Into the Jungle
“Gotta find my way, away from this place… Can you take me now?”
We woke up around 09:00 — our sleep surprisingly calm, despite the wedding nonsense happening beneath us into the early hours. We got ready and packed up, then ventured downstairs for breakfast. We ordered chilaquiles and picked at the buffet — green juice, watermelon, coffee. A tiny woman was making quesadillas, pressing them onto her comal with her palms. I ordered a tiny quesadilla de flor, and watched as she patted the cheese and squash blossom into a tortilla and gently pressed it onto the searing hot metal. It was entrancing — but maybe that was just my mind trying to disassociate from my surroundings.
The wedding party had commandeered the exterior patio, and were shrieking loudly while opening presents. The best man teetered around the dining room in board shorts and an east-coast yacht club t-shirt, his white Oakleys disguising his puffy eyes. They were tightly strapped to his head with a neon orange croakie. He cut me in line repeatedly, barked orders in English and never said thank you. He stood in front of the juice bar, chatting up a blonde girl from the wedding — I reached around him for a carafe, and the breakfast chef winked at me with a smile. I rolled my eyes in solidarity, and smiled back. (We later ran into Fratbro Bestman again at the front desk for check-out — and we left him arguing with the staff about how many beers he’d had from the minibar.)
All of the rage from the evening prior came back with a vengeance as the culprits wandered in and out of the dining area, completely oblivious to their volume, their tone, their speech. Groups of girls screamed with joy when the bride unwrapped a mountain of canvas prints — all of their engagement photos, printed for their new house by a bridesmaid. Onto the pile they went. The bride and groom milled around in bathrobes, nervously laughing and conspicuously avoiding each other. Sitting with the group was a man I’d seen fervently posting to Instagram the evening prior — I’d found his account by searching the “most recent photos” for the hotel. In one caption, he’d been whining about how there wasn’t anyone on Grindr in Puebla — a thirsty complaint met with lots of hopeful responses like “woof” and “I wish I was there lol” from headless torsos and Snapchat-dog-filtered headshots.
“Burn the whole place down,” I muttered as I raised my sunglasses to my face.
What really made me so angry? Was it really the insensitivity, the heteronormativity, the seething and oppressive American-ness? Was I jealous, or maybe selfish — how could we ever afford something like this for our wedding? Was it the flagrant ignorance of the culture, the Bostonification of this undeniably Mexican space? Was I fiercely protective of a place I felt was too good for them, something I’d assumed was above their level of understanding — a place I’d claimed as my own while simultaneously complaining about its condition? Was I simply exhausted, anxious about the day ahead? Was I projecting my own insecurities, or was I simply seeing the truth?
I thought about all of this on the ride to the Holiday Inn La Noria in our Uber, packing it away for future inspection. We were headed to the southern edge of the city to retrieve our rental car for the next step in our journey — and our driver was curious. He spoke English — he’d lived in NYC for a long time — and he asked us about our trip so far, and where we were headed next.
“Only one day in Puebla? You didn’t stay nearly long enough!”
I chuckled nervously, and glanced at Mark. Truthfully, we couldn’t wait to get out of town. But we found ourselves stuck just a while later, hostages of circumstance milling about in a hotel lobby.
We were at the Avis desk in the Holiday Inn — a birch tabletop, next to the bathrooms. A printer and a screen sat undisturbed, a large sign with REGRESAMOS and a phone number printed in Times New Roman on official letterhead next to the phone. We waited, and waited. Mark kept meandering out into the sun, as the lobby was frigid — mingling with grandmothers in Sunday dresses, meeting for brunch after church. I called Avis US, got connected to Avis MX, managed to find someone with a little English — and an hour after sitting down on the red vinyl chair, a woman rushed in and apologized fervently.
“Hablas inglés?” I asked.
“…No, lo siento,” she replied.
“Here goes,” I thought to myself. I asked her to speak a little more slowly, please — and away we went, line by line through a rental agreement entirely in Spanish. Every question and corresponding answer felt like a huge accomplishment, the cogs in my brain whirring at record speed:
“Cual es tu fecha de nacimiento?”
…”El veinte de febrero, mil novecientos ochenta y siete.”
“Tienes treinta años, verdad?”
The best part came when she explained that they only had an automatic car left, no manuals — and I was overjoyed at both my comprehension of this statement, and the statement itself. I hadn’t driven a manual in years, and I was a touch anxious about it. We ambled out to the car, did a quick visual exam of the “vino” red Chevy Aveo and just like that, we were off.
Getting out of the city was a little stressful — but once we’d gotten onto the gigantic shiny black slab of toll road headed towards Veracruz, it became as normal as driving to work. The tolls were easy to manage, the traffic minimal — easy-peasy. Once we were off of the toll road, however, it was a different story.
We turned off of the 140D at Perote, and stopped at a Pemex for snacks and a bathroom break. The bathroom attendant smiled and pointed at a sign — “Baños 3 pesos.” I smiled and handed him five, and waved off the change. We bought 2 liters of water and a few marshmallow candy bars for sustenance. As I waited for Mark, I was stuck by the beauty of this in-between place — the hills lumbered in the distance and giant agaves dotted the fields next to the filling station.
We got back in and drove on — as we made our way, the scenery changed dramatically. It became vibrantly green, lush, dark. Altotonga, Atzalán, Tlapacoyan, Martínez de la Torre… These picturesque little towns didn’t blink by, either. We’d slow with traffic through them, allowing us to visit for a few minutes. In Atzalán, it was Tomás’ birthday — little hand-written signs were all over town, posted on lampposts. Laughing mothers carried armfuls of plated birthday cake from house to house, and their children followed. School was getting out, and soccer games were beginning on the village green. Spotted dogs lounged on rooftops, their tails wagging in the warmth of the sun. Neighbors tipped their hats and waved at passersby, sometimes sharing a laugh before continuing along the narrow sidewalk. It struck us both at how beautiful this normality was — just a little town, where everyone is doing what they would normally be doing. These people were sharing in the joy of each moment, and it was just so stunningly pure. We tend to live in the future, on our screens, through social media accounts — and these people were just living.
For the next four hours, we weaved through the jungle. We would turn a corner, and the vistas would emerge from the mist — so verdant and green that it’s indescribable. The roads were tough at points. We’d pass an official billboard, declaring that the government had fixed the next however many kilometers of road, and then be launched into two-foot-wide potholes just after the specified distance. We’d often pass work crews packing the prodigious potholes with mud — they’d wave us on, as we slowed down and picked our way around them. At one point just outside of Martínez de la Torre, I swerved to avoid a large alternator from a semi lying about in the road.
As we made our way closer to San Rafael, we saw acres and acres of citrus trees — and hundreds of giant trucks, overflowing with fruit. Pink grapefruits, chartreuse oranges, tiny limes — the trucks would turn a corner, and it would rain citrus onto any passersby. Just outside of town, we saw a lime hit the ground in front of a man on a bicycle. He kept on riding, squishing the fruit dramatically under his front tire and showering himself in juice.
We turned onto the road leading to Maison Couturier just under five hours after leaving Puebla. We were totally exhausted, and unbearably excited.
Maison Couturier is a pensión agrícola — a working farm, with a boutique hotel in the middle of the fields. The main house and a few outbuildings are distinctly French in design, as the area was settled by the French in the early 1800s as an attempt at colonization. The owner of the hotel (and a co-founder of Grupo Habita) is Carlos Couturier — a direct descendant of those colonists. The hipped, tiled roofs brought me instantly back to La Perche, outside of Paris — but the dense tropical foliage gave it away. It was all at once incredibly French and undeniably Mexican.
After driving past the banana fields, we parked under a massive tree and walked up the gravel drive to the reception desk. We filled out our information, retrieved our suitcases and followed the receptionist to our room — a room named Elsa, right next to the main house and one of the two pools.
It was perfect — a private porch, a cool brick floor, an ancient fireplace… It was the perfect little bolthole for the next part of our journey.
We sat our bags down and wandered back into the main house — it’s modern-but-rustic, with screens instead of windows and a glorious hodge-podge of vintage furniture, some sourced from our favorite Paris flea markets. A giant photo of a cowboy looms over the entry, next to an ancient Italian espresso machine. Couturier family photos dot the interior walls, next to overstuffed chairs and rough-hewn tables. A tiny well-appointed bar in the back featured a wall of pictures and license plates, striped armchairs and farmhouse lights dangling from the concrete ceiling.
A man approached and asked if we would like a drink — some mezcal, perhaps? We eagerly agreed, and perched on two armchairs on the porch — a spot that would come to be our signature one throughout the next few days. The man returned with two glasses of mezcal and a plate plied high with sliced oranges, sprinkled with sea salt and chile. It was exactly, precisely what the doctor ordered. He stuck around as we sucked on the oranges, juice dripping down our chins. He introduced himself as Agustín, and said that he’d take care of us while we were at Maison Couturier. He asked what dates we would be there and we replied — he smiled, and said he’d be here the same days as us.
After eating the pile of oranges and downing the mezcal, it was time for dinner. Agustín brought the menus and we chose French — a pork chop and soupe à l’oignon for me, and beef for Mark. We drank Victoria beers and slowly ate, entranced by the silence of the darkening fields around us. The drive and the previous days had been so busy, so intense — and now we were slowing down abruptly. We ended with espresso and tarte tatín — and then we meandered back to our room to get situated.
As we laid in the dark, once in bed, the calm really hit. We were in the jungle, now — with nothing to do, nowhere to be. We drifted off quickly, the cool breeze streaming through the screens, a full day of nothing awaiting us in the morning.