David and I stopped near a school building to eat our usual lunch. We never tired of fresh avocado, tomatoes, and garlic spread onto fresh tortillas, and just as we had finished, a man riding by on his bicycle saw us and came over to introduce himself. He was probably in his late twenties or early thirties with large brown eyes and had a very calm and peaceful vibe about his person. Discovering that David and he shared the same name seemed like a good omen, and he invited us to come and stay the night with his family.
We were in sugar cane country. Fields of it could be seen for miles around, and the air was thick with the smell of it burning as the field hands prepared it for harvest. The idea was to burn off all the sharp-edged leaves in order to access the actual cane more easily and make things easier on the hands. Whenever we passed people working in the fields, or drivers carrying cane had pulled over to give us a ride, they would offer us a few pieces.
We followed Mexican David onto a small footpath and meandered between a few large fields until we came to a small community. The path met a small road, and when we walked over a river bridge and turned left, we came to David’s house there at the bottom of the one long wide street. He and his wife had three children, to whom he introduced us. The kids were three, six, and eight years old; the youngest was a girl and the two oldest were boys. His wife was very shy but would smile at me whenever I caught her eyes.
Their house was a very small and basic concrete brick room with an outdoor kitchen attached to the front and a larger back yard that sloped down toward the river. An outdoor kitchen consisted of a makeshift oven made out of a metal barrel with a grill built into the top part. It was covered by a roof of metal sheets nailed onto wooden beams, and it reminded me of the Rainbow kitchens that I’d helped build.
Some chickens and a rooster milled about, and in a large pen in the backyard, was the biggest and strangest-looking pig I’d ever seen. When it snorted and oinked, it sounded like an alien creature! It intimidated me so much that throughout our stay I avoided its pen. In the front of their little house was an open veranda with a tin roof, and beneath it was a picnic table with benches at which people could sit.
After placing our belongings under the veranda and meeting David’s family, he asked if we wanted to go take a bath in the river. He instructed his oldest boy to get something from a vine in the backyard, and the boy returned with two oblong brown objects and handed them to his father. We walked back over the bridge, and this time turned off in a different direction, following a footpath that ran along the river.
After a short bit, David stopped and peeled off the skins of the oblong-shaped objects, and then I realized they were loofah sponges. I didn’t know they grew on an actual vine—it was very cool! David said that there was also another type of plant that looks just like the loofah but if used by mistake would burn and irritate your skin, so knowing the difference between the two plants was important. He pointed out what to look for in the good ones, then handed us each one sponge, and we went into the water to scrub ourselves. David even got in and swam around, and of course Jambalaya could never resist water and had already leapt in before David had finished peeling our loofahs.
David found Jambo’s swimming antics quite entertaining, and it occurred to me that we hadn’t seen any dogs swimming in Mexico, so maybe that was novel for him to see. In all my years of traveling, I think that was the cleanest I ever got; the loofah removed road dirt that had probably been settled in my pores for the last couple years, and when I came out of the river, I felt totally refreshed and my skin glowed.
Afterwards, we walked back to the house and sat down to a dinner of beans and a large plate of fresh, hot tortillas. Here there was no eating ware; you just broke off a piece of tortilla and used it to scoop up the beans. Over dinner, David told us that he cut sugar cane for a living and asked “my” David if he was looking to work. Since we had no money, David agreed and later, while we prepared to sleep under the shelter in the front yard, he told me he didn’t think it would prove difficult. So in the morning, after a breakfast of beans and tortillas, the two Davids went to cut cane.
The two older boys went to school and the young girl stayed at home. David’s wife showed me where they kept a concrete wash station in the back yard so I could wash clothes. I had one set of clothing on and one change of everything in my bag, but I also took the opportunity to wash the set of David’s clothing that he hadn’t worn.
Before leaving for Mexico, he had found a one-piece work outfit that he really liked to wear. The pants and shirt part were connected, and a zipper went from below the collar to the groin, like a blue-colored janitor’s outfit. He was wearing those when he left to cut cane but also had a pair of pants and a couple of shirts in his bag, which he left with me.
When the first set of clothing I washed had dried, I put those on and then started on the set I was wearing. The clothes wash station was typical of what we saw in or outside the poorer Mexican home: a grooved concrete basin with short walls and a drain hole for the water. Clothing was scrubbed and beaten on the concrete grooves and then rinsed clean before hanging.
It seems odd, but there was something I enjoyed about washing my clothes by hand; it seemed personal and real. And I think hand-washing gets them much cleaner than any machine.
When I’d finished, David’s wife showed me how to make tortillas. She made it look so easy, yet for every ten perfectly round tortillas she made, I made a lopsided one. It’s one of those tasks that requires a deft touch and lots of practice. She finally gave up on me and had me sit to one side while she finished making them. Just before sunset the men returned, both covered with scratches and their clothing badly stained.
My David told me the sugar cane leaves were very sharp and that our guess as to why they burned the crop had been correct, but while burning the cane removed most of the leaves, it didn’t get all of them. The ants were also formidable, and he told me that he learned the hard way why the other men kept their pants legs rolled up, so they can brush the ants off easily. Otherwise, the ants run up inside the pants leg and are difficult to remove. I gave him a clean change of clothes that I took down from the line in the backyard and took his coveralls to wash for the next day.
Mexican David had given him a machete to use for cutting cane, then told him he could keep it. That made him look even more like a local, since the only men we saw in that area who didn’t carry one were either dressed up to go into town or were the men who owned the fields. And it was interesting to note that all the men wore cowboy hats, while in most parts of the U.S., one hardly sees them anymore—unless you go to Texas!
After dinner was cleared, David and his wife changed into some nice clothes, and people began to gather under the shelter in the front yard. The women were all wearing dresses, the men in clean pants and shirts, and when I noticed everyone was carrying Bibles, I realized there was going to be some sort of Christian service. So this was what the shelter with the benches underneath was for! And when David stood in position to lead the service, we realized that he was a preacher, which explained his generosity in taking us in and giving my David some work.
It was quite a surprise: David hadn’t once talked with us about God or asked our denomination, but he obviously lived a life that he preached about, for he was a very good man. We couldn’t understand very much, but we clapped and sang along as best we could and stood and sat down in unison. At one point several of the women stood and prayed out loud, with tears streaming down their faces and hands waving in the air.
After the service, David introduced us to a fellow named Antonio who could speak a little English, having lived in Los Angeles for a couple years. He owned a welding shop on the other side of the little community and was shocked that my David had been cutting sugar cane. Antonio told him he should come work for him doing easy welding work rather than busting his ass doing manual labor when he could earn more doing something easier.
He also thought we should go to stay with him because he had a bigger house and more money, but David and I politely turned down his offer. We really enjoyed our new friend David and his family; we were impressed by his honesty and compassion and didn’t mind staying there for a while longer.
For the next couple of days, my David cut sugar cane while I stayed around the house, helping to watch their daughter and cleaning a little. Although David’s family was materially poor, they always seemed to have enough food to eat, and there was a lot of love in their little family.
Over dinner at night, David would tell us how he owned a little piece of land in one part of town that had a concrete shelter, and that we could live there if we wanted to settle among their community. It was a generous and well-meant offer, but we told him we wanted to see more of Mexico and were really just passing through.
Later, David and I would share a little fantasy that if we ever had any money, we would purchase a new truck and drive it down to David and his family and give it to them. With a truck, David could quit cutting sugar cane and hire his services out to haul things for people, which we had noticed was a lucrative business down there.
Antonio returned to the house one afternoon to renew his offer to David about working in his metal shop and us staying at his place. David said he couldn’t handle much more cane cutting—it was just too hard for too little pay—so we decided to say yes. Having been at David’s for a while, we also thought it was time to move on and that we shouldn’t strain David’s resources any further. There’s also an old traveler’s rule about never staying anywhere longer than three days, and we’d already been there a week.
So we collected the money my David had earned and packed our things. Mexican David was genuinely sorry to see us go and made us promise that if we were ever in that part of Mexico again, we would return for a visit, a promise we were happy to give him.
Antonio was somewhere in his fifties, with a gray beard and a portly body. And his house was much larger than David’s, with an inside kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms, and a living room. David and I slept on the floor of the living room. His wife was only eighteen years old and very beautiful, with a newborn baby on her hip.
Antonio had returned from LA with a lot of money, and while I never understood the whole story, it seemed there was some kind of financial arrangement between him and her family. It was obvious that the girl didn’t care much for Antonio but was resigned to her fate.
Although they had a larger house and more money, there didn’t seem to be a lot of food (or love, for that matter) around; Antonio mostly ate at a little restaurant near his shop and his wife didn’t cook much. But David and I were free to cook our own food in their little indoor kitchen.
Antonio seemed like a nice guy and very proud of his home and wife. The next day he took David to his shop to teach him how to weld. Although David had never welded before, Antonio felt that it would be an easy thing to learn; they worked mostly on repairing sugar cane trucks.
When they returned that evening, David told me it was much easier than cutting sugar cane and they didn’t do a lot of work anyway. The shop was next to a cantina, and the men spent time between welding jobs drinking sugar cane liquor.
Antonio’s wife was very shy and often gone during the day or in her bedroom with the baby. I was a little bored, so the next day, I went to the shop for a couple hours, and David showed me some of what he’d learned, then we all sat next door at the cantina for a short bit. Antonio seemed to enjoy showing us off, and I noticed that the men here weren’t drinking beer; the popular working man’s drink was the sugar cane liquor. I did try a taste, and it was reminiscent of homemade corn liquor that I had tasted once in Alabama. Maybe to a connoisseur there was a difference, but to my untrained palate it just tasted like firewater.
When Antonio learned that I enjoyed learning about plant medicine, he took me to visit the local medicinal healer. She lived in a large, beautiful house in the center of the little town near the school. The house was one story but had tiling and large windows and was full of plants that spilled out into the yard. She was probably in her late sixties or seventies, and she showed me various plants while Antonio translated their names and uses for me. She had plants for treating diabetes, high blood pressure, and headaches, among others. It was all very fascinating for me and added to my enthusiasm towards plants.
On another day, after Antonio and David had left for the shop, Antonio’s wife showed me a skirt and made gestures to indicate that I should wear it, but I really couldn’t understand what she was saying, or figure out why she would want me to put on a skirt. After more gesturing, she finally gave up in exasperation, realizing that I wasn’t going to wear the skirt.
Then she wanted me to accompany her out, and it was when we got to the side of the road and waved down a bus that I realized she had wanted me to wear the skirt because we were going to a nearby small city. Jambo was left to guard the interior of the house.
I walked around with her while she carried her baby, and we went in and out of a lot of shops that mostly sold kitchen goods. I wondered how often she got to go out and if it was likely that the only reason she was out that day was because I could accompany her. Women and men obviously still had the traditional roles of women staying home and caring for the children and the house while the men went out and worked—similar to the southern US, but even more sharply defined in Mexico.
I often noticed men handing over their weekly pay to the women and David also did this, but in Antonio’s case I was sure he kept enough back to drink at the cantina next to his shop. When going into town the women were scrubbed and wore their best clothing, and Antonio’s wife also dressed her baby in her Sunday best.
There was one major difference though: in Mexico, women generally didn’t go walking about by themselves. Male machismo was extremely strong, and rape was a common theme in magazines and picture books, where the victim was usually a farm girl walking home or a woman visiting town by herself. Men also felt free to openly leer at women or make insinuating remarks, and although one might get whistles or catcalls in the US, that behavior was far more prevalent and threatening in Mexico. To me, it seemed, a way to scare women into “staying in their place,” which was “at home.”
Although I was really enjoying my time in Mexico, I was also beginning to realize how fortunate I was to be born in the more tolerant United States. As a young woman in the US, I had the freedom to choose various options without extreme societal pressures, and it was easier to forge my own fate. And even in a town like Huntsville, Alabama, I had the freedom to rebel and had grown up among a more diverse and changing culture, with people from India, Germany, Pakistan, the Caribbean, Africa, Mexico, and South America.
Of course, we still have divisions of wealth and class, but I was able to learn at an early age that all people are basically the same, and I never developed a fear of people who looked or behaved differently.
It also became apparent that I wasn’t just there to accompany Antonio’s wife, but was expected to act as her porter. I carried all the bags while she carried the little baby, but that felt like fair recompense for the fact that she and Antonio were feeding and sheltering us. We also visited her mother and some other family members, who were just then in the process of closing up their store for the day. Antonio’s wife got to pick what she wanted from the shelves for free, and those were added to my already heavy bags. It was late at night when we finally returned to the house, and I was never so happy to go to bed and rest my tired arms!
At night in the small community, men carrying guns would ride eight or ten deep in the back of a pickup truck, cruising around throughout the night. And on one occasion when we were walking with Jambo through a field after dark, one of these trucks had passed us and then backed up to check us out. Not knowing who they were, we had run back to Antonio’s place. The men followed us, and fortunately Antonio came out to explain to them that we were his guests and didn’t know any better than to stay out of the fields after dark.
Antonio explained that there were no police in the area and that these patrols consisted of local men who took turns looking out for thieves—which meant that whenever I took Jambo on his evening bathroom walk after that, I could only go a very short distance from the house.
We had been there for about four days, yet again breaking our traveler’s code of only staying three days, but David was happy to be making a little extra money for the road, so we thought we might stay a week or so. Then one day, while the men were at work, Antonio’s wife asked me if I would have sex with her. I was so shocked I pretended not to understand what she was saying, “Quiero sexo con mio?” (Do you want to have sex with me?) She repeated her request for a while longer before finally giving up on me. That evening when the men returned and we were at our usual spot in the back yard talking, I told Antonio what his wife had asked me.
The minute it left my mouth and I saw his reaction, I was sorry that I had said anything and realized I’d made a big mistake. Once again I’d displayed my impulse to speak before thinking; I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about something important, and I am still known to this day for “putting my foot in my mouth,” as they say.
Antonio apologized profusely and asked me to forgive his wife. I asked Antonio not to tell his wife what I had told him, but of course he did. She was very angry with me and that night locked me out of the house while I was taking Jambo on his bathroom walk. I had to bang on the door for David to let me back in. The next day, when Antonio and David returned from the shop, Antonio pleaded with me to sleep with his wife. “Please,” he begged. “That sort of thing isn’t accepted here and she’ll never get another chance again!” I wasn’t sure why he’d had a change of heart; maybe she’d begged him to convince me? Was he was having the typical male reaction of wanting to watch two women having sex? Or maybe he thought he would join in? I never figured it out. Antonio harassed me all night about it, but I didn’t budge.
Antonio had already mentioned that he was leaving the next day to visit a friend but would return that evening. David and I let him know that it was time for us to leave and asked if David could get his pay, to which Antonio replied that he would leave it with his wife to hand to us in the morning. But the next morning when we asked for the money, she pretended not to know what we were talking about. David told her that we would just wait at the house until Antonio returned and let him know that she wouldn’t hand over the money, after which she relented and gave David his pay. But what she gave us was just over half of what Antonio had promised.
We didn’t make a fuss about it; after everything turning sour, we were anxious to leave immediately. I felt horrible about the drama I’d caused, and it was so disrespectful of Antonio’s poor wife for me to have treated her in such a manner. She was in a caged situation—trapped by her culture, her husband, and her sex, while I was free to do as I pleased.
A little ways down the road, a pickup pulled over, and the driver told us he was one of Antonio’s cousins. He asked why we hadn’t waited at the house and that Antonio had apparently set us up with this ride out of town, but his wife hadn’t told us, for obvious reasons. We hopped into the back of the truck and headed on our way.
Thinking about those two weeks, it was if we had been living in a parable. The first family we had stayed with had no monetary wealth, but so much food, love, and community support; while the second family had a lot more wealth but no love and really no community support, especially for the wife who didn’t seem to have any friends there.
It confirmed my developing beliefs about what “rich” really meant—that wealth has more to do with invisible things such as strong character, love, and support, rather than with anything that can be measured by the dollar.
And I also, finally, learned another valuable lesson: how to keep a secret!