I was with Vanessa at the hairdresser’s last week, when the girl’s sister, Ana, invited me to go along on Saturday to a little town up the mountain, then have lunch at a sister’s home. Now I made up my mind a long time ago, that unless something is obviously dangerous, say “Yes” to any invitation, otherwise, you never know what great experiences you might miss.
So I needed to get up early on Saturday, “dress for cold and hot” (whatever that means), and get to the opposite side of town, find a house I had been to once (which looks like every other house), to catch a ride to the town Tetipac (pronounced Te tee PAHK). We had to get going early because it was a good 45 minute drive to the top of the mountain and beyond — beyond all the towns I am familiar with, beyond the state park, Cerro del Huixteco (more on this in a future post), through the trees and the chilly air, and down the other side.
Now if Taxco is at 5600 feet or so, Huixteco has to be near an ear popping 7500 and the top of the peak around 8000 or so. We were high, that fact made very obvious when as we were heading down the other side, parts of the road had washed away and we had a commanding view of the town waaaaaaaaaaay down below as well as the tableland and mountains in the distance.
As we had gone up, up, up, we then started down, down, down, curving around and around — whether due to the curvature of the mountain or to switchbacks because of the steepness of the terrain, I was not sure (probably both.) At last, we reached the town and snaked our way steeply through the upper regions and down into a main business area hugging the side of the mountain. We turned left at an intersection, and immediately ground gears to crawl up the steeply pitched street and parked. The parking spot was at such an angle that someone had to hold the door as I tried to heave myself out of the back seat without falling back in.
Safely out of the car, we then, walked still further up another steep grade to the top of a driveway, and you guessed it — what goes up has to go down, down, down, and down some more where at the bottom we crossed a stream on a couple of warped 2×12’s to come to the entrance of the house where the service meeting would be held.
We and three people from the house next door climbed a set of stairs into the lower patio area of what used to be a very grand casa with a nice landscaped yard and a pool (it is still a nice house upstairs, but the pool would make a better sunken garden at this point.) At this hour and altitude, I became very aware of what cold meant as I shifted uncomfortably on the cold cement, trying to find a sunny spot to warm my toes.
Soon, some others came, then more, and when there were about 20 or 30 of us all milling around, a brother got up on the steps above the group and said a prayer. Not speaking Spanish very well, I thought it was time to go in the field, but when I grabbed my bag and stood up again, lo and behold, breakfast was being served! I was offered coffee (the weak Mexican kind), tea, tortas (sandwiches), and rolls. I had eaten before I left so I accepted a cup of hot tea (to warm my toes) and found it sweeter than any sweet tea served in the deep South.
After everyone had eaten, the food was packed up, the brother said another prayer and we were off, two by two — down the steps of the house, down to the stream, across the wooden “bridge” and up, up, and up the steep driveway to the top. I was breathing heavy (not used to this altitude nor the “can barely stand up” steepness,) but if the 87-year-old pioneer sister with a cane could make the grade, I was determined to do the same!
Now Mexican service is a little different than that of the US. Since there are few real blocks and lots of little callejons (alleys) to get lost in, everyone works house over house as a herd (or is that a flock?). Most of the group went down the steep incline to the main residential street and started working up the mountain; nine of us sisters were sent down a dead end road and then were to connect with the main group when we were done.
“So how does this work?” you say, since most Americans have trouble working house over house when there are just three people!
Well, the whole group walks along the street, and when a door to a house is found, two people peel off, knock and holler “Buenas dias!” and wait to see if someone comes to the door or sticks their head out a window above.
(I still sometimes do not know how they know a house door from a garage door from a closed business since in these places most of the doors are solid corrugated iron gates that look more like garage doors. One thing I do know is if it has a padlock on the outside, no one is home.)
The rest of the group walks on, repeating this procedure (sometimes at doors within a few feet of each other) until they come to an alley or a fork in the road, then a 10-15 minute discussion ensues to determine if the alley is a real callejon with houses on it that should be worked or if it is even part of the territory to be worked, and if so who is going to go that way. The brother in charge, who is trailing the last members of his flock to be sure none get lost or left behind, usually arrives and reassigns groups of people to go each way.
On this particular day, the sister I was with had a good call at the first house (also the location of a tienda, a shop – but in this case a metal box, with sides that open to vend novelties, snacks, and necessities; think of the food carts on State Street or at a carnival only without wheels) which meant that everyone else worked the dead end and then went to the main street and started following the other group up the mountain street. That left us dead last in the flock, walking and walking up the steep incline in the hot sun until we caught up with the rest of the group, deep in discussion over which way to go. Getting that straightened out, we walked and walked and walked up some more either finding no one home (found out later most of the town was at a funeral) or being behind the rest of the group, attempting to make it to the front where we might actually be able to call on a house (a flock of geese come to mind.) Then we came to another fork in the road.
As we waited and discussed whether we should take the side street (callejon) even steeper up the mountainside, where there may or may not be a house, or the calle (street) that seemed to continue on a gentle slope heading down, a man and his wife came down the callejon (so there were houses up there). I seized the opportunity to try out my presentation in very limited Spanish and when I had no more words to use, the sister helped out. The man took the magazines and answered the question about whether anyone else lived up there by pointing to an old man, with one leg, one crutch, and a pile of firewood on his shoulders as he started down a “callejon” (more of a dirt path short cut down the mountain) into town. I dare you to try that on two good legs without any firewood!
Nobody home today, so, on we went down the relatively gentle road, past the cow pasture and an amazing view of Sombero Mountain – so named because it looks like a giant sombero, until we came to the main road into town, far above where we started. So on we walked,down, down, down, past the city monument and the fountain welcoming you into town, past the washed out road with white rocks indicating not to drive there, past the first few houses and businesses, all visited by other members of the flock, well ahead of us, past the house on the rock (No, not that one!) until we came to what appeared to be the main (and only) intersection in town where everyone was gathering for break time (which means, find a place in the shade and if you can sit on something do so.)
It was not long before the car and the combi that had given everyone a ride over the mountain, appeared, loaded us all up, then took us down, down, down some more where the real center of town was located (you know because the church is located there along with a small square of businesses), past the weekly market stalls to a house in the lower section where we were invited to lunch by a sister and her daughter. They served everyone the most delicious mole (both red and green), friole tamales, and rice. Mmm mmm good!
Now, if you are wondering how you keep track of placements and not-at-homes in such a far flung, rustic place that may or may not have house numbers, well, you don’t. The territory is worked every week or two, so if you miss them this week, there is always next week and somehow all the sheep are found.