Wednesday, July 1, 2009

An Unexpected Adventure to Kick Off July, My Favorite Month of the Year

(How's that for a Sufjan Stevens title?)

Yesterday Chris and I had an unexpected adventure. Well, for Chris it wasn’t so unexpected – she’s been doing stuff like this for months now. But for me it was definitely out of the ordinary.

I had gone to San Juan with Chris in the morning in the hopes of getting tamales for breakfast. We aren't eating at home much this week, ever since our gas tank ran empty. We didn't figure it was worth paying the forty dollars for another one for only one week, so we're living our last week in Lagos with cold showers and cold food. Yes, it's true - my adventures in the Mexican kitchen have come to an end.

By the time we arrived in Lagos it was pouring rain, but we found our tamales and champurrada and took shelter on some steps inside of one of San Juan’s many markets. After breakfast Chris had an appointment, but we agreed to meet in the afternoon to go visit a lesser-known church in San Juan, the Templo de Santo Niño de Mezquitic. For reasons I’ll explain later, I’d wanted to visit this church before we left Los Altos. (You might also notice that I didn't provide my usual Wikipedia link with this one - that's because Wikipedia has no entry for it. Nope, not even a short one. You know you're into deeply local territory when Wikipedia runs dry.)

While I waited for Chris, I went to mass at the Basilica, then re-read one of my Mexico anthologies in a coffee shop for a few hours. Finally it’s time, and Chris comes through the door to find me – only she has unexpected news. She had been interviewing one of San Juan’s elder statesmen at his home. “He says he’ll take us to Mezquitic in his car, and that we should eat lunch with he and his wife beforehand.” She shrugs apologetically at this change of plans, but there’s nothing for it; we have been invited and we must accept. She takes me to his house.

He and his wife are very welcoming and, truth be told, very funny. They tease each other throughout the meal, and I laugh whenever I understand the Spanish well enough. This is the first time I have shared a meal in a Mexican home since December; I realize how much I have missed it.

Then it is time to go, and we pile in his rusty red sedan and rumble our way down the street. Our plan was to go straight to Mezquitic, but when he finds out that we haven’t yet seen the panoramic view of San Juan from a nearby hill, he insists that we drive up there first.

This detour proves to be well worth it. I think I have seen this view of San Juan in postcards; from here you can see the river that runs along one side of the city – a river that has already begun its yearly refill now that the rainy season has begun – and all of the many churches and hotels that fill San Juan’s central district. As we climb through some barbed wire to get a better look at the panorama, I realize how much of San Juan, this city Chris has worked in for four long months, that I have never seen.

We pile back in the car and head around the edge of town to neighboring Mezquitic. The surrounding landscape is beautiful, much more beautiful than the landscape we’ve seen on bus rides back and forth from San Juan to Lagos to León. The land is green, much greener than it has been at any other time since we have lived here. No wonder the rainy season is so welcome…

Along the way we pass lots of massive posters and painted billboards for various political candidates, all of whom our driver seems to know personally. “¡Hola, Chacho!” he says as he passes one of these signs, which inevitably feature a giant photo of the candidate's face next to his nickname. Have I mentioned that our tour guide for the day has been speaking nonstop, with barely a moment’s pause? He’s a hoot, and regales us with stories of San Juan’s past and present, often breaking out into spontaneous song as we roll along the city’s streets and surrounding highways.

We also pass a treasured nineteen-year-old landmark in San Juan: The outdoor “stage” where Pope John Paul II gave mass during his papal visit here in May 1990. It’s a fascinating structure that looks as if someone placed part of a steepled church on top of an Aztec pyramid. But it’s fallen into disrepair, and the paint is peeling. Apparently it now sits unused, its precious green space empty, a permanently fenced-off reminder of a proud moment in San Juan’s history.

Finally we arrive in Mezquitic. Here in this outlying neighborhood of San Juan is a church like the Basilica of the Virgen, but smaller. It, too, is dedicated to a holy statue, but, well… smaller.

The Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos is a little shorter than my arm. The Santo Niño de Mezquitic is a statue of Jesus that is a little smaller than my thumb. He is so small, in fact, that very few people actually call him by his official and church-sanctioned name of Santo Niño de Mezquitic. Instead, he is known as… well, this is how the Los Altos tourist guide puts it in its helpfully-included English translation:

“Located at Mezquitic de la Magdalena, in San Juan de los Lagos, 4 kilometers away from the city, you can worship the image of a miraculous baby Jesus whose size is no bigger than a peanut. This is the reason why it is known as “El Niño del Cacahuate,” the Peanut Baby.”

Actually, I have more often heard this Santo Niño referred to as “El Niño del Cacahuatito,” which adds the diminutive “ito” to “cacahuate” and makes it the “Baby of the Little Peanut,” as if just plain “peanut” didn’t convey the smallness well enough.

In any case, the tourist guide is right: the Santo Niño de Mezquitic is small – really, really small. It could probably fit inside of a peanut. Like the Virgen de San Juan, el Santo Niño is also covered up to its head in an elaborately decorated triangle dress and placed on top of a stand behind a glass case.

Appropriately, its temple is also small – perhaps the smallest chapel we have seen in Mexico. As you enter it, though, its connection with the Basilica in nearby San Juan is proclaimed clearly: There is a poster with a photo of the Virgen de San Juan and underneath the words: “Encontraron al Niño con Maria, su Madre” – “You will find the Child with Mary, his Mother.”

Like the Basilica, the Templo del Santo Niño also features a room of retablos, prayers for miracles to come and thank-yous for miracles received. Unlike the Virgen de San Juan, however, el Santo Niño is a specialist: This room is almost exclusively full of baby clothes and little toys, usually with papers clipped to them on which are written prayers to the Santo Niño for protection of a baby or a small child.

On our way out of the temple, we stop to buy some peanuts (yes, they sell peanuts, cheekily, outside of the temple gates) and listen to a peanut-seller try to convince us that the Santo Niño de Mezquitic is older and more indigenous than the Virgen de San Juan. Our tour guide is not convinced, and tells them so, and then he continues on with our tour, which we had thought was at an end.

First we stop at the house of one of his friends to chat for a bit, then we drive on to the San Juan branch of the Cruz Roja Mexicana – the Mexican Red Cross. The Red Cross is very important to our tour guide; he drove ambulances as a Red Cross volunteer in San Juan for fifty years (his fifty-year celebration photos are on the wall here next to a parked ambulance). He gives us a tour of the center and shows us the two newest ambulances in the fleet. I have flashbacks of being in Nebraska, where we were also shown ambulances and hospitals as part of our area tour.

We look at the time – nearly seven o’clock, eight hours after Chris first began her appointment this morning. We need to catch a bus, and before that Chris has some books to return to another gentleman, so she tells our tour guide that, sadly, we need to go. Rather than bid us goodbye, however, he drives us to where Chris needs to drop off her books – a good distance up and down a hill – and then, seeing that we are about to miss our bus, races us to the bus station. The ticket agent at the counter tells us the bus has just left; he points at the bus as it turns the corner. Maybe we can catch it, he says. We say a quick goodbye to our tour guide and race down the street, running as fast as we can, until the bus finally notices us and opens its door to let us on.

We collapse on the bus and catch our breath, winded by our backpack-laden run but mostly exhausted from a very long day. It has been one of our last days in Los Altos; Chris has only two days left in San Juan de Los Lagos. Some of our best days, it seems, have been saved for last…


Zach & Hannah Parris said...

Lovely. I'm glad you got to see the peanut baby...enjoy your last days, but look forward to a hot shower.

From Michigan with Love said...

haha remember the oddest shirt in your collection!? (at least in mine) ok maybe not the oddest but the most ramdome. The hospital in Nebraska gave us those dress shirts!!! :-) haha Glad you are having a great ending!

Mike and Beth said...

Thinking about you both....praying for you also....blessings!