You Can’t tell a Mexican Book by its Cover

La Nev house 6

When we organized our Oaxacan hiking trip, we arranged to spend a night living with a Mexican family. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. However, as we neared the village of La Neveria, I began losing my nerve. Where would we sleep? What would we eat? Would it be clean? And that ever important factor: What would the bathroom be like? Despite considering myself an experienced traveller, I was nervous.

When we arrived in La Neveria, we passed by the cabanas where we would have stayed had we not elected to live for a night with a family. The cabanas were perched on top of a high hill some way from the village. Colourful hammocks swayed in the light breeze and were shaded from the warm sun under a porch roof. Never had a cabana looked so inviting as when we were headed for who knew what type of accommodations.


Before heading into the village to meet our family, we had lunch in the restaurant next door to the cabanas. Josefina, the cook, made us a meal typical to the region. (See photo to left.) She used local potatoes and lots of watercress in a frittata-like omelet that would have been divine anytime, but was especially good after five hours on the trail. It was accompanied by a crisp salad. We ate quickly only stopping to enjoy freshly made cucumber and guava juice that we poured from a large jug. I secretly hoped they’d somehow forgotten our request to stay with a family. I wanted to be here in one of these hammocks. I wanted to have our dinner cooked by Josephina. I wanted hot water, crisp white sheets and a flush toilet.

When we finished our meal, our guide told us it was time to check in with our family. My heart sank. But you know, stiff upper lip and all that jazz. I thought: How bad can it be? I am committed to this; I will make the best of it.

Off we walked, down from our airy perch into the small village. The late afternoon sun reflected off the metal rooftops of the collection of adobe houses and caught the white mesh of the hoop houses that covered a vividly green crop of watercress that grew in a stream that ran through the small village. Watercress was the village’s speciality.

La Nev house 1

With our guide, we climbed up the other side of the bowl that contained La Neveria to virtually the only house in the entire village that was cloaked in shade, out of reach of the bright late-afternoon sun. I shivered as we walked in the lane way, a response that didn’t let up as we stepped over broken bits of machinery, passed by dried dead flowers once planted in old, now-rusting tin cans. Paint peeled from the cracked walls and worn clothes, bits of broken ceramic tile and an odd fork spilled from each of the house’s multiple doorways.

La Nev house 2

When we’d first decided to stay with a family, I was worried the family they selected might not be typical — as in we would be billeted with a wealthier than average family. Clearly that was not the case.

Our guide introduced us to Antonia, our host for the night. Wrapped up in a sagging polyester hoodie, Antonia had pulled the hood up and over her baseball cap. She peered out from under the cap’s brim through smudged eyeglasses that sat unevenly on her nose. We learned later her vision had been affected by diabetes — a chronic problem for Mexicans who, in rural areas, eat about one kilo of corn tortillas every day.

Antonia mumbled a welcome and without fuss lead us up to our room for the night. She wasn’t unfriendly, but she wasn’t exactly arms-wide-open welcoming either.

Up we climbed following this surprisingly nimble 70-year-old woman. Housed in a separate building that was buried even deeper into the chilly hillside, the concrete bunker-like structure had two separate bedrooms though we were the only “guests.” Antonia inserted a key into the sizeable padlock that secured a blue tin door that opened into a large room. When she switched on a single lightbulb hanging by a wire from the low ceiling, we made out four beds, one in each corner of the concrete-floored, clean but musty space. Thin fabric was nailed over the windows. One bed had been made up with sheets and blankets. Two air-dried towels were neatly folded and had been placed on the foot of the bed.

La Nev house 9

We dropped our packs and Antonia led us back outside. Handing us a roll of toilet paper, she pointed to a rickety wooden outhouse. She gave us a bar of soap and nodded at the five-gallon white plastic bucket of cold, albeit clean, water. Two plastic bowls sat beside the larger white bucket. She left it up to us to figure out that we would use the smaller one to ladle out water and the larger one as a “sink.” Come down for dinner at 7pm, she told us as she descended the steep stairs to her kitchen. As she walked away, I spied a pair of white porcelain toilets still in their packages stored against the wall opposite our “sink.’ Adding insult to injury, they would be visible from the outhouse were I to leave the door open.

We checked our bed and, as might be expected, it sagged to the centre, but the sheets were clean and the floor spotless.

La Nev house 8

Though outhouses aren’t my preference, I don’t mind them if they are clean, not too smelly and if I don’t have to get up to use one in the middle of night when — in my mind at least — they fill up with creepy crawlers like spiders and scorpions and centipedes and bats even — then I’m not very fond of them at all.

I pulled open the door to the outhouse and peered inside. It looked pretty clean. I took a careful sniff. Hmmm. Doesn’t smell either. Rather than a “one-holer,” as was the lingo when I was a kid, it had a toilet bowl of sorts with two chambers. I’ll leave you to figure out what each was for. There was a basket for used toilet paper (In Mexico, as is the case throughout Latin America, you never put toilet paper in the toilet. You always dispose of it in a waste basket.) and a bucket of ash. This was a composting toilet, which accounted for the near complete lack of odour. Hmmm. I closed the door behind me and it let in enough light to keep the creepy crawlers at bay.

On an outhouse scale of 1 to 10, I’d give this one an 8. It lacked a great view — something I secretly like in an outhouse and had no posters to read on the walls or other decorations that could capture one’s attention.

La Nev house 13

With ablutions complete, we decided to take a walk through the town in advance of dinner. We wandered the maze of streets walking past small houses many of them with gardens where fruit trees sported massive crops of oranges and mandarins. Peach trees were in blossom and Alex spied rows of broad beans. We sat down on a grassy bank on the side of the road in the remaining sunshine. Alex pointed to the top of a hill high above the village. The cabanas where we were not staying were bathed in the late afternoon sunshine making them tantalizingly inviting.

When the sun had disappeared from the valley floor where we sat, it was time to make our way back “home.” In our room, I organized the photos I’d taken that day and Alex read. All too soon it was time to head down to dinner.

With images of Josefina’s watercress and potato omelettes in my mind, we entered Antonia’s kitchen. She was stirring a pot on the wood-fired stove under a single compact fluorescent lightbulb. “Sit down, sit down,” she said offering us a pair of wooden chairs at the kitchen table that was decorated with mismatched dishes, cutlery and a pot or two, some of them used. Before taking up her offer, I asked and received permission to take a few photos. I was torn between focussing on the shelves that overflowed with kitchen paraphernalia, the white-tiled floor spotted with the day’s cooking, the soot and ashes that spilled from the wood fire and the countertops where bits of carrots and potatoes gave us a clue to what was on the dinner menu. Antonia was pleased to pose in front of her prized wood-fired stove, called a comal, as well as a newish gas range and oven that still sported a large sticker announcing it was “self-cleaning.” The empty pots that sat on top and those that were stored inside the gas oven assured us it wasn’t much used. “Do you use the oven,” I asked? “No,” replied Antonia, “the gas is too expensive.”

La Nev house 4

With that, a younger woman strode into the kitchen, flicking on another light as she did so. She said something in rapid-fire Spanish to Antonia making it obvious that whatever she’d said was part of a long-held discussion. When Antonia flicked the extra light off about 15 minutes later, we understood the family feud!

The younger woman was Lisert. At about 30, she was the youngest of Antonia’s children. Her dark eyes met mine as she introduced herself. She had an air of confidence about her that was hard to miss. She set to work helping her mother add a mound of fresh vegetables to the soup that bubbled away on the stove, and then sat down on a chair against the wall and began asking us a few questions. There was nothing diffident about Lizert. As she led the discussion, a barking dog announced someone’s arrival. In walked Gowdie who turned out to be the coordinator of the tourism project in La Neveria. As I shook his extended hand, I noted he worn a baseball cap embroidered with “Proyecto Ecologico Sierra Gorda.” As I am good friends with the family that is the brains and energy behind this successful initiative, I asked Gowdie if he knew Pati Ruiz Corzo. Of course he did, and so began a fascinating conversation about eco-tourism initiatives in general and the ones in the Sierra Norte and Sierra Gorda in particular. With great patience and clearly articulated Spanish, he described the unique management setup for his project.

The Zapatecas “own” the land in the Sierra Norte and while Zapatecas can have a house and some land in the villages and can farm a plot of land in the countryside, they don’t technically own this property. It’s communal. Moreover, only Zapatecas can live on this land. It sounded both similar to our own system of reserves, and miles apart as this land is not a “reserve,” they receive no special funding from the federal or state government, and were never moved from their ancestral lands. How this system of “service, has contributed to the success of this tourism project and the Zapatecas’ ability to be self-sustaining fascinated me.

When young Zapatecan men graduate from high school and decide to not continue their education, they have to spend the first of 3 or more years in voluntary service. It is a bit like the military service in countries like Finland. For a year, they are assigned to a job such as working with the local community “police,” assisting in the school, or the health centre. I learned later that one man’s service involved ringing the church bells. Women have to perform their service as well but are exempt until they are married and have children. They volunteer for a year, then have two regular years, then a volunteer year, then two regular years followed by their final voluntary year. If they do well, I understand they will receive land or other community perks. During their service or “cargo,” their families help support them. Even if they have moved to live in other cities, they return to do their service.

As an alternative to police or other community work, they can sign on to help with the eco-tourism project. It turned out that all of our guides were volunteers as was Josefina, our favourite cook of the trip, and Gowdie himself. Contrary to regular service, however, those who work on the eco-tourism project receive a small stipend. The money that we had paid for our trip was divvied up between the each of the project offices and there was one in each village. (I learned later that a percentage of our fees was retained by the head project office in Oaxaca to pay the salaries of the four women who work there.)

People we spoke with loved their voluntary service, preferring it to their “real” work. In particular, our guides loved being part of the project. Some had obtained a certification so they could continue guiding and be paid for it when their service ended. At times, quite a few guides were required to lead people like ourselves, school groups or others interested in getting out on to the trails. Our guides were all knowledgeable about plants and animals, having learned most of what they knew from their parents and grandparents. They also worked on the zip lines that operated in several of the villages (more about that later), the hanging bridge, temescal (like a sweat lodge) and other tourism initiatives. It was a very neat setup.

Back at Antonia’s, Gowdie had to leave, but the conversation continued. Lisert’s brother, who was Antonia’s eldest son, had arrived along with his wife and their young daughter. Like everyone else we spoke to in these small isolated villages, they had chosen to only have one, or possibly two, children. “It’s too expensive to have more,” was the standard reason. Mexico is clearly in transition from a developing to a developed country. We weren’t surprised to learn that Mexico’s birth rate as of 2012 was at 2.2 children per woman, not much more than our own.

For the next half hour or so, the conversation continued with great intensity in the dimly lit kitchen warmed by the wood-fired comal. As Alex and I slurped delicious vegetable soup from large bowls and sipped on fresh Jamaica juice. We talked about health care and education and the politics — or lack of them — in the eco-tourism project. We discussed foreign tourists versus Mexican ones, medicinal plants and the shortage of transportation in the Sierra Norte.

We’d long forgotten about outhouses and spotted floors and the bats that were surely gathering in wait for us to return to our room. All too soon, it was time for us to retire for the night. With a sky full of stars guiding us, we made our way back up the stairs to our room. The moon lit the outhouse making it hardly scary at all. We climbed into bed and were soon comfortably nestled in its sunken centre.

The next thing I knew it was morning and the warm sun, so bashful the night before, streamed into our room, through the thin cotton fabric that covered the open window. After a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, beans and freshly made tortillas, we were off, sad to leave La Neveria and our new friends behind.

La Nev house 10

But with a new adventure ahead.

La Nev house 11