‘In the late summer and autumn, monarch butterflies in eastern North America make an extraordinary long-distance migration. Butterflies weighing 500mg fly up to 4000km from breeding areas in the United States and Canada to wintering areas in the mountains of central Mexico.’* My sister glances at us as we mouth our amazement and flit about, stuffing clothes into rucksacks, already late for the bus. She continues, unruffled: ‘they spend much of the time quiescent in dense clusters on tree branches and trunks, but they periodically fly to water sources and reform their clusters after dislodgement by storms… but don’t worry,’ she looks up hastily to reassure us, ‘there won’t be any storms when we go, it’s meant to be nice and warm all of February and March.’ ‘Perfect,’ breathes Dolly, the first to be ready, ‘I need to soak up some proper heat before heading back across the pond. Speaking of heat…’ She eyes us both silently, smiling and holding up a travel sized bottle of mezcal. ‘Shot for the road?’
We knock back one each to help us with the ordeal of hailing a cab to Observatorio bus terminal. But, even at rush hour, it isn’t hard – Dolly stops the Mexico City traffic with her sunset hair and tall, willowy form. We pile in, the vehicle very cosy in the afternoon mountain heat. My sister carries her magazine on shamanic animal connections, Dolly her guidebook and I my notepad and pen. We spend the cab ride envisioning the log cabin we’d booked for that night in the historical mining town of Angangueo, its crackling fire and toasty blankets. We anticipate what we would eat, when we would need to wake up the following morning, how we’d manage the buses back.
The state of Observatorio should have been a warning. There was a total powercut, with shadowy kiosks selling cold tortas being scoffed by candlelight. In our dash for the bus, we ignore the omen and snuggled into our window seats to dream of what thousands of glorious, flame coloured butterflies would look like, already hearing the whisper of their soft wings as the bus engine started.
About two hours into our journey, we jerk to an abrupt halt. ‘No hay paseo,’ announces the driver, explaining that the motorway along the final, measly 30-minute stretch to Angangueo is blocked by snow and fallen trees. Confused, my sister and I wonder if this was another of those bad comedy sketch moments we sometimes felt we were in here. Like when the plumber arrived two hours late because, apparently, he’d just wanted to let us have a lie-in. Or when we spent three hours wandering in hopeless spirals through the city centre having been pointed in the wrong direction by every single person we asked, because: ‘they don’t want to annoy you by just saying they don’t know, they want to give you hope,’ our local friends earnestly explained.
‘No, it’s true,’ confirms another passenger, ‘I just tried to get through to a relative of mine who lives there and they said the same thing, just before the signal cut off.’ ‘Well why didn’t they let us know back in the city?’ I wonder. ‘Because there was no signal,’ the driver patiently explains, ‘but don’t worry, maybe smaller cars can still get through.’ So we sit and wait. ‘Nope,’ said the driver, approaching us again what feels like aeons later, ‘we really can’t go any further, no cars either. We can take you back to the city for free if you want?’ My sister and I sigh, deeply and tragically, but Dolly isn’t one for pessimism. ‘Isn’t it meant to be the warmest time of year for the butterflies, the whole point of their thousand mile journey from colder climes?’ she insists, ‘surely if we just wait a bit it’ll warm up and we can keep going?’
It begins to hail.
Dreams of toasty fires and glowing wings slowly fade as disbelief and then a general gloom settles on us. We sit in silence, just waiting, though not entirely sure what for. ‘Hey,’ my sister suddenly says, flicking through her magazine, ‘in animal totem speak the butterfly represents the transformation of soul and self.’ Dolly and I look at her expectantly. ‘Just thought I’d put it out there.’ ‘Oh right,’ Dolly does not look impressed. ‘Does it say anything in there about being transformed into a snow mobile?’
Observing our low mood, the driver comes over and smiles at us kindly. ‘You could always stay here,’ he says, waving a hand towards the window that has all but steamed up. Through it, we can just about make out piles of small houses, a roundabout melting in the wet and some electricity cables being thrashed into a desperate tangle by the storm. ‘Here’ is the tiny pueblo of San Jose del Rincon. ‘Don’t worry, there are a couple of little hotels,’ the driver continued, ‘just be warned they probably don’t have water or electricity now. But you’ll be fine and safe – nothing will happen to you.’ ‘What?’ Dolly asks, alarmed at my translation. ‘You’ll be alright,’ he repeats, smiling broadly, ‘nobody will hurt you or rob you here.’ ‘Well that’s great news!’ She looks at us anxiously, and we wonder if we should just give up. But no. The consensus is: butterflies. Think of golden, spotted, zipping butterflies. There’s no going back now.
‘Yes, we’d like to stay here,’ I affirm, ‘is there a taxi that could take us to one of the hotels?’ ‘No, no taxis at the moment, and no signal to call one with, but maybe these guys could take you the rest of the way.’ He motions towards two young men in the front row. ‘Yes, alright,’ says one of them, his face barely visible deep inside his parka hood, as the other one smiles shyly at us; ‘we can take you in our camioneta. Just give us a moment to bring it round.’ We scan them and decide to go with our belief in chivalry and gentleness until proven otherwise. Once off the bus, we huddle together as the hail thunders onto our shoulders, gratefully clambering into the warmth of our new friends’ car ten minutes later.
Their names are Oscar and Pablo. ‘So you have two options,’ Oscar yells to make himself heard above the deafening clatter of ice on metal, ‘either a small hotel right round the corner with no water or electricity, or one that should have both about 15 minutes drive away.’ The three of us immediately vote for the further one; our new friends look slowly at each other and then at us. ‘You sure? We think they should have water and electricity but it might be different when we get there.’ My sister sighs. ‘Yes, that’s fine, let’s go,’ I confirmed. More looking and pondering of the three strange ones wanting to see butterflies in the hail. ‘Alright, we’ll take you there, but are you sure? And can you pay for the hotel yourselves?’ ‘Well yeah, obviously,’ I feel myself getting irritated, ‘we’ll cover it and pay for the ride too. How much?’ This time, it’s an extra long consultation. ‘Well, just for the gas. So you want to go?’ They ask, again. My sister giggles at my slow pressure cooker build up. ‘Maybe count to five,’ she whispers, ‘after all, it’s nice of them to take us – they didn’t have to do that.’ I exhale loudly and ask if we could go now. ‘Yes, yes, of course,’ Pablo says, looking slightly wounded and turning to the wheel.
20 minutes later, we pull up at a bright pink, turreted enclosure, rising like a sultan’s palace from the roadside slush. Oscar runs in to check the essentials are working and confirms that yes, there is water, electricity and a room for each if we want it. ‘Y comida?’ I ask, feeling our collective empty stomachs begin to growl. ‘Oh no, there’s no food here,’ he replies, looking at me as though I’d just requested to see dancing hyenas. ‘What the hell,’ Dolly protests once I’ve translated the happy news, ‘isn’t this a hotel?’ ‘Welcome to Mexico,’ my sister says as we trudge wearily into the enclave. ‘Do you think you could drive us into San Jose super quickly just to grab some food?’ I ask Oscar. Cue another time-bending consultation with his compañero before nodding his assent.
The manager himself greets us and very cordially shows us to the room we decide to share. ‘Oh.’ Dolly’s the only one who makes a sound, her single syllable bouncing off the triple king-sized bed and the floor-to-ceiling mirror right opposite it. With a price list by the hour taped not very discreetly to one side. And no window in sight, only a discreet ventilation shaft near the bathroom. ‘Ladies, we are officially in a sex hotel,’ my sister announces, solemnly. Dolly and I snort with laughter as the hotel manager politely asks if we need anything else. ‘Just the keys please,’ my sister says. His mouth makes a confused ‘o’. ‘Do you mean like a key to go in and out?’ Maybe she should have asked for lube. ‘Er, yeah, we’re gonna go with the guys and get food.’ I point to our friends waiting outside and the hotel manager smiles again. ‘Ah, well that’s fine, don’t worry about your stuff – nothing happens here, and I can let you in when you’re back.’ ‘So no key?’ ‘If you really want one I can get it, no problem, but you can also just leave everything here, no worries.’ His lack of budging makes everything clear. Another sigh, another count to five and a mental rehearsal of how to explain this to Dolly. She’s surprisingly laid back about it, or possibly just faint from lack of food.
We drop our bags and are just about to go back to the camioneta, when suddenly there’s an almighty revving sound, crescendoing to an explosion. Our friends’ vehicle has made a small crater in the middle of the pink courtyard. The hotel manager and his assistant rush to help and the four of them begin pushing, sweating and cursing. We watch the prospect of food fade into the distance like a mirage as the freezing wind bites our cheeks. The hotel manager waves us back into our rooms mid-push. ‘Don’t worry chicas, I’ll bring you extra blankets – there’s a cyclone coming!’ ‘He didn’t just say “cyclone” did he?’ asks Dolly, indigo eyes merging with the increasing blue tinge of her face, teeth chattering. ‘Hopefully it’ll just be a bit of light rain and will clear by tomorrow,’ I try, convincing no-one. We regroup back inside our sex den, thanking the butterfly goddesses that at least we’d remembered this whole country is built on the assumption of heat despite bone-crunchingly cold mountain nights. We pull on our hats, scarves and thermal leggings, and perch in silence on the massive bed, staring at the thankless threesome in the mirror.
My sister is the first to break the inertia, taking out her magazine. ‘At least I can get some reading done,’ she says, perking up. ‘Good point,’ Dolly joins in, reaching for her guidebook, ‘I can plan where to explore next.’ ‘And I can catch up with some writing,’ I grab my notepad and pen. We each burrow into a small nest in three corners of the bed, busying ourselves with our new tasks. ‘Did you know that, in ancient the times,’ my sister reads aloud, ‘the shape of the open butterfly was considered to be the shape of the soul?’ We look at her, suddenly smiling again.
And then all the lights go out.
‘Noooo!’ We wail in unison, books and pens angrily thrown down. ‘I can’t believe this,’ Dolly says, ‘I mean, what do the old people here do in this cold and dark?’ ‘They probably just die,’ my sister replies. We fall silent again. ‘Have you ever seen that film Vacancy?’ Dolly pipes up. ‘Nope.’ ‘It’s basically about this couple who get stranded when their car breaks down and end up spending the night at this dodgy motorway motel where they get butchered to death.’ ‘Oh.’ A knock on the door and then a bright light breaking into the darkness makes us jump – it’s the blessed hotel manager, bearing blankets and packets of freeze dried fried pig skin and corn. We pounce on him and them, and proceed to devour. As if on cue, the electricity comes back on and we all cheer. Dolly is particularly excited: ‘We may as well make the best of it all now – I just remembered that I brought cards!’ My sister and I hooray for time-honoured, simple entertainment. Dolly explains the rules, deals the first hand, and we begin to play. And then everything goes black again.
‘Oh for f***’s sake!’ We moan with despair, flinging down the cards and folding our arms across our chests in protest. ‘This monarch butterfly thing isn’t turning out to be much of a royal experience, is it,’ Dolly huffs, ‘unless the royal in question is Richard the Third.’ Nothing to do but sit still and wait, again. Time stretches out before us in the darkness like spaghetti (mmmm, spaghetti). ‘Well,’ I say, ‘we may as well crash for the night. It’s so early and I already feel sleepy.’ ‘It’s probably just hypothermia,’ my sister replies, as we grope around for our rucksacks to find a few final, precious layers. I put on gloves and cocoon myself in five blankets. My sister goes in the middle as Dolly fidgets about, restless, checking all the corners of the room and moving a small chest of drawers in front of the door to block it. ‘Just in case there’s a Hostel scenario,’ she explains. I feel my sister shudder beside me as I burrow deeper into the giant bed, the three of us curling into foetuses in the coldest night of our lives.
We bolt upright with the first feeble ray of daylight pushing through the vent, stomachs screeching and extremities immobilised. ‘Don’t worry,’ I mumble, ‘the temperature usually just falls at night. It’ll be nice and sunny now.’ Dolly braves a peek out the door and grins at me dryly. ‘I wouldn’t be so sure. I think we’ve been teleported to Austria.’ I glance out. The hotel is nestled within a valley of shadowy, snow covered mountains, the bright pink of the walls wilting beneath a moody grey sky.
Pablo emerges from another room, grinning and walking excitedly towards us. ‘Chicas! Look at the mountains, it snowed! I’ve never seen it before – it’s the first snow here in 20 years!’ We stare at him balefully, but are not to be deterred. ‘We’ve come all this way, it might still be worth a shot,’ my sister proposes, and Dolly and I agree. Miraculously (many miracles of this kind happen in Mexico on a daily, hourly basis), our friends’ car is fully functioning again and Oscar agrees, utterly bemused, to take us to a smaller, more local butterfly reserve, La Mesa. But first we beg to be fed so he drives us back to San Jose. He deposits us at a hole in the wall which, when we creep up the sinewy stairs within, transforms into a large, airy dining hall with hand-carved wooden furniture and indigenous masks on the walls. The dueña fusses over us, responding to our every vegetarian, vegan and sugar-free wish with a feast of beans, fresh tortillas, eggs, stuffed chiles, rice and thin noodle soup. We gorge and slurp and, by the time Oscar returns, are buoyed enough by the warmth to believe our mission will, at last, be accomplished.
We pile back into the now familiar camioneta. The drive takes us through numerous pueblitos with winding roads and impromptu galleries of fantastical snow creations. Classic snowmen with carrot noses perch proudly beside snow dogs wearing sunglasses and snow donkeys chewing on snow cacti. We see pine trees bent with the weight of last night’s fall dripping into streams of water, making them overflow and creating moats around the hillocks that appear at every bend, stopping us in our path and making us find another way around.
It is mid-week but all the schools are closed, with no life on the roads other than at the odd corner shop, where Oscar stops for directions. The people there look mystified at first, then indulgent as they spot the three foreigners of questionable intelligence seeking butterflies in the snow.
We continue on, taking in the living cinema around us in silence, until suddenly: ‘wait! Look! I see one!’ Dolly causes a great kerfuffle in the camioneta as we all strain to see what turns out to be a small bird. Oscar is so startled that he skids off the steep, icy path. The camioneta sputters and stops, right at the tip of an incline, beginning to roll backwards so that Oscar has to jump out and physically block it with his body. We hurl ourselves out after him, tripping and sliding and getting in his way as the car rolls and rolls, eventually coming to a bumpy standstill at the bottom of the hill. Several people emerge from the seemingly empty houses and gardens in the snowy desert, concluding we’re well and truly stuck and can either a) hike the two hours back to the main road or b) stay in one of their houses to warm up and wait while the car is repaired.
We look awkwardly at each other and at the empty skies where the butterflies should be. For a moment, we are frozen in place by uncertainty and tiredness in the face of further struggle. But, as we continue to stand in silence, we slowly realise that is not actually the face looking back at us – not the face of this world we so nearly could have missed. Instead, we see sheer joy at the unforeseen fall taking shape in the bodies of the people around us, tightly wrapped in ponchos but with faces fully exposed to feel the snowflakes. We see it in the bright purple, yellow and red ribbons of the women’s hats, a vivacious defiance of the cold and hardship. And we see it in the children gathered round who look at us and begin to giggle, a wave of playful sound that calls the cold out of our bones and makes a strange warmth rise from our bellies to our throats, where it gathers and grows and surges until we, too, are open mouthed with unexpected laughter. Our collective sounds echo in the hollow at the foot of the hill, bouncing off the teal maguey plants and grandmothers’ thick manta skirts, diving into the evergreens and zig-zagging back up through the air, finally fluttering down onto the snowy ground like a thousand, petal-soft wings.
‘Those that make it through the winter are the ones fit to reproduce, go on, and enable transformation to take place.’
* Brower, L. P., Fink, L. S. and Walford, P. (2006) ‘Fueling the Fall Migration of the Monarch Butterfly,’ Integrative and Comparative Biology, Vol. 46, No. 6, pp. 1123-1142.