- What? But what if there is a fire?!!
- Let’s hope you do not start one, jajaja
It was a warm Sunday morning in San Cristobal. I had parked in the narrow alleys behind the Iguana Hostel, in the heart of the city. My priority was to fix the van, then to find a travel partner for Guatemala. I had three days left in my visa.
La Chichona refused to start. Lately she’d become more temperamental than an Arab princess. I called Gerardo, my mechanic in San Cristobal. She always behaved when he was around. Gerardo was big by Dutch standards, a giant in Mexico. He came on his dirt bike, the mountain that rides, and cobbled a few clamps under the hood. La Chichona started.
The city was buzzing like a hive. Gerardo asked me to follow him to his garage. He led the way through the one-way streets of the Zona Centro, half of them too narrow to make a turn. With her 7-meter tail and at a solid pace of 2km/h, la Chichona dove into the Old market.
A red light, people crossing, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, music, louder music, toxic smells, white smoke, tasty smells, food carts, hungry hawkers, drunkards, stray dogs, lazy cops, scammers plotting, women working, rainbows on walls, fruits in buckets, hanging ropes, tied chicken, kids laughing, babies crying, tired mothers, car honks, green light, car honks, black smoke, broken light, chaos. A Chiapas market.
It took us two hours to snake through the maze. Gerardo employed five mechanics, four of which were teenagers. He put his boys to work and reminded me that the gate closed at 7 pm sharp. I had to be back before seven to sleep in the van.
With la Chichona in his hands, I had one job. I drew a sign on cardboard and walked to the only Starbucks in town, perfectly located in the main square. Tourists, rich locals and travelers exclusively visited Starbucks. The clerks chased away any daring beggar. I hung my sign by the door and sat next to it. Now we wait...
A blond hippie with blue lips, a dirty dog and dirtier nails stopped by. “Sorry I don’t take dogs” I said. It sounded nicer than Go wash yourself, I don’t wanna catch polio! By late afternoon, I went to the Iguana hostel to try my luck. The receptionist welcomed me with a generous smile. Inside, a girl was drawing in the terrasse. Her name was Salome.
Salome was a Colombian refugee. She and her family flew the violence of her country and found haven in Toronto. Thank you Oooh Canada. Salome liked cooking, plants, and arts. She told people's stories with pastel, in an unapologetic splash of shapes and colors. I asked her to draw La Chichona Life.
I was back before Gerardo closed the gate. He would open it again at 7am. Barbwire topped the tall concrete walls. Inside remained a caged dog, a security guard, and me. We were not abused, shot, or bombed, only waiting in this open-air prison. The garage was silent. It felt strange, like the calm before a storm, like a quiet night in the Gaza Strip.
The security guard was an indigenous man not much older than I was. Small and thin, he had the marks of hardship around his eyes. I was shocked to learn he did not have the key. He was shocked to learn I had no children. He boasted he had his first kid at 17, then four more. Two worked for Gerardo, the rest were too young to work. His children were his pride. He wished me many healthy boys and resumed his shift.
The next day I put my sign up at Starbucks again. A gorgeous Mexican couple and their 5 year-old son sat next to me. The kid was slurping a hot chocolate topped with whipcream and m&m's. His face drooled with happiness, a lovely picture of innocence.
A light touch shook my arm, it was a kid of the same age. He wore dirty rags and his face was burnt by the sun. He wiggled something and then stopped, staring at the other kid’s drink. I reached for my wallet when the Starbucks clerk scolded him off. The kid pulled a face at him and ran off laughing, a lovely picture of innocence.
The phone rang, it was Salome. She had found people going to Guatemala among the hostel guests, a family of three. We got along and agreed to leave at 6am the next day. Gerardo finished repairing la Chichona and Salome started drawing her. I had one day left on my visa and would leave Mexico the same way we entered. A hectic adventure had come full circle.
Six months, six months blended with the locals and their immense generosity. It was rich, intense, and painful. Mexico had left scars I will carry forever. And yet, I loved it all, every part of it, to the last crumb. Because amidst the mess and the noise, there was beauty, there was love, there was truth.
Mexico was chaos. Chaos with soul.