Mexican Girls Wear Pants
The idea for a Guatemala-to-Mexico, Semana Santa jaunt began around Christmas of 2005, which is more or less when I decided I wanted to work in San Mateo. Because surely, traveling up through southern Mexico to Mexico City and Querétaro would definitely be significantly cheaper—and significantly more tubular in general—than flying from the U.S. And indeed it was.
But of course, I didn’t want to take the 20-hour bus ride through the tropics of southern Mexico just to check out a couple of Mexican metropoli. Rather, the main impetus of the whole trip was to see my friends from Querétaro whom I hadn’t seen since my sophomore year at Woodberry when they came up to Virginia for a month-long exchange. I’d been [semi-] religiously emailing Pamela and Maru for the last seven years, and it was time to break the streak.
So, in December of 2005, I called up Maru and discovered that they would indeed be around during the Semana Santa (Holy Week) of 2007. No more planning occurred until approximately one week before Semana Santa this year. But even so, the trip unraveled organically and most excellently.
Jessica, Fernando, Angela, and I struck out two Fridays ago on the 2:00 bus. After replacing a fuel hose and slowly making it down the side of the Cuchumatanes with a popped and flapping tire (and long after being passed by the 3:00 bus), we arrived safely—and dust-encrusted—in Huehue. Greasy food was consumed. Hotdogs were ingested. And sleep was had.
Around 6:30 the next morning, Angela and I bid adieu to the groggy Jessica and the groggier Fernando and headed to the bus terminal, where we caught a bus for La Mesilla, a vile little border town full of dust, heat, touristy trinkets, and shady money-changers. After re-hydrating and ice-creaming, we braved the gauntlet of rip-off clothes and fake jewelry as we walked down the hill to the border.
Newly stamped passports in hand, we “jumped the border” with the help of a 10-peso taxi that shuttled us to Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, an even smaller outpost on the Mexican side, whence our first bus excursion departed.
For the pictures ranging from La Mesilla to the end of my Querétaro jaunt, follow ye auld linke:
After a hasty and semi-illegal trip back to La Mesilla to get cash out of my bank account (apparently they don’t have credit card machines in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc), I joined Angela on a super-luxury bus [relative to the recycled U.S. school buses used in Guatemala] from the aforementioned outpost to San Cristobal de las Casas, a cute, touristy location I would visit for a day on my way back.
Let me tell you, getting on that quiet, huge, new, cushy-seated, A/C-ed bus was the first taste of what it’s going to be like getting reverse culture shock when I go back to the U.S. Whoever says Mexico is a “third-world country” must be comparing it with some fancy, shiny place like New York City or Chicago, because compared with our beautiful little dirt-road, limited-electricity, dogs-everywhere, no-emission-standards town here in northwestern Guatemala…Mexico—development-wise—is the United States. Appropriate, perhaps, that the official name of Mexico is “The United States of Mexico”…
After a three-hour trip northward, we dismounted, had a bite to eat in San Cristobal, and then said our goodbyes for the week as Angela stayed to hang out in Chiapas, and I caught a 15-hour overnight bus from San Cristobal to Mexico City.
The bus ride was uneventful, and, thanks to Dramamine (and to a change of seats), I was able to escape the roof-rattling snores of the ample Mexican man next to me and zonk out for several hours. Arrival in Mexico City: 6:30 a.m. on Sunday. Departure for Querétaro: 7:15 a.m. Arrival in Querétaro: 10:15 a.m. First sighting in seven years of the lovely Maru Avendaño: 11:00 a.m.
My stay in Querétaro lasted from Sunday morning to Wednesday afternoon, and was fun, relaxed, and filled with just enough events. Maru kindly offered me her guestroom, where I spent quite a bit of time catching up on sleep and utilizing truly high-speed Internet (hadn’t seen that in a while!).
But when not reclining in her house, I did a good many non-Guatemalan things: went to a mall; bought Lindt chocolate in a Wal-Mart; toured the safe, pristine plazas [and aqueduct!] of Querétaro with Maru’s cousins; sat and drank Starbuck’s-esque coffee after consuming excellent “enchiladas queretanas”; and partied amply at Maru’s house with both the Latin-American version of Cranium and some 100%-agave tequila. Glorious.
After a short but fantastic Tuesday-night visit with the lovely Pamela (one of my faithful Querétaro correspondents) and Diego (another dude who came on the Woodberry exchange), we all hit the sack, and on Wednesday morning Maru and I headed to the bus terminal. She left for her family vacation in Tuxtla Gutiérrez (the capital of Chiapas), and I struck out for Mexico City, also fondly known by the locals as el “DF” (“Distríto Federal”).
I had 36 hours in Mexico City, and I was determined to do everything. And I failed. Of course I did—even if I’d had a decent guidebook (which I couldn’t find anywhere), I wouldn’t have been able to cover even half of the sights the sprawling, 20-million-person metropolis has to offer.
I did, however—with the economical help of the city’s surprisingly Parisian metro system—see many excellent and famous attractions such as the Zócalo (the DF’s main plaza); the Cathedral; the Palacio de Bellas Artes; the Torre Latinoamericana and its beautiful urban panoramæ; the Parque de Chapultepec (“the city’s overworked lungs,” as my guidebook called it); and the Avenida de la Reforma (the “Champs Elysées of Mexico City”—nice, I suppose, but doesn’t compare in my book!), among other things.
My day in the city was really mostly a walking tour, which didn’t allow me to take in such gems as the Museo de Antropología, a one-of-a-kind museum housing the famous Aztec calendar wheel. However, my favorite way to get to know a city is to first soak up its vibe by talking to the people, wandering streets both known and unknown, stopping in the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and otherwise “experiencing” the place. And indeed, the aura of the DF—especially in the relatively pollution-free time of the Semana Santa vacation—is most excellent. Surely further visits are in order.
But I didn’t just walk around…I experienced two things that can certainly be classified as once-in-a-very-long-while experiences. First: Holy Thursday afternoon mass at the gigantic, sinking Catedral Metropolitana, presided over by none other than his Höliness the Cardinal/Archbishop of Mexico.
Now that was a show not to be missed. There was music. There were clickity-clackity Semana Santa noisemakers. There was tradition. There was dogma. And there was incense…oh man, was there incense. And then, to roust me from my incense high, there were agèd dames digging their elbows into my sides as they tried desperately to receive their host before the tall gringo in front of them. Isn’t it true that only the first 50 people who get the host go to Heaven?
Now, rewind about four hours to my truly epic—and 100% gastronomic—DF experience, which, while it may have been chronologically the first of the two experiences, it surpasses even the Cardinal’s mass in magnitude.
The restaurant? El Centro Castellano. The venue? The fancy-dancy Camino Real hotel, one of Mexico City’s best. The reason? Because el padre had told me that Mexico City has some of the best food in the world, and because my original two-restaurant dinner plan had been foiled because [almost] all good restaurants are closed during Semana Santa! The Centro Castellano, however, was open for lunch. And I just happened to walk in.
After beginning with a tasty, fuzzy lemonade that went quite nicely with my crusty Spanish bread, I began with an appetizer for the ages: an entire plate of jamón serrano (typical, dried, highly-cured Spanish ham)—but not just any jamón serrano.
This jamón serrano came from pigs that had, for their entire lives, been fed only with water and acorns. This curious diet resulted in a slightly fattier, much darker, and very nutty tasting meat. And man, was it good. At one point—after watching me eat the ham for about an hour—the waiter came up to me and said that I should let him know when I wanted my next course…
I thought that was going to be the pinnacle of the experience; however, the main course—fresh, herbed, coal-broiled red snapper—did a fine job of living up to the exquisite ham appetizer, in addition to nicely accompanying my intense, 2003 Marqués de Riscal Spanish white from Rueda, Valladolid (I know, I know…I was supposed to get a red—but hey, it was still great). Never in my life have I had a fish that had so much mouth-watering taste.
And finally, the dessert: flan-esque pudding with black cherries, strawberry sauce, and chocolate flakes, accompanied by a nice, strong coffee, and an exceptionally tasty glass of patxarán, a typical, northern-Spanish, licorice-flavored liqueur.
A lunch for the ages.
For pictures of my whirlwind tour of Mexico City and for the few pictures I took in San Cristobal after my DF jaunt, check out this page:
[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2093030&l=d135d&id=1522023] [México DF, San Cristobal de las Casas]
My DF visit ended at 10:30 a.m. on Friday when I caught a flight from Mexico City down to Tuxtla, which was the furthest-south point to which Mexico’s budget airlines would fly. After failing to contact Maru (who, as I mentioned before, was there on vacation with her family), I took a taxi from the airport to the bus station, with the final destination of San Cristobal de las Casas, about two hours further south.
During the cab ride I heard the driver’s perspective on the conflicts that occurred about ten years ago between the people of Chiapas and the federal government: he even told me that he believed the rebellion—which, he said, only “appeared” to be an indigenous uprising—had been funded by outside entities who wanted the Mexican government to stabilize Chiapas so that its abundant natural resources could be exploited more easily. Sounds strangely like the rumors about the allegation that Canadian mining companies had a hand in the 1996 Peace Accords in Guatemala…
Anyway, after catching a micro-bus from Tuxtla to San Cristobal, I began the last official day of my vacation—little did I know that so many more unplanned visits were yet to come…
I arrived in San Cristobal just a bit too late for the Semana Santa dramatization of the Passion, which was too bad. However, I had an nice, sunny afternoon to walk around the city; slip on the antiseptic cobbled streets; check out the fuzzy, shag-carpet-esque cortes of the Tzutzil-speaking indigenous women; and go to a Good Friday mass at the Cathedral which, although the priest was less than enthusiastic, was still quite good, all the way from the three-person Stations-of-the-Cross reading (the guys had great voices) to the way-Catholic Adoration of the Cross. I wonder what it will be like going to church (evangelical and/or Catholic) in San Mateo?
After some excellent tacos and a brief stop at a salsa club (live salsa music is a good thing), I sacked out at the hostel, got up at 5:30 a.m., and headed to the bus station for a 6:45 bus to the border.
Back in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, I paid the disgruntled border guard the $30.00 tax because I’d overstayed my 7-day welcome (he said I’d stayed 8 days, even though I’d actually only stayed 6 days and 22 hours…I counted very carefully), and headed in the taxi to La Mesilla. Passport stamped, I walked up the hill. To the bus terminal. And…
There were no buses.
The lesson of the week: THERE IS NO TRANSPORTATION IN GUATEMALA DURING SEMANA SANTA!
Apparently there hadn’t been buses since Thursday, and they weren’t going to start running until Sunday afternoon. What is this, vacation or something?! Of course, I could have just stayed in La Mesilla, but it was such a dump—and I secretly wanted what I knew was going to be a ridiculous transportation adventure—that I decided to strike out in the direction of San Mateo in the spite of the lack of pimped-out camionetas.
The first leg was the worst: still in dumb-American-in-Mexico mode, I thought the only way to get out of Mesilla was to take the micro owned by the shady looking guy who told me that his micro was the only way to get out of there. I could have waited up the road for a pickup to take me somewhere, but instead I ended up paying him Q250 ($35.00) to take me what turned out to be one measly hour to Nentón, the second-biggest Chuj-speaking municipality, northwest of San Mateo.
Once I got to Nentón, I lucked out and found a micro that was headed toward Gracias a Dios, a tiny, Ladino frontier town in the very corner of the country, and the hometown of the two girls who run the furniture store down the street from the Foundation. However, I never actually got to Gracias, because the driver dropped me off in a tiny aldea next to the rocky road I needed to take to get to San Mateo. The photo of the fork in the road is the first picture in the album containing evidence of my homeward-bound adventures:
[http://uva.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2093031&l=c748d&id=1522023] [The Epic Journey Home from Mexico]
After getting dropped off at the crossroads, and with only Q45 ($5.00) to get me from there to San Mateo, the journey continued.
A journey that included a lot of waiting.
After about an hour of sitting in the blazing sun, I decided to walk with a couple of other hardy travelers to the next aldea, Las Palmas. Luckily, after about ten minutes of trudging through the dust, a pickup came by and took us the rest of the way to the aldea.
I then sat in the center of the town under a shed-like structure for a while, talked to some folks about how the people of the town had been influenced by Mexican styles of dress, taught a drunk guy the same English phrases 70 times… Then after a while I decided to take the advice of the nice guy who had been in the pickup with me: “you’re probably not going to get a car to San Mateo today,” he said, “so you might as well walk to Chaculá and stay the night there.”
So I started trudging with my Mexican tourist paraphernalia—all nicely wrapped in a trash bag I’d picked up at a 7-Eleven in Mexico City—toward Chaculá, an aldea of 1,000 people about 30 minutes down the road on foot.
Once I was about ¾ of the way there, another truck came by, full of folks from the village. They said they could drop me off at the “hospedaje” (“inn,” if you will) at the intersection of the main road and Chaculá’s access road, but they decided it might be a good idea to take me into the center of town instead, since very few people were around. Apparently it’s something of a Guatemalan tradition for everyone to go and hang out and have picnics on the day before Easter, so all of the folks from this aldea were down eating fried chicken and swimming in their murky lagoon.
Nueva Esperanza de Chaculá (New Hope of Chaculá), as the aldea is officially called, was one of the funkiest places I’ve ever been. Being a town of only 1,000 people in the middle of nowhere, one would think that it would be fairly conservative. And indeed, most of the towns in the area that can be compared with Chaculá are conservative and traditional, save the more modern dresses the women wear, which comes from the Mexican influences on the Guatemalan border towns.
Chaculá, on the other hand, was not conservative in the least. As Brian later noted, after I described to him some of the aldea’s oddities, “that place sounds like a socialist commune.” And indeed, there’s some truth in that.
The aldea was founded only 14 years ago by a group of indigenous Guatemalans who had fled to Mexico in the 1980’s to escape the long, drawn-out war in Guatemala (1966 – 1996). What made the entire project so interesting was that there hadn’t been a town in the spot before; all of the people had a very firm common purpose; and they were a multicultural group of people, come from all different indigenous communities in Guatemala.
Although most of the people there speak Chuj (since their land is in Chuj territory) there are a whole bunch of other languages present in the aldea: Q’anjob’al, Mam, Kiche’, etc. And everyone speaks perfect Spanish, since they lived in Mexico for more than a decade. Now that’s not something you find every day around these parts…
The intense sense of purpose that the founders had has also led to a level of development over the course of 14 years that places like San Mateo still haven’t reached after centuries (millennia?) of existence. The community-funded health center is better than San Mateo’s government-funded one; every single one of the elementary-school-aged kids in the aldea goes to school; nutrition and health education are so good there that the residents look, health-wise, virtually like Americans (and indeed, some are even a little chunky—gasp!); and over the fourteen years that the aldea has existed, over 20 of their residents have gone on to become teachers, 3 have become professional nurses, 1 has become a doctor, and 1 lawyer is on the way. And keep in mind that all of this is happening in an aldea with a mere 1,000 people.
And all of the women wear pants.
Now that, my friends, is not your everyday Chuj village.
I think one could certainly consider Chaculá as a prime example of human potential, and of the power of common purpose. The people of San Mateo are, little by little, getting more government support; however, they don’t develop as fast, even with the support, partially because the purpose of the people in the town isn’t the same: some want to “westernize,” some want to maintain the culture they currently have, and some even want to go back to the way things were 20 years ago. So it is in the land of Ixtatán.
However, the people of Chaculá have hardly had any government support at all, as they’ve been viewed from the beginning as a group of socialist guerrillas who waltzed back into the country after hiding in Mexico for a decade. Yet look at what they’ve done with such incredible odds against them. Very impressive.
Anyway, back to the trek. The family’s decision was apparently to drop me off at the health center, where they said I could surely get a room. Unfortunately, as they’d already said, virtually everyone in the town was down at the laguna. So, after waiting in vain for about an hour for the Keeper of the Key to arrive, I dragged all of my stuff down to where I thought the laguna might be.
After a few wrong turns, I managed to follow the steady trickle of pants-wearing residents up the hill toward the field above the laguna. I descended through the woods a few hundred yards, and finally arrived at the watering hole that had been the day’s entertainment center. And I have to say, it was pretty nice.
The festive atmosphere was welcome, and the fried chicken and fries I bought with Q10 of my remaining Q45 were even more so. As I sat atop a grassy knoll observing the people, some of the above realizations began to take shape, especially the realizations about the health of the people.
When I finally met José Díaz—one of the health center’s nurses and the Keeper of the Key—about an hour later, he informed me that the vast majority of the people in Chaculá are indigenous. However, when I first saw the women in their tight, American- and Mexican-type clothes, I was convinced that they were ladinos, because not only did they look so westernized, but they looked so healthy (and dare I say…sexy), that I could barely believe they could have the same ancestors as the tiny people from San Mateo.
(Incidentally, I later learned that the municipality of San Mateo Ixtatán is not only the worst municipality in Guatemala in terms of malnutrition, but the worst in all of Central America! That the difference between SMI and Chaculá was so stark no longer seems very strange.)
After the festivities began to die down, I caught a pickup back to the health center, where I only had to wait 15 minutes for José Díaz to show up. He unlocked the health center and let me stay (free of charge!) on one of the cots for the night. A much-needed gesture of goodwill for a traveler who was low on cash.
Speaking of being low on cash, it was too bad that I was so strapped, because that very night there was a dance (Q50 to get in), complete with booming “norteña” music and flashing lights—a far cry from the marimba dances of San Mateo! (Although the latter are pretty cool…!) I think the dance was Chaculá’s versions of Easter festivities—I asked José Díaz if there was any sort of intense Easter vigil going on, and his reply was, “It’s all pretty chilled out around here—we don’t do much in the way of extremely religious activities.” I think that may be what happens when war refugees found a town…
Anyway, after being shown around the impressive health center and talking more about the town and its goings-on, we said goodnight, and I crashed immediately for a glorious 11 hours of sleep.
Around 7 a.m. the next morning I gave the key back to José Díaz after promising that I would visit again, and headed to the road…
…where I waited for another hour.
Finally a Bulej-bound pickup came by and hauled me and a bunch of mischievous children (and their sleeping parents) up into the mountains, passing through the aldeas of Aguacate, Yalambojoch, and finally to Bulej, the first village in the municipality of San Mateo.
The ride was uneventful, except for a slightly disturbing conversation I had with a guy standing next to me. He seemed to be about 35, and had been in the Guatemalan army during the war. He said that he was in charge of a small group of soldiers, and that—as most soldiers were—he was charged with fighting the guerrillas. And at one point, when I asked him, more or less, “what were you fighting for?”, he said, “for my pension.”
He then went onto say, regarding killing guerrillas under the orders of the government:
“Aunque sea su padre o su hermano, hay que [matarlos], porque es la ley del gobierno.”
“Even if it’s your father or your brother, you have to kill them, because it’s the law.”
It got a little colder in the back of the creaking pickup when I heard that.
Once we got to Bulej, I dismounted, walked to the center of town, and proceeded to hang out for about two hours. On the brink of starvation because I wanted to spend as little as possible of my remaining Q35, I sat around and slowly shelled peanuts, talked to some guys who’d been to the U.S., talked to some drunk guys, snoozed on my backpack, and flagged down car after car, none of which were going to San Mateo.
Eventually I moved further down the road past the fork, so that the only cars that passed would surely be going to SMI.
There I snoozed on the road for another two hours.
And then finally, after seeing a hundred different reactions from the townspeople as they walked by the gringo reclining by the side of the road with his tag-laden L.L. Bean backpack…the truck came.
I don’t know what kind of truck it was—it could have been a watermelon hauler, for all I know—but the driver let me hop in the back, and off we went, burning the daylights out of my ears and face for three hours on the victorious and strikingly beautiful trip back to good old San Mateo Ixtatán.
Here endeth the epic.