In Mexico, it seems, they don’t have a man in the moon, but a rabbit.
At home, the day before I leave Wales, damsons. Heaps of them, crowding from the twigs of our tree. I pick them frantically, covering myself in their sticky juice, and make jam far too quickly for it to set. I make the jam to try to keep them, preserve this last whisp of late summer for when I get back. Their tart, sweet taste, the spring green and yellow of their flesh, and their aubergine hides. As they cook, they are rich earth and cinnamon, bubbling inky in the pan.
I have a preemptive autumn cold. It is an unsuitable thing to take to Mexico, the cold, but take it I do, because, when we travel, regrettably, we take ourselves. My self comes along to be reconfigured. I pray Mexico can reconfigure my sinuses. After all, it remakes the moon.
It hangs the other way up, its face marked by the shape of a rabbit. A Huastec story I’ve encountered tells how this rabbit came to be there, lifted as sea levels rose right to the heavens, deposited on the moon, and then left as the seas receeded, leaving him in that lunar lonliness forever, longing.
Travelling always has a sense of longing for me. It feels lunar. This time, on board my flight, with my earplugs, my eyemask, my travel pillow, I am travelling in both space and time:
The last time I went to Mexico was 1999. I was just eighteen. I was going ‘travelling’ with my friend Branwen, and I hadn’t expected it to feel so very lonely. On that flight, I was a rabbit on the moon, far from home. I remember a kind of glittering vertigo, as the plane circled the immensity of Mexico city, its lighted buildings low and never ending, with black mountains ribboning between the city lights. Landing there was a bringing down to earth in more ways than one. I’d worked hard to get myself airborne and cast up into my own dream of Mexico, but what I found, of course, was someone else home. I was like a baby being rocked awake, into a world where I couldn’t speak (I had no Spanish then), didn’t know how to eat (I remember that for some strange reason we doused tomatoes with iodine). We survived on avocados and the immense goodwill of the many people who took us in and steered us right.
Twenty years after the trip, there are only memories of memories. I can’t be sure if I remember really sitting on a rooftop writing my first letters home ‘Dear my family’ to my father, already housebound by a kind slow paralysis, my mother, and my sister, living their lives back on my earth. I do know though, that I cried. I was a tourist wandering behind a glass, watching other people love each other. Mum and Dad sent their own letters, post-restante to the post-office of whatever town I thought I might visit next, and Mum followed us on a map she had, of Mexico, in our kitchen in Bangor. She was an anchor. Just knowing she was still dreaming us gave me comfort.
Gradually though, over a few months, we made friends, learnt the beginnings of Spanish, learnt to salsa, to cook, to know how much a lettuce should cost, and I felt it, not the moon, but the earth beneath my own two feet for the very first time in my life. The country I’m about to revisit then, was where I discovered my independence as an adult.
When I hear it, the Huastec story, of the Rabbit in the Moon, it’s not that first arrival in Mexico I think of, but my surreal homecoming.
I remember being bewildered in Morrisons, at the cost of vegetables. I spent nights wandering the surreal streets of my town at night, resisting the end of jet lag, living on Mexican time for way longer than I need have, because I wanted to keep hold of the feeling of being on the moon and at home at the same time. I feel the call of that feeling now too, that tension between the hold of your feet to the ground, wherever you are, and that urge we have to lift off, be like the moon. That suspended state, between, say, the earth and the moon, is the kind of state in which I write.
I’m not going to pretend that on this whirwind trip to Mexico, I’ll be anything other than a rabbit in front of headlights, or a rabbit on the moon. I won’t hit the ground almost, before my return flight home. So in my luggage, I’ve brought some pieces of my own ground with me. Writing slates, from Wales, to give to the Mexican writers, new and established that I meet, a symbol of home, of work, industry, history, and where I come from. But also a call to arms: an imperative to write. To write this word here. And this. One day, perhaps I’ll be able to show them how, outside my house in Coed y Parc, the slate tips glint with the moon’s cold light, and we’ll listen to the call of owls, the whirl of bats, as we sit on the moon together.
Alys Conran is Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2019/20, travelling to each Hay Festival edition. Her novels, Dignity and Pigeon, are out now. Find out more about Hay Festival Querétaro here.