Friday, December 31, 2010

Failures, Successes, and Bell Towers

San Miguel Tequixtepec. What does your mind conjure when you read this little Oaxacan town’s name? I’d image that you don’t get much beyond attempting to figure out the sound that is made by the sixth and seventh letters of “Tequixtepec,” yes? I, too, boggled at this mystery prolly up until the point that we actually arrived there. For all those curious, I believe it’s pronounced “Teh-kees-te-pec.” When I think of SMT (for all intents and purposes, acronyms are just much easier), I remember the church bell tower.

First, the village of SMT. It’s an incredibly small town in the mountains of Oaxaca. It sits roughly 7,000 feet above sea level and is home to roughly 1000 people, mostly of indigenous backgrounds (Zapotec and Mixtec). Similarly to many towns and even major metropolitan hubs in Mexico, the church is the shining beacon of this little mountain town.


Note the beautiful courtyard, painstakingly built stone by stone. The church itself is immaculate (but please don’t mind the cheap plastic flags, everything in Mexico is a friggin’ festival- the brighter the better). The town doesn’t have paved roads beyond the one square block in the town center and it resembles that of a ghost town, in all honesty. Buildings are decrepit and/or abandoned. Stray dogs run in packs here and there. The few people who do live there specialize in the world of palm. Life there focuses on gathering palm, weaving palm, and weaving palm to gather more palm. However, I digress.

The church bell tower is actually a bit inconspicuous. So much so, in fact, that one may not even notice it were it not for the town elected bell ringer who rings the bell at seemingly random times (at ALL times throughout the day) and does so for intervals of five to 30 minutes and for reasons that most non-Mexicans might deem strange. In all honesty, my fascination, perhaps even obsession, along with Mandy’s, would likely never have manifested were it not for the incessant bell ringing. Questions just flooded our entire consciousness, no… beings! Why is this dude ringing the bell at all hours of the day? Is there not a schedule or need to make note of hourly time? How do you get this job? Is there some elevated status because of it? How much stamina does it take to ring the huge bell for 30 minutes straight? Does each bell have different significance? Most importantly: How balla would it be if could get up there? Hell, it’s the highest point in the town. It would literally and figuratively be the high point of the trip if we could just finagle our way up somehow.


Mandy and I became completely consumed with climbing the tower and basking the bell tower’s glory no more than four hours after arriving in SMT. We would be doing activity x, y, or z, and as soon as the first bell struck, our eyes would meet and we shared the same thought: We cannot leave this town without first scaling the tower. Problems arose, however. How do two gueros even gain access to such holy ground? Would we be tainting it? What is proper bell tower etiquette and how should we ask? Or, even, who do we ask? Clearly, this was going to take some careful thought and action.  

Our first opportunity presented itself our first night we were there. After the day’s activities had ended around twilight, us students were permitted some free time to explore the town, (re)appear at the wedding (which is another, awkward, blog entry in itself), or just kibbitz a bit before crashing for the night. Around 8:30, after we made a rather ungraceful exit from the wedding, the church bells began a-ringin’. This was it, I thought. There was no way we let this golden opportunity go to waste. We ran to the church with four others in tow, totally confident from the night of wedding dancing (flailing) and booze. We arrive while the bells are still being rung. “Perfect,” I thought to myself, “we’ll just wait around a few minutes and then talk to the dude once he finishes.” A few minutes became five minutes, which in turn became 10, and the bells were still ringing. Oh, it’s one of THOSE sessions. After about 15 minutes we figure it’s going to be a half hour marathon and we begin to bide our time.

We wander around the courtyard, kick the door that leads up to the bell tower, watch the bell ringer intently, and subsequently gather an audience. Just what, exactly, are a bunch of loud, obnoxious, Americans doing in the church courtyard after dark? They’re laughing, pointing, and staring up at the bell, meandering towards the door, walking loops in the courtyard. They’re certainly up to no good, right? In retrospect, I can’t imagine that the bell ringer felt safe exactly. Granted our intentions were fueled by curiosity and awesomeness, we couldn’t really convey that in the moment, as the bell was being rung and we couldn’t just blatantly shout this for all to hear.

Our plan was simple enough- After the bell rings, the bell ringer must descend the tower and return to his home for sleep. At that point, we’ll jump him and beg for permission to climb the tower to touch stuff and yell at people down below.

Success! The bell has remained silent for more than 30 seconds. This is it. I’m trembling. Mandy and I are giddy. This is our moment. We eagerly wait at the door for the kindly bell ringer, huge shit-eating grins consuming our faces. It’s a pretty huge stone staircase, so we allow a generous amount of time for his descent. One minute passes. We consider it odd he hasn’t yet arrived, but understand the inhabitants are short (by American standards) and the stair case is pretty huge. Two minutes pass and doubt begins to creep into our minds. Three minutes pass and we realize we failed. If he was going anywhere, he would have exited by now. That’s it. We’re done. Why didn’t we just shout up to him after the final ring? Ugh. We reek of failure and disappointment now. Dejected, we call it a night, but our resolve remains stronger than ever. Tomorrow is the day.

630 a.m. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ugh, really? I get it. It’s early. Ring, ring, ring. Ok, this is just insulting at this point. Every bell gong mocks my very being. Not only do we fail to ascend the tower the previous night, but it wakes up everyone in the town at a god awful hour and follows it up with Disney Christmas songs over the town loudspeakers? I bear the music and bell ringing for as long as I can but finally succumb and begrudgingly drag myself out of bed.

Around 830, Mandy and I reconvene and deduce we’re not going to get many opportunities to get up this freakin’ tower, and if we fail to do so, there will be some considerable self-loathing going on. Egads! The ringing has begun again. We race over to the church courtyard, sit down on a ledge, and greet the numerous town locals leaving Sunday morning Mass. We are fortunate this time around that the bell ringing is only a five minute deal. There are multiple men up in the tower this time around as well. A couple of them are leaning on part of the tower, looking down at Mandy and I laughing. Surely while they are curious about what we’re doing in the courtyard just sitting there and staring at them, they must know exactly what we want. 

Considering the lesson learned the previous night, such that the final bell ring does not guarantee a man exiting through the door, I began to initiate contact with the gentlemen. A sheepish smile and some foolish hand motions of pointing to ourselves and to the top of the tower should get this done, right? We only receive cocked heads in return. Uh… “Podemos subir (can we come up)?” we shout. Easy as that, we receive smiles and an inviting gesture up.

THIS IS IT. We run to the door and push it open. The stone, spiraling staircase is the only obstacle between us, alleviating 24 hours of obsession, and supreme epicness; or at minimum, a feeling of overall superiority over our fellow travellers for putting forth the perseverance to scale the tower and actually succeed (although, don’t relate this admission to any of them, but I think Mandy and I were the only two who really cared about this monumental accomplishment).

Step after step, we move ever closer to our goal. The light fades the higher we get in the tower, but greets us as we take our last step- the apex of the church! Juan Carlos greets us happily and is thrilled to discuss his work, the church, and the significance of the bells. We peer over the edge and gloat about how awesome we are. Everyone else is down below. We see the entire town and the beautiful mountain range enveloping the town. Success is finally ours. We can’t wipe the smiles from our faces. We blew the task up to monumental proportions in our own minds, and it was every bit as satisfying as you could imagine.



We dwell on our accomplishment and enjoy the views. Gracious thanks are given to Juan Carlos and we relinquish our grasp of success, sated, and descend the tower.


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