Saturday, August 3, 2013

Reflections on Crossing Borders

(In Chiapas Women are Respected) Marie's La Palma sketch, March 2009
Crossing borders is a complicated and stressful event. There are geographical borders that require passports and visas, cultural borders that require sensitivity, respect, and good judgment, and the final border between life and death, that only requires letting go. 2009-2010 was a period of multiple border crossings for Marie and me. We traveled from the States to Mexico, Mexico to Guatemala, and eventually back to the US. We changed cultures frequently, being the “extranjeros” who tried to respectfully walk the thin line that divides one worldview from another. And in late 2010 we were confronted with the final border crossing that only one of us was going to make. That was a crossing that we did not look forward to. It was also the only crossing that we could not turn away from. 

In mid March 2009, we left our house in Atlangatepec, Tlaxcala, where we had been living for the past six months, headed for Guatemala to renew our visas. Our time in Mexico was two-thirds over. This stay in Mexico had been a mixed bag for Marie, full of highs and lows. She had not been feeling well the last few months, plagued by pains in her bones and back that worried us. A friend in Oaxaca, Juan Carlos, had organized a three-day sketching workshop there since we would be passing through on our way to Guatemala. Oaxaca was a logical stopping off point from Tlaxcala, a full day of travel from our house. It also had special importance to Marie. Juan Carlos was a homeopath and had offered to treat her when she was in Oaxaca. She was looking forward very much to the workshop and seeing Juan Carlos. She needed reassurance.

Patient in Juan Carlos' waiting room
The sketch to the left was done while we were waiting to see Juan Carlos the day after our arrival. Marie wrote on the page, "I am sketching, enjoying, I relax... I can see it in this page. Another example of drawing life the way it is." It remained unfinished as we were called into Juan Carlos' office. "I did not get to finish this woman", she continued, "but that is how it goes, that was the moment, this sketch will remain as it is. I have no desire to finish it." 

Deek's La Palma Sketch

Marie's session with Juan Carlos was encouraging and her workshop was a success. We hit the road for Tapachula rested and content. It was a long trip and we did not look forward to crossing the border there. We had heard too many disturbing stories of violent gang activity between Ciudad Hidalgo on the Mexican side of the border to Ciudad Tecún Umán in Guatemala. But despite a watch stolen off my wrist and a twenty dollar bribe to a Guatemalan immigration official, things went very well.

Jose, a friend in Tapachula, had directed us to an cooperative Eco-Reserve on the small island of La Palma near Acapetahua on Chiapas' Pacific coast. La Palma is situated between the open sea and a mangrove swamp, and historically the inhabitants of this two street island lived off of fishing. But due to overfishing and greed, it had become difficult to make a living that way now. Eco-tourism had became a promising alternative, and Jose was helping them promote it.

When we arrived we were the only guests in the three cabañas in the reserve. "Soon after we settle in, a woman comes with a broom in her hand. She starts sweeping the porch without a word.  I sit on the porch with my sketchbook, pens, and color pencils and ask the woman to stop sweeping. “ I can finish,” I say. She immediately stops, her hand leaning on her broom, and stares. I grab my pencil and ask her permission to draw her. She says yes with that puzzled look on her face. I can read her thought… why me? As always, her intense glare softens when she sees that my hand has drawn one of her eye, her forehead. Then she starts talking… Her name is Manuela.... 
Doña Francesca
And Manuela's story unfolds. Marie points out a paradox with the newspaper headline she has collaged: "On page twenty-one of the same paper, a picture appears of une femme fatale, blond of course, almost naked. An insult to women!”
(Excerpt from Marie's En Chiapas ... sketch above)

A friendship immediately struck up between Manuela and Marie. She invited us to her house for coffee and to meet her mother, Doña Francesca who was 102 years old. She was still active, helping prepare the morning fire, washing clothes, and cooking meals. Again Marie asked permission to sketch her, and she agreed. For the next hour she told stories of life on La Palma for the last one hundred years  as Marie sketched her. 

Since the cabañas had only a very basic kitchen, we often ate at Restaurant Yoli, the only restaurant on the island, and undoubtedly the best! It was owned and run by Ana, one of Manuela's friends and a member of the cooperative that ran the Eco-Reserve. Since we were the only guests on the island, we were also the only customers to eat there. There was always the catch of the day for lunch, and Ana was an exceptional cook! At night they sold carnitas and taquitos on the street and did quite a good business.   
Ana at Restaurant Yoli - La Palma

There were no good swimming beaches on the river near our cabaña. We arranged for one of Ana's relatives to take us in his lancha to a deserted beach on the open sea. From there we could walk a couple of hours to Playa Zacapulco, have dinner, and take a motorized canoe back to the village.
There was no one else in sight and we spent a good part of the day sketching and  beach combing.  When we got to Zacapulco we found a small beach restaurant owned by Doña Blanca. We had a nice cold beer, ordered some freshly caught sea bass and, of course, Marie sketched Doña Blanca as she told of her life on Playa Zacapulco. When we were done, we waited on the river for the canoe to come. It was the last one of the day, and there was no other way back.
Doña Blanca, Playa Zacapulco

As Marie sketched, I watched a group of young children playing on the beach. Their world was nestled in between the mangrove roots, their "gringita" dolls well cared for, and their beach kitchen not yet competing with Doña Blanca. But when Doña Blanca is no longer in her kitchen, I have no doubt that one of these young people will step forward and fill her pots with freshly caught fish and spicy shrimp cocktails.

Children at Playa Zacapulco
 Our trip continued on to San Cristobal, Palenque, Tabasco, Vera Cruz and back home to Atlangatepec. Marie's aches did not get better. We crossed the border back into the United States in June 2009. This is where we found out why her bones were aching. Her final border crossing was January 9, 2011. We were all there to bid her farewell. She was able to let go. As Marie would say, "That's the way it goes. Another example of  life the way it is."

Dos corazones volando - La Palma, 2009