An Odyssey: Parts Four & Five

I have been busy with my novel and not taken time to post the past couple of days. Here you have Parts Four and Five of   “ An Odyssey

An Odyssey

Parts Four & Five

During that ride, my eyes took in the high altitude green eucalyptus, the lanky canary-yellow flowers bending in the breeze, and hundreds of thousands of plump red coffee beans laid out to dry on hard-packed earth. We passed minuscule settlements where time seemed to have stopped. I caught glimpses of shy Tzotzil and Ch’ol Mayan women with their children. I smelled wood smoke on the wind and the sorrowful sound of the luggage shifting in the compartments below only added to my dreamlike state.

On the edge of the road, pine trees and bananas, apples and oranges, were all growing side by side.  One of our fellow passengers told us that he worked for the national water commission. We asked him – “How could this be?”

He explained, “The mountain ascent is so steep and fast that both the lowland and highland plant species have adapted to these less-than-ideal growing conditions, and so have the people. The region’s Maya are small and compact, and they are resilient. Their remote towns and villages are difficult to access, but in these places you will inevitably find the authentic contemporary highland Mayan culture you’re looking for.”

We found a delightful San Cristóbal hotel that had once been a monastery. That night the owner lit fires in the burnt brick hearths, not concerned that smoke had blackened the white plaster walls.  French backpackers offered us wine called “Red” – the first frances I’d ever met who would allow such vin comun dans la bouche! Declining a second glass, we left el Hotel Montezuma and walked the steep streets of one of the oldest cities in México. We reveled in the clear, high-altitude air. Two days ago I had languished, sleep deprived and bathed in perspiration in my power-bereft home. I felt overwhelmingly grateful to be in this blessedly cool town. After a sensuous meal at a tiny, toasty corner bistro, we came out again into the brisk night air and I snuggled closer to my guy. He sighed.  We turned around and sauntered home.

Markets, markets, and more markets! Husband was racking up major brownie points as “Sherpaman.” The same wall hangings, pillow shams, table cloths and uncountable other delights cost a third of what had been asked in Palenque. We bought wild strawberries and golden apricots – all the fruits that we don’t usually see in tropical, lowland Mérida. Woven baskets and primitive pottery. A pair of amber earrings. I felt possessed – I couldn’t stop shopping!

I saw one amazing woman for whom the term “multi-tasking” should have been coined.  She wore a shawl tied snugly over her left shoulder and nursed a baby from her right breast, while crocheting and supervising three children, who wove friendship bracelets that I supposed would all be sold in the plaza that evening. She simultaneously passed food into hungry little mouths, gossiped with the other vendors, constantly folded and re-folded her merchandise, and, in the half an hour that I watched, sold items to four groups of tourists.

I learned her name was Carmen. Her work was far and away the best in the market and the most costly. She caught my eye, called me over and asked, “Are you interested in a very special piece?” Before the magnificent hanging was completely pulled out from the bottom of a large stack, I knew it had to be mine.

“¿Cuanto?” I asked.

Dos mil quiñentos… two thousand, five hundred pesos.”

I would not argue. I could bargain and get it for less but why would I want to? I’ve always advocated fair pay.  Why should I alter my yardstick because I was in an indigenous market? How much would I pay for this piece in an upscale craft emporium? She figured she was selling her work at a handsome profit; I knew I was getting a deal. We smiled, both happy as I pressed the five 500 peso bills into her hand. I reached into my pocket and gave each child one of the candies I always carry when traveling. I gave one to Carmen, saying, “you eat it so the baby gets some too!”

In nearby San Juan Chamula, we came upon the town’s church. I sensed an otherworld presence and had to stop. I gazed at the building, and an elder told us we could go inside. The heavy wooden door inched open and, as my eyes adjusted to the glowing interior, I wondered if the locals were observing my reaction to the scene arrayed before us. I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from crying out.

This was like no sacred place I’d ever seen. No pews. No conventional main altar. Fragrant pine needles were spread on the floor and hundreds of multi-colored candles burned. Vases of flowers were everywhere. All around the smoky perimeter, family groups knelt before a plethora of elaborately adorned statues.

But I heard no sedate murmuring and saw no reverent crossing of chests.   Instead, these worshippers were shouting, stomping their feet, and shaking fists at the effigies. Men chanted and women keened. Little ones watched the elders, learning their ways.

They prayed in several Mayan languages I couldn’t understand, but obviously they were begging for the saints’ intervention. They set out food and posh – the traditional liquor – and it struck me that this was like the offertory of a Catholic mass.

I heard a rooster loudly protest as he was pulled from a sack. His neck was quickly wrung, and the twitching bird was laid down with the other gifts – the consecration?

They took bites of food and even the children were sipping the posh. There it was – communion!  I felt emotionally overwhelmed.

Ooutside into the daylight, I wondered how long had we been in there? I wanted to ask him about what I’d witnessed but the words wouldn’t come. I couldn’t describe my confusion.

He read my thoughts and explained, “This is an example of the syncretistic faith that is so fundamental to the contemporary Mayan way of life.”

Done in, we headed back to San Cristobal. My belly needed to be filled with another sensuous, voluptuous meal – Italian fare tonight, followed by après diner with our French friends and a couple we met from California. The chance encounter turned into “one of those evenings” with much wine, many stories, some international diplomacy, and a lot of mournful mountain music that settled deep into my soul.

Our bus would leave at noon the next day, and at eleven, I still felt the effects of the “Red”, and  gratefully took Dramamine. I snoozed all the way back down the long hill to Mérida – seventeen hours in reverse motion.

With my heart still beating to the magical rhythm of the past four days, I thought about my privileged existence. Smiling, I quietly told my husband,

“Thank you for this life I have.”                                                                                                                                                                     

“You’re welcome,” he said, “but why do you thank me?”

I laid my head on his shoulder and explained. “If I hadn’t met you, I wouldn’t be here. I doubt the fates, or Isadora, would have taken me to Chiapas by myself.”

Back home, we were exuberant at the sight of electric streetlights burning a welcome all the way to our house. I switched on the air conditioning.  Yes, our power was back. Debris and leaves were piled in the streets and the entire city smelled of mildew. But that would all be taken care of in time. Right now, more pressing matters held my attention.

“Let’s go look at the pictures on the computer,” I suggested.

“Or we could look at your etchings,” said my husband. And until lots later, that’s precisely what we did.



Filed under Writing

4 responses to “An Odyssey: Parts Four & Five

  1. I enjoyed hearing about the Chiapas experience – a lovely recounting.

  2. Very nice, Joanna! I loved the details about the church celebration! It was also a pleasure to read the part about the on the bargaining, and “our” apparent need to squeeze the indigenous worker profit margin, just to get an even better bargain.

    • It’s always a pleasure to receive your comments. In the next couple of days will also post this story on the” Writing” page (located just below the header)

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