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Published: July 31st 2016
45 Years Young Today
Happy Birthday to me
US$1 = approx 13 Mexican Pesos
August 27, 2012
Today is my birthday, and once again, I am alone. At least that’s the way the day began.
I started exploring the streets of Comitan, a city in the Mexican state of Chiapas, having just arrived the evening before and eager to familiarize myself with a new area of the country. I soon found myself heading uphill on the edge of town to get a vista of the city, eventually making it up and over to the carretera
, a main road leading out of town, before walking down into some unexplored residential neighborhoods, terminating near the zócalo
, in the center of town. Passing by a building with an open front door and a large map of Chiapas hanging on the interior wall, I couldn’t help but go in for a peak. Maps and I go hand in hand so there I stood in front of it, trying to figure out where I wanted to travel next. Before long, a gal named Iliana, from Mexico City, came in through the same door when she too had noticed the map. As it turned out we both had
similar ideas in our heads: we each were planning on heading to the same general area in Chiapas, along the border with northern Guatemala. Bandit country. Controlled for decades by the Zapatistas, the southern Mexican insurgent group, this only added to the excitement of the impending journey.
I soon discovered Iliana’s English was quite good although at first I faltered with Spanish not knowing she could actually speak my language. She made me practice my Spanish, though, which, of course, was a good thing.
Mapped out after perusing every square inch of this southern Mexican state, and finding ourselves with lots in common, we decided to “hang out” for a bit more that afternoon. We walked and talked and ended up at a supermarket for dinner where we discovered a small food court in the back with one glass display case behind which sat half dozen choices of piping hot prepared foods to eat. We both got a half-plate dinner for 25P, under US$2.00, which was delicious and plenty filling.
The day got away from us fast and we ended up in the same accommodation for the night, and as it
was, for the next week and a half. We got on very well and decided to take this trip in the southern part of the state together, although it did take twelve more days before we finally got it together to leave Comitan.
Before leaving on our adventure, there was much to explore in and around the sprawling city. We met kind locals who showed us secret underground caves, took us to hidden swimming lakes and plied us with heavenly food. The gave us directions when we didn’t know where to go, they gave us rides when we didn’t have bus fare. All they wanted was a chance to speak with us, two travelers from “far away,” and to share - with pride - their country and everything wonderful it had to offer. We also took a “trial run” all-day excursion to the Guatemala border, since soon I will need to make a visa run as my six months in country is coming up quickly. I thought it best to go first with a native speaker in case I run into any snafus upon my return in a couple of weeks.
The morning of
Hitching in the Back of a Mango Truck
Iliana and me (with headscarf to keep my hair from blowing everywhere) in the back of the mango truck
this “trial border run,” we caught a 35-Peso collectivo (local transport “van” that picks up and drops off passengers randomly on a set route) bound for Comalapa, where the Mexican immigration is located, near the junky border town of Ciudad Coatemoc. Once there, we had a look around, figured out the logistics and then in the mid-afternoon we started for our return journey back to Comitan.
Iliana and I hitch hiked back the five minutes to the small hamlet at the Migration Office in the back of a pickup truck driven by two Mexican guys. It was nice of them to stop for us as many people had passed us by the first 10 minutes we tried to hitch. The mountain landscapes we passed were amazing – green, picturesque and full of hills of varying heights. At the “hamlet” we started walking the direction of Comitan and eventually managed to catch a ride to the crossroads with Comalapa, a few kilometers up the road. Most vehicles that passed us were collectivo vans or taxis; the private vehicles were primarily pickup trucks. Most people gave us hand signals indicating they were staying “in town”
or “in the area,” or “making a U-Turn,” always with sympathetic looks on their faces as if regretting they were unable to help us. A man driving a pickup truck piled high with crates of mangoes in the back stopped and took us up the road quite a distance. We sat in the back surrounded by crates of the golden-fleshed fruit, wind whipping through our hair as the man sped down the potholed highway.
Dropped off on the side of the road by Mr Mango Truck, it was another 20 minute wait until, desperate as we were for a ride, at nearly 7pm, we finally got picked up by a driver of a small silver car. This time there were two large, fun and funny ladies inside, one driving, one in the passenger seat. We squeezed into the back, Iliana in the middle, leaning forward most of the time to chat with the ladies, a male backpacker we befriended at the last stop (who had been having difficulty getting a ride) on one side, and me on the other. The two round mamas were talkative and friendly; primarily Iliana spoke with them in Spanish while Mike and
I talked in the back in English. They took us all the way to Comitan, the driver ever so kind to take Iliana and me directly to our accommodation, and offering bedding and a meal to Mike, the lone backpacker. He too was grateful and took her up on the offer.
Before leaving on our “big trip,” we decided to take in Tenam Puente, a not-oft visited Mayan ruins site, roughly 12 kilometers south of Comitan. We walked to the main boulevard, and then on about a kilometer further, and when finally one man in a pick up truck stopped and agreed to take us, we squeezed into the cramped cab of his truck. He was a kind old man and although he had to take a diversion because he couldn’t risk getting stopped at the checkpoint (he told us later he had no driver’s license) he took us all the way to the entrance of Tenam Puente on his way to work, despite it being well out of his way. He assured us he didn’t mind at all.
At the official entry kiosk we were asked to sign the register but since they
were apparently out of tickets we didn’t have to pay an entrance fee. The sun was hot, the mosquitoes were out in droves but with no one else on the property save one man mowing the lawn, we had the fairly large, spread out Mayan ruins site to ourselves. We walked trail after trail, admiring and photographing the well preserved – and some crumbling – ruins of this site. We were able to clamber about at our leisure on the terraced plateaus, in, and on the ruins as well, all the while taking in the awesomeness of the temple grounds and the quiet solitude around us.
One of the final temples I climbed had a nice view of the open grassy area in front and the trees and hills in the distance. I sat and listened to the silence, the chirping birds and enjoyed the feel of the hot sun on my back. At one point I climbed down from the temple and went to sit on the grass in the shade. I put my hand down to feel for dampness and nearly crushed a good-sized spider, quite possibly a tarantula.
Hours later, upon
leaving the site, we anticipated walking the seven kilometers down to the main road leading back to town. We needn’t have worried. The moment we got to the exit, a rattletrap of a truck came rambling down the hill, heading in the direction we were going. The driver, with his young son in the cab (the boy immediately crawled into the back seat and let us each take the front), stopped for and gave us a ride all the way down the hill to the gas station on the main road. We waited at the gas station for someone heading in our direction but it was the first car that pulled in for gas that Iliana and I approached. The driver, although at first a bit leery, decided we were harmless and let us in. She sat in the front and I in the back of this “fancy” new Jetta. The driver, a chatty lawyer named Jose Francisco, was driving back home to San Cristobal but dropped us on the edge of Comitan, an easy walk for us back to the center of town, and not at all out of his way.
On the final days in
Comitan my new friend and I picked up provisions for our trip, not knowing what was ahead of us in terms of a comedor
for meals or convenience stores for nibbles. This was a budget trip and we wanted to save as much money as possible. We befriended a random lady and her grown daughter on the streets of Comitan and soon found ourselves asking if she wouldn’t mind keeping a few of our items. She happily obliged, pulling out a hefty black garbage bag and helped fill it up with the things I didn’t want to carry. She tied the bag closed and shoved it into her front closet. The bag didn’t move, nor was it touched, during our entire time away.
Soon, the big morning arrived and we were off on a new adventure. Zapatistas, here we come…
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