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On the road with the malabaristas – in Mexico

We watched the second Creel massacre on a grainy surveillance video replayed in a truck-stop diner somewhere in Jalisco. I’d been facing the other way, gazing idly at the truck driver we were hitching with as he stirred tablespoons of instant coffee and sugar into his mug of boiling water. A surly waitress clattered crockery at an adjoining table. Trico jerked his head at the news bulletin playing on the TV screen above my head.

‘Hey Cat, look,’ he said. ‘It’s where we met.’

I craned around to watch as the cameras followed the men’s progress through Creel. The footage had been taken at dawn, the men’s long black shadows etched across the gold of the streets. They snorted handfuls of cocaine from clear plastic bags before approaching a house, firing several rounds through the front windows and then crashing through the front door with AK-47s tucked under their arms. We sat and looked until our driver heaved himself to his feet, brushed off his moustache, and lumbered out towards the truck with a sigh of ‘De verdad, Mexico está perdido.’ Truly, Mexico is lost.

We drained the last of our coffees and followed him outside. And I thought of Creel the way I had seen it, seven months before, the day I met Trico.

The first time I saw him, he was riding a unicycle along a wall. This was not unusual for Trico; he saw the entire world as a complicated arrangement of surfaces to ride unicycles on. But at the time I didn’t know that, and stopped walking for a few seconds to watch him.

The wall marked the edge of a raised plaza in the centre of Creel – a village tucked between the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, just before they fracture into a labyrinth of yawning canyons that make the territory all but impassable and conceal any number of people who don’t wish to be found. The street alongside the plaza was wide and lined with low-slung buildings, revealing a fringe of pine trees above the line of rooftops. It was the sort of street that looks lonely without horses in it. There were no horses in it – only a couple of parked pickups with cold sores of rust over the wheels and a few men in shapeless brown trousers wearing the expressions of people who didn’t know the time, and rarely needed to.

Behind the unicyclist, his companions milled around in the dappled shade under the trees on the plaza, idly twirling juggling clubs or beating slow rhythms on djembe drums, their belongings in tattered bundles at their feet. It was the final day of a small festival that had been held in some caves nearby, in that after-party hour that hangs heavy with spent adrenaline, when those that have homes hurry back to them, leaving those that don’t to linger dazedly behind. Like them, I was adrift and disoriented after the festival, and perhaps my lost expression invited a gesture of solidarity. Calling me over, they offered me a swig of their beer.

They were travelling malabaristas – itinerant circus performers who wandered the streets of Mexico, hitchhiking from town to town and surviving by whatever donations of spare change or food the local people would give for their impromptu shows. You’d see them at traffic intersections all over the country – strange, jester-like figures who would skip out in front of the vehicles as they waited at the red lights, give a quick display of juggling or fire spinning, then collect any coins the drivers handed them as the cars moved off on either side.

I had seen them before, and pitied them. Not them precisely, but others like them, drowning in the flood of seething city traffic, gasoline-stained hands thrust out for a couple of spare pesos. I had read about them as well, never more than a couple of sentences in the middle of some rumination on Mexican poverty: another symbol of desperation in a country where almost half the urban population worked on the black market and men joined the drug gangs because they saw no other way to make a decent living. They would be grouped in the same category as the boys who jumped on car bonnets as they waited at traffic lights and started frantically cleaning the windscreen, hoping that guilt or gratitude would inspire a tip. Or the children with huge black eyes like Japanese animations who wandered between the lines of cars, choking on exhaust fumes and reaching up to the windows to hawk small plastic packets of chilli peanuts. Just more impoverished kids trying to scrape a living off streets that were already overworked.

I might have gone on believing that, if it hadn’t been for Trico.

Trico was one of those born showmen whose star turn is themselves. Possessed of a frenetic energy, he did everything with quick, jerky little movements, like a clockwork toy wound up too tight. The vibrantly clashing colours and patterns of his clothes and chiselled planes of his face were crowned by a topknot of wild black dreadlocks, exploding with multicoloured braids. Sawn-off bits of plastic tubing kept the piercings in the lobes of his ears stretched to a width of several centimetres. Taken as a whole, the effect was one of carefully calculated insanity.

There on the plaza, he was the only one not limp with fatigue. Perched absurdly atop a unicycle with coloured beads on the spokes of the wheel and a tyre that appeared to have come off a mountain bike, he rode round and round us in dizzying circles. Weaving between the trees and even attempting the few steps down to the main road, he called out to the near-empty square – ‘Arre arre arrrrre!!! Bienvenido-o-o-s aaal spec-tac-ulo-o-o!

Glancing around to assess his potential audience, he caught sight of a couple of Tarahumara girls, about six years old, watching wide-eyed from under the trees. Their feet were bare and they clutched bundles of bracelets made from grubby twisted string. The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre are among the poorest indigenous peoples of Mexico, and often young children are expected to help bring home a few extra pesos by selling handmade trinkets to the tourists in the villages. The little girls wore dresses with the unique shabbiness of hand-me-downs, stained with elder sisters’ accidents and elder cousins’ dinners. Pedalling the unicycle over to come to a rocking equilibrium in front of them, Trico drew three fluorescent orange juggling clubs from the bag on his back and pointed exaggeratedly to his eye to indicate that they watch. He delivered a brief but enthusiastic display, embellishing the basic juggling patterns with tricks and flourishes. On finishing he gave them a bow, and they giggled in delight and hid their dirt-smudged faces behind their hands with childish coquettishness.

When he pedalled back over towards us, I complimented him on his performance and his unicycle.

‘Thanks’, he said. ‘It’s been with me two years. Good model. Terrain unicycle.’

‘A what?’

‘A terrain unicycle.’ He spoke with the laboured patience of one sadly accustomed to such ignorance. ‘Thicker tyre, better grip. Good for off-road riding. Mountains, deserts, that kind of thing.’

‘Your whole life is a circus, isn’t it?’ I asked. He laughed. His features were dramatic and clearly defined, as in carvings of the Aztec warriors, and deep dimples bored into each side of his face when he smiled.

‘The whole world is a circus,’ he said, riding a further circle around us in reverse. ‘And all of us are the clowns.’

Despite his exuberance – or perhaps because of it – there was something curiously unreadable about him. It left you wondering what was spontaneous and what was rehearsed, how much was personality and how much persona. He embodied what captivated me most about Mexico: the impossibility of knowing where reality ended and fantasy began.

Extracted – well actually it’s the beginning – of Catriona’s book ‘The Urban Circus’. Buy it from Bradt or try Amazon.

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