Jan/Feb 2010 Travel


by Carolyne Whelan

By 6:30 a.m., the whole hotel room was illuminated with the hot glow of sun, which reflected off the tin roofs below, making it impossible to feign sleep. The temperature had already climbed to a feverish 38°C (a bit over 100°F) and the ceiling fan did nothing but spasm from above, slowly stirring the hot air around us like broth. A fairly light sleeper, I'd awoken multiple times the night before to hop in the shower (hot, as the water reservoirs could hardly be cooled) enough to saturate my body, then lay back down naked with the fan agonizing overhead. It was only then I was able to sleep, until the water evaporated and the process of reheating began again.

I rose to close the curtains to shut out some of the light and heat from outside. In the daylight, I could finally see where we were on this planet, what landscape negotiated the happiness of the people here in Tehuantepec, Oaxaca. They'd been such helpful and enjoyable company the night before, as we'd wandered into town and tried to find a place to store our belongings. From this view, I could see the mountains in the distance, still hazy in the morning light. A rickety train track floated alongside a road bridge, busy with cars, walkers, cargo bicycles, and burros. The two bridges crossed over a valley that spilled into a colloquial looking part of town, small houses with gardens spread about rolling hills, with a tienda, a snack shop, splintered in every now and then. Across the valley were more houses, with fewer trees and gardens, more desertous, and a large hill, not quite a mountain, rising at the far reach of town. A road climbed up at the base, then turned to dirt, then wound zig-zagging up the hill until finally near the top there was what looked like a tunnel, painted blue around its edges, as if at long last the travelers had given up trying to drive or lead their burros up this monstrosity and simply dug through to the other-side. It seemed from my view that at that height they might as well have just continued the trek to the top, not too far from the tunnel, with all the work it must have taken to dig such an aperture, but I was looking from afar, so who was I to judge.

"Happy Birthday, Love! What do you want to do today?" Evan sat up in the cot and leaned against the cool concrete wall. "Do you want to find some breakfast? We have mini bananas still, we should try to find the bakery."

"I could really go for some agua, maybe jamaica. I'm too hot right now even for real juice." Despite the oppressive heat, it was a beautiful day, and it was my 26th birthday, so there was no point in locking ourselves up in a tiny hotel room with a cot and a useless ceiling fan. We opened up the doors of Tehuantepec and strolled right into its day.

Here is a panorama: to the left was the mercado, which at not yet 7 a.m. seemed to still be setting up, though it was in full bustle. There were plenty of tents filling the side street to its maximum capacity, spilling out from the indoor market, which ran much like a flea market. Many people on the street sold meat, tacos, rotting produce, and other products I had little need for at the time. The isle in between the two lanes of tents was narrow, full of people standing, eating, accosting patrons, questioning merchants. Early in the morning.

To the right was the indoor mercado. As in many mercados, an old woman nursed a baby (probably a grandchild, though how she was still able to nurse I have no clue) while she used a bunch of frayed strips of plastic bag to shoe away flies from the cows head and hunks of beef she was selling. A middle-aged man sat on a stool in a stable. He sold Puma (the beloved Mexican soccer team) jerseys, and silk-screened t-shirts of pop musicians, mainly from the U.S. Around the corner in the market, a girl sold fruit, a woman sold honey out of old soda bottles. Hand-woven hammocks hung braided from poles, piñatas were tied up to the ceiling beams, children's toys, hair brushes, dried beans, mescal (sort of like Mexico's answer to Moonshine) and Nestle products lined up along tables and counters worming through the market.

Later in the day, as the temperature mingled a few notches above 45°C and I tried to nap off heat exhaustion, Evan bought a piñata here for me, shaped like Rafael of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He hung it in the lobby of the hotel room and led me down four flights of stairs blindfolded as the hotel's owners and their family (middle-aged parents, a teenage-son named Raul, and a young daughter) sang wonderful songs celebrating birthdays and the joyful tradition of bashing paper mache ninja turtles to shreds with an old broom stick. It was here I found out I am not very good at piñatas. As I finally peeked through my blindfold and ripped down the only partially severed turtle torso and threw candy all over the floor for everyone to scramble towards, I found I also have little patience for things I know contain candy but will not give me any treats.

Outside the mercado to the right was the town square with small shops, mainly selling food. Bar stools ran along the line of shops, regardless of what was sold, and were scattered with people sitting, socializing, and escaping the heat with a cold glass of fresh juice. The park was a nice one, with grass, trees, benches and a trellis here and there. On the right and bottom edges of the square were the skeletons of stands that are alive in the evening when the other markets close. Here they sold jewelry with skulls and pot leaves, posters, ice cream, and other paraphernalia to satisfy the youth population of Tehuantepec, who, for a small town with very few travelers coming through, were very worldly and open to new concepts. In the evening, when these stands were alive and the teens were bustling about, quite a few gay couples held hands or cuddled on a park bench while talking with friends. Keeping further to the right was yet more commerce, all the way down the railroad tracks. The tents and carts of merchandise at times wove around corners and between buildings, obstructing the structural flow of the city while creating a natural cultural flow. Commerce worked its way down the walking paths of the people, rather than down the roads of the rather few cars.

Evan and I chose this path to start my 26th year properly. We immediately bought a bag of jamaica: a "water" with a fruity, light taste made from dried flowers much the way sweetened iced tea is made, served in a plastic baggy and sucked from a straw. Down the road we came to a stand selling wrestling masks. After trying on almost all of them, we each chose our favorite. I was in red with gold flames coming off the eye sockets, designed like a more flamboyant Cat Woman mask. Evan was in a serious-looking blue full-faced mask with small white and red holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth, which all stuck out as if gasping. These masks were tightened to fit by lacing in the back. We didn't keep them on for very long.

We walked along the railroad tracks, not talking much, thinking of what great adventures we might have.

"You know, twenty-six is over-the-hill in punk years," I said finally.

"So you're an old punk broad."

"What if I lose my edge? What if all my complaining about Pittsburgh being a sleepy city is just a cover-up for personal complaints I have with the fact that I'm getting old and uncool? I just don't want to do fun things anymore."

"Right. Instead of getting wasted and playing in bands no one wants to listen to, you come to Mexico and save me from losing my mind and spend your birthday in some small town you 'had a hunch' would be even better than the remote beach paradise we were in the day before, and so far it's been not so bad, and it's only 7:30 in the morning. What a loser."

"I love you."

"I love you, too, and you're the coolest person I know. Let's cross this train bridge."

"There are no hand railings, and I'm wearing sandals."

Of course I went anyway. I love train bridges: their ability to seem so instable and perilous to our small human feet while transporting thousands of pounds of steel and goods effortlessly and without threat of defeat. I love the fear without true, absolute danger, the thinking I might fall without the actual falling. I kept close behind Evan, trying to keep up my pace and not nick his heals or lose my balance on one of the many wobbly latches. A older man passed us, walking as if he were walking on any road, and smiled a short smile under his moustache as he passed. Below, a woman herded a flock of goats through the valley, using the shredded plastic bag seen so often in the markets used to keep the flies at bay. They seemed to move slowly, but by the time we reached the valley the woman and her goats were nowhere to be seen.

At the end of the bridge, we decided to cut down into the valley and explore that part of town. Needles, broken bottles, glue bags, junk food wrappers, and condoms paved the steep slope under the bridge and into the valley – mainly needles. I'd badly hurt my toe a couple nights before, walking barefoot on a beach in the dark, and was now wearing sandals. Luckily, the sand and blood had made a cement-like casting over the wound. I had only the other nine toes to worry about. We made it down unscathed. Across the valley, a young boy napped in a hammock, a few men led burros burdened with rugs, cans, and hand-made toys, and a few wild dogs lay panting in the shade. Many of the tiendas on this side of the valleys were different from ones I'd seen. A large cement room with a counter towards the front; a few candy bars on a shelf and a cooler with a few sodas; a number of fans all running and facing mainly towards the back; hammocks strewn about; three or four arcade games leaning against the far wall. These shops seemed more of a simple escape from the heat, their purpose not to sell as many kinds of junk food as possible at a good price, but to offer up the commodity of shade, a breeze, a cold drink. At 11 a.m., it was already past 43°C and steadily rising. To live in this climate is to know one's physical limits and abide by them.

With the approval of an older man outside doing gardening work, we cut through a shady compound of small houses with trees that lent enough shade to protect a few vegetable patches, a couple pigs, and a few chickens. And then the clearing. To the left rose up a steep hill: the one I had seen from our window earlier in the day.

Of course we wanted to walk up, of course we wanted to walk through that tunnel.

At the base of the hill, just before it began to rise up out of the town, was a mother dog and her newborn litter, all wild. She was dehydrated and hungry, and the young pups took turn nursing on her and crying terribly. A yard away lay the runt, yelping his way into his starved death, kicked already from the pack. Their eyes weren't even open yet. Their blonde bodies turned pink in the sun. Together they made a choir of dreadful howling, each with its own sad, hysterical melody.

"It's just Mother Nature, Sweetheart, keep walking." Evan grabbed my hand as we passed the dogs, and we hurried up the hill. The day was moving forward and the heat latched firmly onto everything around and breathed out of them: the trees, buildings, streets, dust. The day was projected to cusp 48°C and there was not a cloud in that wonderful, vacant, cyanotic sky.

Here: the point where pavement turned to dirt road. Here: where the dirt road started to curve. Here: franticly, now, the road zigzagged up the increasingly steep hill, as if losing its balance in the climb. We stopped once to regain balance, or to retie a shoe-lace, or to drink water. Here: it is clear now that this road was not meant for vehicles, and we chandelled upward using our hands. Here: the tunnel with the cobalt trim is not a tunnel at all but a shrine, El Santuario de San Miguel, chiseled into the top of this high hill.

The walls of the shrine were stone, smoothed over time, with a very light musky smell, like a basement. There were candles everywhere, still lit, and bats chirped and flapped behind tucks and cracks in the wall. There was a painting of the saint on an altar with a ribbon of stone around it for prayer. Plenty of notes written to him rested dormant on shelves and candle stands all around. Dizzy from the altitude and heat, we sat at the edge of the cave, dangling our feet. At this moment, once we were still for a moment and out of the sun's evaporatory rays, the sweat came. We dripped from our noses, ears, necks, and fingertips. There was nothing we could do about it. We sipped the remainder of our canteens to not cramp up, and enjoyed the view and the shade.

The mountains on the other side of Tehuantepec and the valley were hidden under a haze. Tehuantepec itself peeked out with spatterings of tall buildings, churches, the bridge, and stretching out, the town too disappeared. We could no longer see the hotel, though we could see the outline of the mercado. Slight noises from the town could be heard: bells ringing, children laughing or screaming in play, an occasional car honk, the underbelly of a bustle, that low murmur of civilization so faint it may have just been in our heads. Above it all, though, we could hear those pups. Still yelping, honking, howling weirdly like no animal I'd ever heard. Mother Nature.

I became uneasy about sitting in the shrine and thought we ought to go. Two atheists sitting in a shrine celebrating a religion from which they'd dismissed themselves; it felt disrespectful. After some discussion over our personal politics regarding religion and its followers, and our place in a community as obvious outsiders, Evan still thought it was fine for us to be up there but agreed to leave since we were also out of water and had not yet eaten anything that day. Plus he had to get back into town to find a birthday present for me. As we descended the perilous hill, we were dwarfed in human stature by three out-of-shape looking middle-aged men carrying lunch pails and thermoses, one of whom had a seven-year-old (I'm guessing) girl on his back, climbing the hill and talking, wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants and not looking too set back by the heat or the climb or the sun.

"Hello! Good day!" they all said, "have you been up there already?" They looked at us smiling while they waited for our Spanish comprehension to catch up enough to respond.

"We were, we're coming down now. It's nice up there, nice and cool!"

They laughed.

"It's hot here, isn't it?" This is the stringing chorus of conversation between us and the people of Tehuantepec. "The shrine is beautiful. Have a nice day, goodbye!"

"Enjoy the view!"

With that we headed home, as a traveler's home goes: to the room with a view, a place with an impotent fan and a cot and a place to hang my birthday dress, a place to grow a few hours older as the heat wave passed.


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