Of Mountains, Saints & Orthodox Travel Theology

March 2, 2010 in Mexico, North America, Travelogue

A roadside memorial

The mountainous drive south of Oaxaca (wah-hah-kah) toward the coast at Tehuantepec is a treacherous one, certainly the most exciting of the trip so far. Today we will drop almost a mile from the Oaxaca valley to the protected lagunas along the Pacific coast. It requires all of Tony’s focus to keep our little green pod, full of our precious pea-children on the winding two lane highway, completely devoid of guard rails, in spite of vertical drops from the white line of several hundred feet.

We ascend the narrow passes with the windows open, giving the engine a rest, we descend with the air conditioner running in second gear, sometimes first, providing all the extra resistance possible to slow our controlled fall into the narrow valleys. The smattering of iron crosses and little concrete shrines are positioned in a way that improves the focus of the driver on the things that really matter.


I’ve been a happy passenger all my life, blithely trusting my fate to the hands of capable men who love me more than they love themselves. I was a pea in my father’s van on these roads long ago, and having switched pods, I’m no less safe this afternoon. While the men have carried the stress of the journey, I am free to watch the world go by, observe the tiny details and dream my way through the day.

These are craggy mountains, baked the same brown as the cocoa this region is famous for. Sheer rock cliffs, cut like open wounds in the earth bleed iron red and copper patina green rocks onto the roadside; a testimony to the determined men who forged this asphalt path across mountain faces. Narrow terra cotta hued paths woven together like the lace on my grandmother’s table cloth ripple down the mountainsides, giving way to wider gorges that pour into the serpentine river snaking through an emerald necklace of palm and fruit trees that I catch glimpses of, hundreds of feet below, on the outside of narrow turns.

A veritable saguaro forest climbs out of the depths far below and spreads itself across the rocky expanse, mile after mile. Many of the fingered succulents are topped with yellow flowers, mostly closed in the mid-day heat. Between them grow trees with bark the color of an old merlot stain, reminiscent of ancient arms reaching out of the earth with gnarled fingers curled toward the sky, praying for rain.

Punctuating the browns and reds and muted greens are the lemon colored flower stalks of wild agave plants, twenty feet high, nodding their heads in the breeze. Occasionally, once a kilometer or so, I catch sight of another tree that looks for all the world like it has exploded at the tip of every single twig in a spray of bright orange fireworks, a discordant riot of color against an otherwise subdued palate of arid terrain. As a backdrop, loom the cool blue mountains still miles ahead.

Ezra, packing his stuff

We stopped for lunch in an unnamed puebla surrounded by patchwork terraces of agave and paddle cactus. There was no menu, so we ordered what the senorita suggested, tacos cecina. “Today’s meat is pork,” she mentioned, “is that okay?” Since we’re neither Jewish nor Muslim, pork was fine.

The boys, eager to explore any new bathroom facility, headed around back to check this one out. We’ve all been a bit nervous these past couple of days as two of the boys have had one bout of “turista” each on different days. This morning it was Ezra’s turn. His undies are hung like a Tibetan prayer flag to the Patron Saint of Digestive Harmony across the clothing bar in the back of the van, drying.

They returned in short order, looking a little confused, “Mom, they’re clean, but there’s no flusher.” Daddy sighed, got up and headed back to check it out. Sure enough, no flushers. Not only no flushers, no water tanks whatsoever, just a bowl with no seat, smelling strongly of ‘fabuloso’ the Mexican housewife’s disinfectant of choice. Happily, there was a green bucket and a cistern full of “fresh” water, drained off of the roof.

Of course it was Ezra bringing the report, interrupting my deliberate Spanish train of thought whilst ordering lunch in his singular loud “gringo kid” English, “MOM! It’s okay, you use a bucket to flush… but I didn’t need to, I just peed. The poop thing is okay, and don’t worry, I remember what Dad said, “NEVER TRUST A FART!” he recited his father’s sage wisdom as if it had come straight out of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I’m sure the church fathers would have included it if they’d been writing from the third world.

The senorita looked quizzically at the confusing little child and I thanked the Patron Saint of Nomadic Mamas that not everyone speaks English.