Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Streets of San Cristobal (for a brief interlude during troubling times)

Note: When he was 19 years-old, Anthony Reza experienced one of the worst battles of the Vietnam War, leaving him wounded, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Four decades later, the 66-year-old history professor-writer heads for a vacation to Mexico City, hoping to clear his mind for the start of a new semester of classes, barely a week away, but instead of staying in the relative safety of Mexican capital, as he promised his wife, he, spontaneously, changes plans and boards a bus to Chiapas, site of the 1994 Zapatista rebellion. Revolutions fascinate him. Five hours into a fourteen-hour bus ride, his mind begins to calm, that is, until he notices a Mexican soldier glaring at him from across the aisle.                                                                                    
Mexico moves on wheels
     Above the driver's head, the clock says 2:07 AM. I look through the windshield and see a busy, freeway, three lanes on either side. The bus moves fast, maybe 70 miles-per-hour. Outside, the lights are a blur. I’m groggy, not sure if I’m asleep or awake. It’s all so hazy.
     The bus pulls to a stop, a small settlement, bare lightbulbs hanging from a thatched roof. A new bus driver steps onto the bus and into the driver seat, a fresh replacement. I rise to my elbows. Some passengers disembark. I take out my cassette recorder and try describing what I see. Fifteen minutes later, they board again, loaded with coffee, sodas, muffins, and chips. I see the name, Armadillo, funny name for a town.
     “What is that?” I look up. It's the young soldier from across the aisle, who has had his eyes on me since I sat down. He is now standing over me. My first instinct is to tell him it’s none of his business. I know better. “It’s a recorder.” I hold it out so he can see.
     He takes it from me and turns it over, as if looking for a secret compartment. He asks why I have it and what I am saying into it. Now, I am annoyed. It’s early, and I’m tired. He stands, legs apart, a defensive position. Other passengers turn to look. He shows them he is in control. I speak softly so only he and those nearby can hear. I tell him I am a visitor from the United States, a teacher on vacation before I begin work again. I know most Mexicans respect teachers.
     He asks to see some identification. I hesitate. I don’t need him getting off the bus with my personal documents. The new driver waits, the bus engine still humming. I hand the kid my passport, faculty ID, and military disability cards. I want U.S. Government in his face. He looks at my documents. I smile at him, friendly. He remains stoic. He returns my documents and recorder. He looks down at me, threateningly. Before he says anything, I tell him, “I hope to visit my cousin before I leave, Senator Miguel Reza Mireles.”
     “Senator…Mireles--from San Luis Potosi?”
     I’m impressed the kid knows the name. “That’s right. I haven’t seen him in a few years. I emailed him before I left home. He’s expecting me. I wasn’t sure if he is still in Mexico City or back in San Luis.”
     "He is in Mexico City," he says. "My duty was to guard the senators when the legislature was in session."
     "Ah, perfect," I respond.
     It’s like a poker game. I can see the kid thinking. “Thank you for your documents,” is all he says before turning, picking up his bag from his seat and exiting the bus.
     The people around me return to their own worlds. In a minute, we are back on the highway. I am disturbed, yet relieved, but it’s like I’ve been violated. He could have ordered me off the bus, and lord, who knows what then, a huge fine, bribe, or something worse.
     I always wondered if one day my cousin’s name and position might help me. I haven’t seen him in ten years, and I don’t know how his name just popped into my head like that. I lie back, toss for another half-hour or so, and succumb to the darkness.
Anthony will learn the charms and intrigues of San Cristobal's streets 
     The next time my eyes open, golden streaks of light flood the bus. I pull back the curtains, and the early morning sun rushes in. Low, round, mountains surround us. People on the bus are stirring about. Along the highway, people mill about in small hamlets, smoke rising from thatched roofs. The smell of burnt wood engulfs us.
     We’re on a two-lane road, still moving at a fast clip. It’s a beautiful morning. I push the incident with the young soldier from my mind, simple, just like that. An hour later, people stand and reach for their belongings. The bus slowly edges its way through narrow city streets. Swinging in a wide arc, it pulls through the entrance and into the Central de Autobuses, Tuxtla Gutierrez. Fourteen hours have passed since we left Mexico City. The bus driver calls, “Fifteen minutes.”
     I ask the driver if he knows where I catch the shuttle to San Cristobal. He looks at me as if I’m joking. “That’s my next stop.”
     “The ticket agent said I needed to transfer to a shuttle.”
     He shrugs. “Can I buy a ticket from you?” “No, inside, at the counter. Leave your luggage underneath. I’ll be waiting here.”
     I step down from the bus and head to the terminal. The luggage handler, a young man, calls me back. “What about your bag?”
     “I’ll be back. I need to buy a ticket to San Cristobal.”
     “Let me see your ticket stub.” I hand it to him. “Your destination says Tuxtla Gutierrez. Your luggage is already inside.”
     “The driver told me to leave it on the bus.”
     “Go to the luggage area.”
     Inside, I locate the baggage claim. I give the man my ticket. He hands me my suitcase. I go to the counter to buy a ticket. Five minutes have passed. Two people chat and laugh with the woman selling tickets. I’m impatient. I shouldn’t be. No one hurries in Mexico. That is part of the attraction. When I reach the counter. I ask for a ticket to San Cristobal. “The bus leaves in ten minutes,” the agent tells me.
     “Yes, I know,” I answer, annoyed. “In Mexico City….” She’s isn’t listening. I walk towards the exit to board the bus. A security guard stops me. “You must go through security.” I look out at the line of people waiting to have their suitcases, boxes, and bags inspected. “I just got off that bus,” I say pointing. “The driver told me to buy a ticket and get back on.”
     “Maestro, once inside the terminal, you must go through security to exit, no exceptions.”
     It's getting warm. Perspiration builds on my forehead. The word maestro throws me. Mexicans use it as a term of respect for anyone with graying hair. My mind says I am in my thirties; my body knows the truth. Mirrors are my enemy. Reluctantly, I head for security. There’s a long line. One lady has five bags. The inspectors open every bag. Ten minutes have passed. I decide to buck the line, hoping my maestro status will offer some advantage.
     My too casual Los Angeles professor, hippie attire doesn’t scream “distinguished” in Mexico. If anything, it screams privileged Hispanicized pocho. I walk up to another inspector and explain my situation. He looks me up and down. “You need to get back in line.” He is firm. Then comes another thought. I am being set up for a huge mordida, you know—the big bite—the bribe? In Mexico, I’ve learned never to argue with authority, like the young soldier on the bus. One pleads, bribes, cajoles, or is smart enough to know the difference. The lower the authority figure, the more manipulation it takes. I use a calm, respectful voice, “Inspector,” I assume his title. I may be overdoing it. “I just arrived on that bus after a fourteen-hour ride. The driver told me to buy a ticket to San Cristobal and get back onto the bus. He is ready to leave.” Under stress, my Spanish awkwardly becomes a direct translation from English.
     “The driver will wait,” the inspector answers.
     I know in Mexico only planes and buses keep a schedule. Through a plate glass window, the driver sees me. I raise my palms, a signal of distress. He looks annoyed and checks his watch. The inspector doesn’t budge. Two more people have gotten into line ahead of me. My heart races. I need to exercise more. This can’t be healthy. The line crawls. Everyone wants to talk and joke with the inspector. One woman starts to tell him a story about her son. My toes are curling. My luggage is dead-weight in my hand. My bus driver is heading towards security. He talks to one of the inspectors. The inspector calls me over. Here it comes. They’re going to shake me down and split the money between them. I just know it. And I only have a hundred-dollars cash on me. How much will they want? Here’s where they will take me into the office.
     “Give me your luggage?” the inspector orders. Shit, I think. It’s starting. Will they stash drugs in my bag, arrest me, and want thousands of dollars for my release? I hear Serena repeat that she won’t put the house up as collateral if I’m kidnapped. She warned me to stay in Mexico City and not go traipsing off into unknown neighborhoods. If only she knew.
     I offer the inspector my suitcase as if I’m offering a sacrifice. I watch closely. He places it on a shiny metal table, unzips the bag and moves my things around. I look for something in his rubber-gloved hands, a plastic baggie or white lump of some kind. It feels weird, another man’s hands on my underwear. When he’s finishes, he puts my clothes back into place. He zips my suitcase and hands it to me. “Hurry, Maestro, before you miss your bus.”
     The driver is back behind the steering wheel. When I pass, he says, “Didn’t I tell to leave you luggage underneath?” I shake my head.
     The bus heads up the steep mountain, the Mercedes groaning. I sit back and breathe deeply. I turn to see Tuxtla behind me, a gleaming white splotch splashed in the green valley below, and mountains rising in the distance, like a National Geographic photograph. It’s as if I’m on a plane going into the clouds. My nerves begin to settle. In no time, we’re at the outskirts of San Cristobal, the clouds behind us. The bus weaves slowly through the narrow streets. San Cristobal de Las Casas shimmers under the morning sun, a classic Mexican town, straight out of a John Houston movie set, colorful walls, red-tiled roofs, cobbled stone streets, stores, and cafes.
Even in 2013, Anthony sees the Zapatista National Liberation Army maintains its presence
     Then, out of nowhere, I imagine armed Mayan rebels running through the streets attacking the town, tourists fleeing in every direction. For a brief instant, it’s 1994 again. I step down from the bus and get my suitcase, keeping my bag close to my side.
     Inside the bus terminal, I pass by dreadlocked, European backpackers, tanned, and laughing, girls and guys, some wearing multi-colored Mayan blouses, waiting for buses going farther south to the Yucatan, Guatemala, and Honduras. They don’t fear corrupt police, kidnappers, or murderous cartels. Youth is the antidote to fear. They are adventurous and alive. Maybe that’s my real reason for travelling here—to regain my youth. Too much is going on. I will call Serena from the hotel, once I find one.
Agua Azul is a magnet for Anthony's spirit of adventure
     I look towards the information desk. On the walls, posters promote hotels and guided tours of San Juan Chamula, Palenque, Agua Azul Falls, and the Lacandon jungle. The name Hotel Los Angeles leaps out at me. I exit the small, bustling terminal. Taxis wait at the curb. Again, I remind myself to be aware of taxi drivers taking unsuspecting tourists to desolate locations where kidnappers or thieves wait. I hesitate. I scold myself for giving into such nonsense, damn American media. I’ve been traveling to Mexico all my life, even finding myself lost in mazes of city streets, day and night, never once being threatened. A driver waves me over. “Where to, maestro?” I look around, mostly Mayans and mestizos, and some tourists going about their business. I remember, “Hotel Los Angeles.” I trust my fate to a poster on the wall.
     The atmosphere is festive. I see a store advertising Calvin Kline and Nike. Rap and salsa fill the streets. “It is close by,” he answers and loads my bags into the trunk. As I take my seat, I make sure the car has a door handle inside. Cars and people crowd the narrow streets and sidewalks. Horns blare. My hotel is barely a five-minute drive and located in the town’s center, Avenida Francisco I. Madero, easy to remember the name of the duped, spiritualist Mexican rebel president assassinated in 1913. He pulls to the entrance. A hotel employee dressed in white shirt and black pants comes to the car, opens my door, and greets me. He takes my suitcase. I clutch my shoulder bag. “I’ll carry this,” I say. I pay the driver and give him a hefty tip for keeping me alive. He smiles, gives me his card, tells me he gives personal tours, and thanks me.
San Cristobal's streets teeming with life
     I’m in a swirl of activity, the sound and smell of Mexico, earth, burnt wood, and freshly baked bread, exotic, familiar, and euphoric. I breathe deeply, the cool mountain air pushing its way into my lungs. I exhale and relax. I focus on each step. I walk through the open doors, greeted by the sounds of water splashing from an enormous fountain in the middle of the dining area. I marvel at the interior, a spacious lobby, red-tiled floors and mosaics on the walls, potted trees, a hand-carved mahogany counter and room-key boxes on the wall. A smiling young woman welcomes me. I request a quiet room, preferably in back, away from the street. She says she has a nice, single room at the back of the hotel, $25 (U.S.)-a night rather than the normal $60 summer rate. “Cheap”, Jimmy, my son, calls me. “I think that’s the real reason you like Mexico so much, Pop.”
     I pass diners eating their breakfasts. A canopy covers the open ceiling. Along the tiled walk, potted plants and mannequins in traditional Mayan-wear line the walls. Two chairs and a side table, surrounded by tropical plants, provide privacy on the patio outside my door. As I enter, I am relieved to find a spacious room, sparkling white walls, a carved, wood desk, a queen size bed, end tables, lamps, a colorful mural of a Mayan warrior above the bed. The bathroom is completely tiled, immaculate, and a clear glass bowl placed atop a wood cabinet for the sink—very modern, chic.
     I unpack, shower, and pick up the phone for an outside line. Serena and I talk for twenty minutes, debating the first ten. After I’ve described the bus journey, the town, and tell her I’m feeling much better, she calms down. It’s how we operate, let it all out, the bad with the good, our M.O. She ends by telling me to be aware of my surroundings and not be careless. It’s still Mexico, and anything can happen. If I return home safely, then she’ll tell me whether she still loves me or not. I fall into bed, her last words vibrating in my head, over and over, until I sleep.
     When I awake, it’s early evening. I wash the sleep from my face, dress and hit the streets. When I travel for pleasure, I rarely make a plan, no Frommer’s, Rick Steve’s, or Lonely Planet. My habit is to wander through different neighborhoods to get my bearings, feel the spirit of a place, ask a lot of questions, and hang on for the ride. That’s much different than when I travel for work, or with Serena, sticking to itineraries, schedules, very task-oriented.
Anthony is wary of Tzotzil street vendors, always ready to make a sale
     Outside my hotel, the provincial city pulses with life. Locals and tourists, many Europeans, saunter about cafes, stores, and various businesses. On side streets, closed to traffic, they stand, talking in small groups, dogs chasing each other. I know enough to avoid Mayan women and children who crowd street corners selling their wares, knock-off traditional clothing and commercial souvenirs produced in Indonesia and Vietnam. Higher priced stores have cornered the market for genuine Mayan goods, arts, crafts, and clothing.
     At the corner, I cross the street to the zocalo, for a better view of the colonial buildings housing the usual government offices and businesses, a basilica at the other end. A notorious world bank, EuroBank, ubiquitous throughout Mexico, towers over the other stores and holds a prominent spot in the middle of the block, a symbol for whom really controls the country, not the church or the government but big business, the financial world.
     A few years ago, lawyers representing three surviving Mexican families who lost seven members at a wedding celebration, allegedly executed by a drug cartel, sued EuroBank, claiming the financial behemoth knowingly laundered billions it took in from cartels. Rather than fight it out in a long, public court battle, the bank settled, paying the families a few million dollars—a pittance, and it was right back to business as usual.
     In the zocalo, everyone is taking in the dying rays of the setting sun. A cacophony of voices mixes with the cicadas chirping in the trees overhead. I hear the first strains of a marimba band warming up on a large, concrete gazebo. I make my way up the brick footpath, neatly landscaped on both sides, tourists milling about. I hear mostly French, German, and Spanish, no English. A Mayan child rushes to my side. Startled, I step back. Dressed in Indian clothing, he holds a tray full of trinkets, belts, and Mayan shirts. An image of hungry kids in Vietnam comes to me. We gave them chocolate bars from our C-rations. American G.I.s have been handing out chocolate bars to kids in war-torn countries around the world going back to WWI. Chocolate, strange, now that I think about it, a delicacy created for Mayan and Aztec kings, co-opted by the rest of the world.
     I smile at the boy, say no, and pretend to ignore him. Poverty haunts me. Even though my dad worked hard to provide our family a middle-class life, poverty was just a lost job away. I was a Depression grandbaby, heard it all from my parents, the 1930s government handouts of weird vegetables, rhubarb, cabbage, and rutabagas. I watched a few relatives turn to drugs, alcohol, and crime for a lack of an education or trade. I remember Vietnamese kids with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Poverty is the monster at our heels. I turn and read a plaque on the gazebo wall: San Cristobal de las Casas, 1545.
Always the historian, Anthony considers the journey from Tenochtitlan to Chiapas in 1545 
     “They won’t stop, you know.”
     He speaks Spanish, slow, each word clearly pronounced. He is an older man, bald on top and long hair combed back on the sides. He wears a coat and tie, distinguished looking.
     “Yes, I know. I’ve got a room full of souvenirs back home.”
     He gives the Mayan boy a stern look. The child moves on. “It’s a business. They import much of the merchandise.”
     “I am aware. Still, everybody’s got to earn a living.”
     He smiles. “You are new in town?”
     It’s a strange comment considering the tourists all around me. “I mean,” he adds, “American, yes? We don’t get as many Americans anymore.”
     Behind us, the Mayan boy has found a willing customer.
     “That’s right. I am American.”
     “Ah, yes, I saw you looking at the plaque.
     “It’s my first visit here.”
     “Vacation or business?”
     “Vacation, I hope. It arrived this morning on a bus from Mexico City.”
     “For god’s sake! Tuxtla has a fine airport.”
     “It’s a long story,” I sigh. “Cortez landed in Vera Cruz in 1519, within forty-five years, he had conquered Tenochtitlan and came to San Cristobal.”
     He rubs his chin. “The roads and villages existed all the way to Lima, long before Cortez. The Spanish changed the names and turned Indian towns into European towns. Time, and money, did the rest, ah! except for San Juan Chamula.”
     I can’t suppress my smile. “You sound like more of an historian than I do.”
     “Ah, a teacher! Well, every Mexican child learns this history. It’s also, for me, a passing interest,” he says, extending his hand,
     “Samuel.” He only uses one name. Most older Mexicans introduce themselves with full names. He has a strong grip. He offers, “Since I retired, the zocalo is my second home,” then adds, “so, you are an historian?”
     I shake his hand. “Yes, from Los Angeles. Anthony Reza. A visitor in-residence.”
     “No, just Anthony.” I smile. He appears confused.
     “When my parents were children, their American teachers changed their names to English, so Miguel became Michael, Maria, Mary, Jaime, James, etc. etc. My father once told me he didn’t want anybody changing my name, so he named me Anthony.”
     “That is an irony,” he laughs. “Now you return to Mexico, and we want to change your name to what it should be.”
     “That’s how it is.”
     “Ah, very well, Antony,” he says. “Enjoy your vacation in San Cristobal.” Slowly, he takes a path to exit the garden. It’s important I make a contact early. I blurt, “I am working on a project, maybe you can help.”
     He stops. “Ahhh, how is that--a project?”
     “I am completing a book, stories based on interviews, Vietnam veterans, mostly friends and acquaintances, but a few randomly chosen, old soldiers, you might say.”
     He’s watching me, curiously. “You are searching for Americans here, Vietnam veterans, expatriates?”
     “Well, no, not really searching. I am really here to rest, but I am always interested if I can find  veterans willing to talk to me.”
     “Anyone in particular?”
     Again, I think, a strange question. “No, no, just a hope, a chance encounter someone, perhaps. I've heard of veterans who have moved to foreign countries. Truthfully, my wife sent me here, like I said, to rest. I shouldn’t even be talking about my work. But, you see, for me, that is impossible.”
     “What is it you want to know about them?”
     “Anything they are willing to reveal.”
     “You mean are they suffering?”
     “Or how they survived their suffering. It's always with them, the war. My father, still talks about friends killed in combat, 60 years later, imagine.”
     “You are a veteran”
     “That’s how it all started.”
     “She will be upset, your wife?”
     “She knows me well.”
     “A bus, you say? From the capital? For rest?” He watches me.
     “Call it the spirit of adventure. I’ve always wanted to visit Chiapas.”
     He nods. “Expatriates prefer their privacy.”
     "If I can find a Vietnam veteran living in Mexico…well, that could be the conclusion my book has needed. Do you know Chicano veterans living in San Cristobal?”
     “There are people here who don’t want to be found.”
     “Of course, I understand.”
Like the quiosco, Anthony's mind quiets by the end of his first day in San Cristobal
     The music picks up. Tourists rush onto the gazebo to dance, displaying their best salsa moves.
     “You might try the bar Sam Clemons. Expatriates prefer drinking there, maybe even the mercado, some visitors enjoy it.” He rubs his hands together, “Ah! Well, Antony…Antony Reza, right? Now I must go.” A cane hangs from his arm. “I am in the plaza by 10:00 each morning, to chatter with anyone interested. Join me, anytime.”
     “Do you think you can help me?”
     “Remember, you are here to rest.” He waves and crosses the street. He walks into a large, white municipal building.
     I move from the zocalo to the brightly lit neighborhoods, dodging the crowds. Samuel, he said, was his name. I am not sure whether to take his comment about the Sam Clemons or the mercado as an invitation or a suggestion. I look over my shoulder and sense a discomfort, then think, what if I can land an interview a Vietnam vet living here, a Chicano, on the streets of San Cristobal, so much the better.
     The discomfort subsides. After a couple of hours of wandering through trendy neighborhood near the zocalo, stopping to eat at a restaurant along the way, entering a few stores, and listening to groups of people standing about talking, I return to the zocalo. The musicians have stopped playing. Vendors have put away their wares for the night. The shoe shine stalls are locked. I retreat to my hotel room and make a few notes in my journal rather than record them. I fall back into bed where my body has left an imprint from my earlier nap. Something irks me. I don’t know what. I can’t sleep. I reach for my manuscript on the nightstand.

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