Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Journey To The Monarch Butterflies

Photos later, uncooperative computer - ah...Mexico

We came to Morelia to visit friends and the Monarch butterflies which migrate here every year. In spite of landing at 1:50 in the morning, Winston was eager to get going. And in so many ways, for Winston, this has been the best vacation. He is wide open to possibility. He is eager to experience adventure. He trusts us that everything is okay.

On Sunday, we rose early in the morning. Travel is slow through the small towns of Mexico. No main roads lead to Ocampo. Every half mile, there are bumps in the road which would rip the underbelly right off your car. Cows, sheep and dogs appear to contemplate suicide using the hood of your car as their tool. From time to time we had to stop for a chicken to cross the road.

We stopped at a roadside stand to use the bathrooms. Winston was amazed that he had to pour water into the toilet so that it could flush. How amazing! How wonderful! How delightfully curious. Then, back into the car for more driving.

Morelia is not a top tourist destination. In comparison, Ocampo ranks right up there with a trip to the swamps of Mississippi. The road up the mountain is paved with bricks and stones. The bricks are where your tires should be. The stones are where you tires should not be. It looks and feels like driving for miles onto a mechanics lift. The side of the road is alternately a sheer drop off the mountain or a deep ditch.

After three hours of driving from Morelia, we arrived at Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca El Rosario. We pulled into the car park. Our car was surrounded by little boys brandishing souvenirs, bamboo walking sticks and songs. Here it seems, everyone wants a peso or five. We made our way through this mob towards the bathrooms. After spending 6 pesos for a wad of toilet paper and a receipt celebrating our eco-tourism, we felt prepared to head up the mountain.
Winston is so excited. He has this vision of holding a butterfly. I try to warn him that the butterflies might not land on him. He assures me that if he is still and patient, they will come to him.

Uphill and up the hill some more. Past singing children who think their songs are definitely worth a peso. Past wooden shacks selling souvenirs, food, water, soft drinks. We trudge up hill through the dust and wood smoke from the great metal drums which served as grills. Up and up we went seeking butterflies.

Finally, I see a great white building announcing that it is the butterfly sanctuary. On the mountain side, hundreds of butterflies are stream down the mountain. I think, we are here! Finally! Winston and his friend Ezzat romp through a small meadow outside of the sanctuary. Winston stand still. He is waiting for a butterfly to choose him.

“Wow!” I think. “The walk was totally worth it!” It will cost us 85 pesos to enter the Sanctuary. I’m ready for lunch. I’ve seen the butterflies. They were great. Bring on the cervessa and tostadas! We’ll sit around and wait for Winston to hold a butterfly.

But, no, the orange and black stream of loveliness is not what we came to see. So, we pay up, pass up through the building, and out onto the mountainside. We are given a guide. Suddenly, I am grateful that we paid our fee. Before we came, I was aware that the butterflies are endangered. Illegal logging has created a severe loss of habitat. Their numbers are dwindling.

Our guide seems to take his role very seriously. He will not let any of us lag behind. He watches us carefully to make sure we don’t touch the few butterflies we see resting in the plants or bushes along the path. He watches every time we remove something from our packs which might generate rubbish. He seems to serve a dual role - both protector of the forest and informative tour guide. This place in which his family has resided for generations has now become a viable means of support to him. Conservation is suddenly profitable.

As we reach the first cement staircase disappearing around a bend into the trees, our guide informs us that there are 600 of them. Okay.

So, up and up and up we climb. After the first 50 steps into the forest, it occurs to me that eco-tourism is not for me. (Not one single write up discusses the grueling up hill journey which awaits you.) I decide, I won’t make it. This is very different than hiking through Frick Park. This is a mountain. And there are 550 steps to go. Unlike the Cupola in the Vatican, there is no crowd pressing behind you. You have to do this on your own. You have to do it of your own free will.

Winston and Ezzat alternately race ahead and then double back to inform us they are tired. Then - off they go again. Only stopping only to carefully examine butterflies laying eggs, drinking nectar and resting in the shade.

I marvel at their youth and fitness. I am sure that I am going to have a heart attack on a Mexican mountainside where no emergency vehicles can reach me. After 200 more steps - with frequent rests while the children, my friends and the tour guide wait - I refuse to walk any further. I tell everyone to go ahead. I’ll meet them at the bottom. The tour guide reluctantly agrees. But, he insists that he will come back for me. Panting, sweating and with a racing heart, I sit on a bench.

Nobody speaks English here. Nobody believes I don’t speak Spanish. Old ladies with canes hobble down the mountain praising Jesus and urging me to get up and keep walking. Young women in heels pick their way down the steep hill. A stooped old man in a sombrero with cane limps past, a beatific smile on his face.

I realize that if I can painlessly give birth to two children, I have what is necessary within me to walk up a mountain. So I get up. I walk 30 paces. i sit and pant and rest. I repeat this for the last 400 steps. Finally, a dirt path snakes off up into the trees. I’ve made it!

With renewed vigour, I set off. A quarter of a mile later, I realize that I am not even close. I sit. I pant. I rest. I sweat. More people stream past me. The flow of butterflies has increased. Yet, the people walking down the mountainside take little notice of them. They all appear as if they have had some glorious and divine vision and the butterflies are but a residual manifestation of some more poignant experience.

I press on another quarter mile. I give up again. Suddenly, a family chattering in English approaches. I perk up. I ask them how much farther I have to go. The mother tells me, I’m almost there. I have to keep on. She points to a patch of blue sky.

“That’s the meadow,” she says. “Right there. So close. Keep going.”

Her teenaged daughter chimes in, “It’s awesome! Sooooo awesome!”

The teenaged son adds, “You have to do it. You have to.”

The father enthusiastically nods. (I’ll bet he was also worried about his heart an hour ago.)

So I press on. Suddenly the tree cover ends. The sun is warm and lovely. Brown grass, scrubby brush and the odd blooming flower look stunning to me. I make my way through the meadow. I don’t see many butterflies, but I keep walking. Up ahead, I see Norman, Winston and our friends. The guide stands off at a distance. He sees me approaching. The look on his face is priceless. He seems relieved, delighted and amazed.

I can only imagine what he thought of me when I sent them on ahead. Every morning to come to work, he walks up the mountain for an hour and a half. Then he spends his day walking tourists up and down the mountain. I must have seemed like every American stereotype - fat, privileged, wasteful and stubborn. (After all, the cost of my admission fee could probably feed his family for a month.) And he meant it that he was coming back for me. I’m sure he imagined having to prod me - with his worn walking stick - up the mountain like an old fat goat. The guides take their job very seriously.

Everyone else is surprised that I made it. But, the guide’s face was the best gift I could ever receive. It turns out that they had only arrived in this spot 10 minutes before I did. I remember at the beginning of the journey, he warned us to take it slow. He urged us to rest when we needed to rest. So, the fact that I came up the mountain at my own pace and in my own way showed that I respected what he had told us at the beginning.

He came over to talk with me. He seemed so disappointed that i couldn’t speak Spanish. I was so disappointed that I couldn’t speak Spanish. He wanted to say something to me - but he was not eager to have it translated. I’ll always wonder what it was.

I made my way over to Winston who was crouched at the top of a stream bed covered by butterflies - thousands of butterflies! They all had their proboscis stuck into the mud to get water. Patiently, Winston waited for a butterfly to notice him. The guide urged us onward. Apparently, we hadn’t seen the real deal yet. If this wasn’t what we’d travelled three hours and hiked two hours to see, I was sure curious about what was ahead. So, I urged the boys ahead.

Up and up some more. We stop at a marshy bit of land covered in thirsty butterflies. Then, into the thick Oyamel trees. I look up and the limbs are bent from butterflies too soporific from the shade to fly. It looks like a forest of Christmas trees covered in butterfly ornaments. It is staggering. There are millions of butterflies who have spent a month travelling from Canada to winter here. We find a dead butterfly. Our guide informs us to put it back where we found it.

“This is a cemetery. They must remain here. This is like a cemetery.” He says solemnly.

This holy place. This fragrant harbour. This refuge for a centuries old biological drive is sacred. Our guide watches us as we place the butterfly back down. It is time to return.

On our way back down the mountain, deep in the forest, on the top of a mountain, at the end of a five hour journey, Winston received what he had travelled so far to get. A butterfly chose his hand and stayed with him 500 feet until the sunshine warmed it enough to fly away.

And I realized, if I hadn’t made it, I would have missed one of the most important lessons life has to offer him. In one day he learned that patience and perseverance always pay off.


Karen James said...

Wow. What a fantastic journey. I want to do a series of mamas and children. This may have to be one of them. So inspiring. Thanks for sharing, Christina.

Christina Springer said...

Thanks Karen! It is so hard to communicate all of the profound experiences we are having here. We probably would have never made this journey if we hadn't had friends here.

From time to time, I think I'm going to try to choose out of the way, non-tourist destinations. To be completely foreign in a foreign land is such an amazing experience.

CLP librarians said...


This entry was lovely. Congrats on that uphill battle, girl! It sounds as if your journey was worth it. As always, it made me think of a book. Have you and Winston read "Velma Gratch and the Way Cool Butterfly" by Alan Madison? Just like Winston Velma has her moment, actually quite a few moments, with a butterfly. :) Also, I can't believe I looked over Mo Willems' (pigeon book author) series of easy readers yesterday when you all were here. I'll show them to you next time. Happy Holiday!