Sunday, 5 February 2012

Beaches and Mountains

Another long delay in writing. I swear we get home each night too late and too tired to write most days.

When last we wrote we were in Puerto Escondido. Once we finally managed to shake off the heat lethargy and move on, we stopped in Puerto Angel, a small town a little further down the coast. We were surprised to find that the host of our hostel was not around, that this was `normal’ and that some guy called Norm (aka Mr Bean) was to give us our key. Turns out Puerto Angel, like the hostel, is…. Well… a hole, and that to do anything interesting like, for example, eat a decent meal, one had to go over to one of the other beaches in the area. We did eventually find a decent restaurant on a nearby beach and took a cool walk up to a point just in time to miss the sun setting. The next day we went to a turtle conservation park which had clearly seen better days, with most of the enclosures being little more than foot high stone walls and some didn’t even have that, which nearly led to turtles being stood on at one point (they were hiding in leaves). The primary purpose of the park was to rear and rehabilitate young turtles, which were kept in big plastic tubs devoid of any “natural” furnishings, and despite many signs, the locals insisted on poking or banging on the tubs of any turtles which proved to be insufficiently interesting. Overall, very sad. Still, the beaches were beautiful and the weather was perfect for swimming – an activity I almost never partake of due to my tendency to freeze into an ice cube on contact with seawater. Not in Mexico!

We still hadn’t seen our host, only his wife who spoke no English and didn’t know how much the rooms were supposed to cost so we gave her what we thought was the price, many hours after “check out” – she didn’t seem to care - and moved on to San Cristobal, in the state of Chiapas

Chiapas is an interesting place. In 1994, a sizable group of indigenous people took up arms and declared war on the Mexican state in protest over a whole series of political actions which blatantly ignored the desires of the great many Maya descended indigenous peoples in the area. This group, calling themselves the EZLN (Zapatista army of national liberation, or just the Zapatistas for short) chose the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, Jan 1st, to make indigenous rights the biggest thing in Mexican politics, especially in Chiapas. Several villages were declared “autonomous municipalities”, and independent authorities were established within these communities which oversaw the democratic running of the area. Over the next several years the Mexican government spared nothing to destroy the Zapatistas, including massive military operations, harassing villages, driving a great many people out of their homes and encouraging right wing militias to further harass, and in at least one case massacre, EZLN sympathising communities. Nonetheless, public sentiment was with the Zapatistas, and several extremely large scale demonstrations forced the government to work toward peace with the EZLN, and to address several of the major concerns voiced by them. By this stage, approximately half the state had been declared Autonomous and was being run by the local communities. After a period of 13 years, with numerous betrayals by the government, the peace accords were finally ratified and actioned in 2007, which has seen significant investment in the indigenous communities – specifically in education, infrastructure and cultural work - and while the EZLN still operates and continues to be well respected by the people, the situation is largely peaceful. This doesn’t stop the army from enforcing “drug enforcement” and “firearms restrictions” road blocks and searches on a regular basis though. As I said, Interesting.

San Cristobal is cool. Despite being fairly small (pop. 250,000), it’s quite “hippy”ish, with an abundance of vegetarian restaurants and similarly hippy shops. There were several stores run by various cooperatives associated with the Zapatistas, which were interesting, and I picked up some light reading which I’m sure will be fascinating and enlightening, as soon as my Spanish improves.

While we initially only planned to spend 3 nights there, we ended up spending nearly a whole week. Somewhat lacking in the standard tourist draws (museums and galleries and centuries old churches etc), it had a significant charm nonetheless. On our second day we went to the festival in the town of Chiapa de Corzo. The story goes that a Spanish noblewoman had a son who was very sick, so she took him to the local shaman who told her that she had to bathe him in this river and that he would be cured. The child was sick and fidgety, so to distract him the locals all dressed up as Spanish people, the men wearing wigs the resemble hemispherical broomheads and wooden masks with blue eyes and white skin, while the women wore pretty dresses that we would still call “classic” Spanish attire. The child was bathed and soon recovered. Now every year, for 2 whole weeks, the people dress up and dance through the streets. There is also some religious significance (isn’t there always) as people were carrying crucified saints shot full of arrows. Very strange! Sadly, the day was sweltering and we soon needed to retreat from the sun. Apparently soon after we left, there was a massive feast in the town centre and one of the people from our hostel who we had travelled in with was given a free meal. Score!

In one of the pubs on the main road with the cool and coincidental name of "Revolucion!" we found a great little gig. The band played Balkan and Cumbia-style (originally a Colombian genre, re-invented in Mexico) music with a great deal of gusto, flair, and skill. Sadly, there were too many tables for there to be space to dance. Another bonus of San Cristobal was having time to socialise with other travellers at the hostel - we had a Lebanese dinner with a lefty female nuclear engineer from Pennsylvania; we bumped into an interesting Swedish woman on our canyon tour and then at the movie theatre; and hung out with a Welsh man who curiously went by the name Sasha and had a very impressive command of European languages as well as Mexican Spanish.

On what was supposed to be our 2nd to last day in San Cristobal we found Na Bolom (house of the Jaguar, named after a mishearing of the founder’s name), a centre set up to study and preserve the cultures of one of the Mayan cultures that was particularly special because it was untainted by Spanish influence – the Lacadon culture. Apparently in their conquest of southern Mexico, the conquistadors missed a spot. The centre is magnificent, with great gardens, a fantastic library and accommodation for the students, scholars and artists who work out of the centre. We were shown around by one of the staff who had worked with the founders, Frans and Gertrude Blom, and who knew a great deal about the centre and the communities. Gertrude (aka Trudi) had been a social activist, photographer, and journalist. In Europe she learned half a dozen languages and in Mexico learned two of the indigenous languages. She took over 50,000 pictures of the people and villages of the Chiapas area, a work which earned her recognition by the United Nations shortly before her death.

We took a few tours, one out to Sumidero Canyon (stunning; pictures below) and another out to a couple of the Mayan communities nearby via Na Bolom. Sadly, we didn’t make it to a Zapatista municipality or a Lacandon village, thanks to miscommunication with our guide.

Just when you think you’ve seen every kind of Catholic church build from the stones of the local worship sites by Jesuit priests who don’t give a rat’s rear, people manage to surprise you. In San Juan Chamula they practice “catholica tradicionale”, which is strangely distinguished from “catholica authentica” – Catholicism as we typically think of it. Catholica Tradicionale is what happens when the Jesuits priests don’t quite manage to make their religion stick with a people who are quite happy with their traditional religious practice. The building is church shape; it has statues of saints but instead of Jesus at the end there’s John the Baptist , who is worshiped literally as Jesus; there are no priests, only robed shamans (male and female); they don’t hold mass or anything similar, and instead of pews, the room is essentially devoid of furniture; people worship at arrays of candles, 3 rows to represent the heavens, the sky and the underworld; Coca Cola is a holy drink, blessed by the shamans and then imbibed to cure disease (I kid you not!); chickens are killed right there in the church to bring good health – roosters for men, dark chickens for women and white chickens for children – and people request “cleansings” from the shamans which involves being wiped down with eggs and, you guessed it, coke. From a purely sociological perspective, it was absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, no pictures allowed inside.

They did keep some catholic traditions though – the only permissible religious practice in the community is catholica tradicionale. Anyone who practices any other religion is driven from the town, and god help you (no pun intended) if you should encourage others to practice differently – one woman was reportedly badly beaten only ten years ago for handing out leaflets for the “authentic catholic” church in San Cristobal. Likewise on the political front. The town is PRI territory (one of the political parties) and anyone who doesn’t like it can leave. Real old school catholic tolerance. For once, I kept my mouth shut.

The second village was equally interesting in a different way. An entrance fee was charged upon entering the village – only $15 pesos per person, but as a popular “authentic local community” tour destination, this adds up for the community. Our guide explained that this money went to the local municipal authority, where it was divided up – 5 pesos for the schools, 5 pesos for healthcare, and 5 pesos for what amounted to a “local culture school” where students between 8 and 18 are taught dance, music, handicrafts and all the other things associated with the traditional culture of the people of the area, as well as the broader thing we consider “cultural” (e.g. dance was local but also hip hop, instrument options include wood flutes, but also guitars and violins). There were obvious signs of investment such as large water purification systems for the school, level playing courts (unusual) and well-maintained roads (also unusual). Despite being less than 20 minutes drive from the previous town, the church had both catholic and Mayan altars (opposite sides of the same church), and there were indications of several political parties. The contrast couldn’t have been starker.

Yesterday we took a tour to Palenque, via two waterfalls: Cataratas de Agua Azul (the blue waterfalls) and Misol-Ha. The former are a long series of falls and pools which are almost eerily blue, all rounded by mineral formations.

The tourist walkways have been quite sensitively built to leave the falls visible but essentially undisturbed, it appears. You can swim, but we did not. In fact, poor Juliet wasn’t in much shape to do much of anything. The bumpy ride in a crowded tour van made her horribly sick, and anti-nausea medication wasn’t helping at all. The second stop was at a beautiful single cascade that you could walk down to and under to a cave that was the source of a subterranean spring.

By the time we finally made it to the ruins at Palenque, she was in a very bad way. We only had day-old leftovers to eat, and it appears they may not have been as edible as hoped, as in the hours after eating she went from bad to worse.

She slept at the foot of one of the ancient temple buildings at Palenque while I looked around and took pictures (we weren’t going to get another chance to see the place) and when we got to our room for the night the vomiting didn’t stop. Add the other unpleasant symptom of suspected food poisoning and she scarcely slept, having to get up regularly to use the bathroom. Neither did I. We missed our bus out to Campeche this morning and had to arrange to get directly to Merida tomorrow, on the hope that she is somewhat recovered by then. Fingers crossed, or else we’re going to miss our flight to Cuba. We have drugs for both symptoms, and something to hopefully address the cause, so you’ll find out if we make it Cuba next time.



Edit: This was supposed to have gone up before we left for Cuba, but the whirlwind sprint from Palenque to Cancun, combined with no internet at any of our stops, meant that it didn't make it. As you can probably surmise, we *did* get there on time (though it was a close run thing for a while) and Juliet is fully recovered. The week till today will go up tomorrow, or possibly even tonight.

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