TRAVEL by Eric Mackenzie Lamb
About ten years ago, I decided to make a motorcycle trip from Southern California to Guatemala. With just over a month in which to complete a round trip, there was no reason to hurry, with plenty of time to explore Mexico’s more remote areas on the way.
And there were many. And each, as I was about to discover, often had its own distinctive culture and traditional way of life-which, largely due to its isolation and scant numbers of visitors from the so called outside world- had remained virtually unchanged through generations. This was truly the hidden Mexico which few people-even native Mexicans themselves-knew little or virtually nothing about.
After crossing the U.S border into the sprawling city of Tijuana, I continued south along the country’s main federal highway for about three hundred miles. The further I drove, the more rugged the surrounding mountains became. However, not long before sunset, I decided to find a small hotel for the night. I would have been foolish to ignore multiple warnings from fellow motorcyclists about the inherent dangers of driving through the country’s remote areas after dark and becoming an easy target for roadside bandidos. Better safe than sorry, I reminded myself.
The following morning, after finishing breakfast, I had a very interesting conversation with the friendly hotel manager. He graciously provided me with a map. After I told him that I was interested in getting off the beaten track, he suggested that I turn west, into the country’s mountainous interior, at a certain highway junction about fifty miles to the south.
“It’s not a very good road”, he warned me, pointing to the corresponding spot on the map. “Mostly unpaved with a lot of twists and turns. But the scenery is magnificent. I’m sure that, with your riding experience, you and your BMW can handle it.”
He traced his finger along the road’s numerous hairpin bends, then stopped at a small red symbol.
“Here is a place I think you would find very interesting-Pueblo Desconocido. That means Unknown Village in English. If you leave now, you should make it there by sunset. But make sure that you first fill up with gas, maybe even carry a spare jerrycan. There are no stations along the way.”
“Are there any hotels?” I asked him.
“No, Senor. Only guest rooms in private homes. The village is very small, maybe only a hundred inhabitants. If you can’t find something, they will give you a room for the night in the local church. No se preocupe. Don’t worry.”
As I soon realized, the hotel manager had been right when he’d described the condition of the road. In places, I had to navigate around patches of loose gravel as well as trying to avoid frequent holes and trenches. On some stretches, I didn’t dare turn my head sideways for fear of seeing the dizzying drop offs, made even more frightening by the fact that there wasn’t a guard rail anywhere along the road. No houses, no road signs, no people, not even a single wild burro.
It took me almost four and a half hours from where I’d turned off the main highway to cover a distance of less than seventy miles. Just as the hotel manager had predicted, the scenery was absolutely breathtaking: rugged rock-strewn hills, riverbeds winding like snakes through deep ravines, the occasional pine forests in more sheltered areas. The longer I drove, the colder the temperature became. Glancing at my bike’s altimeter, I saw that I’d already reached 4,677 feet above sea level and the road was still climbing. By the time I finally arrived at Pueblo Escondido, I was actually shivering.
The village itself was small and utterly charming, with simple traditional architecture, cobblestoned streets, and narrow alleyways. The only building of any significant size was the whitewashed church whose design obviously dated from Spanish colonial times. Tethered to a railing outside a busy local cantina were several horses wearing ornate saddles, a scene which reminded me of a wild west setting in a movie. Several of the cantinas’s patrons gave me a friendly wave and a thumbs up sign as I passed by on the motorcycle. It was evident that outside visitors to Pueblo Escondido were a rarity, an event which the village’s inhabitants took keen notice of.
Just as the hotel manager had predicted, I had no difficulty in finding a room for the night. The price included a simple but delicious dinner, as well as breakfast, all prepared by the family’s grandmother using locally grown ingredients. To my surprise, Rafael, an affable local farmer and the head of the household, spoke almost fluent English. He’d worked for several years in California as a fruit picker, he explained, which is where he’d learned the language. But, apart from a son who was a doctor and currently living in Costa Rica, few other family members had ever traveled outside this region, let alone to the rest of Mexico itself. We exchanged many stories that evening, punctuated by almost unceasing offerings of home made tequila, until, finally, I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, politely excused myself, and literally staggered to bed.
Early next morning, I was awakened by the prolonged ringing of church bells. I found this a little surprising as it was only seven o’clock, and on a Saturday morning. When I mentioned this to the family at the breakfast table, Rafael explained that a special event was scheduled to be held in the village main square later that morning. Almost every villager, he added, young and old alike, would be in attendance.
“A wedding?” I asked. Naively, as it turned out.
Rafael shook his head with a solemn expression. “No, Senor. Unfortunately, not such a happy occasion. It is a castigo publico”.
“Sorry, but I’m not sure that I understand. Castigo-doesn’t that mean punishment?”
Rafael nodded. “It’s an old tradition in our village”, he explained, then fell silent for a moment. It was obvious that he wasn’t all that keen to offer a precise explanation, especially to a stranger; but, as I’d already posed the question, he had no choice.
He lowered his voice. “Someone in our village was caught stealing”, he continued. “To which he has confessed.”
“So what will happen to him now?”
“The thief has a choice. Either he can accept our traditional punishment and be forgiven. Or, he can choose to be taken to the nearest police station-which is almost fifty miles away-and officially charged with theft. After that, the law will take its own course and our village will have no further involvement. In this case, the accused person has chosen the first option.” He shrugged. “However, not everyone does. Some prefer jail time.”
“I still don’t quite understand. What exactly is the punishment here for stealing?”
Rafael shook his head. “I’m sorry, Senor. I cannot be more specific. However, if you really want an answer to your question, there is nothing to prevent you from witnessing that which will take place. It will be in the main square, just in front of the church, at ten o’clock this morning. But please know that it is strictly forbidden to take any photographs or videos. No cameras or cell phones are allowed. Any found will be confiscated.”
By the time I arrived at the village square, a large crowd was already in place. There was little doubt, from what I could see, that practically everyone in the village was present, just as Rafael had said. What also got my attention was the fact that, for such a large group of people, there was an almost eerie silence. If there were any conversations, they took place in whispers. Obviously, whatever was about to take place was a very serious occasion.
Just then, the church bells rang again. But this time, only for three clangs. The crowd silently parted a few feet to the left or right, and that’s when I first saw the frocked priest making his way down from the church steps. Immediately behind him walked three other men, all in single file. One of them, a middle aged man with a dark mustache and unkempt hair, kept his head bowed and never glanced up. I guessed-correctly, as it turned out-that this was the accused himself.
What happened next seemed to take place in coordinated slow motion. The priest stopped in the center of the square and turned to face the accused. He then opened a Bible and read aloud a passage which, from what little I could hear or understand , had to do with sin and God’s forgiveness.
When the priest had finished his admonition, the accused was given a three legged stool to sit on. A second man, evidently also a church member, then handed him a small object which, from my vantage point, I couldn’t make out clearly.
As the crowd watched in total silence, the accused man put the object to his mouth, closed his eyes, and bit into it. Within seconds, his body began to tremble as if he’d just experienced a stroke. He gasped and moaned, swaying from side to side, but still continued to bite into the object until he finally fell off the stool and lay writhing helplessly on the ground.
It was all over in less than two minutes. The priest and his two followers gently took hold of the man, now exonerated but hardly able to walk, and slowly led him back toward the church. The crowd quickly dispersed until I was the only person left in the square. That’s when the church bells started to ring again, this time in joyful celebration.
Unable to resist my sense of curiosity, I walked over to where the accused had been sitting. And saw this on the ground.
It was at that moment when I realized there was a whole other meaning to the word hellfire. I’m also certain that, even to this day, petty crime in Pueblo Escondido is virtually nonexistent.
And since that day, I’ve never been able to bring myself to touch another Mexican hot pepper.