Military, Missionaries, and Myrmicinae

I could just barely make out the outline of a Ranchero in boots and a sombrero step over me as he made his way to the canal. There was but a dim glow of an infant dawn in the sky so I cowered back into my previous inconsequential realm of dreams. Yet I managed to find no relief from the cacophonic chorus of crowing roosters, bellowing cattle, and screeching buzzards walloping one another with their thick set of wings. I had put down my bed roll on the foot path in order to afford a view of the farm fields lit up by fire flies. There their graceful flight-dance patterns had lulled me to sleep and now the bustle of ranch life compelled me to make an early start on the morning’s chores.

By the time breakfast had been eaten, swarms of red ants of various sizes were scrambling over our cook sight, viciously seizing any crumbs of food matter. As I began packing up my bike, a stream of ants began pouring into my sandals. They set about crawling up my ankles but I was determined to not let them interrupt my daily routine and let them crawl… until they began to bite. One ant must have been pressed against my foot by my sandal strap, for the wound that it inflicted was by far the most painful bug bite I had ever experienced. I thought that I had had it bad the previous day, when an insane bee flew into my nose and stung me on the inside of my nostril. It buzzed around my head as I cursed and yelled in agitation, trying to find the stinger it had left embedded in my flesh. The bee´s persistant harassment forced me to end short my bimonthly phone conversation with my father, who was presently laughing hysterically on the line. After the stinger was removed, the pain in my nose lasted but five minutes. The spot where the hormigas (ants) had nibbled throbbed and burned for a good six or seven hours. As we began riding that day it felt as if some venom were flowing from the bite on my foot up and down the veins in my lower leg.

Directions to nearby Hot Springs appeared on signs along the roads. Though it was still early morning –the mild time of day- I was drenched in sweat, yet I felt maybe the springs would enrage or sooth my ant bite, and either way welcomed a change of state. Everyone else regarded the idea of sitting in hot water under the oppressive Sonoran sun as foolish so we moved on.

In the central town piazza of Arivechi we found a beautiful gazebo stylized in an Andalusia architectural motif. Lying on the shaded floor beneath the gazebo we starred up at the high dome ceiling and observed stained glass portraits of desert ranch life. Across the street small children peered at us through the spaces between the fences that set the boundary for their school yard. ¨Just wait long enough for them to be dismissed from class¨, we thought, and they’ll be out here asking endless questions and demanding rides on the back of our bikes¨.

Jacob insisted that we buy meat for our dinner before leaving town. The carniceria (butchers shop) was but a small room with several sides of cow hanging from a coat rack. A kilo of steak was cut for us in thin slices by the butcher. Goat searched the town for ice to help preserve the meat. In the back yard of small market a woman chipped away at a giant ice brick, we were obliged purchase a sizeable chunk. When we had brought it back to pack with the meat, it was clear that ice would last maybe twenty minutes before dissolving into a puddle. Still, everyone felt invigorated knowing that there was an end in sight to the monotonous meal routine. The huge bag of ice gave me a good moment’s relief from the fire in my foot. We were just on our way out of Arivechi when we heard the voice of a woman, firmly in English; ask how long it had been since we’d seen a good meal. She was in the driver’s seat of a pick’ up truck that had Texas license plates.

¨I’m going to be cooking up quite a meal pretty soon, it’ll take me some time, but if you guys are free to sit back and relax a bit, I’d be happy to feed you. Of course in real life, we are not the touring bicyclists that we proclaim to be, but professionals of revelling in the comforts of local hospitality. We could not refuse.

Our host’s name was Sarah, and she and her husband James were living in Arivechi pursuing missionary work for their Baptist church. Their house was a work-in-progress, most of their material possessions stacked in a hallway leading toward an empty room as well as the master bedroom. We would learn later that James and Sarah enjoyed the company of many guests ‘mainly members of their church on retreat’ and as a consequence of so little home room enjoyed little privacy since their bedroom held access to both kitchen and bathroom. As we settled into chairs at the dinning table I instantly was overcome with an intolerable nervous energy. It might have been the burning sensation of venom pulsing through my veins, or the realization that we may never make it out of this small town, or just wretched nostalgia at having been subjected to bible study and religious creed lectures at my Catholic High school I felt ill at ease. I tried calming myself, spoke a few words to James, and instantly became appalled at how forced and awkward the tone of my voice had sounded.

Eventually I excused myself to take advantage of the shower. Both Nate and Jacob expressed mild frustration with the shower. It had a small tube channelling the tape into the shower head that would periodically blow off when the pressure ran too high. While trying to reattach the tube, Nate had been shocked from the wires running out of the electric water heater. I just switched the heater off, and let the cool water wash away a weeks worth of dust and grime baked into a crisp crust by the Sonoran sun.

I sat back down at the dinning room table just in time to hear James account of how he and Sarah met. James had been involved in ministry service for many years, working mostly in small towns throughout Chihuahua. It had been his calling, and it provided him contentment, though through the years he hade devoted part of his prayers to his hearts desire for a partner.

¨Well, one day a youth group came on retreat through the town I was stationed in, and when I beheld Sarah, why… I knew within my heart that I wanted her to be my wife.¨ James appeared to be trembling slightly with emotion. He took a slight pause while Sarah took a break from the stove to provide an affectionate caress through James hair, allowing him the strength to continue.

As it turned out, the minister leading the youth group talked to me about his hopes that his own son would enjoy union with Sarah. When he told me this I just about lost any hope that I would find a wife. But some time passed, and things weren’t working out between Sarah and the minister’s son. The minister spoke to me about how he didn’t feel his son would find union with Sarah, and so I swallowed hard, and expressed my interest in Sarah… and then by golly if the minister didn’t turn red as a tomato and look ready to fall over backwards. But he took a deep breath and said, if my son isn’t meant to marry Sarah, then I can think of no better person to ask for her hand¨.

¨So the minister ended up putting a good word in for me with Sarah’s parents, though I was significantly terrified at engaging them directly. What if they didn’t like me? What if they felt I was too old for Sarah? (There was a considerable age difference between the two). Well, none of these fears turned out being valid. Sarah’s parents took an instant likening to me, and as I found out later, Sarah herself passionately believed that her path in life was in ministry work.¨

It’s like your arrival in this town¨, began James. ¨We hade seen you guys before, outside of the town of Moctezuma, and we actually prayed to God ´Lord, if it is your will, please send these young bicyclists our way´. And here you are an answer to our prayers! ¨.

The entire time James was telling his story, my eyes roamed the small kitchen area. Inevitably they would rest briefly on a small girl of maybe ten years old, with huge dark eyes, hands folded in lap, wearing a tee-shirt that had a glittery English inscription, ´Girl´. She must have come into the house when I was showering. I had little idea of who she might be, other than a member of a family that accepted James church. When the food was ready Sarah asked her if she wanted to eat anything she quietly nodded her head in the negative.

The meal Sarah prepared was delicious. All of us ate with ravenous appetites, even though we had already had a big breakfast. Smoothies were prepared for an after lunch dessert, and we soon found ourselves refreshed and lazy, happy to have a siesta during the hottest part of the day. As we were preparing to leave one of the neighbours came by claiming that he had prepared pizzas for each of us. Naturally we had to stay a bit longer to finish these off. James offered to drive me by the town clinic to pick up some packets of ´Suero´ an electrolyte formula. On the way he pointed out a piece of land that he had recently purchased.

¨A nice spot for a church¨ He exclaimed. ¨Yet it will be awhile before construction starts, since there are few converts in the town.¨

The clinic was closed, but James and Sarah lavished our food bags with all kinds of good snack foods. We bid our benevolent hosts farewell and took leave of Arivechi.

That night we found a beautiful camp spot by a narrow stream situated between two grazing fields. As we were settling in, a Ranchero trotted up to us on his horse and asked us what we were doing and where we were from.
Goat conversed with the man for awhile. ¨We´d like to sleep on your land.¨

¨Yeah, it is a great place to camp, isn’t it.¨
¨We’ve been biking from Alaska, and we’re going to Chile¨. To which the man responded with some euphemism unique to Spanish that incited Goat to both laugh hysterically and immediately forget the phrasing and meaning. That night Goat woke with the strange sensation of something furry crawling upon his skin. A large spider was perched upon his face. It scurried away without incident.

The next day of biking was hectic. Like a rollercoaster ride, the road snaked and weaved around and over long hills. A pack of horses were in a racing spirit that day and made sure that I remained in their wake for a few kilometres. On a long downhill I had the chance to pass them, but they kept to their road-hogging formation and I could not find a way around them.
It was incredibly hot. I could make out a small lake in the distance, and believed the road would eventually connect to the shore, but it never did. With the intensity of the heat, the reasonable thing would have been to pull over and rest under the shade of a tree. Not having seen my friends for a good hour I suspected they already made this decision. I pressed on, hoping to get to the town of San Nicholas before I ran out of water.

The hills persisted and I was dangerously low on water. I attempted to pump water from a small mud hole near some grazing cows, but the filter clogged after only a minute of pumping. Not knowing how far the next town, I figured the best move would be to wait for my friends, but momentarily a man on a mule approached. He told me San Nicholas was less than ten kilometres away.

Six kilometres later I came to Puente San Nicholas or ´The San Nicholas Bridge´. In Sonora they name the bridge, not the creek flowing beneath. Sounds of human activity mixed with the gurgle of running water. I descended a steep hill on foot; saw the forms of three men ‘early twenties’ bathing in their shorts. Then I saw their weapons military issue automatic rifles, at the sight of which I began to shy from progressing further. Then they made sort of a celebration of my arrival, encouraging me to drink and cool off in the water. My attempts to explain my bike trip were met with expressions of mild amusement but neither conviction nor intrigue. One of the guys directed me to a small hole dug out of the river stones, and told me the water was safe to drink there. His advice appeared questionable the water did feel to be at different temperature than the rest of the stream, yet, even if it was a spring, there was nothing preventing the rest of the stream from mixing in with its water. I brought out my water filter, but it was clogged and had to clean it. As I began scrubbing away at the filter, the man stood above me and with a gesture of impatience motioned for me to dip my water holder into the spring. Ignoring him didn’t help the situation he grabbed a plastic bottle of the ground, filled it with water, and then emptied it into my camel back water bag.

¨Thanks, ¨ I said, ¨that sure saves me a lot of time¨. He smiled, pleased at having saved the gringo from dehydration. Drinking heavily from the water, I forced a smile thinking to myself ¨just this little sip will leave me vomiting for days.¨

My new friends continued washing themselves, shaving, washing their fatigues, or smoking Marlboroughs. They offered me a Tecate from their beer stash chilling in the stream. I politely denied the offer, thinking that under the circumstances I’d better have my wits about me. All at once they started asking demeaning questions like ¨where my boyfriends were at¨, and grinned mischievously when my responses weren’t satisfactory. I had to remind myself that I was a weirdo gringo, and that these men ‘Who had been stationed at this particular creek for two months’ were incredibly bored. Making the excuse that I was hungry, I scampered off toward my bike the guy who poured the ´spring water into my bag called out after me, ¨goodbye honey¨. After making sure I was out of sight from the military convoy, I sat down to read. It wasn’t long before an entire troop ‘maybe thirty men’ came marching down the ranch road on which I was staked out. The first few men stopped in their tracks before me, picked up a small sheet of aluminium and showed it to me.

¨Is this yours? ¨ He was holding up part of a Tecate can, which on further inspection had a small mound of resign of something someone was trying to free-base.

¨No, I don’t drink, ¨ I tried pleading ignorance, it’s very bad for my legs.¨

No one seemed very amused, and more of the troops gathered around my scene, all looking at me suspiciously, their rifles dangling close enough to poke my eyes out. They continued inferring that I was a drug user and I kept saying that the Tecate can wasn’t mine. Finally one of the troop poked at my rifle case, formed a very serious, very concerned expression ¨What is this.¨

¨That, ¨ I began, grateful that the subject had been changed, is my little guitar¨.

Half of the men chimed in at once ¨What! You Play_ You must show it to us.¨

So I took the guitar out of the gun case and played a few measures of a blues song. Someone shouted at me, ¨You must play ´Hotel California´.¨ Someone else chimed in, and sing too. ¨ Oddly I had received this request before, maybe four villages back. Perhaps it was more important that I learn the changes to this Eagles hit than to better my comprehension of this foreign language. To avoid the embarrassment of having to sing before thirty armed brutes, I pointed to the least talkative of the bunch and shouted; ¨you know the words to the song, Right? I’ll play and you sing.¨ Then I started strumming some chords, and the man I pointed to got lost, and everyone laughed in good humour. The guy who looked to be in charge shouted at three stragglers still by the stream -the three that I had first encountered. I imagined that they were either chugging down the last of their beer, or stashing it away for when they returned. One of the troopers pulled me aside, pointed to a straggler running frantically without a shirt on, and said to me, ¨Do you know who this man is? This man is ´Rambo´ ¨Everyone had a good chuckle over his remark.

The troop, having collected itself, took off down the road, presumably to engage in gun battles with narco-traffickers. I had a good hour of creek side tranquillity before the rest of my crew showed up. They had taken an early siesta when the heat of the day felt like an extra layer of fat weighing upon and hampering the muscles.

¨This is Rambo country¨ I greeted them. ¨We might want to get out of here before guys with the big guns return.¨
The crew did not seem eager to take my advice. They found the creek to be an ideal camp spot. Naturally I gave in and set about preparing dinner. That night I felt something crawling rapidly over the top of my sleeping bag. Whatever it was I kicked it off and it didn’t come back. Jacob awoke to find a large hairy spider covering a good portion of his face. He said it freaked him out a bit.

In the morning we passed through the military checkpoint two Kilometres up the road from where we slept. Superficially the checkpoint seemed as impervious as Guantanamo Bay; lots of military personal holding big guns. A small encampment off to the side provided a rest area for the men on duty. The checkpoint people briefly looked over our passports, asked each of us to open up one of our bags ‘left up to our choice’, and haphazardly browsed through the top layer. They didn’t bother checking any of Nate´s bags. They didn’t seem interested in my gun case ‘although the story about my short musical performance the day before had probably made the rounds. We watched as they asked the passengers of a bus to disembark and present identification. Not everyone got off the bus; none of the military personal boarded the bus to conduct searches. In short, I’m afraid to say that the San Nicholas unit might not be the most effective in combating drug smuggling.

3 thoughts on “Military, Missionaries, and Myrmicinae

  1. Russell says:

    Hey Guys,
    Sounds a little wild out there. Funny thing about “Hotel California”. When I was in Ecuador I was goaded into singing that song several times in Kareoke Bars. Better learn that song!
    -Russell Kramer

  2. Russell says:

    Hey Guys,
    Sounds a little wild out there. Funny thing about “Hotel California”. When I was in Ecuador I was goaded into singing that song several times in Kareoke Bars. Better learn that song!
    -Russell Kramer

  3. Russell says:

    Hey Guys,
    Sounds a little wild out there. Funny thing about “Hotel California”. When I was in Ecuador I was goaded into singing that song several times in Kareoke Bars. Better learn that song!
    -Russell Kramer

  4. jamie monterastelli says:

    Sean, I am very disappointed that you didn’t take pictures in the butcher shop, but I enjoyed a good laugh over you playing the song ” Hotel California.” Take care of yourself

  5. jamie monterastelli says:

    Sean, I am very disappointed that you didn’t take pictures in the butcher shop, but I enjoyed a good laugh over you playing the song ” Hotel California.” Take care of yourself

  6. jamie monterastelli says:

    Sean, I am very disappointed that you didn’t take pictures in the butcher shop, but I enjoyed a good laugh over you playing the song ” Hotel California.” Take care of yourself

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