A red oriental sphere hanging from a white background sky greeted me as I opened the door. The sudden contrast between the spartan writing quarters with cream coloured walls and the intense red of fission, startled me. The Japanese flag came to mind for a couple of seconds. I went back and fetched my camera. I had woken up early; the camera had not. It refused to make that photo. It was time to honour the flag of dawn, to keep it in your heart. I felt peace and openness. I was grateful. My good old faithful Nikon D100 knew better. It was sunrise that it agreed to make a photo of. I understood the meaning of temperamental.
To Sir, with Love
Nano entered my room. I had been writing. This meant it was nine o’clock already and that we had to leave. We were to meet Profe Ramón, director to the House of Writers, our host and benefactor, for breakfast. Until now I had only heard dearly of him from Nano. He had also played friend Chak Carlitos’ music in the van stereo for me, with Maestro Ramón’s lyrics.
I caught up with Nano and El Profe (short for “the teacher” in colloquial Spanish) at the van. A bearded man in his early seventies with lively eyes sat in. His grey hair still abundant well cut, matched the beard, on a kind face. I greeted him by name and title – the sort earned – and thanked him for having made us feel at home at La Casa International del Escritor. He apologised for not having been able to do more. I understood, as the place showed the budget constraints for Culture that are common in Mexico nowadays, and that have been steadily reduced over decades. His tone was not one of complaint or suffering though. He was the type of person that strived anyway. Maybe you’ve done more than enough already, I said: you have been keeping this alive in spite of the budget.
Ramon had a calm approach to things. He listened, thought and then spoke. His voice was firm and amicable, his phrases short and accurate, without too much judgment.
Everyone knew him in the restaurant. The waiter came quick and took our order. El Profe ordered huevos a la mexicana, no salt. He had beans and papaya juice with them, no sugar, no coffee. The waiter checked on him again and asked about ice in his juice. He did not have ice either. Ramón’s eyes looked to the distance briefly; he had been battling ailments lately and took care of himself. He was also due for a glaucoma surgery next week. Nano and myself ate huevos motuleños.
Nano told me you composed the State’s hymn – I said. Yes, it’s been three I’ve composed. That was the first one and I did it 24 years ago. It was a contest and we had to participate under a pseudonym. The composition had to be sent in writing but also sang by a local choir. It was something! More recently I made Cozumel’s and Bacalar’s. Cozumel is not being used; it was a PAN [Mexico’s conservative party] administration who asked for it, so at the return of the PRI [Mexico’s party-state very long affair] no one wanted it. – El Profe laughs softly. I had read Quintana Roo’s hymn written on a sculpture made of vertical walls, in a square in Playa del Carmen, a year and and a half before this breakfast. It spoke of our violent past of pirates, did it? – I said. He confirmed. Nano gave me a glance and smiled. I was amazed at how life places us in what seems trivial, as walking the square on some idle time and stopping to read the hymn that then lingered in me, waiting for a day I would meet the author. Amazing. It had to be, I guessed. I smiled as well.
As we chatted, Nano spotted Bacalar’s major. He was entering the restaurant. Clearly a place to have breakfast in. A tall up straight man enters, his skin tanned, jet-black well cut hair, in an official white shirt, “Presidente Municipal” and other logos embroidered in PRI colours. He approaches our table. El Profe stands up and greets him without overdoing it. We shake hands as well. The major addresses Ramon. He tells him of his day’s agenda. He is inaugurating new town walkways. The announcement is more a subtle invitation. El Profe alludes to his recent ailments for not having been available lately and promises to give it a try to that day’s events. The major draws a hint of a smile in his face. We have even done the walkway just in front of the Cemetery – he adds. I’m baffled but show nothing. For an instant I wondered if he was pulling Ramon’s leg, or playing him a bit of political black humour. We sat. The major sat at distant table with an aide that was just arriving.
I stared into El Profe’s eyes and just could not wait to laugh. Just imagine, I said, all the pranks that skeletons [“Calacas” in Mexican folk] will play on people at nights by the cemetery now! They’ll be able to go dancing without tripping in the dark and having to collect their bones. Ramon got it and laughed cautiously, of course.
Mestli, his daughter comes up. She’s becoming a well known videographer. She does everything by herself, mostly, – says Nano. He mentions “Una Larga Lágrima” (A long weeping), Curandero Maya (the Maya healer), Quintana Roo’s folk music, “Cancer”, and others. She studied in Cuba at San Antonio de baños, the school set up by García Márquez.
Nano gets the bill. He is very fond of El Profe. It is likewise. On the way out we stop at the major’s table. Ramon nods farewell. Nano gets to the major and seizes the opportunity to let him know of La Bufon S.O.S.ial funding round and the intention to continue bringing peace camps to Bacalar county. The major gets the message, argues skinnier funds, but will look into it.
On the way out, I ask Nano and Ramon to pose for a picture. It had to be taken.
As we leave Ramon at his home, he asks us in briefly and gives us a copy of his children poetry book “Un árbol florece sueños” (A tree blossoms dreams). Nano turns to page twenty-nine as lightning and reads his favourite. It is called “Subir me da trabajo” (Climbing is hard). He reads the poem aloud. It is read bottom up of course, as in climbing.
We thank Ramon that sees us to the van, dearly. I think of Nano’s mission. I know he is climbing as well. It is hard, as in the poem, yet he strives and simply does it. There is a larger purpose at hand in La Bufon’s and it is giving him all the energy to continue. It is this that can only explain his continuous drive.
caí! Tengo miedo, ¡Ay, mucho, mucho, mucho, mucho!
ay, ayer, creo que ayer mientras dormía
Mamá ¿Cómo subo a tus alas? ¡Ay,
Hay ojos amarillos,hay…,¡ay!
¿cómo subo? ¿Cómo?
subo a la casa,
a mi nido,
“Subir me da trabajo”
Ramón Iván Suárez Caamal
La (cruda) Realidad
I’m back at the coffee shop. Nano ran errands before we all left Bacalar. Victoria shows up. She’s wearing her dark glasses, darker. We greet. She seats at what is now my long wooden table. We talk in very short phrases. She has been coming to Mexico since 2005. That’s nine years! – I say. She does not seem surprised. She then tells me that it is the Zapatista caracoles she’s been coming to, specifically to “La Realidad”, where Marcos has been living [to the date of this writings, as Marcos has just made a statement public noting the evolution of the Zapatista movement towards not needing a single leader and also having opted for life and schools on their ideals. The Zapatista movement will no longer speak through his voice. The time has come to drop the image of a leader, not of an indigenous look, in favour of a live movement that acts and thinks as a group and is mostly indigenous, as it is].
I get carried away and ask her questions. She cuts me off and says in a soft, polite and strong toned Spanish with a French accent: “Hermano, perdón pero no quiero conversar mucho aún. Estoy despertando” (Excuse me brother, but I’m just waking up and do not want to talk right now). She was in for coffee, not for a long talk. I realised then, she had been partying late at El Galeón Pirata. Nano had told me. Dark glasses were a must. Ah! “La cruda” – I said. That is how a hangover is called in Mexico.
We did some more small talk. Ana arrived. Victoria turned to her friend to learn about those pieces of the puzzle of the night before, she had lost recollection of.
They were all packed and ready to jump in “La Va-llena” with us, as soon as Nano returned.
Nano got back. He parked the van we all gathered by it to stow our stuff. Poncho seemed ready to leave. It was recharging energies on the copilot’s seat. Samantha (Sami) and her friend Vicky were already inside. Victoria, Ana and myself climbed in. Nano handed down a bicycle to Javi, from the roof rack. It was Javi that picked it on mid-air and let it down on the floor. He was to return it to friends on the way out, while we drove by him.
It was good seeing Javi show up as well. He had surfaced. I had lost track of him for a day or so, as he spent time with friends in Bacalar and only slept at Casa del Escritor. He was my room mate. Three passions in this kid: designing a tattoo he had to have made even at four in the morning, attending electronic music festivals in Europe in July-August and earning money doing commercials in the meantime. The latter was the reason for his trip. Sometime talkative, sometimes a tomb, he was fond of the act of “ponchar” (to roll one) every time there was a chance, or the van stopped. It was sábanas (rolling paper) or matches that ran out; the rest was in good supply all the time. I wonder whether he used toilette paper to ponchar as well. Never seen a roll go so fast than with this rookie. The fact that we had had no running water for one night at La Casa del Escritor, added to it.
Victoria fixed her long hair as she whispered portions of a song to herself. I changed my camera lens to wide-angle. We hoped in and drove away.
Back on the road
The witch-on-a-broom charm hanging from the windshield mirror swirled to the changing wind of dark heavy clouds. Hot and humid turned brisk into cool and wet, as it started raining in the highway. We had been laughing on the way out of Bacalar. Sami fixed us hot mate from her copilot-canteen post front right. Mate and driving go well; pot, mate and driving just did better. Nano kept cruising speed, whatever that was, constant. Music changed into Barry White’s Don’t Go Changing. It sounded loud and soothing – myself being the eldest, I took it -, as I delved into white space thoughts while looking at smearing raindrops falling off the window as the van moved on. Thump! Something hit us below. The engine stopped. The van glided over a huge puddle of water. Nano did not blink an eye. He seemed ironclad. He gently steered it to a halt a few hundred metres ahead, to the side of the road.
The sign just by the van read “Nachi Cocom”. A milestone post read our position as “223” in kilometres, of course. Route 186 to Palenque. We turned to see each other. We were fine. We all laughed. Nano did not, for the very first time. Victoria and Ana at the back, spoke in French of the bang they felt under the chasis. Sami finished the last sip of mate. Red and yellow lights blinked from the dashboard. It rained heavily outside. The engine refused to start to Nano’s couple of tries. Poncho’s panting was the only noise heard.
Waiting was all we could do. Well, and eating an Argentinian alfajor that Sami pulled out of her bag of tricks. I confirmed the meaning of enormous, as a tiny piece of it melted melted in my mouth into a universe if flavour, richness and childhood recollections. The putt size and shape confectionery was carefully split into six even slices with the aid of my swiss-army knife by Sami.
Javi rolls one, of course. Victoria had been at La Escuelita with the Zapatistas, at La Garucha. Sami had at Obentik. They glance at each other in complicity and break into the Zapatista hymn. It stopped pouring outside. Javi opens the sliding door and steps out. Nano climbs down his door and creeps under the van. Sami faithful to her copilot duties that include being a sparring partner and water boy at the same time, feeds water to Poncho that stops panting. It’s cool outside. I can see Nano under the van from the tall grass I’m standing on, a metre below the highway level. He yells for the duct tape we carried, as he found the splashing water of the puddle had the electrical wire to the gas pump, unplugged from its connector. The van’s engine ran. We are all back in high spirit. Victoria and Ana smile from inside the van, out. I snapped a photo.
No one had cellphone signal at the spot we stopped. I challenged Victoria to write a “No service” rap lyrics. She smiles. The trip continued. On air, Chak Carlitos’ music to Profe Ramón’s poems in a bootleg copy of his upcoming album. Nano had gotten it from Chal Carlitos himself. It played beautifully. It does not sound like Carlitos want yet, you know him – he says. I did. He was a perfectionist. He had censored himself out of a series of portraits during a live photo shoot I had done from his band in Tulum. He had had not much to sleep the night before and found dark circles to noticeable in the pictures. I craved for the album. Sami’s DJ skills always found a way to play Espineta’s music. “Quedándote o Yéndote”, her favourite, sounded off as I started to fall asleep.
Love at the junction
The Chetumal-Villahermosa road, as route 186 was known, is the main trucking route there is to supply Southeast Mexico from the central and northern plains. We had left behind many dusty towns and villages full of trucks – loaded or just the engine – lined up, not parked really, their drivers eating homie food cooked at little shacks, some of which would at night be made into rooms under eerie red or blueish fluorescent light. A bed that offered and taken by those in luck that night, would do away with any trucker’s loneliness for a few ungrateful hours and change. It was love, in an odd way. Or maybe it was love what had these men and women striving to make a living, getting their varied payloads unloaded, or to their destiny as we all.
It was love that had Nano going with Peace Camps and community kids, or his affair with Poncho since childhood. Or Sami’s very contagious one towards people on the road, be it in her native Cordova, Argentina, Colombia’s or Mexico’s. It was love that had Ana – a native from Sevilla, Spain – pursuing her life as an artist and had showed her to Chiapas to setup the Wapani Cultural centre with Chileans and Mexicans bringing shadow theatre, theatre of the oppressed, yoga and daces to San Cristobal. Or her love for her friend Victoria, who seemed cold and distant otherwise, but was not.
Victoria’s was love as well, was it? She had taken to represent the voices of many, so in loving them – loving those oppressed, those dormant still, those fighting against establishment and the intentionally coined world “order”, and singing for their cause, she had to experience much. Life had put her in that place as a kid in her native Argentina where she saw people fighting for their rights, including her father, some dying. It was her that knew the streets of her neighbourhood then, as well as those in her adopted Marseille. At her core, the worst and the best of humanity came together: rage gave her the energy to cry out loud and sing for freedom. Love was what allowed her continue singing for the people and for a world’s alternative, where fairness and freedom are to rise above contemporary tyranny. So, no, she was not distant. She just was married to a higher type of love – an alter-activist woman that sang bravely to blatant truth.
Ana and Victoria had taken a ride in Nano’s van to get to Palenque, a Maya ruins and small city, and a necessary stop before heading up the mountains to San Cristobal. As I drove, the night fell. Most slept, when we arrived at the Catazajá junction around ten at night. We had left behind the Usumacinta river and the Calakmul biosphere reserve, while leaving Quintana Roo, crossing Campeche and Tabasco and touching Chiapas, not far from the Guatemalan border. Ana and Victoria were to get a colectivo from the junction to Palenque.
As I pulled to the side on a semi-circle driveway and stopped the engine, a noticed to dressed up ladies sitting on a bench by a bus stop. The junction was poorly lit. Few lamp posts on a very wide road crossing. I stepped out and walked towards the women to ask them for the colectivos. I could not see any parked there. My pupils adapted to the dim light. The woman to my left called my attention, she was dressed in a black embroidered night dress and wore her jet-black hair much like a Sevillana, a tiny black mole in her face and all and long black lashes. They spoke among themselves and smiled in expectation of my approaching. ¡Buenas noches! ¿Saben de dónde salen los colectivos a Palenque? – ¿Do you know where do colectivos leave for Palenque? They stared at each other. Smiles and giggles were gone, a deep toned manly voice replied replied to my question, instead. ¡No, primor. A esta hora ya no salen! Hasta las cinco de la mañana. – No gorgeous. There are no colectivos leaving at this time of the night. Not until tomorrow at five am. I assimilated the surprise without showing it on my face. I thanked them and turned back to the van. It was this wild road’s love that moved them as well. Why not? The road was an faithful echo of mankind.
The crew slept. Victoria and Ana had already stepped down with their stuff. I broke the news and decided to extend their ride to Palenque; my copilot agreed. There was nothing to leave them there to. Love it was. I took a mental shot of Victoria posing with the “gals” at the bus stop. Asking for it would have been too much at that time.
Palenque was a few kilometres away, it was a landmark worth seeing and the nearest town to spend the night. Well, at least that’s what I thought as pulled the lever into “D” and and took the route to Ocosingo.
As we drove past the first slopes uphill, vegetation started to change. The 25 kilometres were instead 50 to Palenque, but the mood was up, at least in the front cabin. Rain hit hard again. The road had but a few cars and small trucks passing by at that time. As we entered Palenque, Victoria lead us past the town, into El Panchan, just by the archeological site. A narrow road to the left took us though a series of shallow creeks among dense tropical rainforest with plants of huge leaves that changed the scales. I felt dwarfed by them. Rain turned a drizzle, but water rivers gushed through the creeks with force. We parked by a mobile phone antenna base, just before one of these rivers that was to much to drive over. We would certainly have a signal for our cellphones that night; it did not seem we were having a place to sleep in though, except Ana and Victoria that crashed into a friend’s cabin as planned. But it was quiet and there was a bar and restaurant and nice log cabins nearby. Sleeping in the van proved to be the option. We had little money anyway. We stretched. Everyone got up. Some of us crossed the river on foot. It pulled strong. Javi and myself escorted Victoria and Ana up to the bar. They left to clean up and greet her friend. Javi had money enough to buy a large beer. Sami joined us. Nano stayed to watch over Poncho. The cabin smelled funnier as we cruised that day. Ponchos tail had gotten infected on fleas bitting on it. The dampness of the air was not helping. Victoria and Ana joined later. The place was lively, but winding down, as we all were, reaching midnight. We hugged goodbye. It is amazing what a couple of days sharing with others do. I was going to miss Victoria and Ana.
We slept in the van. I felt the ease of the jungle I had grown used to in Tulum, again. It was cooler though and I kept my jacket on. Javi was happy with the idea of sleeping there, but took it a notch further. He climbed to the van’s roof and curled into a fetal position to spend the night up there with the stars and under the huge trees. He would not accept a blanket either. As I fell asleep I wondered whether it was the smell of Poncho’s, Javi’s inclination to camping or the fact he might have had the last drag off a burnt up joint hoping for a kush, that got him up there.
I smiled. He was alright. I would secretly call him Mowgly the rest of the journey.
Circus comes to town
I don´t know why, but it is a fact that every time there is a nice spot to sleep in a car, or in this case the van, it seems to be the property of someone else. It’s like a magnet. It just does not fail. Noise woke me up. A woman set down chairs from behind a counter, on what was probably a tourists resting point or a a taxi base, in a wooden roofed deck right by the van. It was before seven in the morning. I came down and greeted her from a few metres. She returned a smile but let me know we just could not continue parking there. We had to leave. I shot a good one of Mowgli, still sound asleep on the roof and woke him up afterwards. We knew the drill. Anyway we were dying for hot black coffee of the real kind.
Entering Palenque town I noticed the presence of military troops and vehicles. This place still showed a State concerned, not with the indigenous people, but rather with the Zapatistas movement that started in January 1994 not far from Palenque. Downtown Palenque was nice, specially by the market. It’s streets went up and down the hill and some ended up in gorges. Buildings were bright in colour – a lot of them lively green -. Nano parked the van and we all had coffee – the instant type, but hot at least – and some bread. Poncho drew the attention of all pedestrians and vehicles passing by the coffee-shop. Some took photos of it with their cellphones. Poncho’s fur and body looked exactly like an old tired circus lion, and was about the size of one. In a sense, we were an odd looking party, much like a Circus parade for these people.
Poncho was not getting better. Nano and Sami took it to a Vet. He got a penicillin shot. We spent the rest of the money left buying some Tortillas, fruits and other supplies that had to last the rest of the day.
We headed off to Villahermosa, Tabasco. Positive Vibrations played in the stereo.
Re-turning; A road trip – day 4 by Juan Ayza M. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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