Wednesday, August 17, 2011


We woke up in the jungle. Well, really it was more like the forest, but it was dense and looked kind of rainy, so we’ll just call it the jungle because that sounds so much more badass. Maggie and I first arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas and had to wait for Beto to get there by car later that evening. We spent the entire day in one coffee shop. We started off with breakfast and coffee, and then (a few minutes after noon, respectfully) went for round 2 of coffee with liqueur, and were just about to go for round 3 when it started to pour (we soon learned that this was a daily ritual at 4pm on the dot).  We scampered inside to a packed restaurant where our damp and pathetic appearance spurred an invitation to sit at the nearest table by a gentleman who turned out to be a state representative. “El Chunko” they call him (I think it means youngest son?), and we chatted with the couple about the Mexican political system and autism (his hot button topic) for an hour or so until they offered to pay our entire bill and flitted off.

Throughout the day we were approached by indigenous women and children selling small figurines, bracelets and candies. The women, with their long, dark hair plaited with ribbons, were dressed in ankle-length black wool skirts, bright cummerbunds and loose white blouses. The children looked forlorn and tired and asked us to give them our bread or a jelly packet when we turned down their sales pitches. The effects of globalization and racial hierarchy beat down on us like the Mexican sun as we watched well-dressed tourists dodge and scoff at the vendors tottering after them with their outstretched necklaces. If you give one of these kids a break, or a jelly packet, are you helping or hurting? How do you decide which vendor to purchase from? It seems that the art of tactical capitalism never reached the lower levels of Mexican society, because everyone sells identical bracelets, identical painted flower pots, identically boiled or barbequed corn on the cob, identical Mayan paintings on leather – and all right next to each other! There is no angle; there’s no competition. It depends on which kid whimpers the most or which moment you decide to give in. So, theoretically, in buying a bracelet am I preserving these women’s income and their craft or further pressing them into the mold of the Other that the tourist industry has amplified? This is not a rhetorical question... In fact, it buzzed around me the entire time I was in Chiapas, to which point I was unable to fully enjoy meandering the streets because I was so overly conscious of societal roles. I finally couldn’t take it – we were asking so many questions between the two of us sitting their sipping our cappuccinos and amaretto that I decided to catch up with a recently rejected sale and talk to the woman. Her name was Rosa and she had been selling bracelets ever since she was little. I’m not sure if she actually made them herself, or just told me she did because that was part of her delivery. I really wanted to understand her background and how she felt about people – about us foreigners and her work. She alluded to the tribulations of her position and how she was treated, but it was understandably challenging to extract such intimate reflections from a woman who was clearly surprised and confused by the fact that I was interrogating her in the first place.  Oh well, we go on asking and observing.

It happened again on Wednesday, when we returned from Comitan (I’ll come back to that, I promise) and went to San Juan Chamula, the next little pueblo over from San Cris. As we turned into the public parking lot, four kids came running up and smushed themselves against the car. “I’ll keep watch over your car.” “I’ll guide you!” “I’ll watch your car!” Beto told one kid he could watch his car, and two others they could accompany us to the church. Then name, Chamula, they recited, is made of 2 Tsotsil words – death and mule – the mule, like the goat, is sacred to these people and was killed by the Spaniards when they arrived. The church here is very unique in that it serves the people in a mixture of Catholicism and indigenous Mayan rituals. There are no benches, so the people sit amongst fresh pine needles on the floor, lighting candles of various colors and quantities depending on their needs. They pray to Catholic saints in Tsotsil – a language that sounds very similar to when you rewind a CD – eep errp boy neeep dob boop. As the boys explained, and as I witnessed, when someone is sick they bring in a chicken (or an egg if it’s only a mild illness) to pass over the body of the ill as they pray. The chicken takes on the illness and then the family goes home to kill, cook and eat it (which, to me, seems counterintuitive but who am I to tell them their ancient traditions are not properly closed cycles?) and then hang the feathers in their home for three days.

After we left the church, denying multiple requests from our guides and other children to gift them my umbrella, Beto’s watch or churros from the street corner, we investigated a posh stillery. Posh is the fermented drink (a lot like moonshine) that is sacred to the shamans within the indigenous community. The shamans will drink posh as they heal you, sometimes even spitting it on you, and ask you to share it (or more commonly now, to drink Coke to help the evil spirits escape via belching. No lies.) We finally found a tiny store that sold posh and gasoline. As the posh I’d tried was pretty heavy duty, I was mildly concerned that they would confuse the two, but we bought the stuff that tasted like raspberries, so I’m pretty sure we’re in the clear.  As we headed back to the car, the number of kids had nearly tripled, all of them asking for a tip for helping with the car or trying to sell bracelets or simply just looking for a handout. Two girls went so far as to open the car door and not let us leave in attempt to win our affections (by which, I mean, the contents of our pockets).

As we drove away, the kids shrinking into the rearview mirror, I got angry but I wasn’t sure at whom. The parents, certainly. When I was ten I was roller blading and hosting the occasional lemonade stand. These kids are towing their siblings, preparing meals, making a living. Families here are a powerhouse of economic means; which is, again, counterintuitive as it is another mouth to feed and human to clothe. But how can you get mad at the parents when it’s all they know? And their religion tells them that it’s wrong to think of family and sex otherwise. Do you get mad at the abstract system of social history and lack of reproductive education? Then you are simply wasting your brain energy. Ugh. Someone please tell me how to decide what to care about when there seems to be so much to fix.

On Tuesday morning we left for Chiflón, which was a gorgeous national park and waterfall. I uploaded a few pictures on facebook. There is nothing more calming and neutralizing to me than the powerful roar of a waterfall and its mist in your face.  After dropping Beto’s family with relatives, we continued on to los Cinco Lagos de Montebello (Five Lakes), where we spent the day swimming in a mysterious teal blue lake over 1000ft deep. We ate little bean pockets and I managed to spill two beers (I batted about .400 for the week) and lounged in the glory of nature for the afternoon. We stayed the night at Beto’s aunt’s home: Mexican hacienda meets small Florida ranch home, and one of the few places so many cow prints were made to look cozy and classy rather than kitschy. We exchanged recipes and pondered the moon through a telescope and headed home after quesadillas, cookies and coffee in the morning.

I haven’t mentioned much about the town of San Cristobal de las Casas itself. It’s a very unique and touristy town. One of the bakeries called Madre Tierra had signs all over for yoga, vegetarian restaurants, mediation sessions, art classes – it seemed very Asheville. Perhaps it’s because of the vibe that all of the tourists bring – there were more earth-wanderers and dirt-worshippers in that one town than anywhere else I’ve seen in my travels (or in my stationaries). Perhaps it has to do with the energy of the natural resources found in Chiapas – it’s where all the rich coffee and chocolate come from, but furthermore hails treasure-hunters seeking jade, amber and apparently uranium among a slew of other goodies. It’s in a valley surrounded by forest-coated mountains jutting into the air. The forms here are much more drastic than my Blue Ridges. And the city, full of bright colors, splashes up the sides of the hills like soup in a shallow bowl. We climbed the hills overlooking the city, wandered the walking-streets trying to guess where other tourists were from, popped into a Chilean improv theatre performance, sipped (spilled) beer while explaining United States history to Beto at the Bar Revolución, shopped at the natural printing press and the Zapatista art co-op, took a coffee with cardamom and rich chocolates at a local café, munched on baguettes and focaccia while touring the artisan markets, and accompanied Beto for tamales on the ever-necessary excursion to the local market.

The last day, because we weren’t really exhausted, we went to Palenque. I won’t go into detail about the waterfalls because in this case the pictures, while not justifying the experience, at least give you better perspective than I can on paper (on website?). Plus, it’s 1am and it’s my blog and I’d rather talk about the ruins. So we took a tour with a bus full of French and Germans (the German was Bavarian and really hard to distinguish b/c it sounded almost Italian, but the French were easy to spot mostly because they always seem to wear funny hats when they travel…perhaps in their own country too, but I couldn’t say). Anywho, we united together to get a guide, concluding that our common language was English and electing a young dude named Virgilio who lived in a pueblo in the jungle. Did I mention we were in the rainforest now? Ok. Good. So he showed us all around Palenque, which was built um…a very long time before the birth of Christ and the first temple was discovered in 1746. He threw a lot of dates around, and I think that different temples were discovered at different times – apart from the first temple, most of Palenque has been exhumed within the last century. The city functioned from around 630 AD (after being erected about 700 years before) until about 900AD. He took us on a mini excursion through the jungle to show us the Ceiba, the Tree of Life that is said to have special energy and is actually hollow inside (the Lacondona (Mayan descendants who live in the rainforest) use it to make canoes as the boys come into manhood), the Cocodillo which is a super spikey and poisonous palm tree, the Mulatto, a beautiful red-barked tree used to make furniture, and the vine of another tree that smells like cloves used by Lacondona dentists to clean teeth. We popped back out of the other side of our walk in the woods at the top of the Temple of the Skull. The main badass was Pakal, who’s tomb was built by his son over a span of 25 years. Pakal was crowned when he was 12 and reigned for 69 years. Then you have the tomb of the Red Queen, who was the wife or mother of Pakal. Her sarcophagus was painted the sacred color red inside. We walked through the palace and the courtyards of the Temple of the Corn and of the Sun and climbed up the Temple of the Cross (pertaining to directions, not to Christianity). We walked down to the fields where the warriors would play a ball game in which  the winners were honorably sacrificed to the gods and then the losers were killed, too. Sounds dumb to me, but no values imposition here – purely observational enrichment. I will point out, however, that evolution has brought sport to its epitome in which after every game of ultimate frisbee opposing teams stand around in a spirit circle and tell one another how much they love each other and then everyone gets drunk together and it’s beautiful and no one dies. Just a side comment. 

My words cannot do this place justice, nor can my pictures. It was simply magnificent. And to think that it was completely covered in rainforest and that so much more of it is still untouched. We saw the main plaza, but some researcher found 1400 other temples in the surrounding forest. It’s just massive. Virgilio told us that Coca-Cola and Nestle dedicated millions and millions of dollars to the restoration projects. I found that very peculiar – what would these capitalist empires want to do with ruins in Mexico? Beto says that this part of the country is rich in uranium and many people are trying to get at it. Very curious how that might all piece together. Avatar, anyone??

The van ride back to San Cristobal from the ruins was a 4-hour switch-back paved luge shoot through a downpour from the rainforest to the valley. Our chauffeur was driven or pulled by some unspoken potency - a tacit race among rivaling tour agencies for the fastest time down the mountains; desire to escape bad energy from an angry Mayan god; or seeking thrill to keep himself awake against the forces of the monotone soliloquies from his belly-bag toting co-pilot – whatever it was, I wasn’t really afraid or nauseous, but I had come to terms with dying. We actually did make it back, which you have probably figured out seeing as I am writing all of this in the past-tense. I have added tak marks to my “have seen” list, and thoroughly enjoyed spending the week with truly fabulous individuals. It was unfortunate that so much of my mind was occupied by personal and emotional matters, and filled with what-ifs and how-comes and how-to-fix reflections. While the week was fantastic, I really didn’t relax per se. If anything, I just revved up. If it is all a learning, and I am a student of life, how do you know when to stop doing research and start taking action? I had another blog post written about this – if I can dig it up, I’ll make a lovely transition into my next musing, for which you hopefully won’t have to wait too long.