Monday, August 6, 2007

You don’t know what comfortable is, until you’ve slept in President Vicente Fox’s bed

This is a very typical story about traveling in Mexico:

Erin and I had decided to take a short two-day hiking trip into the Sierra Norte. Oaxaca state is rich enough to have both pristine surfer beaches and mountains with some of the greatest biodiversity in the world. My Spanish teacher, Lety, used to work with the World Wildlife Federation in the Sierra Norte, and heartily recommended that we go visit Ixtlán de Juarez, a town of about 8,000 people, that communally owns the forest around it and provides guided tours through their tourism office, Ecoturixtlan.

When I visited their office in Oaxaca, a tiny one-room office with a woman who probably got a visitor every other day, I was assured that I could easily take a colectivo taxi to Ixtlán any time of day. Colectivo taxis are red and white sedans that shuttle people between the city of Oaxaca and various pueblos outside Oaxaca, for as little as 8 pesos, or about $0.75. The drivers want to fill up before they leave—three in the back, and two in the front next to the driver, but since they’re not spacious cars, the person in the middle in the front can end up sitting with the gearshift between their legs.

Since Ixtlan was in the mountains and about an hour away, I expected to pay about 50 pesos each. Erin and I got up fairly early and made our way to the sitio, the site from which the Ixtlan colectivos would leave. There was an immense line of 20 or so people, but I wasn’t too perturbed, since I’d never had to wait more than 10 minutes or so for a colectivo to leave.

After waiting 40 minutes and seeing one car come by, I finally decided I had to do something. No one else seemed perturbed, but I turned to the old woman next to me and asked, “Is it normal to wait so long?”

“Oh yes, I’ve waited one, two hours before.”

“Ohmigod,” I thought. “Is there any other way to get there?”

“Yes, you can take a special taxi over there, but they charge 50 pesos each.”

This isn’t an exact translation, as what she really said was that there was something “especial aqua.” “Aqua” is a Mexican form of “aqui” or “here,” but since it’s a Mexican word, it means it has a very broad meaning. “Here” doesn’t mean “right here,” this little spot right in front of us. “Here” can mean “right here” or “close to here” or “sort of here.” For natives, “here” has a vast circumference.

Maybe 50 pesos was too much for her, but it wasn’t for me, and I wandered over in the direction she had gestured, leaving Erin sitting on a stump calmly reading the Moon Handbook for Oaxaca. But I found nothing that made sense. There were some colectivos with “Ixtepeji” on the side, indicating a town between Ixtlán and Oaxaca, but nothing else. I asked the woman selling snacks, “Is there another way to get to Ixtlán?” And she told me about a bus that would arrive in an hour, but nothing else.

I went back to the old woman and asked again, “You mean over there? Do you mean the cabs going to Ixtepeji?”

“Yes, they’re special, they charge 50 pesos.”

I went back to the two cab drivers who had been standing around for awhile. “How much to go to Ixtlan?”

“250 pesos.”

“For the car?”

“For the car.”

Well, at this point, Erin and I were definitely willing to split that to get to Ixtlán. But I thought I might as well ask, “Does anyone want to go with us?”, and three women popped up, including the woman who had told me I could hire the Ixtepeji car!

How is it that the non-Spanish-speaking foreigner organized the “especial” car to Ixtlán?!?!?! And why didn’t one of the cab drivers, who were literally 20 feet away, come by and offer to take five people for 250 pesos?

More than anything, Mexico makes me realize how much I as an American assume that if there is money to be spent, it should be easy to spend it. Mexico is a wonderful country in which to de-New York-ify. You can’t control anything, and if you just relax, everything will work out in the end. And to think, I’ve been huffing and puffing for so much of my life, waiting on a subway platform for a train that broke down.

The ride was absolutely beautiful. The road was smooth and well-paved but it turned and turned, in lovely serpentine curves. And when we arrived, we saw a proud little town, so clean and so lovingly maintained. It may be desperately poor, but it didn’t look it, with its fresh paint and its sparkling basketball court right next to the central square.

The Ecoturixltan office seemed to have our lost our reservation for a cabaña, but no matter, they had one available. At 11 a.m., they said it was too late to start for a long day-hike, but after much repeated, slowly-spoken Spanish on the part of the patient receptionist, we agreed to pay for a full-day hike with a guide the next day and to spend the first day walking around the town and the cabañas in the woods.

Yet again, we saw Mexican marketing at work, which is to say it was nonexistent. The receptionist tried to draw us a map, but like most locals in small towns, she had no idea how many turns there were in the roads in her town. We were looking for a “mirador,” a look-out point that most people drive to, but the only existing signs were irregularly placed, and not necessarily at every fork in the road. Erin has traveled in Latin America before, and she’s just a wonderfully patient person anyway, so neither of us really cared that we were stumbling through cornfields and walking through someone’s backyard. We never did find the mirador.

But when we got back, we had the sharp, clean hunger of those who’ve walked in the mountains, and we sat down with easy anticipation for our lunch in the “Cafeteria” next to the Ecoturixtlan office. There were two choices, enchiladas or chicken, and we both ordered the chicken.

My God, it was so good! It was served in a spicy, brightly flavored, tomato-colored sauce made of guajillo chiles and hoja de aguacate, or avocado leaves, which impart a taste that reminds me of fennel and mint at the same time. You would never have expected it, something so tangy and delicious at a tiny restaurant in the mountains serving two dishes a day, and that only made it even more delicious.

The other food revelation of the day was tasting our first “mango pina.” The lady at the market told us to peel a bit of the skin at one end and then just suck the juice out. When we arrived at our cabaña in the mountains, we tried to peel it and cut it into chunks, but soon realized it was too stringy to do anything other than squeeze and hope for the best. It really did have the fragrance of a ripe pineapple, somehow grafted onto a mango. She was also selling insane, giant orange mushrooms, and one of my greatest regrets in Mexico is that I didn’t buy any.

When we fell asleep that night, we sank into the most comfortable king-size bed of our lives. If you are ever in the cabañas in Ixtlán, be sure to ask for Cuarto #4, as you will end up sleeping in the Presidential Suite, the room in which President Vicente Fox stayed, as we were told the following morning.

But Mexico wasn’t done surprising us. When we woke up the next morning, we had no idea if anyone was going to come and get us. We were 4 kilometers, a little less than 3 miles, outside of town, and we hadn’t gotten any real directions about how and where to meet our guide. Around 9:30 a.m., a young man showed up and told us that there weren’t any guides available for a hiking trip, but did we want to go on an automobile tour?

No we did not. I, thankfully, did not go all-NY on him, but I did say, in an insistent voice, “But we paid for a guide to take us on a 7-hour hike. That’s what we were told yesterday.”

I should have known better just to trust. When we got back to town, we found Eduardo, our guide, and Julian, a Swiss agronomist traveling through Mexico who spoke excellent Spanish. (It’s not fair how easily Europeans learn languages.) And we went on our 7-hour hike, through three different kinds of forests, including “el bosque de nubes” or the cloud forest, with its ghostly lichens and mists. Sadly, we didn’t see any jaguars, but we did see some amazing, perfectly round, perfectly red mushrooms, both poisonous and edible. We also saw the prettiest little meadow on our way back to town, which made me want to twirl and burst into song: “The hills are alive….with the sound of music!”

We knew as we got closer back to town that we might not be able to catch another colectivo back to Oaxaca. It was past 6:30 pm, but we found the sitio easily enough and got on line. We waited and waited, ate a banana or two, tried to stay out of the afternoon rain, and waited and waited. The people at the Ecoturixtlan office told us a bus would leave at 8:30 p.m. from the gas station, you know, just straight from the central square.

After 8:15, the entire line of 8 remaining people got up. “Where are you going?”, I asked a smiley guy who had tried to find a truck to take all of us back earlier. “We’re going to the bus!”

When we got to the gas station, though, we found a van that had been stopped by the military checkpoint that was also going to Oaxaca, and we decided to hop on board. Everyone in the van was tired and annoyed, and one woman repeatedly kept shouting, “I’m a lawyer! I’m a teacher! What is the problem?” Erin and I, however, tried to stay inconspicuous and friendly, as we got thoroughly searched as well. By that point, we knew how to relax. As the young photographer from Mexico City shrugged, "Asi Mexico," "That's Mexico." There was a moment when we thought Erin’s backpack with its Camelbak-style plastic waterbag would get confiscated; it was so completely alien to the soldier rifling through her bag. Erin asked me later, “Do you think that soldier was flirting with us?” And I answered, “I don’t know, but given how close his gun was to us, I thought it was best to smile a lot.”

We got home in the end, even after finding another military checkpoint right outside the city. The entire van rose up in chorus, “But we were already searched back there!” I felt like we’d seen everything there is to see about Mexican transportation—resigned patience, good fortune, and military checkpoints. And we got to eat great chicken and fantastic fruit, and sleep in Vicente Fox's bed! How lucky we were, ¡que suerte!

No comments: