Mexico Field Trips, February and March 1980
On January 3rd, 1980, I boarded a plane in Toronto en route to Mexico to study Spanish. After the plane change in Chicago, I found myself sitting next to Janey, a young American student who was also on her way to Mexico to study Spanish, as part of her study curriculum. An amazing coincidence!
* Would never had guessed that a year later I would marry someone who was from that city.
At the Mexican Consulate in Toronto, I had picked up a few brochures for language schools, some in San Miguel de Allende, some in Cuernavaca. Janey had only one brochure: it was about the school where she was already registered. The school was called “Cemanahuac”, and it sounded really interesting, so I asked her if it was okay if I tagged along and she agreed. I liked the school so much that I signed up for their 10-week program on the spot.
I remained in Mexico for 20 years after that, and the irony is that I ended up living most of those years in the other place... San Miguel de Allende.
What follows is an (unedited) transcript of the only journal I kept during those ten weeks. At the time, I was a serious amateur photographer and relied mostly on my colour slides. Unfortunately, all the slides I took during those trips - along with my collection of about 5,000 more - were destroyed in a fire in 1989. All but the ones that accompany this story, which happened to be somewhere else at the time of the fire. Needless to say, I am delighted that I kept this journal.
Here is a key to some of the main characters of these stories:
JANEY - 18-year-old American student, my roommate for the first month
CHARLIE - school co-founder, Paco’s brother-in-law, our guide on some field trips
PACO - school co-founder, married to
HARRIET, Charlie’s sister, who looked after the office
Paco taught a course in traditional Mexican medicine and was our guide on some field trips
ROBERTO taught History of Mexican art
TINA, Spanish language teacher who took in students at her home. I stayed there for a while and travelled in her car with her two daughters on one of the trips
PABLO (Paul) - fellow classmate from Texas, with whom I flirted a lot
The other names in the diary no longer seem to mean anything after these 37 years.
Notes in square brackets [ ] were added during the transcription process.
OAXACA FIELD TRIP - February 1 - 3, 1980
At last a trip to talk about! We left at 2 PM Friday after class. Janey & I were in Charlie’s van with Julia, Hilda, Miguel, Carla, Andy & Sally. J.J. and I were in the back seat (Paco’s advice) in order to sleep. We were up as usual till all hours the night before.
The trip was entirely through the mountains: first the green, lush & warm area near Cuernavaca, through Yautepec, Cuautepec, etc., then through semi-desert with giant cactus, dry dry earth (much thirst) & windy too. We kept stopping to wait for the other van with Roberto driving & for Pam who drove her own car.
The last half of the trip we were quite cold. Thank Roberto for his sweater, mine was still wet [?] & I had to put it in a plastic bag.
Pablo has gone to Tecolutla for a week’s holiday, Esteban is leaving this week-end for good and so are Polly & Thurman. Thurman hung around after class Friday as we were getting ready to leave to get the last drop of friendship… we shall miss him.
Saturday: Up at 8 this AM to look over the itinerary & schedule. It says we’re free to go to Oaxaca market this AM & are to meet back here at 1 PM to leave for Monte Alban, Cuilapan & treasure of Tomb #7. Somebody (I’ll bet it’s Charlie) has very kindly slipped a map of the city under the door while we were sleeping, & marked the location of the hotel & of the market.
Temperature a little cooler than Cuernavaca but not unpleasant. The sun is shining in that special way that it shines in the mountains.
I’m in the restaurant (“El Angel”) of the hotel Isabel. The espresso machine is not working & I’ve been waiting 20 min. for my “americano”.
Oaxaca looked quite big when we arrived last night.
(IF I keep a diary of this trip and turn it in to Charlie I get credit for the trip. I HAVEN’T YET DECIDED… [Well, I guess I decided to do it!])
Sunday night, 10 PM
Sore all over and exhausted by all the fresh air of the last two days. Also the sun.
It’s cold in Oaxaca in the evening.
Janey & I had drinks at the Presidente & a light meal at the “Health” restaurant across the street from Isabel Hotel.
Took lots of pics last 2 days, used up all my Ektachrome 400 film which I was glad I brought.
Sat.: AM Oaxaca Market; PM Monte Alban, Cuilapam ex-convent & treasure of Tomb #7 in Museo de Oaxaca.
Sun. AM Tlacolula market, lunch after mezcal “tasting”, Teotitlan del Valle with weavers. Weaver we met night before at café was waiting for us to visit his cousin’s house where we bought many rugs. He & his wife taught me how to finish it the green one I bought.
Monday: 9.40 AM leave hotel Isabel & visit San Bartolo Coyotepec (Doña Rosa’s black pottery) & Santo Tomás Jalieza (cotton belts & sashes & purses).
Return to hotel for lunch & return to Cuernavaca. Arrival in C. about 11 PM.
Surprise #1: Oaxaca is like Cuzco [in Perú, which I had visited in 1976] - full of hippies & expatriates! I wonder why? It’s so cold here! But then so is Cuzco.
Charlie is infinitely patient.
It’s nice to get to know some of the other students a little better.
The trip is very relaxed in spite of the tight schedule.
After the Jalieza stop we went to the Tamayo Museum where I shot a whole roll of the statues.
Charlie ended up lending money to so many people!
February 22/80 - XOCHICALCO
XOCHICALCO is where the astronomers of the whole world met (in 8th Century?) to correct the calendar. The sculptures in the walls of the main pyramid represent Quetzalcoatl curling around the “new fire” and the guests of the meeting (very Mayan-looking gentlemen for instance). On the left side of the front there are 4 calendars of the different peoples represented with a “o” [this looks like a bullet in my journal] obviously dropped and some hands crushing two of them. This is presumed to signify the decision.
The observatory, reached by underground natural cave, is directed at the sun on the day of the summer solstice (June 21). On that day, at 12 noon, the cave is completely illuminated although the hole is only about 1 foot wide.
The “palace” complex shows the original ground level.
Setting is beautiful, with Laguna del Rodeo in view.
About ½ hour from Cuernavaca by car, but a long walk by bus which does not go as far as the ruins, I’m told. But well worth the trip.
CHIAPAS/MAYA TRIP - March 1 - 8, 1980 ($110 US + 500 pesos for food)
Sat. Mar 1
We left nearly on time - about 1 hour late as usual. It took a long time to pack the vans - there was just too much stuff.
Some people, such as Miguel, were taking all their baggage as they were to leave directly from Villahermosa to go back to USA.
I ended up in Tina’s car with [her daughters] Monica & Cintia. We drove to our first destination, Barra de Chachalacas, Veracruz, via Puebla, Jalapa. We stopped in Puebla to eat - delicious chiles stuffed with fruit & meat, sweet custard sauce, parsley & pomegranate seeds. [Those were Chiles en Nogada, of course.] Tasty, and, as Roberto said, beautiful like a painting. And the BREAD was out of this world!
Tasted someone's MOLE & it was SUPER, too. Restaurant was in a park.
It rained practically all the way & Chachalacas & area were hit by a NORTE which made it impossible to sleep on the beach as planned. So we piled into the La Paz Hotel & Charlie negotiated a special rate for us, 50 pesos each, 3 to a room. Slept well & we left early next morning.
SUNDAY Mar 2
Drove to VERACRUZ & had breakfast at LA PARROQUIA, very famous ancient spot with best café con leche in the country, served by Lechero with 2 kettles. [One for the coffee, one for the milk. The Lechero poured from quite a height, which was part of the show.]
Left for VILLAHERMOSA via COATZCOALCOS where we “rendezvous-ed” with vans in a cafeteria near the lift bridge. Had some food there (NOT recommended) while waiting for the others.
On to VILLAHERMOSA* - stopped at S. Andrés Tuxtla for a visit to the market (not interesting) - to rendezvous at Hotel Viva.
2 hrs later Charlie phoned to say they were in Paraiso (no explanation) & would meet us at 10 AM next day at Comalcalco ruins. We were angry - probably the result of being tired after the long drive - & stayed at Hotel Los Arcos, relatively cheap but clean (both of Charlie’s recommendations were full). Had a snack before going to bed.
MONDAY Mar. 3
We had breakfast at Arabic Restaurant in Centro. Really good cappuccino. The coffee girl was black & the waiters called her “negra”. [A term of endearment in Mexico.]
Villahermosa is pretty & has a malecón. Tina bought some arabic goodies for the trip.
Gang showed up at 12 noon at ruins. (Tina had said they would not come.) Really impressive site presently being restored. Talked to an archeologist there - handsome & young & he had a radio on (disco - no choice) & he was scraping the years away from the sculptures in a tomb.
By the time the group arrived we had completed our visit & I took lots of pictures.
On to La Venta Park to see the Olmec sculptures. Very impressive. Drove back to Villahermosa where Charlie arranged for a hammock vendor to come to us so we could buy. It took a long time & I bought one for 320 pesos.
Drove to Palenque & arrived in the middle of the night. Hung our hammock in dining-room of Nututun - beautiful spot by the river with the sound of the falls. I eventually slept on the floor. [I never did learn to sleep in a hammock!]
TUESDAY, Mar 4
Up the next morning very early & had a very welcome breakfast of delicious melba toast with really good BUTTER & jam, with café con leche.
Off to the ruins - beautiful, beautiful & there was a JUGGLER (“San Francisco Pocket Theatre”) who entertained us for a long time. Miguel passed the hat.
Afterwards we went to the FALLS - exquisite idyllic setting but everyone should have been naked like the 2 little girls!
Back to Nututun to swim & pack for departure to ABANDONED LUMBER CAMP ON LACANJA RIVER. I drove the last 3 ½ hrs through the most incredibly strange jungle & very rutted poor dirt road. Arrived about 4 AM & were greeted by the LACANDONES who woke us up at 7 AM next day & I had a slight disagreement with the boy leader!
WEDNESDAY, MAR 5
Off to BONAMPAK RUINS (we took Paola with us) through muddy roads where we got stuck a few times & were lifted off by the “big boys”. Eventually had to abandon the car & get into the van. But eventually IT got stuck but good & it took 7 hours (Cintia says 5 ½) to get it out. I was not much help except to drive as the others pushed.
Some had walked ahead (a 4-hr walk) & so we had to go & tell them about the problem. Charlie ran ahead and 3 others walked. Miguel was heroic - he spent 4 hrs in the mud, placing stones & sticks under the wheels. When everyone got back, it took no more than 15 minutes to get it out with everyone pushing & Roberto’ van pulling.
By then it was dark. Paola & her husband walked back. Back to LACANDON lumber camp to sleep. Up 4-5 hours later & packed all & said good-bye as we were supposed to head back that day after visit to Yaxchilan.
THURSDAY, MARCH 6
But first a visit, via CAYUCA (kayak) across the river to LANCANDON village where we watched a lady making tortillas of white corn and yucca in the house. (She wore glasses & charged 10 pesos for a picture.)
Off to USUMACINTA RIVER where Charlie had gone on ahead to arrange for the boat. This was his gift to us in view of the disaster of the day before.
Trip to the town of FRONTERA ECHEVERRIA where we had hot pop [soda] on the dock. Passed the most idyllic village I have ever seen.
Boat trip took one hour. River is the border between Mexico & Guatemala. YAXCHILAN ruins very exciting.
We stayed an hour later than we were supposed to (till 6 or so) & the trip back was very slow because we were going upstream & the darkness impeded our progress.
The “pilot” had to keep flashing his light to find floating logs. On the shore, people kept flashing lights, hoping we were the corn boat - so we were told.
It was so late when we got back that (a) we couldn’t get anything to eat; and (b) we decided it was better to go back to LACANDON camp to sleep & leave early next day for PALENQUE.
FRIDAY MAR. 7
Went back to PALENQUE after having made coffee and heated up the spaghetti from the night before.Charlie had to have his van fixed & also Roberto’s spare tire (which had gone flat during the Bonampak mud crisis.)
We swam and had lunch at NUTUTUN - I had pollo pibil - delicious & juicy. 120 pesos for the comida corrida. I had a beer first - very much needed at the time.
Then we left to go to ACAYUCAN to camp for the night. But we didn’t arrive till 6 AM and were greeted by machine guns while Charlie slept. Eventually, after phoning the boss, they told us it was OK to stay but I could not take the ANTS [in spite of a circle of ant powder around each hammock that Tina had brought as a precaution, an army of huge ants had found their way up the posts and were marching down my hammock’s cord directly towards me!] so I left with my camera to walk to town. On the way, one of a group of 150 Airstream people asked me to help him get [LP] gas for his truck. [I asked for a ride in exchange for acting as interpreter for him. By now I had two months of classes behind me, so my Spanish was pretty decent.]
Went to the market and zócalo & could not get any decent café con leche. Bought some fruit & cheese & ate that. Bought some pan dulce to take back to Tina & the girls for their breakfast, which was lucky as I found out on my return that the camp restaurant was only a bar.
Got back at 9 AM & everyone was up already, except Charlie. Lucky I didn’t wait till noon to get back!
SATURDAY MARCH 8
A day charged with strange events! My turn to drive: very nice highway so I got it up to 120 (K) without wasting time & the trunk of the VW (in front, remember) suddenly opened wide! What a scare! But I kept control while Tina screamed, worried about our things scattering all over the road. I brought the car to a safe stop & Tina ran out to fetch everything.
Somewhat shaken, made our way to santiago tuxtla for the witches’ convention (reunión de brujos) & had my tarot read. Fortune-teller very good and told me lots of truths. Then we chatted about her life & loves. We had a good rapport & it was nice to talk to a Mexican woman.
The heat was intolerable (in Acayucan it was boiling hot by 7.30 AM). We left after coffee at the hotel (strange building, round, out of place) & decided to split from the group as we were in a hurry to get home. Saw some magnificent landscapes but I was too tired to take pictures.
Driving was very slow due to many slow trucks & impossibility to pass because of many curves in mountain road.
We had a few misadventures, surely amplified by the fact that we were so tired. Tina was particularly nervous. Ex.: The bicyclists appearing out of nowhere; Ex.: The 3 guys appearing in front of the car & seeming to be holding us up. In retrospect, I think they were drunk & one was trying to kill himself [?]. Both incidents [happened] on the road from Orizaba to Puebla. We had gotten off the toll road & I guess that was a mistake. Ex.: Stopping in a field to sleep & I couldn’t & decided to wash the windshield. I heard a dog bark & got back into the car. Tina told me later that she saw a guy crawling out of the grass & towards us.
We eventually reached PUEBLA at 10 PM & Tina wanted to spend the night so we had a bite (TACOS ARABES - very good) & we looked at a hotel but Tina decided to drive on.
I vaguely remember stopping a few times to sleep, and driving a bit & I kept hallucinating so Tina had to take over every time.
I eventually fell into a deep snory sleep & woke up in front of Tina’s house.
It was 6 AM & we had been travelling since 9 AM [the previous day].
What a trip!
P.S. Everything in the selva that walks, crawls and flies, bites. I saw scorpions, ants, lizards, wild dogs, snakes, & I heard the monkeys at sunset.
OAXACA/SIERRA TRIP - March 27-28-29-30, 1980 (Best time of year to visit these areas: March & April. Later on it rains and rains.) $55 US
THURSDAY, MARCH 27
We left at 1.30 PM, only half an hour late, in Paco’s jeep with 7 people: Paco & I in front, Teresa, Eva & Florence in middle seat & Harry & Roger in back seat, turned around. We were to meet Prue & Doug & Kim & Virginia in Pinotepa Nacional, at Hotel Rodríguez, that evening.
We took the road to Acapulco & turned off just before entering Acapulco, heading towards Pinotepa Nacional. (There is a sign.)
Around 10 PM we arrived at M??? to get gas but the station was closed & we didn’t have enough to go on to Pinotepa (115 K away). The hotel was full but they let us hang our hammocks on the verandah & let us use an unfurnished room (hotel is expanding) with toilet & shower (with water) for the night. Some slept in the car. They charged us 15 pesos each.
There were lots of soldiers in front, working for highway safety and assistance to tourists, more than usual because of Semana Santa. Some were sleeping right on the sidewalk & we felt sorry for them.
Terry, Roger & I shared a room & we slept like logs.
We were stopped several times by the DRUG PATROL but Paco always lied about our destination. First he said we were going to Puerto Escondido, then he said Oaxaca. He explained that if he had told the truth there would have been too many questions.
He must have known what he was doing for we were not searched once. But we had an alternate plan had we had difficulties: Eva (chosen by general consensus) was to pretend to be very sick & Paco was to say that he had to take her to a doctor quick.
FRIDAY MARCH 28
Paco woke us up before the crack of dawn & we left for PINOTEPA NACIONAL on empty stomachs. (Did we stop for breakfast anywhere?)
We stopped by an ancient tree and bought pottery. (3 pesos for a bowl or a small jug.) Prue’s van was at the rendezvous. They had been frightened during the night by Semana Santa processions.
“”Pinotepa” means “Kingdom”.
Left for our first destination, PINOTEPA DE DON LUIS, encountering more and more native costumes on the way. (Some old women in P. Nacional had the Mixtec skirt & bare breasts.)
PINOTEPA DE DON LUIS very pretty & clean little town. We stopped at CHEFA’S to ask if there was room for the night. Hung around there for a while (she has a restaurant) & arranged to meet back there for lunch at 2.
Went to the general store (run by mestiza lady) & looked at some crafts. I bought a huipil & Paco expressed surprise that the town ladies had not yet shown up with their wares. But once the word got around that we were buying, it didn’t take long! The women, however, were asking too much & the mestiza lady kept shaking her head. She buys their goods & sells them in Mexico City.
Paco arranged for her to take us around to various weavers (everyone here is a weaver) & I bought many servilletas, some of which have the distinctive purple colour of the skirts [the purple dye is from the cochinilla, an insect that lives on the nopal cactus]. I took a picture of a lady weaving bare-breasted.
The servilletas are in daily use for tortillas & the nicest ones are the ones people use - I had to pay 150 pesos for the one that says “Pinotepa de Don Luis”. The embroidery is too often synthetic nowadays but they have such good taste in colours.
I regret not having bought a rebozo with white on white weaving [I found one in Mexico City several years later]. The price was 1000 pesos at first but I could have got them for 500. Those were the ones the ladies were wearing. The ones they were selling were not too exciting.
By the time we got back to Chefa’s, the word had spread! There was an endless procession & it was embarrassing not to be filthy rich & able to buy everything. Somehow, too, a description of me must have been circulating, as everyone approached me & no one else.
The women were so beautiful.
With all this visiting we had missed the procession but were told there would be another one at 8 PM, with candles, etc.
We hung around some more & had a conference on the porch with the kids playing games with me. Went to the square where the kids were playing basket-ball.
There was a mass in the church, with a live guitar trio.
I talked to the shop-keeper & she had the condescending attitude that Paco had warned about. But I’m glad I had that chat with her.
While waiting for the procession, we had a chat with the mestizo boys - so bold compared with the “inditos” & then I recorded the church trio singing popular songs. They were very good.
The bells rang & the procession started (eventually) to the sound of music as well. I recorded both but my batteries were running down. Procession was very touching. Roger & I followed till I realized that it lasted 1 ½ hours so we turned around & went to bed but stopped at the tienda for a beer & I bought batteries & the lady gave me 2 small jugs if I promised to take them to Canada!
We slept on the back porch, very comfortable with a sleeping bag. Some slept in hammocks on the patio but they had to cope with the dew in the morning.
6 AM: 3 feet away, the rooster woke me.
Chefa charged 15 pesos each for the night.
SATURDAY MARCH 29
Trust me to find delicious hot coffee & a toilet that works with water! I had 3 cups of the lovely black stuff. Chefa told me that she had ground the coffee herself.
We said our good-byes & made our way to SAN PEDRO AMUZGOS, where - surprise - EFRAIN was waiting. Turns out that’s where he lives.
Our headquarters there was the tienda where we immediately started looking at stuff to buy. Eventually, we were taken by Paco to the house of a friend who has been MAYORDOMO [a prestigious position in the community]. She also baked a special sweet bread in her home-made oven. Apparently that is an honour.
She showed us her huipiles. I bought the shocking pink one that Paco said was the traditional colour & design for 300 pesos. (They sell in Cuernavaca for 700 to 900 pesos.) Paco said she was confused giving change as the Amuzgos still count in 20’s [like their remote ancestors].
Went back to shop & bought the white wedding one [huipil] that I was later told came from 100 KM away & cost 600 pesos there. (I paid 900, tried to bargain but no go.)
I had to borrow 1000 pesos from Efraín via Paco in order to do this. Efraín was very gracious about this, tried to get the lady to bring down her price but she would not cooperate. I like that man Efraín & his easy way. He apparently lives in Cuernavaca half the time.
Later on in the afternoon we had a conference with Paco on someone’s porch, after which we left (around 4.30) to head for PUTLA where we were to spend the night.
PUTLA reminds me of a seedy port town, except that it’s in the mountains. Poor & not too clean but we had a pleasant dinner of eggs & beans & went to bed to the sound of the loudest fiesta.
The noise did not bother me as I slept on the floor while Larry & Roger got the beds. Price: 200 pesos for 3 [guests]. Desk man very kindly indicated the toilets for the ones who were sleeping in the cars.
Had a good sponge bath & got rid of inches of DUST! Paco had said he’d wake us up at 4 AM but we had seen no sign of him by 7.30 so I knocked on his door & he said to meet him at the hotel at 8 & we’d leave.
Went back to the same place & had more eggs & beans & went back at 8.30 & Paco was out buying a basket for the extra things.
We left around 9.30 and arrived at SAN ANDRES CHICAHUAXTLA [home of the Trique people.]
Paco took us to the HOYO & told us the story of the suicides & the ceremonial centre. It was only later that I realized that if they believe that the caves is where god is, then by jumping the women believe they are joining the gods. (Am I right?)
On the way back we stopped at the house of a friend & looked a their weavings but they were all synthetic. Which did not stop the rest of the group from buying!
I kept going back to the house where I had a marvellous rapport with the chief & his daughters. I was thinking of buying her old huipil. I persuaded Roger to buy one - 300 pesos & she wanted 3000 pesos for a new one for her daughter but not till after Semana Santa.
Other women came with new ones and then old ones but the quality just did not match. She explained to me that she insists on cotton only - they are not using wool any longer as the colours run - & does her own designs (she showed us her sampler later on) & that she insists on using all the traditional designs on her own huipiles.
I let it be known that I was willing to trade my tape recorder for a huipil & eventually that got to her & she let me have her own new one in exchange. But I asked her which she preferred: that I buy an old one for 300 pesos or get the new one [in exchange] for the tape recorder.
She graciously posed for a picture for Roger, fixed her hair & put on her necklace. I took pictures also. [Those are the photos I miss the most from all those trips.]
I called her a queen as she sat there on the floor in the semi-sunlight, & presented her with the tape recorder.
I had a marvellous rapport with the kids too, who came to me to be touched… and I was so glad that I could speak some Spanish and communicate…
We were all invited back there to stay as long as we wanted & the younger sister showed me a letter from a Japanese girl & asked me to translate.
As I came back from hoyo I saw the beginning of the procession & felt a big lump in my throat & some guilt for taking pictures of something so moving. I asked if she was going too & she said she had been sick & now she was lazy & used her sickness as an excuse not to go…
As she was preparing herself for the photo, she showed me how they dress under the huipil & explained that the palmera [that they wear under their clothes] was “para dar fuerza para trabajar” [to give strength for working].
We had gone on that trip to see how 3 indian communities (the last frontiers of Mexico) live & govern themselves.
(1) Pinotepa de Don Luis is mestizo governed although they are only 15% of the population;
(2) San Pedro Amuzgos is [mostly?] mestizo and the Amuzgos have the power;
(3) Trique do not allow any foreigners & are self-sufficient although poor. Their main god is the god of wind.
We didn’t conduct “tours” but split up in each town & wandered around on our own. Paco said “if you buy something from someone, ask her to take you to her house & show you how she makes it.”. But more often than not, the invitation came spontaneously.
The school - Cemanahuac Educational Community - still exists. From their website it would appear that the Field Trip Program no longer includes the ones described here. (Others are available, though.)