As you leave the Valley of Oaxaca and wind up the narrow switchbacks of unpaved mountain road, the sun loses its lowland sultriness and grows sharp. Roadside stands appear, selling small peaches, and bantam villages pass into and out of view, offering glimpses of hanging laundry, calla lilies in mossy streams, and men joking around in half-built houses. Farther inland, their language switches from the romantic lilt of Spanish to the tonal precision of Zapotec.
Crammed in the back of a taxi colectivo, a bare-bones Nissan Tsuru that held a few other passengers and their striped bags of city bounty, my husband, Jorge, and I watched the glitter of the valley fade and the perpetual fog of the cloud forest close in. Our destination was only fifty-five miles from the city of Oaxaca, but the trip would take more than three hours. We were headed to the village of San Pedro Cajonos for its annual fiesta, which included a basketball tournament Jorge planned to photograph for a documentary project. I had taken a semester off graduate school to accompany him on his travels. We had spent much of the winter attending fiestas in villages throughout the Sierra Norte, a historically impoverished region in the center of Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s southernmost states.