I currently live in the southern Mexican city of San Cristobal de Las Casas. I have been here at the time of writing this story, for almost a year and a half now. It has been a challenge to build solid, close friendships, as I find that it has been a rough adjustment for me to engage socially in an unplanned way, the way others do here. I am a control freak. I like scheduling things. It is really a challenge to change course suddenly, yet this is what most people do here. Daily life here is often filled with novelty, spontaneity, and surprises, amidst the chaos. Not much here can be controlled, and I end up alone much of the time because of this.
As a part of these spontaneous and novel experiences, I will get about thirty minutes notice, before an invitation to be with a friend will do something. I have realized I either need to overcome the anxiety this causes me, in order to hop on that train, or I stay in my apartment and let go of that offer. Needless to say, I have worked through a lot of anxiety, while living here. I am getting better about either owning that I choose to forgo the opportunity and not beat myself up about being “boring” or “not spontaneous enough”, or letting go of my need to control, and just go with this new plan and trust I have everything I need, and will be supported along the way.
One such experience of a spontaneous outing, happened yesterday. I got a distressed text from a Mexican friend of mine, letting me know she had lost her cat. The cat’s name is Coco, and he is an indoor/outdoor cat. My friend lives in a house with a backyard that leads right into the forest on a little mountain within the city center of San Cris. Coco often ventures out into the forest during the day, and comes in during the late afternoon, to eat and spend time in the home. Coco hadn’t been seen in 48 hours, and my friend was in tears.
In thirty minutes, I had climbed the mountain to meet my friend at the top, so we could then search the forest together, calling for Coco. I was carrying a backpack complete with snacks, and water. I initially had put on three upper layers, which included a rain jacket and a sportswear, moisture-wicking shirt, because it was cold and rainy when I left my apartment. However, through the walk up the mountain, I was down to my undershirt, and getting wet. I was very sweaty, and this was ok. No moisture wicking for me. I realized as I stuffed my rain coat and moisture wicking shirt in my backpack, that I hadn’t needed to prepare so much for this.
As I was walking from one end of the mountain top to the other, where my friend was, I saw an indigenous woman running towards an overflowing bucket of water at a public faucet. She couldn’t run very fast, as she was wearing a long pencil shaped skirt, with the traditional embroidery sewn all over it. Many indigenous peoples here, where their village apparel, with their village’s style of embroidery on it. It is common to see women dressed in ornate, embroidered skirts, carrying out all sorts of mundane and labor-oriented tasks. What I have found changes if they are doing something fancy, is they will exchange the flip flops they normally wear, with a pair of high heels. They may also weave some ribbons into their braids.
Our paths crossed, and she said something to me in Tsotsil, a Mayan language still spoken here. I wished I knew how to show my empathy for her overflowing bucket situation, but all I could do was make a sad look while glancing in her eyes, and I then looked over at the bucket. I am not sure what she experienced on her end in reading me.
I met my friend on a bench at 1:15. She had warned me earlier that her phone was about to die. I had come up with this plan so we could find each other, and I wouldn’t end up wandering around alone in the forest, kicking rocks, pissed about yet another spontaneous outing where I ended up lost, alone, and having missed the person I was trying to meet.
Her hair was disheveled, she had glitter everywhere, and heavy eyeliner smeared under her eyes. She had clearly been crying. She was wearing a heavy wool sweater, and a set of vintage, patterned pants, with Jeep brand, lumberjack boots. Her boots were the only thing about her appearance that showed me she was ready to walk through the mountainside. She relayed a story of a heavy night of drinking, in a city about an hour away, and shared about the hangover she currently had. Then she began to cry again about being a bad cat mother. I gave her water, and she began to drink it. I explained that cats are like this, and will often disappear for days at a time. I then vowed that I would stay with her, and help her be proactive, so she could feel like she had something she could do while she waited for Coco to come home.
We then began to scale the mountain side, walking through the forest and the brush, together. She and I take turns yelling for Coco and then listening for his meows. He is a white cat, so I was also searching for his still, white body in the brush.
This mountain has always simultaneously intrigued me and scared me a little, as it is a heavily used space by the locals, for all sorts of activities. Drugs, sex, sleeping, drinking, parties, trash disposal, and whatever else the protection of a covered mountain side is needed for.
As I walked through the forest, I reminisced about a magical evening where I was lured to the mountain top by a beautiful, and ongoing fireworks show, with the sound of a live Cumbia band, wafting down into the city, by the wind. I walked up the side of the mountain and found colorful, fluttering streamers of intricate festive flags, and beautiful strings of soft lights, strung up across my path. Then at the top of the mountain it opened up into a lively, drunken festival, complete with carnival games and foods, everywhere. In the center was a huge sound stage and people were dancing joyously to this wonderful band. I danced a lot that night, but ended up hiding under the cover of a festival booth when fireworks began blowing up about 25 feet above my head. Then, as the fireworks ended, a major brawl began, between two groups of people. It literally began to feel like I was in a film that night, as this fight broke out while people were dancing around them, and even some of the fighters were dancing too. I watched in fascination, and then realized it was getting to be a large fight, and that for my own safety, I should probably leave. I walked quickly out of sight, and down the side of the mountain, savoring the experience. There was a lot of trash left up on the mountain after that night. And, especially lots of firework casings and gun powder. But this is a part of life here- the party or the gathering is seen as most important, and the environment is viewed as secondary.
As I searched through the brush, I kept mistaking white plastic bags, filled with trash, for the body of Coco. My heart would start beating faster, as I imagined calling my friend over, to show her his little lifeless, furry body. Then, I also began to spot clothing, where at first I would see a shirt, then I would see pants a little further down the way, and then underwear and shoes. I began to wonder if these were all from the same person, and I was replaying their drama of getting naked in the forest. Then I wondered whether they were naked when they exited the mountain, onto the city streets. Anything is possible here.
I then walked alone further into the forest, and spotted what appeared to be the work of people digging graves. Three large, elongated pits, about 6 feet long, and 3 feet wide. I walked a little faster through this area, quickly peered into the bottom of the pits, called for Coco, and then picked up to a slight jog onto a different section of the mountain.
I saw carvings etched into trees, of people telling God what they wanted. “Quiero amor… quiero dinero… quiero paz.” I want love. I want money. I want peace. I then noticed Valentine’s Day stuffed animals and written cards, tied to trees, as another offering to God and the saints, to be gifted love.
I continued to scan the brush and the mountain side for signs of Coco, hearing my friend’s call to her cat, in the distance. Her voice gets closer, and we intersect in an area of forest. No sign of Coco, and she is distressed. I then look over and realize there is a police officer in full uniform, with his back turned to us, standing in the woods, looking down the side of the mountain. I feel a little freaked out, because police officers here are not usually safe people to be around. Often, due to the poor conditions in their own life, and the survival mentality they share with the rest of the impoverished community, they imprison people for money, or will brutalize those they are threatened by, and will never be brought to justice for it. They also, have at many times been found to be laundering money or working for the drug cartels. To see a cop alone in forest on this mountain, far off the trail, is highly suspicious.
My friend, in her love for her fur child, and her desperation to find him, bravely approaches the police officer. He seems surprised, and as though he has been caught doing something he shouldn’t be doing. I half expect someone else to come running out from where had been looking. But, if there was someone else, they hid successfully. It just appeared to be him alone , by himself. My friend asked if he had seen Coco, and then gave him her number, requesting he and all his police friends call or text her if they see Coco. She walked back to me, and shrugged her shoulders.
We kept walking together for a bit, and then split up again. More clothes and deceptively white little trash bags strewn about the mountain. A special area for used condoms. An especially populated area of beer and tequila bottles. No Coco.
We decide to search the other side of the mountain, that is drier and filled with more brush and cactus. This side of the mountain recently burned in a brush fire, not long ago, as the dry season here is from November to March. We stick together this time, and decide we will take one of the little winding trails that will take us down the side of the mountain. We yell for Coco together, and make jokes about a man’s full outfit, from head to toe, that we find all together in a small area. We question where he ended up, and if it was cold for him to walk around naked. We laugh at the cactus near his shredded boxer briefs, and wonder what happened here.
As we walk along the trail, and exit onto a paved road that goes along the side of the mountain, we begin to ask anyone and everyone we see, who appears to live in little shacks on the side of the mountain, about whether they have seen Coco. We come to an un-built plot of land with more brush, and a few trees. I see some movement from the corner of my eye, about fifty feet ahead and to my far right. My friend and I both end up seeing it. Then the backside of a man comes into view, popping up from a squat in the brush, biting the end of a plastic water bottle in his mouth. He pulls up his pants, and keeps walking down the mountain side, completely oblivious to the fact that two women above just caught the tail end of his pooping session. My friend and I look at each other and ask if the other saw that too. I guess he needed to go, and this was the best he could do.
We keep walking and calling for Coco. No sign of his body, and no response from him. We end up walking through the burned brush, and then walk around the side of the mountain, only to scale up another side again.
We do this for hours, then set about to begin the next phase of our search.
As we walk towards my friend’s house, I feel grateful she asked me to be her moral support, and scale the weird terrain of this mountain, with her. Perhaps she chose me because I am a foreigner, and am more naive about the forest and what awaits one there? My naively sourced courage has perhaps made me the ideal candidate who would venture in alone? Or, perhaps out of the many friends this Mexican woman has here in this community, she picked me because she knew I would show up for her, despite my own discomfort, to support her finding her Coco?
Yesterday, I found in myself, a devotion to supporting my friends, that bypasses my own discomfort with spontaneity and traversing the unknown. And, I am grateful to her and Coco, because they helped me find it!