Villa Alta, Sierra Norte:
Easter Weekend, 2003
Villa Alta is properly pronounced Bee-Yalta. We traveled seven and a half hours up the Sierra to arrive, but half an hour was spent waiting for a Good Friday procession to move out of the road (and “road” means unpaved one-lane passageways hanging off the sides of mountains). While the bus-driver waited we got off to use the local latrines, buy sodas or water, and eat the local tamales. When we were finally able to start up again, the driver checked to make sure everyone was on board, and one senior citizen was missing. Our friend Remedios jumped off to go find her—the old soul hadn’t noticed the bus when it pulled past, she was still waiting by the side of the road where she got off. So finally all aboard. However, the incident proffered no end of amusement to our Mexican friends because George hollered out to the driver, “Falta una vieja señora!” which translates “There’s a lack of used old lady”. Happily, not me.
Villa Alta was founded by the Spanish conquistadores as a troop/government center to control local indigenous groups who fought many small skirmishes, in those days with small loss of life, but sufficient ill-will to keep things unsettled. As a result of the Spanish post, the present day residents of Villa Alta speak only Spanish—the only town in the region where no indigenous language is established. And the people look distinctly more European, thanks to those busy Spaniard gentlemen. The town is entirely divided into private property, and their municipal president is elected by party affiliation—the only town in the region governed without local Uses and Customs.
With all that difference from the surrounding towns, Villa Alta is nevertheless the market center. But we are speaking here of a town population of 2,000. The youngsters routinely leave to earn a living elsewhere. Of course they all come back on the holidays –a town of 2,000 has two hotels. In one of which we slept. Despite the noise and bugs, we slept solid hours—the heat knocked us out. But before the first night’s sleep we went to visit one of Remedios’ aunts and assorted cousins. The aunt’s house is spacious, under-furnished, but amply decorated with photographs of family weddings. It’s a huge family. Home to visit were the daughters and grandchildren who now live in DF.
What noise? Oh, the town loudspeaker. Like in other tiny towns, everyone lives in earshot, and telephones are rare (but there is an internet café!). Villa Alta doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time, due to the fact that roosters have no wrist watches. So at five A.M. the loudspeakers begin to advise everyone that tamales can be purchased at the home of Maria Carmela, that the Easter mass begins at six, that the volleyball tourney starts at seven in the evening. And so forth. We opened our shutters to peek out at the gray dawn, the mountains well softened but still seemingly endless. At night this same window view yields two tiny clusters of distant lights: towns across the mountain canyons. It used to be several days’ walk to get from one town to another, but now the buses use the newly carved dirt roads.
The mother of our friend Remedios was born in Villa Alta to a large clan. As a result everyone is Remedios’ aunt, uncle or cousin. I did ask Remedios if she would live in Villa Alta and she responded, Certainly not, she would be bored to death. But she likes to visit for the peace, and sense of intimacy. The sense of intimacy must be similar to what we enjoy here on our small street in Oaxaca. Although we are not cousins. Villa Alta has no homeless, no beggars, and surprisingly few dogs. There’s no cinema. The big entertainments are basketball, and volleyball.
We watched the volleyball tourney. Reme shouted and clapped. George went up to the hotel and took a nap. I enjoyed the game and mentally drifted away. Girls, boys, old men, youngsters – not everyone owns sneakers. Some play in sandals, some in gym shorts, some in jeans. But they all play enthusiastically and no one booed, or rebuked the utterly inept, of which there were several.
I like the handmade sandals. And on the return bus we saw two beautiful machete sheathes, also handmade, and stitched. But that was later.
On Saturday before the tourneys, everyone went to the rivers. The two rivers run far below the town on the mountain. Transportation was provided by open trucks, with the whole family, their gear and their picnics, hanging over the railings like bulls on their way to service a far distant maiden cow. Cheerful, one might say. We descended to the closest swim area, about twenty minutes in the truck, bouncing on our backsides in clouds of dust. Then we walked down from the road to the river, where the few shady places were already occupied, and the river was full of children and adults swimming or splashing around. George swam. I splashed. The heat was intense, the water cold, and after an hour George wanted to return to town. We shared some of the food we brought (George harvests his tomatoes now) and made a plan to visit one of the aunts later in the evening, after the volleyball. But how to get back up the mountain? Easy—hitchhike. After about ten minutes a truck came along and we repeated the dust and bump routine. This driver charged us five pesos each, not undeserved I thought, since it was uphill all the way. Up mountain, to be exact.
The supper at the home of the aunt was very Mexican - I don’t mean the food, which was tamales, of course. I mean that clearly the old couple were just performing for Reme’s guests. Otherwise I believe they would have been in bed asleep. The wife served and didn’t eat. The uncle was tired and didn’t want to eat. Another cousin came and he ate, so that took away some of the awkwardness. This other cousin, an engineer, was also back visiting in Villa Alta from Mexico DF. We talked until I felt that we had to let the aunt go to bed, she was sleeping in her chair. We were wide awake; she served us Mexican coffee, in which if the caffeine doesn’t jolt you the sugar surely will. The cooking method is to boil water and sugar, and then throw in ground coffee, which settles in the bottom of the pot. They grow their own coffee bushes; before globalization destroyed the coffee market everyone grew coffee as a cash crop. Now it’s just for home consumption. Delicious, of course, as most Oaxaca coffee seems to be. The full moon was very Oaxacan also, depicting a rabbit instead of a man.
We bought tickets back to Oaxaca on the seven A.M. bus which actually left at six A.M. Standard Time. One of the priests declared Standard Time is God’s time. I kind of understand that, although thank God we’re atheists. Southern Mexico can’t have much need for Daylight Savings, there’s hardly an hour’s difference between the longest and shortest days. So we woke early. The ride back was a classic: people get on and off by the roadside at stops known only to themselves and the driver. People buy tickets for longer distances but hand over pesos for shot rides; some ride free; I guess the driver decides based on some secret understanding of who can pay and who can not. Our return bus traveled a different route, we saw different tiny towns—different churches, different architecture. The mountains were the same, though, and out the bus window when my stomach could tolerate it I glanced down into the treetops where hundreds of epiphytes perched in bloom. I bet you didn’t even know epiphytes bloom—yes they do, tall red stalks sticking up through the center of the plant. Along the roads, nopal cactus bears yellow flowers. At the rest stop we purchased mountain bread, made with eggs and sugar. By the time we got back to our house the bread was nearly gone. We rattled back into the city in six and a half hours, very good time. Although we embarked from the second class bus station, the bus lets anyone off anywhere. The machete men got off in the mountains, where to my eye nothing but trees existed. For us in the city we descended at a convenient corner, and staggered home in the afternoon heat, exhausted but tranquil.
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