If we’d known about the violent conflict between the Lacandón Indians and the Mexican Army, we wouldn’t have driven into the beginning of a full-blown war. A time that later would be known as the Zapatista Uprising.
Many areas of Mexico are like opening a door to a dark basement. You don’t know what’s at the bottom of the stairs, but the hair on the back of your neck stands up. That was Chiapas in 1985.
San Cristóbal de las Casas, a Spanish colonial town in Chiapas, the southern most state in Mexico, was a contrast in cultures. Narrow cobblestone streets made way for donkeys pulling wagons with wooden wheels. Indian men with grim Mayan faces and straight black hair wore white dresses with red embroidery and paper-thin sandals. Some had rifles slung over their shoulders. Others wore black masks that revealed only their eyes. Members of the Mexican Army had automatic weapons and stood on random street corners. Tension and bad juju was as thick as the damp mountain fog.
After witnessing an armed confrontation at Palenque’s ‘Temple of the Inscriptions’ and a night in San Cristóbal, punctuated by gunfire, my husband and our friend and I abandoned any thoughts of searching for undiscovered Mayan treasure. Instead we headed for Oaxaca.
For nine hours we navigated a one lane, twisty mountain road—most of it in the dark—as gunfire erupted all around us. The drive was slow. Tedious. Nerve-wracking. Oncoming trucks—most without headlights, some full of soldiers—forced us to backup; once for nearly a mile, until the road was wide enough for them to pass us. Our drive was made even more urgent by the fires the Army had set up and down the mountainside and by the fact that we couldn’t turn around.
Often we saw fires, zigzagging below us. With each passing mile, it became more doubtful whether we’d make it to the next switchback before the fire jumped the road and engulfed the rest of the mountainside. All the while we heard gunfire and wondered if we’d be shot, or if our car would explode in the flames.
When we were out of the mountains the road leveled out, and the fires became a smoky orange glow behind us. Exhausted and shell-shocked, we stopped at the first sign of civilization. It was little more than a wide spot in the road. There was one store which only sold blue agave tequila. Fifty cents a bottle. We stood outside and passed the bottle between us; a swig or two, then more to quiet our nerves and wash down the taste of burning trees.
Behind the liquor store was a four-room, cinderblock hospedaje with a small courtyard in the center, big enough for one car. Three of the rooms were occupied, so we took the last shoebox-sized room with two cots and an open toilet atop a concrete platform. A wedding party mingled in the street outside, and we learned the bride and groom—and 10 relatives—were staying in the other three tiny rooms.
With illumination from a dim street light, kids played makeshift basketball. Some men motioned us toward a cinderblock building they called the “disco.” We weren’t sure if it was part of the wedding or a Christmas Eve celebration, but we accepted, hoping to find something to eat.
Inside couples were dancing to “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting.” The music blared from a funnel-shaped speaker attached to a pole in the middle of the room. I tried not to laugh, but the tequila had made itself at home in my empty stomach, and the events of the day had taken on a surreal quality. A forward young man asked my husband if he could dance with me. In a matter of seconds, a line formed. Young men, old men, even small boys, queued up to dance with me.
Within minutes, the man from the hospedaje appeared and insisted we return to our room where we—and our rental car—were locked inside the small courtyard. Once inside our room, no bigger than a jail cell, a key turned in the lock on the other side of our door. My husband and our friend tried the doorknob, kicked at the door and called out, to no avail. It was after midnight, and there was nothing we could do but give in to exhaustion and tequila.
Daylight arrived like something out of an episode of MASH. A loudspeaker outside played a bugling trumpet, followed by a man reading a list of announcements for the day as roosters crowed nearby.
The door to our room was unlocked. We stepped outside and viewed our surroundings in the early morning light. Positioned behind low-hanging tree limbs, stone-faced soldiers were holding automatic weapons and smoking cigarettes. One of the soldiers was my young, would-be dance partner. Gone was his cordial demeanor from the night before. In it’s place were the eyes of a predator.
Without a word, we gathered our things and left some money on one of the cots. My dance partner stood on the side of the road and watched as we backed out of the courtyard and drove away. As quickly as the wide spot in the road had appeared, once again, it was enveloped by fog and smoke.
Brenda, your posts are always captivating. What an amazing life you’ve lived and keep living! I admire you so much.
Thank you, Barbara. I’m blushing… How’s your daughter-in-law? I hope your Christmas is joyous!! xoxox, Brenda
Brenda if you and I ever had the opportunity to sit down exchange stories, I’m certain we could write a bestseller…or a Thelma & Louise – esque character in a movie. lol That drive up the mountain had me sitting on the edge, embracing every detail because I am fearful of high twisty roads, nightmare having to drive backwards and the sounds of guns especially when you are not accustomed to them.. Amazing story glad you and your husband & friend were safe… Maybe the door was locked on the outside to protect you.. One day I will tell you while I was living in Congo Soldiers were on a looting rampage, they hadn’t been paid in months my house was targeted for my vehicle I drove a Nissan Patrol Jeep the only one like it in town, I was held at gunpoint in the garage while the soldiers looted my house stripped it of all furnishings except the fridge wouldn’t fit on the truck they left it on the driveway Drove away with my jeep… Looking back I am sure you wonder too how you ever got into things and out in one piece and talk about it now…… Love Alli……X…
Oh, Dear Alli,
That would have been terrifying! If the soldiers looted on a regular basis, you may have had advance knowledge of where they hurt any of the people they stole from. Even if they didn’t, I know it was terrifying. I’ve been held at gunpoint… another story I may never tell, so I know what that feels like. During those days, we were high on the thrill of living like Indiana Jones, before we even knew who he was. It’s a hard cycle to break, living on the edge and somehow walking away from certain disaster, and like I was telling a friend, today… There’s no rehab. Can you imagine… “Hi, My name is Brenda, and I’m an adrenaline junkie.” LOL! I’m grateful we’re both here in one piece. Love, Brenda
Oh my god Brenda! How utterly terrifying. You’ve lead an amazingly brave life. You’re inspiring my friend. Wishing you a fabulous holiday!
Amazingly brave? Sometimes I think it was stupidity. I do know I’m amazingly lucky, and I know the hand of God has saved me more than once. Merry Christmas!
My gosh, you have lived an exciting life! Do you have theories about why you were locked in? Glad you made it out safely!
My middle daughter lived in Tapachula, Chiapas for a summer as a 22-yr old helping care for small children who had either been abandoned by impoverished or drug-addicted parents, or orphans left with the nuns that cared for them. She had her heart broken more than once that summer over her love for the kids that had the decks stacked against them from the beginning, and especially, the loss of an infant to dysentery. I didn’t often fear for her safety unless she ventured out of the main part of town, or over the border into a rough part of Guatemala. But it fired something in her soul, and she’s now considering a position with the Peace Corps in South America.
Many areas of Mexico and Central America are not what they appear to be, and we’d been traveling extensively in Mexico for 10 years and already knew that. You should be so very careful when traveling in both of these places… Actually, I wouldn’t recommend it, anymore. I live in South Texas. Aside from my own travel experiences, and as a former journalist with inside access to the DEA here, and in Mexico, I hear so many horror stories about bandits, corrupt law enforcement and drug lords. Mexico and Central America are such impoverished countries that oftentimes, the good, hardworking people are prisoners of the system. There’s no one to advocate for them. It’s no wonder they want to flee.
After driving… creeping along that narrow mountain road during an ongoing war, we wanted no part of the Army. They weren’t the good guys. On one hand, we weren’t surprised by getting locked in this compound. The scariest part was waking up in the morning and realizing we were in a Mexican Army compound, in the middle of nowhere. I think the man who came to get us was trying to be our advocate. He may have done this for our/my safety. We were outnumbered, so I could have been raped, and my husband and our friend killed if they tried to stop it, and no one would have known what happened to us. We were that far off the beaten path… which is always what drew us to those areas. We didn’t want to see “tourists,” or find a Best Western and a place to get a cheeseburger. We were “professional” adventure travelers, but that comes with a price. I found that out, by myself, but I may never tell that story.
I understand and identify with your daughter’s “fire in her soul” for the country and the people. It’s more than the kids who have the decks stacked against them. It’s nearly everyone. “Rough part of Guatemala… ” Wow! I could write forever on that topic… Ditto for Mexico. You can be in a touristy bar in Cancun and not realize there’s a rough part of the city a few blocks away. I know nothing of South America, but imagine it’s cut from a similar cloth. I like the idea of her being with the Peace Corps… Again, I know nothing about South America, but 15 years of experience of traveling off road in Mexico and Central America makes me want to tell her not to do that. Stay in the towns, with the Peace Corp.
Thanks for the wisdom, Brenda. I try to respect her decisions and she’s a very good planner, leaving nothing to chance. But, I’m still her mom, and she, my little girl at 27. I trust her to make safe decisions.
I’m sorry to hear of a negative experience for you. I hope that time has helped heal the wounds. XOX
I have a hunch you’ve taught your daughter to make wise decisions. I only offer my story as a cautionary tale, not meant to change her decisions, just to let her know there’s another very real and serious side to be aware of. Thank you… Time has healed all of my stories and put them in perspective. xoxox, Brenda
Brenda! Your stories are incredible – and if these are the ones you’re willing to share – I cannot even begin to imagine what you’re keeping to yourself! What a terrifying experience but what a tale to tell afterwards. Wishing you a wonderful Christmas and New Year! Essie xxxx
I haven’t come to terms with one of the things that happened to me. Not sure I every will, or if I’ll share it. I’ll just say I was traveling alone in Guatemala… I’m amazed I’m here. xoxox, Brenda