Saturday, October 20, 2007

Now that I'm back. . .

Oh yes, the vacation! Sorry to be away so long from my blog but after my recent trip to Arizona and Mexico, I felt the need to focus on my job search and put Gambatte! on the back burner for a while.

The trip was beyond wonderful! While it felt strange to be back in the driver's seat after more than 3 years of not driving at all in Japan, it felt completely natural to be driving again. For my first time behind the wheel of a car, I drove nearly 300 miles to Sedona, Arizona, and then another 250 to Tucson. The pictures of Sedona posted in September were exactly what I saw, and it was absolutely gorgeous! What an incredible place! I'll definitely go back for a longer stay and do some hiking next time.

During the retreat in Tucson I got to spend a lot of time walking around the beautiful monastery grounds covering 132 acres. Mostly I just hung out in the Japanese garden with its beautiful bridge over a koi pond. Call me a nerd, but I could spend hours watching fish, and especially these elegant koi.

After 6 blissful days at the retreat, I flew to Mexico to begin the first leg of my visit to Copper Canyon aboard the privately owned El CHEPE, a modern, clean and comfortable train. The view was breathtaking, especially as the train crossed from canyon to canyon over high bridges. I was a little surprised, however, at the presence of several uzi-carrying, black-uniformed federales who regularly passed through the train cars. We found out later that they are there to protect the passengers from local gangs or banditos who have, on occasion, attacked the trains to rob tourists. They became a real concern back in 2002, I was told, when they shot and killed an American doctor who was filming their attack. Since that time, federales were hired to ride the trains. Believe me, these guys looked tough enough to handle any type of attack. I felt quite safe.

It took around 6 hours to reach the tiny town where our guide awaited us. Six of us piled into his 9-passenger SUV and began our ride to the lodge perched on the edge of an 8,000 foot canyon. We were told it was an "unpaved" road and would take a little more than an hour to go the next 4 miles as it was a "little rough." That was an understatement!

Unpaved turned out to be a boulder-ridden, back-breaking, death-defying, breath-holding adventure into total madness! Well, maybe that's a little dramatic, but it was downright scary. All I kept thinking about was that we'd have to do this again to return to the train station! The so-called "road" was one-car wide (barely) and had rocks the size of bowling balls littered everywhere. Most of the time, one side of the ride was a sheer drop off with no guard rails and full of hairpin switch backs. Our guide, admittedly an excellent driver, talked cheerfully to us the entire time and assured us that he was an expert at driving this trail, even in the winter with snow, or during the summer rainy season. He said, as the car lurched side to side, the road was much better now because it had recently been smoothed out a little. I wanted to take pictures along the way, but my camera was in my backpack and I was too paralyzed with fear to attempt to move to reach for it.

We finally made it to the lodge and it turned out to be more than worth the frightening ride. The rooms were clean and comfortable, the view was spectacular, and the food was delicious. Our two guides were friendly, funny, and very polite and helpful. They both spoke English quite well and filled us in on the history of the lodge and Tarahumara Indians who owned the land and the lodge. We watched the men carry huge loads of large, heavy bricks on their shoulders as they walked up and down the steep steps to build an addition to the lodge. I could barely manage one trip up and down the steps in the thin air of these mountains, and they did this for hours at a time.

(Double-click on any picture to enlarge it.)

A young Tarahumara girl, in brightly-colored traditional clothing and carrying her 3-month-old baby, displayed her small hand-woven baskets the next morning before breakfast. She was 15 years old. Adriano, one of our guides, told me the girls are usually married by the age of 12. The head guide, Julio, told me that he and his wife had delivered this young girl's baby because the doctor was at a festival and could not reach the hospital in time. The baby was named after him and he became the godfather.

I teased him about what his resume would look like because he seemed to be capable of doing anything and everything! He was a guide, driver, host, bartender, brick mason, painter, plasterer, plumber, and midwife, and I'm sure he had even more skills!

Here's a picture of Julio (l) and Adriano (r), our two guides, inside the main lodge.

This is a picture of the young mother's sister, and her 10-year-old brother holding his niece.

The brother was quite a sweet boy and seemed to like following me around. I had, out of habit and surely not out of necessity, locked my room when I left it to go to the main lodge for breakfast my first morning there. When I came back to my room, I couldn't get the key to work, no matter how many times I tried. The girl with the baby saw me struggling and shyly approached to help me with the key. She couldn't get it to work either. I saw her say something to her little brother and he quickly disappeared. I thought he had gone to get one of our guides to try to fix the lock but soon realized he had scampered behind the lodge (reminder: it sits on the EDGE of a very high and steep mountain!) to climb up through my room's bathroom window. In a flash he was opening the door for me, grinning ear to ear. I laughed at the sight of him and gladly handed him some money for his effort. He looked very surprised and grinned even more. Here's a picture of him but, sadly, I can't remember his name, although I think it might have been Eduardo.

The Tarahumara are quite shy around strangers, but this little guy and I had a good time together. One day Adriano took three of us on a short hike over to the chief's little hut, and there was this same boy sitting on a rock with a big grin and holding a long stick. We laughed when we saw each other and I quickly picked up another stick to play sword fight with him. He thought that was so funny as we each got in a few blows.

The kids there had such a sweet innocence about them. Their lives, while harsh and simple, are spent outdoors most of the time. They fearlessly scamper barefoot all over the mountains and treat everyone and everything respectfully. I never heard any crying nor angry voices among any of the Tarahumara.

Their homes are very tiny—about 60 square feet or so—and made of concrete blocks with no electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, furniture, or any of the other conveniences we take for granted (except in the lodge). I didn't even see any doors or windows—just small openings. I can't imagine what it must be like for them in the winter when it gets quite cold. Some of the people still live in caves, just like their ancestors did thousands of years ago. I wanted to take pictures of the chief's home, but felt it would be disrespectful, so just try to imagine something impossibly small and bleak, that sleeps maybe 9 people squished together. I know—it's hard to imagine.

The lodge, on the other hand, was spacious and comfortable. Here's a picture of the dining room with its magnificent view of the surrounding canyons.

It ran on solar power, but in the evenings there was no power at all in the lodge so everything was lit by candles. It created such a beautiful dining experience. I think the kitchen ran on kerosene. On our first night we lingered over fresh margaritas and stimulating conversations among the 6 of us and our 2 guides while a spectacular lightning storm flashed across the dark skies. With each crack of thunder, we laughed in awe at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sit "on top of the world," completely away from civilization as we knew it, and marvel over the celestial dinner show.

A few days later, it was time to leave this fantastic place and return to our former lives. It made my heart sad to leave this beautiful, tranquil place. Knowing it is there and filled with the kindness of the wonderful people who live and work at this lodge, however, makes me very, very happy. I'll miss the Uno Lodge and the gentle Tarahumara, but hope to return there some day.

Maybe by that time the road will be paved!