The Spirit of Benito Juarez
The buses rule in Mexico. Bowling along the Mexican Autopista-190 towards Puebla, we were fascinated by the sight of Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl and these snow-capped mountain tops looked surreal across the high plains landscape. Our reserved, reclining seats were comfortable enough and we would soon be sleeping despite the glorious scenery. We had left “Tapo”, Mexico City’s main bus station, at 9.30 a.m. after negotiating the “Metro” from our hotel in the heart of the city. At three pesos a ride, it is an amazing bargain.
Our full service Mexican hotel had been comfortable and ideally located, five minutes from the Zocalo and Metropolitan Cathedral, where we took a guided tour. We had enjoyed a buffet breakfast and morning television, but from now on, we would have another “bare-bones” adventure - Gerry, Al, Don and Clive. The “Museo Nacional de Antropología” had been a rare experience the previous day, after a sunlit walk through Chapultapec Park.
The museum is really the Museum of Mesoamerican Anthropology although the first room, “An Introduction to Anthropology” superbly covers the fundamentals and prepares the earnest student for the rest of the museum. I found I was contrasting the Maya, the Aztecs, the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs, etcetera, with what I knew of European history during the same time frame. The Mesoamerican civilisations were truly remarkable, but nobody was sufficiently imperialistic to build roads and dominate the whole area like the Romans. They never invented the wheel or built fortifications, like European castles, although they obviously had the construction skills. Their belligerence matched the Europeans, but not their military technology. I believe their art and pure science were equal to Europe. We were also reminded of Jared Diamond’s books and the amazing conquest, or were it luck, of a few hundred Spaniards. The Mexican authorities run the museum well, as the guide books testify, but being unable to ever sit down and listen to my audio guide was for me a physical challenge - the “camp guards” would not even allow us to lean against the wall. After six gruelling hours, we were in no condition to try and walk back to our hotel so we used the metro again.
We spent both our evenings in Mexico City having dinner in the open air and Al and I watched the Mexican national football team beat North Korea on the hotel room television. Javier Hernandez -“chicharito“- the young Guadalajara star scored the winner and was voted “man of the match”.
After Puebla, the luxurious bus crossed deserted, barren mountains on a well engineered toll road, before descending into Oaxaca at five thousand feet. Through the air conditioned bus window it looked hot, and it was. Four big guys squashed into a tiny “Tsuru” taxi were not cool or comfortable - but it did save money. “Hostel Paulina” was squeaky clean and we were assigned our own room with bunk beds. A communal bathroom was down the hall and breakfast was included, for 150 pesos per person, per night. The breakfast turned out to be superb and as it was “all you can eat”, so we found we could usually skip lunch.
For our first meal in wonderful Oaxaca, we tried savoury enchiladas with “Mole” (chocolate!) sauce, a local favourite. Every evening, the Zocalo was the place to be amongst the boutiques and fancy restaurants in the balmy night air. There was live music and other cultural events but no brash gift shops - the street peddlers make up for it.
After a substantial breakfast the following day, we caught a special bus up the mountain to Monte Alban. The road is treacherous even though it is the only access for thousands of visitors, but poorer Mexicans have erected shanties alongside wherever possible. The houses cling to the steep hillsides, making one wonder what would happen in heavy rain. Don and Al, who had both visited Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsular, believe that Monte Alban compares favourably and is probably larger.
Our Mixtec guide was Juan who promised not only to tell us all the facts but to also colour his comments with his own interpretation. The view he presented of life before the Spanish conquest was perhaps romanticised, but he would provide reasonable explanations when challenged. Gerry challenged him on the alleged human sacrifices carried out, but he responded that the reports were exaggerated and motivated by the need to excuse the plunder carried out by the Spaniards. Even Spanish writers admit to the Conquistadores being motivated by greed for precious metals, so it seems feasible that there is a need to present the Conquistadores as the lesser of two evils. If we accept that all people are the same, then it has to be believed that European diseases and military hardware superiority were the only deciding factors in the clash of cultures. Juan told us that before the Spaniards, the valleys and hillsides surrounding Monte Alban, were covered in forest but the superior tools introduced by the Spaniards were so effective in producing lumber that the ecology could never recover. Now the land is semi arid. He believes that we need to live in harmony with nature like the builders of Monte Alban did but I shared with him my belief that only an ecological disaster will bring this about. There are pools, canals and viaducts in the ruins of Monte Alban, so perhaps there was a time when the watershed was high enough to make it worthwhile constructing them.
The ruins were the spiritual, economic and political centre of the region but the builders saw no reason to fortify them. They were abandoned many centuries before the Spanish conquest and then only used sporadically. It always amazes me that ancient civilisations reserved their best efforts for symbolic structures rather than investments in providing a better life for themselves - the dead were often better housed in tombs than were the living. Gerry and I have always wanted to see a Mesoamerican pyramid site and we were not disappointed.
After our return to the hostel in mid-afternoon, Don and I napped while Gerry and Al took leave to visit the “Sierra Norte” tourist office and arrange the ultimate phase of our adventure. We planned to visit Zapotec mountain communities who arrange hiking between their villages in the spirit of eco-tourism. Gerry and Al returned to the hostel dejected - the office was closed over the weekend! It seemed like our trip was doomed to have a disappointing end. In the hostel computer room, we searched the Internet for alternatives but were getting nowhere when a Mexican on the next computer spoke up. He told us that there was a bus, from the second class bus station, that could take us up to the key town of Benito Juarez. Perhaps we would have to taxi the last leg. We set off to check out our options at the second class bus station which was a stark contrast to the tile and glass palaces we had used so far on our trip; it was grimy and dilapidated. The buses looked abandoned, parked in a dirt courtyard and half of the ticket offices were closed. The people were friendly, but not used to gringos and nobody spoke English. I spotted a lively looking ticket clerk and gave it another chance. She directed us to the very end of the concourse and the oldest yellow bus you ever saw. We approached tentatively and spotted the name “Titanic”, painted in red on the side. We talked to the small, wiry Indian driver who told us to return the next day at 10.30 a.m. and he would be there to provide personal transport in the Titanic. Full of doubt, we consulted a waiting passenger who assured us that the bus would not run on Sunday under any circumstances. He understood our dilemma and advised us to take a bus to Mitla and hitch a ride at the intersection of the road to “Teotitlan de Valle”. On the taxi ride back, we decided to take the passenger’s advice. That evening we dined extravagantly, on a balcony overlooking the Zocalo, quaffing margaritas to embolden us for the following day.
Getting onto the grimy Mitla bus was easy and we were intrigued at sharing it with mostly Zapotec Indians. I had not slept well and soon fell asleep. While I slept, the driver had driven unaccountably past our intersection and on to the town of Tlacolula -were our plans to change again? We climbed down onto another dirt courtyard and followed the driver’s pointing arm to a yellow bus parked some distance away - the Titanic. Titanic had a younger, more capable looking driver sharing tacos with a pretty female passenger and he promised to deliver us to Teotitlan de Valle. We watched as a pair of black goats climbed down from another bus that had just arrived and wondered just who would be sharing our journey?
Titanic went back to the intersection and up into the mountains and Teotitlan de Valle where they weave the colourful Zapotec rugs full of pre-Columbian symbols. It was wonderful, full of women in traditional dress and tiny workshops where it seemed you might buy at bargain prices. There was a place for the bus to turn around and here we were met by an opportunistic taxi driver. For 300 pesos we all piled in for the journey to Benito Juarez, up a winding gravel road with perilous drop-offs.
It is important to remember that Benito Juarez, the first president of the Mexican Republic, was himself a Zapotec Indian so it is no surprise that this tiny hamlet was named after him. However, it was pure coincidence that we arrived on Benito Juarez day, March 21st - we had no idea.
The town is built around a basketball court and there was some kind of fiesta or ceremony with the whole town participating. We checked-in at the tourist office and managed to explain our plan. Despite language difficulties, they were friendly and assigned us a cabin for one night. We booked a guide for a hike to Cuajimoloyas the following day, where we were assured of a bus back to Oaxaca, and then we went for lunch. Through the window of the restaurant, we watched the end of the school prize-giving before the basketball started. The food was authentic Mexican - not the type they please the gringos with; substantial enchiladas, a piece of roast beef and a bowl of hot chocolate into which you dunked your coarse bread.
Watching the basketball was enticing, but we decided to hike up to a mirador (overlook). After half an hour with my minor injuries paining me and gasping for the scarce oxygen at 10,000 feet, I decided the basketball was the best option and went back alone. I sat amongst the Zapotecs, feeling wonderfully at home and accepted although I was the only none Zapotec. Beautiful children played around my feet and, when another spectator saw the same humor in an incident as I did, there was friendly eye contact. After their games, pretty girls sat beside me while chatting excitedly with their friends. They also took turns watching their younger siblings. There were separate teenage boys’ and girls’ competitions and the standard of play was good, but do not expect any Zapotecs in the NBA - they are really small people. I can enjoyably watch any team sport and I soon recognized all the types of player that are typical. There were skinned knees to attend to, glorious plays and unaccountable misses, all vocally appreciated by the crowd. The players were extraordinarily well behaved and, after only a brief moment’s petulance, players accepted the referee’s decisions and played on. Boy’s teams included a few dads whose skills were still there but not the teenage vitality. Everybody was really fit compared to gringos. I was in a wonderful mood when my friends returned from the hike and waved for me to join them. An hour later, the final games were still taking place when we returned to the restaurant for another bowl of the delicious hot chocolate. Wanting to spread our spending around we checked out the other restaurant, but finding it closed, returned to the one overlooking the basketball court for dinner. The games concluded and the winning teams were joyful but restrained. Players returned to their families for the presentation of prizes. The restaurant owner told us not to hurry our meal but all the staff was going to participate and they would be back. I gulped down the rest of my food to join them.
After some children in smart uniforms performed military drills, the Mexican flag was lowered, accompanied by everyone singing the national anthem. It is a long anthem, but it was sung unaccompanied and quietly, with reverence. Everybody sang and held their right arm across their chest.
My eyes watered. It was surprisingly cold and we all wore lots of clothes and prepared carefully for the night. There was nothing else to do, so feeling weary we turned in, read a few pages, then fell asleep at about nine. It was no surprise to be awake at three and feeling cozy under a thick wad of blankets, I reflected on the events in Benito Juarez. There were no beggars or trinket peddlers, no destitute people, nobody to pity, no sullen teenagers, no drugs - even alcohol and tobacco, no spoiled behavior, no broken spirits, and no poor people. No rich people. No conspicuous consumption, no trophies of opulence, no pretence, no flaunting, no showing off, no bragging. Just the happy smiling faces of well adjusted people; a community trying to stay together despite the economic reversal of a cut back in logging. Was this what Benito had in mind?
Perhaps the successful transition, from logging to tourism, achieved by the community of Leavenworth, in Washington State, inspired what is being done in Benito Juarez. I suspect that government money has built the cabins and helped with other eco-tourism ventures and publicity. I can imagine the town elders committing to the project when the alternative was to see their young Zapotec people become lost in some big city. We shared the experience with a couple of German tourists, so obviously word is spreading of the joys of Sierra Norte.
After breakfast the next day, Gerry and Don did zip-lining near the mirador while Al and I took pictures. Then they set off for Cuajimoloyas, a three to four hour hike, guided by 76-year old Manuel. Al and I would travel there by Mexitruck, of 1970 vintage, with all the baggage.
Cuajimoloyas was quiet, like Benito Juarez, perhaps due to it being a public holiday. Al and I enjoyed a coffee in the local restaurant and a stroll around the quaint town before meeting up with the hikers. They were suffering from fatigue, but Manuel bid us farewell with powerful handshakes, and then set off to walk back. The old juggernaught bus, a Mercedes-Benz diesel, arrived and I was the last to board - there were already six people standing. The passengers were 90% Zapotec. The driver needed to use all of his skill to negotiate the treacherous mountain road but did not forget to open the air vents when the temperature rose dramatically as we descended. We travelled all the way to Oaxaca before I got a seat - after climbing over an intransigent Zapotec. Back at the hostel, we showered and went to the Zocalo for dinner. Three steaks and a pizza - we’d had enough Mexican food.
The following Morning, our last, we toured the state museum and bought books from an English language bookstore. From the airport, we took a Mexicana jet back to Guadalajara. Gerry’s pack turned up after an extensive search in Guadalajara airport and the taxi to Ajijic was much bigger than the ubiquitous Tsurus we had used so far - two final pieces of good fortune.
by The Company of Gentlemen, St. Andrew's Anglican Church, Riberas del Pilar, Jalisco MEXICO
Want to go to Oaxaca?
Chapters of “Lonely Planet” guidebooks can now be downloaded individually, instead of buying for the full $30 book: www.LonelyPlanet.com
Primera Plus (bus to Mexico City): www.primeraplus.com.mx
Hotel Catedral, Mexico City: www.hotelcatedral.com
ADO, (bus to Oaxaca): www.adogl.com.mx
Paulina Hostel: www.paulinahostel.com