On the bus down we held hands, passing through towns no one even knew existed. Sombrerete was full of dust and signs for Tecate beer. We watched the passengers climb on and disembark at long roads that led back to tiny shacks away from the road. There were cows and chickens everywhere. We giggled, and rested against each other, whispering volatile nothings. I’d discovered something unexpected on the way down from Juarez, Mexico, to Zacatecas- an 18 hour bus ride-that Mexico has a nicer bus system than the U.S. Some of them smell a little funny, like workmen’s sweat or the overpowering cleaner that everyone in Mexico seems to use. It’s call Voom! or BOOM! Or something else with an exclamation point that means everything gets SUPERCLEAN! Everything in Mexico is better with a SUPER on the front.
But no. That’s not how I wanted to start this story. I want to start it with why he and I came here. He was a Kansas boy. We’d fallen in love at first sight in Zacatecas, where we were both spending part of our summers studying Spanish. It sounded like a good idea, and it was. I hold that time in a precious little space in my heart, a part that will always be ours and no one elses’. The rumbling orator of a man who taught our language school told us a secret. He said that Chalchihuites, where he came from, was the center of the universe. He said that few had ever been to or heard about this secret heart of the world. But he knew that the two of us should go there, right away. Of course, who would argue that this could not be true? When a secret of such magnitude is revealed to you, you follow through. And right away.
On our next free weekend we hopped a bus for the nearly 140 mile trip, excited to be away together for the first time since we’d been drawn inexorably to each others’ bodies, to each others’ fickle summer hearts. Living with host families contributed to the feeling of being in high school, so we’d sneaked out after dark for rendezvous in the star-filled nights on the bluffs overlooking the city. But precious time alone, a whole weekend, and in the center of the universe! We were ecstatic, bubbling over with new love and adventure. In the back of our minds, as always with fleeting summer romance, was our parting. So every move, every look and kiss, was fraught with a strange urgency, all the sweeter because of the imminent ending.
It was late afternoon when the bus stopped at the end of a dirt road that wound toward a little village. The driver motioned for us to get off. We did, and he drove off into the sunset in a cloud of dust and chicken feathers. He didn’t drive over the small stone bridge leading to Chalchihuites, either because it was too narrow and old or because the road ended at the town. Most likely the second. Why would any road extend beyond the center of the universe? What was the need? The warm glazed glow of the setting sun brushed the tall grasses and fields that spread out over the valley. It was quiet after the bus had passed, the quiet of the rural countryside. There were few trees, but plenty of grass and vegetation.We heard no vehicles, saw only the omnipresent mutts that haunt every street in Mexico, belonging to no one and everyone. As we walked, hands linked, I was filled with a longing to keep this place in my memory forever. It was perfect. Everything was perfect, and a kind of awe fell over us both. We walked in silence, in reverence. It wasn’t as small as I’d thought, but it felt small because it didn’t move much. It was a still town, like a museum. I later found out this was because almost all of the men and some of the women from Chalchihuites were working in the U.S., sending back money to the children and old folks. It was a town in waiting, at a standstill.
As with all towns in this country full of customs, the cobblestoned plaza centered around a church, a small-scale Spanish-cathedral-style church made of peach-colored stone, looking ancient except for the clock mounted atop it. Cars lined the cement streets, lwhich was laid out in square grey blocks that didn’t show much wear from traffic. There were people now closer to the plaza, mostly old men and a few children sitting on their porches, gawking openly. I had a feeling few gueros ventured here. It was so out of the way, so off the tourist track. There were no curio shops or attempts at English on the signs, no “Buy Sangweech” or attempts to recreate Nike logos on storefronts. Our language guru had instructed us to head left, toward the outskirts of town, where the best hotel was located. From my experience with Mexicans, I guessed the hotel was owned by a relative of his, and that was fine. Referrals keep everyone in business.
A light rain began to fall, and we ran, kicking up the powdery dust behind us. The hotel finally loomed ahead of us, a red and white cinderblock building with white metal scroll gates around the outside. “Habitaciones y banos” the sign proclaimed, and that was all we needed. It looked like home, and we were blessedly the only people there. I didn’t even try to bargain, the prices were so cheap and the man at the front desk so excited to see us. Finally, we had our time alone. We ventured out to buy crackers, soda, and galletas before the town shut down for the night, but the rest of the time we spent in prayer. Prayer to the travel gods, the love gods, the gods at the center of the universe. The roosters woke us in the silence of the morning, wrapped around each other like clasped hands in the clean little rom.
Down the road we found eggs, ham and beer; the eggs obviously fresh from the many chickens that frequented the little taco shack. The man at the front desk of the hotel had sent us to find Alta Vista, what was apparently an archeological site near here. Our friend in Zacatecas had mentioned this, saying it was a holy place that we should definitely visit while we were there. We walked through town in the morning, asking random passersby where we should go. They all pointed back the way we’d come in. The town was setting up for some kind of fiesta. There were booths filled with crap from China and cheap clothes that were twice as expensive as what you could find in the States. Most of it was probably from Indonesia and sweatshops around the world. The taco stands were gearing up, and someone had half-assembled a stage in the center of the plaza.
Alta Vista was about 4 miles, we’d figured. We walked into the silence of the countryside. The green rolling hills on every side of the valley were bounded by craggy blue mountains that looked wild and unreachable. I imagined the untouched beauty that lay out there, no roads, no buildings. A place you could get lost in. About halfway there an older man in a rusty red pickup came roaring by, skidding to a stop in the dirt ahead and waving us in. We hopped in the back, and held on tight to the sides the rest of the way. He stuck his head through the back window once, asking “Van al Alta Vista?” almost like it wasn’t a question. We nodded, he smiled, and that was it. Ahead, we saw a ramada half built on the side of one of the hills, surrounded by odd tan mounds and piles of rock. The man pulled into the parking lot, waved us out, gave us a smile, and was gone.
Down the hill was a little house, and we watched a man below wave to us and head rapidly in our direction. He likely saw money coming, and that was probably not something that happened as often as he’d like. The man came up and introduced himself. Raul. Raul dressed like a vaquero, in a cowboy hat, jeans and a long sleeve white shirt. He talked non-stop for the next two hours as we wandered among the ruins in wonder. Alta Vista was a Teotihuacano ceremonial center, built on the Tropic of Cancer. They say it was occupied from around 100 AD, and was a cultural center. Raul told us the blood poured from the stones here, that a vast cache of the skulls of infants and women had been found, as well as an incinerator to dispose of human sacrifices. I don’t know if he was pulling our legs, but it didn’t matter. The place was full of mystery. A hall of columns split one of the ruins down the center, and we walked among them with hesitant hands brushing the ancient structures, walking around them to meet each other on the opposite side, the same thoughts mirrored in both of our eyes. Raul took our hands and positioned us between two columns. With a theatrical flourish, he pointed ahead toward the sun.
“Hundreds gather here to watch it happen,” he intoned. “Do you see? Do you see the two mountains shaped like pyramids?” We nodded. Directly to the left and the right of the wide-open valley the two peaks rose, pointing grandly to the sky. “At the solstice, ambos en la verano y el otono, the shadows between the columns line up perfectly with those two peaks. They have been measured, and no one today could draw the lines so correctly. These ancient people, the Teotihuacanos, they knew things that we do not. You can see it all around. You can feel in in the air, here, no? There is something sacred here.”
A shiver went up my spine. Yes, I could feel it. He and I, our makeshift couple, pressed together as we studied the straight lines drawn for miles between the two peaks and the temple. I imagined the silence of all the people that would gather here to watch the sunset in the winter and the summer. The awe that would fall over them all, the same shivers in their spines. I wondered if the sacrificed ghosts of all those people also watched.
We walked the four miles back to Chalchihuites, our hands pressed together in the sweat and dust gathered from the day. Here in the center of the universe, it was peaceful. Neither of us said a word; both wrapped in stories.