Up In The Hills above Taxco


The bus trip lands me at El Norte, the Northern bus station of Mexico City, and I blow 175 pesos on a cab ride to the Southern Station, which turned out to be a foolish expense, since the traffic crawled through the vast city so slowly that I would have proceeded much faster on a bicycle (and much faster still if I’d gutted up and taken the subway). Then a fight through Friday afternoon crowds to get a bus to Taxco, the ride landing me in that town too late to get a combi-bus the 20 km to Tetipac, the town Stewart Scriver’s place is near. More expense, more hassle, no one knows anything about “la Casa de los Canadiensas”, and I wind up at a Mexican hotel in this hamlet, listening to the cattle lowing outside (which is anything but unpleasant). Anyhow, here I am, having exercised more bad Spanish on the unsuspecting locals than they possible deserved. Hopefully, I’ll find Stewart and Pat’s house tomorrow. Meantime, sleep beckons…

Jan 31

Over the past 24 hours, I have stretched my meager Spanish well past the breaking point In the morning, I woke deeper in a Mexican experience than I had previously been. I meandered for a while in the hillside town of Tetipac, bought oranges, and had coffee (Nescafe with sugar) in a taquilerilla. Everyone was frankly curious about the gringo in their midst, two young men attached themselves to me. Both wanted me to know they had worked in the USA, and were happy to try their rusty English. One was hard at work in the bakery, trying to get their machine to work. He guided me to the next-door eatery and asked on my behalf that food be cooked for me. The proprietor who a moment before had found me too odd an apparition to cook for, began cooking huevos. My mentor’s first question: “Do you want cervasa? Tequila? Smoke something? “ I look at him blankly, tell him I don’t smoke. He looks at me conspiratorially. “No crack?” (I think: CRACK?? AT EIGHT IN THE MORNING IN A TINY MEXICAN VILLAGE??)   I say: “Never.” He, incredulously: “Never?” He’s amazed to find a gringo sitting in a taquilliria at eight in the morning who doesn’t want to smoke crack. “What an odd person,” reads the thought bubble clearly evident above his head.

As I’m eating my eggs, the town drunk meanders in and tests his own dusty English… Well, not English, he’s speaking Taquila-ese, and is clearly not popular with the proprietor or his wife, who are now sympathizing with me. He’s dressed much as the town drunk would be in any small Alberta town i the middle of rodeo weekend:  cowboy boots with metal toes, black Stetson hat, mother-of-pear buttons. lThe drunk, who had worked as a roofer in Texas, follows me into the street, wheedling ten pesos for a morning drink, and dogs my footsteps, embarrassing everyone in the street, until the cabbie I had engaged earlier arrives, having confirmed my destination, to give me a lift back up the road towards Taxco and the little acreage that is La Peral where Stewart Scriver and family live. On the road, it turns out he also has had a U.S. sojourn in New York, and we have a pleasant ride up the mountain in semi-competent bilingual conversation. This is how I am awkwardly going to learn this language.

El Peral

We arrive at the settlement on the hill: El Peral. I am greeted by the elderly wife of Sr. Dario, the part-time caretaker,. Her name is Lapita, one of the most naturally sweet people I’ve ever met. Soon Pat (Stewart’s lifetime partner) arrives. We walk over the swinging footbridge and up to the three stone houses that constitute their foothold on the mountain. Stewart has gone up the hill, where there is occasional cell coverage, so Pat and I sit sociably on the porch and share stories and histories. Their grand-daughter is present, with her friend Lily, who is entirely part of the family. They are beautiful, modest young people. Lily is Chinese, Trish half-Cree. They listen politely. Pat and Stewart have created an amazing life story. Both educated middle class Canadians who broke out of the mold when they opened a second-hand store in Toronto’s Kensington market forty years ago, and eventually turned it into one of the city’s cultural landmarks, importing crafts, clothing, and curios from their own cross-planet travels.

Pat offers me one the use one of the three houses (stone cabins, one might call them). Stewart not having arrived, Pat sends the girls up the mountain to find them. I go along, exercising my bad ankle on steep paths through pine, cedar and small, tough Mexican oak trees. We find Stewart on the brow of a hill, in text conversation with, among others, his brother, my friend Steve. Stewart, somewhat to my surprise, hugs me, and there follows a one-hour educational hike filled with history, geology, botany zoology, and the sociology of the region.

This area reminds me of the smells of Jasper park. The air is brisk (cold at night), and clear, redolent of pine and cedar. There is no level ground, but there are amazing small fields of compressed volcanic ash, pleasant to the feet, and small clearings giving views of distant mountains and valleys. Two volcanoes are visible, one 100 km away in the high, clear air.

Feb 1

How delightful to have wound up hanging out with Stewart Scriver and Pat Constable, with young Trish and her sweet-natured friend Lily. This mountain retreat is in sharp contrast to every urban landscape I’ve been in in the past months, a trio of houses perched above a stream whose waterfall is audible from the deck, whose simple architecture includes a most necessary woodstove and simple cooking facilities, whose luxury appointments are the comfortable wooden chairs which overlook a pine-scented valley in which one can only occasionally hear a mechanical sound of any kind. I reflect that it’s hardly surprising that Stewart’s brother Steve wanted to retire to Wolseley, Sask, since he has many of the same delightful amenities.

Today, after a relaxed time of getting everyone up and fed and coffeed, we took the combi, an ancient VW van, into Tetipac, that truly Mexican town where we were undoubtedly the only gringos around to share market day. It is much more pleasant to wander the streets than two days ago, in the bright sun of he Mercado, knowing where I’ll be sleeping tonight. I should mention that the young women Lily and Trish stood out much less than Stewart, Pat, and I. Notwithstanding the difference, we were treated with consideration and grace in each of the stores and stalls we visited, and accepted as odd anomalies.

The streets are being constantly destroyed by water erosion, resulting in unending infracstructure repair. It’s a survival contest to walk them, balancing over 2 by 6 bridges over deep chasms, sliding down hills of gravel. In the town square, men in cowboy hats lean against walls and smoke cigarettes, sip their pre-noon beers just like they were waiting for the next bronco ride in the Princess fall rodeo (rodeo is a popular sport here, too). Women keep shop and stall, generally, and keep the wheels of commerce creaking along, Mexican fashion. Stewart and Pat flow through this environment with comfort and familiarity. We stop for goat tacos at a street stall. The Mexican practice is to take all the meat and chop it fine, so one knows no more which part of the animal that one is eating than if it were in a sausage. I suspected a bit of eyeball in my taco. I disregard it, splash on more hot sauce. We guy oranges, onions, bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, mangoes, ppapaya, apples, cabbage, a sink plug, toilet paper, and a BBQ-style lighter for the stove in my cabin.

I notice that when we wanted to take pictures of the stunning valley view as the road climbs up out of Tetipac, the driver was aware enough of what transpired in the back seat of the Volks van that he slowed down and favoured the left hand side of the road in order to facilitate the picture-taking. More English is spoken in Tetipac than one expects, or the locals acknowledge.

A day later, we visit the market in Taxco, which is by contrast a major city. This town is so vertically-constructed that the upper levels, on the surrounding mountains, are part of a different ecosystem. On the main square, before the very beautiful cathedral, the VW taxis wheel in a counter-clockwise dance around the topiated trees and the churros dealers crying their wares. They vie with the kitsch dealers of curios. It is a charming and functional town, one which few Yanquis have on their itineraries, in spite of the very active silver trade that is evident in every fourth shop’s displays. The market is set up Tuesday, on a series of steep, winding, interconnected streets below the cathedral. It is as though Escher designed a marketplace in a laberynthine series of streets and steps, covered by tarpaulins and declared a free trade zone.

The landscape around El Peral (Stewart and Pat’s property) is mountainous high chapparal. The property encompasses a spring, a section of the creek that falls as a waterfall into a beautiful bathing hole (which is too cool to be tempting in this 15-degree weather), several dominating hills, and part of an ancient road, which although wild and dangerous to those who might step unwarily, was clearly cobbled with stones, many large enough to tear the transition out of any automobile—mule paths, in fact. We went on one hike a day around and beyond their land, climbing up and up through forest, across compacted adobe, which Stewart points out has an antibacterial property which makes it sell for absurd prices in Canada (and in fact, nothing grows on it). We forded the creek numerous times over logs and over stepping stones, the two girls skipping more nimbly than I. They are charming souls, delicate, sensitive, sensible people, very considerate sharers of the days’ caminos. My pacemaker gets a good workout, and an hour’s hiking in that crisp thin air under a canopy of sky of the clearest, brightest blue was exercise of the sublimest sort.

I must write a brief word in praise of Dario and his wife Lapita, who are the resident caretakers of El Peral, living in a house near the road. He is a very competent repairman, gatekeeper (he has a local reputation for ferocity) and gardener. He asked Stewart for money for a firearm a couple of years ago, and showed up with a .45 automatic. His wife Lapita is an angelic, gentle soul, whose kind smiling eyes would disarm a regiment. I certainly think they have (mostly) disarmed Dario, at least in the spiritual sense. Every time the two young women are within range, she takes the opportunity to give them some small gift. She is childless, so she treats the girls as a grandmother-manquee. Knowing I was leaving this morning, she presented me, a propos of nothing, with the pen with which I first wrote these lines.

I’ve spend several hours listening to Stewart and Pat’s stories; they are utterly fascinating, whether they are talking about how they struggled to make their store work, about the odd and wonderful people whom they have met as a result of running the store, or about their travels. They have war stories of travel from so many countries that it boggles the mind. Their after-dinner tales of flying into Mandalay in the nineties are stunning, the kind of stories that are publishable, the kind of stories that few people outside the military (and few within) have had the opportunity to experience. Stewart told me of the diary kept by a Bangkok cabbie during the Vietnam war which is filled with entries from the American soldiers on R and R. I told him that if he would give me the material, I would promise to write a play based on it.

I am content here. It has taken me the full three days to come down and adjust to the non-event-ness of the place, but I think I’ll be very happy to be here at least until I return to MexCity and its mad haste.

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