Author Topic: Beyond the Wall – Part Two  (Read 994 times)

indiekid

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Beyond the Wall – Part Two
« on: April 12, 2024, 07:51:55 PM »
Beyond the Wall – Part Two
By rbuxton


Editor's Note: This is the second part of a two part article. You can read part one here.


Arturo’s Quest


Timmo on his horse.
I’m pleased to report that hitch-hiking has made a comeback, albeit with a 21st Century twist. Unlike other ride-hailing apps, BlaBlaCar genuinely links people driving long distances with potential passengers, and Mexico is the only country outside Europe where it’s available. I had been nervous about using it because of my weak Spanish but all of the drivers I met turned out to speak English. My first ride, and the first stage of my journey towards Parícutin, took me south from León to Morelia. Arturo had recommended I visit the city but cautioned that its state, Michoacán, is the capital of drug-related crime in Mexico. Drug-related, however, is not tourist-related, and I felt perfectly safe for my whole visit. In Morelia I visited a museum dedicated to sweet-making and the house of yet another revolutionary leader, Miguel Hidalgo. On Sunday I plucked up the courage to attend mass in the cathedral, where the 4000 pipes of its organ were put to good use. The towers of the cathedral have a bewildering array of features: they took so long to build that their tops were finished in a completely different architectural style to their bases. Inside I was touched by the little shrine to Santa Niño de Atocha, a child saint who is given offerings of toys when children are in need of his care.

My bus ride from Morelia to Patzcuaro was not altogether smooth. I followed the journey on Google Maps until we got to the northern outskirts of the town. I asked the driver if the stop was close and he nodded and said “Estación”. The next stop appeared to be the middle of nowhere so I didn’t get off, only to find us whizzing out of Patzcuaro the next instant (the town is very narrow in the north). I had assumed the driver’s answer meant we were heading towards a “bus station”, but they don’t use that phrase in Mexico and he was actually referring to the small, freight-only train station hidden beyond the trees at the stop. I decided to stay on the bus as far as the next town, where I might be able to get off and make some enquiries about tours to Parícutin. The journey through pine-covered hills was long, and in the end I just hopped on a bus back, this time to the centre of Patzcuaro.

Patzcuaro is a lakeside Pueblo Mágico (magic town) full of low, whitewashed colonial buildings with red signs and eccentric tiled rooves. It’s also the capital of Day of the Dead celebrations, but I was there at the wrong time for those. I stayed in a hostel in a traditional building just off one of the main squares, which had an inner courtyard and colourful streamers hanging everywhere. I climbed several hills (actually extinct volcanoes) to get views of the town and lake. There were cobbled streets and old buildings aplenty to explore. I went to a craft fair organised by a Canadian artist where I tried my hand at weaving on a huge, pedal-operated loom. One morning I stumbled upon a parade in honour of one of the saints. A lot of people were in traditional costume, which included long ribbons tied into women’s pigtails. I couldn’t stay for the whole thing because I was due to watch the Eurovision song contest remotely with some friends back in the UK.

I took a number of trips out of Patzcuaro by collectivo (shared minibus). I went further into the mountains to Santa Clara del Cobre, a centre for copper working. I also visited Tzintzuntzan, a name which means “Place of the Hummingbirds” and is often abbreviated, conveniently, to TZN. It is a unique ancient site overlooking Lake Patzcuaro, dominated by a series of connected semi-circular platforms. Historically it was one of the few cities strong enough to resist domination by the Aztec Triple Alliance during their heyday. I actually saw more hummingbirds at Ihuatzio where a pair of temples look over the islands of the lake, their bases encroached upon by farmland.

My biggest trip out of Patzcuaro, however, was to Janitzio Island. I got up at 5 am and made my way through the cold and mist (the town is more than 2000 meters above sea level) to watch the white herons and other birds of the lake in the dawn light. The first boats from Janitzio began to arrive, disgorging secondary school students and loading up on crates of beer. I took one of these boats with the rest of the morning’s tourists and we were treated to a display of the traditional fishing technique, which involved what I’d call a giant butterfly net. The steep-sided island was crammed with buildings: there is an entire town there, where the indigenous Purépecha culture is still very much alive. It seems odd, therefore, that the island is dominated by a giant hollow statue of Hidalgo, a champion of Mexico as a whole. I did some more birdwatching and spotted a number of butterflies and a snake. Then I followed the main (only) road as it spiralled up towards the statue. On the way I met an old woman, Carolina, sweeping her doorstep. She was wearing traditional clothing and was missing a lot of teeth. I told her I was from England and I wanted to visit Guatemala and El Salvador; she described all of these places as “far”. Otherwise the conversation was mostly about whether I was married, though after a few repetitions of “Dinero para mis tortillas” I realised she was asking for money. I felt I had to oblige her but I couldn’t bring myself to ask her for a photo – this is not really appropriate any more.

I was sorry to leave Patzcuaro and its lake but I had to get on to Uruapan. The city is not particularly interesting but I was lucky to bump into yet another parade when I arrived. A short walk from the centre is the Parque Nacional Barranca del Cupatitzio, which follows several waterfalls of the Cupatitzio river to the beautifully calm pool at its source. The valley is densely wooded and the water has been diverted into all manner of channels and “fountains”. I spent a happy morning birdwatching and trying to remember what my dad had taught me about the relationship between shutter speed and running water when aiming for specific effects on my compact camera. I still had not found out much about Parícutin: there was frustratingly little information online and Uruapan’s wooden “tourist information” box remained so firmly shut during my visit that I began to suspect it was really someone’s TARDIS. I decided to go there a day early for some reconnaissance and took a collectivo to Angahuán. I walked past the small town’s church to the viewpoint and there it was at last: Parícutin.

The story goes that in 1943 a farmer named Dionisio Pulido noticed a hole appearing in his cornfield and attempted to plug it with stones. He was soon repelled by the ash, smoke and sulfurous smell emerging from the widening fissure. By the end of the day the nascent volcano was two meters high; after one year it was closer to four hundred. Three people were killed and two towns buried by lava over ten years of intense eruption; the volcano is still active but much calmer today. It stands as a squat, unfinished cone, dark against the surrounding mountains; black lava fields stretch from its base into the avocado plantations below. I had been determined to get to the top since Arturo first told me the story, and I appreciated that, at 80 years old, the volcano proves my grandmother is “as old as the hills”.

My guide for the day was a local man named Timmo, who recommended I ride one of his horses to Parícutin’s base. Horses are a popular means of transport through the pine-clad hills of the area because the roads are so soft with sand and ash. I had read, however, that the journey is extremely uncomfortable for those unaccustomed to the saddle, so we set out on foot. I sorely missed the walking boots I had left in the UK. Timmo set a brisk pace and we quickly cleared the forest and started grappling with the crumbling, otherworldly sculptures of the lava field. A few plants had taken root on the volcano but for the most part it was a steep, dark heap of loose stones, sending occasional plumes of steam into the grey sky. The crater itself was spectacular if a little smelly. There was nothing interesting at the bottom, just the end of several scree slopes, but the views out were spectacular. I appreciated Timmo’s pace then, because the day’s first peels of thunder came very close just as we were preparing to descend.

We slid down a softer slope (skis would have been useful) and took shelter in a small building used by the guides. Rain was pelting down and it had mixed with the ash to form a sticky paste in my shoes – it would be many months before they regained their normal colour. Timmo dug around for plastic bags and bin liners to fashion some waterproofs for himself and we set off again. The weather gradually improved as we passed from lava into avocado fields and we stopped for my packed lunch of, appropriately, avocados and wheat tortillas. We passed a couple of small villages and Timmo taught me the Purépecha words for the fruit growing by the road (including, to my surprise, blackberries and cherries). Eventually we reached what is possibly the area’s most photographed site: the church of San Juan Parangaricutiro, which is buried up to its neck in lava. It was interesting to climb around inside and wonder what the parishioners thought of the biblical-scale destruction being wrought upon their village. Finally Timmo and I made it up the last hill and sat down outside the stables at the visitor centre.

“Este es para ti,” I said, handing over our agreed sum, “And this is for a new raincoat.”

“Or some new shoes!” he laughed, lifting his foot so that I could see the extent to which the rubber was peeling from his plimsoles.

With that Timmo mounted his horse and rode off into the (almost) sunset. I went to Domino’s for a pizza.

The next day I took a BlaBlaCar north to Guadalajara, the second city of Mexico. Famously the home of Mariachi music, the city now has a modern, studenty feel. I could not, however, enjoy exploring the old town: I was there on a Saturday afternoon and it is genuinely the most crowded place I have ever been. I suppose this is inevitable when a city with an attractive centre expands too quickly for the infrastructure to keep up. On Sunday I made my way to another church of expats; this was made difficult by the closure of many roads for a cycling event (Sunday closures like this are common in Latin America). I met some nice people and enjoyed the service: it was truly bilingual, with English and Spanish sometimes alternating on a sentence-by-sentence basis. After church I went to the expansive Bosque los Colomos, where the Japanese Garden was a particular highlight (as an aside, apparently Japan once tried to buy the Baja California peninsula from Mexico to give itself some leverage over the USA ahead of the Second World War. I’m not sure if this is true but there’s certainly evidence of cultural exchanges around Mexico.)

I was in Guadalajara for one reason: to take a flight to the South. I had not taken an internal flight like this before and I was hoping to treat both of my bags as hand luggage. This presented me with the problem of smuggling my penknife through security. In an effort to disguise the blade I wrapped all of my metal possessions around the knife and secured them with electrical tape – to my amazement, and alarm, this worked. I was not so successful, however, with actually getting to the airport. My usual bus station strategy of seeking help from as many people as possible let me down: I asked one too many conductors and found myself bundled onto an inappropriate bus. The conductor obviously hadn’t realised that when a tourist asks for the “airport”, they mean the terminal, not the god-forsaken stretch of motorway on the far side of the perimeter fence. By the time I realised my mistake I had given myself a walk of several kilometres. I had a similar problem when I touched down at Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport: emerging into a beautiful, and noticeably more humid, evening I looked around for transport to the city. There was none, because the airport is very small and in the middle of nowhere. A single stretch of barbed wire was all that separated the airport access road from a field of cows. I trudged towards a junction in the hope of picking up a collectivo before nightfall. “It’s nice to be met at the airport,” I said to myself, “Just not by cows.”


The Sweaty South


Marimba night in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
This is the biggest part – you’ve seen nothing yet.

The southern state of Chiapas has had a turbulent history. As independence movements surged across Latin America it briefly considered becoming part of Guatemala. When Mexico achieved independence its first act was to subdue Chiapas by force. I’ve often wondered what it must have been like for the soldiers in the new Mexican army: having thrown off the shackles of their colonial masters they immediately marched south to defeat a very similar independence movement on their own turf. Chiapas did not go quietly and most of its contemporary history has been violent. At one point the government relocated large numbers of indigenous groups to Chiapas, ignoring those who had lived there for millennia. In the late 20th Century the Zapatista Army of National Liberation was born, a complex fusion of Marxists and indigenous groups. Chiapas was a no-go area for tourists as recently as the noughties but, for better or worse, it’s now extremely popular with them.

I arrived in the capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, at night and was given a warm welcome at the rooftop bar of my hostel. The next morning the mountains which separated the city from the Sumidero Canyon were clearly visible. I visited a coffee museum and the botanical gardens, where I was struck by the sheer variety of endemic plant species. I also caught several marimba performances in the city’s plazas. The marimba is a large percussion instrument, comparable to a xylophone but with an individual soundbox for each note. It is usually played by three people and combined with brass and other instruments; local people salsa the night away, especially at weekends. The origin of the instrument is unclear: it’s either indigenous, brought over by the Spanish, or a hybrid of the two.

The highlight of my visit to Tuxtla, however, was my tour of the Sumidero Canyon. It started with a boat ride upriver to where the canyon juts onto flat ground like a wall. It’s thirteen kilometres long and, in places, one kilometre high; it’s home to birds, monkeys and American Crocodiles, some of which I managed to photograph. There were many interesting formations on the sheer rock walls and someone had put a shrine to a saint in one of the caves. The canyon opened out onto a beautiful lake where pelicans skimmed the water’s surface. After boating through the canyon we had lunch in the Pueblo Mágico of Chiapa de Corzo, which is known for its handicrafts. After that we piled into minibuses to ride to the viewpoints above the canyon. Since it was May the views were obscured by haze, but we could still enjoy the sight of sight of mighty eagles, much diminished by distance, wheeling below us.

The collectivo journey from Tuxtla to San Cristóbal de las Casas took just over an hour but the two cities could not be more different. While the former is very modern the latter was, to me, a more touristy version of Patzcuaro: all colonial buildings and funny streets. In Tuxtla I couldn’t sleep without air conditioning; in San Cristóbal, more than 2000 meters above sea level, I had to ask for an extra blanket. The city has been an important junction for backpackers for some time. Every night, from about ten o’clock, groups of them walk the streets with big bags on their backs and determined expressions on their faces. They are inevitably on their way to catch a night bus to the Yucatan Peninsula, Oaxaca State or even Guatemala (I did not join them – night buses are my least favourite means of transport).

The hardest thing about travel is, for me, the social pressure, or “fear of missing out”, which I feel on arrival at a new hostel. Everyone seems to have loads of friends already; they’ve all got more energy than you and they all speak better Spanish (the Germans also speak better English). This anxiety is misplaced, of course, because by your second evening you’ve made a lot of friends yourself and you’re in a position to extend a welcome to the next road-weary traveller to hover uncertainly outside the communal area. I went through this process on arrival at my hostel in San Cristóbal, a beautiful old school building on one storey and with a large central courtyard (a lucky find – I had not booked ahead). In the centre of the courtyard was garden of sorts with a feeder to attract the resident hummingbirds (known in Spanish as Colibrís). One morning two travellers, one Irish and one Austrian, pulled chairs into the sunny part of the courtyard and started seeing to each others’ dreadlocks. Watching from the shade, pen hovering above diary, I felt that this, too, was a little slice of history. A few days later I celebrated my 31st birthday with a traditional barbecue cooked by one of the Argentinian volunteers at the hostel. Between the nine of us we represented nine different nations; our ages ranged from 18 to 83.

I lingered for a long time in San Cristóbal, enjoying its churches, markets and murals. I went to the Museum of Amber, which contained both natural preserved flora and fauna and handmade jewellery. The translations on the labels of the former described them as “shapes from nature’s whimsy”. I took a collectivo a little way out of town to Parque el Arcotete, a mountain park which is home to a cave with a river running right through it. A thunderstorm started while I was exploring the cave systems above the river, and the sound of it echoing off the rock walls was awe-inspiring. Upstream I sat in a meadow and must have seen at least twenty different species of butterfly and dragonfly. Later I played a game of chess at the Centro Cultural del Carmen and met José, a guitarist who was playing duets with a double bassist (they had a great arrangement of Libertango by the Argentinian composer Villa-Lobos). José invited me to listen to his solo set at a bar that evening, where he was delayed by a passing parade. This parade was “not very cultural: more about the drinking”, as Arturo would say: it consisted mostly of backpackers and had some silly connection to the full moon. They made a lot of noise and it was a relief when José was able to resume playing.



José (left) at the Centro Cultural El Carmen.
Perhaps my favourite building in San Cristóbal was the Casa Na Bolom, a grand residence on the outskirts of town. In the early 20th Century it was home to a European couple who would now be described as ethnographers, environmentalists and political activists. The house contains many objects from their work; their primary interest was in the Lacandon people (or Hach Winik, as they called themselves). This indigenous group live so deep in the jungle that the first few hundred years of Spanish rule largely passed them by. Helping them to maintain their independence became a priority at Na Bolom, and the artefacts there give a fascinating insight into their culture. Here’s a Lacandon myth I found particularly interesting: a god once fashioned a wooden stool for himself and showed it to another god, who was cooking. The second god thought it would be hilarious to turn the stool into an animal and watch it carry the first god around. Thus was born the armadillo.

My biggest excursion from San Cristóbal was to the mountain town of Chamula. I had been told it was a place where the indigenous culture was very much alive and tourists had to adhere to a strict code of conduct – taking photos in the church, for example, could lead to permanent confiscation of the offending camera. I took a collectivo to the turnoff for the town and was faced with a huge concrete archway reading “Bienvenidos al Pueblo Mágico de Chamula”. There was no one else around; the only movement was the literal dust cloud being thrown up by my rapidly retreating bus. I felt a sudden sense of foreboding, as if I was about to enter the Fey World or something. Taking a deep breath I passed under the archway and followed the hairpin bends towards town, camera safely stowed at the bottom of my bag. I was soon reassured by the familiar sight of whole chickens roasting over charcoal. Less familiar were the outfits of the men: despite the heat each wore a long woollen tunic and carried a hat and staff. The colour of tunic (white or black) and style of hat and staff seemed to denote which village the man came from. It was market day and the men had assembled on a platform while the women saw to the buying and selling. The unassuming white and green church, the Templo de San Juan, stood at the far end of the market.

I bought my ticket and stepped into the darkness of the church. There were no pews, and the floorspace was divided in two by cabinets containing effigies of just about every saint in Mexican Catholicism. There must have been over a thousand candles burning, but they were releasing so much smoke it was still gloomy inside. The biggest, meltiest, droopiest candles were reserved for spaces on the floor, which was otherwise completely covered in a carpet of pine needles. Family groups stood or knelt at these candles, their heads bowed in prayer. They brought offerings with them: in recent years water has been replaced with a cheaper alternative, Coca-Cola. For music they had a small tinny speaker playing such Christian classics as Silent Night and Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer. I didn’t witness the most interesting of the San Juan practices: the in-situ sacrificing of chickens. San Juan, if you hadn’t guessed, is one of the more striking examples of Catholicism adapting and mixing with indigenous religions in the Americas. Although it sounds weird to write it down, actually being there felt perfectly normal. It was, as I reflected while sitting on a bench in the market, just ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. As if to reinforce this point, a toddler at whom I had been quietly giggling suddenly stopped whatever adorable activity he was engaged in. He looked at his family and pointed at me in a “Look at that man, isn’t he funny” kind of way. I couldn’t deny that in Chamula I was, indeed, strange.

I left San Cristóbal expecting to take the road north to Palenque, so I was surprised when the bus set off south-west, towards Tuxtla. We were on a “three sides of a square” type journey, and I managed to gather that the direct road had been deemed unsafe. I wondered if this was related to a recent drug-related shooting I had heard about. A film was showing on the bus’s entertainment system: something about police busting up crime gangs. It did not lighten my mood: suddenly, after so much success, it seemed the naysayers had been right about Mexico after all. Should I have stayed safely behind the Wall? I later found out that this diversion was routine because the Mexican government was not “fully in control” of the road in question. Gangs connected to the cartels sometimes set up blockades and rob tourist buses – I think this technically makes them brigands. We stopped at a military checkpoint – the first of four – where my passport would have been taken out of my sight had I not kicked up a fuss. The diverted bus route did turn out to be a brilliant tour of the mountains of Chiapas, or at least it would have, had the next film on the entertainment system not been Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. Talk about divided loyalties.

(Talk about a divided paragraph. Don’t worry, we’re nearly at the end.)

After a loop through green and banana-ey Tabasco State we arrived in Palenque and I booked a tour for the following day. My bus picked me up at 5 am and we set off into the Lacandon Jungle. It was proper jungle, with Tarzan-style vines hanging everywhere. Every so often the silence would be broken by a sort of wave of insect song or the roars of sparring Howler Monkeys (the loudest land animals in the world). We transferred onto boats for a journey down the Río Usumacinta (meaning “howler monkey”) which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. I felt a long way from civilisation and it was nice to imagine the ethnographers from Na Bolom making journeys like this themselves – the river is still the only way to access the ruined Maya city of Yaxchilán. The main buildings of the city occupy a hill which would once have had a commanding view over a great curve of the river; now, having been reclaimed by jungle, everything is obscured. After disembarking at a beach our first sight of the city was a very green stone wall emerging from the vegetation. The site is not huge but is incredibly atmospheric; its inaccessibility means that it is not crowded with tourists. There were a number of small houses, temples and stelae (stone blocks carved with mythological figures and records of royal successions). A beautiful, wonky and overgrown staircase led to an extraordinary building at the top of a hill. Its roof was adorned with a huge stone lattice, which would once have been visible for miles around.



Our pilot with Guatemala (left) and Mexico (right).
We returned to the boats and headed to our lunch stop. My Mexican companions complemented me on my choice of “Pollo con Mole Negro”, which was very nice. I didn’t tell them it was the only option I had understood when the driver had read them out in the morning. Afterwards we jumped onto a different bus for the journey to Bonampak (I was lucky: the road is sometimes impassable in the rainy season). The change of bus was a condition of my visit: part of the Lacandon’s agreement with the Mexican government is that anybody arriving on their land does so on their transport. A young man joined us and started telling us about the site in Spanish, his second language. Bonampak felt very different to Yaxchilán, but equally dramatic. It is dominated by a much neater stone staircase, punctuated by several small buildings. Inside these are the world’s finest surviving Maya murals. These show brightly-coloured gods, kings and musicians taking part in ceremonies. I could not see the second room because I had fallen foul of that most famous of Lacandon traits: their strict timekeeping. Perhaps if I had understood our young guide better I would have used my time more strategically, but I couldn’t complain. The Lacandons, like many in Mexico, Beliz and Guatemala, are not descendants of Maya: they are Maya, and Bonampak still holds a spiritual significance to them. Several villagers were selling souvenirs as we returned to the bus, with their children, clad in simple white tunics, running around at their feet.

Back on the main road our driver turned to us and asked who wanted to watch a film on the big TV screen. Everyone else – I’m not exaggerating – lifted their hands and cheered, so I pressed my face against the window and, in the gathering jungle gloom, thought about the Maya. In their heyday they were a collection of city states with such complex interrelationships they make A Game of Thrones look like a picnic. Several hundred years before the Spanish arrived the Mayan cities, but not their culture, collapsed. We’re still not sure why this happened, but one possible explanation has a certain appeal to me: in clearing ever-increasing swathes of jungle to support their ever-increasing population, the Maya may have realised they risked causing irreversible damage to their environment. Perhaps its wishful thinking to suggest that they chose to go back to a simpler, more village-orientated lifestyle, but even so there’s possibly a lesson for us here. As a bit of a tangent, I’d like to point out that American civilisations were not as technologically backwards (that really feels like the wrong word) as they’re sometimes portrayed. Although the Maya didn’t have them, metallurgy and wheels both existed on the continent. The latter are not much use without roads, and roads are hard to build in mountains and jungles, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the only wheels I’ve seen were on an artefact which was actually a child’s toy. One thing the Maya did have is writing, and this posed a bit of a problem for the Spanish colonists. In order to justify their atrocities towards indigenous peoples they had to portray them as savages. So they set about “re-educating” the Maya scribes and destroying every Maya book they could get their hands on. Three survived. Three. Three books. If there’s one thing this trip brought home to me it’s the sheer scale of the histories and voices lost to the European land grab. If the Spanish come across badly in this story we can be sure that things would have been at least as bad under the British or another colonial power. I’m not sure if that’s much of a defence, but what do I know? I’m just a backpacker.

I had one more set of ruins to visit: those of Palenque itself. These are much tamer and more touristy than Yaxchilán and Bonampak, but still breathtaking. On arrival at the site I was confronted with a steep hill covered in vegetation: an unexcavated temple. To date less than a quarter of Palenque has been excavated and it was interesting to be see part of the city as it would have appeared before work began in the 20th Century. Palenque had a ball court, a royal palace complete with tower, and some truly immense temples – no cheating by running up the side of a hill here! One of the most spectacular temples is the tomb of K’inich Jabaal Pakal, better remembered as Pakal the Great. Maya kings liked to equate themselves with gods, so Pakal’s sarcophagus shows him curled in the foetal position and emerging from a seed in the style of the god of maize. It also has a jade likeness of his face which is one of the finest examples of Mayan art in existence. Visitors can’t access the original but the site’s museum has an excellent replica, as does the Museo Nacional de Antropología back in CDMX. After my visit to Palenque I walked down its nature trail and thought longingly of my upcoming dip in the pools of the Roberto Barrios waterfalls.

Throughout my time in Palenque the heat was excruciating. On the second night I abandoned my bed in favour of a yoga mat on the floor with two fans over me. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and attempting to have a cold shower, only to find the “cold” water getting warm after a few seconds. I also fought a losing battle over my breakfast cereal with an army of Small Ants (the Medium Ants and Big Ants were significantly more peaceable). I was not the only one struggling: passing one of the few other groups of backpackers I heard one say to another “That’s his third ice cream this morning.” I jumped on the earliest air-conditioned bus I could. I went back to Tuxtla the long way around then changed for a bus to Tapachula, Mexico’s southernmost city – a journey of fifteen hours in total. At about 11pm I checked into a hotel.

I woke up late. I watched some Mexican TV. I turned my air conditioning on, then off, then on again. I ordered a pizza. I had planned to do nothing other than relax on my final day, but Mexico had one more surprise in store for me. In venturing onto the balcony to watch the approach of the evening’s thunderstorm I met my neighbour, Rodrigo. He told me his story: as a young man he had spent ten years working in the USA. It was hard work and he never had the opportunity to learn English: even the American taskmasters spoke to him in Spanish. Nor was the work steady: a job for someone “from El Salvador” was, he told me, easy for someone from that smaller country to obtain, whereas those “for Mexicans” are hotly contested. At some point, his passport and papers were taken from him. He met and fell in love with a woman from Guatemala; they married and had a son. His family was all he had left but they were now in Guatemala and refusing to tell him exactly where. He was trying to find them, and he asked me if I thought it would be easy to cross the border. I told him, sheepishly, that for a tourist like me it probably was. I didn’t know what to say to Rodrigo. He seemed harmless enough but it was possible his wife had good reason to hide from him (the position of women in Mexico is – how can I put this – complicated). I had set out to find out what life was like Beyond the Wall and it seemed, in Rodrigo, I had succeeded. The evening with the students in Chile suddenly seemed a long time ago.




The next morning I crossed a bridge over the Río Suchiate on foot and entered Guatemala. I had been in Mexico for nearly three months and had left much undone. It was a shame, for example, to have flown straight over the mountains and beaches of Oaxaca. I was already devising two more three-month tours: one around the Yucatan and Caribbean coast; the other across the desert and up the Baja California peninsula for a spot of whale-watching (both tours would, of course, have to include a visit to Arturo in León). The latter presents the possibility of arriving in the USA in some style: by crossing the physical Wall into California.
 
Thank you for reading this article to the end, especially if English is not your first language. Thanks also go to my proofreaders and to Jubal. There are probably some factual inaccuracies here so, as ever, please do point them out if you see them. I have changed all the names of individuals. Mexico has stayed with me, and I do expect to go back. No wall lasts forever.

indiekid

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Re: Beyond the Wall – Part Two
« Reply #1 on: April 13, 2024, 09:54:10 AM »
I'd like to add that in writing this, I realised I was overcoming a third "wall": the gulf between what my trip was actually like and how my friends at home perceived it. I think that's why I included bits like my FOMO at the hostel in San Cristóbal and the embarrassing incident in León.

Jubal

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Re: Beyond the Wall – Part Two
« Reply #2 on: April 30, 2024, 01:23:23 PM »
I'd like to add that in writing this, I realised I was overcoming a third "wall": the gulf between what my trip was actually like and how my friends at home perceived it. I think that's why I included bits like my FOMO at the hostel in San Cristóbal and the embarrassing incident in León.
Mm, that's an interesting thought. I wonder if that's something that's especially great for countries like Mexico where there are fairly heavy stereotypes coming through US media, whereas if one went to, I dunno, Uruguay maybe there would be less of a sense of expectation among people in Europe about what it's like there?
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indiekid

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Re: Beyond the Wall – Part Two
« Reply #3 on: May 01, 2024, 11:04:06 AM »
I'm more thinking of what it's actually like to go backpacking - not just a long relaxing holiday, for example. Though you're right even I have very little idea what going to Uruguay would involve, so I draw a blank trying to picture it. It's different to have some idea of the place, even an erroneous one.