: the dancers were from a university in the distant state of Oaxaca (woh-ha-kah). With the exception of a terrifying dance on stilts most dances were calm affairs of ten or so couples in traditional costume. One seemed to tell the story of the Spaniards' arrival in Mexico: the dancers acted out some domestic scenes, gradually giving way to joyful twirling. Towards the end the "lead" woman took up position in the centre of the stage, squatted down and flapped her skirts around. Eventually she laid an egg, which her partner promptly ate, to much applause.

This is part one of a two-article coverage of rbuxton's adventures. You can read part two by clicking here.

You can also read about rbuxton's previous Accidents in Andalucía, or discover more travel writing from other Exilian members via our travel writing index.