Thursday, May 28, 2009

The rain falls horizontally

You’d have thought that we wouldn’t have worried about getting wet.

We were going camping at a waterfall, after all.

But the ominous-looking storm clouds starting rolling in just as our destination – Nochixtlán, a small city in the valley – came into view. As we slowly cut down the mountain, following the switchbacks along the two-lane highway, the big desert sky above “Noch” became increasingly ink-colored.

I, the only American and, perhaps accordingly, the only sarcastic one in the group, muttered something in defeated-sounding Spanish about the lovely contrast between the black thunderheads and sunset-stained sky. About how ironic it was that we’d left sunshine and friendly cotton-white clouds behind at home in Huajuapan just 90 minutes earlier. About how, had we left when we said we were going to leave – before we’d sat for an hour and fifteen minutes with Octavio* and his mother in their kitchen, politely nibbling sour green plums and making small talk about all the exotic-to-me, impossibly-named regional fruits (have you ever eaten cuajenicuili?) I’d tried during my 10-month tenure in town, waiting for him to finish his dinner – we might have missed this storm altogether.

My Mexican car mates were stoic as the rain hit: At least we were still dry.

As the wipers struggled to keep up with the sheets of rain striking us head on, I thought of a university colleague’s warning a few days earlier: Umbrellas are of no use. In Oaxaca, the rain falls horizontally.

Whose idea was this anyway, attempting a camping trip in the rainy season?

But I had celebrated a birthday a few days earlier and had been, true to my Taureaness, stubborn. Stubborn in my determination to mark the occasion with an outdoor weekend retreat. I’d elected the waterfall at Apoala, a green gem that’s tucked away in the thirsty terrain that is Oaxaca’s Mixteca Baja. Thirsty, that is, for the ten months of the year when this corner of the world doesn’t see a drop of rain. Nature, it seems, makes up for lost time in May and June.

It was because of the season that friends had been hesitant to commit to the trip. But that Oaxacan Saturday had been blessed with blue skies, and we’d loaded the car with the requisite tent and sleeping bags and a few granola bars, just in case.

The rain let up just as we reached the industrial outskirts of Noch, allowing me to snap several pictures of soggy Corona billboards framed by fragile rainbows. We navigated the grey city’s flooded streets, rolling down the windows to ask locals, attacking the newly-formed pools on storefront sidewalks with tired brooms, for directions to the road to Apoala.

They’d motion vaguely with their broom handles: Por allá. It’s over there.

The rain caught us again just as we transitioned from pavement to mud, easing into the 28-kilometer-long dirt road that would take us to Apoala. Twilight became nearly midnight as we crept past washed-out banks and through flooded potholes, assured every few kilometers by an “Apoala this way” arrow carefully painted on a board nailed to a tree. Sarcastic “are you sure?” remarks from the gringa riding shotgun were met with silence from the three Mexicans.

At least we were still dry.

After three hours, hunger set in, and we raided the stash of granola bars. It was too late to turn back.

Ten kilometers outside of Apoala, the horizontal sheets of precipitation sputtered into a drizzle. Rounding a bend in the road, we caught a glimpse of the bare yellow lightbulbs adorning the homes of Apoala’s 200-something-odd residents. Their confident glow was reassuring as coasted down the mountain: It wasn’t raining in the valley.

We were still dry.

We arrived, our hunger and weariness compounded by the stress of rainstorms on dark country roads, more than four hours after we’d left Octavio’s mother back in Huajuapan. Despite the fact that we’d spent the entire evening under water, as it were, we’d arrived too late to make the hike down to the waterfall to set up camp. Even I, still the only American and still, perhaps accordingly, the only sarcastic one in the group, was too exhausted to make a crack at the irony.

We settled for a campsite in a meadow and began to unload the car. That’s when I stepped -- submerging my sneaker, sock and left sweatpant -- into one of the irrigation ditches that criss-crossed the unlit field. The sound -- the gasp that accompanies a confident stride interrupted by an unforeseen obstacle, the deep plunk of a leg sinking calf-deep into frigid mountain water, the sharp hiss of an English-language obscenity -- was enough to pull my Mexican friends out of their hunger-induced stoicism and into fits of belly laughter.

And I’d been the one carrying the flashlight. The irony was too much. The sarcastic remarks began.

At least they were still dry.

*Names have been changed to protect the chronically late.

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