By Karla Fetrow
It’s early morning and the sun hasn’t quite whisked away the cloying mist dripping like tears from the magnolias. The farmers wheel by with their carts, their oxen and goats, nodding cheerfully and raising their greetings as they pass. “Da-leee!” The traditional “hello” trills bird-like, winging away on the morning breeze. The language is Zapoteca. It didn’t matter if they were of Mayan or Aztec descent, they still spoke the oldest language. “The Zapoteca have always been here,” we’re told. “Long before our ancient battles. Long before the Olmecs.”
The Olmecs; such a strange race. They would have taken their place among myths if their relics had not been found. These relics weren’t modest; giant, glistening heads of obsidian, aggressive in their warrior helmets and scowling faces. Where did they come from? Why did they vanish? Who did they conquer? The ones who had always been here shrug. The archeologists don’t wish to accept their story; that the Olmecs came on giant wings and thunderous clouds. A thousand years before the heralding of Christ, this powerful group built pyramid type structures, irrigated their land and used advanced mathematics. But they had not always been here, the Zapoteca insist.
Surrounded by a circle of these giant heads that look like seven foot tall chess pieces, I begin to wonder about this piece of interpretive history. There is something here the archeologist have refused to accept. Using a number of clay figures they had found that demonstrate elongated, curving heads, they theorize that the Olmecs, like their precedents; the Mayans, like to deform the heads, either physically through early childhood bandaging or through representation. These heads show no deformity. They show perfect, painstaking proportions. Other than thickly clad helmets, the heads are perfectly round, with short, curling hair trimmed away at the ears and back of neck. The brows are heavy, the noses broad, the lips very full. The features are strikingly Negroid.
The Zapoteca keep no written history. Their records transfer from generation to generation, by word of mouth. “There was a time,” they tell me, “when civilization had made even greater advancements then we have today. You think you are marvelous with your air machines? They are nothing new. Long ago, a people came over in their great machines. They had built. They had conquered. Now, they were escaping their calamity.”
What calamity? The Mayans have their own version, which had been recorded in their hieroglyphics. “There was once a race so advanced it could transport itself to any part of the world without effort. They had powerful medicines and anti-dotes for every illness. But their knowledge made them evil. They brought plague and destruction to the countries they invaded. Their arrogance was so great, they chose to defy the forces of nature, itself. They attempted to carve a path through the northern ice gate, causing a massive, world wide flood. Some people opened their third eye and perceived this disaster coming. They escaped, finding refuge in the high mountains of America.”
These refugees were left with the skills on hand and their memories. The re-building process was accompanied by cautions to never again use their knowledge to advance evil. There are many mysteries among pre-Colombian artifacts; anatomically exact crystal skull, perfectly tapered jade beads to fit together for tapering necklaces; neither of which show the smallest grooves or scratches to indicate the tools used for crafting them. Exhumed bodies, three thousand years old that show the evidence of operations performed to remove tumors from the brain; sometimes as many as three or four. The remarkable part wasn’t the operations themselves, which placed holes in the cranium, but that the operations were successful. The patients lived on a number of years before dying of other causes.
Along with the women of the village, I wash my clothes in a canal built over two thousand years ago by the Mayans. Nothing much has changed. In the centuries that spanned the construction, nobody found it necessary to alter the system of hydraulics that irrigated the fields three times a week and ran water for bathing and laundry. The canal is full of deep basins to soak in and shallow channels for the children to play. The clothes are washed under a gate where the water spills out and joins a creek. The women say the rocks are magic. Worn round and smooth with centuries of scrubbing, each one somebody’s favorite, the wet clothes are spread out, and a sprinkling of powdered soap added. So minute an amount, it seems the soap should just wash away, but as the deft hands grind the clothes across the stones, frothy bubbles appear, and the grime, the dirt, the sweat and grease magically disappear. No washing machine could ever compare with the efficient cleanliness of the clothes scrubbed against the magic rocks.
I was preparing to walk the stairway into heaven. Deep in Oaxaca, where the mountains grow into the sky and the rain clouds gather like billowing beaches, is a feat of engineering as great as the road to Rome, an ancient Mayan highway that begins in the village of Huautla and continues to the coast of Veracruz. The battered bus, piled high with luggage and crates with chickens, ducks and geese, wheezing diesel films, labors around the narrow bends and groans with pain as one wheel and then another digs into a pot hole, then digs its way out again. Below us, the valleys scramble, sliding and rolling into each other, slipping deeper and further away from our winding, climbing path. At one corner, a small statue of the Virgin Guadalupe has been erected, with bright decorations of flowers around it, a tribute to those who had died along this treacherous piece of road. Some people cross themselves, look out the window, then cross themselves again. There, but for the grace of God, goes I. My fingers twist of themselves, pleading with their own demons of fate , their own worthiness for restitution.
Victor laughs and calls me “chiquita”; little one. Somehow, he has made peace with those dark over-lords called danger and death. He stands high in his seat and looks out the window, grinning with the adrenalin rush. “You close your eyes,” he reproves. “Don’t close your eyes to anything, because if you do, you’ll only remember the illusion.”
I keep my eyes open, no matter how terrifying it sometimes seems. We arrive in the tiny rain forest town and praise the bus driver for our safe passage. “Gracias a Dios,” he reminds us, pointing to the sky. We amend ourselves. Here, on the poignant edges of survival, every bite of food, every day that brought new strength was considered a gift from God. One must never forget to thank one’s benefactor, or in the future that benefactor may not feel so generous.
It was in the very early hours of morning when we had boarded the bus out of Oaxaca City, well before daylight. It was just early afternoon now. Up here in the high mountains, the sun was only beginning to throw down some warmth. It slid over the bamboo homes and concrete general store, puddling up in small, green spaces left between the trees. We had a little over twenty kilometers left to walk; around ten miles. We pick up some last minute items at the general store, adjusted our packs, and followed the gravel road that curved around the last farm. “Da-lee,” greet the campesinos as we pass by. Bird trills blending with the cackling of crows and the flights of wild parakeets. “It is a good day to be walking,” they tell us in Zapotecan. Victor answers clumsily, “a beautiful day.”
The gravel road begins turning into brick. It isn’t noticeable at first. Stones and sand had eaten away here and there, leaving only a corner or an imprint, or sometimes two or three bricks melded together. The few become solid rows. The solid rows cling together, building steps, gentle bends, sunlit avenues to rest at along the way. Where did the magic begin? Perhaps with the parakeets, their colors a dazzling array in the sky. I had marveled, but still hadn’t thrust aside the uncomfortable bus ride, deprived sleep and the chilly morning. I had marveled, thinking more of a warm bed than their sparkling display of color.
There was a moment while walking through this thick forest when I realized among the tropical birds that flitted shyly through the trees; Macaws and canaries, doves and deep scarlet cardinals; there were also chick-a-dees. I stopped out of curiosity to scrutinize a neighbor I was familiar with, and saw that among the elms and magnolias, oaks and giant willows, there were also tall conifers; spruce and pine. This forest had a little of everything, a round table of all the life found in the North American continent.
I forgot to be tired. This was a biologist’s dream. Ferns rustled among spider plants crawling up the trees and elephant ear growing taller and more vigorous with each step along the way. At the far end where the road made a wide turn, a tree bends over, laden with blushing eight inch long orchids. A single orchid is a beautiful sight. A tree full of orchids takes your breath away. While I stand entranced at this voluntary rendition of exotic treasures, my eye wanders back to the road we had just traveled. We had been walking a solid three hours and my mind had no longer been paying attention to what my feet were doing. As in most mountainous climbs, we had been following a set of bumpy hills, each one taking us just a little higher than the one before. At the peak we stood on, we could see below us the miles of road we’d followed into the woods. The road had been riveted with shallow steps, never more than five or six at a time, each step with a width of about five feet. Looking down from the perch, we saw a steady staircase of steps woven into the road like the creases in an accordion, winding and disappearing into the trees.
This was the adventure I had been yearning, a place so secret and far away, time stood still. I cast aside all sense of weariness. I was ready to see where this road would take me. There was a good reason to hurry. In the rain forest, the sky clouds over every late afternoon. Gathering first in the peaks with thunder and lightening, the rain moves in, thick and hurriedly, drumming against the roof tops until late in the evening. I pick up my pace when we begin to notice the first signs of the approaching storm.
The rain comes in buckets. It comes in torrents. In no time, it seeps inside our vinyl wind breakers, saturates our legs and soaks our feet. I should be miserable, but I’m not. The rain is as warm as the air temperature which hasn’t cooled off with the afternoon sun. The foliage is so great, the branches of the trees so long, the leaves so broad and thick, we pick our way through by standing under one shelter until the rain lessened, then scurrying to another before it picks up volume and pace again. As we plod closer to the ranch that would be our home for the next week, we begin to notice other refugees from the rain. Tiny women, no more than 140 centimeters tall, sure footed and swift, balancing baskets on their heads, flash in and out of the trees, while giggling and talking among themselves. They each carry for umbrellas, gigantic fronds cut from the elephant ear plant. Despite the rain, despite the long day and interminable hike, I feel transported to a fairy land; elephant ear bobbing among hilly slopes of yet more elephant ear, brilliant colors splashing in and out of the trees, monkeys cackling, and finally, when it would have been just as easy to run naked as trudge along in our slogging clothes, a field opens suddenly and spectacularly in front of us.
It’s an extremely large field that carves steeply into the mountain at one end, rolls across a level plain, then spreads out on a lower hill filled with wild flowers. In the center of the lower hill is a Jack and Jill well. On the level plain are three long, but modest ranch houses lined up like baker’s bread. To the side of the houses, is a barn, a couple of sheds and a horse stable. A fence beginning at the stable, travels up the highest hill, bends around and returns full circle. Whatever creatures the fence harbored, they had come in to shelter for the evening, but we could hear their whinnies and impatient pawing. A farmer rounds the corner of the stable with a bucket of feed in his hand and disappears inside.
Victor knocks at the door of the first ranch house. The man who opens it cautiously frowns for a moment, then clears his face with a broad smile. “Se recuerdas de mi?” Asks Victor.
“Si, si. Te recuerdo.” He beckons us in, asking what he can do for us. Victor tells him he would like to rent a room for a few days. The senor thinks about it a moment. Yes, he has a place he thinks we could us. He leads us to the humblest ranch house; the one at the end of the rows. It looks like it hasn’t been occupied for awhile. The windows are without panes. The door is a ragged blanket across the frame. The inside is one large room with concrete walls and floor. There is a rickety table, two chairs at the very fringes of total collapse, and several hammocks strung from wall to wall. Our light is a kerosene lantern and several candles. Chickens perch unconcernedly on the window ledge or scuttle in and out from under the blanket. Victor hands his host a five hundred peso note. The senor stuffs it in his pocket as though afraid we’d change our minds at the last minute concerning so much generosity. “Mi casa esta su casa,” he tells us sincerely. My house is your house.
We settle down in our hammocks, listening to the rain that had quieted to a steady patter. Just as we start to drift into sleep, a young girl appears with a large platter of hot food; soup, rice, beans, tortillas and salsa. Victor hands her fifty pesos and her eyes light with shy delight. Giggling, she looks back once at us and disappears behind the blanket. About an hour later, she returns and gathers the dishes. She keeps her head down, but her eyes turn at the end as she studies us secretly. Sometime during that drowsy hour, the moon comes out and peers through the window, leaving a bright square of light and the silhouette of a chicken on the floor. Taking out thin wool blankets, we retire once more to our hammocks, concluding our first evening on the stairway to heaven.