Batopilas, Satebó, and the Sierra Tarahumara
1988, 1989, and 2003
When I first went there, in June of 1988,I did not really know where I was going. It is true that I did have an area on a map in mind as a vague destination, but I had no clear idea what this place was like, and a place with no definite characteristics is no place at all.
The maps I could find would not allow me to form even the haziest image of it. They did not even agree among themselves on the important question of whether there was a road going there or not. One map showed Batopilas as if it were buried in a trackless wilderness of deeply dissected terrain.
But I wanted to get as far as an automobile would take me from the world of Madison, Wisconsin, so I simply decided to drive until I had to stop, wherever that might be. Would I end in a place that was high and cold or low and hot? Would it be sierra or barranca -- mountainous country or canyon? Would it be a desert or a forest? Would I be in civilization or surrounded by wild Indians? I packed for whatever might await me. I took long underwear and an arctic parka, I took khaki shorts and salt tablets; I loaded canned food in case I had to camp by the car, and freeze-dried food and a backpack for tramping overland, if that should be necessary.
When I got there, the place actually was everything I had thought it might be. The paved road gave out in the dusty squalor of Creel, a town on the famous Chihuahua al Pacífico railroad. I soon found there was a dirt road going to Batopilas, but only ten years before there had been none, so in a way both sets of maps had been right (though not at the same time).
As I set out for my destination, my landlord in Creel told me that he had never been there; he warned me that the road was feo, "ugly," and with slicing motions his hand imitated its roller coaster grades and turns. In time I found it was ninety miles of the ugliest and most beautiful road I had ever been on.
At first the road followed a river valley but eventually decided, incredibly, to cut across a series of canyons. It would struggle up the side of a mountain, turn on its heels among the pinnacles, and shoot down into an abyss, one after another. The land it crossed was plainly both sierra and barranca. In the arid heights, the Tarahumara Indians had scratched cornfields out of the sides of mountains. In the more fertile depths, sometimes nearly a mile below the peaks and often a few hundred feet above sea level, the mestizos, the people we would ordinarily think of as Mexicans, had their ranches. In the highlands were areas of true desert, while the lowlands were subtropical.
At Batopilas, the road jammed itself between the Río Batopilas to the south and the side of the canyon towering above it to the north. Then, as if it could see no way to go on, it stopped. As I climbed out the car with a Tarahumara hitchhiker into the lower of the town's two plazas on a warm evening a week after I had left Wisconsin, I was sure I had come to the right place. I had come to the end of the road and even, to judge by the way I felt after eight hours of clinging to bluffs and pinnacles, to the ends of the earth. That was pretty much all the destination I had ever taken into my head anyway.
This dizzy sense of standing at the ends of the earth was not entirely an illusion. I later found that I had come close to the edge of Christendom, which is the world as I know it. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Jesuits had built a dense and vast network of missions and churches for the Tarahumaras, but for some reason their progress into the wilderness stopped near Batopilas in the eighteenth century, and to this day has pressed no further. Not far to the south and west live the Tarahumara gentiles, or pagans, who still have a sort of horror of priests and, so I was told, never enter a church, not even to get out of the rain. This was something better than the ends of the earth: the edge of my world was the door to another one, which I could enter.
As I was driving from Creel to Batopilas and Satebó in June 2003 with my thirteen year old son Nat, we felt the trip change its character abruptly as we were threading our way on the unpaved part of the route to Batopilas. I slowed to read some graffiti on the canyon wall and at once the car's motor stalled out. Attempts to restart it produced only screeching sounds and smoke from the area of the fan belt. Standing next to the car, distraught and genuinely frightened, I saw, a Tarahumara Indian I had somehow not noticed before. He was leaning on his walking staff, staring out into the canyon, with his back to me. These people give the eerie impression of being able to appear out of nowhere and disappear again. It has something to do with their curious ability to avoid attracting attention. Rather than seeing them coming, you just suddenly notice that they are already there. Moments later, his wife materialized in the same way, nursing an infant child of whom they both seemed too old to be the parents. After finding out that, unlike some Tarahumaras, he did speak Spanish, I asked him if he could tell me where we were. He said, "That's La Bufa right there," and pointed almost straight down. I looked over the edge of the road. Far below, perhaps more than a kilometer below us in altitude, the road took a tightly packed set of jagged switchbacks before winding into a loose collection of adobe houses: La Bufa (The Cliff), the last place that could be called a town before the lonely last thirty kilometers to Batopilas. We weren't very close at all, but it was a good one hundred kilometers to Creel. We had no choice but to hitchhike to Batopilas. When I thought to ask the Tarahumara man another question, he and his family had re-materialized another fifty meters further down the road. Well, there they go again.... By the time our car troubles were over, we had been through four sets of auto mechanics in three different towns. Twice we were forced by circumstances to abandon the car on a lonely mountain road, returning late with a tow truck or a team of mechanics. I can tell you that there is really only one cardinal rule for major auto breakdowns in remote rural Mexico: plan on not having one.
My Tarahumara hitchhiker had told me his name was Evaristo (he pronounced it Evarishto), and that he was coming to Batopilas from his home at Samachique looking for a mestizo woman he called his nena. After some questioning I found that he apparently meant by this curious word that she was his godmother. He went into a building on the lower plaza with a sign above the door: "Casa Monse: Indian Artifacts." Casa Monse turned out to be a guest house as well as an artifact shop and I soon rented a room.
Later, Evaristo and I sat down at a wooden table on an open porch in front of Micaela's house, on the upper plaza. At the time, this is about as close as Batopilas comes to a restaurant. Looking over my shoulder, I could see Micaela's family eating in their own dining room.
We each wrote our name on a scrap of paper so the other could see exactly what it was (he misspelled his, omitting the "t").
We had to keep waving flies away from our faces. Northern Mexico was entering the dark depths of a serious drought then, and the cows in the arroyos had begun to die for lack of grass. Someone was putting out hay for the village cows to eat, and the feeding place was right below Micaela's porch, between her house and Valentin's store. This this was the reason for all the flies.
A dark, bulky woman waddled out on to the porch: evidently, the servant who runs Micaela's kitchen. Her shiny face was rather less round than a bowling ball and somewhat more expressive than a hard boiled egg. She plunked down a bowl of beef soup and a plate of rice in front of me and went back into the kitchen. I shooed flies away from my food. She came back and, in front of Evarishto, put down a plate the size of my rice plate, with both soup and rice on it. I looked at my food, then his.
"I have more food than you."
"I know." He dug absentmindedly in his rice with his spoon.
"I don't know." Maybe he was wondering if he had been right to suggest we come here, though I doubt it. Surely this was better than not eating at all.
"Maybe," I said, "it's because I'm bigger than you." He laughed. He was twenty years old but looked fifteen. If he was over five feet tall, it was not by much.
I was later told that the servant woman hates Indians, though she is said to be a Tarahumara herself. Probably, she figured that gringos are too ignorant to appreciate the fact that Indians are beggars. She could not allow herself to help him take advantage of me too much by charging me for a full meal for him. It was a matter of professional ethics. Her attitude, if such it was, was not entirely without foundation: I have to admit that Evarishto did manage to say goodbye and leave before it was time to pay for dinner. It annoyed me that he thought he had to trick me into buying dinner for him, if that is what his disappearance meant. In a different way, it also annoyed me that the woman seemed to think I was a sucker to give food to an Indian.
I had never hitchhiked in Mexico before and was delighted to find that it is very easy. The very first car to come by gave us a ride to Batopilas. It was a young woman, a graduate student at St. John's University (Plato's Republic was on the seat next to her). She works, she said, for a private foundation that tries to help various southwestern tribes keep their indigenous cultures. The project that brought her to Batopilas was a truly Herculean one: her organization was trying to trying to help a small pueblo tribe recover (or recreate) a culture that had partly been lost. Crucial parts of its language had been forgotten. They were looking into the possibility of recovering the missing parts fron another, similar language that had not been lost. The whole idea reminded me of Jurassic Park, but I wished her well, and meant it -- the very nature-defying extremism of the idea appealed to me. (Steven Spielberg -- what does he know?) She was coming to Batopilas to see if she could locate a Tarahumara who might help them with their project. The Tarahumaras are champions of cultural survival, so maybe they can give advice to the stragglers in the race for survival.
"How do you say bravo?"
Diego, an anthropology graduate student I had met because he was also staying at Casa Monse, was quizzing Evarishto on the local Tarahumara dialect. Pointing to a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the wall of Micaela's porch, he asked: "Who is that?"
"She's a relative of God's, right?"
"The mother of God, or what?"
"Uh ... just one of the saints." I wondered if this makes Evarishto a heretic.
The servant woman loomed out of the darkness of the kitchen, reciting the breakfast menu in a careless singsong.
"How would you like your eggs? There's beans, pastillos, with chorizo, with pork sausage."
I told her I wanted eggs with chorizo and Diego did the same.
She turned harshly toward Evarishto. "With chorizo too?"
He muttered something we couldn't hear, looking down.
"Eggs with chorizo?" I said, trying to sound gentle.
Again, he only muttered. The very thought of asking her for something seemed to make him feel sick.
"What?" she demanded.
"Whatever you want." We could finally hear him.
"'Whatever you want'! With chorizo then." She turned her back on us and hurried back into the kitchen.
At various times I heard the Spanish word bravo applied to dogs that bite and to especially hot chilis. They say that not being bravo is virtually the deepest ethical principle of the Tarahumara, their categorical imperative. Never to bite, never to be fierce. It is very easy to bully people like that. Still, of all the tribes in North America, they are they largest one (about seventy thousand strong) that is still living in something like the old ways, so their strategy seems to be one that in some sense works.
Walking into Casa Monse for the first time in fourteen years was less nostalgic than it might have been: I was mainly looking for advice on how to get my poor car down from La Bufa and into the care of a competent mechanic. When Monse's husband came into the lobby, I began to tell him our problems in Spanish, and he responded in perfect English. A little confused, I said that I had forgotten that he spoke English. I soon realized that I was not quite as mixed up as I had thought. The husband I was thinking of in fact did not speak English, but he had died. The enterprising Monse had replaced him with another, actually rather similar to the first husband, though younger, more alert, and more scholarly. Hence my mistake. When I told Carlos, for such was his name, that I was going to Micaela's for dinner, he said "Oh, she passed on about three years ago." Alas, as I soon found, Micaela's porch was now covered with an elaborate cage of metal bars, all locked up. No one was carrying on the business. Locals believe that the new place to eat is Carolina's, across the upper square from Micaela's. Carolina, it turned out, is one of the daughters of Ramiro Ramos, the friend in Satebó I hoped to visit. Orthodoxy also has it that Carolina's is better than Micaela's was. Alas, that is only true if you suppose that restaurant food is per se better than traditional home cooking. Doña Mica (as we usually called her) not only made her coffee herself, she roasted it from green beans in a big skillet on her stove, and ground it by hand between a metate and mano - the old, very old way. The result was strong enough to float a horseshoe. Her Chili Colorado at its best was a miracle of complex flavors, a sort of red mole of the north.
No one seemed to be able to tell me what she died of. In fact, whenever I ask about the a cause of death here I come up with something like "una enfermedad" or "he just got sicker and sicker and then died." Does this mean that science isn't as important in their view of the world as it is in ours? Maybe they don't think that information about whether it was a germ or a congenital weakness in some organ really meaningful, that such facts really expand our understanding. Anyway, I did find out that Doña Mica had kept working to the end, dying with her apron on so to speak, and I suppose that is a fact that has meaning for all of us.
The only way from Batopilas to the mestizo settlement of Satebó was a path a meter wide, climbing and dipping on a ledge cut into the bluff north side of Barranca Batopilas. It was in very good condition: it was maintained by the government, like a road. They even called it El Camino Real.
Seven kilometers beyond Batopilas the canyon turned to the right, and the path with it. Over the rocks to our right was Satebó. A suspension foot bridge crossed the river, gently drooping over the tumbling green water. It led to three adobe houses scattered on benches in the rock. The houses rested under the silence of two pyramid-shaped peaks, and were separated from the village by the white noise of the river and by the humming of the wind in the cables of the bridge. Between the peaks a path continued to Tarahumara settlements and wilder places beyond. At the head of the bridge, Diego paused and waved to a woman at one of the higher adobes, far on the other side, and she waved back at us. It was Trini, wife of Ramiro Ramos, an mestizo rancher who knew the Tarahumaras well, and had been an indispensable guardian angel to Diego in his anthropological work. The evening sun, slanting along the rough sides of the canyon, picked out many details: individual stones, leaves on the sparse trees, needles on the giant cacti. The red rocks seemed to sparkle. Looks like metamorphic sedimentary, I thought. Diego turned to me and said: "By the way, don't let it bother you, but they have this idiot boy who runs around naked and eats his own shit."
Tolo, the poor devil Diego was speaking of, generally rocked on his bony hams or paced around the house with a strange bent posture, wailing and jabbering - "Babababababa!" - always with the same everlasting scowl on his face. His only emotion seemed to be a vague discomfort which never left him. His fingers would flutter with an wave-like motion. Later, when Nat was born, I recognized this motion instantly: it was the gesture of a newborn infant. I never saw any certain evidence that he could interact with another human being. If his parents spoke to him in anger, he would pick himself up and leave the room, as if to escape a greater than usual discomfort due to the noise they were making. Ramiro said that until Tolo was one year old he had been a normal baby, but then he had a fever that almost killed him. When he emerged from its terrors, he was like this. Now he was twelve years old, and in all his years he had developed only one skill. Somehow, he had taught himself to masturbate.
The path to Satebó was now a road - an innovation exceeded if at all only by the coming of electricity to Batopilas, which had also happened since my last visit here - but I was reluctant to further tax the health of my sick car, so we Nat and I made our first visit to Ramiro on foot. As we walked up the steep hill to his house, Trini looked down and, amazingly, recognized me immediately. I yelled up to her "did you get the letter I wrote you?" "¡O si, si!!" she said, visibly excited. Three weeks before, I had written a letter telling them when I was coming, including pictures of myself and Nat (who didn't even exist when I saw them last). It turned out, though, that the letter she was referring to was one I had written over twelve years before. So far, it was the last letter they ever received. My new one never did arrive.
They were reluctant to believe that we had come all the way to Satebó just to see them. Trini asked, "Did you come to see the church?" "The church?" I said, "we've seen churches."
Trini was very much as I remembered her, but time had taken its toll on Ramiro. Since I saw him last, he had suffered from liver disease (partially corrected by major surgery in Creel), heart disease, intestinal amoebas (from decades of drinking untreated river water) - and he had gone almost completely deaf. In addition, his legs had "gone bad." Whatever else this meant, it was clear that he was no longer able make treks through the sierras, trading with the Indians, digging for gold, and looking for lost treasure. However, except for having to shout into Ramiro's ear, talking to them was just as it was years ago. They invited us to fetch our things from Monse's and stay with them - something I was especially delighted to do, given that my poor car had by now turned into a money-sucker.
I'm afraid I followed the practice of Diego, not telling Nat about Tolo until almost the last minute. My excuse is that I was almost certain Tolo would be dead by now. He would be about twenty six years old by now. By now, he must have fallen off the thirty foot cliff on which their house is set. In fact, he was still alive. His behavior was utterly unchanged (except that, mercifully, he seems to have lost interest in masturbating). If it hadn't been for his brain damage, he would have been a powerful individual. Indeed, as it turned out, he had fallen off that cliff, though as Trini said "He landed on sand, so he was okay." When we asked them how many children they have, they said "Four females (using, rather curiously, the word one would use for livestock), three males, and Tolo." This might sound as though they think Tolo either isn't human or just doesn't count. But that clearly isn't true. Immediately after I had taken a picture of Trini with Ramiro and Nat, she insisted that I photograph Tolo, and went to quite a bit of trouble to get him to sit - literally sit, in a chair - for his portrait. Tolo does not as a rule use chairs. Or a bed either, for that matter.
Our bedroom, so to speak, was a sort of ramada where the roof overshot the end of the house, supported by one adobe wall against the hillside. When the sun was shining, it had a view of the opposite wall of Batopilas Gorge, with its cliff top path to Satebó and caves over the river, dark holes from which bats would emerge in the evening.
I knew I probably should get some sleep soon, Ramiro was probably an early riser and we were going to go with him to his gold mine in the morning. But I felt uneasy. It wasn't any one thing, like the scorpions and giant roaches in Monse's bathroom, or poor dirt smeared Tolo, or the animal intestines brushing the top of my head in the kitchen. It was three days of the constant presence of the not-quite-clean, the not-quite-healthy, the funny smelling. I closed my eyes. I seemed to see a huge mass of fat bugs. Roaches, millipedes covered with large yellow scales and curling like elephant trunks. I opened my eyes and they went away. Now this is silly, I thought. These people are actually quite clean in their own way. Ramiro and Trini wouldn't let me walk on the dirt floor of their house, where the chickens walked and Tolo writhed and whined, in my stocking feet. They know what tetanus is.
These thoughts had no effect on me. My problem was not medical, I thought, but metaphysical. Those bowels are symbolic, that's what it is. All life floats along on a sea of dung, guts, bugs, and slime. The earth under our feet swarms with living things which are happily converting dead things into new life. Actually, it's not a sea at all. The neat part of life rests on the rock solid foundation, you might say, of the messy part. In Wisconsin, we have taken great pains to be aware of the neat part only. Life only shows its dark and odoriferous under parts when the sewer overflows. Otherwise, the sewers are safely underground. Here the sewer, if you can call it that, is right on the surface, under a tree out back of the house. What do you do with your revulsion when you are in a place where they haven't the money to bury the sewers, exterminate the more visible bugs, throw out the guts instead of eating them?
You could call this "the slime problem," I thought. Your revulsion is a rejection of the very conditions of life. If you are healthy, you love life and affirm its goodness. But if you love one thing you are caught up in the great system of all those other things which it absolutely requires. You cannot love life and wish she had no intestines. If you value your life, you must affirm the goodness of the foundations, you must overcome your disgust.
I closed my eyes again. I saw insect mandibles and pincers working. A scorpion stinger, curved like a fishhook, darted at me. I noticed Diego was snoring.
When I entered Mexico with Nat, my hope was to make a major trek into the pagan Tarahumara outback with a paid guide to lead us to interesting spots, introduce us to the Indians, and keep us alive. If possible, I would have loved to visit Pajarito, Bernabé's settlement. He had invited me to come to his village back in 1989, and I was sure that if I brought some kórima (gifts) I would be welcome to stay for a short visit. It turned out that Ramiro and Trini's son, Reyes, would have been a perfect guide for a trip like this. Of all their eight children (or seven, if you don't count Tolo), Reyes is the only one that takes after Ramiro. The others are pursuing a variety of different careers in places as far away as Denver Colorado. Reyes recently built a little house for his family next to Ramiro's adobes, and he does basically what Ramiro did when he was still able to be out in the back country: buying high-quality artifacts from the Tarahumaras and selling them to retailers in Batopilas and Creel, and serving as a guide for (admittedly extremely rare) tourist visitors to Satebó. Sadly, we no longer had the money to pay for such a service.
When I arrived in Batopilas for the second time, early1989, Diego was still living there and pursuing his anthropological research, but for the moment he was was gone on a long hunting trip with a group of mestizos and pagan Tarahumaras. I had rested at Monse's for a couple of days when he and the hunting party finally arrived. Thanks in part to the Tarahumara's familiarity with the wild backcountry, the group had performed the almost miraculous feat of killing a deer. (Deer are rare in Mexico, as is any wildlife species that can be eaten.) The mestizos kept the meat of the deer for themselves, and gave the head and the internal organs to the shy and accommodating Tarahumaras. (You haven't begun to experience Mexico until you have seen some truly heartless racism.) When dinner time came around, Diego and I brought the whole Tarahumara part of the hunting party to Micaela's, including the judge and medicine man Bernabé, his older brother Lázaro, and several others. Together with the one European couple already seated at Micaela's single table, we pretty well filled the place up. I would have loved to see that servant woman's face when filed in, but she apparently was no longer working there. Bernabé and some of the other Indians spoke no Spanish (and, it goes without saying, no English) and since I knew no Rarámuri (the language of the Tarahumaras) I had to content myself with speaking to the few who could understand me. After a while, Bernabé turned to Diego and said: "I can understand everything this man," pointing to me, "is saying." Actually, I don't doubt this is true. Like a lot of people, I use every expressive resource at my disposal when I am trying to break through a language barrier. In addition, the topics on which I was commenting might have been guessed at from context. But Bernabé had something more profound in mind. He was convinced that I am some special sort of person, perhaps with untapped powers that could make a good medicine man if they were ever developed. Immediately he invited me, through Diego as an interpreter, to come to Pajarito, his village in the mountains. If I do come, he said, he would give me one of these, indicating a tiny object he handed to me. It was tiny and round, rock hard, and covered with extremely fine, short fur. Diego asked if I could guess what it was. "Well, it's part of a small animal ... is it an ear?" Again, Bernabé was impressed. It was actually the cheek pouch of a gopher, turned inside out and stuffed with magical or medicinal herbs. Since, cheek pouches are lined with fur, an everted one would naturally have fur on the outside. Since cheek pouches are close to the ears, he figured my answer was almost true. "Very powerful against snake bites," he assured me, "do they have rattlesnakes in your country?" "Well, yes, we do." Wisconsin has several species of rattlers, all quite rare. "That would be wonderful, I could really use one of these," I lied. Actually, I would have loved to go there and learn more about him, a man who functions as a judge in a region with no legislature, no written laws, and in effect no state. Alas, I was returning to the U. S. by plane and my flight times didn't permit such a long journey. Diego and I walked instead to the mountain village of Cuervito, where we visited overnight with some relatives of Bernabé, and then I flew home. ¡Hasta luego, México!
Reyes took pity on our poverty and graciously spent part of a day taking us to visit a couple of Tarahumara families who lived near the road, further downstream. The new Satebó road doesn't stop at the village, but follows Rio Batopilas some miles further into the wilderness, getting bumpier and rockier, until it comes to a small bridge, which Reyes described as "bad." As Reyes and Nat and I came to the bridge in my ailing Jeep, I hurried over it and parked at a trailhead down the road. Walking a few hundred meters down into the valley, we came upon an old Tarahumara man planting corn and a very young girl who was patiently watching him. It was late morning (at least, by Tarahumara standards) and all the strong members of his family were at cornfields higher in the mountains. The very young and the very old were closer to camp, doing lighter work or, as in the case of the little girl (whose name I never did get), just observing.
The man was Vitoriano, an old friend and trading partner of both Ramiro and Reyes. The agricultural technology he was using that day was even more primitive than the wood-peg ploughs the Tarahumaras often employ in the larger planting fields. He would simply punch a hole in the ground with a long pointed metal rod and work the rod around in a circle to loosen up the soil a bit, creating a little more drainage and areation. Then he would take a single piece of seed corn from the white pouch around his waist and throw it hard, and with amazing accuracy, into that little hole. Then he would go on to make the next hole. We gave them some clothing I had brought from the states como kórima (as a gift).
Walking further downhill, and closer to the river, brought us to a cave occupied by the family of Chémele. One of the things the Tarahumaras are famous for is the fact that a fair number of them live in caves (the number being limited only by the supply of caves, which is of course not enormous). The great nineteenth century explorer Karl Lumholtz called them "the modern troglodytes." Most Tarahumara caves though are simply concavities in the rock or, like this one, a space under an enormous boulder. Just enough overhang to protect against the rain, that's all they need. In fact, like most other backcountry Tarahumaras, the ones who are cave dwellers really live outdoors. We left some clothing como kórima, and took a few pictures.
In a sort of workshop area behind the cave, we could see Tarahumara pottery, hand made reed mats, and, for storage, an empty Kellogg's Corn Flakes carton. Inside the cave was a hand carved toy car (apparently still under construction, as it lacked one wheel). Is this an early consequence of the new road going right past their house? Until recently, these people would very, very seldom have seen a car, and the children might never have seen one.
Despite Reyes' assurances that we were not breaching etiquette (hard to believe in light of the famous Tarahumara love of privacy) I felt guilty about being in Chémele's home sin permiso. Fortunately, as we drove back to Satebó, we met him on the road and told him of our visit to his house and the kórima we had left. He was walking to Satebó with a load of firewood, which he intended to trade with the mestizos for salt. Country folks have wood but lack salt, and village folks have salt but don't have so much wood. (This, by the way, makes it a classic trade relationship: trade brings people together on the basis of their differences, unlike love and friendship, which tend to be based on similarities. Thus trade teaches us to value differences and be glad that there are people who stand in contrast to ourselves, a thing that love and friendship cannot do.)
The day before we left Satebó, I was sitting Ramiro's house nursing a dislocated ankle. (After driving back to Wisconsin, I had it X-rayed and found that my leg was actually fractured in three different places.) Ramiro came into the room with a very old pagan Tarahumara who introduced himself as "un gran amigo de Diego." He was nearly blind and spoke in a whisper that was hard to understand, though his Spanish was fairly good. I eventually asked him how old he was. "Almost a hundred: eighty eight," he said. I asked him how his journey over the mountains to Satebó had been, and he said "very slow," and imitated the shuffling gait of someone who is feeling the path with his feet. With a little more questioning I realized with a shock that I had met him long ago, during my 1989 visit to Satebó. He was Lázaro, the brother of the judge and medicine man Bernabé, whom I had hoped I would be able to visit in Pajarito.
I asked him why he, nearly blind and alone, was walking over the mountains to Satebó. The story of Lázaro's journey was a sad one. There is, he said, no food left in Pajarito, neither corn nor squash (the only two foods that are normally on hand in the pagan kitchen). There was a drought, at least as serious as the one that was in effect during my first visit to this area; with this one, Ramiro had already lost a quarter of his cattle (his herd was now forty strong - tiny even by Mexican standards). Lázaro was coming in search of food for the village. "Are you buying it or just asking?" I said. "Just asking." (I should note that he added a clarifying remark that it isn't literally true that there is no food in Pajarito at all: starvation doesn't work in such a clear cut way. For a long time, everyone's share of food gets smaller and smaller. Also, as food gets scarce, it is more unequally distributed: children get bigger and bigger shares as compared to everyone else, because children die more easily than others do. By the time there is literally not a crumb left, a good part of the village would be dead.)
I nervously dug through our dwindling supply of pesos. There was a real problem about being able to get home with what we had. I pulled out a two hundred peso note (at that time about $20) and asked him how much corn you could buy with that. "About one kilo," he said, not sounding impressed. "Yikes!" I thought, "why is corn so ridiculously expensive? This economy must be on the verge of collapse!" I gave him my new camp knife and asked if he could trade that for a little more corn. He said he thought he could. I also gave him all of my AA batteries - very valuable in a place that, like Satebó, has no AC electricity. He thought he could trade that as well. Later, Trini said that Lázaro was confused (loco was the word she used) about the corn-buying power of two hundred pesos. "With one hundred, he can buy one costal of corn" - a costal being a bag the approximate size of a strapping ten year old boy. My two hundred peso note, she said, was enough to feed all of Pajarito (with a population that has recently shrunk to six people) until next winter. "Son of a bitch!" I said "I gave that guy all my batteries and my knife!" Trini thought that was pretty funny. "Gee," I said, "I wonder what will happen when he tries to buy one kilo of corn with that money?" "Oh, they might be glad to sell him one kilo for two hundred." So that is Mexico. The ridiculous, inside the horrible, wrapped in the beautiful. After all, an enigma.
The trip home was not one of the fun parts of our Mexican journey. In a hurry to get access to the vast resources of the American health care system we drove from Creel to Texas (with one stop at a hospital and three more for car repairs) in one day, and after three more we arrived in Wisconsin. All the way, I was working the clutch of my wheezing Jeep with a broken leg. There were sights to see along the way, but we just flew past them. Sorry, America! No time! And thank you Mexico! ¡Hasta luego otra vez!