Into Tuxtapec

*This is part 4 of a 13-part series. Read Part 3 here.*

The Carratera Federal 175 ascends through the curvy mountain bones of Oaxaca. At 8,000 feet the views are breathtaking — partly due to the fact that it’s harder to breath — but all I notice is a rapidly approaching car.

It’s the cops.

SMACK!

One of the many costumes at the Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca
One of the many costumes at the Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca

Now when someone crashes into the back of your truck you usually call the cops, but when the cops are that someone that just crashed into the back of your truck you, well…what then??

I shoot a puzzled smirk at my travel partner S. and she returns the expression.

This little predicament takes us back to Ancient Rome. Juvenal the satirist wrote the famous Latin lines “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” that translate into the simple English phrase, “Who will guard the guards themselves?” All of government is wrapped inside that question.

Socrates thought they would self-regulate through adhering to “divine reason” but the portly officer was far too much of an earthly schmo to believe in such metaphysical mumbo-jumbo.

With a “well…fuck it” attitude our driver safely speeds off — a speeding ticket is highly unlikely — down the roller-coaster cement for over an hour before puttering to a halt on the side of a two-lane highway just outside a small town a few hours from Tuxtapec.

Famous Cathedral in Tuxtapec
Famous Cathedral in Tuxtapec

A dark-blue F-250 pulls over and as the window goes down a friendly tone asks “Where are you going?”

“Tuxtapec.”

“Come on. Sorry my English, it’s not so perfect.”

“It’s really good through, better than our Spanish. Where do you learn it?”

“I live in Georgia 9 years. I work in restaurants. Chili’s. Olive Garden. You like?”

“Yeah”

“Yeah it’s great. Happy Hour. Cervezas. Friends. Food. America’s great.”

It’s often the simple phrases that convey the most meaning. Too many intelligent folks prop themselves up with long words that are short on meaning, falling prey to the “seductions of eloquence” that Bertrand Russell warned against.

Juan, our driver, left out extraneous syllables due to necessity and it made his message more powerful: food and friendship are simple pleasures that are often overlooked. (Try to recount how excited, starving-friendless folks you’ve met in your life? Hmmm…. I’m waiting …)

This basic perspective makes you look at big-block restaurants that can easily be criticized for destroying culinary tradition and homogenizing local culture in a more human-centric way. Despite their many shortcomings they did provide a sense of home and community to a lost person in a foreign land.

Once he returned to Mexico he still retained a fond memory for happy hour, that 60 minute respite. Now he sells umbrellas for 12 hours a day to provide for his family, wholly entwined in that working-class hell so many openly know and secretly hate. To deal with this, Juan wore optimism like an insurance policy. An upbeat illusion that helped drown out the downbeat reality of very long hours and very short profits.

***

So he had his stresses as did we. I’m not saying in any way that our romantic wandering from colonial town to secluded jungle compares to the level of stress he must deal with. I’m only saying that hitch-hiking to new places brings with it old stresses built into the mammalian architecture of our brain: what will I eat? Where will I sleep?

Although it’s usually below the surface — and heavy doses of dark humor provide a buffer — it still exists. Luckily for today, we didn’t have to fret about it too much because Juan personally drove us to a few hotels and negotiated a fair price. We thank him and strap on our backpacks.

Time to eat.