Saturday, June 6, 2009

Our Chepe Holiday

The Ferrocarril Pacifico (also named Chepe) in Mexico is said to be one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys, winding its way 650 km inland from Los Mochis to Chihuahua over 37 bridges, through 86 tunnels to a peak elevation of 2400 meters. Much of the journey skirts the impressive Copper Canyon.

Our journey began in Guaymas, with a 5 hour bus ride to Los Mochis. The bus was so comfortable that rather than finding a hotel there before our 6 AM train, we walked around the corner and boarded a local bus for the 2 hour trip to El Fuerte. This proved to be worthwhile, not only allowing us to catch our train at a more respectable 9 AM, but giving us a glimpse of a wonderfully quaint colonial village. The cobbled streets were lined with stone buildings. Our hotel was a series of little stone rooms around a flower-filled courtyard. A huge stone mortar in front of our door was planted with herbs - I would not be surprised if its age has a couple of 0’s on the end. We made it up to the replica of the old fort just in time for sunset, then set out for the tortillaria for dinner – less than $10 filled us up on gooey tacos of marinated meat and cheese. Wandering the back roads we tumbled into what can only be described as the locals pub. I am sure no tourists ever venture in there. We were lured in by the music, but the band packed up almost as soon as we entered. Everyone stopped to look at us. The room was filled with pointed boots, silver belt buckles and cowboy hats, and one large voluptuous woman in extremely tight clothes with many gaps swaying suggestively at the bar. We sat at a table and were immediately joined by one of the intoxicated patrons. He was very polite, shaking our hands and introducing himself and asking us where we were from. We ordered beer (there were no other options) and a second man came to sit with us, content just to nod and smile. A dominos game was taking place on a table in front of an enormous metal contraption. As I surveyed the room I saw several of these boxes, with ducting sprouting from both sides, apparently an air conditioner, possibly predating electricity. We extracted ourselves after one beer to avoid collecting the entire bar at our table and stumbled over the lady with one of her lucky customers having a quickie against the side of the building outside.

The following morning our intention to walk along the riverside was thwarted by the fortunate discovery that we were in another time zone. Had we missed our train, we would have had a 3-day wait for the next one, a fact that we were oblivious to until we discovered we had the wrong schedule for our return trip.

For the whole day, we were treated to stunning views as we rattled along. There were very few passengers. Without worrisome regulations about standing between the cars, we could hang out over the canyon for photo opportunities. Periodically, someone would come through the car with burritos or cactus fruit for sale, and at one stop we were greeted by the sight of the Raramuri Indian women selling their colorful baskets. Late in the afternoon we disembarked at Posada Barrancas with the owner of a guest house there who had also happened to be on the train.

We had chosen this place because it is right on the rim of the canyon. It is not a town as such, just a collection of houses with a couple of hotels and a small store. Our host was formerly a tour guide for the ‘fancy’ hotel, and spoke good English. He happily pointed us to the trail that took us along the rim to the hotel for happy hour, which we enjoyed with views across the canyon, surrounded by colorful birds. We returned in time for dinner cooked by his wife, and a pleasant evening fending off the neighbors who had jewelry, rocks and crystals collected locally, for sale.

The following day we succumbed to one of our host’s tours of the local view points and a visit to a cave dwelling. Looking out over the canyon, which is 4 times larger than the Grand Canyon and 1000 feet deeper, it was not just the majesty of the view that intrigued us. It was the spider web of trails that link the homes of the Raramuri. These brightly dressed people are the indigenous inhabitants of this rugged terrain. Their population stands at around 50,000 and even today they have resisted many of the trappings of modern life. This is more surprising given the notoriety they have achieved as runners, competing worldwide in their skimpy sandals laced at the ankles. They continue to live simply, using the many caves in the area as the basis for their homes, forming the rooms by tucking a mixture of wood and hand made bricks into these notches. They prepare the fields with hand made wooden plows pulled by horses. They weave beautifully designed baskets from pine needles and cactus fibers, dyed red with the bark of the Madrona tree, or colored like tea by soaking. Although most men have changed to western ‘cowboy’ garb, a few can still be seen with their traditional loin cloth, even in downtown Creel. The women are a flurry of color in flounced dresses of bright orange, greens, blues, pinks and purples. Their children are slung on their backs with an equally colorful woven scarf. We watched a tired kid walk up to granny as she sat on the curb, lean over her shoulders, and await the shawl to be slid under her bum and tied around granny’s front, effortlessly supporting her. The babies are apparently rolled in and flipped up and over. The tourist attractions we visited with our guide were all well attended by these ladies, with mats spread out to display their wares. Although they were clearly there to sell to tourists, they were so shy that if we approached them they would turn their heads. They quietly informed us of the prices only when asked. We had read that they are proud and private individuals, shunning contact with outsiders. Yet here they were, in the midst of all us gawking tourists, even allowing us to traipse through their homes. I felt an uneasy sadness for these people, who seem to be reluctantly seeking the money they need only to survive in our world, not theirs. Our tour finished with a ‘fast food’ lunch at Divisidero train station, 5 miles from our guest house. The excellent Gorditas and Chili Rellenos were prepared instantly, the vendors used to serving the masses that descend during their 15 minute stopover at the station. This is the highest point, the continental divide, with more spectacular views of the canyon, going on forever.

That afternoon was spent wandering the trails of the canyon. Eventually we found our way to the valley primary school, which we could see perched on a craggy outcrop of rock apparently miles from anywhere. As we picked our way carefully along the trail, we imagined the 20 or so children that attended here, running to school each day, from far and beyond in the valley. This trek into the surreal landscape was followed by another home cooked meal, which featured blue corn tortillas – a special treat!

We opted to spend more time in the canyon area rather than go all the way to Chihuahua. So we took another tour with our host, this time ending in Creel, 48 km further up the train line. Our guide once again showed us all the main attractions, including ‘the rock shaped like a penny’. He had mentioned this rock many times with a strange glint in his eye as he said it. The ‘penny’ dropped when we finally arrived at this location to behold a giant phallus, however you want to pronounce it!

We checked into a guest house in downtown Creel, and soon discovered that we would not be able to board the train the next day as planned. The economy class only runs 3 times a week. Posters in town advertised a program of events for the Creel Festival, so we decided to stay the extra day and take in one night of the 3 day festival. We spent the rest of the day generally wandering around, and visiting the little museum. A photo exhibition portrayed aspects of the Raramuri culture, with captions that were poignant for many of the indigenous races we have encountered in our travels. “It is wrong to say that Tarahumaras are not civilized, when their concepts are reduced to simple and basic physical needs and not to material amenities that they have always rejected.” Indeed some of the captions could apply to any culture. “Very soon our race will be sick. Time has grown too old for mankind. It can’t support us anymore.”

In Creel, as in urban areas everywhere, the Indians were more forthright about selling to tourists. Small children would run up to us first asking ‘Comprar?’ (buy) and then begging for one peso. Rather than poking though the multitudes of souvenir shops, we bought crafts from the mission craft store, whose proceeds would go towards education of the Raramuri children. They also have a program there to promote the preservation of the culture, and recommend purchase of the bright cloth for ladies dresses rather than donating used clothes. The dresses take 5 yards of material each, and the donor’s name is given to the lady who receives the fabric.

We went in search of someplace to sit and listen to music, and found a Mariachi band wandering the street. We asked where they were playing, and they replied ‘here’. It seems they would play for anyone, right there in the street, but did not actually have a venue. The only bar in town had sports on TV screens that could not be avoided. Finally we found a delightfully talented Latin/jazz band in a coffee shop and so finished the day with a cup of hot chocolate.

Although we would have liked to see the bottom of the canyon, this would entail a multi-day journey down (and back up) winding roads of dubious condition in questionable transportation. We made the most of our extra day with a 20k bike ride to the Valley of the Monks. This took us through more Raramuri homesteads, up a relatively flat valley of farmland. At the end of the valley was an incredible landscape of pinnacle rocks (the Monks) perched on the edge of another part of the canyon. Until then we had nothing but bright sunshine, but as we sat to enjoy our lunch, the sky became dark and we could see thunderheads in the distance. Before we knew it, a noisy wind whipped up, and large freezing cold drops of rain pelted us. The shower was brief, but several more chased us on the way back down the valley. We learned that the area was desperately dry, having received no snow this winter. The hotels had to buy water for guests and the farmlands were withered and cracking. They needed much more than these few drops.
Back in town we were in time for the band music, which was first on the program for the festival. It went on, and on, and on. We don’t know what happened to the rest of the program. However, we did enjoy watching the kaleidoscope of colorful dresses whirling past – the pace of their walk seems incongruous to their simple lifestyle.

Finally the train arrived, an hour late, to take us home. We were surprised to find it completely full, but eventually we were allocated a seat. With the delay for the extra day, it would be a long trip to get back in time to move the boat as required. We planned to go straight through to Los Mochis then take the overnight bus to Guaymas. A couple of hours out of Los Mochis the train stopped. It was 11.30 at night. The conductor came though mumbling something but of course we could not understand what he said. It turned out there was some sort of breakdown. We were all herded off into the darkness, and made to stand on a dirt road with our bags until busses could be diverted to take us to Los Mochis. The comfortable seats on the train looked so inviting, sitting there empty behind us. The bus drivers must have felt as put out as we did, and for punishment they turned on the air conditioning full blast. We had all our clothing wrapped around us and over our heads trying to keep from getting frostbite for the rest of the way to Los Mochis. How infuriating to drive right through town and on another 22 km to the train station, then taxi back to town to catch the bus to Guaymas. Luckily, this bus was almost empty so we could spread out and get some sleep. But at 3 AM, I was awakened by a woman speaking urgently in Spanish to me. I was groggy and couldn’t understand a word. She said something else and a man’s head popped up from under my seat. He asked if I had any guns or drugs. I said no. I realized then that this was a police check. They were dismantling the toilet at the back of the bus. When they were satisfied the bus contained no contraband, off we went again.

We had only been away 6 days, but it felt as though we had been to another world, one far back in time.

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