Conte, a journal of narrative writing.

In the Shadow of Jesus

"You want to go get some beers?" I asked. Sylvan said yes. We were thirsty and bored, and we didn't have any money to spend on silver - beer, however, was a different story. We had already seen the Cathedral de Santa Prisca, after which I realized I would die a happy man if I never set foot in another. I think Sylvan, being Swiss, and growing up in a relatively close proximity to some of the world's biggest cathedrals, felt the same. His sideways glances at paintings of Jesus and Moses were mirror images of my own.

Almost exactly one-year prior, I had gone on a class trip to Italy. We had studied religion - St. Francis - and art. Both subjects involved visiting cathedrals, big and small, important and seemingly inconsequential. Taxco's cathedral was nice, just like the others had been. I guess I was jaded. Sylvan must have been too.

We walked away from the cathedral, across a busy turnabout, dodging Volkswagen taxis and buses, and climbed a three-story staircase to a rooftop bar. It was empty except for the staff. A waiter emerged from a shaded enclosure and told us to sit anywhere. We picked a sunny spot by the railing; I faced the cathedral. Sylvan eyed the statue of Jesus at the top of the hill - it looked exactly like the famous statue in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Taxco, unlike Rio, is built into the side of a mountain. The whole city is shaped like a giant triangle that tapers off at the top. There, Jesus Cristo stands, like the star on a Christmas tree, arms wide open.

I watched Sylvan stare intently up at the statue. He idly sipped his beer.

"Did you hear Bonnie tell us not to go up there?" I asked.

"She didn't say not to go up there. She said not to wander above the zocalo or the silver markets," Sylvan said. Taxco is known in Mexico as the "silver city." The mines there had been worked heavily for hundreds of years and the silver products of the region were well known for their good quality and reasonable prices. The silver markets, like the zocalo and the cathedral were all located in the depth of a valley. The statue, up on the summit, seemed a long way off.

"Well, the Jesus is above the markets. Is it not?" I pointed out.

"But we wouldn't wander, we would take a ride." He gestured to the many Volkswagen buses that were zooming down the hill and around the turnabout, where they picked up and dropped off passengers before climbing back up.

"You think they go up to the top?" I asked. "You know, even the bus driver told me not to go into the city. He said we could get mugged if we went above the market."

Sylvan didn't reply. I changed the subject.

"Tell me about Angola."

Sylvan was an employee of the International Red Cross. Over the last two years he had been stationed in Angola doing some kind of aid work. In 2002, Angola "ended" a twenty-seven year civil war. Like many war veterans, or witnesses of violence, he seemed to not want to talk about it; the conversation quickly turned to Portuguese. We were both in Mexico participating in Spanish language immersion programs, and I was curious about the relationship between the two languages. I had heard they were sisters.

Our discussion was interrupted when our waiter came to check on us. Sylvan seized the opportunity to question him about the buses and the statue. The conversation was in rapid Spanish; I had no chance. Afterward, fresh beer in hand, Sylvan told me the buses, known as "cambis" could take us to the top of the hill, right up to the statue. It would cost less than a dollar.

Sylvan had called me out; there was no way to save face. The man had been to war-torn Africa and here I was, visibly nervous about taking a bus ride up a hill. As we walked to the turnabout I considered the facts: It was two o'clock in the afternoon, and I wouldn't be alone; my companion, a student for two weeks, was more or less fluent in the language (a fact that made me incredibly jealous); and we would be on a bus, not aimlessly wandering a maze of back alleys. Plus, there was something about Sylvan's namesake - the well known American "learning center" - that gave him some sort of vague credibility.

I told myself it was an adventure and thought of the bedtime stories my dad used to tell me. As recent college graduates, my dad and his roommate were dropped off, by my grandmother, at the U.S./Mexico border. For several months, the pair traveled by foot, bus, and train as far south as Bolivia. It is a story of danger and laughter; the kind of experience that leaves a person to die satisfied.

The two of us were the only foreigners on the bus. I smiled in anticipation as the cambi filled and continued to fill, far past what I considered its reasonable capacity. Most of the passengers didn't give us a second glance, which surprised me, as we must have looked incredibly out of place. I was dressed as a typical jeans-and-t-shirt American university student, complete with a backpack and sunglasses. If I looked out of place, Sylvan must have seemed from another planet - he had a strange affinity to jump suits and was completely decked out, literally from head to toe, in Puma brand apparel.

Flicking his cigarette out the window, our pudgy driver directed his rumbling, coughing cambi up the road. As we climbed, I divided my time between looking at the buildings and the people we drove past, and the increasingly panoramic views of the cathedral and the rest of the valley. Every time the road switched back, the cathedral seemed to shrink away, smaller and smaller. The statue of Jesus, on the other hand, stood bigger and more inviting. Something about the posture of the statue, its open arms, made me think of Santa Claus. I wanted to go sit on its lap.