Saturday, May 27, 2017

Mexico laughs at expectations and cries over its lost children

San Cristóbal de las Casas
I hit the wall in early evening when I landed at Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport in Chiapas. It was 2014 and at age 69 I had embarked on a grand adventure. The plan was two weeks of language immersion in San Miguel de Allende, three weeks of snorkeling and swimming in cenotes in Maya Riviera, and then a final week of language immersion in Mérida where I would also follow the trail of a story that had intrigued me for years. Six weeks. I expected that would be enough time to ground me in Spanish well enough to travel with the Spanish-fluent guy with whom I was making happily-ever-after plans.
I expected to take a bus to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a place I knew absolutely nothing about other than it was at 7200’ and should be cooler than Playa del Carmen which was where I was supposed to stay for three weeks but lasted only two days. What I didn’t expect was that no one at the Tuxtla airport spoke English any better than I spoke Spanish. My abysmal Spanish skills had gotten me by so far but now it seemed that I wasn’t going to be able to just walk over to the bus stop and get whisked to San Cristóbal.

This adventure was my first extended trip not prompted by work and the first by myself. Already my carefully constructed plan looked a bit tattered and I could feel tendrils of panic rising as the non-conversation with an airport woman about how to get to San Cristóbal failed. I had been told to take the bus because taxis were expensive. However, I wasn’t even sure how to find a taxi.

As I stood there, somewhat frozen, a young woman joined our conversation. Her English was limited but a smidge better than my Spanish. After a long back and forth, most of which I couldn’t understand, I finally understood that she was inviting me to share her taxi to town. I wasn’t sure, but I thought she might also be able to drop me at the bus station. While I didn’t realize it at the time, she was my introduction to the kindness of strangers in Mexico, a pattern that would repeat itself regularly as I blundered into interesting situations.

The Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport is relatively new and built on the far outskirts of town. As I was riding in the cab with this young woman on the long trip to Tuxtla, I realized that I had no idea where we were actually going. She seemed friendly enough, but I didn’t know if she really understood what I had been trying to tell her about the bus station and San Cristóbal. And, it was getting dark. Finally, we wound up in front of a small, concrete building where, apparently, I was supposed to get out. So, I did even though I saw no buses and felt a sudden wave of desperation as my new protector drove away in her taxi. I was on my own, in the dark, in a strange city. No one knew where I was  and I couldn’t speak the language. I had heard enough stories to be nervous.

Finally, I entered the little concrete building where a man at a battered desk understood my words enough to take my money and point me toward a small van already filled with people. I squeezed myself into a seat and gave myself up to the belief that this might actually take me to my destination. I was almost relaxed when I realized I’d left my backpack with laptop and other necessities in the office. Fortunately, it was still there and I relaxed into the long drive through the night until we wound up at the San Cristóbal bus station where a bunch of taxis waited. I had arrived.

I breathed a sign of relief as I handed the taxi driver the address and expected the rest to be simple. Clearly, the taxi driver did not speak English but, since he had my carefully printed address, I wasn’t worried. We wound through town and then into a darker neighborhood and soon the driver was glancing around in a way that concerned me. Finally, we pulled up at what seemed like the right address and a couple came out. However, the place didn’t seem right from the pictures I had seen. More language fumbling and it was clear that they didn’t know anything about a guest arriving in the middle of the night.

The driver seemed confused and asked me questions that I didn’t understand. By now, it was about 10:30 and I was getting nervous again. The driver didn’t have a phone or a map or apparently any connection to a home office and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. I had no resources, knew no hotels and didn’t know how to ask the frustrated driver for help. 

Together our frustration was rising rapidly as we stood in the street speaking but not communicating. Suddenly, out of the shadows, a woman in white appeared. Completely in white. Long, white robe-like dress and white turban. She walked over to us and said in perfect English, “Can I help you?” I now believe in angels.

Angel Blanca and friend.
After talking for awhile with the woman named Blanca, we decided that if I could show her a picture of the house, she could help us find it. We needed a computer. At Blanca’s direction, we piled into the taxi and went back about three blocks to an undistinguished row of concrete buildings. Blanca knocked on one of the many doors and an eight-year-old kid let us into a room full of twenty-year-old computers. With a high level of skepticism about the functioning of these systems, I waited as he warmed up the antique PC, logged onto the internet and I pulled up my airbnb site. Blanca recognized the house and within minutes and a few pesos, we were at my destination.

During this time, I learned that Blanca lived in the neighborhood. I was so grateful for her help that I invited her to lunch and she accepted. Gradually, I learned about her life as a Mexican hippy living with her partner, the father of her three children, making clay flutes and trying to live by principles that set them apart from the “normal" culture. She introduced me to new foods and new places and new ways of thinking about life and amazed me with the breadth and depth of her English, which she had "picked up” on a job.

I expected to go to San Cristóbal as a comfortable place to continue studying Spanish. What I didn’t expect was to meet such fascinating people such as Blanca. However, throughout my time in San Cristóbal I continued to meet amazing people. The house I stayed in belonged to a woman photographer who had just left for a six-month stay in Israel. We never met but talked a lot by email and became friends. Her book on the various textile styles of the Mayan villages made me fall in love with weavings and I quickly developed a favorite … Zinacantan, which had a distinctive style and incredible blending of colors.

On my first day walking around town, I stopped into a coffee shop and met a US woman married to a Mexican man. We quickly became friends and she introduced me to so many interesting people: Women from Mayan villages, a nun who started a photography project for the local villagers, a Muslim man who left the US after being continually harassed after 9/11 and now rescues street dogs and cats as well as lame horses, cooking seven pounds of rice every day for his ever-expanding flock.

From the top of Tonina ruins
As my planned six-week trip expanded into four months, I met a British woman living in Spain, when she stayed for two weeks in the same compound where I was staying. We traveled together to Guatemala where we explored the villages around Lake Atitlán, met a US woman helping Mayan women sell their weavings, and fell in love with chicken buses. On a trip to the ruins at Tonina, we met a young Mexican entrepreneur with the most beautiful dreadlocks I’ve ever seen and an older world traveler from New Zealand. We formed an unlikely foursome as we explored the ruins as well as an incredibly beautiful swimming hole and local restaurants. They also introduced me to Posh (the local intoxicant) and I became a fan.

Gringos in foreign places tend to recognize each other and often fall into conversation as they explore the standard where-are-you-from, how-long-have-you-been-here questions. One of these conversations resulted in an ongoing conversation with an older woman artist traveling the world on $600 a month with no safety net. Her confidence and cheeriness about her financial situation reminded me of how fortunate I am. 

As it became clear that my language skills were not racing ahead, I asked a charming, young guy to be my language coach. Our Posh-fueled sessions definitely improved my confidence as we explored life in San Cristóbal and our challenging love lives in mostly broken Spanish.

I had expected to make rapid progress learning Spanish. I felt like I had a head start having lived in California for decades and having started several adult-ed Spanish classes (perhaps it would have been good if I had finished a few of them). Since I had been listening to Pimsleur CDs for months, I did not expect the wall of meaningless sounds that I found when I arrived at the Mexico City airport. Even concentrating, language was a sound blur with only an occasional word like “pero” (but) rising to the level of recognition. Not extremely useful.

When I had arrived in San Miguel at the beginning of this adventure, I expected to be put into an “intermediate beginner” class at my language school. I expected to work hard and learn fast. I expected it to come easily. It was immersion, supposedly the magical panacea of learning a language. How quickly so many expectations can be dashed. My “immersion” seemed to be limited to waiters and taxi drivers. There were plenty of people around all too happy to speak English. I expected myself to be a good student, to do the worksheets and sit in the cramped student seats in a stuffy classroom. I didn’t expect myself to chuck it all for the “escuela de las calles” as I called the fascinating, colorful, exciting sights and sounds I found in the streets.

The first mural I fell in love with.
I didn’t expect myself to fall in love with the murals and wall art I found just wandering about. There are many things I didn’t expect, but probably the biggest happened one day while I was wandering through the plaza in front of the Cathedral. There was almost always something going on there so at first I thought it was a concert or something. There was a man's voice booming over huge speakers and there must have been a thousand people wandering around the plaza.

As I walked through the crowd, my chest began to hurt and I felt like crying. The words were just sounds so I didn’t know why and started trying to figure out the words on posters. I saw a row of pictures of young men and on the ground children were putting flowers on pictures of the same young men laid out in a grid. I realized that what I was feeling was grief. That something horrible had happened to these young men.

Finally, I ran into someone I knew who explained that 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College went missing in Iguala, Guerrero. They had just disappeared twelve days earlier. Over the next several weeks in San Cristóbal, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, and Merida, I saw heartbreaking marches demanding action and information about the students. At first the students were called “Los Vivos,” the living.

The story that gradually came out was horrifying. It remains unclear who all was involved but the story that I heard most was that the ambitious, cartel-related wife of the mayor of Iguala was going to give a speech in Mexico City before announcing her candidacy for office. She heard that the students planned to protest her speech and she had them kidnapped, apparently with the assistance of local police and government officials. This incident set off massive protests in Mexico as well as worldwide and led to the arrest of more than 130 suspects, 44 of whom were police officers. It also significantly stained the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

By later in October, the most common signs included the words:

nos enterraron (they buried us)
pero no sabían (but they did not know)
que estamos semillas. (that we are seeds)

The inquiry remains open.

I didn’t expect to see the underbelly of this beautiful country. I didn’t expect to feel the pain of a system where human rights often disappear under the weight of power, money and greed. 

I didn’t expect to return almost three years later when life turned once again toward Mexico. I hadn't expected to experience the underbelly of my own country as human rights began to be attacked in a way we thought we had left behind decades ago.

When I left San Cristóbal, I was innocently planning my future ... reconnecting with my guy, traveling and creating a nest together in New Mexico, settling down in a new dream. With all of these expectations clanging around in my head, I didn’t hear Mexico chuckling while it also cried for its lost children.

Morning in Ajijic, Mexico
Now, three years later, as I return to Mexico, I have fewer expectations, fewer illusions about the shadow side of the human experience. But, I still have the expectation of learning the beautiful language of this country and soaking in more of its natural beauty and culture.


  1. Wow. I'm speechless. Filled with admiration and excitement at your adventure, awed by the colors in your photographs and stories. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Oh JOyce! You inspire me with your courage, beautiful heart and story-telling.

  3. Hi Louise ... what fun to hear from you. My little Mexican village is a hotbed of Canadians. Come be a snowbird!