Meeting Zeus in Rural Mexico

A sweaty day in spring 2006 found me perched inside a truck bed stuffed with rebel sympathizers and snack cakes. As we hurtled down a road transformed by potholes into muddy Swiss cheese, my friend Jesse ducked to one side – deftly avoiding a high-speed collision with a branch – and cried out, “Andaleeeeeee!

Welcome to the caucasian, flower-child experience of Chiapas, Mexico.

I was newly 21. My three best friends and I were studying abroad together, and we had a long weekend to fill and were primed with rumors about the most magical lake in all of Mexico. We’d abandoned our guidebooks with our host families in Xalapa, because all they described about Laguna Miramar was that to get there, you had to venture deep into the Lacondon jungle. There, near the border with Guatemala, you needed to locate the tiny Mayan community of Emiliano Zapata, then seek outย El Presidente del Lago. The President of the Lake was apparently the only person authorized to arrange a guided tour.

Primary school with a Zapatista mural

The books did warn that we should try to be inconspicuous (among Mayans wearing traditional clothes – ha!), because the rain forests of Chiapas are home to the bulk of the Zapatista force. The Zapatistas are a leftist group that has been in a “declared war” against the Mexican state for twenty years. We were more inspired than alarmed, though, as we read stories of how their civil rebellions had markedly improved gender equality and public health in their region, commonly regarded as the forgotten corner of the country.

And so, we were off: from San Cristobal de las Casas to Ocosingo, and then on to San Quentin. We took a bus, then a van, and eventually we were dropped in the marketplace of a remote town, feeling like we’d lost our trail of crumbs. Some haphazard inquiries among the food stalls yielded a kind old woman with a face like tooled leather who directed us to an idling pick-up truck.

This truck wasn’t standard-issue. This truck had been modified with metal bars and Big-Bird-yellow paint until it resembled a cage for circus animals. And it was packed – jam-packed – with about 25 patient people. Turns out, these trucks carry virtually all basic supplies to the villages perched in the Lacondon mountains. Accordingly, these folks were crammed in like less-valuable freight among the carefully guarded boxes of cookies, chips, and soda which it would have been almost a mortal sin to crush. The only person in the whole rig who looked comfortable was a hugely pot-bellied man regarding the scene from his throne – a grey plastic satellite dish in which he reclined.

Think this, but plus another dozen people.

We couldn’t believe we were meant to fit into the bed as well, so we asked the driver when the next truck would leave. Blank-faced, he replied: “There’s plenty of room – climb up. Last ride for the day.”

I apologized in awkward Spanish when I started to haul myself aboard, but I received only smiles as the locals reached out their hands to help. As I hunted for a space where I could wedge my tennis shoes between several pairs of rustic sandals, a woman with two small children passed me a peppermint and grinned.

The six-hour ride in this conveyance was achingly beautiful. Every time a truck wheel dropped a head-banging foot or so into a pothole, I imagined myself catapulting up into the bluest sky I’d ever seen. It wouldn’t be the worst way to go – sailing through tropical forests, flying over cliffs dripping thin waterfalls, and breezing past military outposts enlivened by murals advocating education and hygiene.

___________________________________

When we arrived at Emiliano Zapata, the President of the Lake was surprisingly easy to find. He was lounging outside the first house on the only street in town, wearing nothing but a weathered straw hat and red swim trunks emblazoned with mud-flap girls.

He told us we could bunk down for the night in a cabin by the river, eat at the one restaurant in town, and buy supplies at the general store. The next morning, a man with a horse would come to pick us up and lead us on the two-mile hike to the lake. After our expedition from San Cristobal we were beyond ready for food, so we thanked him and walked excitedly toward a house bearing a wooden sign: Comedor. What we didn’t understand was that, in this case, the word comedor was to be taken literally: we really would be eating in the kitchen/dining room of a two-room house.

The ancient lady who served us spoke enough Spanish to ask what we wanted to eat. That was it – her native language was an indigenous tongue, and she had no reason to hablar espaรฑol. Feeling confident, we asked for rice and beans. She shook her head. Thinking we might have misunderstood, I asked if there was an actual menu. She shook her head again. Slightly daunted now, I requested fish, figuring this place was next to a famous lake. Again with the head shake. Finally, my friend blurted, “So… what do you have?”

Our hostess shuffled to a cabinet and came back with a bunch of tiny finger bananas and a pot of congealed chicken stew. When these were plopped down on the table, we opted for the bananas, counted out coins until she nodded, and then went back out into the sun to eat our dubious plunder. Truth be told, those were the sweetest, plumpest bananas I’ve ever devoured.

Our next stop was the one store in town – our last option to stock up on food for the two days we’d be camping by the lake. When I saw that their selection was about a quarter that of your average American gas station, I laughed at my own presumption and filled my bag with cans of tuna, packs of cake rolls, and a few sad mangos.

I’m going to fast forward now, through the night of anticipatory sleep under mosquito netting, through the arrival of Jesรบs and his sturdy brown pony, through the muddy tromp to the lake, the setting up of a shore side camp, and the realization that none of us had a pocket knife with a can-opener attachment, making our tuna dinner an exercise in ingenuity.

I’m zooming ahead because I want to introduce you to Zeus.

As our first morning at Miramar dawned, alien cries woke us to tentative rays of rosy light. Howler monkeys filled the trees and were greeting the morning as enthusiastically as hairy roosters. What really jolted me awake, though, as I peered through a crack in my tent door, were the very human shrieks of joy coming from a ridiculously tall and lanky stranger. This bearded apparition bolted – stark naked – from his tent into the water, and began to sing in Greek as he splashed about. Frozen with shocked delight, I could only think: Even out here, they have alarm cocks.

(PUN!) Part Two of this story is here: Zeus, Unclothed

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36 responses to “Meeting Zeus in Rural Mexico

  1. Jeezuz I love your writing. This whole post was reader candy. And I’m jealous! I love Mexico, but have never travelled extensively throughout. What an amazing trip you had! Can’t wait to hear more…..(and how the hell you opened those tuna cans!)

    • Ahhh, you’re just the best. Thank you! And if it was Mexican candy, it was probably mango-chile flavored, so I apologize for that. (I abhor that stuff.)

      Anyway! I’ll go ahead and share the tuna secret – we used a flat rock to pound the point of the pocket knife into the can over and over until we could scoop the tuna out with a stick. Hard core, baby… hard core.

      • You like me, you really like me! Enough to use terrible grammar! Also, Mexico lends itself to show-and-tell in every possible way – the colors make you blink, the smells take up residence in your nose, and surprises (both good and bad) wait around every corner. There really is no such thing as an average day.

  2. This is incredible…I’m always inspired when I read great writing. Challenges me to better at what I do. Can’t wait for part 2.

    That rhymed.
    Sorry.

  3. What an awesome adventure, honey. I love your writing, wit, and intelligence so much. This post literally lives. It shimmers with life! I visited Oaxaca in 2010, but to be honest, it was not at all my cup of tea. It’s horribly polluted and my lungs simply gave out from the smog and belching toxins from all of the cars. I was sick for my last week there. I also cannot stand how Mexicans treat the dogs in their country. It was physically painful for me to see the animal abuse there. I will never ever go back. But, I loved the wild places and walking around Monte Alban was life-changing. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • “Shimmer” is one of my favorite words – thanks for applying it here!

      I loved Oaxaca, but felt about Mexico City the way you did about her southern sister. A place you might have liked is San Miguel Allende, where the city engineers brilliantly routed all traffic to run through tunnels underneath the city center, so the residents can stroll in peace.

      Finally – did you know my Adi-dog is from Mexico? I adopted her at five weeks old because I couldn’t stand the thought of one more street dog looking for scraps.

      • Oh, sis. I love you so, so much! I wish that I could have stayed longer and touched the real soul of Mexico. It’s such a beautiful, thriving country in so many ways. But, I will never go back there.

        And, honey, I love that you adopted your sweet pero from Mexico. All of the dogs in Oaxaca “got the memo” and came to us as we walked about the city. It was amazing to be surrounded by 50 dogs and all of them struggling to get to each of us so they could get a tiny bit of love and attention.

        I’m telling you that I so wanted to rent a huge truck and drive them all home from there and get a ranch and take care of them, the beautiful, honorable, sweet and gorgeous dogs, all of them covered in fleas and mistreated and suffering. It KILLED me to leave them.

        One mama-dog gently grabbed my wrist to keep me from getting into a taxi after I spent an hour rubbing her filthy fur and picking fleas. I was IN LOVE with her. It destroyed me to see her dejection when we drove away.

        I can never go back. It hurts me so, so deeply to this day, sister. I cannot help them. My problem is that I want to rescue EVERY dog in Mexico and then forbid Mexico from having any more. They do not deserve dogs. They do not at all deserve these perfect, patient, trusting animals. I know that’s harsh, but it’s how I feel.

        If I had all of the money in the world, I would rescue every abused animal I could find and place them with loving people. It is how I would spend my life and I know I could never do it all, but I would help as many animals as possible.

        You are a good, kind, and loving dog-mama. Much respect and love to you for giving your Adi a chance at love and happiness and goodness. You both saved each other. It’s awesome!

        XOXO

  4. Great and funny stuff Jennie. I can relate to the truck story. When we lived in Sudan, a small Toyota truck had a terrible accident and it killed the 32 passengers. If I hadn’t seen these trucks packed…jam packed with people I wouldn’t have believed it. I’ve set my alarm cock for the next installment. ~James

    • That is so, so terrible. I just tell myself (and I imagine you do too, as a seasoned traveler), that there’s always danger, even of choking while you eat chips and watch TV at home.

      P.S I am SO glad someone else enjoyed my pun! I’m self-admittedly simple when it comes to jokes. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. This sounds like an amazing experience brought to life by your words. Next time you go, take me with you! I’ve never been, and I’m 5% Mayan, so maybe I would bring you luck. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Can’t wait for part 2!

    • My lucky Mayan! Do I rub your tummy like the statues of Buddha, or is there some other way to acquire the good fortune? ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Also, the people we met in Chiapas were amazing. The women dress like butterflies but work like mules, and the older they get, the more strength they carry in their faces.

  6. Maybe you should have been more armed than alarmed or inspired. These tales of yours are nerve-wracking. What if one of my daughters gets the same crazy notions in their heads? I don’t want to tamp down their spirit of adventure, but I certainly don’t want to to have to keep an eye out for Zapatistas, either. It’s a conundrum.

    • You and my mother should start a support group for concerned parents. She told me that when I called to say I was moving back home, her mouth said, “Oh honey, I’m sorry it’s ending like this,” but her heart said, “YESYESYESTHANKYOUJESUS!”

      P.S. If I had to choose between the Zapatistas and the “elected” government, I’d hang out with the rebels any day. Someday I should tell you about the (multiple) times policemen tried to shake me down for bribes, and also why I had to pretend I’d lost my visa so I could get around the red tape at the immigration office.

  7. Your stories are always so eloquent with such perfect pacing and vivid imagery. And wow, you are brave! I, glad you shared the tuna secret too because I was wondering. ๐Ÿ™‚ And the pun at the end made me giggle. Can’t wait for the next piece.

    • Thank you SO much! MAN it feels good to be writing again. P.S. I think we should write into the Sister Wives covenant that we always have to giggle at each others’ terrible jokes.

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