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Close to the edge in El Dorado


We were in El Dorado. But there was nothing golden here. It was a shanty town crawling scruffily up the side of a mountain on the outskirts of Mexico City, night was falling and it was rumoured that even the police had long since forsaken dealing with any call outs here.

Rico and I were here in Fluffy-the-Van to collect another band and their equipment from an El Dorado fiesta, but we had only just pulled off the highway into the town square and already a sense of foreboding was settling like a poncho on our shoulders. Rico jumped down from the cab and heartily hailed a couple of shadowy locals for directions to the fiesta. Silently they pointed upwards. We followed the line of their fingers; a tiny road hairpinned up the side of the mountain, disappearing into the gloom – no street lights lit the way and any abodes up there were not using more than a single bulb’s worth of electricity. It was dark. As heartily as he had asked, R thanked them and swung back into the cab commenting gently on the amicability of El Dorado’s citizens. He gunned Fluffy’s engine in a show of bravado and in a cloud of dust we hit the first hair pin bend.

Within about 30 seconds it became clear that whatever happened the only option was to keep going up. The road was as wide as Fluffy and the few houses, mostly made of tin and tarpaulin, offered no space for a 3-point turn should you want to attempt one. Snarling dogs rushed our wheels and the hair pins got tighter, switch backing at eye watering angles, but there was no sign of a fiesta anywhere. Suddenly out of the dark, on a welcome few yards of flat straight road, loomed a cantina. It was the archetypical Mexican cantina, with swing louvered doors and a cluster of staggering men outside. Smashing bottle noises came from inside. An unsteady figure grandly stepped into our path and held up his hand. As we ground to a halt someone else tried to open the passenger door, which thankfully due to its decrepit state could only open from the inside, although he still managed to stay perched with one foot on the cab step, face flattened against the window, gripping onto the wing mirror for balance. Even from inside Fluffy, the smell of tequila and glue, the most widely available drug to Mexico’s poor, was overpowering.

With a motion for me to stay put, R opened his door and even more heartily than at the bottom of the hill addressed the man blocking our path, bluffly asking where the fiesta might be in the matiest slang possible. Quite a group had gathered, word having spread that there was a gringa in a van, possibly the first ever to be seen in the general vicinity of El Dorado. On seeing this, Ric decided to drop the matey act and scrambled back into the van, trying to shut the door, an act made slightly complicated by the fact that two men were trying to get into the drivers seat with him, ostensibly as guides. Without seeming to be rude he managed to shove them off his lap, slam the door and roar away, the guy perched on my cab step also disappearing from the window fairly rapidly.

Now we were spooked. What was this bloody place? When would this hill end? There must be a top somewhere. We took the next few steep uphill turns far too quickly, R panicked that the local mob would now be after us in a drunken rage, when suddenly, at the same instant, we both screamed. Screamed at the realisation that directly ahead of us was…..nothing. No road, no bushes, no slope – just a gaping cavern of black space. Fluffy’s brakes smoked as we slithered to a halt and stalled, feet away from a vertical ravine. In our unheeding flight upwards we had missed a bend in the track and hit a tiny plateau at an improbable angle. On 3 sides of us was the dark drop of death. We sat there in silence, frozen with terror, the van creaking slightly. I forgot to breathe. R cranked open the door and looked desperately around him, shut it again and asked me if I thought we might die. It’s entirely possible, I thought, thinking of Fluffy’s dubious brakes and temperamental gears.

After a few moments of wondering if we might be miraculously transported out of there and safely tucked up in bed, R restarted the engine, crunched into reverse, once, twice to be sure and released the clutch. Fluffy lurched forward another foot. I think I might have made a kind of mewling sound. The only thing in my head was a half formulated prayer that consisted of two words – Dear God Dear God – repeated over and over, my fingers like claws in the arm rest. R was deathly silent, hunched and sweating, as for the next few eons he inched forward, backward, left, right, wildly guessing, I felt, as to what direction to turn the wheel.

Now was not the time to offer suggestions. If it had been me driving. I think I would have just got out and left the van there. Stones sprayed over the edge of the gully. Fluffy groaned and shuddered, impossibly clumsy and heavy, until yes! Tyres bit tarmac again at a happy angle and we revved joyously onto solid ground. From our new position on the final curve of the hill, we could see the fiesta lights a few hundred yards down the road.

The ravine and its mother, the fiesta, El bloody Dorado and its mother all received a series of choice curses from R as he sagged onto the steering wheel, wiping sweat from his eyes. I giggled hysterically and tried to straighten out my clawed fingers. From then on we entered a different world. Here was a parallel universe of fiesta, lights, hospitality, tortillas and mole, Bacardi and cokes, happy smiling people – and later, a surreally well lit road straight down a side of the mountain that surely hadn’t existed earlier that led us easily to the highway home.

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