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 out El Presidente del Lago. The President of the Lake was apparently the only person authorized to arrange a guided tour.
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.
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 español. 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 Jesús 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