Tropical snowstorms and guerrilla convoys on the road to Toluca

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The Independent US

The rebel convoy was running late and the wind-driven horizontal rain stung my face, so I ducked inside the village church at Nurio for sanctuary from the storm. Old lace and satin ribbons were draped from the rafters, and a few soggy worshippers knelt near a glass box beside the altar which was labelled with a blue neon sign, "Lord of Miracles".

The rebel convoy was running late and the wind-driven horizontal rain stung my face, so I ducked inside the village church at Nurio for sanctuary from the storm. Old lace and satin ribbons were draped from the rafters, and a few soggy worshippers knelt near a glass box beside the altar which was labelled with a blue neon sign, "Lord of Miracles".

Inside was a long-lashed saviour on a crucifix, his loincloth hidden by a velvet dirndl skirt. It probably would take a miracle to get Subcomandante Marcos and his Zapatista guerrillas here on the plaza before my deadline.

Across the aisle, a flashing disco ball illuminated a 17th century statue of an obscure saint on a steed, treading on a heretic, and I drew close to examine the special effects. Moments later, irreverent reveries were interrupted when strangers started slapping me. I'd got too near a votive candle and my synthetic trousers had burst into flames. By the time we beat them out, there was a large gap exposing my left thigh, which I could just cover with my notebook.

But at least it was dark now and I could slink into the crowd, most of whom were huddling under shower curtains or bin liners.

Through the rattle of rain on plastic, the leaders from Mexico's 56 main indigenous groups were listening for the grind of gears and the arrival of the graffiti-daubed guerrilla buses from Mexico's southeastern jungle.

On the off-chance that the secretive Subcomandante Marcos might have to wring out his soaked balaclava, and so publicly expose his face for the first time in seven years of revolution, I hunkered down and waited, while the wind whistled.

Hours went by. But eventually the guerrillas and camp followers came rumbling up the cobblestones, overwhelming the little hamlet with almost 200 vehicles.

A firework display, spelling out the letters EZLN (the Spanish initials for National Zapatista Liberation Army), was a damp squib, but the plaza erupted in shouts of solidarity and clenched fists. The speeches demanding rights for umpteen different ethnic groups were mercifully brief, and numb hands couldn't applaud too long. So by 10pm, with my deadline 12 hours gone, I headed for the motorway with some Canadian newscasters, expecting to reach home within four hours. The alternative was camping out in a muddy schoolyard, and the rain wasn't letting up.

Who'd have predicted a tropical blizzard? As we neared the pass into Mexico City, almost 9,000ft high, snowflakes danced in the headlights. One of those incongruous Zapatista ski masks would have come in handy now.

A tailback of juggernauts clogged the motorway turn-off, and a man with a clipboard rapped on the window. "This road is closed, amigos. You'd better pull over." The Canadians shrugged. Without evidence that any trucks had slid or flipped on their sides to barricade the lanes, they were determined to continue. "These guys are frightened by a little white stuff," said our intrepid driver. "They're just not used to it. There's nothing on the radio about any danger. Let's try the back road by the Toluca airport."

Again, there was an impromptu roadblock and warnings not to proceed. Our driver, who was trying to meet his girlfriend by 2:30am, flashed his press pass to jump the queue, assuring the officials we'd been sent to film this freak storm.

Half a mile later, our wheels started spinning uselessly, getting no traction on the soft new snowfall. He admitted sheepishly that we were stranded. We'd have to wait it out until dawn, fitfully snoozing in a van stuffed with TV gear. It was chilly, but with four of us for body heat, we were unlikely to freeze.

At daybreak, we were woken by a thump. A rescue squad of Mexican soldiers, many who had never seen snow before, were engaged in a pitched snowball fight.

Reinforcements of soldiers with shovels were on the way, they promised, because 500 motorists needed digging out. Frosted yuccas and cactus loomed like modern sculptures, and tiny donkeys shivered beneath them.

The wind had dropped, and the capital of 20 million inhabitants sparkled in the distance, the valley rimmed with snow-topped volcanoes and ridges. The storm had scoured away all pollution, and we were first to see the breathtaking vista. This was our miracle. Already, there was a traffic mass coming the other direction, mostly families intent on putting a snowman on their car bonnet and cruising the streets until the sun melted it. By the time the Zapatistas got to Toluca, there would be no snowballs left to toss.

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