All Roads Lead to Mitla

“Necessita fumar,” I tell my kidnapper.
I don’t even know if I am saying it right or making sense, but figure he will understand as soon as I fish a Marlborough Light out of my daypack and light it up.
He nods and motions for me to open a window.

I can’t tell you his reply because I don’t speak enough Spanish.
To be honest, he may not be kidnapping me at all. But it is nothing less than I deserve, as a consequence of another one of my harebrained ideas.
This is my fourth trip to Mexico, but my first time alone. This latest jackpot I find myself in is the natural outcome of sloppy planning and poor language skills.
Because despite 20 years of study, my Spanish is still so terrible it’s a wonder I have managed as well as I have.
That is, up until now.
The good-looking young Mexican pulls up slowly to a patch of weeds on the side of this mountain to avoid several goats and a small dirty herder of indeterminate age or gender.
This is it, I think frantically. He is going to pull this VW bus over and murder me.
I wind my fingers around the door handle anxiously.
But with these shitty legs, how am I supposed to outrun him? And where will I run to, if I were able?
Where the fuck am I?

This trip started out auspicious enough. I had scored a seat in first class complete with a steak dinner and hot fudge Sundae on my flight to Mexico City.

The cab had found my cheap $14 dollar a night hotel without much trouble. And despite the fact it had turned whorehouse since my last visit, they were still happy to accommodate me.
The facilities had been improved with an English speaking movie channel on their cable TV and bottled water in each room.

Two short months ago I had escaped a six-year toxic engagement, bought a house and new car. When my sister offered me the roundtrip ticket, I didn’t bother looking for a companion.
I needed to make this trip by myself. For the first time in my life, I was going to vacation exactly the way I wanted to.
But I hadn’t counted on being kidnapped.

The last trip I took to this country, I had brought my mother along. I had tried to kill her with over-exertion, but it hadn’t worked. She is hardier than she looks.
I had taken my ex the year before. I had saved him from being killed.
Sometimes I wish I had let him go back out into that sketchy cantina alone that night.
I would have never seen him again.

The first time I visited this country, I was fifteen years old and traveled with what you could loosely term a class trip with four other teens and a couple of chaperones.
But those are stories for another time.
This one time in my life, I was going ride horseback, take my meals in the Mercado, get a Limpia, and if it didn’t get me killed, visit ‘Hierve El Agua.’
It is this last venture that has landed me in my predicament. I have let myself become so singly focused on this destination, that I neglected to consider the fact that I was a crippled woman with limited language skills. I forgot to be concerned about traveling to a spot that was out of season and abandoned.
I would be camping alone.
If I don’t get killed trying to get there.
I’m too young to die, I think. But the way I have lived my life so far, my life expectancy should have been shortened considerably already.

My kidnapper doesn’t stop his vehicle but continues on until he has to pull away from the safe side to let a child and a litter of pigs pass by us.
The left tires make some dust as the cliff’s edge begins to disintegrate from the weight of our wheels.
I draw a gasp. But my savior/kidnapper pulls to the right again, and we have not descended off the side of this mountain.
Another herder with a mixed collection of goats, dogs, and pigs comes loping down the side of this cliff.
I practically stand straight up in my seat out of fright.
I roll down the window and unbuckle my seatbelt in case I have to dive out to save myself.
Like my ass could fit through that window hole.

None of this is going the way I had planned. This morning I had made arrangements in town to visit a famous eco-tourist destination. A place so far away that it requires an overnight stay in a camping hut, to take the full experience of it.
It was located high in the mountains, where springs are so abundant with calcium carbonate, it looks as if they are boiling.
The natural pools flow over the sides of the surrounding cliffs.
It leaves a magnificent residue from eons of spilling over.
The only way to arrange an overnight is in the State tourism office. Phone service has not reached that high on the mountain.

Because it is out of season, the woman who takes my reservation tells me it will be too cold to swim.

And that I will be the only person camping there tonight.

But I am assured the custodians will help me find my way around the site and will check me in.
Hierve El Agua is not an international tourist spot but a Mexican one. The woman advising me only speaks Spanish, and I hope that I have understood her correctly when she tells me how to get there by bus.
But apparently, I have not.

I wait at the second-class bus station for a dilapidated vehicle that might have been quite a luxury in the heyday of the atomic bomb.
The sign at terminal parking promises that a bus will come pick me up and bring me to Hierve.
But not one of the busses to arrive here so far is willing to do that.

After unloading a collection of food vendors, indigenous craftspeople, and small farm animals, every driver shakes his head no in answer to my question: “Hierve El Agua?”.
Some of the animals are harnessed by a rope but not all of them.

At last, a driver at the terminal next to the appointed one, tells me that he is driving the bus that will take me to Hierve El Agua.
He points his thumb over his shoulder to the bus parked behind him.
The window’s hand-lettered cardboard sign proclaims that this conveyance is headed to Mitla. A place located less than halfway to Hierve.
I look at the sign and point to it doubtfully.
The man assures me that if it is Hierve, I am heading, this is the bus I must get on.
I hurry onto the jalopy. The seats have been replaced by wooden benches, and I grab one right away. This is at least a three-hour ride and will be standing room only. Soon I will be holding some lady’s baby on my lap for the first hour. But that is just the way things are in this part of the world. I am lucky to make the entire journey sitting down.

I have taken the shady side of the bus and do not get a lot of scenery this way. I mostly see the lane of oncoming traffic ahead.
But I look out of the window idly anyway. Just in time to see an empty bus overtake ours and pass us most aggressively.
The sign in the window announces that it is going to Hierve El Agua.
Maybe the driver owns this bus and lives up there, I think hopefully.
A skinny barefoot boy stands before me with a pad of flimsy paper tickets and a change belt. The kind that you click coins out of.
The youth asks me where I am going to.
Hierve El Agua, I tell him confidently.
But the boy shakes his head no. This bus only goes as far as Mitla, he tells me.
You should have gotten on the one that just passed us he says, gesticulating out the towards the window with a swishing motion of his skinny arm.
That is, I think he says all of this, I imagine it because I don’t comprende his actual words.
Except the ones that insist that this heap is only going as far as fucking Mitla.
I want to get up and yell at the driver. But I can’t yell at him in his own language, and it won’t force him to continue on to Hierve.
No, it will only result in losing my seat and trying to stay standing upright, on this shock-less mechanical nightmare for another forty-five minutes.

At last, the bus pulls into a dusty station and the people unload. Most of them are empty handed.
It has been a good day at the Market.

I refuse to even stand up. I make the bus driver walk up and insist that I get off.
“But you told me…” I express this in English, but it doesn’t make a difference. He is waving me off of his ride.
He points to the empty bus station and vigorously promises me that the bus to Hierve is to be found inside.
Having no choice, I limp into an empty cement room and ask the twelve-year-old girl behind the counter, for a ticket to Hierve.
But the little girl shakes her head.  A champion in her English class, she tells me that the bus had no passengers to Hierve today. So the driver has gone home.

A reasonable woman might have decided that this overnight picnic was not panning out and head back to town, where she could mingle with American and European tourists.

I ask the girl behind the desk if a driver could be procured to take me the rest of the way.

The girl thinks for a minute. At last, she tells me that she might know someone, but it will be expensive.
My American wallet can handle Mexican expensive, so I nod eagerly.
After twenty minutes or so, a VW van pulls up near the door and unloads passengers like clowns from a tiny circus car.
I am astonished at the number of people that spill out from that bus.
The girl has a private word with the driver, and they look over at me several times, as if to size me up.
She informs me that my ride will cost fifty American dollars, reminding me that Hierve is still over two hours away through some treacherous mountains.
“It wears out his brakes.” She tells me.

Now I regret my haste in getting to this isolated site.

My driver loses patience with my American agita and finally stops the car and turns to me.
In English, he tells me “Not to worry. My wife has a meal for me. I have a family. I want to stay safe too. I will bring you and then go home safely.”
I nod and pull on my smoke nonchalantly as if I trusted him all along.

The hosts at the campsite aren’t able to break my hundred peso note to pay for my night of camping. But I don’t have any other change and have no alternative place to sleep. She tells me if I buy breakfast from them in the morning, she will be able to give me the rest of my money back.

The husband shows me to my hut. It has electric lights. But there is no gas jet to cook on as promised. When I complain about this, the man just shrugs and tells me I can take the half-mile walk back to his place and they will warm whatever I want.

This is inconvenient because all of the food I brought would be improved with heat. I had purchased it from a woman at the Mercado. Roaming the market freelance, she specialized in take-out home-cooking for wives that hadn’t gotten all their chores done that day. It was a lady secret, and the woman acted like she was selling me crystal meth.
Mexican convenience food.
Just the same, I am willing to eat cold refried beans and stale corn tortillas. But I am incapable of living through the night without at least one cup of earl grey tea.
Down in the center of Oaxaca, I resolve this problem by carrying bags of my own to a restaurant and paying for a cup of boiling water.

I have to have my tea, or the whole trip will be ruined.

The gentleman reminds me again (I think) not to hesitate in asking them for help.

I drop my gear and hike the site. The rock formations and mountain vista are so breathtaking I actually understand what the phrase really means.

Even though it is too cold to swim, I hike my pant legs and wade in the water. The soda bubbles tickle at my feet.
I climb to the safest highpoint I can find and meditate and pray until the sun began to drop and the mountain air became cool enough to notice.

I make my way back to the hut and roll my sleeping bag out on a cot. I bunch all of my gear behind my head to read my book laying down, but I am hungry.
I break into my baggy of cold beans and eat the paste smeared on a cold tortilla. After eating about half, I lose interest and put the mess away.
But I need my fucking tea.
I grab my box of Twinings tea and step out into the twilight dusk. I find my way to the host home at the gates of this camp.
When the wife answers the door, I hold up the box and tell her in Spanish: “My doctor says I must drink a cup of this every night.”
I hope I have said this correctly. I have practiced it under my breath walking the whole way there.
It took my mind off of my stark fear of traveling around on the top of a strange mountain, alone after dark.
My hostess nodded and motioned me to enter a large room with a few small tables and what appeared to be an open bbq pit in the center of it.

She fed the fire and put a kettle on.
While we waited for the water to heat, the couple made small talk or tried to. They began to realize that I hadn’t mastered the language.
But an eerie thing happened: I sort of DID understand them.
And I remembered having the same conversation before.
Not a Deja Vue. Two decades before, I had meditated myself into this very room and conversation.
But that is a story for another day.

When the water began to boil, my hostess threw a tortilla over the fire as well. When she had poured my tea, she passed me the hot circle of bread to eat with it.

After I had finished my snack, I stood up and thanked them. The couple stood up too and offered to walk me back to my hut. I tried to refuse, but they insisted.
We walked in dark silence. There was no moon that night, but my eyes soon adjusted.
I heard a donkey bray in the distance.
The man said to his wife “Esta mujer tiene valor.”
I understood what that meant, unfortunately. I decided not to contemplate just why he thought I was courageous.

The rest of my evening was uneventful. I had a deep and dreamless sleep and woke to a hearty appetite. While my repast wasn’t fancy, the Nescafe and cereal filled me up, and I spent the rest of the morning hiking the place one more time, and at the appointed hour, I sat under the sign that promised me a bus back to Oaxaca.

The bus driver waved me back when I tried to purchase a ticket. He was The Driver. Selling tickets was a boys job. Someone would be by to collect in while he told me.
I took a seat on the shady side. The seat was upholstered at least.

At the second stop, the bus is held up for a few minutes because a piglet has escaped the arms of a youngish boy. The whole town seemed to chase it. When a man finally caught it, he tied a rope around the pig’s neck like a leash. But the boy still held the squirming animal in his arms as he boarded.

Soon a young ticket taker stands before me, fingers poised on slips and change belt, waiting to hear my destination.
Oaxaca, I tell him
He shakes his head and answers, “Mitla.”
This bus only goes as far as Mitla.

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2 thoughts on “All Roads Lead to Mitla

  1. Pingback: Killing Eleanor | Blazing Zade

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