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Santa Matilde

Nestled high in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, is an isolated little village with no electricity or running water. But Santa Matilde is somewhat of a Shangri-La, enjoying a moderate climate because of its 8,000-foot elevation, high above the Sonoran Desert below. My adventure in Santa Matilde was actually about as likely as finding a real Shangri-La.

My aunt and uncle, Bob and Nell Mishler, were missionaries in Navojoa, Sonora and I spent a month with them in 1983 to work on my Spanish. A year later I returned to do a little traveling and explore the Mexican interior. Before heading out I spent a few days with Bob and Nell and met another missionary who was visiting them. Allen told of Santa Matilde and how there were a few Christian families up there who loved to have visitors. It was not far off the rail line, Chihuahua al Pacifico, and since I was headed for the Copper Canyon anyway, it sounded like a good little side trip to take for a day. Allen promised it would be a different experience for me. He wasn't kidding.

I boarded the train and told the conductor I wished to get off in Santo Nino. He raised his eyebrows a bit and asked if I'd ever been to Santo Nino. Of course I had not, but when I queried his reason for asking, he just said, "Oh, nothing." An hour later the train stopped in the middle of a steep canyon and the conductor informed me, "This is Santo Nino!" There was not a building in sight, just a small concrete platform next to the train. The only other person to exit the train was a 10 year old boy and I asked him if he knew the way to Santa Matilde. Yes, he was going there and I was welcome to accompany him.

Relieved, I started up the mountain with him. To say it was further than I expected would be an understatement. It was hot and dry and after a couple hours, the water I had with me was gone and the top of the mountain was nowhere to be seen. We finally came to a stream with a little trickle of water. It wasn't exactly clean - the cows had been in it and there were bugs all over the surface -but I didn't care. I was so thirsty I took water in my cupped hands and nearly drank that stream dry. Then I pulled out my trusty little bottle of vinegar that I carry in such parts of the world and took a swig of good apple cider vinegar. I never did suffer any consequences of that thirst-quenching drink.

After four hours of climbing straight up the mountain, we arrived. As hot as we were, it was noticeably cooler at that elevation. Santa Matilde was a scattered cluster of houses and we made our way to the home of an old man, who welcomed me like a long-lost relative. It felt so good to sit down and to have a cool drink of clean water. I was conversant in Spanish, though by no means fluent, and the gentleman and I had a nice chat. He told me that he had become a Christian through an American radio broadcast and there were now several families who met regularly to study the Bible. In fact their next meeting was the next evening.

I asked who preaches and the old man replied, "You will, of course." I almost went into shock, but instantly knew there was no point in contesting his assumption. Of course I would preach. Isn't that why I took the time to come visit them? I had no idea how I would pull it off, but didn't bother to mention to the grandfather that preaching in Spanish was not exactly in my plans when I climbed the mountain. Fortunately, he had a Spanish-English New Testament, so I took that with me and started gathering a few ideas.

In the meantime, some of his family members showed me around the village. There actually is a road that winds its way through the rugged mountains to Santa Matilde, but it's a crude logging trail, and it is so far to town by road (five hours), that few people besides loggers use it. It's much easier to go ten miles straight up and down the mountain, though most people ride a mule instead of walk.

There was no electricity, but people had battery-operated transistor radios for their connection to the outside world. The absence of television did not detract at all from the quality of life, and newspapers only reached the village when someone returned from town. Somehow they had gotten garden seeds from the US and with the combination of a mild climate and a rich soil, they grew incredible produce. Annuals like corn, pumpkins, tomatoes and beans grew to giant size and fruit trees bore magnificent specimens of peaches, pears, apricots, oranges, mango, papaya, chestnuts, and even apples. Lemons grow the size of grapefruit! There were just enough frosty mornings in the winter to allow seasonal crops to flourish, but not cold enough to kill subtropical plants that grew in abundance among the houses. From the village elevation upwards, the mountains were covered with pine forests. I loved the great variety of flowers and flowering shrubs. They farm with a team of horses and a single-blade plow. There are lots of big rocks, but they just plow around them.

Naturally there was no indoor plumbing and the outhouse was set on the side of a hill with the door on the up slope. The lower side was open and I was dumbfounded to see that the pigs kept it cleaned out! In the kitchen they used an old fashioned stone mortar and pestle to grind corn into flour, but once they mixed the flour into dough, they popped it into a modern aluminum tortilla press from the "real world" to make a perfectly round, flat tortilla! They carried water from the well and kept a jug full on the kitchen counter. Everyone drank out of the same cup, which hung on a nail on the wall next to the jug. However, since I was a guest, the gnarled old grandmother got another glass out of the cupboard and filled it for me with the cup everyone else drank out of! I suffered no ill effects from that either.

Well, the next evening came and I had a small group of eager listeners gathered in the living room of one of the homes. I went through the first chapter of Philippians with them and spoke for nearly an hour, which even surprised me. I don't believe I have ever spoken Spanish as well as I did that night, before or after that incident. At any rate, for those people I might as well have been a prophet, the way they listened to every word I said.

My "one-day" trip turned into three days and even then I was reluctant to leave. But unexplored regions of Mexico beckoned, so I finally bid my new friends farewell. But this time I did not have to do the long trek on foot. I was given a mule for the ride down to the train and accompanied by one of the men who was continuing on into town.

From Santo Nino, the train chugged up the mountains to the town of Creel, at the edge of the Copper Canyon, Mexico's grand canyon. The Copper Canyon is actually bigger than the Grand Canyon, though not as impressive with its formations and colors. On the train I met an American gal traveling alone and we decided to set off to find some hot springs at the edge of the canyon where you could swim in the warm water. I asked directions, and made sure to ask a number of different people. The Mexicans have an interesting way of giving you directions even if they don't know the way, but with the combination of the various responses we felt like we had a good enough idea where to head.

We set off walking, finding the first few junctions easily, according to directions. As the day progressed, we found ourselves hiking further and further into the thick forest without finding any of the landmarks we had been told about. We were despairing of ever finding the springs when we saw a little house in the distance with a wisp of smoke coming out the chimney. What a relief that was. We felt so lucky that I knew Spanish, because out here the chance of finding an English-speaking person was slim to none. We walked up to the fence and called out to see who was home. You don't just walk up to a house like that. After calling several times, a woman came around the back of the house, carrying a baby, and towing along two other small children who were clutching to her skirt. I asked if she could tell us where the hot springs were. She just looked at us without responding. I repeated the question, but with the same result. After the third attempt, Jan and I suddenly realized the woman didn't even speak Spanish -only the local Indian dialect. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

We decided we had to give up our quest and start on the long walk back to town. It started to rain and soon developed into a downpour. Hours later we made it back, soaked, tired and hungry. We never did find the hot springs, but decided we'd had enough adventure anyway. Maybe some day I'll make it back to Santa Matilde and Creel and have another chance.

Kent Kauffman, March 2004


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