There’s an orchestra playing just beyond my window. The sounds become more intense as the conductor rises in this early morning hour. A single rooster crows, a few black birds take on the sound of a referee with a whistle, neighborhood dogs are barking to each other, goats are rustling in the grass and add their call to the mix and there’s something out there making a high pitch zippy whistle. Sprite isn’t sure where she fits into all of this, so instead of adding her voice she presses her nose to the screen from the camper window and listens. The air is already steamy in this southern coastal part of Mexico and since the musicians are just getting started, there’s no reason to jump out of bed just yet.
The Life of Memories
By the time we find Conception Bamba and Barra de la Cruz on the coast in the state of Oaxaca, we have been in Mexico nearly two months. We have seen so many towns and met so many people, I have to take notes to remember it all. But some moments dig deeper in my memory and so often it is not the most amazing or the most incredible that I remember; it’s a smell, or the mood, or the sense of a place and a feeling unlocks itself and wraps around the moment. And from that time on it will replay in the most unexpected instant.
Other moments are too bold to need triggering because they simply stand alone. Unfortunately bad moments shout louder and burn deeper. You can only hope that one day they are funny stories or hard lessons that needed to be learned. I have a funny story. It all started as a perfectly fine day. I was feeling good, energized and really enjoying the place we were camping. We were a little short on groceries so during breakfast we pulled everything out of our pantry and fridge to see what we could piece together. Some cereal and the last scoop of coffee for breakfast, a can of tuna smashed with mayo on bread for lunch and then dinner got away from us. I had an apple with peanut butter and Colin ate another sandwich leftover from lunch. Of all the food we have consumed during this trip; meat and unknowns from market vendors, fish, cheese, tortillas and items left open to the elements (meaning flies), we have not been sick. I haven’t eaten meat for the last 15 years and my stomach has been ironclad. The last thing I remember consuming that Colin didn’t was an apple, the forbidden apple. Looking back, it might not have had a thorough cleaning. Right before bed I heard a grumble in my stomach. A churning that did not feel right. I decided to go to sleep anyway hoping it would pass. At about 3 a.m. a serious cramp shot pain through my dreams and I woke up with a chill. I needed a moment to comprehend what was going on. I took a deep breath and realized I must head to the bathroom and fast. Unzipping my sleeping bag and sliding down from our bed sent another sharp pain. I hustled to the camper door and fumbled to twist the lock and release the handle, but the moment the fresh air hit my face I realized I would not make it to the bathroom, which was across a grassy field in the main building. And despite my best efforts, I couldn’t even make it to the grass. At 34 years old, I pooped in my pants. Colin springs out of bed and comes outside to ask if I’m alright and then realizes the situation. I don’t need to add the rest of the details, but I will say that it was a long night and the next morning when I opened my eyes and still felt a little sick, Colin turned over to me and asked in the sweetest & most loving tone, “How are you feeling, Squirt?” He then goes on to tell me that of all the times he has ridden the ambulance at work (which was a part of the job he absolutely loved) and all the sick calls he has run that I was not the stinkiest compared to them…but I was close. I guess I can now die happy.
Rediscovering Oaxaca City
As open as we are to discovering new places and sending our route in all directions, there was one city in Mexico that we really wanted to visit again. Oaxaca City in 2008, was our first experience with Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead. A Mexican tradition of celebrating the life and love of family and friends who have passed away. While so many fear death, in Mexico it’s a time to celebrate life. Colorful life – the town was filled with bright orange and yellow marigolds and shiny streaks of glitter sprinkled over sand sculptures and tombstones. Huge shrines built in the city center with photographs, candles, fresh flowers and love notes. They left a collection of all the things the person loved in this world – candy, pastries, Mezcal, cigars and a few shrines had pictures of naked ladies. As much as we enjoyed that festive time we were looking forward to seeing the city in a different light.
It is always interesting going back to a place with specific memories in mind. You either love it more, like it less or can’t believe it is the same place. We arrived in the middle of protesting and blocked off streets. Protester’s tents, tarps and handmade signs were filling the spaces between food vendors and artisan stands. We barely recognized the zocalo from years before. At first glance it seemed chaotic and a slight hint of disappointed sprang up as we tried to find our way to the hotel, around one-way streets and honking horns. The Hotel Trebol happened to be one block from the main square and 3 blocks to secure parking (sometimes we make very smart choices!). With our vehicle safe and our hotel room in the middle of things we set off on foot to see what the protesting was all about and rediscover the city.
The city has changed. The vibe is burning with life and opportunity. The protesting was about rights and voices being heard. The Indigenous people wanted what everyone wants; access to water, to food, to schools, to provide for their families, to equal rights. It was a peaceful protest and it seemed that the town was behind their cause. Outside of the protesting and behind gated doors is where the real life plays out. Being in the center of so many different cultures the energy is unlike every other Mexican town we have visited. Art is everywhere and delivered in several forms. Murals danced along brick walls bringing color to alleyways. Young graphic artists gathered in groups in small shops with their work displayed on white walls. The historic food markets were packed just like we remember offering all the traditional Oaxacan goodies; dried grasshoppers, mole sauce, Mezcal and rich chocolate. Vendors selling rugs, black pottery, painted skulls, and clothes. Restaurants new and old, coffee shops, massive churches with tiled domes taking up entire city blocks. Parks with benches, fountains and thin trees with purple blooms and full of people – school kids in uniform flirting, couples silent to each other while reading books, older folks selling baskets and treats. There were events showcasing new artists, signs plastered to windows and doorways announcing progressive thinking, t-shirts with political statements…a push to create, be creative and demand change. The city has changed while holding onto important traditions that remain the same. We thought at one point we could spend a month here.
That was until a storm of miscommunication rolled in. We thought we reserved our room for another couple of days so we could get an oil change, check on a gas leak and then stroll through more of the town. But that changed when the hotel reported a full house and we didn’t have a reservation, the Toyota dealer said we didn’t have an appointment there either. The day continued in this fashion. It ended with our backs turned to each other in complete frustration. Some days need to just hurry up and end. We were both looking at our watches, sulking in bad moods and waiting for a new sun to start a new day.
Hitting the Reset Button
After the hustle of moving fast to Oaxaca, we took a few days to slow down. We needed to stop, to sit, to stare, to do nothing. And we found the perfect space for that to happen.
Then we found the coast near Salina Cruz, which was tropical with sandy dunes running to the ocean’s shore, and ran through small dusty towns with friendly people. We found Conception Bamba and the musical scene from the beginning of this post. An iguana crosses the street and birds with neon blue backs and yellow tummies zip around camp. Palm trees surround the roads and beaches, banana trees lace around homes and yards. The owner of Cocoleoco, a surf camp in Conception Bamba, lets us in on a little town custom. He tells us to listen for an announcement coming from town over a megaphone that will fill the air around 6 p.m. and announce who is cooking dinner and what’s on the menu. Every night it’s the same procedure but a different house and a different menu. Sure enough we heard the call and Leo explains what it says. “Go now,” he adds. “Ask anyone walking around, “Donde esta la cena?” and they will show you. We spot an older man walking along the street and we ask. He waves us over to follow him since that’s where he was headed. On a side road off the pavement a mud sided house sits with a thatched roof. Two younger girls with straight dark hair, bangs cut across their eye brows, deep brown eyes and look like sisters come out to ask us what we want. Through the archway into the house a kitchen is set up. A dirt floor with chickens poking their necks out, a grill set over hot coals with tortillas rising in the heat. Right next door was another house the same size and construction. A boy of maybe 12 with dark short hair and a soccer jersey comes out with a plastic table and sets it right in front of us, he goes back behind the house and brings out two small chairs and then screws in a bulb attached to a wire hanging just above our heads. More kids come out of the house to inspect us. A girl around 2 with pink clips holding her hair back just stares in our direction. A puppy barks at Sprite and then a cat purrs from the back corner shaking its tail as if to send a tease. Another boy, a little older than the rest, with spiked hair and a soccer jersey, comes out and is very curious about us. We manage to have a conversation about where we’re from, what we think about his town, mucho gusto, how he doesn’t like American football but loves soccer. He says goodbye because a night game is getting ready to start with the other boys in town. The girl who asked us earlier what we wanted comes out with a plastic bag loaded with warm plates of food. We hand over $70 pesos and can’t believe our luck. Back at Cocoleoco’s place we light a citronella candle (the mosquitos are thick) and eat tacos rolled tight around beef and caramelized onions, empanadas with a hot sauce and filling that we have no idea of the ingredients, and a sort of quesadilla with cheese, avocado, peppers and a mix of something else that we, again are not sure what’s in it, but its soooo good we don’t care. It’s one of those moments that will replay again for the rest of my life.
Stops Along the Way
Heading in the direction of Guatemala takes us through the most southern state of Mexico, Chiapas. We have heard of a neat spot that sits on a farm between low mountains and offers a few places to camp, but camping is not their mission. At Hogar Infantil the mission is their kids. A group of children from 3 to early 20s have found a lot more here than a place to get relief from the streets, from troubled homes, or lost parents. They have found a new family and a permanent home. As we pull up to find out about camping we are surrounded by smiling and curious faces. “Where are you from?” someone asks in English. “What kind of dog is that?” “Your car is very dirty.” They are peeking in the truck windows, trying to stick their hands in the void space between the camper and the bed of the truck, “Is this where your dog sleeps?” By the time we drive across the yard to park the truck and set up camp, Colin has already been invited to join some of the boys for soccer the next day. “I better carb up,” he says as we fix pasta. “I’ve got to show these kids what’s up.” We go to bed with the sound of the kids still playing outside under dim lights. The next morning we pull out our slack line (the box still sealed from the date is was purchased a few years back…taking up space and waiting for an excuse to come out). The day was here. The boys are more curious than the girls. They see the box and the picture of a world class slack liner flying through the air and in the next picture landing on a line that is like a tight rope only a slightly wider. We find two sturdy trees and loop the line around the trunks about 18 inches from the ground. The boys are playfully pushing each other to win a chance to go first. What looks easy turns out to be very difficult. Each person walks only a few steps before falling off. They fight the urge of losing their balance and try to twist and stick an arm out or a leg but fall instead. Everyone is laughing and wanting to try again. A younger boy with a torn blue shirt and shoe laces dangling looks determined as he rises from the ground, grabs ahold of the tree and then releases his hands to walk the line. He balances for a few steps and then starts to fall, instead of giving up he kicks his leg out which sends him way off balance. He slips, bounces off the line and it flips him over to the ground. As he stands up to receive all the giggles, a new idea forms from his try. They decide to jump and propel themselves off the line into the air. Later we see three of the youngest boys balancing on the line while using a broom handle on the ground to steady themselves – they walk the entire distance of the line this way. Next is volleyball and Colin is over playing soccer. The kids take breaks to watch movies, eat lunch and do their chores. They have to take care of the grounds, the sheep, goats and chickens. They also take care of each other. We see several of the older boys watching out for the younger ones. The girls stay closer together whispering to each other and finally coming over to say hello. They practice their English and we practice Spanish. We can’t help notice how happy everyone seems. They have found a family here – what was broken starts to heal around the kids and the adults who continue to support them in all the ways that need supporting. When we leave the woman in charge tells us that the door is always open, to come back and visit. Hogar Infantil runs on donations alone and encourage volunteers and even campers to come and visit. If you have any interest or looking for a place to check out; http://www.hogarinfantil.org/ The adults are warm and welcoming and the kids are just awesome.
More pictures from our trip across Mexico…