Lynn Nicholls – eye on Xilitla

a writer's residency

Lynn goes Down Under

I’m off on my travels again. Not to Xilitla this time- I’m going back to Oz, mostly Alexander Technique related but of course some sticky beaking into other places and other people. Mmm my favourite pastime- never know when a short story might pop up- or even the plot of a whole novel. If you’d like to come for the ride it’s in a new blog.





Xilitla in my mind

I’ve been home for a year now, but the vibrancy and colour of Xilitla stays with me. the two local pots I nurtured in my hand luggage survived and now sport a little cactus. When I look out of my window I see the rolling hills of the Sussex Downs- not the chair mountain and thick vegetation of Xilitla. I hardly ever need to walk about with a black umbrellas to keep the sun off and the English spiders are mild mannered compared to the one that bit me in Xilitla (I still have a mark!)

I wrote a series of short stories about my time there, called Postcards From Xilitla and you can see a preview of the book here:

Cheese plant colour


After a month in Xilitla, I have returned to the UK full of memories, images, ideas and antibiotics…

The strongest image I have is of walking from El Castillo to Las Pozas. The incredible heat and humidity, the beauty of the jungle, the breathtaking landscape. I always had my trusty black umbrella, the perfect weapon against both sun and rain. Slow ambling is the best pace and now I’m home, walking in English woodland, I’m still at that pace. Whilst the last of the great british summer is still here, I can continue this unhurried preamble. But when the winds start to blow, no doubt I will move a bit quicker.

Waterfall at Las Pozas

The other main image is the cascading waterfall at Las Pozas, where I would swim, or just sit to cool my body. When hurricane Ernesto came through, bringing a few landslides and a massive volume of water, we couldn’t swim in the pools as they were too dangerous, but only for a day or so, then we were back in the clear water with the green stones glittering on the bottom of the pools and the water foaming white round your legs if you stood in the right place

Guacamole, coca-cola, spiders, jungle, heat, humidity, mosquitoes, sculpture and art. These are the things I was i daily contact with. I would sit in various spots tapping away on my iPad, which mysteriously vanished on the final leg of my journey, never to be seen again… but it was only a piece of equipment, not me!

I made some lovely new friends, wrote a huge section of my novel and completed the first draft, wrote a bit of poetry, took hundreds of photos and generally had a good time. When it was time to leave I was sorry to go but glad to leave at the same time. And above all…

Oh, how I long for tea! 

Oh, how I long for tea!

With golden glow and tangy warmth

To wrap my hands around a cup

And let the tea just fill me up

Oh, how I long for tea!

But I’m not home and there’s no tea

Just coffee dark and bitter

And coca-cola, limonade!

And stuff that makes me shiver

Oh, how I long for tea!

It’s raining hard

It’s cold and wet,

And humid, thunder calling-

It’s foreign, crazy, I regret-

And how I long for tea!

Now it’s sunny, blistering heat

White sky, sizzling pavement

Guacamole, chilli, lime

I find to my amazement!

No one longs for tea.

Oh, how I long for tea!

Just a cup, or three –

And eggs and bacon,

English food, – ah, me!

Oh, how I long for tea.

And my iPad was found by Canadian security in one of their lovely inspection trays! I had been ‘randomly selected’ by their computer for a full body scan- and with only moments before my flight left my attention was not at its best. But my ipad found its way home with all 600 photos and my novel intact! yah!


My two worlds meet

This morning I gave an Alexander Technique workshop in Las Pozas, in the house of the Doves opposite the stairway to heaven to be precise.
I am going home in two days time and it has taken this long for my new friends to actually agree on a time.
I didn’t want to walk as I would arrive soaking wet, so I was zoomed off on the back of Ober’s 4×4. We wizzed up and down the steep hills of Xilitla with me clinging on and trying not to stiffen my neck more than I could help. So I prepared the house of doves as an Alexander studio.

My pupils’ English was not the sort that can cope with subtle explanations so I let my hands do most of the talking, accompanied by expressive ohh’s and ahh’s. I took some elastic I’d bought in the market with me to demonstrate the quality we wanted in our muscles and they all seem to get that idea.
It’s always wonderful if you have a good view for people to aim their heads up and over and that was in ample supply.



Everyone seemed to get an experience of lengthening, such remarks as ‘Oh, Edward James’s doves are lifting me up’, and ‘I am floating up the stairway to heaven without trying’ assured me that I was on the right track.
As always, table turns were popular, and with a small group, everyone got a go.

Now they have had a taste, they want lessons, tomorrow please! But I must pack. I don’t think Xilitla is exactly commutable, but who knows, maybe next year I will come again…
I decided not to go too deeply into the idea of inhibition, but gave them a bit of a hint when we talked about a recent reckless young visitor, who, hearing a landslide, rushed towards it to get a good look, everyone else wisely stayed away. They understood the visitor had acted without thinking and I left it a that.
On the way home (I walked), I had an opportunity to practice a little inhibition of my own in order to photograph this, the spider who weaves a golden web. Huge, but harmless, it is still enough to set off my fear reactions. But I freed my neck, focused my camera, clicked my shutter and then walked rather swiftly away going ‘Eeekkkk’ very loudly inside my head!…


The road to Las Pozas

It’s just over a mile from El Castillo to Las Pozas. You come out of the hotel, turn left and keep walking. It’s a gentle down hill walk through the edge of Xilitla and down the valley. The first half is paved, the second rough stones cut through with little streams from the latest downpour. It was at the point where the road ends and the stones begin I saw my first and so far only snake. It also saw, or felt me and lifted its little head up.
My knowledge of snakes is limited to Kaa of Jungle book fame, but I decided on discretion and gently backed away. The creature moved towards me, or seemed to, so I backed off further. It lay on the path a while, a black and orange streak of unknown menace and then slid off into the grass. When I looked it up later, it was an ‘imitation’ coral snake, not usually aggressive and not deadly like its cousin. I didn’t stop to photograph it!
All along the route are young creatures, children, puppies, baby chicks and kittens with their astonishingly blue eyed mother.

Xilitla is a busy little town and on the first short stretch of road you pass a tae kwon do studio, a basketball hall that doubles as a meeting place for avid Christians who sing late into the night, through megaphones. Mexico is nothing if not vocal. Next to that is the police station and a construction warehouse. Launderettes are frequent and almost every house has a few articles of clothing or shoes hanging outside to sell, or memory sticks and batteries along with the ubiquitous coca-cola that people seem to down by the gallon.
Not far down the road is Xilitla’s branch of AA. Drink is cheap and alcoholism common.

Although it isn’t far, the walk takes me about 45 minutes. Partly because I dawdle and look at everything and partly because moving at any speed through the heat strikes me as a waste of time.
As I turn past the first curve of the road, I nearly always meet an ancient cockerel. He has hardly any neck feathers and twisted feet, but struts about like a king, There are two, younger more handsome cockerels in this little patch but if he approaches them they graciously move away. At this same spot, I often see a horse parked outside a cabin restaurant alongside the big trucks.

Just past this little restaurant the road is dense with jungle foliage, no more houses or little shops or outside stalls, just enormous leaves, lush foliage and the singing of insects. Hurricane Ernesto dumped an astonishing amount of rain here over the last few days and this track is cris crossed with fast streams making their way into the cascades either side of the track. They cut through the soil, bringing up more of the green stones that find their way into paths, mosaics and carvings. When the rains fall, the whole track is like a brown river rushing purposefully down the hill.

Las Pozas is a popular destination both for locals who want to swim in the pools and tourists who want to admire James’s sculptures, so I always meet people on the track. I carry a black umbrella, borrowed from El Castillo. This gives me a minute patch of shade in the sun and a bit of defence against the rains when they come. Sometimes it’s obvious they are on their way, black clouds draw up and the pressure changes, but sometimes they just come with a crack of thunder like a god tearing a sheet of metal. Then the rain drops like a solid sheet and all the small creatures scurry away to hide.

Today is the 105th anniversary of Edward James’s birth and there were celebrations. Carlos built a shrine with flowers and candles.


A birthday cake was consumed and birthday songs sung in Spanish and English. All the people who work in Laz Pozas and several tourists partook of the cake which was washed down with the inevitable coca-cola. Most definitely a good reason to walk the road to Laz Pozas



Of small beasts and large blooms

I do love hibiscus flowers. I buy pale versions of this tropical delight in my local garden centre, care for it tenderly with frequent reference to its needs, delicately brush off the white fly caused by my overwatering and basically oversee its distressingly short journey to the compost heap.
In Xilitla there are no garden centres, although people sell plants in the market. Hibiscus grows in a bewildering variety of colours and I swear the flowers are bigger than any I’ve seen in England. Their elegant long stamens attract the humming birds to feed, little wings a blur as they balance effortlessly in the breeze.


I’m not so keen on large spiders. My new friend Ernesto showed me a photo he had taken of a splendid specimen in Las Pozas, but he made it clear he only admired them in photos, running his fingers, spider like up my arm he shivered and said ‘No, no.’ I agreed wholeheartedly, but neither of us mind the enormous crickets that hop, skip, jump and fly, revealing bright red wings when they do so.

Another beauty I haven’t seen since living in Australia is angels trumpets. They grow so profusely here Gaby is always cutting them back so they don’t allow too many angels in at one time and make too much noise… If you did manage to establish one in a green house in England, you might get enough trumpets for a trainee angel if you’re lucky.

Butterflies and dragon flies are everywhere, the butterflies silent and elegant, the dragonflies rather more jerky in their flight and noisy, they are attracted to water and I often find one floating on the swimming pool. I always rescue them and it’s wonderful to see them recover and take to the air again. The butterflies are shy creatures and make a habit of closing their wings just as you click your camera. Some have surprisingly vibrant underwing designs. This is Miss butterfly with wings open.

And here she is with wings closed.

She is a Mexican silver spot and if you want to look at more Mexican butterflies you can see some here All of a Mexican Flutter
One of my favourite lunch spots is a small guest house half way between El Catillo and Laz Pozas, here you can sit admiring the view over the steep valley with cascade after cascade of the beautiful rich red heliconia flowers hanging from an impromptu pergola. They grow wild, but the owners planted a small specimen and it grew and grew. It is so profuse and rich you feel you are part of a living sculpture of exotic blooms, and indeed you are.


Caught my eye

The great thing about travel is that you can never be sure that things you find unusual are simply part of the furniture of where you are, or genuinely strange or it’s just you. Meeting a tortoise walking around the upper cloister of the church, only reachable after climbing many stairs, did strike me as odd. I couldn’t work out where it came from or where it was going to.

Personal transport tends to be rather eccentric to my eye, fat tyred four-by-four motor bikes are popular, they can cope with the pot holes, don’t seem to mind the steep hills and are often used by local woman to do the shopping, usually with a child or two clinging on the back. Others seem to prefer the tried and tested beetle, even if it is a little past its best.

The local roads being full of pot holes, loose boulders and stones, cracked windscreens are common and clearly no cause for concern. Autoglass would faint, but people still drive around quite happily. There is no MOT in Xilitla.

Back at El Castillo, whilst cyclone Ernesto kicks its tail, the queen of the night flowers open in the dark, hopefull of moths, their scent enhanced by the rain. So intoxicating is its perfume that you can imagine lying down under it and going to sleep, like a horror story I once read about an exotic tree that only bloomed at full moon, luring the unsuspecting into a fatal sleep to fertilise its roots. Fortunately this queen of the night has but the one bloom.
Ernesto bought thunder and lightening last night, sheet lightening so vivid, colours jumped out sharply and then faded back to black.

Walking round the town in the rain my eye is taken by the local barbers, who ply their trade outside, by tradition. The fashion for young boys is to have the sides of their heads shaved close, leaving the hair on top of the head full. It looks cute and they don’t seem to mind being shaved in public.

For me, the prize for the most astonishing thing to catch my eye was this. I can truly say, hand on heart that I’ve never seen anything like it in my life…