Monday, February 25

Finding San Cristobal de Las Casas

As I entered the airport at Tuxtla Gutierrez I was met with the most wonderful breeze. I slowed my step, closing my eyes so that I could take in its smell and enjoy the feel of it washing over my travel-weary body. I had left winter behind in Canada and was delighted to meet up with this old friend in Mexico. This breeze pulled me towards the baggage claim, just one doorway away from the airport entrance. I could sense the impatience of it as it pulled at my clothes and beckoned me to join it outside.

I stood next to the luggage carousel and waited for my bag to make its appearance. I closed my eyes and gently swayed left to right savoring this pause in my day; and more, this first delightful break to my long, cold winter. I sensed someone in front of me and opened my eyes.

"Do you have a lot of luggage?" Amavida Coffee asked.

"No, just one bag," I said looking at her tiny backpack. "I thought I packed light, but...."

"Yeah, I know," she shrugged, "it's hard to pack light with a sleepin' bag. Annie stumbled 'cross these little babies last week an' got us each one," she said nodding towards the tiny sleeping bag perched upon the top of her backpack.

She had the most wonderful southern drawl I had ever heard. I was looking forward to talking to her more; in fact, I was looking forward to hearing her talk more. It was musical.

"D'you need a hand with 'yer bags?" she asked.

"No, I'm OK. Thanks for asking though," I replied.

"Well we're just hangin' out on th'other side of that wall there," she said. "We'll wait 'til you get 'yer bags and then we'll go find Chris. I thought I saw him on th'other side of the airport."

I watched as she walked through the glass door and joined the second Amavida Coffee girl whose name I now suspected was Annie.

My bag was one of the first to arrive. Ironic, I thought. My bag from Canada is here even before a bag from Mexico City. How does that work? I found a break in the lineup of waiting passengers and made a quick grab for it pulling it free of the carousel. When I had packed my bag, I tied a blue ribbon around the handle so that I would be able to spot it easily from amongst the hundreds of other black bags making their way around the world. I checked to make sure that my zipper locks were still intact and then headed towards the doorway to join my new friends.

"Thanks for waiting," I said as I came through the doorway.

"No probl'm," Amavida said as she started walking across the airport. "I'm Sally, by the way, and this here is Annie."

"Hi," said Annie.

"Nice to meet you both," I smiled.

As we walked across the airport, two men began to rise from where they were waiting on benches by the large glass windows. One was a curly-haired American dressed in dockers and a button-down shirt and the other was a Mexican man who wore a white linen shirt and the most joyful expression I had ever seen on his round, dark face. The American extended his right hand to us as we approached.

"I'm Chris," he said, "and this is Julio. He's going to be driving us back to San Cristobal."

We exchanged greetings and some small talk while we waited for four other passengers. We learned that a few people had arrived over the weekend but that this flight carried the last few members of our group. Within minutes we were joined by Joe the extreme athlete from Peace Coffee, Gary part owner of Heine Brothers Coffee and Casey and Aleck who were students from the University of Michigan. We exchanged greetings and headed out of the airport in search of the van.

On the sidewalk outside, the wind danced through my hair pulling at its curls and drying the dampness from my scalp. The tiny straps of my backpack slapped at my arms as I reached up to pull the hair away from my face. I walked through the parking lot wrapping myself in the sun that was offered to me by the last few hours of this day in Chiapas. I felt especially peaceful, perfectly happy and decidedly blessed as I made my way across this parking lot in the company of strangers.

Julio opened the back door of the van so that we could pile our bags inside. Casey and Aleck hopped into the van and spread themselves out across the back seat of the van. Sally, Annie and I found spots in the row second from the rear, while Chris, Joe and Gary took seats toward the front of the van. Julio closed the door to the van and took his position behind the wheel while a lovely Spanish Senorita rode shotgun. We were off.

Within minutes, my peaceful, easy feeling was replaced by my rising blood pressure. It seemed, in those minutes, that my heart rate was inexplicably linked to the van's accelerator and as our speed increased, so did my anxiety.

I've driven in Montreal which is, in my opinion, host to some of the most dangerous roadways and drivers in Canada. Imagine if you will, four-lane highways with no lines dividing the lanes; just tens of feet of black asphalt for drivers to share freely as they meander their way through the city at breakneck speed.

Mexico is kind of like that, except Mexico took the time to draw the lines on the highway. Lovely double-yellow lines mark the opposing lanes of traffic, while pristine white lines clearly identify the shoulder. There are many reflective markers to further assist drivers find the safe passage between the white and yellow lines. As far as I could tell, however, the lines had no purpose whatsoever except perhaps to identify this paved thoroughfare as a highway for visiting tourists. The money they spent in paint, I felt, would have been better spent in guardrails.

I decided in very short order that I have neither the skill nor the stomach to drive in Mexico.

The highway from Tuxtla from San Cristobal coils around the mountain tops of Chiapas. As we climbed toward the ceiling of heaven, we were captivated by the amazing vistas. I had never seen such beautiful countryside. Deep ravines carved their way through rugged mountains as far as the eye could see. The higher we climbed, the deeper the slope that fell away from the side of the highway. As I looked into the distance, the highway appeared to be nothing more than a ragged slash in the mountains ahead.

Julio and his sweetheart were carrying on an animated conversation in Spanish and I was worried that he was not entirely focused on the task at hand -- delivering eight weary gringos to their hotel in San Cristobal safely.

On a particularly steep mountainside, I watched as Julio raced towards the bumper of a slow moving 18-wheeler. I caught a passing glimpse of a "no passing" traffic sign in my peripheral vision as Julio edged out across the double yellow line. In Canada, this means no passing in either direction. In Mexico, a double line is more of a suggestion -- I wouldn't pass if I were you, but if you're going to, well...go ahead...whatever. The 18-wheeler moved slightly towards the right so that the white line indicating the shoulder passed between its two rear tires. Even this generous act would afford us less than half of the south-bound lane which mean that the double-yellow line was passing roughly between our two rear tires. Cars were rounding the curve ahead and approaching us in the northbound lane. As we began to overtake the 18-wheeler, a small VW sedan decided to follow our lead and began to overtake the northbound traffic. The cars began to steer to their right allowing the VW sedan to gain speed as we headed toward each other at breakneck speeds. At roughly the time we found ourselves in line with the cab of the 18-wheeler, the family in the VW Sedan passed within inches of us. I swear I could smell the perfume of the woman in the front seat.

Had this been an isolated incident, I would have relaxed and enjoyed the passing countryside. As it happened, however, this was the rule rather than the exception that defined this white knuckle drive to San Cristobal de Las Casas. I didn't know whether these drivers deserved my awe or my disdain.

I turned toward Sally with eyes wide and mouth agape. I was relieved to know that I was not the only person who found the ride a little upsetting.

"It's like a continuous game of chicken," I whispered to Sally who laughed and nodded in agreement.

I spent some time considering the differences between traffic in Canada and Mexico. It seems that in Mexico, turn signals are not necessary. In fact, they are misleading and must be ignored at all costs. Horns however, are musical and they must be shared at every opportunity. Drivers herald the arrival of green lights with festive "honks." The most important five-letter word in driving is not "skill" but rather it is "speed."

As we rounded a long curve to the left, we saw a large white city nestled in the distant foothills of another mountain range. It was San Cristobal de Las Casas. It was much larger than I had expected. Chris explained that we would be staying in the colonial district which was much safer and neater than other parts of San Cristobal.

We entered the colonial district through a large gated road and found ourselves driving on narrow streets in a complicated grid of one way and two way streets. I could not easily determine how the drivers knew which car enjoys the right-of-way. There were traffic lights at maybe one in every 30 intersections. I saw no stop signs.

Julio drove through street after crowded street. Cars were parked everywhere including on top of sidewalks. Double-parked cars were dripping passengers out into the busy streets before rejoining the flow of traffic. Passengers were walking on sidewalks and in the streets. Cars passed other cars within inches of one another. Cars passed within feet of pedestrians, blowing up their hair and clothes in the gusts they created by their passing.

The streets narrowed.

Minutes later, we pulled up in front of La Posada Isabel. Home. Well, home away from home.

Getting out of the van was not nearly as satisfying as getting in. My legs had stiffened from the ride and so I walked around in tight little circles at the back of the van as I tried to loosen up my muscles.
Julio opened the back of the van and we all pulled out our bags.

Chris herded us into the foyer of La Posada Isabel and quickly paired us up with our roommates. Sharon and I were introduced as roommates and handed the key to Room 7 on the second floor. We were instructed to clean up and meet back in the foyer in 30 minutes before we headed out to dinner together.

For the last time that day, I grabbed my backpack and hoisted it upon my back. I bent to pick up my bag and checked for my camera case and purse. I slowly climbed the stairs of Posada and followed Sharon to Room 7.

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