Breakfasts with Monse
The neighbor lady sees me sitting about town and never fails to say hello when we meet. At first I didn’t know she lives next door to my hotel. Only when she invites me to breakfast and points to the yellow door do I learn that the beautiful garden of trees and plants that creep over the top of the wall into the hotel patio, is hers.
She substitutes my lack of Spanish with very good English of her own. I understand straight away that this is no free breakfast. It’s clear by the way the locals bid each other down for my business that tourism is slow and life here, hard. She even asks what I pay for a room next door and then offers a room for half.
The time I spend with Monse becomes a highlight of my visit to Batopilas. She’s a writer and a historian for the area. She helps collect the memories of the elder women, and a group of them have together published a book of remedies. Monse points to her name in the list of contributors. It’s at the top, and the prideful look in her eyes tells all.
The first was such a success, she and her friends wrote a second edition. They travel the nearby villages to sell the books, and Monse collects the histories that she puts on display in the foyer of her modest home.
This morning is Sunday morning, and I catch her returning from church. In about ten minutes, she says in Spanish, breakfast will be ready. There’s no way to decline because she’s already walking off to her door, having never stopped her slow and decided gait during our entire conversation.
I wait my time in the plaza looking for inspiration. I want dearly to photograph people. Buildings and mountains grow tiresome! Some of the most beautiful travel photography is that of people. A portrait of a person has the power to reveal their entire life story in a single image. The eyes speak to hope for the future. The lines around the eyes tell of hardship and endurance when hope fell through.
Children are easy to photograph. Here, where everyone eats and lives at least a modest life, their eyes are always full of joy and their faces show nothing of hardship. These are happy children. Their laughs often fill the streets and echo between the buildings.
Adults are the tricky ones. I’m shy about taking someone’s portrait and them knowing it. I feel like that kind of intimacy requires permission. I can’t just stop in front of a man who looks as weathered as the bare stone he sits upon and steal this image of his life. He has no power to deny me the image, and this is why I call it theft. The guilt is even worse if I sneak the photograph past his knowing.
So when Monse invites me to breakfast and I hear her life story — 70 years in Batopilas — I want desperately to have her portrait. How wonderful it would be to capture her essence in the garden among the flowers and beautiful trees or in the kitchen where she prepares me a meal of eggs, onions, and cactus. But she says no, and I respect her request.
We talk about the town and the history of Batopilas. Long ago this was a place for mining silver. When the silver ran dry, the town did too. Later, it revived itself as a tourist destination. A lot of the successful people who live here now are well-off because of the road works that bring in the tourism. I surely wouldn’t be here if the road were any worse. Others are well-off because they grow marijuana in the surrounding hills. This is no secret, and the daily presence of heavily armed military personnel confirm the story.
Of course I buy her book. It’s small enough to fit on the bike, and the Spanish is simple enough even for me to read. The next morning over another breakfast — this time one of eggs, onions, tomato, and crispy corn tortillas — Monse signs it for me. She leaves me with a farewell message of good blessings and stories to ponder for years to come. These are the things one can gleam from a portrait of a person, but I will have to rely on my memory of Monse because she still refuses a photo.
Instead, I try my best to capture her essence from the beautiful place she lives and the accomplishments she freely displays on her walls.
If you visit Batopilas, be sure to ask for La Casa Monse. It’s the yellow door next to the Hotel Juanitas. The only unhappiness you’ll experience here is that of having to leave.