Mexico City sits 2,240 metres above sea level and is one of the most polluted cities in the world. There are days when the pollution is so bad residents are advised to stay at home. Standing outside the airport I tried to fill my lungs with oxygen but the air was thin and gritty, with a chill that dug into my bones and made me ache. I had waited, tears beginning to burn in my nose and at the back of my throat, for three hours for my bag to arrive via a San Francisco flight, although I flew from LA. I’d grabbed it off the carousel, my knees buckling slightly with relief. This, this is my bag, I murmured.
Finally I made it to my hotel in the city centre. All tawdry glamour, peeling paint and colonial architecture. When I lay on the bed after a lukewarm shower I started to cry great heaving jet lagged sobs. Doubting my ability to stay in this city for even a couple of days before I made my way down to Chiapas. The southern-most state of Mexico, and an area still shuddering with civil unrest. It was the beginning of the Millennium and I was in search of the Zapatistas: a Marxist grass roots revolutionary group that posted manifestos and missives via the internet, and were led by a balaclava wearing, pipe smoking philosophy professor. In that dank hotel room I suddenly saw myself through Subcomandate Marco’s eyes: self-indulgent and pretentious.
I was convinced I would feel differently in San Cristobel, the small town in Chiapas I was heading to. As though Mexico City was the problem. The bus trip took eighteen hours and we arrived in San Cristobel at dawn. I stepped off the bus and gulped in the crisp mountain air. After days enveloped in the chaos of Mexico City the silence of San Cristobel was jarring. A small line of taxis waited next to the bus stop, and I watched as Mexican families filled them until there was only one taxi left and I was the last person. The driver smiled at me and beckoned like I was a stray animal. I thrust a piece of paper with the address of the posada into his hand and said,
Trees ringed the town square and the municipal building stood at one end of the park. It was the building the Zapatistas had briefly taken control of five years earlier. Later that day I would run my fingers over the bullet holes.
The posada was pale blue and bright yellow. In my room was a vase of lilies next to the bed. I wasted the first two days lying in the sun at the town square reading books, torn between crippling self-consciousness and the desire to follow my plans. In the make shift office at the posada I noticed some Zapatista posters and asked Luisa the owner if she could help me find a way to visit one of their communities.
‘I suppose,’ she said in stilted English. ‘There is one that allows visitors. But why?’
‘Because that is why I came here. They are famous. And revolutionary.’
‘They just want their land,’ she replied, looking at me hard for a moment before adding, ‘I have a friend. I will speak with him and see if he can take you next time he goes.’
The next day she gave me the address of a street corner towards the edge of town. I was to meet Guillermo at 7am on Sunday morning. As I walked in the stark morning light I worried about meeting a strange man and going into the mountains with him. Life, I thought, is made up of a series of small choices and this is one of them. A very short, wizened man holding the reigns of two donkeys greeted me cheerfully.
My fear subsided as I patted one of the donkey’s heads. Its ears were so soft and silky I wanted to throw my arms around its neck. Then I saw the saddle. Wooden. Just to be sure I touched the saddle. Definitely wooden.
‘Up, up,’ Guillermo urged me.
We rode out of town, and down a dirt track. The countryside reminded me initially of South West Queensland where I grew up. Scrubby and tough, with huge birds flying above circling unsuspecting prey. We left the dirt track, the donkeys marching up the mountain dodging trees and loose stones. Guillermo spoke almost no English but smiled a lot. When he did speak I did not understand, but I felt safe. We arrived at a small village, which was really just a white church surrounded by tables. It seemed to be the meeting place for the Indigenous families living in the mountains. The donkeys stopped by themselves, and Guillermo got off saying to me,
‘Comer,’ and putting his hand near his mouth in case I didn’t know that it meant to eat. He walked me over to one of the tables and I pointed to a plate with beans and rice and corn. An old woman held up three fingers. I pulled out a five Peso note and waved away the offer of change. After lunch we kept riding and the air kept getting thinner, but not like Mexico City. It was thin and sweet. We came to a clearing with huts and tents and a school house in the middle. Men and women stood around in colourful clothing with carved wooden guns slung over their shoulders. They smiled to Guillermo but looked away from me. He went to talk to a group of men, and spread his arms out as if to say, I brought you here the rest is up to you.
It seemed so absurd, so stupid that I would be standing on there on the edge of a community fighting for their lives without anything to contribute and no way to communicate. So I sat down and waited for Guillermo.
A young girl walked over and sat next to me.
‘Rosa,’ she said.
‘Donna,’ I answered. ‘Australia.’
‘Australia,’ she repeated. Turning the word over like a stone in her mouth.
The author: Donna Hancox lectures in Creative Writing at Queensland University of Technology.