Barbara Joan Schaffer
CATEMACO: WITCHES, BABOONS, AND MEL GIBSON
The brujo (sorcerer, male witch) told me the cards never lie. The cards said I would have no money problems. The brujo was impressed. I guess he doesn’t see too many people with well-vested pension funds. He also saw no health issues, but health has never been a major concern. “What about love?” I asked. “What about the man who’s waiting for me in the other room?” He placed more cards in front of him. I see good cards and I see bad cards, he said. Again no surprise. Maybe I’d used up all the good cards with money and health. At least I wasn’t going to go broke or make myself sick while suffering the consequences of an on-again off-again affair. Then as if to give me consolation, almost as an afterthought, he said, ”I do see a new man in your future”. No news on how that will play out.
It was already dark, when we drove into Catemaco on our way back to Puerto Escondido from Veracruz. Catemaco is famous for its brujos, but we didn’t realize they would be so easy to find. Immediately upon entering the town a man on a motorcycle signaled us to stop. He presented us with his badge, as if he were a policeman, and told us he was an agent of the town’s office of tourism. He would help us to find a hotel and make any other arrangements we might require. And, by the way, would we like to see a brujo? Brujos only do consultations on two days of the week and as luck would have it today was one of them.
Hector, as he called himself, turned out to be a very well spoken, even urbane, good-looking man of around 40. He asked what had prompted me to consult him, and I said I was just curious to see a witch. He accepted that and proceeded to have me shuffle and cut a well-worn pack of Tarot cards. After the reading he asked me where I lived. When I told him Puerto Escondido, he lost his professional aloofness and asked if I knew so-and-so, a Canadian who lived there. I didn’t. I wound up giving him my phone number so he could look me up the next time he was in town.
Besides witches, Catemaco is famous for its monkeys. Thirty-two stump tailed macaques (commonly called baboons, although not true baboons) were brought from Thailand to an island in the laguna by the University of Veracruz in 1974 for behavioral research, and, for all I know, they may still be the object of study. (There’s a paper on the Internet about this colony’s matrilineal grooming patterns.) The monkeys, being no fools, have established themselves as a thriving tourist attraction. The primatologists are not happy about this. They would prefer that the two species (theirs and ours) remain separate, a condition not observed in their native Asian habitat where the macaques regularly pillage crops and even enter humble, rural dwellings. They too have discovered the benefits of agriculture.
We had given our guide a few pesos to buy bananas before we set out in the launch for the tour of the laguna. When we approached Monkey Island, the high point of the trip, we threw the bananas to the front of the boat where the monkeys scampered for their treats. Forewarned by the boatman, we clutched our possessions. The monkeys are known to steal. Seeing Thai monkeys in the wild, as it were, in rural Mexico is not unlike coming across, say, a colony of Welsh people in the Patagonian boonies or a Basque community in Bakersfield, California. In other words, they are inbred and somewhat out of synch with their environment, but they have also found a niche for themselves in which they more or less flourish.
I ask the boatman if any of the monkeys has ever escaped. He tells us that one or two of them once made it off the island to the coast. They were captured, but they couldn’t be brought back to the island again lest they tell their compatriots. Who knows what ecological havoc they could wreak if they colonized the countryside? Of course it would be nothing compared to what our primate family has already done; I wish the monkeys luck.
During our brief stay in Catemaco we were treated to yet another trans-national rarity; Mel Gibson was in the area to make a film about the Maya. We didn’t see Mel but we did have dinner at the hotel where some of his crew was staying. Outside of Mexico City, I’d never seen young Australians and Americans without suntans. But here they were in all their whiteness attached to their laptops which were plugged into new sockets in the restaurant’s columns. It was impossible to tell if they were editing videos, playing video games, or instant-messaging their friends or co-workers. What they were was intense and oblivious of their surroundings; they sprawled in their chairs in the manner of long-legged college students, only acknowledging their own existence and that of their peers, as if the restaurant - one of the best in town - was the office of an Internet start-up. What would happen if any of these exotic primates escaped? I wondered. Would they go native or would they infect the natives with their technology and single-mindedness? At the moment they were just another tourist attraction.