Finn Studies Spanish

Mazatlån on a Saturday night

I’m not sure when I decided I had to learn Spanish. I can’t remember what her name was. I think it was some time during the trip to Mazatlán with Logan and Roger. We just kept running into one beautiful señorita after another that we couldn’t communicate with, and I made a decision that I would learn their language. That was a much better motivation than a foreign language requirement in high school or college. Here’s one time the little head actually lead the big head in a constructive direction.

I was in the middle of a two-year stint as a dropout and wasn’t heading back to college in the fall, but I did have a job on a Mississippi riverboat to get back to. The thirty-days on and thirty-days off work schedule on the riverboats gave me plenty of time to explore, and Arizona had always been a favorite exploration destination. On the two previous breaks, my thumb had taken me to Florida and Massachusetts, so when Logan and Roger mentioned a trip to Mexico during their summer break from the University of Missouri, I jumped onboard,

We hitch-hiked the fifteen hundred miles to Phoenix and spent a few days carousing with some of the crowd always hanging out at Marty’s house. Marty had been instrumental in my first international pot run a couple of years before, and there was always someone ready to carouse at Marty’s house. If you were lucky, it was a spontaneous costume party with everybody dropping acid, but if times were slow, you just got stoned, played basketball and found a swimming hole to cool off in afterwards.

From Phoenix, it was two hundred miles to Nogales, two cities with the same name on either side of the border with Mexico. Crossing that border is quite an experience. Going from the U.S. to Mexico is not like crossing the border to Canada, or going from France to Switzerland. Things are immediately different, way different. I loved it. Maybe local trash collection was a bit lax and the indoor plumbing wasn’t a hundred percent, but I was fascinated by the colors, the sounds, and the constant commotion of people engaged in activities I just wasn’t used to. A lady crouched over a small firepit on the side of the road making tasty tacos, kids accosting me selling chiclets or wanting to shine my army surplus boots — it was all good.

We’d decided to take the train about seven hundred miles to the coastal city of Mazatlán. This was no first class express train. Chickens were as plentiful as people, and the train wasn’t a whole lot faster than the donkey carts we passed along the way. After the all-night ride, we made it from the train station to an oceanside campground at the edge of town, where we spent a glorious week swimming, smoking, and sunbathing.

Saturday night we went into town to check out the action at the central Plazuela. The sidewalk cafés were overflowing with couples and families out on the town. A busy street with cars inching by separated the eating establishments from the main square. A wide promenade made for a pretty long circuit around the plaza which was filled with a river of fine señoritas flowing in one direction and a counter-current of young guys trying to act semi-interested swimming upstream on the inside. We sat on a bench on the riverbank and tried to stare unobtrusively at the decked-out doncellas. That soon became impossible as they were not afraid of staring back at the gringos and doing the captivating coquettish come-on which was the whole point of this ritual we were experiencing for the first time. Some would stop and try to converse with us, but the only one who’d taken any Spanish was Roger, and he wasn’t gonna waste his time translating for me or Logan. Why the hell had I taken French?

I had to be back at work on the boat in a week, but I started making plans that evening for an extended trip to Mexico to learn the language well enough to carry on a conversation. I’d been working the river for about eight months, and with one more trip I’d have enough money to quit and invest in Spanish lessons somewhere where there were plenty of brown-eyed girls to practice with.

Two months later, that somewhere turned out to be Cuernavaca, the “city of eternal spring,” which was not only a popular retreat for the ruling class in Mexico City, from the Aztecs to the present day, but also home to a large number of intensive language schools frequented by diplomats and exchange students, as well as a passing hippie like me. My trip down by thumb, train, and bus had taken two weeks and I already knew more Spanish than French when I arrived to begin school. The school was great, six hours of class per day with a maximum of four students per teacher, a different one each week. There was even an attractive young teacher who encouraged me to get some extra credit with a visit to my room one night that I’ll never forget.

Having learned the grammatical structure after a month, I figured my vocabulary acquisition could be advanced more rapidly on the street than in the classroom, so me and my thumb hit the road. On down to Oaxaca, where a friend from Missouri had given me the name and address of Doña Dora, who ran a vegetarian restaurant with a few rooms she rented out upstairs. This weren’t no B&B, this was a B&B&L&D, yeah lunch and dinner added on. And if you gave her a good half day’s work, Dora would let you hang out indefinitely as long as you didn’t do anything too outrageous upstairs. Pot smoking and jam sessions ’til all hours of the night was definitely not on the outrageous list, so I musta been at Dora’s for a good long month.

The city of Oaxaca is the capital of the state of Oaxaca and a regional center of commerce. There was a thriving market where you could get more than anything, if that’s possible, and a lively plaza with a promenade that competed favorably with what I’d seen that Saturday night in Mazatlán. Besides the gig at Dora’s which provided room and board, I had another job at a family barber shop/juice stand. Bored one afternoon on the way back to Dora’s, I was drawn into the establishment by the eyes of one of Manuela’s four lovely daughters, and before long I was making runs to the market for Manuela and sweeping the floor of Samuel’s barber shop next door. It was a family operation, and the conversations with the four daughters were as much of a treat as the tasty smoothies Manuela whipped up from a wide variety of fruits, some of which I’d never seen before.

Samuel greatly enjoyed having a gringo working for him. I remember one particular afternoon when he and half of the neighborhood lined up on the other side of the street to watch me clean the windows on the barber shop. He was a proud man that day, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t mind being on display. I’d learned growing up on the farm that work has value, and I realized they’d never seen an American at labor. Maybe they’d realize we weren’t just bloodsucking imperialists, that perhaps there was an ounce of humanity under this light-colored skin.

Between Dora’s crew and Manuela’s daughters, I was sucking up Spanish like a sponge, adding new vocabulary words every day which I jotted down in little notepads I’d pick up from a street vendor. Though I often lost my notes soon after, the act of writing down the words effectively engraved them in my brain, which I could find on most days.

One day at lunch, Dora said something about the Festival of the Virgin of Juquila in southwestern Oaxaca coming up the following week. I wasn’t much into virgin adoration, but a festival was something I could get onboard with, so I decided to check it out.

Juquila is only 120 miles from Oaxaca, but even nowadays with much better roads it’s over five hours by car. When you can’t average more than twenty-five miles per hour, that’s an indication you’re passing through some rough terrain. Unaware of what I was getting into, I went down to the bustling bus depot on the outskirts of the market and asked how to get to Juquila. Looking quizzically at me like the crazy gringo I was, friendly bystanders directed me to a bus to Puerto Escondido on the Pacific coast and told me to get off at kilometer 88. OK. Sounded sketchy, but I went ahead and bought a ticket. The bus was filling up rapidly and there wasn’t another one until the next day.

It was an all night trip to Puerto Escondido, and the stop at kilometer 88 was a long six and a half hours down the road, long because I was standing up the whole way and the bus was about a foot shorter than me. There wasn’t even room on the jam-packed luxurymobile to kneel or sit on the floor, which I gladly would have done. When the driver called out “Kilómetro ochenta y ocho,” and half the bus emptied out on the side of the road, it took me several minutes to unwind my vertebrae. I began looking around for the festival.

It was the middle of the night, and all I could see was darkness and some far-off lights flickering in and out as they moved up the side of a distant mountain. What the hey? A number of my fellow travelers had already started off down a path that descended from the road into shadowy obscurity, so I deemed it best to follow their lead. As we trudged on into the night, there was one guy who returned my queries about where we were headed and informed me that we had to walk a ways to get to the site of the festival. As we wound our way down one mountainside and up another, the rest of the pedestrian pilgrims seemed to be more interested in determined ambulation than polite conversation.

The state of Oaxaca has an extremely mountainous terrain with numerous isolated valleys which may be minutes away by helicopter but are days away by the only means of transportation available locally, the left and right ones. Most of the Indians who’d gotten off the bus with me couldn’t understand a word I was saying, and I wasn’t speaking English. As we got further along in the thirty-kilometer trek from the highway into Juquila, more indigenous amigos came in from trails appearing out of nowhere, and many of them couldn’t speak to each other either. Turns out there are more than one hundred languages spoken in the state of Oaxaca alone, and the majority of the Indian population attending the festival didn’t speak a word of Spanish.

The trail through the woods and valleys wasn’t all that well marked, and it would have been difficult to follow if a number of our pilgrims weren’t lighting the way with slow-burning torches. The steady line of small flames flickering up and down the hillside was quite a sight, and when we could finally see the glow of the festival lights over the last rise to the west, the sun was just starting to warm the sky behind us.

I couldn’t tell where the town of Juquila was, but there was a sprawling makeshift city of tarps and shelters that housed thousands of festival goers. While there were some serious devotees, like the ones coming in for kilometers on their knees to pay homage to the virgin, there were all sorts of vacationers, revelers, and curiosity seekers like me. Except I did look a little different. There was a wide variety of indigenous dress, bright and colorful cloth everywhere, and then me, the only gringo around. I guess after a few days, and often a few drinks, as there was more than one temporary bar in the shadow of the church that housed the blessed virgin, they just accepted me as someone else who spoke only Spanish and wasn’t worth conversing with if it wasn’t over a transaction, and transactions there were aplenty. The Pharisees would have been awarded a medal for holiness and sanctity compared to all the Indian hustlers doing business within shouting distance of the blessed virgin’s vestibule.

I never asked what made the virgin of Juquila so special, but I started wondering about it belatedly as I was writing this down. It turns out the foot tall icon of the Virgin Mary was saved miraculously in a fire that burnt the nearby village of Amialtepec to the ground, including the church in which she was hanging out. And you’d better believe it was a miracle, because, according to the person who wrote it up for Wikipedia,

… a learned person who wrote about the case says that the fact is authentic and in proof of it he cites the parish priest of that place, Escudero, and Casaus, who was later the head of the penitentiary of Oaxaca…(translation of excerpt from:ñora_de_Juquila)

It was a miracle, damnit, and if you don’t think so, just ask the priest and the jailer. Fortunately, I was so convinced about how blessed cool the virgin of Juquila was that I didn’t find it necessary to ask at the time. I was having a good time partying down and wasn’t worrying about divine intervention. What with all sorts of finger foods in baskets as you walked around, and impromptu restaurants put together with a couple of tables under canvas poles, a small fire burning and maybe a block of ice in a cooler to keep the meat or fish from spoiling, the Festival of the Virgin of Juquila was a culinary delight. And don’t forget the mezcal and tequila. One enterprising barman had even brought a battery-powered record player and was blasting out a variety of sacrilegious songs as the pilgrims groveled by on bloodied knees en route to pay homage to the virgin. Amid the cacophony of multiple Indian languages, nobody seemed to mind. The Roman Catholic faith with its adoration of the iconic virgin and love of a good party had been successfully transported by the conquistadores to the hills of Oaxaca, but ironically the Spanish language hadn’t survived the journey. The event was memorable in all respects.

I don’t know how the festival started or ended, but after a few days there, the crowd was thinning out. I’d made friends with a fisherman named Tolano from Puerto Angel, and his family was insisting I come down to check out their village on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. Being from the seaside rather than the mountains, they spoke only Spanish, so we were similarly limited in our choice of conversational partners and had become pretty good friends. For the first leg of their journey home, they’d signed up with a truck that would take them out over a logging road. That reduced the trip to the highway from an eight hour walk to a bumpy five hour ride in the back of a truck, so I reluctantly decided to take the easy way out with my new friends. They were camped out on the edge of town waiting for the driver, so I left my belongings under their care and wandered back to the den of Pharisees for a last evening of revelry.

When I returned to their campsite around 1:00 a.m., I was distressed to see that they were gone, and so was my sleeping bag and backpack with everything I had in it, including my passport and most of my money. Shit. What the hell to do? I had to have a passport and Mexico City was the closest place to get one, but it was two days away at least, and that option was never under serious consideration. I just couldn’t believe that my friend Tolano the fisherman would have ripped me off. Something must have happened. With that determination, I started walking out.

It was the same mountainside pilgrimage, in reverse this time, and now I knew what to expect. I had an urgency to my gait and made it out to kilometer 88 a couple of hours after dawn. Not knowing when there might be a bus to Oaxaca, I stuck out my thumb each time a vehicle passed by, which was about once every ten or fifteen minutes. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before a truck with a stock rack on the back full of indigenous travelers stopped, and I got a ride to Oaxaca. It wasn’t free, but it was pretty cheap and I was glad to get there before the evening bus left for Puerto Angel. This time I was lucky enough to be able to work my way onto the step at the front door of the bus so I could stand up without crooking my neck on the nine hour trip to my destination on the southern coast of Oaxaca state. The small fishing village on the Pacific was a beautiful sight as our bus wound down the long hill into town in the early morning light.

Puerto Angel

Puerto Angel didn’t have much more of a downtown than a couple of stores and one restaurant as I remember, but when I stopped into the restaurant, a smiling señorita directed me down one dirt street, around a hill and up another one to where Tolano’s family lived. Ignoring the barks and growls of some sorry-looking mutts, my hopes were high as I climbed the last hill and asked an old man for directions to Tolano’s house. He pointed me to a small complex with a house and a large outdoor oven under a thatched canopy right up the road, and there hanging from the crossbar on the canopy were my backpack and sleeping bag, intact, waiting for my arrival. The truck had come early to pick them up outside Juquila, and Tolano had had to make a quick decision about what to do with my belongings.

Believe me, it was a happy reunion with him and his mother as we enjoyed a fine meal of fresh fish and cold cerveza, the first of many. In the mornings before heading out fishing, we had our pick of sweet breads fresh out of the oven tended by his sister and mother. Tolano had a thirty foot launch with an old twenty horsepower Johnson outboard that carried us miles out into the Pacific. A good day was ten or fifteen tasty tuna which were shorter than my forearm but a lot fatter. His mom filleted and grilled the fish, and later in the day, his sister took the bread and baked fish to the market in the larger town of Pochutla nearby.

It was a vertically integrated enterprise that sustained the family of Tolano, his mother, and his sister pretty well as far as I could tell. As always in Mexico, there was a porch to sleep on, and I was a happy camper for a two week stay through December of that year. Tolano and I went out fishing every day, except the rare ones when stormy weather kept us in. That was fine by me too, as I could always spend the time practicing the Spanish vocabulary of personal relationships with Sofía, the smiling señorita from the restaurant down the hill.