"Something about the motion, looking straight ahead and going somewhere together, breaks down the walls that keeps us from learning more deeply. Maybe it’s a distinctly American, late 20th century trait bred by a culture that’s always on the move. Whatever the reason, if you’ve got the right companions, it’s a great way to learn."










"A man from Chiapas would find Indiana’s endless acres of farm fields tended by a solitary machine a tedious, lonely, almost haunted land."

















“We were stopped on this road by a masked Zapatista at the beginning of the uprising in 1994,” Orr begins. That gets the students’ attention.


































































"Never order biscuit without testicles in Mexico—it takes them forever to get it ready."


Summer/Fall 2002

from Immersion Learning/Mexico

#1. Road shots/setting/
beginning with the end

Dave Orr calls the trip to the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport “going down the mountain,” but right now we’re going up. The big American V-8 of the blue Suburban growls up the two-lane mountain road and I can’t hear the conversation Orr is having with a student in the front seat. We’re packed into this 8 passenger SUV, all nine of us, but it’s not nearly as tight a fit as our first ride on the Metro in Mexico City during afternoon rush hour. There we were pressed together so closely that I became acquainted with junior Ray Gonzalez’ physical topography in a way only his future wife should have to experience. Personally, I don’t envy her.

I look over my shoulder to see light breaking through the the low clouds and illuminating the city we’re leaving behind. In San Cristobal de las Casas, clattering church bells and howling dogs are still welcoming the sun, loudspeakers on the water trucks blast the air with Swiss yodeling, wood smoke drifts above Spanish colonial architecture, and tzotzil, tzeltal, lacondon, Spanish, and half a dozen other languages are already being spoken as people from the various indigenous groups buy and sell in zocolo and mercado. The commercial center of the Chiapas highlands—with a potential for political convulsion outstripped only by the hospitality and hope we’ve seen in the eyes of so many people we met there—recedes like a fading beacon.

Up ahead an old Spanish mission style church is perched on a hill, the approach marked by roadside crosses. A small village spreads out in the trees below it. Hundreds of steps carved in stone centuries ago link the village to the church.

Orr slows down behind a bus coughing up diesel fumes as it wheezes its way up the hill. We pass a vendor pushing a cart up alongside the road towards some other unseen village. People are everywhere in the Chiapas countryside—along the road carrying bundles, pushing loads, or waiting to be picked up for jobs; in the fields working; around their homes cooking or tending chickens or livestock or spreading out coffee beans to dry in the sun.

Imagine everyone in Indianapolis being given some chickens and goats, a couple sheep, and five acres of land in southern Indiana, then being told by Governor O’Bannon that, due to the budget shortfall, this is the way we’re all going to have to make a living now. Raise those Hoosier hills to 7,000 feet in the sub-tropics and you get an idea of what this is like. A man from Chiapas would find Indiana’s endless acres of farm fields tended by a solitary machine a tedious, lonely, almost haunted land.

You live outside in Chiapas, too. Forget the tv—if you live in rural Chiapas, you don’t have one. So most nights you find singles, families, teens, all out for the evening. Juan Carlo Hernandez, a Wabash sophomore whose family hails from Mexico, tells me that Saturday and Sunday nights are the big nights out, and in San Cristobal the zocolo is packed on weekends. Mexican people who come to live in Crawfordsville and see downtown on Saturday nights must think most of us have died.

Orr and Warner are talking about the Zapatista uprising as we approach an old woman dressed in the style of colorful blouse and skirt I’d seen in Zinancantan village. She’s carrying a three-foot-high rack of firewood on her back as she trudges up toward a shack hung with weavings. I’m reminded of the introduction to The Book of Lamentations, the novel the students read about life in Chiapas in the early 20th century, where indigenous laborers still carried their mestizo masters up these same hills in chairs lashed to their backs—malnourished people no more than 5 feet tall carrying grown women up 40 degree grades for hours.

We drive slowly past and I wave tentatively, half smiling, half grimacing. I’m grateful to have stowed my camera, to be looking at people face to face instead of through the lens. But seeing this old woman and not helping is against my training. If I were her, I’d have flipped us off.

But she smiles and waves back as we pass by. The warmth of her greeting feels undeserved. But so has so much of what we’ve received in this country. For 11 days, I’ve accompanied two Wabash professors and their 15 students on a learning expedition to Mexico. They came here to immerse themselves in the history, culture, and languages of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. I came along to chronicle their learning. And one thing we’ve all learned here time and again—you accept a gift when so graciously given, whether that’s the Orr’s hospitality, culminated by this free ride to Tuxtla after our bus didn’t show up, or the kind gaze from an old woman bearing a load we can not carry: So I let her greeting steep for a while. Then I hear Orr telling a story as the Suburban shifts into passing gear, overtakes the bus, and we whisk downhill toward Tuxtla, some 3,000 feet below.

“We were stopped on this road by a masked Zapatista at the beginning of the uprising in 1994,” Orr begins. That gets the students’ attention. “We came up around a couple of turns and right smack in the middle of the road was a big personnel carrier with a masked Zapatista getting out of the back.
“Nancy says, “I want to go talk to those guys.” The driver was scared to death, and I say, “That’s fine, Nancy, you go ahead. I’ll wait here.”
Orr smiles and the students laugh. He finishes the story (they were very polite, he explains, but he and Nancy still weren’t able to catch their flight and David spent much of the uprising at their home watching college football games on tv) and we eventually get to Tuxtla, ahead of schedule. Once the van carrying the other students arrives a few minutes later, David leaves us the same way he greeted us—by shaking hands personally with each student, wishing them well, and inviting them back.

Dave and Nancy have done so much on this trip. From Nancy’s guided walking tour around San Cristobal when we arrived to the mariachi music and sing-along at their home for our going away reception, their hospitality and genuine interest has been the guiding hand that made San Cristobal a true home away from home for us. Not to mention that practically every encounter the students had—from the actors at the indigenous theater and experts in anthopology, language, and economics to our exhilarating descent into the tomb of the king at Palenque—was arranged by—and sometimes even paid for—by the Orrs.

In return, they have connected with these students like few alumni have. The students are appreciative and admiring, and Nancy’s respect for them is summed up during our last gathering.

“You’re all so genuine, so much who you are; you don’t put on airs to impress and try to be someone you’re not,” she tells the guys at our table. “That’s being a gentleman, to me, and though it seems normal to you, it is rare in the world, and it will serve you well.”

At the final reception at the Orr’s home, after mariachis and the whole group finish singing a rousing version of Guadalajara, the professors and students present the Orrs with a thank-you gift—a set of Wabash coasters that set off the alarms on every airport security system we passed through on our way here.

Sophomore Juan Carlo:Hernandez steps forward.

“On behalf of all of us, for doing so much for us, we’d like to present you with this small token of our thanks.”

There are multiple thank yous from the guys gathered around.
“In all seriousness,” Rick Warner interjects. “There’s really nothing we could give to you that could begin to express our gratitude for what you’ve done for us.”

David responds without missing a beat.
“Let me just say that the feeling is mutual; nothing beyond my family has been more important in my life than Wabash College. It’s been our desire for years to have occasions like this here. To have Wabash come down here is a dream come true. It started with the faculty last year and with you guys coming down this year. It’s just been a great thrill for us. I have a birthday coming next week, and I can’t think of a better gift than having you guys here.”


#2 “I would like a biscuit, no testicles”
“You don’t need to speak Spanish to travel in Mexico,” Professor Rick Warner, who is fluent in Spanish told me. “You can be a complete idiot in the language and still get by.”

He now tells me he meant that as encouragement, but I took it as a dare.
The only thing worse for the American image than traveling in a country and not knowing the language is traveling in a country and thinking you know the language because you “took a few years in high school.” As the eldest member of our group and the only one not “conversational” in Spanish, I was predestined for humiliation.

Fortunately, I realized this and rarely ventured more than a food order or “gracias” in front of the students. Unfortunately, when I was solo and “taking a risk,” as Professor Rogers and Warner admonished us to do, I often didn’t realize why those I spoke with were stifling their laughter until I returned home and could look up my faux pas in the Spanish/English dictionary.

The first came as we waited for our plane to Tuxtla at the Mexico City airport.
After thriving on Argentinian and Mexican food and Corona beer for the first three days without so much as a threat of Montezuma’s revenge, I thought I’d treat myself to a little American fast food. So I snuck over to the Burger King counter.

‘Buenos dias,” I said in my best accent.

“Buenos dias,” the man behind the counter replied as he cleaned the food warmer, no doubt mistaking me for a native speaker, “Un momento, por favor.”

I got ready to order. I’d been thinking through this since I’d first noticed the Burger King sign. I was also remembering a story Rick Warner told us on our first day about the way the Hispanic workers at his old restaurant used to use juevos—the Spanish word for eggs—as slang for testicles. I’d always thought the word for testicles was “cojones.”

“Si, senor,” the man was ready for my order.

“Quisiera una biscuit con jamon y no cojones, por favor,” I said politely. Very roughly, I would like a biscuit with ham and no testicles
“No cojones?”

Even I realized this mistake. I pretended he’d heard me wrong.

“Cojones, no, no. Juevos, senor , juevos. Ha, ha, ha.”

“Bien, no juevos,” he said. “Ha, ha, ha.”

He stepped briskly back to the kitchen and I thought this was going to be our little secret. Five minutes later (I should add, never order biscuit without testicles in Mexico—it takes them forever to get it ready) another man returned with a sack in his hand.

“Here you go sir,” he said in perfect English with a wicked smile. “Jamon, no cojones, y no juevos.” Ham, but no testicles, and no eggs.

In eight years of meeting many distinguished scholars and artists at Wabash, I’ve refined making a jackass of myself into a noteworthy craft. But I’d never done it in a foreign language before. So it’s only right that my final humiliation came at the Chiapas Photography Project in front of an artist I greatly admire.

I was trying to thank the photographer and writer Xunka Lopez Diaz for signing her book, Mi hermana Cristina, for me. I wanted to tell her how illuminating this book, which details her family’s expulsion from their native town of Chamula and subsequent new life as Protestant Christians, had been for me. I waited until the students and professors had left the building, then swept in with my elegant compliment.

“Gracias por escrito,” I said, or, more or less, "
Thank you for writing."

She responded, but I didn’t hear what she said. I was too busy readying my high praise.

“Me gusto este libro,” I said. I like this book.


“Me gusto su fotografias.” I said excitedly. I myself like your photographs.

“Gracias,” Xunka responded, ready to get on with her life. I needed a memorable ending here if I was to make the impression I sought.

‘Su fotografias es muy amable y hermosa. Me gusto su trabaja y su hermana.” I sputtered. Your photographs is very kind and butterfly. I like your work and I myself like your sister.

Xunka cocked her head, not unkindly, but quizzically, the way one might gaze at a chimp trying to use sign language for the first time. My next memory is of moving away from the building at a dignified trot, reminding myself that I had loved ones to support and resisting the temptation to hurl myself skull first onto a stone.

#3 Professors Rogers and Warner

When I asked senior Joe Orozco why he thought this group of students got along so well, he answered quickly, “Because of Warner and Rogers.”
“I know it sounds weird, but we watch the way they get along. They set the tone for the whole trip.”

These professors are actually two very different and potential adversarial personalities. When he was waiting for Guy Davis to bring his passport to the airport after Dan left it behind in Crawfordsville, Rogers kept calm, (and tried to calm Warner) by getting a temporary ID.

“I’ve never found a problem that I couldn’t get around,” he told me as Rick ran nervously between the airline counter and the security gate, checking his watch every 15 seconds. “You know,” Dan said to me quietly. “I think Rick is a bit of a worry wart.”

Warner, a professional chef and restaurant owner in his former life, has a motto of his own—“prior planning prevents poor performance.”
But Rogers and Warner—padre y hijo (father and son) after a waitress confused Rick for Dan’s father)—share a love for all things Mexico, a respect for each other’s intellect, and a passion for pushing Wabash students to risk and learn. It was a perfect match.

Where Dan’s “Jeopardy-like” knowledge of Aztec history made him the ideal guide through Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, Rick’s skeptical eye as an ethnohistorian helped students think critically about archealogical issues in the ruins we explored. Where Dan was always pushing the group ahead, asking directions of practically anybody just to engage in conversation with the locals, Rick brought up the rear and gathered any stragglers (often me).

Even their disagreements were illuminating. At Palenque after our rush to the tomb of the king, Dan and Rick both saw a tour bus nearly run over Wabash senior John Russell.
“Remember, buses have the right of way in Mexico,” Warner said. But Dan was livid. He raised his arms and speaking respectfully but firmly to the driver.

“Come on, Dan. Don’t be a tourist,” Warner muttered, turning away from the scene. But Rogers persisted. And the driver listened. And the students watched.

Turns out that when Dan was in grad school, a classmate was killed in such an accident. And since then, Dan never missed a chance to put it in a bus driver’s head to be more careful.

That drive back from Palenque was one of the most memorable for me. Rogers had just moved to a seat up front (he and Warner usually took turns talking with students in the back) next to senior John Russell. Talks in the bus and in airports were surprisingly teachable moments. I heard discussions on economics, freemasonry, a debate on capitalism, numerous discussions on the reality or myth of the Virgin of Guadelupe, sometimes between professor and student, sometimes between students, sometimes in a group.

This night, Warner was in the seat in front of Rogers and Russell, and the talk turned to food and great restaurants, as it often does when Rick is around.

“San Francisco is the best city for restaurants in the world,” he said. A list and comparison of restaurants followed. That segued into bookstores, that into the City of lights bookstore where the beat poets had thrived, and that into a general discussion of poetry. Russell recited “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright” from William Blake’s Songs of Experience. Rogers countered with “Little Lamb who made thee” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

I began to drift off to sleep in the seat across the aisle, thinking how this conversation reminded me of some of my favorite talks with friends, brothers, my Dad, and now my own kids. These teachable moments, these encounters of experience and innocence, always seem to happen best on the road. Something about the motion, looking straight ahead and going somewhere together breaks down the walls that keeps us from learning more deeply. Maybe it’s a distinctly American, late 20th century trait bred by a culture that’s always on the move. Whatever the reason, if you’ve got the right companions, it’s a great way to learn.

#4 Alternate presentation on Chamula,
rough draft

Juan David is 11 years old. He was born and spent the early years of his life in a village of the indigenous people of Chiapas called Chamula. It may be the most amazing place in Mexico. The language is Tzotzil, and everything there has a life and a meaning. Each bend in the road has a name, so do some large rocks, as well as the hills and the promontories. And each has a life of its own.

The people who live there are the descendants of the Mayan people. The Maya built this temple in Palenque and cities like it throughout modern day southern Mexico and Guatemala more than 1,500 years ago. Some time after 1000 A.D. the city building and art forms practiced until then ceased, but the people lived on. The indigenous people of Chamula and other villages we studied are the living Maya.

Photo of Maruch Santiz Gomez

Here are some sayings of the modern Maya who live in Chamula, taken from a book of photographs by a Chamulan woman named Maruch Santiz Gomez. Our students spoke with Maruch and other indigenous artists during a morning at the Chiapas Photography Project in San Cristobal. The book Maruch wrote is called Creencias, which means “beliefs.” She gathered and preserved in this volume the sayings of the elders in her village. Many of them are things elders tell children (sort of their version of “you’ll put your eye out”) to keep them safe, others are more mystical:

"One should not drink the water used for washing hands while making tortillas, or you might end up grinning like a crazy person."

"If someone snores a lot, you can hit him lightly on the nose with a sandal or insert a little lizard’s tail up one nostril.
If the pigs dance, it will rain that day."

"A murderer will not get far if you lay the dead person on top of a rolled noose."

"If you dream that you are tilling the soil, it is because someone you care about is soon to die."

Photo of Chamulan church
Things are not disposable in Chamula as they are in industrial society—an empty can lasts through years of service, a plastic bag is used over and over. This is so not out of ecological awareness, but of necessity. And the Mayan religion mingles with the more recent Roman Catholicism of the Spanish conquerors to form customs that we saw in action—and that Juan David practiced as a little boy.

The church of San Juan Chamula looks like a typical Spanish missionary church from the outside, but inside it is anything but. You put your camera away before entering. People have been killed for taking pictures in here. Bromeliads hang from the rafters, grass and the long needles of pine trees cover the hard tile floor. Glass cases containing Catholic saints line the walls, but they are covered with vines and branches. There are no pews. Hundreds, literally hundreds of candles are lit and held to the floor with wax.

A baptism is being performed in one corner with about 30 Chamulans chanting in Tzotzil, the ancient mayan language of the town. As you weave between the candles, being certain not to knock one down, you see an old woman, her son, and grandson kneeling on the hard floor before 20 or so lit candles. A Pepsi and orange soda in bottles are placed in front of them as an offering. A live chicken sets besides them, unaware of its fate. Suddenly the old woman wrings the chicken’s neck, a sacrifice to help heal an ill relative, and lays the dead bird in front of the candles.

In another corner, an official is explaining some of these beliefs when a young Chamulan approaches and begins shaking his head. “Superstition,” the young man says. He’s a convert to evangelical Christianity and no longer practices these “costumbres” or traditions. A growing number of Chamulans have converted either to evangelical Christianity or what we would call Roman Catholicism in the last 20 years. Most are expelled from the village by village elders. There have been killings for converting.

This is the world in which Juan David grew up. The Wabash students in Warner and Rogers class know of these things because they’ve seen them. All of the students are fluent in Spanish, and they’ve talked to those who practice these beliefs. They know the issues they face, and their chances of surviving in an increasingly invasive modern world, They know these things now because, thanks to David and Nancy Orr, they spoke with the area’s top experts on those issues.

And I know about Juan David because one of our students—Ben Manker—befriended him during our visit in Chiapas. They are now pen pals.

Ben met Juan David when the boy was trying to sell him something in the San Cristobal open market. Ben said it took him a while to get Juan David to drop his salesman’s jive and just talk. But eventually Juan David relaxed. He spent about 45 minutes hanging out with Ben and some of the other guys. Juan David explained that his family had been expelled from Chamula for becoming evangelical Christians. His cousin, who also hung out with the guys, still lived in the village, and they were allowed to play and work together. Juan David did not seem to put much stock in the religious tension, Ben said. It was more of a game to him.


#5 Tula after lunch

• After lunch, we go to the zocolo in Tula. Guys book browse at an outdoor stand, and Carlos continues his quest for his Mexican heritage, buying a poster of an Aztec priest and a Mexican national soccer team t-shirt. He points out a poster of Marilyn Monroe re-finished with Latino features. When I return to get Carlos after everyone else is in the bus, he's trying to buy a copy of the Mexican constitution.

• As the bus backs out, a policeman sees the driver struggling and blows his whistle to stop the traffic and help out. Dan and Rick make note to the students of this instinctive civic cooperation. They remind us of the vibrant social scene we witnessed at Coyoacan last night.
"These people don't sit in their houses and watch tv; they bring their families to places like this, sometimes sitting and talking, sometimes watching, sometimes just wandering; but it's important for them to be together as this community." A strong contrast to the culture most of these American students were raised in.

• Rogers never hesitates to ask for directions, and guys notice how easily and amiably he interacts with people. He and Rick are strong role models for students feeling ill at ease or conspicuous in a new country, whether they're joking with the owner of the family cafe down the street from our hotel in Mexico City or enjoying intellectual conversation with anthropologist Jesus Jaruguia last night, their enthusiasm seems to energize and direct the students.

• Rogers may be the first Wabash man to ask for directions. I think he sometimes asks just to start a conversation—a way in.

• On the bus from Tula, Joe Orozco asks to borrow the book of poetry Rogers bought at the outdoor bookstand. "I haven't read great Spanish poetry," Joe says. "I want to start now."

• Matt Ward bought Poem de El Cid, which praises, Dan points out, a champion of the inquisition.

• Dan opens an old phrase book he bought called "Dichos y Refranes Mexicanos." He read aloud to the students, who laugh aloud in response.

• At lunch, Nick jokes about being left behind at Coyoacan last night. He didn't make the bus and had to be brought home by our guest, the anthropologist. He said it was a fascinating ride home.

"This trip is about losing things." He laughs. "Professor Rogers left his passport, Aaron lost the tripod (twice), and I got lost last night!"

He may have something there. Losing fear, leaving behind pre-conceived notions, jettisoning the self-conciousness you feel speaking a second language—most of the students have done that. In place of those, they've found heritage, confidence, some new friends, fresh insights into a culture whose mystery only deepens with every day we're here. A good start.



Return to the table of contents