Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Burdens We Bear

In the chill of the morning, a string of black Ibis wind their way across a rosy pink sky over the high desert plain. Under a scrawny mesquite tree by the reservoir, two men are scooping rich soil from the shore into flour sacks and loading them onto the backs of two waiting burros. The smells of animals and earth and wood smoke from the nearby village fill the air. They work silently, the burros shifting under the growing weight of their load, their ears twitching among the flies that buzz lazily around their heads.

Finally, the bags are tied onto the animals with rope, and men and beasts begin the long climb up the hillside toward the clanging church bells of San Miguel. They walk past the bright green alfalfa fields and the small adobe and brick houses, climbing over the railroad tracks by the old abandoned train station to where the dirt roads turn to pavement at the edge of town. They lead the animals uphill towards the center of town, passing children in school uniforms carrying day packs full of books, their hair slicked back and shoes freshly shined. They nod to the housewives and maids in aprons and rebozos carrying their plastic shopping bags down to the market. Gringos weave past them on the stone sidewalks carrying yoga mats, Spanish books, sketchpads and laptops. Early morning traffic grinds its way up the narrow streets.

A dusty golden light peeks over the tops of the buildings, slanting across the ochre and sienna walls and meandering up the cobblestone streets and into the courtyards and gardens as a new crescent moon fades into the lightening sky. The hot, yeasty fragrance from the local bakery mingles with the smell of diesel fumes and wet stones. Pigeons coo and flap from various niches in the old stone and brick buildings. Doorways open and young women with plastic buckets sprinkle water onto the dusty streets as if bestowing blessings.

The men lead their burros into the nicer neighborhoods at the top of the hill, wandering the streets from door to door and offering their bags of earth for sale as fertilizer for the gardens that lie hidden behind the high walls of the big houses. They wipe the sweat from their foreheads as they unload the bags, the shadows growing shorter as the sun rises higher in the endless sky.

By mid-afternoon, they pass by an outdoor café where tourists and locals are having lunch under colorful umbrellas. At one small table, a middle-aged couple sip lemonade, circling real estate ads in the local English language newspaper. Having recently sold their LA condo, they have come to seek refuge and a simpler life in Mexico, where they hope to buy a colonial house near the center of town. Already they have signed up for Spanish classes, joined a few local clubs and made several friends. They have fallen in love with the town and the people, surrounded by such heartbreaking beauty, and are happy to have discovered this charming little place they are now calling their home.

The men stop to rest next to the café to water their animals at a fountain built into the side of a building. Two brown-skinned men in stained clothes and straw hats; two burros carrying mounds of white sacks, casting russet colored shadows against a terra cotta wall.

Across the street a man in khaki shorts, pale legs planted into white socks and sandals, canvas safari hat perched on his balding head, raises his Nikon to eye level. Squinching up his face, he makes a few adjustments to the camera, zooming in on the men with the burros. He can’t believe his luck. Last year, his picture of a beggar woman carrying a small child in a shawl had won him second prize in the county fair in his hometown. And now here is this perfectly quaint scene, presenting itself to him like a gift.

At the click of the shutter, the men with the burros jerk their heads up toward the sound. They watch intently as the man re-adjusts the camera for a second shot. Their faces take on a sudden look of desperation, and they thrust their empty hands out towards him.

The man with the camera blinks, as if surprised that the men are actually alive and not just figurines placed there for his personal viewing pleasure. What now? He tips his hat nervously, uncertain as to what to do next, uncomfortable that he has to acknowledge them. He begins to back away, the heavy black camera twisting awkwardly around his neck.

The couple at the table have looked up from their newspaper to witness the scene. They see the poor Mexicans with the overburdened burros. They see the clueless tourist with the enormous lens, lurking away. Suddenly they are both on their feet, the man pointing an accusing finger at the Nikon.

“Hey!” He shouts. “For chrissakes, give them a few pesos, why dontcha?” The man with the camera stops and turns to see where the voice is coming from.

“You can’t just walk around taking pictures of people without their permission, you know,” says the woman. She is standing with the newspaper clenched in her hand. Perhaps she plans to hit him with it. Instead, she shoves it into a plastic shopping bag decorated with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and crosses her arms, glaring at him.

The man with the camera stares at them, then back to the Mexicans, who are still standing with their outstretched hands. Their desperate faces soften unwittingly into confused and mild amusement as they witness the drama unfolding before them. The man with the camera looks sheepish, as if he has been caught stealing. He tries to speak, but he can’t imagine what he should say, and so begins to fumble awkwardly in his pockets.

Dark moons of sweat reveal themselves beneath the armpits of his Banana Republic shirt as coins tumble and clatter onto the cobblestones. He crouches down to gather them up, then stands up and steadies himself. He sees the two men talking softly to each other, nodding their chins toward him. He sees the American couple turn and walk away, shaking their heads. Then he moves slowly, nervously towards the men and drops a few coins into each of the earth-brown hands. He can smell the stench of the animals, the dust and the sweat. The men tip their hats and offer him their crinkled smiles. He nods his head and manages a nervous grin. The men pocket the coins, and then one of them holds out his hand again, his palm turned sideways. The man with the camera reaches out and shakes the calloused hand with his own sweaty one, takes a full breath, then turns and slowly walks away, down the winding narrow streets to the cool safety of his hotel.

The burros, their loads somewhat lighter now, gratefully lap up the cool water from the fountain, then stand still and silent in the narrow shade of the overhanging Bougainvillea, momentarily protected from the heat of the afternoon sun. They close their eyes and rest. As far as they are concerned, this is as good as it gets.

1 comment:

Veronica A. Taylor said...

Susan congratulations!!! What a nice story and so well prepared. I felt like I was at the Cafe taking it all in. Good job my dear.