Sunday, June 14, 2009

A balancing act

Untitled, Malecon, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, June 2007.

Along the boardwalk of Puerto Vallarta's malecon (literally, a pier), on a narrow stretch of beach, you will find these young men when the winds are calm and the tourists are aplenty, balancing rocks on top of stones. They do this feat of marvel for the tourists' coins and cameras, but anyone who observes carefully can tell that they are also doing it for themselves. They're competing; and the rivalry is fierce and palpable: to pile higher, to balance larger on top of smaller, to make it stick. They check each other out, oblivious to the crowd, clutching a rock using both hands with laserlike focus. It seems like an eternity, but when they finally release their grip on a rock, it remains standing on its tip like a ballerina's foot on pointe.

The malecon dons the air of a fiesta on weekends when the locals come out to stroll along the pier, mingle with tourists, and watch all sorts of performers vie for the attention of the crowds. A few feet away from the rock balancers, a troupe of Huichol Indians who call themselves Flying Birdmen, spin like a carnival ride across the air as they are slowly lowered to the ground by wires attached to an 80-foot pole. The spectacle, supervised by a flute-playing shaman, is derived from a Huichol ritual and is meant to symbolize the meeting of heaven and earth. Elsewhere on this festive block, musicians play traditional folk songs; a mime performs in a small sunken amphitheater near the beach; and a group of young girls watch everything transpire from a narrow stone footbridge over the canal, which is the best seat in the house.

On the walk back to the sentro, we pass the rock balancers who are still at it. Their handiwork lines the beach like monoliths from Easter Island. Even as the late afternoon wind blows through the pier and the waves hit the shore a little harder than before, the rocks remain glued to each other without a wiggle.

It says a lot about the grace of a community when its residents can gather together in festive spirit. Festivity, like religious ritual (of which Puerto Vallarta has many), keeps the balance in a community; it gives its people respite from reality so they don't topple over.

Flying Huichol Birdmen

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