Spending twelve hours trapped inside a so-called luxury bus that alternated between freezing cold and stuffy heat faintly scented by urine isn’t what one might call the most auspicious beginning to a romantic adventure. Our clothes were wrinkled and our eyes grew tired as the night wore on. But despite our appearance, we were excited and optimistic as we approached our final destination: a small working ranch in southern Mexico deep within Zapatista territory.
Sitting near the tiny, unlit bathroom facilities in the back of the bus allowed us to observe interesting characters common to third world middle-of-the-night travel. A Mexican teenager listened to AC/DC through cheap headphones with eyes closed, a giant orange soda perched precariously on his knee. A stern, heavyset doña held a sleeping toddler, who woke occasionally to gaze steadily at us with big black eyes fringed with heavy lashes. A rumpled German couple crammed huge backpacks into the small space between their long legs. Several other travelers talked quietly during the overnight trip from Cancún to San Cristobal de las Casas.
The farther inland we traveled, away from glittery resorts and white sand beaches, the quieter and cozier our world became. We were foreigners, but not tourists, making our way to the southern highlands near the border of Guatemala. We were a young couple in our late 20s who had been recruited to work at an organic “eco-tourist” ranch owned by Americans. The ranch was located just beyond a large and scary-looking Mexican military base and a few kilometers from the entrance of a rural indigenous community affiliated with the Zapatista rebel movement directed by Subcomandante Marcos.
Thinking about it over ten years later, perhaps this wasn’t our wisest choice of employment. And it definitely wasn’t a tourist destination.
But we had spent the past two years working for the U.S. Peace Corps on environmental and health development projects in the Caribbean, we spoke Spanish, and we were in love. These credentials gave us the tenacity and desire to move to Chiapas and begin a 100-day journey that we are sure never to forget. Without hesitation, we climbed out of the bus at dawn, flagged a car in a dusty real life cowboy-and-Indian town called Ocosingo, and ignored the odd look in our driver’s eyes as he transported us to our new home.
On our second day at the ranch, we woke well rested and clear of mind. It’s amazing to sleep deeply beneath a zinc roof under a million stars. The light in the morning was dewy, yet clear. As the shadows lifted, we watched men and women walking slowly down the road bearing heavy bundles of firewood on their backs. The women wore long dark braids and colorful huipiles. Smoke could be seen across the horizon as the women started small fires over which to warm their hands and morning tortillas. We helped tend the garden that grew great handfuls of red and green swiss chard, fresh herbs and spicy chiles. It was a living salad, just steps away from the clean and tidy kitchen.
Oh, but we had such a wealth of vegetables and nutrients in our backyard! We dined richly on homemade breads, greens, roasted chicken, and brick-oven grilled pizza. We poured tequila, sliced limes, and drank Mexican beer. I went running in a macadamia nut orchard. So far, so good.
Just outside the gates of the ranch, our indigenous neighbors ate humbly. Meager amounts of beans, little or no produce, and piles of corn tortillas gave them sustenance and energy. Late at night while lying in bed, we heard the unmistakable “thwack thwack thwack” of an ax striking a tree. It was illegal to cut timber from the surrounding land.
But how else were these people to heat their homes and cook their meals?
Our story continues as we get to know the owners of this unusual place. Do you want to know more?