A lot of stories but no certainties
Outside on the dusty street, the January sunshine gently warms my face and arms, soothing the deepening ache in my bones. But the minute we walk into the narrow arched tunnels below the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the temperature plummets. Suddenly it is cold and silent. To each side, dark tunnels run to who knew where or what. The main tunnel is lit from above, its full length visible as we walk cautiously, yard by yard, in single file.
The light casts an eerie artificial glare onto the modern intruders who step slowly, carefully, through the chill.
Like a medieval crypt, the tunnel we walk through smells musty, hinting at decades of gently-growing mould. It was only later that I discover that the eight kilometres or so of tunnels were built just last century, as archaeologists sought to unlock the secrets of the world’s biggest and perhaps least-known pyramid – its base four times the size of the great pyramid of Giza.
Almost nothing remains inside these narrow pathways, neither the finds carried away to museums nor the bones of the dead sacrificed to the gods on the many altars above ground.
Several centuries later, although it can only have been ten minutes or so, the nine of us – the patients and their husband, mother or carer – emerge from the vaulted tunnels back into the sunlight on the other side of the pyramid.
Tony, our young driver and guide, tells us that the original pyramid stood some 450 metres wide and 66 metres tall. Yet only fragments of the structure itself can be seen today. Over the course of a thousand years or more, the peoples who lived here before the Spanish conquest built the temples and sites of human sacrifice stone by heavy stone, starting three centuries before the birth of Christ, their task still unfinished nine centuries afterwards.
A gentle Mexican breeze plays through the trees as we walk cautiously across the paths curling around the excavated remains of the pyramid itself. No scent was left behind by the civilizations that created this place, although its scattered physical remains are spectacular.
It became known as Acholollan, a place of refuge, and later as Tlachihualtepetl – the man-made mountain, or so Wikipedia tells me. Today, the pyramid itself, or more accurately pyramid piled upon pyramid, is almost entirely submerged beneath an enormous grassy hill, with scrubby trees and cacti lining a path to the summit.
There at the very top of the slope perches the Church of Our Lady of Remedies, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remediosa, built in 1574 by the Spanish to mark their earlier Christian conquest of this land. Clearly, we have come to the right place for a cure.
Today, Cholula is proud to boast 365 Christian churches, one for each day of the week. Their bells chime faintly across the hill as we walk onwards, calling today’s faithful to prayer, rather than human sacrifice. But long before the Spanish came and massacred many of the city of Cholula’s inhabitants, the farmers and traders who lived and worked here amid the mountains had constructed their many temples to appease their own feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, Aztec God of Wind and Wisdom, who demanded human offerings.
We walk in silence for much of the way across this sacred site. A little of the chill of the tunnels can’t quite be banished from my arms. Beneath one enormous sacrificial altar, now simply a stone glowing harmlessly in the sun, a plaque tells us that the priests asked villagers to bring six- and seven-year-old children to be sacrificed to the gods to ensure that the rains would produce a good harvest.
The deformed and decapitated skulls of those tiny sacrifices were unearthed over the last century, as archaeologists from around the world sought to decode the history of this mysterious place. I wonder for a moment whether the children knew what would happen as they were brought here. Whether it was day or night when they came. Whether they were hungry, or cold. Perhaps they’d been taken to watch earlier human sacrifices and knew what was to come. Did their parents tell them it would be an honour to die for the harvest, so their people could be fed? Did they know how it would end for them?
Hmm, not a bad way to promote discipline among the younger children, notes one of our group drily, interrupting my reverie. We laugh, and it feels as though a spell has been broken.
Is this all true? I ask Tony. “There are lots of stories here, but no certainties,” he says, giving a quick smile beneath his gold-rimmed sunglasses.
Tony is kind, and helps those of us who are struggling to walk the distances around the pyramid. He has endless patience, and always offers us a hand up so that we can clamber back into the little van he uses to take us to and from the clinic most days.
For a brief hour or two, it has been easy for us to forget that we are here for medical treatment, as we lose ourselves in the distant past. Easier, here outside in the sunshine, feeling the flick of a grasshopper jumping busily beneath my feet, not to focus on the fact that these are the last days before the next critical phase of our treatment.
Our own stem cells will be harvested on Thursday January 12th. I wonder what gods we should be propitiating ahead of that harvest, and what we can do to please them. Clearly, child sacrifice is no longer an option, but in our superstitious human hearts and spirits, it would be good to know that the gods or God were smiling on us here in Puebla this week.
Inside my bones, even as we walk in the cold beneath the pyramid, and then the heat outside, I can feel the ache of my new stem cells growing, creating new patterns of pain deep inside the marrow, from my legs to my hips to my knees and even my collarbone. What new birth does not involve pain, I console myself.
Like the tunnels underground, or the sinister hidden glory of the temples above, there is a fathomless mystery happening invisibly inside each of us, as the cells that will form our new immune systems are encouraged to grow with the twice daily injections of filgrastim. Each is administered with gentle care in a quiet morning and evening ritual by the doctors and nurses, those high priests of medicine in their white coats, bearers of the needles, infusions and pills for which we have made our pilgrimage here to Mexico.
Day by day, hour by hour, the miracle of modern medical knowledge is coaxing our own stem cells out of the soft fatty tissue that fills the hollows of our bones, magicking them out of the very essence of ourselves. Our better selves, we hope, that may by some still unknown alchemy become a new immune system resurrected from the old: body and blood working as one again.
And on Saturday January 14th, these hot-housed new-born cells will be transfused back into our eager waiting veins. If all goes well, and there is a bountiful harvest of a million stem cells per kilogram of weight, the young immature cells that have not yet been corrupted by disease, or the complex interaction of genes and circumstance, should emerge to become the new blood cells that will fight disease. And if God or the gods are willing, they will in future protect our bodies from the invading colonisers – the bacteria, viruses and fungi that launch their daily attack on our unwary bodies.
But will they? Yesterday, on Sunday morning, I sat in the peace of the Catholic chapel near our apartment, saying a prayer to our Christian God. I dared to ask for a blessing of this new immune system as it emerges from the darkness of our flesh and bones. I even dared to ask for a second chance – of a healthy, happy life. But do we anger the gods or God with our ceaseless human wishes? I wondered, even as I said that prayer. Have I not had enough good life already, more than forty-nine years on this amazing, bountiful earth? Am I greedy in wanting more? The statue of the Virgin Mary carried on gazing adoringly down on her baby Jesus, and the nun in the chapel gave a dry cough as she tidied the silent pews.
Today, we drive slowly through the 3pm rush-from-lunch-hour traffic back into Puebla, to a Mexican restaurant that serves the local speciality, Mole Poblano: chicken in a chocolate and chile sauce. Like the Great Pyramid of Cholula, it is the quite remarkable result of the mixing of many civilisations, and perhaps something of an acquired taste.
“The Aztecs and Mayans may have invented chocolate, but the Spanish added the milk,” Tony says proudly as we eat and drink, tired after our trek.
The Mole Poblano that the waiter brings with a flourish today turns out to be an ocean-liner of chicken swimming in a thick sea of sauce made from chocolate, chile, peanuts, almonds, bananas and even tomatoes, producing a spicy and unexpected cacophony of flavours.
For a brief moment, it is clear that the Aztec peoples whose lives were changed forever in 1519 when the Spanish came to conquer their lands are still there – buried deep in the dishes on our table, in the rich honeyed flavours that we taste and the aromas that drift across the table as we sit and talk of the week and the treatment still to come.
Slightly wobbly after the day’s exertions, we leave the restaurant quietly and emerge into the January sun. In the distance, the hazy blue of the volcano Popocatapetl smoulders gently on the horizon, a trail of smoke curling up into the heavens.
Tony drives carefully through the busy roads back to our apartment block, taking care of his fragile human cargo, as all around us the city of Puebla bustles about its daily business, oblivious to the miracle happening right now inside our veins.
Whether that feathered serpent, the Aztec god of wind and wisdom still watches over his cities beneath the volcanoes, I do not know. Nor do I really know for sure whether our Christian God, the merciful God of the resurrection and the transformation of the body and the blood, is watching over all of us today. All I know is that as we journey onwards in this ancient land of sacrifice, we are yet another step closer to what we hope will be a plentiful harvest of healing new blood.