After one more sound sleep in the musty third floor nest, we made our way to the bus station and, not too much later hunkered into seats 12 and 13. Almost immediately, the bus began climbing through first lush, then increasingly arid foothills.
My inner flower child seemed to be alive and well. Only 60’s lexicon could adequately describe the ride that day – Mexico’s magnificence blew me away! On the pages of my new notebook, I drew madly in great, swirling, colorful swoops.
“That doesn’t look like anything I’m seeing,” said my pensive husband.
“No,” I told him, “It looks like how I’m feeling.”
As I gazed out through the dusty window, I heard the motor groan, and in my pelvis I felt the strain as the bus forged laboriously through the mountain range known as La Sierra Madre. My breath came short and quick as we careened wildly around hairpin curves on what the driver euphemistically called a highway. It took seven hours to lurch over about two hundred topes – speed bumps – and ascend over two thousand meters to San Cristóbal de las Casas. But it didn’t occur to me to feel afraid. I felt completely enthralled with the entire experience.
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, and 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?”
“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 at all concerned about the creosote had blackened the white plaster walls. French backpackers offered us wine called “Red” – the first Parisians I’d ever met who would allow such vin comun dans la bouche! They must have been traveling for a long time…
Markets, markets, and more markets! Jorge was racking up major brownie points for his role as Sherpa-man. The same wall hangings, pillow shams, table cloths and uncountable other delights cost a third of what had been asked for in Palenque. We bought wild strawberries and golden apricots – 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 watched one amazing woman for whom the term “multi-tasking” must 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 slightly older children, who wove friendship bracelets that I supposed would all be sold in the plaza that evening. She 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 observed her, she sold her wares 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!”