A chance meeting with a few Mennonite families in the middle of wilderness
(This piece was first published by International Business Times)
By Amalendu Misra
We had been watching him for a good while from under the jacaranda tree that provided temporary respite from the oppressive noonday tropical sun.
He looked clearly out of place. With a height of measuring over 6 feet, bronze-red skin and ocean blue eyes, he was nowhere close to the short Mayan peasants that crowded the village market. His appearance was all the more odd, for he sported a dark dungaree when the temperature around was well over 45 degrees Celsius. A big ten-gallon straw hat that sat on his head completed his atmospheric look.
We debated for a while to place him. The supposition that he could have been a missionary, a marooned sailor, or an extra from a low-budget Hollywood movie being shot in distant Mérida were all abandoned following a closely evaluated process of elimination.
Finally, we plucked up the courage to brave the inferno beyond the shade of the jacaranda. His initial reaction was that of complete stoic like indifference. He would feign he did not understand a single word of what we said. From initial Spanish we switched to English, then French and then scratched our head to see if we knew any other tongue. He could feel our loss for words literally, and finally uttered something.
Angel, who had picked up some German while hitchhiking in East Saxony during his youth, had a smile on his face. “It sounds like German.” That was that.
The fishing boat that was to take us across Gulf of Campeche was leaving in few minutes. We said adios to our man. Like all holiday memories this particular one would linger in my mind for long seven years.
I was surviving on canned refried beans and cardboard like breads for days. I needed some fresh vegetables and cheese. Nothing seemed to grow around those parts, in that accursed village. The buzzards circled above the butchers and mangy dogs fought violently over pieces of offal. At dusk millions of mosquitoes would emerge from nowhere and attack you mercilessly.
I was there for the view. From my veranda I had access to a 280 degrees of translucent emerald green waterscape that was out of this world. The lake stretched for miles in all directions. With the passing sun, from morning until sundown, the lake would change its colour. The locals did not make much of the view. There was no fish in its waters.
Lupita came once a week to clear the rubbish and collect the rent. She felt pity on my diet — for a vegetarian there was nothing to eat. She had tried to buy me into the delicacies of dried pork. I was not going to break the habit of a lifetime. So, we talked. There was a community in the deep recesses of the jungle. They grew tomatoes and bartered fresh cheese with the locals.
I had to go to Campo Salamanca. Lupita could not promise me Jaime’s bicileta. It was too precious; the family heirloom. Moreover the road to the campo was not kind on the bicileta’s wheels. Jaime was prepared to lend me his mula though. He wanted a much-needed break from his daily wood cutting trips to the forest.
Whoever has ridden a mule would know why they are called mules. They are the most insolent, disobedient and thickest of all domesticated animals. You try taking them in one direction and they follow the other. The little verbal communication that one succeeds in establishing with every other domesticated animal is lost on mules. They seem to understand next to nothing. And take a special pleasure in making you lose your head on this absence of communication.
Paco was no different. When I wanted him to go he will stop. When I wanted him to stop he will keep going. Worst of all he brayed incessantly at the most inopportune moment. I felt like slapping him for this insolence, but was too scared that he might run away leaving me stranded in this alien landscape. After two hours into the trek we had established an arrangement. He would follow the narrow road at his will and I will say or do nothing. Any voices of protest from me and he would bray, throw me off his back and run.
By early noon the forest had thickened all around us. There were colonies of cappuccino monkeys and toucans on the tree branches. The cicadas kept calling relentlessly as I firmly held on to the rein in one hand and machete on the other. The serenity of the surrounding greenery nursed fears of a jaguar leaping on us. I was feeling foolish.
Some four hours into the ride, Paco and I, noticed the jungle slowly opening up. I cannot say if Paco had made this journey before but something changed in him. He was less mule-like at this stage. His pace quickened, he was more determined and eager to move forward. We were getting somewhere!
Finally the jungle cleared and we suddenly came face to face with a cornfield. From a distance, something looked eerily familiar. There was this over six feet tall man. He sported a large straw hat, wore a black dungaree and had sunburnt bronze-red skin. At first, I thought it was the sun playing tricks on me.
But there he was. Tall, distinct, proud and indomitable under that merciless tropical sun. He rested his chin on the long staff that he held in his grip and peered at me. I removed my hat and looked deep into his eyes. After a brief moment, which seemed like ages, a simultaneous smile broke on our face. We both had managed to place each other — after a long gap of seven years.
We walked silently, while I surveyed the surrounding landscape. There were vast tracts of forest clearings. Some of these were green, announcing the presence of some kind of crop. Then the silence gave in to faint laughter of kids, in the distance.
Suddenly there was the presence of a clutch of schoolhouse like single storey buildings. Spartan in appearance, they were all painted in white to repel the rays of the sun, for sure. The kids went silent upon seeing us. The women dressed in milkmaid like attire all retreated behind the walls. There was a sudden lull in the otherwise easy domestic noise. Our man uttered something. The language was unmistakable — the same incomprehensible syllables that Angel had declared as “some kind of German.”
Wilhelm and seven other Mennonite families now occupied that piece of isolation in the jungle. They still adhered to the culture and religion that their ancestors carried with them while escaping from the Low Countries and Germany some two centuries ago.
There was some easy equality among these people. All men had piercing blue eyes and mops of straw blonde hair. The girls had a lot of feckless and wore tights. The dress code was equally egalitarian. Dark dungarees over white shirts and straw hats was the only existing dress pattern among boys and men. The female folk on their part wore blue skirts and some had a nun-like scarf on their head.
One of the young adult boys spoke a bit of Spanish. Later, I was to learn, he had run away from the commune and lived among the non-Mennonites for a while. But he felt isolated and grew tired of his new environ and returned to his folks. He now served as a go-between with the world outsid — beyond the jungle.
The elders asked if I had any medicine for the gum disease. They all had bleeding gums and rotten teeth. I scratched my head and recommended chewing wild basil and margossa leaves. The forest around had plentiful of these plants and I thought this concoction might help.
The kids meanwhile had taken a fascination with my mobile phone. There was no reception but I was using it to click away photographs. When I took some of their images and played it back to them all were speechless. It was like Gabriel Garcia Marque’z character Melquíades in One Hundred Years of Solitude introducing ice-making technology to the inhabitants of Macondo at the turn of 20th century.
My Mennonites strictly shunned all modern technology. The horses did the tilling of the soil and they did not want any electricity.
There was no cheese. It was the height of dry season and the cows did not give much milk, anyway. The tomatoes were still green and tiny on those delicate aromatic vines. But there were watermelons. They hacked a few for me with their only modern tool — sharp machetes.
The sun was going down the horizon. Paco meanwhile had already strayed off in the direction of another mule in the commune. He needed some persuasion when I forced him to take me back to my hut by the translucent lake.
“No queso eh?” was Lupita’s only reaction when she found me struggling to cut open another can of refried beans the next day. (Global India Newswire)