Birds of Paradise: part three

As part of our orientation to ranch operations, Don Glen trained us in how he handled the cash and kept the books. While he may have been a bit dim and tipsy most of the time, Don Glen maintained a sharp eye on expenses as he envisioned the dollars flowing in to ensure a comfortable, if not extravagant, lifestyle at some point down the road. We appreciated his business like approach, but never have I felt so immediately mistrusted by an employer. It felt bad as he watched us over our shoulders when completing basic accounting tasks or making change for customers.

Despite the lack of trust on his part, Don Glen assigned my partner to do the “Buy.” Doing the Buy required driving an ancient truck that creaked and groaned as it made its way down poorly paved roads, angry to have been started from its resting place.  My partner agreed to drive the truck to town accompanied by Valentín, staff who took care of the horses and led guests on daily rides around the property. Valentín was the only member of the staff with whom we didn’t quickly get to know in a positive light. His wife and two children lived on one side of town; his mistress and her children on the other. He believed himself to be first in line to inherit the ranch upon Don Glen and Doña Margarita’s demise, and told us so, with a shake of his head.

I sighed, watching them drive away, certain that nothing too good would result from this trip.

Later in the day, my partner described the Buy (which I later observed firsthand). First, they hit the milk stand, a kiosk like structure filled with large tubs of unpasteurized yogurts and cheese, fresh and delicious, and occasionally, tainted. Then, they stopped at the central market to select what they needed from rows upon rows of fruits and vegetables, boxes of live chickens, and the occasional goat or sow. Snacks included steaming corn on the cob doused in chili and lime. Indigenous women huddled on the floor beneath a large crooked roof to sell produce and products. Negotiations over price often took place in whispers, making this the quietest market I’ve ever visited.

A couple of small groceries were also a part of the Buy, where we sought out cans of olives, cream cheese, dried pasta and other imported goods. Depending on the number of staff and guests present at the ranch at a certain time, we procured entire boxes of produce and fresh meat. The streets were dusty and filled with people walking, vending, talking. More than one near miss took place as passengers mingled alongside bicycles and old cars and motorbikes.

The Buy was exhausting, particularly when one had to listen to endless tales of conquest and bravado by Valentín. But the town was actually quite marvelous in its rainbow like collection of dress and food, its pungent aroma and hush hush nature. The local people were mostly tranquil and respectful. Once when we needed to buy several chickens at the last minute, a lady named Paulita sent her son home to slaughter six more birds for us to take back for dinner. Unaccompanied, I liked shopping in town and at the market. My partner loved the tiny stores selling soccer jerseys and knee socks. I embraced the park, a self-effacing square famous for the Zapatista uprising of 1994. Years later, it remained much like other central squares in small Mexican towns except for the solemn Mexican soldiers who marched or stood at attention, their eyes focused on the petite local people who socialized or conducted business in the square. I disliked the soldiers’ demeanor as they were unfriendly and suspicious of strangers, and perhaps rightly so.  But rumors of assault on buses and in the alleys upon young, single women were frequently a subject of local conversation. I did not care to be under the soldiers’ observation as I walked through the park.

The men in uniform and I each suspected the other of some type of unfamiliarity and misunderstood purpose for both being present in the same place in the world. In knowing this, I generally kept close to my partner in the park and I infrequently traveled by public transport alone, and never at night.

Yet despite our best efforts to just do our job and get to know the local environment in an unassuming and respectful manner, we found ourselves being pulled over one day by a large military vehicle, lights flashing, horn blaring.

The interrogation of the gringos began.

Birds of Paradise: part one

Spending twelve hours trapped inside a so-called luxury bus that alternated between freezing cold and stuffy heat faintly scented by urine isn’t what one might call the most auspicious beginning to a romantic adventure. Our clothes were wrinkled and our eyes grew tired as the night wore on. But despite our appearance, we were excited and optimistic as we  approached our final destination: a  small working ranch in southern Mexico deep within Zapatista territory.

Sitting near the tiny, unlit bathroom facilities in the back of the bus allowed us to observe interesting characters common to third world middle-of-the-night travel. A Mexican teenager listened to AC/DC through cheap headphones with eyes closed, a giant orange soda perched precariously on his knee. A stern, heavyset doña held a sleeping toddler, who woke occasionally to gaze steadily at us with big black eyes fringed with heavy lashes. A rumpled German couple crammed huge backpacks into the small space between their long legs.  Several other travelers talked quietly during the overnight trip from Cancún to San Cristobal de las Casas

The farther inland we traveled, away from glittery resorts and white sand beaches, the quieter and cozier our world became. We were foreigners, but not tourists, making our way to the southern highlands near the border of Guatemala.  We were a young couple in our late 20s who had been recruited to work at an organic “eco-tourist” ranch owned by Americans. The ranch was located just beyond a large and scary-looking Mexican military base and a few kilometers from the entrance of a rural indigenous community affiliated with the Zapatista rebel movement directed by Subcomandante Marcos.

Thinking about it over ten years later, perhaps this wasn’t our wisest choice of employment. And it definitely wasn’t a tourist destination.

But we had spent the past two years working for the U.S. Peace Corps on environmental and health development projects in the Caribbean, we spoke Spanish, and we were in love. These credentials gave us the tenacity and desire to move to Chiapas and begin a 100-day journey that we are sure never to forget. Without hesitation, we climbed out of the bus at dawn, flagged a car in a dusty real life cowboy-and-Indian town called Ocosingo, and ignored the odd look in our driver’s eyes as he transported us to our new home.

On our second day at the ranch, we woke well rested and clear of mind. It’s amazing to sleep deeply beneath a zinc roof under a million stars. The light in the morning was dewy, yet clear. As the shadows lifted, we watched men and women walking slowly down the road bearing heavy bundles of firewood on their backs.  The women wore long dark braids and colorful huipiles. Smoke could be seen across the horizon as the women started small fires over which to warm their hands and morning tortillas. We helped tend the garden that grew great handfuls of red and green swiss chard, fresh herbs and spicy chiles. It was a living salad, just steps away from the clean and tidy kitchen.

Oh, but we had such a wealth of vegetables and nutrients in our backyard! We dined richly on homemade breads, greens, roasted chicken, and brick-oven grilled pizza. We poured tequila, sliced limes, and drank Mexican beer. I went running in a macadamia nut orchard. So far, so good.

Just outside the gates of the ranch, our indigenous neighbors ate humbly. Meager amounts of beans, little or no produce, and piles of corn tortillas gave them sustenance and energy. Late at night while lying in bed, we heard the unmistakable “thwack thwack thwack” of an ax striking a tree. It was illegal to cut timber from the surrounding land.

But how else were these people to heat their homes and cook their meals?

Our story continues as we get to know the owners of this unusual place. Do you want to know more?