Off the Grid with the Tarahumara Indians, Chapter 12

Sleeping with Rats is Better than Freezing (or Getting Covered with Chicken Shit)

Dave was the first to move and he strode out to greet the Tarahumara in the field. I admit I held back out of embarrassment. But in the next moments we watched Dave excitedly shaking hands and hugging the Tarahumara and calling us to come over.

“What good luck!” Dave yelled back to us, “come on over.” It turns out that the people here working the field were the ones whose home we were headed towards. Juancensio, his wife Margarita, and the rest of his family.


Juancensio and Margarita in front of their home

A Friendly Greeting from New Tarahumara Friends

“But this is not your field,” Dave exclaimed. Juancensio explained that so many of the Tarahumara had abandoned their lands to move into town, he had started taking over the fields and planting them. He did not mind us eating the apples one bit, especially since he too was a sort of trespasser. They waved us over to a rest area they had setup, and Margarita offered us cups of pinole.

We chatted for a bit, but the sun was high and we had caught them near the end of the bean harvest, and they needed to get back to work. “Can we help?” asked Dave. Juancensio said “no,” the weeds had prickles and we would get scratched.

Harvesting Beans in Tarahumara Country

Dave, Anthony, and I looked at each other and fully understood that was an attempt at politeness. So we went out into the field and began to mimic what they were doing.


Marjory harvesting beans

It looked like the main harvest had already been done and they were gleaning the last remaining beans that could be gotten. So we went around and searched for whatever pods of beans we could find. It was true that the weeds were a little prickly, but a few scratches are par for the course in most agricultural work.


Cleaning the beans

We collected the bean pods in buckets or on cloths, and took them to an area with an almost flat stone. To shell the beans, we took turns beating the pile with long sticks. The heavy beans would fall to the bottom and the lighter chaff, leaves, and stems would be taken off the top, shaken, and put to the side. The beans at the bottom were collected and then poured from one bucket to another for further winnowing.


Lucia and her brother beat the beans

The beans were large multi-colored beauties. Later, I asked Juancensio where he had gotten the bean seeds, and he said they had been with the Tarahumara forever.

A Tricky Walk Back to Juancensio’s Homestead

The earth had kept turning while we worked and now the sun was low in the sky. Dave said we still had about an hour or so of hiking to do. We watched Juancensio load up his donkey with two heavy bags of beans that had been harvested. We picked up our packs, and everyone headed across the field towards a trail that would take us to their homestead.

The trail was crazy steep and at times imperceptible. When I wasn’t worried where my next step would be, I was swept away by the beauty of the land. We hiked for about an hour or so and then came to the edge of Juancensio’s homestead. He and his family live in a breathtakingly beautiful valley.

Their home was so picturesque, tucked so far away from any roads.


Beautiful scene of Juancensio’s valley with small cabins

Burros – The Tarahumara Workhorse

Anthony noticed that their home was made concrete. Later he asked “Juancensio, how did you ever get concrete up here?” The family laughed and pointed to the burro. Countless bags had been painstakingly brought up from town by burro and mixed by hand. It was a lot of work. The home was approximately 20′ x 20′ with two doors and no windows.

Those little burros did so much work. Earlier I had been teasing Pedro that he was our “burro rojo” since he always took the heaviest pack and he only wore the one red shirt he had brought on the trip. Pedro considered this nickname a great compliment and it was starting to dawn on me why. Burros are awesome.

These Kids Can Work

Upon arriving at his homestead, Juancensio dropped the lead rope for the burro and his 10 year old daughter Lucia began to unpack the bags of beans. Dave told me that by the age of about 12, young girls had all the skills to run a homestead and were often thinking of getting married.

Anthony whipped out his camera and caught Lucia working on video. I am a little embarrassed that I was standing around while she worked, but arriving in this new setting and unsure of the order of things, I just didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, Dave came to his senses and helped her out at the end. Those bags were heavy!

Check out this short video clip of Lucia that I uploaded to YouTube. Can you get your kids to work like that?

Things Get Chilly

Juancensio’s homestead was at about 7,000 feet and the air was starting to chill in a way I suspected was going to turn into downright cold. I looked up and the crystal clear sky overhead confirmed it would get much colder.

When packing for the trip I knew it would be cool at night, but somehow in my subconscious I was thinking, “Hey I am going to Mexico,” and images of people on beaches in Cancun flickered in the back recesses of my mind. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that I would be up high in the mountains and November was a cold month. So the bottom line is I knew that I didn’t have good enough gear to keep me warm sleeping out under the stars at this altitude.


Marjory holding cup – she underestimated the cold

I thought of how wonderful the heat was from the old 55 gallon drum they had cut into a crude stove inside their home. And I suspected (correctly) that we would not be invited in the house to sleep.

Dave and Anthony had apparently prepared better than I had, and they began to lay out their gear on the ground near the house.

So I looked around. From past experiences sleeping outside, I knew there were two things I would need. The most important thing I already had: excellent ground isolation with a blow up pad that my sweet husband had gotten for me. Number two would be to find some overhead cover. I knew that even just sleeping under a tree would be warmer than out in the open. But the only tree nearby was on a steep slope and was filled with a flock of free range chickens. Sleeping underneath a big flock of birds is never a good idea. Waking up covered in splotches… nope, not good.

Would You Rather Freeze or Sleep with Rats?

There was a storage cabin right near the house and I asked if I could sleep in there. “No” was the initial response. And then they explained that it had a store of corn and there were many rats living inside. Juancensio hated cats and his attempt to control vermin with snap traps wasn’t working.

The colder air nipped at me and I told them I didn’t mind sleeping with rats. Actually, I am totally fine sleeping with rats. It beats the heck out of freezing or getting covered with chicken shit. Apparently Pedro also wasn’t prepared for the cold and he didn’t mind sleeping with rats either. He asked again on both of our behalf. Margarita and Juancensio shrugged their shoulders and left us to do what we wanted.

So we found places on the ground between the corn crib and other piled up goods.

My New Rat Roommates

And yes, that cabin was definitely filled with rats. I know there are a lot of people who have some deep-seated phobias about vermin; will they run up your leg? Or bite you and infect you with some disease? And it is true that in some cases their feces contains the dreaded hantavirus.

But while I am not exactly super fond of rats and mice, I do try to stay in good relationship with their nation. And I correctly figured that there was more than enough corn to eat, so they would not bother me. Although during the three nights we spent there, Pedro said he got nibbled once.

Now it so happened that while moving things out of the way, we put a guitar on top of the corn crib. And during the night, while the rats were doing their thing, occasionally one would run across the strings of the guitar and make it “bbrrriiinnngg.”


Marjory’s sleeping bag on the floor next to the corn bin and guitar

The next morning at breakfast Margarita was curious as to how I had fared in the cabin. I think they were really wondering if I was OK sleeping in there or not. You know, how would this rich American woman deal with rats running around her at night? And would they be perceived as bad hosts? I smiled and reassured her that I was fine. I told her, “Oh yes, you definitely have rats, and they are having a very good time. They played the guitar and had a fiesta with your corn.” Everyone laughed at that.

Seeing an Old Friend for the First Time

The day was going to be beautiful. Margarita and Lucia were going to show me how they make tamales. I would spend a lot of time with Juancensio discussing planting, harvesting, and livestock. And as it turns out, I was inadvertently going to rock Dave’s world.

Dave and I had known each other for about eight years or so… Twice a year this crazy group of about 300 people show up in a wilderness area to spend a week together trading skills and knowledge from the Paleolithic era. We do things like make pottery by digging up clay from the earth and then firing it in a pit. Or tanning deerskins using just the brains of the animal. Chipping stones to make blades. Or my personal favorite, making fire by rubbing sticks together. When you can get fire like that, something really changes in you. It’s hard to describe.

It makes total sense that Dave would always attend these gatherings; he is one of the world’s foremost experts in Stone Age living skills. But me? I don’t have any particular reason, except that my daughter and I love it. It is a special time for us to be together, and we have a ton of fun playing cave women for the week.

So Dave and I have spent many days and nights around the campfire, out in the bush, or learning new skills in small groups; and you would think that we know each other well. But apparently there was something fundamental about me that he never knew. And he was about to find out.


Margarita, Marjory, and Lucia making tamales


This article is Chapter 12 in the series “Extreme Agri-Tourism: Off the Grid with the Tarhumara Indians.” You can read the rest of the series here:

Chapter 1: Extreme Agri-Tourism
Chapter 2: Hard Traveling
Chapter 3: The Tarhumara Girls School
Chapter 4: How To Lose 30 Pounds In 10 Seconds
Chapter 5: Gunfights Don’t Usually Last That Long…
Chapter 6: The Vomit Comet Through Tarahumara Country
Chapter 7: Don’t Ever Do This When Traveling In Strange Territory
Chapter 8: Nice Legs Really Scare Tarahumara Men
Chapter 9: Living Sustainably Is An Everyday Thing Here
Chapter 10: The Biggest Surprise of the Trip
Chapter 11: Another Tarahumara Myth Busted
Chapter 12: Sleeping with Rats is Better than Freezing
• Chapter 13: COMING SOON

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This post was written by Marjory


  • Joan says:

    How do the girls get their long skirts and stay clean looking when they work in them and sit on rocks?

  • jon draw says:

    Did the Tarahumara people till the soil for the beans each year or were they by chance a perennial plant that came up on their own each year. Just curious if some beans at various locations might have become such. In nature, if anything is to survive and there is no one around to save seed and replant, they have to propagate themselves. It would be nice to be able to get some such perennial beans. Many beans have a hard encapsulation which would help them survive the winter for later regrowth, I would think. Thank you for the interesting and entertaining account of your adventures with the Tarahumara and fellow travelers.
    Also, most animals, like we people, enjoy a comfortable amount of heat during sleep, so the rats might welcome a symbiotic relationship of sharing heat in such cold situations, especially when their food source is near by. They would also be free ranging rats so may be less inclined to getting diseased from confined filth. I would consider such, an enjoyable experiment but it might be good to wear some durable clothes to get a little forewarning if they started gnawing on me. I would expect rats to be omnivores and not just vegans; though more rat-research is needed before I assume too much, being a sound sleeper… and they might go for my eyes, nose or lips before my ears … solution: travel with a fencing mask!! jon

  • Sandy says:

    Another fantastic episode!

    I would like to have a burro on my homestead, so it was very instructive to see the wooden pack saddle, the way it was padded and tied and how carefully Lucia moved around the burro. In the video, Lucia kept glancing at you guys towards the end, and I think she was wondering how she was going to get one bag off the burro without dropping and possibly busting the second bag. Dave stepped in at a critical moment!

    Also, I must comment on the exquisite beauty of those beans. They were so glossy, and the lavender and darker tints made me wonder if they were high in antioxidants as so many heirloom foods are. Were the beans also stored with the rats or in a more protected space while the crops finished drying?

    I mentioned your Tarahumara adventures to a friend of mine and pointed out to her how clearly you are demonstrating how monumental an impact the destruction of the genetic heritage of the world’s indigenous crops has become. Foods that are now toxic to most of use in the “civilized” world are, in their untainted state, what keeps these unpampered people vital and far more vigorous than any volume of chemicals ever will.

    The farther you go on this trip, the higher the heroic stature you, Dave and Antonio assume in my eyes. What tenacity it took to organize an adventure like this, and what reserves it obviously called on to get up every morning and go for the maximum in achieving your goals. And your glow of delight keeps getting brighter and brighter as every day passes. Can’t wait t see what happens next!

  • Nirtana Goodma says:

    Wonderful trip and story. This is the only chapter that will come up right now. I hope that gets fixed so I can read the rest!!!

    1. Michael F says:

      Hi Nirtana – The links to the other chapters should be working now. Thanks!

  • JJM says:

    Read this Chapter a month ago – What happened to Chapter 13, etc?

    1. Michael Ford says:

      Hey JJM – There are a few more chapters coming up… They should be ready before too long.

  • Ralph says:

    Feb. 22 to May 24. 3+ months. Writers block is hell!

  • Marjory says:

    Ralph – you make me laugh. Well writers block or the demands of a growing network??? But yes, I do promise to get back on this. Michael has been polite enough not to say anything, but I know I am remiss in not getting this finished.

    Hey so are you in suspense?

    1. Terry K says:

      May I hold you to this promise now? I know it’s been ages since this was posted, but you had to have gotten more out of this trip. Please share it with us. Even a quick finish would be great if you can. And don’t forget to add a recipe for that pinole. 😉

      1. Maja says:

        Hey Marjory, I second Terry’s request – could you PLEASE tell us what happened next? 🙂

  • Larry Johnson says:


    This is a wonderful story and certainly deserves to be finished. But if that is not possible, how about a just little more about the Pinole and the corn used to make it.

    Respectfully and appreciatively,


  • David says:

    Do you know if those purple beans are available to purchase commercially in the US?

  • David says:

    Oh, and the grain corn that they raise… it would be amazing to get some of those seeds as well!

  • Katie says:

    When is the rest of this amazing story coming?! You left us hanging!!!! Please publish soon!

  • ptikat says:

    I also would like to read the rest of the story! What is so fundamental about you that Dave was going to learn?

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