After a delicious breakfast of real Spanish omelet, we embarked on our group tour of Creel and treasures unknown. Edgar, our young leader had been replaced for the day with an equally charming guide who was quite knowledgeable about the Tarahumara. According to Victor, the Tarahumara are subsidized by the government - a small price to pay, since they had been forced by the government onto these rather beautiful, but inhospitable lands at an earlier time in history. Sounds almost like American history.
Sadly (from our perspective), the “women” marry at about 13, the “men” at 15. With a touch of humor we were told, “They are quite prolific. It is very cold and there is no television, you see.” No television is an understatement, as we did see when we once again toured another Tarahumara cave dwelling. Within the rock shelters that had been used for hundreds, perhaps a thousand years, cooking fires burned, blackening the walls and ceilings. Rock ledges, provided family sleeping spaces and rainwater was collected.
Within these caves and around them, however, colorful woven blankets and shawls, baskets, jewelry, toys, and instruments were spread for tourists to buy. Over and over we discovered these people are not your typical Mexican merchants. I, who with Carol’s training had gotten a bit better about bargaining, tried my newly developing skills. Neither I, nor my teacher had any luck. The price was the price. Stupid me had thought that NOT bargaining was an insult - not so with the Tarahumara. I felt like we had in China in the eighties. Why bargain with these poor people. They have so little and we so much.
Not only were the cave dwellings intriguing, but the rock formations in the Valley of the Mushrooms, were fascinating too. Bet you can guess that the reason the valley got its name is that the rocks look like monster mushrooms – some towering 30 or more feet above us. We explored these, intrigued by the precarious way the mushroom “caps” sat on their “stems.” Wandering in our van, Victor avoided hitting the children who were also vigorously selling crafts. Talking about children, there were many, and we noticed that most had runny noses. Unfortunately, there is a very high infant mortality rate. The information provided by the Society of Jesus’ Tarahumara Mission actually said that 70% of the children under five are malnourished. Many suffer from bronchitis and pneumonia among other illnesses. That explained the runny noses. At each canyon top stop, we worried as we saw small children playing at the edge of the canyons – no barriers in this part of the world. It made me anxious. Guess it’s understandable why they have many kids.
After bouncing along for some time, we came to the San Ignacio Mission where we reconnected with the film crew busy at work in the old church. They were making a travel film about the area. Someone (an actor we thought) was actually up in the belfry in a white robe. We watched for a while, said hello (Carol was still trying to be an extra), looked around and then were off to see the artisans near the train station in Creel. I fell in love with one young woman whose work was outstanding. Her baskets were notable - different and beautiful. Of course I had to buy one. There was much copper jewelry, copper being mined in the area. I wished I needed a blanket or shawl because they were gorgeous too, but my keeper said no.
At the rim of Urique Canyon, we gazed out across the valley at the distant plateaus and the river far below. This view was spectacular. We could barely see a small settlement – two or three houses – where a group of the Tarahumara lived, atop one of the plateaus. Up and down these precipitous mountains the men climb with their goats and sheep bringing them to graze. These men are known for their long distance running ability and endurance – at times running over 20 straight hours. It is believed that this superb conditioning is attributable to their daily activities (probably also to survival of the fittest).
These beautiful lands, so great for training runners, are suffering due to deforestation, erosion and climate change. There are now major problems with the soil. In the past (over 1000 years), the land sustained these people yielding crops of corn, squash and beans. Now, even that is in jeopardy causing further malnutrition. I found the canyons beautiful, but the story of its people’s tribulations depressing, in case you couldn’t tell.
The bounty at the hotel dining room that night was a potent reminder of the gap between those of us who have food to eat and those, so nearby, who have little.