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The Voladores of Papantla, Veracruz

"And then the four dancers began their descent! Each slung his rope across his side of the frame and plunged backward into the air. The unwinding ropes turned the frame clockwise as seen from below as the dancers hurled their arms over their heads and followed their spiral path toward the ground. It reenacted a Totonac myth of four Voladores who flung themselves into the clouds to transform into birds and summon the rains, all for agrarian intent. As the present dancers neared the ground, they pulled themselves upward and rode the last turns of the pole on foot. And as the dance completed, so did the flute and drum from above."

From the chapter "City of Lightning," available to preview here.

The Carnival Devils' Altar at Hníní

"June 21, 2008. It was only today that, in the short bus, I encountered the Carnaval altar at the north end of the road cutting through Hníní. I was whizzing past a pair of batwings made from beleaguered red canvas stretched across a trapezoidal frame of crude branches, leaning arrogantly against the roadside barbwire fence as if its owner were already climbing out from his infernal abode. They stood by an altar table, its frame from dirty branches and its surface from split bamboo.
"More striking still was the white cross standing across the road from the demonic altar. The dark itself has its role in the cosmic condition, and one must resemble it in order to control it. To harness the dark and the light, I cannot fear to stand betwixt. I stood between the cross and the altar. As I outstretched my arms toward each, I became a nexus of the sacred duality which generates and empowers the Mesoamerican cosmos. And by the end of this meditation, I crossed myself contritely before the white cross, to prevent my inundation from the chthonic energies I'd been drawing."

From the alternative epilogue, available to preview.

The Huasteca Lands of Veracruz

"The bus followed a worn dirt path contorting among the many hills rippling beyond the south city limits. It sank beneath shallow rapids and ran along blistering pastures, in many places shaded under the leafy boughs of tropical trees. The hills ever remained at the horizon, on some uninviting slopes crisscrossed with milpa gardens of sprouting maize...."The dirt path neatly bisected Hníní, and most of its houses and shacks faced either side of this central path. Also flanking the path were a blue piazza for the community auditorium and, across from it, the schoolhouse where my escort taught. A small white chapel stood at the base of the stairs climbing to the schoolyard. Densely forested hills crested the east horizon, and a heavy thicket in front of a sudden ledge blocked a view of the west. So this was the land of the Otomí. This was Teo's home."

From the chapter "Albín."

Animated Peyote Vision

For thousands of years the native shamans of Mesoamerica have used hallucinogenic foods to alter consciousness, to see the true reality of the sacred to which the conventional world only hints. The shaman's illuminated soul can then encounter the gods, ancestors, and other living beings that populate the spirit worlds, in order to communicate between the human community and the sacred realms. The shaman seeks harmony across the social, spiritual, and natural worlds because in native traditions they are interconnected: if one is awry, the others are affected.
The Huichol (or Wixárrika) of West Mexico are among the most renowned Native American peoples who consume hallucinogens in order to engage with the sacred. They eat the flesh of the peyote cactus, which they collect during an annual pilgrimage to their desert homelands of the Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosí.

The peyote vision brings an awesome explosion of sounds and sights to the seeker: the world of the gods that guide the cosmos. This animation appears at the Zacatecas state museum in an overhead arch, to simulate the all-encompassing, multi-dimensional experience of the spiritual communion.

Manatees at the Veracruz Aquarium

"I exited the indoor galleries and returned to the blinding sunlight of the early afternoon. The aquarium displays, however, had not yet finished. As I was approaching the last stretch before the gift shop, I followed a snaking path whose side wall, defining an open tank sculpted from artificial stone, held a monolithic window.
"Six gray, leathery manatees paddled and rolled across the span of the tank. Manatee! Gentle, vegetarian, docile: they evoked the antithesis of the devastating shark from the circular tank. They were elephantine puppies with bulky flippers, a fused tail paddle, and an appetite for algae. I had never seen so many. Their spins and sweeps held me to the window as I immersed myself in their aquatic ballet. The beasts' slow, graceful curves around the tank brought certain serenity to that moment, enhanced by the mellow embrace of the tropical sun and the placid swash of the gulf waters upon the shoals just beyond the outdoor path. I had peace. I was invigorated. Thank you."

From the chapter "Nagual," available to preview.

The Great Plaza and Ballcourt of El Tajín

"As I stepped into the ball court space between the six-foot-high stone walls, I first walked between two imposing panels at their ends--rounded bas-reliefs depicting ritual processions of priests and attendants among abstract borders of trees and banners. These were all enclosed within a square frame of interlocking volute swirls and circular knots suggesting a dreamlike narrative picture with but slivers of unfilled space. The panel to my right centered on the priest's immediate plunge of a pointed flint knife into the chest of a seated human sacrifice, another attendant holding back his elbows, as a skeletal god descended from above to take its payment. Either wall had one such carved panel at each end and a third at the center, each panel displaying a confounding scene of supernatural activity in patterned ceremonial ambit: a genital bloodletting to a piscine water deity in a bathhouse, an eagle flying over a reclining human sacrifice, and even a rabbit-headed man accompanying two conversing priests. A short jug in a small pool of water appeared in relief beside the volute frame of each corner panel, whence rose the upper half of a colossal human skeleton, tender leaves sprouting from atop the skull and reptile eyes gazing into the ritual scene at play."

From the chapter "City of Lightning," available to preview.

The Carnival Mecos Dancers

"Led by horned devils blaring their arrival with a hollowed bull's horn, a Mecos troop of gruesomely masked demons and alluringly garbed harlots paraded house to house across the village, to dance in rows and a circle upon each yard. The devils, wrapped head-to-toe in bold single colors such as red, blue, or green, collected pesos from the homeowners to contractually pay the Mecos for their dances. The devils were recruiting them to country-dance, do-si-do, and leap as they all shrieked in jeering falsetto unison, to the swiftly accompanying violinist and jaranista (and occasional guitarist). With their hands clasped together, the demons and temptresses embraced each other in pairs and gyrated their hips as they whooped 'WOO-hoo-hoo!'--then parted into two lines."

From the chapter "Devil," available to preview.