Manuel, a local guide, and I had just spent an enormously pleasant day hiking beside the Urique River to the church at Satevo. Then, we walked through a nearby village and beyond to a tiny cluster of Tarahumara houses. We had “talked” all the way.
I use the word “talk” advisedly because the “talk” was in Spanish. Manuel, who has been guiding visitors through this region for decades, is very good at speaking s-l-o-w-l-y, but right now a child would understand him better than I. Probably a street dog would understand him better than I.
Manuel told me about the ancient church at Satevo and about how a priest newly appointed to the area in the 1990s had taken it upon himself to preserve and renovate the ancient structure, which was unused and falling into disrepair. It was so unused, in fact, that most people had forgotten it was there, so it was called the Lost Cathedral.
Originally, it was a mission church built by the Jesuits in the mid-1600s. This priest badgered the powers-that-be in church and state until he got the structure designated as a patrimonial site and some funds to fix it up.
Since then, the village has grown around it. There is a small school, and the church is clean and cared-for and once again in use. Bougainvillea blooms over fences, small gardens are tidy and fenced, and with the river winding through town, it’s a pretty place.
The little cluster of Tarahumara houses (mostly one family) outside the village are new. Until 3 or 4 years ago, Manuel explained, the family had been living in nearby caves. One was for sleeping and the other was the living room/kitchen. The caves were neither deep, spacious, nor tall. I’m thinking a cave could be tolerable in some conditions. But these offered almost no protection from wind, rain, or cold.
Manuel also explained that until recently, the tiny patches of garden had been planted in marijuana, which the local narcos bought. (“When you see young men in big, fancy trucks driving through town very fast, those are guys in the drug trade,” said Manuel. And actually, I HAD seen those guys zooming around the tiny square in Batopilas.) But demand in the US, for marijuana at least has fallen, and so this Tarahumara family is back to planting corn and beans.
A few days later, in another town, I met a young American who had ridden his motorcyle down to Batopilas over these same roads (and worse). He was stopped by one of those guys with a new truck. The conversation went something like this:
“Where did you get your motorcycle? It’s nice. You must be rich.”
“Well, not really. Look at your truck. YOU must be rich.”
After a long and pleasant afternoon, we were almost back to Batopilas when Manuel dropped the bomb about the bus. I thought it returned to Creel every day, but apparently it’s a twice-per-week affair, and tomorrow was the last day for that week. Not only that, but it left at FOUR A.M, a time of day I haven’t seen since my children were infants.
Accordingly, my hostess, sweet Juanita, roused me at 3:20am, although I was already awake, since I was inordinately afraid of missing my ride. By 3:45 I was, once again, standing in the dark in front of the church where I’d been dropped off only two days before.
The silent plaza was serene under a bright moon. I could almost hear the breathing of the slumbering village. A dog trotted across the plaza, then a black cat that froze mid-stride, startled to see another dark shape on its turf. I stood in this strange, bottom-of-the-world place, slightly unnerved but also enchanted. My time in Batopilas had been good.
After about 45 minutes, I knew that, even allowing for typical lateness, there would be no bus that morning.
With my stomach in a knot, I slogged back to Juanita’s, glad I hadn’t locked my room and that she hadn’t locked the outer gate, to thrash around and worry until the village woke up, and then to see what was up.
When I think back, I’m not sure why I was so anxious to leave pretty Batopilas. I could have stayed longer, done another hike with Manuel, hung out on the plaza. But for some reason–maybe I was still orienting to the travel and to the way things happen in this part of the world–I was almost feeling trapped. How would I ever get out?
It was irrational, but there you have it.
When I walked out of my room and into Juanita’s courtyard a few hours later, two Americans were there chattering IN ENGLISH about how beautiful it was.
The sight was so bizzarre, I almost went back to bed to wake myself up. But Gale and Adrienne were flesh and blood, and not only that, Gale (the man) was 90 years old and Adrienne, his travel companion, was 73. They had arrived the evening before after coming down the same road I’d just whined about, and here they were, cheerfully looking for breakfast early in the morning.
I don’t even know what to say about this.
I explained to Juanita about the non-appearance of the bus, and her husband promised to “pregunta” around. I was at the mercy of the village rumor mill to find a ride back to the top. But I never underestimate the efficacy of the rumor mill.
After hanging out with Gale and Adrienne all morning, I was hailed by Juanita in the plaza. A man was driving to Creel, and he’d be glad to give me a ride. This kind of ride-hopping is common in Mexico, where vehicles are at a premium. I was happy to accept.
By four the man was ready to leave. He was short and stocky. He wore the de rigueur white-ish cowboy hat and pointy boots. He was dark and his face, while craggy, was strong-featured. He wasn’t handsome, but for some reason, he commanded respect. He was a supervisor for the state of Chihuahua and drove around to crazy, remote places in a battered company truck, taking pictures of construction sites.
Once settled in the front seat beside this unknown man, I had a moment of panic. Who was this guy that I’d be sharing the next few hours with on remote and ugly roads? The truck was rattletrap-ish by my standards–dust-covered and rickety. No seat belts, of course.
I took myself in hand. Juanita had been pleased to suggest this solution to my problem, and I trusted her judgement.