Within 10 meters of leaving Belize we were stopped by seductive mandarin oranges sold pre-peeled by a proud Mexican vendor. She served the fruit to us with a healthy dose of chili powder cast upon the dripping nectars. The unlikely, yet delicious, combination set the scene for the month of February, heralding in a huge country that promises flavor and life around every corner.
Our first night in Mexico was spent in the city of Chetumal, where we chummed it up with the good ol’ firefighters. They began teaching us colorful, regional vocabulary that rivals the depth we found in Nicaragua. The next day we headed off to the Salamanca Old Colony Mennonites (see previous post) before eventually turning due west and setting full sail to traverse the vast Yucatán peninsula. Owing to a fantastic tailwind and smooth, arrow-like highway, the kilometers ticked away and we were able to enjoy sweeping jungle vistas in the Mayan heartland. One afternoon we stopped at the ruins of Becán, one of the many archaeological sites off that highway. We settled into a rhythm of eating 2 kilograms of hot, corn tortillas each day, upon which we slather all manner of refried beans, salsas, picantes, cheeses and fresh tomatoes and onions. It is basic and inexpensive, ranking top among our recipes of “road meals”.
One night in the Yucatán we were greeted by Adán, the friendly pastor of a small Presbyterian church. From the moment he walked out of his simple house with a smile we knew we were in good hands. He seemed to know right away what we needed, though perhaps our smell hinted that we needed to shower. We ended up attending evening worship and spending the night. The free-natured, loving style of the Latino evangelical service was a familiar freshness after not attending Spanish-speaking church for several weeks. The very next night we found a Monday night Pentecostal worship in a little pueblo. Here the congregation prayed powerfully for us and joined with us in our prepared song El espíritu de Dios está en este lugar. The pastor, Santo Hernandez, then took us to his own home and over delicious tamales recounted the Pentecostal presence and growth in his area. Now he fills every day of the week with services, youth nights, activities, and tent revivals. It is evident that he has such great joy in the Word and the Gospel that he cannot help but share it. He sent us off with a blessing and three bottles of natural honey from the flowering hills of the Yucatán.
Soon enough we hit the Gulf of Mexico and cruised along the sparkling coastline, taking time to enjoy a dip in the surprisingly cool waters. This route went through the “pearl of the gulf,” Ciudad del Carmen which we assumed to be a touristy, quaint town. It ended up being an oil city surrounded by hundreds of offshore platforms. Its character was stiff, busy, and marked by several “No’s” to our hosting inquiries. We decided to blaze on through that very day and nearly got caught in the middle of mosquito-ridden isolation if it weren’t for the kind local who alerted us to a municipal building just 7 km down the road. There we were able to clean our sweaty bodies and bunk down next to fans blasting mosquitoes away. Oh, the blessings in life!
Not a day goes by that we fail to meet a Méxicano who has worked a while in the United States. As they tell us of their experiences which inevitably involve saving money and wiring remittances to family members in Mexico, we begin to see these neighboring countries as uniquely intertwined, with sets of respective perceptions of the other. Kids here even know about coyotes and crossing the border, and people ask about prejudices against Mexicans in the Untied States. We’re sure to have more conversations about it as we ourselves head al norte.
When we came to Cárdenas, Tabasco, the Salgado family was expecting us. Levi got to know Michelle Salgado, a fellow Goshen College, during his Latino Studies program. Her relatives put a white banner at their ranch driveway and we rolled in with the local newscasters filming the triumphal entry complete with interviews, applause, and Mexican and US flags. The next few days were loaded with tacos, conversation, pozol drink, local ruins, salsa verde on enchiladas, a pig-butchering party, and outings to the city centers of Cárdenas and Villahermosa. Our lovely coordinator was Yarita, who enabled all these cultural encounters with the bright, curious spirit of one who has travelled as well. She was aided by her parents, her boisterously awesome brother Felipe, and thoughtful fiancé Manuel. Together, they showed us a flavorful 3 tabasqueño days. Perhaps the abundance of food was a bit too much, and Michael and Abe got sick, while Levi was recovering from a phlegmy throat. Oh, the realities in life!
The next state was Chiapas, which attracted us by its indigenous culture and historical background of the Zapatista rebellion in the post-NAFTA ’90s. Many locals from Chiapas whom we asked were ambivalent about the accomplishments of this grassroots movement, though some acknowledged that it “put Chiapas on the map” as a legit place that the Mexican government and world should respect. Others thought it didn’t help the indigenous much at all, or even that it was financed from outside for control of resources. P
The capital of Chiapas is Tuxtla Gutiérrez, a big city in a valley. To get there, we climbed across a cordillera through a cloud system that shrouded the road in claustrophobic fog. But dropping out of the mountains into the sunny valley was a relief, and we were able to dry out and take naps in a city park. Living on the road, we often use public space for things that others reserve for private space. In Tuxtla we stayed with a Warmshowers.org host, Jorge Adolfo. He is a super outgoing dude who loves meeting people from all around the world who come and stay in extra rooms at his successful yoga business site. We took a day to sleep in, rest, talk to Adolfo, and then go to a nearby park where they give marimba concerts every night. The community came out for the festive atmosphere and intergenerational dancing, putting a smile on our faces and giving us a good impression of the city as a whole.
The next biking day we entered a long, dry valley met by hot, windy conditions. Thinking there was a little town down the road, we pushed our bodies into an isolated highway stretch in the late afternoon. Caught by the pending darkness, we asked to stay in an abandoned ranch house. The air started cooling, and we took refreshing spigot baths as the orange light poured over the beautiful Oaxacan hills in the distance. During clinking supper cups and a rising moon, we realized there was a heart spray-painted on our little ranch hut, and that it was Valentine’s Day.
“I love you guys.”
“I love you, too.”