I´ve had an eventful few weeks. Made it from San Cristóbal de las Casas in Mexico to Xela, Guatemala. Stayed there for three weeks with a wonderful family and brushed up my Spanish at a local language school. Also, did a killer sunrise hike to the top of the highest point in Central America, el Vulcan Tajumulco, with Quetzaltrekkers, and awesome non-profit that organizes hikes and treks all over Guatemala.. We hiked up to a base camp the first day, spent a rainy and cold night in our tents there, and then summited at 4am…definitely a thrill, and a highlight from Guatemala so far.
I´m now in San Pedro La Laguna, in Lago Atitlán. I was using the internet at a coffee shop yesterday, and some guys came in to organize a trip to the top of Volcán San Pedro, overlooking the lake, the following morning at 4am. I decided to hop in with them. We woke up to a warm, clear, dark early morning today, knocked off two hours of steady, tough climbing (one of the toughest hikes I´ve ever done!) and made it to the top just after sunrise (and just before the morning mist rolled in). The hike was muddy, with mini-landslides and downed trees in a few parts of the trail from recent rains. The view was absolutely amazing while it lasted…pretty much a straight look down at the whole lake and the surrounding volcanoes! It felt like being in an airplane, like floating above the whole lake on a tiny outcropping of rock. I think it´s gonna be tough to go back to east-coast hiking when I´m home!
Last weekend, I was the highest I´ve ever been in my life. La Malinche (a.k.a Matlalcuéyetl, Matlalcueitl and Malintzin) is a huge dormant volcano in Puebla and Tlaxacala states, east of Mexico City. The summit´s 14,641 ft—almost exactly half as tall as Everest—and very pointy.
Me, Kisiev, and his friend (now my friend!) Daniel bussed down to Puebla, where we met Miguel(ito) and Iris. Spent the night at Miguel´s mom´s house and then rocked la Malinche the next day. Slippery, loose-rock -strewn, steep slope for the last few miles (and hours)…fun, and definitely worth the altitude sickness!
Spent the next few days hanging out in and around Puebla with the banda…Miguel´s mom fed us some great meals, including a breakfast feast of chiliquiles con pollo and pirrian, sort of spicy, light orange mole type dish. Also got to visit Miguel`s god-mother`s homemade temescal (traditional steam room), where we steamed the soreness out of our post-Malinche muscles, rubbed ourselves with salt and honey, received expert (and spine-cracking) massages from his godmother, and chatted about politics. Lush! (sorry for stealing your word, Andy).
Then, a few days convalescing in my hostel in DF, a few days staying with Daniel and his parents in southern Mexico City, and back to the mountains! Dan, Kies, and I bussed down to Tepotzlán, a gorgeous little colonial town with a street market filled with excellent food.
Fried fish, long, veggie-stuffed quesadillas made with tortillas from blue corn, and super-refreshing micheladas (beer with lime juice and tons of spicy chili powder on the rim of the glass…too bad i was on antibiotics the whole time, so didn´t down one on my own).
Also, Tepoz is surrounded by cliffy mountains, and there´s a cool, old stone temple halfway up one of them. So, we hiked up to the temple, farted around a bit, and then continued scaling up to the top of the mountain.
Fun times with the banda, and once again, a sad goodbye as I continued on to San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
Just rolled into Mexico City (after a 20 hour bus ride from Chihuahua), and I wanna get out and explore! Still, got to get this off my chest before the next adventure—hiking a volcano with my friend Kisiev this Saturday (still don´t know which one) .
So, I spent the last week at the bottom of the deepest canyon system in North America, the Barranca del Cobre (a.k.a ¨ The Copper Canyon¨…apparently Spanish Conquistadors overzealously mistook pale green vegetation for copper lining the canyon´s walls.) I met Cici and Vincent, a Belgian couple on a month-long tour of Mexico, on the awesome Ferrocarril del Barranca del Cobre…a pretty impressive train that runs along the canyon and stops at a number of tiny villages perched along the rim.
From Bahuichivo (one such village), we took an aging converted American school bus, piloted by our fearless captain Eugenio, down the twisting, narrow road to the canyon floor (see video on upper right). We were all getting over some stomach issues, so the ride was an exercise in, well, self-restraint, so to speak. Luckily, I was scared sh&t-less.
Spent four relaaaaaaxing days at a sorta home-made ecohomestead/hostel in Urique on the canyon floor called Entre Amigos. Composting toilets (stocked with Mother Earth catalogs from the 70´s), solar-heated hot water, and papaya, mango, and grapefruit trees abounded! Also, right by the river…key for chilling out after day hikes in the hot canyon.
Keith, the owner wasn´t there, but I still got to take tortilla-making lessons from Maruca, a family friend and employee who was watching over the place. A lady in town (who loaned me a bag of flour when the abarrotes were all out) said I learned from the best. They were definitely delicious, and Maruca definitely got a kick out of the lumpy, mishapen tortilla freaks that emerged from my first few attempts (pictured below is one of the less-freaky tortilla freaks).
There, me and the Belgians rented bikes for the day and pedalled through a series of valleys with interesting rock formations (the Valley of the Frogs, the Valley of the Mushrooms, and the Valley of the Monks, which was (no joke) actually originally called Valley of the Erect Penises by its indigenous inhabitants, because…well, you´ll see).
Then, burnt crispy from the all-day bike ride, I said goodbye to the Vincent and Cici and bussed it up to Chihuahua with Daniel, a German army vet, Antonio, a diction and Literature instructor from Mexico City, and Francesca, a French business consultant. Chihuahua was kind of a rough town, although not without its jokes. Me and Daniel were assailed (in a repeat of earlier events in Guadalajara) but camera-phone bearing schoolgirls while taking a tour of a historical mural at the Palacio de Gobierno. We finally escaped and finished our tour, only to be whistled at by the prostitutes (at least one of who sounded, but didn´t look like, a dude) stalking the streets outside the run-down guesthouse where we were staying.
Later, me and Daniel had a great time at a dive cantina populated by two puckered old guys with canes, three surly waitresses, and another prostitute who kept checking out the window for clients. The jukebox was banging out Norteño love ballads for the first few shots of tequila, but then suddenly ran out of credit and went silent. Seizing the opportunity, I flipped through the catalog of discs and found treasure: Creedence Clearwater Revival´s Greatest Hits. So, I put on Bad Moon Rising, not sure if we´d be kicked out, and went back to my bar stool while the song loaded.
Then the familiar tune burst out of the speakers at full volume, and to everyone´s surprise, one of the seniors put down his cane and started dancing this great unselfconscious kind of salsa dance, arms upraised and fingers snapping, sashaying around the bar floor. We all of course started clapping and yelling ¨EY EY EY EY¨ (like they do here), and I rushed over to the jukebox to keep the tunes flowing. A half-hour later, after great success with more Creedence and some Daddy Yankee (he loved ¨Gasolina¨), we slapped on some Cumbia (good dancin´music) and all got out on the floor. Good times!
Hostel-bound here in Mexico City for now, due to surprise streetfood poisoning, but stoked for the upcoming volano summiting!
Things are getting beautiful here. Trees of all different colors are sprouting all over the place…at least it feels that way, since I never paid them much attention before they were bright purple or yellow. Baking hot at mid-day, but warm breezes all night. Deep purple sunsets. Ants diligently at work dismantling leaves from the highest branches of the tree in front of our apartment and trucking them the millions of ant-miles down the trunk and into the hole in the tile under our front steps.
Had a great visit with Sam; we`ve known each other since we were talking about Warcraft in the back of Eric Weis`s 7th-grade algebra class. There`s something really cool about being with someone you know really well in an environment that`s completely foreign to your relationship…like two kids from central Vermont hanging out in Guadalajara, Mexico. It`s calming, in a way…kind of reassures you that, even though you may only know a few people here and don`t understand half of what everyone says, you`re a real person, with a history and a home town.
Anyways, Ana`s coming to visit this week. Stoked for that! And in the meantime, here are some photos I took over the last few weeks when spring started happening.
I was looking through some old stuff on my computer, and found my application for the fellowship that brought me here last year. It reminded me why I`m here, and why learning Spanish is both a huge opportunity and responsibility.
When I first decided to learn Spanish, it was because I wanted to say “thank you.” I had arrived, sleeping bag in hand, at Blanca’s door just moments earlier. I would be staying in the cinder-block house of this family of maquiladora workers in Nogales, Mexico, as part of a trip for a college course on the U.S./Mexico border, and I couldn’t even say thank you. I had, of course, said gracias as Blanca, the mother of the household, began serving dinner that first night, but that garbled attempt seemed inadequate coming from a privileged American student who had literally just been airlifted into the lives of this struggling Mexican family.
I still remember the pregnant silence that descended over the table arrayed with bean stew, meats, homemade tortillas and guacamole; so many conflicting emotions and thoughts roiled in my head, but I was deaf and mute, unable to communicate with my hosts. Unable, that is, until Blanca’s sister Carmen joined us.
Carmen could speak some English, and upon learning I was in Nogales to learn about the border, she began recounting painful stories of migrants attempting to flee poverty and hunger in Mexico. She told me of children drowning in the moat-like canals lining the border as they tried to cross with their parents, of old women being abducted and robbed by smugglers, then left to die in the swaths of desert engulfing much of the border, and of cesarean sections performed with kitchen knives in Chiapan homes due to the lack of basic health services in rural Mexico. She told me that Carlos, her son, had lived in the U.S. since age two, but was expelled by the INS just after being accepted to a visual arts school when he was 18; he now earns less than two-hundred dollars each month driving a forklift at a landfill in Nogales. She told me it was too painful for her to go to the side of town where a twenty-foot corrugated metal wall separates it from Nogales, Arizona, and by the silent watchfulness of the rest of the family, I could tell she was speaking for them, too.
As the meal ended, Carmen, in tears now, thanked me for coming to Nogales and listening to her stories. Sick to my stomach and on the verge of tears myself, I found some small piece of redemption in her gratitude. Blanca’s family had given me so much and I had so little to offer in return, but maybe, for an American to travel to Mexico, to listen to the humanizing, heart-breaking stories of the people many Americans dismiss as “illegals,” was an offering in its own right.