+ The last time I was out this way you could see the blimp that the Border Patrol uses to watch the Rio Grande. It’s white. It looks like a cloud – which is the whole point I guess.
We’re headed south-east from Piedras Negras. We’re in Coahuila, Mexico. We’re in a jeep. We’re in the perfect part of spring when the sun is warm and the shade is cool and the wind with the top down is roaring but we’re going slow enough you can hear the birds every now and again.
On the highway horizon there are several orange cones, fence wire, and soldiers carrying some kind of very military looking weapon. We’ll call it a machine gun but I’m sure there should be single letters and numbers to form its true name. AK or M or something like that.
There are soldiers on both sides of the road. They are hanging out in little road-side huts watching TV and I’m thinking to myself: “so this is how it ends.” The world starts to blur in colors and smells. A soldier walks up to us petting his AM-37.8 very casually. He looks at me and Erica and spits a toothpick or something at one of the marker cones.
I heard once that the safety orange of those road cones is the only color not found naturally in the world. And looking at the blues of sky, the greens and yellows of field and brush and the olive of army, I think I believe it. It kind of sticks out and says “stop!” but it doesn’t sound like stop. It sounds like “adonde van?” And I have no idea what in the world is being asked of me. I say “yes, of course” and look at Erica. She smiles and says something slurred and cluttered with “R”s. Mr. Machine Gun laughs and waves us on. That was a close one.
Three miles further on we turn right off the highway onto an honest to God cobblestone road and stop at a little park. “Something Something Ecologico” is what the locals call it. There’s a natural spring running through it. The whole town here was built around the springs. I’d tell you the name of the town but I’m from Georgia and we have trouble pronouncing the letter “R” in Georgia and there’s like 50 of them in the town’s name.
I can break it down for you if you want.
It goes like this: “Guer”, like your buddy-buddy name for your brother Gary. “Re” a drop of golden sun. And “ro” which you might think would sound like the word for moving a boat with a paddle but somehow through the magic of Spanish it doesn’t work that way.
Anyway, good luck. Those are the letters; Guerrero. It means “warrior”. And so here we are, soaking our feet in a very cool, very dark colored water in the “Something Something Ecologico” (park), in the middle of Guerry-O, 40 kilometers southeast of Piedras Negras, Coahuila Mexico when Juan walks up to us pointing at the camera.
I don’t think I told you I had a camera with me. Well I do. A great camera. It takes great pictures… when you have the battery charged. Now let’s not go pointing any fingers. Let’s just say that mistakes were made and cameras were left with dead batteries. These things happen and fortunately for us Juan did not know that “these thing” had happened.
Here’s how it played out: “Come, come you see my house and come with camera. It’s berry old casa.”
Trying to be helpful, I say “Lo see in toe, I no ahhhh blow es-pan-yol”. Then Erica kicks in with “arriba arriba, yakitty yakitty, andele andele, yaka yak.” And Juan fires right back at her “Dos tamales enchiladas yakity yak twirl my “R”s and make fun of the hick from Georgia, guitarra, burrito, erre con erre cigarro.”
And so here we are, driving the Jeep through the perfect Mexican village-town. The adobe houses crowd the streets and squeeze them into the size of alleys and fill them with vibrant blues and yellows and greens dripping off the walls in reflected light of the late afternoon sun.
There’s a door on a bar there that’s been leaking color into the street so long you can’t decide whether it used to be orange or red. I say orange, but maybe that’s the twilight talking. Mostly I’m cussing for not charging the camera batteries. Not pointing fingers mind you. Just cussing the fact of the matter.
Juan points us to turn into a driveway that leads up to a rock looking building. I’m not saying it looked like it was made of rocks. I’m saying, it looked like a pile of rocks, well boulders, like you might find along a Tennessee rift. There was a number above the door etched in the rock. 1764.
Inside is cool in the way caves are cool. Juan offers us Cokes made with cane syrup and tells us all about the house. He just bought it for about the price of two Cadillacs and an enchilada and is rightfully proud. I walk around and put the camera up to my eye and make small “ttt” sounds while Erica keeps “habla-ing” with Juan about his casa.
“Hey, let’s get a pic of you and Juan together,” I say and point at the camera “photo?”. “Si, si.”
Did I mention that I haven’t told Erica about our little battery problem?
“He said that we should go see the mission. It’s across the highway.”
We’re sitting at a little “restaurant”. I think it doubles as a living room when there’s no one eating. The sign said “Hamburgesas y Bistek.” I’m not sure if that was the name or just the description but I can tell you this: you haven’t experienced Mexico until you’ve sat in someone’s living room restaurant, in a plastic Tecate chair drinking Strawberry Fanta out of a glass bottle, coarse around the edges from repeated use, and eaten a thin-pattied burger topped with cheese, ham and jalepeños. That’s the real deal my friend.
“What mission is that?”
So we’re back in the Jeep bouncing on cobblestone road, stretching out the last shred of daylight. Across the highway, we follow a dirt road around what I assume is the local bull-fighting arena. Who knows?
“Quien sabe” is how you say “who knows” in Spanish. I can remember that one cause it sounds like “kemosabe” and is always a good answer to just about anything directed at you. “What time is it?” “Who knows?” “What would you like to drink?” “Who knows?” “Sir I need to see your passport. Do you speak Spanish?” “Who knows?”
As we come around the arena, there is the mission – Mission San Bernardo. It’s like a thousand years old, built by Spanish Conquista-priests for the purpose of baptizing or hanging the natives, whichever seemed most necessary and/or expedient at the time.
There’s a boarded up well and what seems to be a gallows just outside the front gate to prove the point.
The gates are open, so we walk in. It’s a square building but the courtyard is in the shape of a cross running the length and width of the square. Lying on the raised platform at the top of the “cross” section, we watch the stars coming out. There seems to be the presence of great good and great evil eroded into the stone blocks that make the walls. A place made both holier and darker by the different activities performed within it. It seems honest in that respect.
I look for the Big Dipper. “There it is, over your shoulder.” We lay there in silence. It occurs to me that we haven’t even heard planes flying overhead. That’s an odd feeling once you realize it. There are coyotes yelping on the other side of the wall. Lights flash through the front gate and run a square of bright along the wall. They cut off and shortly a car door closes. We get up.
“Buenas noches.” Erica the linguist rolls a few “R”s and points back at the mission.
“Si, si” the man says and rolls a few “R”s right back at her.
I smile and shake my head, “si, si.”
They look at me and continue exchanging “R”s for a few more rounds.
He’s wearing a Chicago Cubs hat. He’s old and thin and has some problem that makes him keep trying to swing his lower jaw up over the top of his nose. When they’re done, he shakes my hand and walks off toward the mission.
We head back toward Piedras Negras. At the soldier outpost, there are several flares stuck between orange cones casting an eerie war movie feel to the whole picture. I prepare myself for another military engagement but instead we are just waved through.
The road is dark. Off to the right a couple miles is the Rio Grande. That’s American for “Rio Bravo”, which is Spanish for “Brave River,” and I wonder to myself if the Border Guard’s blimp turns black at night.