Snapshot of a tragedy

Karen Kissane with Sze Kai Chen and Daniella Miletic

It started with a child left in a train station. Then came a missing father and the discovery of the mother’s body in a car boot. Karen Kissane, Sze Kai Chen and Daniella Miletic follow the trail.
IT WAS never going to be easy to be married to a god; the gods are often capricious with the lives of mere mortals. But Anan Liu apparently saw it as the way into her promised land. She could not have known that it would lead to an ugly death, and to the abandonment of her small child to the kindness of strangers.
The man she married, Nai Yin Xue – the man who discarded his three-year-old daughter at a Melbourne train station a week ago, the man whose young wife’s body was this week found in the boot of his car in Auckland – wrote a book in 1998 in which he described himself as a gift to his mother from the gods.
The Pearl of Wu-style Tai Chi: the life of Xue Nai Yin is a biography written in the style of a Chinese folk tale. Xue, now the target of an international police hunt, wrote of a magical conception.
He claimed that his childless, ageing mother had gone to the temple to pray for a son. As she placed joss sticks in an urn, thunder roared, lightning struck and the heavens opened.
That night, a bearded old man in richly decorated clothes appeared in a dream to his mother. He said, “You will soon have a son. You are to take good care of him and bring him up well. He is going to be a great and successful man.” He then blew over her.
She fell pregnant and told her husband, “My pregnancy is a secret gift from the gods.” They named the child Naixi, meaning “the stamp of royalty”, after a fortune teller also told her the boy was destined to be a great man. Xue’s name was changed to Nai Yin when he started school; in New Zealand, to which he emigrated in 1996, he called himself Michael.
There’s nothing like a good start in life to give a man a fine opinion of himself. And by all accounts this week, the man at the centre of this extraordinary family tragedy rarely doubted the rightness of putting himself first.
A week ago today, Xue walked into Melbourne’s Southern Cross railway station with his three-year-old daughter, Qian Xun. In security-camera images that have since become world famous, he let go of her hand and walked out of her life.
The child was rescued by security guards. The hunt for her missing parents became a homicide investigation after Qian Xun’s mother, Anan Liu, was found dead.
Liu and Xue are believed to have met when she became a boarder in his house in Auckland. He had gone to New Zealand, according to his biography, because he had no choice but to leave China if he was to fulfil his destiny of spreading his martial arts – a combination of kung fu and tai chi – around the world.
In 2006, he claimed to a documentary maker that he was revered by 40,000 adherents, most of them in America. He was featured on the cover of an American tai chi magazine.
In his biography, written in his native language of Mandarin, Xue said that by 1982 he was already the master of eight martial arts societies and two kung fu schools. He published a Chinese-language newspaper in Auckland but is believed to have been in financial trouble by the time he fled New Zealand 10 days ago.
Qian Xun, nicknamed “Pumpkin” because of the Pumpkin Patch clothes she was found in at the train station, was not the only daughter Xue had discarded. He had another daughter from an earlier marriage.
Grace Xue, now 27, this week came forward and said she was abandoned by him at the age of 19 in Auckland, a foreign city where she had no money and could not speak the language.
She had not known she had a half-sister. She said she was distressed to see Qian Xun abandoned but was not surprised when she learned who had left her behind. “I think he loved himself way more than he ever loved anybody else.”
Anan Liu was a slender, pretty young woman and an only child of parents who are prosperous by Chinese standards. She was born in 1980 in Changsha, in the province of Hunan, and went to New Zealand about five years ago to learn English, an education that was paid for by her family. According to an internet report by someone who claims to have been her friend, Liu was desperate to stay in New Zealand but failed the English language test. She was said to have married Xue, now 54 and a man twice her age, to win residency.
But one family friend said he did not believe it was a marriage of convenience. Yue Gang Wang is a businessman who lived in Auckland for 10 years before returning to Beijing in 2005. He met the family when Qian Xun was two or three months old.
“I don’t think Anan married Nai Yin to enhance her social status,” he says. “If you read some of the articles she wrote about him (published in local Chinese newspapers in NZ), you can tell that she idolised him. She must have loved him.”
But Wang says the Lius frowned upon the marriage. Speaking from Beijing through an interpreter, he says, “They have never met him. Anan and Qian Xun returned to Changsha once to visit the grandparents, but Nai Yin never went with them.” Wang believes the family thought Xue was too old for Liu, and that he was not financially secure enough to provide for her.
He remembers Liu once saying that she and her husband might try for a second child. “You know, as a well-known wushu expert, Nai Yin would have wanted a son to carry on the family name.
” ‘What if it is a girl?’ ” I asked Anan. She laughed and said, ‘Then I will stop.’ ”
It was a marriage in which he talked and she listened, according to Tony Wright, a tutor at the NZ university Unitec. He followed Xue for a week as he supervised a student making a documentary about Xue’s “missing” older daughter, Grace.
Recalls Wright, “He was quite self-important. The walls of his house were covered in massive posters of himself doing his martial arts poses, looking very proud. There weren’t posters of him and his family on the walls.”
Xue, whose English was poor, through a translator ordered Wright not to speak to Anan Liu: “Basically, it was, ‘This is my documentary. Don’t talk to my wife. Talk to me at all times.’
“He certainly was in charge. I got the sense that this was his house, it wasn’t their house, and that this is my wife and this is my baby. He did not talk about his wife and how much he loved her; it was all about how much he loved his martial arts career.”
Wright watched unconvinced as Xue wept on film about the supposed loss of his older daughter and about how his new baby gave him a second chance to be a good father: “I said at the time I didn’t believe his tears. He was completely putting it on. He enjoyed having a camera on him.”
They filmed in Xue’s garage, which was full of martial arts weaponry, Wright recalls: “Some of it was ceremonial and cheaply made, but others were the real thing: swords, big axes, long spears with a cutty thing on the end.”
If Xue saw himself as a personification of the Chinese principle of yang – of masculine energy that is forceful and action-oriented – Liu was more yin, a quiet, romantic dreamer. Says Wang, “Anan was a good person, maybe a little innocent and naive, but she had no bad points.”
On her Mandarin blog, she used flowery imagery to write of love and loss and longing.
Her last sorrowful entry was on Monday, September 10, not long before her death. “Living in this world, a lot of the time we live in difficulty and loneliness,” she wrote. “If the conclusion of happiness must always be pain, I would rather I’d never been happy.”
In an earlier entry, on July 12, she had been even more forlorn. She wrote in blank verse:
Can’t find someone to love
And can’t find someone to love me
What meaning is there to go on living?
To live is to continue suffering
It is now clear that there was “a history of domestic violence”, to use the formal parlance for the bashing of loved ones. In one attack, little Qian Xun was injured too. On September 20 last year, the couple reportedly fought over money. Xue threw a mobile phone at Liu, who was holding Qian Xun, then aged two. The phone bounced off Liu and hit Qian Xun in the head, leaving a small cut and swelling. Xue then punched his wife two or three times, striking her above her right eye and on her nose.
While the child was in her mother’s arms, Xue allegedly held a 30-centimetre knife to his wife’s stomach and said, “I treat you good and you don’t treat me very well. I love you but you don’t love me. I am going to kill you!”
Liu begged Xue for her life and gave him money to placate him before fleeing. At one point she stayed in the Shakti refuge for Asian women in Auckland.
This is an international story and one that has caught alight in cyberspace. According to one uncorroborated entry by a Chinese woman on a New Zealand website, Liu arrived at the refuge bruised and cried through swollen, blackened eyes. The entry claimed Liu said her husband demanded sex daily and had seized her passport to stop her leaving him; he had threatened that if she tried to leave, he would kill Liu and her family.
According to this report, the fight that ended in violence was not over money but over the fact that Liu had been hunting for her passport and instead found a gun. “Xue happened to see this. He beat Annie and threatened her with a knife.”
During the separation, Liu had a relationship with a married man whom she deeply loved, according to her blog, but whose “love nest” she had to flee the week before his wife returned to him. “Fool around, but don’t fall in love,” she wrote of it later. “The deeper the love, the more painful is the hurt . . . Forget it, forget about it, let it go with the wind.”
Liu was looking for love and was not always entirely honest in her search for it. She advertised herself on an internet dating site as someone who was divorced and childless. In the end, she went back to Xue. Upon returning with her daughter from Wellington last month, Liu had two demands for her husband: the first was that he rent office space so that he was not always at their Mount Roskill home, and the second was a car. She believed having her own car would give her independence and freedom.
Xue agreed.
But the marriage still suffered, according to family friends. “(He) was still not happy in life, she also not happy in life,” one said. He had spoken to several people about wanting to kill his wife.
One of the last people to see Xue was Raymond Tang, 52, who owns Love a Duck BBQ Cafe and has known Xue since he first came to Auckland from China.
Mr Tang remembers Nai Yin Xue as a friendly looking man but a bit of a fabulist: “When he say something, he was always promoting more than the truth.”
Mr Xue was a regular customer at the cafe. He mostly came in on Wednesday. Last Wednesday, he came to the restaurant with a child.
“That day he did not appear to be any different. He appeared to be caring for a small little girl and asked her what she would like to eat. She said seafood, so he ordered her seafood noodles and fish congee (porridge) for himself. He wanted to use the phone to make a call for a friend to come join him for lunch. She told him she had already eaten, so he and the little girl ate.”
The following day, Xue and his child boarded a plane to Melbourne. On the following Saturday, he took the girl to Southern Cross Station, let go of her hand on a platform, and left her. He is believed now to be in America. He had boarded a flight to Los Angeles.
On Wednesday, the body of Anan Liu, 27, was found curled up in the boot of her husband’s car outside the white weatherboard family home. She had been there for at least a week. The crowds of reporters milling in her street, the neighbours sitting on their steps watching the police spectacle, had all been looking at her tomb. Some had even leant against it.
The shambolic delay, which led papers to coin phrases such as “Kiwistone cops”, was defended by police, who said they had to wait for a warrant because the car was on the road rather than on the property.
For Liu’s mother, Liu Xiaoping, the loss of her only child has been devastating. Liu’s maternal grandparents, who are in their 80s, “definitely will not be able to take the news, so the family has decided to keep the truth from them”, said Wang.
He said he last spoke to a member of the Liu family on the telephone from Beijing on Wednesday. “Every time the phone rings she gets distraught and she’s terrified of the media knocking on her door.”
The family has also been upset by some of the more insensitive comments posted on news forums since the body was found.
Many of the remarks are sympathetic. Wrote one woman: “I am myself the mother of a three-year-old girl. When I saw the picture of a small little girl standing alone in the big hall, my heart aches . . . How can the person be so ruthless!”
But others are judgemental of Liu: “She married a man but she was fooling around with other guys. She said she was divorced without kids. She was talking bullshit, lying to everyone on the internet and trying to cheat the next man. Shame on her!”
Wang said the mourning family asked the media and the public “for respect of the dead, and to restrain themselves”. He said, “They don’t understand (the comments). They think it shows no respect for Anan. They wonder why people can be so cruel and cold-blooded.”
Forensic psychologist Ian Joblin, asked to explain the thinking of men who use violence against their families, said, “Often these guys are very self-centred. We often find that the men feel the females are in the way, or challenging or threatening their ego, and in order to eliminate that threat, they kill them.”
As for the dumping of children: “Again, they are in the way. ‘She’s not part of my plan. She’s not part of what I want to do.’ ”
Three-year-old Qian Xun is with a Melbourne family who will care for her until she returns to New Zealand. She enjoys Vegemite on toast for her breakfast and is mostly calm but sometimes becomes distressed when she asks for her mother. She responded animatedly when she caught sight of her mother’s photograph on television. Authorities will not say whether she has been told of her mother’s death.
Qian Xun’s grandmother is making arrangements to fly to New Zealand from China and will seek custody of her. No funeral arrangements are yet in place for Anan Liu. Qian Xun’s older half-sister, Grace, 27, whom she has never met, is also interested in making the child part of her family in New Zealand. The tabloids will be waiting to see whether to dust off their “tug-of-love” headlines.
For many of her compatriots, meanwhile, Anan Liu’s death has meant some soul-searching. Posted one in broken English this week: “No one can blame her any more. She was so helpless when she was in a foreign country. I just want to tell a lesson to anyone who wants to go overseas from China: Foreign country is not a heaven. Don’t get marry for just a visa. Stay in your home country and maybe you can find your true dream and real love.”Karen Kissane is law and justice editor. Sze Kai Chen is an Age journalist. Daniella Miletic is an Age reporter.
Anan Liu’s Blog entry for August 29
He is a married man, even has a two-year-old daughter. This dooms
he and I to a fleeting affair.
He’s lonely, I’m lonely, dry rice meets fire (connotes a sexual
encounter), therefore what should happen already happened.
Like a family living happily together for almost two months.
I found myself deeply in love with this a little bad and very cute guy.
Fool around, but don’t fall in love.
This is a truism.
The deeper the love, the most painful is the hurt.
The week before his wife returned, I drove away and fled our little
love nest, fled the city that belongs to him.
I’m a deserter of love, but if I can’t have everything, I’d rather do
without, that’s my principle.
The heart, cut like a knife. A wounded heart. Tears, on the face.
There’s a kind of love called letting go, giving up eternity
because of love.
My dear, so as not to hurt other innocent people, I’ve put my
heart out to be hurt the deepest.
You’ll never know, how much I’m reluctant to let you go.
You’ll never understand, how hard it is to love someone, how
hard it is to forget you.
There’ll never be anyone who loves you as deeply as I do,
this you’ll never understand.
Forget it, forget about it, let all go with the wind.
If years later, we meet in a crowd, I’ll walk to you, smilingly
look into your eyes, softly ask, “How are you?”
In a city without him, everything slowly returns to peace.”

First published in The Age.

Tears in court over children

THE Farquharson boys wanted dinner with their dad on Father’s Day because they knew it would be KFC, their mother told the Supreme Court yesterday.

She dropped them off at their father’s, stayed while he opened his presents from them, and gave them a goodbye cuddle: “That was at three o’clock. That was the last time I saw my children.”

About 7.30 that night, a soaked Robert Farquharson appeared at her house saying something about the three boys being in a dam. She rang her new partner, Stephen Moules, and got into her car.

She now estimates she must have raced down the Princes Highway at 145 km/h trying to get to them. She has no memory of reversing down her driveway.

In the back seat of her car was her wet and incoherent former husband. In the front seat was Zac, her new partner’s eldest child. Zac had wanted to catch up with her boys and was at her house waiting for them to return.

Yesterday, Ms Gambino recalled: “Zac started getting upset, saying, ‘Cindy, you’re frightening me. Can you slow down?’ And I said, ‘I’ve got to get to the kids, got to get to the kids!’ And I kept … saying to Rob, ‘Where? Where? Where?’ And he said, ‘Keep going. Keep going.”‘

She rushed through much of her evidence yesterday. Her eyes were full of tears and her voice was often strangled but the story of that night poured from her with almost no help from her questioner, prosecutor Jeremy Rapke, QC.

She said that when they got near the dam, “we couldn’t find where the car was and we couldn’t see the dam.

“It was so dark, we couldn’t see anything. Rob tried to comfort me at one point and I pushed him away. By that time Stephen was on the scene.”

She cannot remember much after that: “I was too hysterical. I remember Stephen being very angry with Rob because Rob … asked him for a cigarette, and Stephen said, ‘What! Where are your kids? Get out of my face before I kill you! Where are your kids?”‘

Farquharson, 38, has pleaded not guilty to the murder of his three sons, Jai, 10, Tyler, 7, and Bailey, 2, who drowned in a dam seven kilometres east of Winchelsea on September 4, 2005, after the car he was driving ended up in the water.

Farquharson has claimed he had a coughing fit that made him black out, and the car careered across the road and into the dam. Witnesses have told the court that he said he tried to get the children out of the car but failed.

That night, Mr Moules took off his jacket and boots and dived into the dam to look for the children. The water was so cold it took his breath away, he told the court. Ms Gambino noticed Farquharson standing with his arms crossed: “He wasn’t doing anything, he was just like in a trance.”

She said she was at the scene for about an hour. “The paramedic walked up to me and I said, ‘How long has it been?’ He said 40 minutes since they’d got there and I said, ‘What are their chances?’ and he said, ‘Very slim.”‘

Ms Gambino said the marriage had been difficult off and on since her first pregnancy. She had trouble “giving my heart” to her husband because of unresolved grief over a former boyfriend who had died and because she suffered from depression after Jai’s birth.

There were financial problems, she said: Farquharson wanted to work for himself and they sank most of the money he received from a redundancy payout from the local shire into a franchise of Jim’s Mowing. They lost $40,000 on it.

She said Farquharson became depressed after his mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2000.

Ms Gambino said he was devastated when she ended the marriage — “I guess it was a case of you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” — and that he did not react well to her relationship with Mr Moules, which developed only after the separation.

Farquharson feared Mr Moules would take his place as a father to the boys. She told him this would never happen.

She said Farquharson was also angry that she had kept the better car and over the level of maintenance the Child Support Agency required him to pay.

She said that on the Wednesday before the boys died, she had told him to cut back on the money he paid her because she would prefer him to set himself up in a nice home for the boys’ sake.

He told her it would not be legal to reduce the payments.

Under cross-examination by Peter Morrissey, Ms Gambino agreed that her husband used to get bad coughs that interfered with his breathing.

She said she had never seen him pass out from a coughing fit.

The children’s discipline always fell to her, she agreed: “Rob was a bit of a softie.”

The trial continues before Justice Philip Cummins.

First published in The Age.

Life in ruins: Mexico

Karen Kissane digs through the complex layers of Mexico’s modern life and discovers ancient mystery and wonder.

The young man with gelled hair and artfully torn jeans leaves his girlfriend on the sidelines of the dance floor and takes up with his little sister. He holds himself proudly, with the machismo of the Latino, as his hands move her and spin her around. She is half his height but holds herself like a princess, concentrating so as not to miss a step, her face alight.Near them is a small Mayan man in black pants so old they have shiny patches. In his pork-pie hat he wears a jaunty feather. He holds his stout wife as she snake-hips her way through the salsa. Beside them is a four-year-old with her mother and grandmother, swaying to the music, her gaze distant, her body moving with the rhythms of the band.They all dance under a simple awning erected in the square outside one of Oaxaca’s churches. The Mexican evening is warm and benevolent, like the mood of the people sitting in rows of plastic seats to watch and clap and gossip. Oaxaca is a big town but this is a village moment; when communal happiness seems a simple thing, easily grasped.Two weeks later, when I was long gone, charming Oaxaca exploded into riots quelled with troops and tear gas. The riots are linked to those of last year when teachers went on strike and “occupied” the centre of town. Back then, gunmen allegedly killed three people and the federal government sent in 3000 troops to end the protest by force. The clampdown saw several protesters killed and fuelled local fury about social inequity.

As with so much of Mexico, the beautiful city of Oaxaca is bewitching and deeply volatile. This is a country in which history may be built upon or even subsumed, but it is rarely forgotten; in which a sense of injustice at oppression runs deep, through many layers of society; and in which death is celebrated in a way that makes life more vivid.

The ancient ruins are magnificent, the modern plumbing erratic. The humour comes dry and the margaritas come in goblets the size of fishbowls. For the Western tourist seeking relief from Anglo blandness, it doesn’t get much better than Mexico.

It didn’t seem like that at first. My first stop, Mexico City, or Distro Federal, is grey and crowded. The severe architecture of its huge square, the Plaza de la Constitucion (known as the Zocalo), bounded by the presidential palace and the cathedral, is grand but dour. The charm of the shops in its historic precinct is compromised more than a little by the security guards with submachine-guns lounging in doorways – not just in the high-end shops such as jewellers but even in chemists and bakeries.

One night, when I’m tucked in bed with a guidebook, the reason for the tight security becomes clear. Mugging and carjacking are common in Mexico City, and on regional roads whole busloads have been hijacked. A decade ago the country was also notorious for its kidnappings, though these have been reined in.

So I fear the worst when woken at 3am by gunfire and police sirens in the square outside. Another member of the tour pokes his head out a window and is confused by the sight of someone sitting in a fold-up chair in the middle of the chaos outside. We ask about it at the front desk next morning and are left feeling sheepish; it had been the shooting of a TV show. That is the closest any of us – six Australians travelling with a local guide, a driver and minivan – come to a crime over 15 days and 3800 kilometres in Mexico.

I learn that Mexico City wears its colours on the inside. Behind many of those dark facades of fume-stained stone is a riot of decoration – Moorish Spanish colonial tiles and arches, ironwork, fountains, paintings, balustrades.

The city holds fast to its sense of history. A statue near the hotel depicts the story of the city’s founding. The Aztecs had a legend that they would establish a great civilisation in a marshy area where they would see a cactus growing out of a rock and, perched on the cactus, an eagle eating a snake. Their priests saw this when they first arrived here and in the 14th century the Aztecs built Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City. Today the eagle, cactus and serpent appear on Mexican paper money.

As I am here on a tour of ancient sites I start to wonder about the interweaving of this old world I would visit with the modern Mexico that is all around me.

At the graceful art deco Palacio de Bellas Artes there is an exhibition of the work of Frida Kahlo, the tortured artist who painted bluntly and beautifully about unlovely things: her miscarriages, her operations, a friend’s suicide. Here, I learn about the Mexican passion for colour and for life.

At the city’s world-renowned museum of anthropology I lay my hand on a huge carved stone with a scooped-out centre in which the ancient Aztecs burned the hearts of enemies and those of their own who were sacrificed to the gods. I learn about blood-lust and the belief that death for some brings life to others.

At the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Catholic Mexico’s holiest shrine, I learn that it was once the site of Aztec worship of the mother of all the gods, Tonantzin, who was identified with the moon. The church is believed to be on the exact spot where her pyramid once stood. Some anthropologists believe that the Virgin, who is said to have appeared in visions to a native Mexican 450 years ago and left her image on a cloth, is a “christianised” Tonantzin and that this is an example of how ancient Aztec beliefs have blended with Catholicism.

Tonantzin, too, had an immaculate conception: she picked up a special feather and found herself pregnant with a magical child.

The Virgin is now a potent symbol of national identity. “Many Mexicans despise the government,” says our guide. “They change the words of the national anthem, or don’t sing it at all. But everyone stands tall and proud to sing the hymn of the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

In common with its pyramids, which can have many levels of buildings from different eras, one on top of the other, Mexico has layers.

The pyramids aren’t really pyramids, the guidebooks will tell you, because they are flat-topped and were not built as graves. Then the guidebooks tell you the pyramid of the sun at Teotihuacan, the pre-Aztec city, is the world’s third-largest pyramid.

It is more than an hour’s drive to get there, past kilometres of grey, boxy houses in the poverty-ridden outer circles of the smoky sprawl that is Mexico City. Many have steel reinforcing rods sticking up out of their flat roofs in hope of a second storey, a triumph of optimism over income.

The Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon are unprepossessing from a distance and extraordinary close up, when their scale and proportions leave humans feeling like ants. The steps on the pyramids are narrow and deep; they had to be in order for the pyramids to rise. Halfway up the smaller Pyramid of the Moon, vertigo gets the better of me. I sit down and gaze out at the temple remains that line the imposing Avenue of Death that leads to the Pyramid of the Sun. The surrounding plain stretches to the horizon.

The view is commanding. I feel like lord of all I survey. “This,” I think, “must be what it feels like to hold power. Heady. Fierce. Invincible.”

The hubris lasts right up until the baking heat makes me want to get down, a task that requires me to abandon all dignity and step sideways at a snail’s pace.

Several days a year, the sun’s trajectory sends the Moon pyramid black and lights the Sun pyramid golden. The ancients who built this city 2000 years ago, who knew so much about the sun and the moon and the stars, must have thought they would be here forever. Now we don’t even know their people’s name.

The dark stone and severe lines of Teotihuacan give it a grim, brooding air. At the paler mountain-top ruins of Monte Alban near Oaxaca, the mood is peaceful and reflective. Its height gives it a sense of stillness and solitude, as do the 360-degree views of valleys and distant hills.

These ancients were into blood sports. Their ritual ball games resulted in death. In some cities it was the death of the loser, in others, the decapitation of the winner. Human sacrifice was also important to propitiate the gods and to give dead royals company on the path to the next world.

At Uxmal in Yucatan I ask if I can be photographed on a stone throne in the middle of a quadrangle. “If you sit on it we must sacrifice,” the guide says. I take that for a no.

The most impressive archaeological site in Mexico is said to be the huge Mayan city of Chichen Itza, voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in a recent internet poll.

It has a deep well in which the bones of 800 men, women and children have been found – they were sacrifices to rain god Chaac. Its enormous central pyramid is an embodiment of the mathematics of the Mayan calendar and, twice a year, the position of the sun causes the shadow of a serpent to slither up and then down one of its sides.

For me, though, the most beautiful spot is Palenque, also in Yucatan. The graceful ruins here have only recently been taken back from the jungle and 80 per cent of it is yet to be uncovered. This is the site that feels most like a city, its buildings close together, surrounded on one side by jungle and trees wrapped in thick vines, and on the other by views across a valley.

As we stand at the highest point a toucan lollops its way brilliantly across the sky, its bright yellow beak a flash of gold against the blue. The heaviness of the beak puts the bird permanently off-balance but those beating wings keep it moving despite its ups and downs.

Palenque is a place for lingering. It is haunting. I leave after the others do, tearing myself away.

The exit path curves and twists in hairpin bends, down through Palenque’s jungle. I walk alone in the steaming heat surrounded by vines and moss-covered trees with giant tangled roots. The sky is obliterated by a thick green canopy and all around is the the noise of jungle life – cawing, croaking, trilling and a big-cat kind of roar, from the howler monkeys.

At the end of the trip I want to bring home something to remind me of all the things I love about Mexico: the waterfalls and volcanoes, the bright colours of every building whose owners could afford paint, the manicured squares at the heart of towns, the insistence of even the poorest people that life should still have colour and music.

I find it in Oaxaca. There, in one of its craft shops, sits a wooden triptych with nine images of self-portraits by Frida Kahlo, whose life was an expression of her art. When her final exhibition opened she was too ill to leave her sickbed, so she had it moved to the gallery and accepted accolades while lying in it.

The frame of the triptych is painted with joyful Mexican extravagance. Over-the-top flowers are scattered all over its edges and it is topped with carved pink roses. From nine squares within it, the uncompromising Kahlo stares out with her slanting gaze. As with the layers inside the pyramids and the goddess behind the Virgin, the painter whose work used the folk art of her people has now, in her turn, been subsumed back into folk art.

Karen Kissane travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures on its Mexico in Depth tour.


Getting there: Qantas flies non-stop from Melbourne and Sydney to Los Angeles, then non-stop to Mexico City with Mexicana from $2199, plus tax of about $620. Air New Zealand has fares from $2142 plus tax via Auckland and Los Angeles. LAN Airlines flies from Sydney to Santiago in Chile via Auckland, then to Mexico City or Cancun. This fare is $2299 from Sydney and $2399 from Melbourne, with a Qantas connection to Sydney. On this fare it is possible to stop in Tahiti, Easter Island and/or Santiago. Fares from Cancun to Mexico City start at $216 plus tax one-way. Conditions apply and taxes vary depending on itinerary, destination and exchange rates.

The tour: Peregrine’s 15-day Mexico in Depth trip begins in Mexico City and includes stops at Teotihuacan to see the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, the city of Oaxaca, the towns of Merida and San Cristobal, the Mayan ruins of Palenque and the ruins at Chichen Itza. The trip finishes on the beaches of Playa del Carmen, near Cancun. Prices start at $2595 a person twin share and include a tour leader and local guides, accommodation, breakfasts, transport, sightseeing and entrance fees. Phone Peregrine Adventures, 1300 854 500, or see .

First published in The Age.