Autobiography & Memoir
Elephant and Avocados
It was February 1976 and I was spending six months in Mexico after six exciting months in America, especially California. I had rented out my flat in West Hampstead, London N.W.6 to a doctor and his partner with the proviso they would care for Sesame, my beloved tabby.
My dream was to go over the border from Mexico into Guatemala and spend time in the colonial former capital called Antigua known for teaching pure Spanish and beautiful colourful textile weaving.
I had overspent on the journey from Mexico City to Oaxaca, buying hand embroidered long dresses en route in the local unspoilt weekly market. I was happy to eat plentiful avocados and liquados from the street sellers. Life was cheap and I was carefree.
I was dolefully counting my pesos and wondering how long I could manage 'on the road', when to my amazement I saw a lone painted pink and orange elephant waddling through the primitive streets of Chamula, a Mayan village in the mountains close to San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas. It was adorned with bright orange flowers. Straddled across its back was a Venezuelan contortionist announcing, with a fog horn, that the circus had come to town and the performances would begin the next night. I stopped the elephant immediately and got all the details from pint sized Miguel.
I was fascinated by the the idea of meeting the troupe, clowns, jugglers and acrobats. At once I changed my plans to continue on the next day with some fellow travellers over the border into Guatemala. I wanted to see the show and join the troupe after for dinner as Miguel, the gay dwarf, had invited me.
That afternoon I returned to my hotel for a siesta. In the early evening I noticed that the glass droplets of my glass bedroom lights were quivering intermittently. Puzzled I still went to see the show in a tent in a field at the edge of town but instinctively felt uneasy feeling something was wrong.
It was a wonderful entertaining show even though somewhat amateur by international standards. Miguel, the midget contortionist was like rubber, bending himself in impossible positions. His trademark was his abnormal long tongue which he curled up like a viper and then thrust out suddenly making you jump. He must have been an ace licker!
The next day when we all met for coffee. I mentioned my lights had been shaking. Only then was I told that there had been a huge earthquake in Guatemala affecting the very city I was going to. In fact the massive earthquake struck on February 4, 1976 at 3.01 am so I must have felt the tremors or pre-shocks the evening before. Apparently 23,000 people died, 80,000 injured, 250,000 homes destroyed and 1.5 million inhabitants homeless.
The next day there were reports coming from the seismology centre near the border in Chiapas that the seismic intensity had been high on the scale. I shivered when I heard that cholera had broken out because of broken sewers. We met travellers limping back over the border with horror stories about their experiences.
There by the Grace of God go I. Had I not stopped the elephant and Miguel, I could have been right there. As luck would have it, armed with nothing but creamy avocados, I mounted the bus back to Mexico City and Edificio Condesa in Condesa a building full of artists where I had been staying with Maestro David Lach earlier than expected on a Thursday.
Through synchronicity I met the owner of FMVJ (the twin agency in Paris of the international language school where I had been teaching). I asked the owner if there were any jobs going in Paris and he said yes providing I could be there by Monday.
I flew like a Phoenix to Paris and overnight became a Travel consultant for Mexico and South America in The Latin Quarter, Paris.
A new chapter of my life was about to unfold through a surreal encounter with an elephant and a midget that saved my life. Stranger than fiction.
Written in the Eagle pub, Brighton July 2016.