If you haven't yet read Part I in Chapter 69, we suggest you do so. This part is kind of a continuation of what was said there.
A few months ago, I got an email from Paul and Juanita Alton, relating their very interesting experiences RVing from their home in Canada to a mission in Mexico. After reading Paul's vivid and detailed monologue of their maiden RV voyage, I emailed him back and told him that I'd be really excited to be able to send this along to those who read my Travel Log. Here's the story ----
Chapter 69 included a section "Canada to Mexico" on their trip down, and a second section "Into Mexico" that takes you to Oaxaca, Mexico. The chapter below tells of some of their "adventures" while in Mexico. They're now (April 2006) in Big Sandy, Texas, doing some more mission work, so we'll add updates to this adventure as they get them written.
Hierve De Aqua
These mineral (not ‘hot’) springs are a short but, at times, intense drive to the South of Mitla. There is a truly terrifying way there and back straight up a mountain, but the more normal route is over paved roads most of the way. You have to watch closely for signs and may have to wait for goats on the road and pay the odd “toll” to villagers who have strung a chain across the road, but the drive and walk to these mineral pools and “waterfalls” of solidified minerals is worth it.
From e-mail to friend: “I can't believe the three months here are almost up. Tomorrow we drive a team's luggage to the airport (they all fit in the van - but their luggage doesn't and since we were going into Oaxaca anyway I volunteered so the van driver wouldn't need to drag a trailer along behind the van) and then we go to Abastos market to look for a mother-of-the-bride dress. We plan to leave Sunday (less truck traffic) over a narrow winding mountain road that goes from 5300 feet then up and down to 200 feet above sea level. That will take us to the Isthmus and we plan to spent two nights there in Tehuantepec with the second day going just with the truck to the Pacific beaches at Huatulco. Tuesday we plan to drive almost to the Caribbean side of the Isthmus and then up into the jungle to spend a few days at the Mayan ruins at Palenque before doing a drive a day rest a day back to the States on our way to the project starting March 6th in Big Sandy, Texas. We need to be there by March 4th.”
Paul & Juanita
TO BE CONTINUED ...
In our three months at the home we kept busy with helping with physical needs and took our turns at morning devotions. A few things got wired and welded and repaired and cooked. We did some touring around and I’ll write about that disproportionately to the day-here and day-there invested, but it is more interesting to write (and, hopefully, read) about.
The map on the right shows the route from the border down to Oaxaca, Mexico. It's the same map that was included in the second section of Chapter 69. It's here just to remind you of the area that's being discussed.
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Night of the Radishes
December 23 is the night of the Radishes in the zocalo, or town square, of Oaxaca, Oaxaca. You can find lots of information and pictures on the web, and if you are in the area on that date you should see it at least once. Otherwise you will not have a feel for all the things that can be carved from radishes. Expect to stand in line to get walk past right next to the radishes, or be willing to bob your head and camera around a bit to see past those who stood in line.
You can read about the ruins at Mitla in guide books, etc. They have some friezes that are unique and it is interesting to consider the layout of the valley and Mitla’s historical role. There is lots of tour bus parking and many vendors, especially of clothing. It was an neat experience to walk out to the highway and flag down a bus to get there the first time we went. Buses tend to come in all shapes and sizes and you can’t tell which goes where until it is past you so you flag them all down until you get the right one. We ended up going there on an older highway type bus with velvet curtains. In the seat in front of us was somebody going to a wedding in Mitla. They were all dressed up and carrying a wrapped wedding gift. Coming back we caught a van which only had one space so somebody got off to make room for us and told his son he would be along in a while. Most times we drove to Mitla for clothes shopping. Seeing the ruins once was enough for me.
Yagul (below left and center photos)
I personally liked the Yagul ruins, between Mitla and Tlacolula a great deal. They are not grand like Monte Alban, but they are not crowded. We saw one other couple and a single in our time wandering around the ruins and climbing up to the citadel to see the view and the princess’s bathtub carved into the rock. In the shot below you can see our red truck as the only vehicle in the parking lot.
Monte Alban (below right photo)
Lots of guide books and other information available on these extensive ruins on a mountain overlooking Oaxaca. A must see.
A Roadside Restaurant
This little work-in-progress ferrocement extravaganza of a restaurant served a delicious three course lunch for three complete with beverages for about eleven US dollars. The appetizers were cacahuates (peanuts) and chapulines (roasted grasshoppers) with lime on the side. All was delicious, including the more conventional salad, veggies, tortillas and barbequed meat.
The “Pizza Hut”
The group from Georgia installed the major pieces of kitchen equipment to a point of functionality. After they left the work carried on to tie up the loose ends. This included some piping for the dishwasher, building a frame around the walk-in cooler and freezer and doing some ceiling tile work and a number of other minor items. One of those projects was to close in the pizza ovens. There were two pizza ovens installed, one on top of the other with the fronts even with the inside of the kitchen wall and the backs sticking outside. This kept the heat out of the kitchen and was okay from November until March, but would be a problem once the rainy season came. When Becky and Nick were down for Christmas we spent most of the time with them visiting and touring, but one day just before they left they built an angle iron frame for a cover over the ovens. After they left I carried on, making a few mods and finished it. The welding wasn’t as good as Nick’s but it was good enough. After it was welded Jesse, from Calgary, painted it and then I bolted it in place. When Carl, from Summerland, was down he and I put on roofing and cladding and painted it. This was typical of a lot of things that happen with people passing through – they do what they can and then the next person comes by and carries on.
An Outreach Trip to the Mountains
As I wrote to my daughter “The outreach trip was great. Hard work, but gratifying. Not as many fleas as expected.” The trip was organized for a group from a church in Ottawa, who came to Oaxaca for a two week mission trip. They had supplied the funds for several works and this two day trip was one of them.
At the left is a map of the state of Oaxaca. Each color represents a distinct indigenous language group, e.g. Zapoteca. Each bubble is a dialect within that group that may be distinct enough that communication is limited or impossible.
The village is seventeen miles as the crow flies from our base, but a three plus hour drive. You go south on paved roads until where we previously had turned off to the Hierve del Aqua mineral springs. No turn this time ,but today we keep going down into the valley on paved road until time to start doubling back on dirt roads on cliff faces and over mountains and down through valleys and across streams.
I started out riding in the back of the van, but started getting sick. Somebody gave me a Gravol pill (Canadian nurses on board – American nurses would have given me Dramamine - same thing) and a plastic bag. I clutched to my plastic bag, but thankfully didn't need it. After a while I got to trade places with somebody in an SUV and ride the rest of the way in the front seat of that.
Breakfast had been a little rushed so I had eaten a couple of pieces of Canela (cinnamon) flavored Oaxacan chocolate before leaving on the trip. It didn't help things. Recently, since leaving Mexico, I discovered half a bar in the fridge and ate a small piece. I could barely keep it down. I asked Juanita if she was able to eat it and said if not we might as well throw it out. She ate it over the next few days.
The country is rugged without too many towns that you go through, but you often are driving through corn fields in the middle of nowhere. Most of the "fields" are close to vertical and there are stories of people falling to their deaths planting, cultivating or harvesting their corn crop.
Once we got to our destination, Santa Catarina, halfway up a mountain, we dropped our personal gear off at our hosts' house and got set up at the missionary's house. This was a house that somebody had loaned to the missionary. She had been working with the group for a couple of years and now had reached the level of acceptance in the village that she was allowed to live there and not just travel there from Oaxaca. She had recently married to a Guatemalan and shortly after we had met them then had to leave to go to Guatemala to renew his Mexican visa, but it did put a couple of faces to the work we were doing.
The nurses set up a drop-in clinic at the hosts' and we got to work building the ecological latrine and putting a floor in the missionary's house. People had been living in that one room adobe abode for years, but the floor was dirt and there was no outhouse (what are fields for, anyway?). Some of the crew emptied the house and raked and leveled the dirt.
Others dug a trench for the latrine foundation and then carried stones down to fill it and mixed cement to cover the stones and then mixed mortar to lay blocks on the footings.
The ecological latrine has two compartments for the solids. One compartment is used for six months or more if it takes longer to fill and then the ecological toilet is moved to sit over the other compartment which is filled while the material in the first decomposes. The toilet is designed to separate liquid and solid wastes. The liquid is piped to a seep pit which we dug and filled with large rocks and covered with mesh and then dirt.
While we were working there was an old man collecting burro and horse manure and sifting it before putting the sifted material in sacks. That evening I noticed him running one of the corner stores that open at odd hours. The next day I watched him mix the dung, plus dirt and water by walking through the pile until it was thoroughly mixed. He then took handfuls of this wet mixture and slapped into a mold in such a way as to avoid air pockets, screened the mold and lifted it off, leaving the bricks to dry in the sun. He joined us for lunch with his pant legs and sleeves still rolled up. He had washed, but there were still high water (or whatever) marks on his limbs. I didn't ask him to pass me anything.
After an evening of fellowship and food we retired for the night. All the women slept in one room upstairs and most of the men slept in another. A couple of men slept downstairs in the area where the clinic had been held. There were fewer fleas upstairs and far fewer fleas overall than we had expected. Flea season must have been coming to a close. I had my sleeping bag a quilt spread on the concrete as a mattress. In addition to the firm "bed" sleeping was not aided by music and announcements from the town loudspeaker. I think they were in Zapoteca since I didn't understand much of them and I generally can follow the gist of Spanish even if not provide a precise word for word translation.
The roosters, of course, were active early as well as the town broadcast center. After breakfast we went down to the missionary's house and started work where we had left off the day before. I helped mix and spread mortar for parging inside and outside the latrine compartments. There were three local men who came by and helped mix concrete for the floor.
Mixing concrete Mexican style is pile the ingredients (so many sacks of sand, rock and cement) in a big mound,then dry mix by hand using shovels and then start adding water and wet mix it. The locals were better at it than any of us, but they were only there for an hour before they had to go off on a community roadwork project. Then Matt and Ian did most of the mixing. Matt was feeling pretty sick, but he worked like a Trojan. I helped a few times as did a few of the team from Ottawa, including one of the women, but most of the team was not up to the sustained physical effort required. Ian was talking afterward of getting a smallish electric concrete mixer that could be brought along for future projects.
We had brought Pablo and Moises along with us from base, but they mostly laid block and did parging. They helped with the house floor when the latrine was done and then poured a new floor in a wash house (about five foot by five foot brick building that you stand in and pour water over yourself in after you have soaped up) when the house floor was done. Somebody had laid in a supply of sand and egg and smaller sized rocks before we arrived. That wasn't enough so team members took the truck down the mountain to the river in the valley bottom and filled sacks with sand and rock. The old man and woman who owned the house also scavenged rocks from the road up the side of the mountain, but none of us Norte Americanos wanted to get involved with liberating rock from public roads.
During the day the two nurses held a couple of drop-in clinics and they and the other women went to the local school and did some skits and handed out some stuff they had brought. It was said to have been well received. The home we were staying at belonged to some people who had become Christians in recent years. Oaxaca has many communities in the mountains that speak distinct local dialects that may be understood by only a few villages and may be the primary language of most residents. Schools tend to be taught in Spanish, but life is conducted in the local dialect. Even though Spanish is the language at school is not uncommon for school to be too expensive to attend for more than a couple of years if at all.
Basically villages are run as closed shops under the control of the local "presidente". Even state and federal officials step somewhat lightly in some areas. Missionaries cannot just come in and start doing things. They need to visit, make friends, make converts and take years before the community trusts them and values them enough to allow then to live in the village or do any works for the village. In advance of a outreach to build an ecological latrine at a school in a town in Chiapas the local missionary had to convince the local authority that they wanted to meet with her and that it was a good idea that the school should get a latrine and that the team shouldn't build latrines for the officials first or at all.
During the morning we poured the floor for the latrine. It was poured on plywood sized to come out through the clean out doors after the concrete cured and the temporary supports were removed. In the afternoon the team cleared the area uphill from the latrine, paved a path to the latrine with stones, and dug a seep pit and ran the hoses to it. The four walls and roof had been prefabbed back at base out of corrugated metal on a lumber frame and been brought with us in the trailer behind the van. They went up relatively quickly and the latrine was done.
A missionary from Oaxaca would come out in a week to remove the forms and the section of buckets we had formed the toilet holes with. This missionary is a civil engineer who has been working as a missionary in Mexico for the last seventeen years. He supervised us in the latrine construction and worked alongside us, working as hard as anybody. This, despite having had a kidney transplant back in the States two years ago. He is a ghastly color, eats a couple of handfuls of varihued pills a day, but doesn't seem to make any concession to his condition.
After we finished our projects as much as we could we filled the trailer with our tools and piled into the van and headed down and across the valley. The last rays of the sun for the day were just hitting the village when we got halfway up the valley so much of our drive was in dark as we shared the sandwiches the women had made at lunchtime and the roasted pumpkin seeds one of our hostesses had handed as we got into the van.
The village is only a couple of hundred feet higher than Tlacolula's 5,300 feet but the road between them goes much higher. We had wanted to see how high the road went to get over the highest pass, and I was annoyed with myself when I realized I had packed my GPS monitor in my pack in the trailer we were towing. To my even greater annoyance I found it had been my jacket pocket all along and we could have solved the mystery.
We arrived back at base after ten, unloaded the van and went to our separate quarters. Juanita had left a garbage bag to undress in with a note to go upstairs in the visitors' center to shower, but I hadn't noticed any fleas so I showered in our rig. Found a couple of dead fleas in the following week, but never had any flea bites on that trip or afterward. Neither did we find any other fleas. I did get a number of bites on my arms around my elbows from no-see-um's but they eventfully cleared up.
A few times I had filled in driving a van load of kids to school when somebody was away on an outreach trip to Chiapas, but after Christmas break I drove a van load of kids to school each morning. The kids are well behaved, and even help by noticing the traffic signal turn arrow if I fail to (“Hermano Pablo! La Fleche!”), but the job is not without its moments.
The drivers usually have a co-pilot: One of the Mexican staff, usually a house mother. Some of them have been taking driving lessons with one of the American volunteer workers who was a professional driving instructor. One day, after dropping the kids off the co-pilot asked if she could drive. I deferred since I wasn't feeling well and don't like riding as a passenger if I am not feeling well. I asked her instructor about it and he said she was doing pretty well and it shouldn't be a problem.
The next time she was co-pilot I suggested she drive home. Well, everybody and his dog drops their kids off at school. The street is one-way with barely enough room for a full sized van when there are cars parked on both sides. I had parked fairly close to a tope (a large speed bump that runs across the street - everybody ignores speed limit signs, but nobody ignores topes). The wheels weren't quite straight when she hit the tope and she was going too slow to go over it until she applied more gas and then once she got over the tope she didn't have the experience to straighten her wheels in time before hitting a Datsun truck and pushing it over at about a fifteen degree angle. We changed seats and I backed off and took a look at the truck. It had a steel framed flat deck so there was just a little bit of white paint on the red frame - "no problema" said the owner. The van had a few dents on that side already and the parking light / turn signal assembly is held in place kinda okay with the duct tape and silicone caulk.
A couple of other comments on the town/city driving situation. I have been told by several, credible people that there is no license examination system in Mexico. You just go and pay for a license when you think you are ready for it. If you want to upgrade to truck or bus driver you go and pay your fee (said to be five bucks/ fifty pesos) and get your upgrade. I don’t know if that is true, but would explain some things I have seen. That said, there is the elegance and grace of a crowded dance floor to town and city driving that seems to account for the apparent chaos with relatively few fender benders (the plummeting off cliffs of highway driving is another matter entirely). Smerging ( as “the People’s Guide” calls it) where three or more lanes become one usually happens with surprisingly little fuss. As you drive through town and meet oncoming traffic and obstructions (stopped pedicabs, trucks, cement telephone poles two feet out from the sidewalk) that render the road one-way-at-a-time you get to know when it is your turn or the other guy’s and he waits his turn or you wait your turn accordingly. Cities are a little less relaxed and a bit more rude, but then cities are aren’t they? Buses are big enough that who am I to disagree if they want to turn left across two lanes of traffic even if I’m in one those lanes?
The driving for errands and touring and school runs reduced the trauma of driving in Mexico. Sort of like “sacking” a skittish horse – you tie it up and wave a sack in its face until it ceases to react. It might take a few days, but seems to work most times. By the time we left Oaxaca I seemed emotionally ready to do the drive. It was still, at times, stressful, but not traumatic in the same way I remember the trip down. This may be partly because we allowed more time for each segment and partly because we were willing to camp in a Pemex parking lot if we had to to quit at a reasonable time, but mostly it was experience and getting used to driving in Mexico.
My Travel Log
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71. From Canada to Mexico ... and Back - Part II