“Today is our lucky day!” Stephen told us as we made our way to the taxi stand located outside the bus station in San Cristobol de las Casas. He had scouted out the taxis while we used the bathrooms in the bust station, and was thrilled to find a taxi driver willing to take us all the way to Bachajon. Stephen had made the trip several times over the last few years, and each time had been required to change taxis at least twice along the way. Taxiing in Chiapas, Mexico is a territorial business, and crossing into another city or municipality meant either paying to pass through the turf of another taxi syndicate – the taxistas preferred the word ‘association’- or surrendering one’s passengers to an associated driver who would then do the same at the border to the next territory. Having a driver take us all the way to Bachajon meant the ride would take less time and money. We would have to take the more mountainous and indirect route, but we would avoid the troves of ‘topes’, or speed bumps that made the more direct route less fun. The only thing worse than slowing down and speeding up for two hours was missing an unmarked and particularly high tope and hitting it full speed, which then often led to heads hitting the roof of the car. Stephen told us our route would be slightly more ‘circuitous,’ – a word that would take on an altogether new meaning during our journey into the mountainous central highlands of Chiapas.
Three taxis sat at the ready outside of the bus station. Two were brand new roomy sedans that their drivers circled with cloths in hand, meticulously wiping away any dust or grime. Next to them sat a faded 1987 Mitsubishi Galant that in comparison to the other two vehicles looked like a clown car. Sure, it had four doors, but the back one were only for show. Despite my last minute micro-prayer to be spared from having to stuff the four of us -and our luggage- into the Galant, Stephen headed straight towards it.
A man who could have been the stunt double for Luigi from Mario Brothers stepped forward to greet us warmly. In his mid-fifties and chaparrito- that wonderful Mexican expression for short and thick- he appeared to have been sized to fit the car. Paying no mind to the sorry state of everyone except Stephen’s Spanish, he lifted the bags off our backs and miraculously found a way to fit them all into a trunk the size of a Coleman cooler. Slamming it shut, he opened the back door and left us to do the same with ourselves.
I thought about calling “shotgun” but didn’t think this would fly considering that Stephen had found the taxi, speaks the best Spanish had already been to Bachajon. And then there is the fact that Stephen, as the tallest person in our group, and on that day quite possibly the tallest person in San Cristobal, would not physically fit in the back. Stephen stuck out like Big Bird from Sesame Street on the streets of Chiapas, ambling along with one shoelace on his grey boat shoes perpetually coming undone. Big Bird with a beard, actually, and a Jesuit priest at that…which I have good reason to believe excludes him from having to surrender the front seat to the call of shotgun.
Leigh drew the short legs and volunteered to sit in the middle seat, which really meant sitting the middle of perfectly clean but well-worn thin cushion that had over the decades lost any semblance of multiple seats. Leigh pulled herself into the middle and then waited for Hannah and me to bookend her into a stable position. Shoehorning myself in on the left side, I sat down to the sound of tired springs giving way. Even down in my deflated spot, I still had to cock my head hard to the right to avoid my head hitting the ceiling without the help of topes. Once in, we played an informal game of Twister to get our arms and legs arranged as best we could. And then we were off, as they sang in Gilligan’s Island, for what we thought we be a three-hour tour.
The first two hours went by relatively uneventfully- at least in comparison with what the final two hours had in store for us. This video captures a minute of our life in that car. Rain is coming down, fog makes it hard to see, and the deer leg pitching back and forth from the rear view mirror give some indication of how windy the road is – which at least at this point is paved. Stephen is in the front seat, reading the Economist. Dave Matthews is playing on the stereo because Stephen figured out how to connected his smartphone to it. Stephen and Leigh had already bonded over being big fans of Dave Matthews. Hanna and I were secretly bonding over not knowing Stephen well enough to confess that we didn’t believe Dave Matthews should have been allowed out of the 90’s.
Having left the main roads, we now started down lesser-travelled, completely unlit, and marked roads in a thick fog and driving rain. The ancient Mitsubishi lacked the electrical power for the headlights to illuminate more than twenty feet in front of us, defrost the windshield window and play Dave Matthews’ new album all at the same time. This video captures our severely diminished visibility that was further exacerbated by our driver regularly- and to no avail- wiping the inside of the windshield with a small towel. Leigh, Hannah and I had settled into our sardinistic existence, taking turns leaning forwards and backs, rearranging legs and shifting butts to less uncomfortable positions.
We found ourselves following a pickup truck that, like many in Chiapas, had been rigged to carry people in the back. Now and then our lights caught the faces of women seated in the back of the truck, facing one another and holding onto the metal frame that supported a tarp. They looked back at us now and again, but for the most part sat patiently and looked straight ahead as if riding a subway on the way home from work. All of a sudden the ride got much smoother, and peering through the hazy windshield I could see that we were now on an unpaved road slogging forward in muddy ruts. The truck fishtailed slightly here and there—which barely got the attention of the women in the back. And then we hit the hill.
I have never been to a monster truck and tractor pull, but I would imagine that this hill is the kind of obstacle that one of those vehicles would relish- pure mud, steep climb and just to make it interesting an indeterminate drop-off into the jungle on the left side. My side. We stopped to watch as the truck took at shot at the hill. Front and back wheels catching and losing traction, the truck skillfully slipped and slid its way up the hill. This is four-wheel drive territory. Our little Mitsubishi only had two. But that didn’t stop our driver from revving the engine and starting up the hill. We bounced and pitched, here and there, the car doing a little salsa dance forward and back, left and right, but somehow still going forward. And then, half way up, our luck gave out as the Mitsubishi bowed left into a deep rut and stayed there. Stuck in the muck, I had no idea how we would get up or down the hill. I had to admit to myself, then and there, that I had no idea what would happen next.
The truck sat fifty yards ahead of us, idling at the crest of the hill. We were in a small village, and we could see people coming out of their houses to stand in their doorways or porches to watch. I wondered if the village would have to come to our rescue and imagined people with ropes and chains helping us pull the little Mitsubishi out of the mud and up the hill. The driver had a different idea. He revved the engine and went for it. I was sure we would simply dig ourselves deeper, but then I didn’t expect him to floor it. He did, and miraculously the car started to creep forward like the Apollo 13 at liftoff. Up we went, slowly but surely with the driver smiling and gripping the wheel tightly, Dave Matthews on the radio and the Mitsubishi’s ancient little lawnmower engine screaming to the point where I was sure it would throw a rod. To the surprise of the women in the truck in front of us, we slowly pulled behind them sounding like we were going 100 mph but only going 3.
Once safely at the summit, our driver let foot off the gas pedal, pulled on the emergency brake and turned to looked at us with the wide-open eyes of a child to see what we were making of it all. When nobody said a word, he told us, “What an adventure! We’re never going to forget this!” He held our gazes, smiling that boyish mischievous smile for another moment until he sprung out of his door and into the mud and rain in his dress shoes and button down shirt to talk to the driver in the truck. Except for Dave Matthews, nobody in our car said a word.
He returned shortly to report that we were lost, but that as luck would have it the truck in front of us was lost too and headed to Bachajon. We would go together, he reasoned, and then proceeded to execute a three point turn on a sloppy mud bog that tilted hard towards a steep ledge that dropped into the dense vegetation of jungle. It could have been fifty or five hundred feet – we couldn’t know. For my part, I found some comfort in the fact that now the steep drop-off was on the other side of the car. Silly as it sounds, I felt safer. At least until we were careening down the hill, back to our old normal with the driver wiping the windshield and visibility hovering between two and twenty feet. We traced our route back to the paved road and resumed weaving our way through tiny villages that popped up like mushrooms the rest of the way.
In addition to hitting tope after tope, we also hit unmarked forks in the road. Our driver slowed, peering through the foggy windshield, dense fog, and rain making his best guess about which way to go. Every now and again he would spot a person –they were all men- in a widow or doorway of a house or tienda taking in the evening rain. He would then slow to a stop, roll down his window and shout, “Amigo! Is this the road to Bachajon?” Everyone he asked answered with a few sentences and lots of finger pointing. I couldn’t hear what they said, or if they responded in Spanish or Tseltal (the first language of the people from that region of Chiapas). Once he had gotten what he needed, he would shout, “Gracias Amigo, muy amable!” and we would make our way in whichever direction their fingers pointed.
Thinking back on it, we were running on that ancient GPS app called “Asking people along the way which way to go.” We were not crowdsourcing our route like Wayz, but now the success of our trip hinged on the help of others. There was no algorithm telling us to turn left or right, when we would arrive or if we were on the fastest route. Instead there were real people who were from there, who knew where we were when we didn’t, and kindly pointed us in the right direction. We were getting closer. A man leaning out the window of his house holding a small child told us that we just needed to keep going, “derecho, derecho” which means straight ahead – on a road that didn’t have ten feet of straight in it. The driver knew what he meant, and again turned to remind us what an adventure we were having and how we would never forget it.
We pulled into Bachajon tired and almost two hours late. The taxi driver shut off the our “little engine that could” and announced with his infectious laugh and smile, “We are here!” We slowly emerged from the car and stretched our stiff legs as he popped the trunk, deftly pulled out our luggage like a rabbit from a hat, and handed each of us our respective pieces. It was late, but he was still headed all the way back home to see his wife, who he had talked to earlier in the trip and wasn’t too happy with him out driving in the middle of nowhere on a night like this. We thanked him profusely for getting us there in one piece and paid him extra for his troubles. But he didn’t look at the pesos or even count them. Instead he put them in his pocket as he looked at us and shaking his head repeated what had become his mantra, “What an adventure. We will remember this always.”
hisHe was right, but at least for me, not for the reasons you might think. Sure, getting lost and stuck in the mud as we made our way to an incredibly mountainous and remote region of Chiapas to see where our coffee comes from makes for a good story. But looking back on it from here and now, the ‘story’ that sticks with me is one that is harder to tell- and forget.
Memory is a funny thing. I have been lost before in Mexico, been stuck in the mud in Montana, and crammed myself into far too many tiny Mexican taxis. But these are occurrences, not stories. Stories are different. We build them more than recall them, and we tell them to tell both ourselves and others something important about what it means to be alive. Stories don’t happen to us, they are what we do with what happens to us. We make them up, if you will, to put them to use in our lives. They are tools that we fashion to fashion ourselves.
Take the story I just told. Is it a completely accurate recollection of the sequence of events that took place during our trip? No, not even close. I have left much out, which is to say, I either didn’t remember it or didn’t think it important to tell. I never saw the deer leg swinging from the rear view mirror because I was sitting directly behind the driver and could not see it. That, or I had just not noticed it. I am no longer sure if we were supposed to arrive in 2 or 3 hours, but I am sure we were late- really late. I am not even sure it was an 87 Mitsubishi, or even a Galant. What I am sure of is that something about the driver stuck me during our journey, and while it took me more than a month of mulling it over I finally got some purchase on it and have decided to build a story around it.
I can’t remember his name but I will never forget the look in his eye when he turned to tell- no- remind us what an adventure we were having, one that we would never forget. I will never forget him rolling down his window and calling out into the dark rainy night, “Amigo!” I will never forget the way he said Amigo, with a slight upward intonation and long roll of the “O” that landed it somewhere between a declaration and a question. I will never forget the way he leaned over the steering wheel and pushed that little Mitsubishi up that hill like a little kid in a go-cart. I will not forget him because he got what I could not in that moment – that life is an adventure and when we forget this our lives can become, well, forgettable.
Many of us live in a destination-oriented world where we are endlessly busying ourselves with trying to be someone, or get somewhere, or get something else as quickly and painlessly as possible. Money, world peace, piece of mind, an empty inbox and bucket list, looks, likes, abs, you name it – so long as it can be done as quickly, conveniently, seamlessly and linearly as possible. No mess, hassle, or uncertainty…life like one big App. From a destination-oriented perspective our trip was an unmitigated disaster. Cell service, Google Maps, an SUV, better roads, and Uber all would have helped us get from point A to point B without a hitch. But if it weren’t for all the hitches- all the things that went wrong or not according to plan- you wouldn’t be reading this story. Stories are, after all, about when things don’t go as planned, when life doesn’t go off without a hitch. The inevitable hitches in life present us with opportunities to learn and grow. These opportunities often present themselves at the worst possible times. They are incredibly inconvenient and, like our long taxi ride, quite literally a pain in the ass. But what can appear as obstacles and impediments in our destination-oriented world can serve very different purposes in how we make meaning of our lives. I daresay we would not get very far in our journey of realizing our very own unique expression of humanity without them. Put another way, we come to know ourselves when things go wrong.
Tim Ingold’s distinction between transport and wayfaring is helpful in understanding the relationship between who we are how we know. Stating the obvious, transport involves the movement or displacement a set object from point A to point B. The movement is predictable; the outcome predetermined. From this very simple definition we can see how vast systems can be built on the coordination and synchronization of movement, whether it be the movement of products on an assembly line, people in cars in metro Atlanta, or information on a computer. We live in systems and by systems, and they make much of our modern world possible. A highly efficient and complex air transportation system makes it not only possible, but also expected that we can wake up in Atlanta and go to sleep in Chiapas, Mexico that night. Even more amazing, systems have become so efficient that we knew, down to the minute, when our flights would take off and land.
The whole trip- a systematic series of transports- had gone off like clockwork….until we climbed into that tired little Mitsubishi in San Cristobal de las Casas. We expected to be in Bachajon in three hours. And then things went sideways, so to speak. We ended up getting off schedule and then off course (read lost) enough to make us wonder if we were going to arrive at our destination that night, if at all. Without our system supports (better technology, roads, signs, etc.) we needed to figure out how to find our own way forward. Violating the supposed taboo against men asking for directions, our driver asked everyone we saw on that rainy night the way to Bachajon. The whole undertaking took us a lot longer, but it also took us to the very place where all good stories begin – uncertainty.
According to Ingold, the breakdown of our transportation opened up an opportunity- that potent admixture of a possibility and necessity- for wayfaring. In sharp contrast to transport, wayfaring involves the process of making our way by fashioning, following and negotiating paths that allow us to keep going. The process is anything but linear, and in many ways is allergic to linearity. It is an intentional, inquisitive and informed way of wandering our way forward. On a very literal level, wayfaring is how we made it to Bachajon. On the human level, wayfaring is how we make our way in the world, how we make and remake ourselves over and over again, and how we make our lives meaningful. Wayfaring makes for good stories, too.
There is more to my remembering than meets the eye. The taxi driver’s way of being in the world and making his way has become a metaphor for us in terms of how we approach the work of OneHome Collective. We invoke his cheerful reminders of the unforgettable adventure we are all on, and to remember that we can never know what will come of those moments that sometimes feel like quixotic wild goose chases.
We recall the way he called out “Amigo” to everyone along the way to remind ourselves that as long as we stay true to what we believe, and believe in others, that we will – wherever we are – find ourselves in the midst of an unforgettable story and on our way home.