Urban duendes

December 30, 2021

Victoria has had a rough week. She is terrified of loud noises, and since Christmas Eve we’ve had masses of explosive rockets let off. Opponents of these things are now pointing out how much air pollution they produce, but so far, it’s not having an effect. Vicki responds to the night rockets by crawling under my bed, after demanding to be let in with a sharp bark.

My friend Lucero, Victoria’s original rescuer, painted this portrait. I’m biased, but other people agree the likeness is amazing.

A few weeks back, she began a kind of rasping sound, like a cough or excessive throat clearing. At first I was afraid she’d tried to swallow something that was blocking her airway, but that wasn’t it. To Luis our trusted vet we went, and while he suggested it could be just a bronchial infection, he was pretty sure it was due to an incipient heart condition. At age thirteen, she’s into things like heart conditions. She’s slowing down, and a little deaf, but she’s still good company.

So, we tried antibiotics and a cough-soothing medicine, which had no effect. Wednesday, she and I went back to Luis, who checked Vicki and gave me a prescription for an echocardiogram. This has to be done in Cuernavaca, a half-hour drive away from Tepoztlan. I called the number once or twice, but no-one picked up. I had been thinking of going for some food shopping at the Walmart in Cuernavaca (their selection of imported foods is surprisingly varied for Mexico), and I noticed the veterinary clinic was a few hundred metres down the street from the mega-store. I decided to head off and find the clinic on foot, book and appointment then stock up on decent tea and some other stuff the same afternoon.

In central Mexico City, all the streets are identified by signs on the street corners. Not so other parts of Mexico. Not long ago, my friend Ixchel and I headed off to visit a hacienda on the far side of the city of Cuautla, and despite using a GPS on her phone, we became completely lost. I even got a traffic ticket, making an iffy turn back whence we’d come.

Cuernavaca has some signs, but not many. I decided to take a bus there, not wanting to be looking for an unfamiliar place while driving in traffic. Then, when I took Vicki in, I wouldn’t be looking for an unknown location.

Now, the tent where they sell bus tickets for Cuernavaca, next to a ramp leading to the main highway, was gone when I got there. The ramps are under reconstruction, and there was no sign to indicate where I should go. It’s sort of assumed here that someone has told someone who’s told you how things have changed. That’s simply how it works (or often, doesn’t work). Mexicans are highly conversational, and people just get to know stuff.

There is, however, a kind of duende (Spanish for an elf or pixie) who looks after the lost in Mexico. Invisible and inaudible, it shows up when it wants to, which might be an hour after you got lost, or three minutes. It somehow distracts you from your confusion, and indicates the place you need. Perhaps, in Mexican folklore, there’s a way of calling one, but I don’t know the method, beyond feeling and looking clueless. 

In this case, I walked 200 yards to the ticket office for the bus line I would use to go to Mexico City. A helpful young woman, no doubt a relative of a duende, or its accomplice, pointed across the street to where people sat in a previously abandoned storefront, which had no sign. I thanked her profusely, and after ten minutes, my bus came.

The clinic I needed in Cuernavaca is in a street named Legislative Power. Since this is a direct extension of Domingo Diez Avenue, which I know well, and I had the street number, it was just a matter of counting down numbers till I arrived. 

Or not. Not only do Mexicans eschew street identification and signage, they’re also not big on street numbers. You will see no. 221 come after no. 119, and figure no. 129 is a few doors down. Gotcha! No, the numbers re-start two blocks further along. I had carefully written directions from Luis, and I’d checked Google Earth too, but what I had written down didn’t translate into the ground-level reality.

Now, when you’re lost in Mexico, which is a frequent thing for Mexicans, not just gringos, you ask a local. People here love to help strangers, and the directions you get are sometimes even accurate. So, I started at a corner taco joint, figuring people at such a place must know their own neighbourhood. These women directed me further up towards Walmart, asserting that my cross-street was two or maybe three blocks away.

Four blocks on, I decided to tried a guy in a car parts store. After all, I figured, such people must drive their own cars, so they must know local streets. He suggested I had to go up through three streetlights, or about six blocks. I thanked him, and decided to hail a cab.

Ten minutes later, in busy, daylight Cuernavaca, no cab had come by, so I started walking again. On the very next block. I suddenly spotted a small sign advertising Science Diet dogfood. and realised I was at a veterinarian’s. I’d found the clinic! I’d been duende‘d!

The appointment made, I hoped on a combi microbus to get on to Walmart. Here I misjudged how far I’d walked, since I needed to get off again after two blocks. The driver, used to lost gringos, just shrugged. No duende was needed in this case, of course.

In line with the day, when I finally got to where the bus picks up passengers for Tepoztlan, it turned out to be closed for renovations. Probably it was another duende who helped me here as I walked grumblingly to where I could get a taxi. One of the older, less comfortable buses that go to my home town came along – I didn’t even know their route came through that area – so I clambered on it, and withstood twenty-five minutes of shaken bones without further complaint.

Thus ended what felt rather like an epic afternoon, with multiple inconveniences. I still have no idea what a duende might look like, if one were to appear before me. Perhaps they just look similar to average Mexicans, like the girl at the bus-ticket office. 

But, if you’re ever lost in Mexico, don’t forget the duendes. As long as you respond with noises of gratitude and relief, they seem to be happy they helped you. 

I just hope they aren’t dog-phobic, and that Vicki scares them off. Just in case I get us lost again when we go for the test on Tuesday, and I need help. She doesn’t need another bad week after this one.

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