This morning I hike to the top of Cerro de la Bufa, an arduous climb, to enjoy the splendid view of the city of Zacatecas below me. In the distance, beyond the aqueduct, I see the dome of a church that I have not visited. I think I can find it, and after lunch, I walk to Templo de Guadalupito, only to find it closed. I take a few photographs of the church’s exterior, and then start back toward the city center.
Parque Sierra de Alica is situated near the aqueduct. I decide to sit and enjoy the shade for a while and indulge in a little plein air writing. I fill one side of the sheet of stenographer’s paper that I stuffed in my pocket before I left my room.
I have no pressing deadlines to meet this week, but after only a few minutes on the bench, I feel restless. It comes from clocking almost every minute of my life by school bells: the two-minute warning, the dismissal, and then the tardy bell. Three bells every sixty-five minutes, eight hours a day, five days a week.
Why am I wasting my time sitting here? Surely I need to get up and move on.
No, I reassure myself, it’s all right just to sit here for a while and watch the young lovers lock themselves in a seemingly endless embrace, the people reading books, and the guy sleeping in the grass.
In the center of the park is a water display, accompanied by music. It’s not nearly as lavish as the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, but the music is soothing and the rising and falling water sounds like a lullaby. No wonder people fall asleep here.
A mother, sitting on a rock the size of the Stone of Scone, watches her two children, a boy and a girl, about ages 10 and 8, play catch on an impossibly steep slope. It’s a miracle they don’t both tumble down and break their crowns.
Another mother and father and their son and two daughters are sharing a picnic lunch in the grass. When they finish eating, the husband and wife lie side by side, belly down, and the husband drapes his left arm over his wife’s shoulder. The older daughter takes a photograph as a memento of this special occasion.
A laboring man limps past me, and settles down on a nearby concrete bench. He fishes something out of his right pocket (I hope it’s not a knife) and starts using the object to dig in his right ear. Then he digs in his left ear. Then, for good measure, he attacks both ears again. Señor, you will have the cleanest ears in Zacatecas!
A young father is taking his infant daughter for a ride in her stroller. As he passes me, our eyes meet and we smile at each other. Another man, walking his golden retriever, also smiles at me.
No one demands to know what an old gringo is doing in their park. They simply welcome me as parched roots welcome rain, or eagles welcome the currents of air that lift them high above sun-drenched canyons. Their smiles tell me that everyone is welcome here: old and young, rich and poor, gay and straight, couples and singles, friends and strangers.
How long has it been since I sat for even ten minutes in a park? How long will it be until I do so again? Did I have to come all the way to Zacatecas to be reminded of the abundant goodness in the world?
I resist the temptation to check the time on my cell phone, for time does not matter in this place. I watch a very young mother encourage her not-quite-two-year-old son to throw his basura, a cheese puff that has fallen to the ground, in the proper receptacle. When he misses, she helps him. As they leave, a blackbird swoops down, fishes the morsel from the trash can, and devours it.
I feel a cool breeze on my face and watch a few parched tree leaves plummet to the ground. I look across the wrought-iron fence toward the fountain and give thanks for the scraggly pink snapdragons that are still blooming, even though it is almost January.
It is late for snapdragons. It is late for many things, but it is never too late to sit on a park bench and simply be.
I’ve been reading Tony Cohan’s On Mexican Time. He writes:
Beggars along the calles tend to be young Indian mothers, old, poor women, blind people. Anyone less afflicted is expected at least to bang a tambourine, respirate an accordion, whack a tuneless guitar to proffer the hand or the cup. God will reward you, they whisper back.
In Plaza Genaro Codina, a boy about 10 years old is respirating an accordion. He coaxes soulful music from the squeeze box while his two younger siblings, about 8 and 6, wander about the plaza with tiny, upturned sombreros in their outstretched hands, begging for donations.
Accordion Boy’s little brother approaches me, but I shake my head. I’m not going to be suckered into giving anything, not today anyway. Call me hardhearted, if you will, but I’m always suspicious of kids who are begging for money on the streets. Where are their parents? Who gets the money? Where does it go?
The little guy approaches the next person in the plaza, who also refuses to give, and Accordion Boy’s music becomes even more dolorous. He has been sitting on a bench, caressing his instrument as though it were his lover. Suddenly he stands, and begins trudging through the plaza, not missing a doleful note.
Suddenly I am overcome with remorse. Maybe it’s the music. Maybe it’s the angel perched on my shoulder, shaking her head.
I catch the little brother’s eye and motion him to come. In an instant, he’s standing in front of me expectantly. I fish in a buttoned pocket for my baggie of coins, but all I can find is my baggie of peso notes, nothing smaller than a fifty. I look in every pocket of my shirt, every pocket of my vest, every pocket of my pants: no coins.
I give the little boy a helpless shrug and a wan smile. No way am I going to give him fifty pesos. The disappointed lad scampers off.
But if I hurry back to my room, where undoubtedly I have left my baggie of coins, maybe Accordion Boy will still be playing in the plaza when I return. It takes me no more than fifteen minutes to walk from the plaza to my room and back, but Accordion Boy and his siblings have vanished.
I begin to search for them, listening always for the lugubrious music. I walk through the narrow callejon beside the Mercado that leads to Jardín de Independencia, but I cannot find them. Where can they be?
Suddenly I hear the strains of an accordion. I follow the sounds into the next street, but when the player comes in view, I am disappointed to see a man, and not Accordion Boy.
Daylight is waning. Even though many of the children of Zacatecas are on the streets late into the night, somehow I don’t think I will be able to find Accordion Boy this evening.
Reluctantly, I call off my search. Perhaps I will find him tomorrow, or the next day.
“Mexicans,” writes Tony Cohan, “are afflicted with charity, the curse of a brimming heart.”
Accordion Boy and his siblings have shown me the emptiness of my own heart.
After lunch I have no particular destination in mind. I simply go where my feet lead me. I end up outside the Museo Rafael Coronel, where I take a few photographs of the ancient monastery ruins, where works of the famous Mexican artist are now on display. I have pesos in my pocket, and I could go into the museum, but I’m not in the mood to be cooped up indoors, so I keep walking the streets, always looking for something interesting to shoot.
I stumble upon a narrow, winding callejon and decide to explore it. In Zacatecas, you can’t get lost. All streets lead to the cathedral—eventually.
The callejon twists and turns and ascends, finally emptying into a narrow street, whose name I do not notice. I hear the voices of children as I walk up the street. They are playing in the back of a small pickup parked at the curb. I greet them and they greet me, and suddenly all of them are talking to me at once.
I feel self-conscious, because I have sunglasses on, and the children can’t see my eyes, so I take off my glasses. The girl (later I learn her name is Karina), shrieks in amazement, “You eyes is blue!” Only it sounds like “Jew ice is blue.”
The children ask me my name, and I tell them. Then I ask theirs, and they tell me. Karina asks me where I am from, and when I tell her California, she shrieks with delight. Maybe she has relatives there or maybe she dreams of going there someday.
“¿Habla usted español?” they ask.
“Solo un poquito,” I reply.
They have many questions, but I have few answers, because my grasp of Spanish is so pathetically small.
So we start trading words. Or rather, the children point to various objects, say the name in Spanish and ask me the English equivalent, which they dutifully repeat: gris/gray, verde/green, neumático/tire, coche/car, camioneta/pickup, mariposa/butterfly.
As our time of word-trading draws to a close, I ask the children to write their names for me. They are eager to do so. One by one they scrawl their names on the piece of folded paper I have fished from my pocket: Lionel, Karol, Ronaldo, Kelvin and Karina. Only Emiliano demurs.
Karina asks me to reciprocate, so I tear off a scrap of paper and write my name. She looks at it and pronounces it perfectly. She asks for the names of my children as well, so I write: Jon, Ben, Rachel. The way she clutches the scrap of paper in her hand, you would think I have given her a 100-peso note.
Not wanting to be left out, Lionel and Kelvin ask for the same information. I tear off two more pieces tiny pieces of paper, write on them and give them to the boys.
We bump fists all around as a sign of our newly established friendship. Karina says, “Bye,” in English and I walk off, up the crooked little street whose name I do not know, my heart overflowing with joy.
As I finish my evening repast, I hear lively music coming from the streets. It must be a callejoneada forming, a Zacatecan street party, complete with musicians and a mescal-laden burro to make the partiers even merrier.
I decide to investigate. It’s not hard to find the merrymakers. They are across the street from Plazuela Francisco Goitia. The little ragtag band of musicians consists of a bass drummer and a snare drummer, and two each of trombonists, clarinetists, and trumpet players. They are playing fast and loud.
The bass drummer, a slight woman, seems to be in charge of the band. The rest of the musicians are clearly following her lead: boom, boom, boom. She pounds her drum so fast and furiously that I wonder how long it will be until the musicians who are using their lungs collapse from exhaustion.
In front of the band, eight or nine women are dancing in a tight little circle. There are no teenagers among them. The oldest appears to be in her late sixties, maybe even her early seventies, the youngest, in her mid-thirties. All their faces, especially the wrinkled ones, are wreathed in smiles, smiles that have nothing to do with alcohol, because there is not a mescal-bearing burro in sight.
The merrymakers stay where they are for several minutes, before moving on to Plaza de Miguel Auza. Several older folks join us along the way, swaying in time to the non-stop music: boom, boom, boom.
The procession moves once more, ending at Alameda García de la Cadena, an elegant park and gardens built in the nineteenth century. Clearly, the musicians’ lungs are flagging (they paused their playing for 15 seconds along the way), but they finish with a resounding finale, eliciting a smattering of applause—but no pesos—from the crowd. There will be no more music this evening.
As the merrymakers begin to drift away, a short, middle-aged woman clad in a brilliant pink coat approaches me and asks, in broken English, where I am from.
“California,” I reply. “And you?”
Quickly reverting to Spanish, she tells me that she is from Chihuahua and that she and her husband are flying to Puebla later this evening. Clearly, they are on holiday and are trying to see as many cities and sights as possible before having to return to their quotidian routines. She clasps my hand and wishes me well during the rest of my stay in Zacatecas, and then she rejoins her husband.
As I begin the fifteen-minute walk back to my room, my eyes are brimming with tears of gratitude for the wondrous ways in which Mexico and its people continue to delight and welcome me.
My fifth journey into the land south of the Rio Grande begins with a walk across the international border at Otay Mesa, part of greater San Diego. I am taking a Volaris flight out of Tijuana to Zacatecas.
I have a backpack and one roller bag. Just as I am about to reach the Mexico border, I see a woman and a young man walking ahead of me.
“Excuse me, folks. Are you going to the airport?” They are, and they agree to share a taxi with me. We split the fare and both parties end up paying a mere $12 apiece. This is, I think, an auspicious beginning to my journey.
The three of us end up in the same long line at the airport. When I mention having to purchase a visa, the woman looks visibly upset. “He’s a Mexican citizen,” she says of her young companion. “I don’t think he needs a visa.”
“Well, I know I do, but I’m not sure where to buy it. The airport has changed since I was here in June.”
The woman suggests I ask at a nearby airline counter. Now it’s my turn to look upset. I don’t want to go to the back of the line.
“I’ll hold your place in line,” the woman offers.
I do the unthinkable, and leave my luggage with two strangers, while I walk several yards away to ask where to buy a visa. Because the woman at the airline counter and I do not speak a common language, it is almost impossible to communicate. But she finally understands what I’m looking for and points me in the right direction.
Getting the visa turns out to be an ordeal as I run from one desk to another and back again. Mission finally accomplished, I push the requisite button at the customs booth and a red light flashes, indicating that I must submit to what could turn out to be a lengthy inspection of my luggage. I look at the long lines of people waiting to check in, and I groan inwardly.
I walk to the inspection station and lift my bag and backpack to the counter. The two customs inspectors have their backs to me. Finally one of them turns around, notices me, and ambles over to the counter. She ignores my backpack. She unzips my bag, opens the top, closes the top, and zips the bag shut again. This cursory examination constitutes an inspection. I am grateful, because the lines have gotten even longer, and I am one of the last passengers to check in for Zacatecas.
After all the passengers board the plane, we sit at the gate for what seems like an eternity. Finally, the captain comes from the cockpit and explains at great length, in Spanish, that we are being delayed because of some computer problems.
When he finishes, he looks at me and says in impeccable English, “Do you speak Spanish?”
“Only a little,” I confess. “I understood about one-fourth of what you said.”
“I just said we’re going to have a good flight,” the captain says.
“Oh, I believe you,” I say. “Especially after you listed all the items on the menu of your Christmas feast, including posole and menudo.”
Laughter erupts from the passengers around me, and the captain seems pleased at my reply. He enters the cockpit to prepare for take-off.
Finally the plane lurches away from the gate. A young father across the aisle, accompanied by his son, crosses himself. (Does he know something about Volaris’s safety record that I don’t?)
But the flight is uneventful, except for some pockets of turbulence just before landing, which elicit a collective gasp and laughter from a number of delighted children on board. My bag is one of the last to hit the carousel, and I find that Antonio Muro, the driver for Hostel Villa Colonial, where I am staying, has been waiting for me patiently beyond the security checkpoint, holding up a sign with my name on it.
Antonio shepherds me to a nondescript vehicle of uncertain vintage, and we begin the half-hour drive into the city center. I can see little through the passenger-side windshield, because it is shattered. (Has it been hit by a bullet? Have the drug wars come to Zacatecas?)
I fish my camera out my pocket and aim it at the shattered glass. I need to have a record of this windshield. Antonio laughs and keeps on driving, although how he manages to keep a vehicle with no suspension and lousy steering on the road is a milagro!
Apparently the exhaust system is riddled with holes, because I am soon bathed in fumes. The vehicle gathers speed on a downhill stretch, but labors as we begin the ascent. (I’ve owned vehicles like this in my lifetime.)
I am still reeking of gasoline fumes when Antonio deposits me at Hostel Villa Colonial. The clerk on duty tells me, in Spanish, that the cleaning woman is still working on my room, and he invites me to sit for a while in the little cocina adjacent the office. I have been traveling for seven hours, and I accept his invitation with alacrity.
After perhaps a fifteen-minute wait, my room is ready. As I unpack my bag, I realize that I’ve forgotten to bring my herbal tea bags from home, so I’ll have to forgo hot drinks for the next five days. But it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being back in the city that has won my heart.