This story begins here: Meeting Zeus in Rural Mexico
Sarapes make freaking terrible sleeping pads. They’re gorgeous and cheap, and they (falsely) make you feel like a hella-cool almost-local with one of them strapped to your backpack, but the truth is they do about as much to insulate you from the ground as a layer of saran wrap. So, after a night of repeatedly grinding my smooshy parts into the sand, trying to make divots where my hips (etcetera) were begging for space, I deeply needed the breaking day to be splendid and make my suffering worthwhile.
So I’d just woken up, and this bearded, hollering skinny-dipper was especially awake, and I started frantically nudging my friend Jesse to, “Wake up and see the naked guy!” He popped up, bleary-eyed but curious, just in time to see two tall and curvy women saunter across the sand in nothing but thongs. (Retroactively: You’re welcome, Jesse. And you owe me.)
Once he was joined by his sirens, Señor Alarm Cock calmed down considerably. The three of them paddled languidly around the curve of the lake and out of sight. My crew, feeling slightly bereft and beyond stodgy in our dusty trekking clothes, sat down to a breakfast of overripe mangos and Gansitos.
We didn’t see Zeus again until late that evening. To pass the time until he returned, we kept our date with a local boat captain (kindly arranged by El President del Lago). He helped us into his long canoe and paddled across the pale turquoise of the shallows into the deep azure at the heart of the lake.
We swam, and came across the most amazing underwater rock formations. They were like something out of Doctor Seuss. Like mushrooms, they had tall stems rising from the lake floor that curved out into wide pads when they reached air. They were sturdy enough to stand on, but if I grabbed at them chunks came away in my hand. I think now that they were mudstones – a kind of sedimentary rock – but at the time, I was simply fascinated by watching something solid turn to slime at my touch. And, of course, we used them to take some stellar walking-on-water photos. It was the weekend of the Gods.
By the time the afternoon sun began to sink, our guide had shown us the erroneously named Cave of the Turtles (which was home to a truly frightening number of sleeping bats), and had also pointed out a cliff marked with deeply eroded carvings and traces of paint. He wove for us the local legend of the Mayans who lived there centuries ago.
Once upon a time, there had been a thriving community in this rainforest paradise. Then, out of the blue, people started to fall sick with a mysterious and fatal disease. The village healers couldn’t discover a cause or a cure, and after a short time the sickness had spread to every inhabitant. Months later, visitors from a neighboring village came to the area and discovered the bones of the dead scattered where they had fallen. As the outsiders explored deeper into the jungle, they came across a similar scene – but this time the bones belonged to howler monkeys. To this day, the interpretation is that the monkeys contracted the illness first. Then the villagers who routinely hunted them, instead of eating their usual bush meat, had dined on death.
Now – if you were me – wouldn’t you think this tale was the perfect lead-in to another spooky story? Twilight was settling around us, we were almost back at camp, and I desperately wanted to hear the legend of La Llorona from a native. I asked, and the guide pulled a strange face, crossed himself, and then launched into a fable about a man meeting the devil at a crossroads.
That is not the story of La Llorona. Even this gringita knew enough to be sure that The Weeping Woman was the spirit of a young lady driven mad with grief after she drowned her own children in a desperate attempt to seduce the man she loved. Days later, when I was back with my host family, I asked Mama Rosa why the boatman had told a different story. Her eyes grew large and she laughed: “Mija, many people truly believe in that spirit. And what she does is lure men with her beauty, lead them down to the water, and drown them. No one in Chiapas would ever tell you that tale over open water! He must have been hoping to satisfy you with another story.”
Back at camp, we were building a small fire and wrestling with tuna cans when we heard a familiar song. It drifted closer and closer until our mysterious bearded friend emerged from the darkness, now dressed in linen clothing and once again flanked by his two companions. “Hello,” he said in delightfully accented English. “My name is ________.”
What was his name? I’ll never remember. But I can tell you why my friends and I still think of him as a rebellious, creative god. While we offered him some slightly squished snack cakes and he shared powerful liquor from a flask, we learned the following:
- Both the gorgeous, quiet women were Zeus’ “special friends.”
- They were traveling the world together in search of adventure.
- They spoke fluent Greek, English, and Spanish, among (we suspected) a few more languages.
- They were fleeing the “oppressive” system of higher education in Greece, which they told us enslaved students to follow a specific career path based on the results of a high school aptitude test. They said if you did not follow the government’s plan for you, you lost all access to financial aid. Because of this system, Greece had one of the highest suicide rates in the world and – as avowed artists, poets, and musicians – Zeus and his goddesses were fleeing the death of their very spirits.
The next morning, it was time to break camp and return to civilization. Zeus and his shyly beautiful women traveled with us, singing all the way to Emiliano Zapata. One of them picked flowers as we went, her long skirt trailing in the mud. She wove them into a circlet and placed it atop her friend’s dark curls.
Back in the tiny village, we had to wait for the circus truck to come to us. When it rumbled up, we were surprised to see it almost empty. Then it clicked: the supplies and passengers had already been delivered along the route, so there was ample room for weary travelers now.
About an hour into the drive, we stopped by a cluster of wooden buildings and the driver called back to us to step down. We gabbled in annoyance, but suddenly men carrying huge burlap sacks descended on the truck like worker ants. By the time they were done, the bed had been stacked high with enormous bags of coffee beans to be sold in a nearby town. We curled up on top of them, enveloped by a delicious aroma, and napped on and off as our rustic “bean bags” cushioned us over bumps in the road. The entire trip, Zeus regaled us with a streams of stories about the beauty of his homeland, the farms he had worked at in Central America, and how he and his girlfriends planned to change the world. His stories were punctuated with liberal dashes of wild gesturing, and he spilled the words down to us from his perch directly over the roof of the cab.
When we finally arrived back in San Quentin, my eyes immediately found a brightly painted sign advertising ice cream. Thirsty as dry wells, we all sprinted into the store with packs bouncing. When I tore the plastic from a long, spiraled rainbow pop and shoved it in my mouth, “refreshing” didn’t begin to cover the sensation. As I smiled around my sugar rush, Zeus caught my eye. He winked and wiggled his eyebrows, suggestive as Don Juan. Then, with a wave, he turned and strolled down the cobblestone street. Arm in arm with his back-up singers, he journeyed out of our lives and into our eternal memories.