They told me not to travel to Tamasopo. Well not exactly, ‘said’. But I could feel it. I was a college-aged, exchange-student, 1961, living in Mexico City as a guest of a wealthy industrialist in Lomas de Chapultepec, a very exclusive enclave. I read my host’s displeasure in tightened eyes and clenched lips as he chalked his cue for the next after-dinner billiards shot. Ramon gave me the same look a week earlier when we were toweling beside his pool and I commented that he looked pretty fit for a forty-year old. Something told me to stifle my excitement for going to a mountain village accessible only by train and horseback, no cars or trucks between villages, to live with the local priest for ten days.
Same thing with Ramiro, the family chauffeur. He wasn’t very excited about my adventure either. He kept cutting glances at me in the passenger seat as he honked and sliced through downtown traffic on the way to the bus terminal. He warned me to avoid being alone in isolated spots and to watch what I ate since he was the one who had to bring the family doctor to the house after I got into some street food.
The jolting, swerving, overnight bus ride though the Sierra Madre Oriental, from la Capital to San Luis Potosi and the mystery of Mexican outback kept me awake and buzzed. After all, I had just spent all of three weeks in intensive language classes to build my formidable 100-word Spanish vocabulary, even if it was only for the present tense. And I was eager to try it out.
Once I arrived in San Luis, I faced a 213 km train ride—the only way to reach my final destination isolated from highways. Turns out Tamasopo was sleepy when the train dropped me off at noon and would be sleepy again when it returned at midnight. Not much stirring as I made my way to the church and my connection with a Padre Cisneros.
He was happy to see me and offered a quick glimpse of the parish office-cum-guestroom followed by a lunch of tortilla and beans and a nap on a cot that would be my bed for the next ten days. Two hours later, I uncurled to stifling heat in the tiny, shuttered space. I was a long way from my air-conditioned room next to Ramon’s private pool and my own swimming instructor, the stunt-double for Johnny Weismmuller in Tarzan movies.
I soon found other kinds of pools. To my surprise, later that afternoon, I was introduced to another exchange student, Carrie, from Cincinnati who had been there for a week. She introduced me to other folks our age who in turn immersed both of us paisani in the surprising array of natural water sites in the area. Almost every day we went on outings to rivers that glowed blue in mountain-side caverns, flowed through eucalyptus groves and roared over waterfalls into deep basins filled with tiny fish, to swirl along towering cliffs for Easter Sunday divers. Paradise with magical names: Puente de Dios, Cascadas de Tamasopo, Tamul.
One day, Padre asked me to go on a train and horse-ride into the interior with him for a wedding he had to bless. “Pues, si,” I said. My only concern was getting back for a much-anticipated volleyball match the next afternoon between our guys in town and a rival village. I was anxious to watch but also had hopes of being asked to play. It all could work if the timing was just right. However, I had yet to discover Padre Cisnero’s fluid sense of time in general or more charitably, his total dedication and response to the needs of his far-flung parishioners. In any case, efficiency and timing and my volleyball match were not on his agenda.
We caught the noon train outbound and got off at an unmarked stop to find a young girl sitting behind two plastic Pepsi crates topped by a board and a bottle opener. “Do you have Pepsi in the United States?” the girl asked me.
Waiting for us was a horseman and two ponies. We mounted and rode to a collection of huts and a surprisingly large open-air ‘church’ with a palm leaf roof. Latticed walls were painted white with blue accents and a long line of penitents queued up for the itinerant confessor. That left me free to wander about and study the local fauna which included a skinny chicken with a skewed leg joint. Finally, late in the evening, Padre and I were escorted to outdoor sleeping quarters and hammocks…to avoid bed bugs, we were told. I had a long restless night. Finally, at first light I was able to scope our surroundings and noticed a double bed with a sheet on it. I longed to stretch out, bugs be damned. I eagerly rolled out of my larval sling and pounced onto a set of bare bedsprings. No mattress in sight. Fully awake now, I spied an outhouse and staggered over. I took a deep breath when I peered down the hole to see that I was standing in a rickety closet perched over the edge of a 100-foot cliff. I had never taken a longer or quicker leak.
Back among the now stirring community, Padre and I were offered a delicious breakfast of chicken stew. I couldn’t help noticing that one of the drumsticks torqued off to one side.
A couple of miles on, we found another church-like structure. Rows of plank benches facing an outdoor altar were partly filled and slowly filling with faithful, many of whom were waiting their turn, as on the night before, to unburden their sins. Padre pulled me aside and asked if I could say a few words, a kind of opening act, before the bridal party arrived. I quickly reviewed my meager vocabulary and memorized phrases to marshal a couple thoughts around what?… marriage, family, this occasion? Meanwhile, someone fired up a gas generator and handed me a microphone. I had barely cleared my throat and said, “Buenas dias…” when the padre raced over between penitents to grab the mike and implored the wedding guests to be tolerant of my attempts at Spanish and give me the benefit of their attention in the spirit of the occasion. It took me a few moments to regain my composure when Father who had apparently just completed another quick shrift, again appeared at my side and suggested rather than an ersatz sermon that I do something else religious, like pass the plate, which in this case was a Dos XX beer tray. That gambit took quite a while. Old women reached into hidden places under their shawls to slowly extract minuscule coins from hidden places and tightly knotted kerchiefs. Meantime, the bridal party showed no signs of showing. I was getting more and more anxious about catching the noon train back to town.
Eventually, the bride could be seen riding a horse far down the hill and slowly inching her way to meet her groom. As the marriage ceremony finally drew to a close, the mournful sound of a train whistle dashed any remaining hopes of volleyball that afternoon. With a deep sigh of resignation, I heartily threw myself into the reception party for the bride and groom who were ensconced in a bower of flowers and greenery surrounded by friends, family and groaning tables of food. Finally, finally Padre Cisneros announced our leaves-taking. While he shook hands and gave blessings, I busied myself loading the collection plate into my backpack. A quick calculation…maybe $4.00 American.
Then they brought out the horses for us. One was a beautiful black stallion that pranced and snorted. My eyes lit up. I had spent three summers working at a camp as a riding instructor. I couldn’t wait to mount that beauty and, who knows, might yet make it back to town in time for the match. Instead, someone handed me the reins to a chubby, stumpy, pinto pony. We took off and before long it became clear that the stallion was too much horse for the good Father. So, when we stopped at a stream within sight of the railroad tracks, Padre offered to switch mounts and allowed as how I might want to follow the rails back to Tamasopo at my own pace. Which, indeed, I did.
Me and my sweat stained mount cantered up to the volleyball court at the very end of the match. No one noticed. The game was tied. I wasn’t going to play. Not at that point. It was their game. Their world. And I was just a spectator looking in.
Two days later Carrie and I were on the midnight train back to San Luis Potosi and from there to our respective exchange families. As she slumped her sleeping head on my shoulder, I pondered how best to describe this trip to Ramon. If I got too excited about my adventures in a simpler, throwback place, he might think me ungrateful for his luxurious, high end hospitality. I didn’t want to offend him. After all, he had generously and graciously put me up for six weeks in his beautiful home and, I think, enjoyed my company, the chance to use his business English and the nightly three-ball competition.
What could I say? It was all good.
Footnote: The area has certainly changed in the intervening sixty years since my visit. There were no hotels in Tamasopo, no busses or packaged tours back then. I’m sure the natural scenery is still just as dramatic and beautiful, if more crowded. And perhaps the hospitality shown to us two Americans was a forerunner to the burgeoning tourist industry in the region. Incidentally, I did arrange for one of our welcoming Tamasopo friends, a young woman named Chayo, to come and stay in our Michigan home for a semester in high school with my sister.