We were visiting friends we had met in a small church in the inner city of Jacksonville. Chuck H. had been a tail-gunner in ‘Nam, and his wife was the sweetest Valdosta peach in Georgia. Both had Jawja accents thick enough to grill for 10 minutes and still leave the insides of their words all soft and warm. Chuck and MaryNell and their five children regaled and reeled us into their world of the Huastecan jungle. We couldn’t help but follow. All the way to Tamazunchale, Mexico.
With our 6 year old son in tow, we loaded up the old Corolla and made the 1,700 mile journey to visit our friends and learn to love what they loved. Arriving there, we were greeted by Virginia, their maid, who was, if possible, the very, very southern version of a Georgia peach. So demure and in charge and wonderful was she! So Aztec were her origins that to make her stoic heart laugh became an obsession with Chuck and MaryNell. In the safety of their home, Virginia learned to laugh much and tell wry jokes. As far as we knew…
My “See It and Say It in Spanish” book saw me through that wonderful week. I already had a proclivity for language and the connections of thought and sound, so it was that by the end of the week, I could listen to simple conversations and not miss too much.
We marveled at the large “little town” on the side of tropical mountains dotted with orange trees and banked by a good-sized river. The temperature was easily 110 degrees on a summer day, with humidity to match. The local tianguis, or market day, was not to be missed. My first taste of Canteloupe-Ade on that hot afternoon was a slaking sensation never to be forgotten!
Later, we accompanied Chuck on an evening excursion out into the jungle, to visit with friends in a small village. They wanted to hear him preach to their little congregation. After driving for almost 90 minutes over treacherous roads disguised as goat paths, we crossed a stream and parked the Bronco. From there, it was another hour long hike on the side of the mountain, through pastures of cows and Brahma bulls, past banana trees and naranjos, into the almost invisible village that consisted of thatch-roof huts, serious men, silent women, grinning little kids, and small animals.
We were welcomed, all along our hike, by one traveler or another, with the strangest touching of the hands… a fingertip handshake. It seemed so strange and uninvolved to greet another this way, and yet it was the stoic way of the ancient indigenous DNA there. So by the time we arrived in the village, we were almost “old hands” at this new greeting. We were ushered into one of the low, dark huts of earthen floor and neat appointments of rough-hewn stools.
The closeness of the hut’s air, and the heaving lungs of the hikers all made for a sauna atmosphere of painful heat and sweat. From somewhere, a rather elegant offering of sweet, hot coffee in a plain cup was produced. I would have killed for an ice cold Coke at that moment and thought for sure the coffee would do me in, but within five minutes I felt refreshed and cool as a cucumber. I made a quick mental note of that heat-stroke cure for later.
We stayed for the church service and heard our friend, his rich Southern drawl not lost within his Spanish, speak plainly to these lovely folks whose native tongue was actually Nauhautl. He had a smile that was as genuine as a puppy, and a love that could not be feigned or faked in front of so honest a group of human flesh. I try to remember sometimes, that moment of completely human, and yet transcendent connection that I felt with both the man whom we admired and the people he would move heaven and earth for. A Real reality exists, not just because we think so, but because we can love so.
If any redemption is available for those who can at least appreciate such a moment, I hope that that salvation will extend to my penury of spirit when I need it most.
We said our goodbyes at midnight and ventured out into the massive, non-electric darkness of primeval night. Moonless, marvelous–lit only by stars–our path regressed through the orange-tree pastures. I was slipping along the rain-soaked path in my flip-flops now laden with clay globs, struggling with a long skirt and breathing out fearful blessings on the various Brahma beasts that greeted us out of the darkness with their shiny noses and great, horned heads. A more imposing and unsettling sight you can’t imagine! Especially within the shock of your immense vulnerability. It was better to not think too much as I walked along.
A bumpy return to Tamazunchale, a sleepy tumble into humid sheets, the deadened sleep of exhaustion seemed an insufficient respite from the day’s grueling journey. Too soon we were awakened by the clanging of the ice factory next door, the crowing of every rooster in town, the joy of children scrambling about. They bothered Virginia for tortillas and scrambled eggs and canteloupe and made her laugh at their American exuberance.
Our week quickly evaporated into the mysterious jungle atmosphere, and we three headed home with bright eyes and excited chatter. But the memories and friendships made there would take us much further, and we knew it even then. We had, after all, already picked out a place to live in that peaceful valley just off Carreterra 57…
Alas, it wasn’t to be.
The sleepy town of Mexico City and 20 million of our closest friends awaited us.