Working with Chava starts with the drive. When it’s a long road waiting to some far flung secundaria on a mountain crag, we sail out of Jalpan at seven, when the last night’s fog is just surrendering to the sun in the valleys and the passes. Chava doesn’t drive so much as careen, upshifting into and out of turns, our little red Tsuru doing its best to pick two wheels off the centerline and pirouette over a precipice.
He sits like a latter day Hunter S, smoking and speaking with one hand while the other works the wheel and the shift in turns. Every curve in these mountains could be a hairpin and nowhere is there less respect for yellow paint. Freight traffic is constant and slow and each turn is blind. Passing is an engine-roaring test of nerves against the bastard oncoming who’s likely only half in his lane anyway.
The Reserve covers the most varied ground in Mexico and driving the length of it is like slow revelation. On the trip from Jalpan to the falsely-named Agua Fría the car temperature is ever-changing, first fiery and inescapable coming from the valley heat of my home, too much for open windows to spirit off, and on the climb to Pinal it plummets, tendrils of mist licking their way onto the road and into the car while Chava and I huddle in the pool of sunlight coming through the windshield.
When we pick our way through a gap in the hills to Maguey Verde, the Pacific firs give way in an instant to high desert and badlands of scrubby matorral surround us, pygmy agaves and barrel cacti marking the boundary between the Sierra you come to see and the Sierra you cross to see it. Halfway into the desert we leave the pavement and double back onto a dirt track hewn from the cliffside, littered with old rockslides and every bit as precipitous as the tarmac we’ve left. We rumble through pueblo after pueblo named for water they never had, each a better match for Arroyo Seco than the town that bears the name. But even in the remotest collection of tin-roofed shacks, the kids know the little red sedan and they run up to call ¡profe! and shake his hand.
He’s a portly dynamo to every one of them, digging into their bag of chips while he gets their names right and their nicknames wrong, never tired for the kids, two years out from losing a decade of work to the NGO that’s at least had the decency to leave his last batch of groups in disrepair and the way open for his new project.
Three hours from base on the most dubious edge of the reserve, we arrive at a sunscoured three-room schoolhouse in a cloud of penetrating dust, his charges already streaming to the salon they’ve set aside for the big man himself, never self-described, but every bit a chubby ecological messiah here to set straight director and schoolchild alike.
The sessions in troubled groups drag on for hours, Chava walking them through election of officers, selection of problems, creation of solutions by initiative, campaign, or disabusement. He addresses sweaty and close-packed rooms of kids McLaughlin would sing for and every one as worthy of your daily latté cash. I haven’t yet seen the place without a few adorable little girls whose eyes point out or in but never straight, each straining to only let one or the other stray into the sight of the out of towners.
In most of these meetings I play the photographer, straining to separate the blaze from the windows and the gloom that dominates, trading what I hope are knowing smiles with the kids while Chava launches into stories and addresses their growing mustaches, all the while building them a project so they barely know it happens.
We’ll break for recess, when the kids line up for a meagre lunch of tortillas and beans ladled from a tin washtub. Chava and I cram ourselves knee to knee around a wooden table with the teachers sent to whichever little pueblo and break bread with whatever the students’ve left. He’ll talk shop with them, going over the much felt-about education reforms and sell them the Ecochavos all over again while I perch on the stool they’ve given me, my height advantage stretched to where I’m out of the room altogether and always in danger of falling back into it, declining as often as I can invitations to Eat, jóven, eat.
When we get back to the room they’re already arranged and Chava launches into it, each of them trying to be bored, but unpermitted, the old man soldiering through his two hundredth minute the same as his first. When all’s done and they’re sighing their goodbyes, he always turns, shushes them and threatens another hour with a look—I just want to say one more thing. I think you’re an excellent group—and then he strolls out before they can catch on and crack a smile.
When we get to the little red car and dust our boots, he’ll lean on it and bum a cigarette and let his face take the fall it deserves. He’ll turn to me and say—Jonathan, we did good work today. Then he stubs it out and we peel away in another storm of powdered track, our axle scrabbling through each turn spitting runnels of gravel over the edge and into the valleys below.