In Mexico City, a metropolis subjected to the rhythm of twenty one million pulses and steps, I set out to witness a unique place of solitude and devotion. Oh, and dolls.
Today is the day. I’m going to dive into the crowd, do some human slalom on the metro and head to Xochimilco. My idea is to leave crowded urban Mexico City and check out this weird island I have come across, the Island of Dolls. On the train are the usual metro dwellers and beggars, plus plenty of shouting peddlers selling everything from batteries to spicy chocolate. What I’m really not prepared for is this young Mexican guy’s performance. He is walking shirtless through the subway car, in a confident strut, shouting “no me julgues, no me ignores, da me tu propina!”, which means something like “don’t judge me, don’t ignore me, tip me!” When he reaches the center of the car, he suddenly unfolds his shirt, which he has been holding in his hand, and reveals a pile of shattered glass. He spreads the glass onto the floor, and I can’t help but stare with eyes wide open as he tosses his body onto the pile only to quickly get up again and shout some more, with no concerns at all for his bloody skin. I look around me but find no discernible reaction. Nothing. Just another normal day on the subway for most. For me, I guess, a weird omen of what is to come.
After two hours of bizarre metro time, I find myself in an idyllic, gorgeous landscape. I simply cannot believe I am still in the same city. Canals, empty little islands everywhere – and silence! Oh what a beautiful silence! Coming from the high noise level of the Zocalo, the city’s main square, it is really blissful to hear only an occasional grumpy duck or the splash of a frog. I gladly let this wave of tranquility carry me into a brightly colored gondola, which slides with me through the almost still waters of Xochimilco. In the end, I have almost forgotten why I am here. I’m reminded, after about two hours, when a squeaky voice wakes me by shouting: “Llegamos guey!” The gondola is slowly approaching the Isla de Las Munecas, the Dolls Island, where I am greeted by Chope, a short, stumpy man sporting a straw hat and a simple smile.
Nomen est omen indeed. Everywhere I look, in the trees, in the rudimentary constructions, hanging in ropes, my eyes are greeted by dolls – all in different stages of decay, some even decapitated. Baby dolls, Barbies, little girl dolls. I am in the middle of nowhere, no-man’s-land, with swamps all around me, and all I see is human shapes. Children shapes! Creepy sight? Bizarre, to say the least. The first question on my mind is, of course, why? Chope patiently explains that his uncle Julian Santana came to live on this island as a hermit fifty years ago. He left everything behind to live an isolated life in the wilderness. One day he saw a little girl drown and couldn’t save her. After that, Don Julian devoted his life honoring the soul of the girl he couldn’t save by putting up dolls which reminded him of her. He found them in the trash or in the nearby canals. He also believed the dolls would chase away the evil spirits that regularly visited the island and at the same time protect his crops. For thirty years, Julian Santana neveronce left his “haunted” but doll-protected island.
Juan Carlos, the gondola man, tells me that he brings quite a few of people here who want to witness Don Julian’s lifework. Some come at night, he tells me, the ones “que tienen una onda Voodoo, de Santeria”. I can see this place being a sort of magnet for occult enthusiasts and voodoo tourists. But the creepy aspect is not what sticks with me most. What impresses me about this whole story is the simplicity of a man’s life. A man who decided to turn his back on the world, to live his own life for his own creed, in a literally self-created safe haven. To me, it really doesn’t matter how bizarre it is, it simply was his own. As a travel experience, it was very gratifying. It was an escapade of contrast, which always pleases me when I’m on the go. To be in Mexico City, in the middle of the constant frantic city rhythm and to witness a life of solitude, in the middle of nowhere, was fantastic. As I head back I kind of understand Don Julian’s self-imposed isolation. Sometimes you can only feel free if you live by your own rules, in your own space… independent and remote.