February 25, 2009

From Cancún to San Cristóbal de las Casas
(photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/29261658@N03/ )

It can be difficult to come home after a good trip, but this time I found it particularly hard. To finalize portions of a book I have coming out this fall (The Honey Locust, Cormorant Books), I travelled to Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. It’s such a far-out place, I almost feel I’m not part of this world any more.

Chiapas is not highly travelled by tourists and almost everything is inexpensive. Part of the reason is that this is where the Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN) staged its anti-globalization protests in 1994. As a result, much of the state is now under armed rule, a heavy-handed monitoring (and occasional torturing and murder) of the goings-on of the Indigenous people, who lead impoverished lives, being both poorly educated and malnourished. Perhaps not surprisingly, the US financially supports the Mexican government’s suppression of these people to help maintain NAFTA’s stability. I’m not aware if Canada does the same directly, but we are still NAFTA-ites.

To get to Chiapas, we travelled by car from Cancún, west through Mérida and down past Campeche, a coastal city with two walled fortresses. From there we continued to our final destination of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a beautiful city of light and colour ringed by mountains and reminiscent of Florence with few traces of tacky Tijuana-style Mexico. It’s cool there—the average nighttime temperature was about 15 degrees. Seeing people in ski jackets and toques, even in the daytime, was not unusual.

Our total driving time was 17 hours each way, so we got to see a lot of the country, including some spectacular mountain vistas. Needless to say, the drive is not for the timid unseasoned tourist (most of it is unlighted and often unmarked) or for those with plain old bad karma.

Chiapas is home to Palenque, one of the granddaddies of Mayan ruins, set in the jungle at the foot of the Chiapas highlands. You can explore the ruins in relative peace—they’re not over-crowded and the tourists who go tend to be respectful. Another set of nearby ruins is the often-overlooked Toniná, once a political rival to Palenque, situated just outside of Ocosingo. Though less complex, I found these ruins more impressive than Palenque because of the majestic views of the valley and surrounding mountains from the top of the pyramid (which you can no longer climb at highly visited sites like Chichén-Itzá.) While there, Shane and I were invited to participate in a spirit-raising ceremony sung/chanted in a Mayan tongue and addressed to the four directions: west for thoughts, east for emotions, north for characteristics and south for personality.

For me, the most memorable part of our journey came with a horseback ride to a small native settlement, San Juan Chamula, situated in the hills just outside San Cristóbal, which gave us our biggest insight into the life of the modern-day Maya. A very poor town, the superb and highly colourful crafts seemed to be the biggest source of income. Though the townsfolk were welcoming, we were warned by our guides not to take pictures of the natives, who believe photographs steal their souls, as well as of the church interior. To disregard these laws (they are actual state laws) can result in a fine or jail sentence. It was difficult, but I managed to restrain myself from snapping a few photos in secret.

The interior of the church at San Juan Chamula is like no church I’ve ever seen. Though it has the requisite portraits of saints, it’s very different from a traditional church. The pre-Christian Maya worshiped a tree they called the World Tree, which they dressed in human clothing on festival days. When the Spanish imposed Christianity on them, the Maya combined the World Tree with the cross, to maintain their own religion while satisfying the demands of the conquistadors. To this day, the crosses in and around San Juan Chamula are all strapped to pine trees.

When you enter, the first thing you notice is that the floor of the church is covered in pine needles and hundreds of burning candles. The air is filled with smoke and lit by the glow from the candles, which you must step around as you walk. There are no pews. People sit on the floor or huddle in prayer over the candles. If you look closely you might see a shaman cracking an egg over someone with an affliction (in order to draw off evil), or, for more serious causes, decapitating a chicken, which is kept in a cloth bag to keep it quiet until it’s needed for the sacrifice. You will also see people “purifying” bottles of Pepsi or spring water by revolving them over the candle flames—their version of holy water.

At another small mountain town, Zinacantán, is a series of hills (bumps, really, in the larger scheme of things in that area.) This is where the Maya believe the world started, and which they call the “navel of the world.” It’s now an artistic community as well as a home for numerous greenhouses that supply flowers to florists to the north.

I had brought glittery pencils to give out in some of the small villages on the way (the children will barricade the roads until you give them something or risk running them down.) The mothers in particular were grateful, and often asked for more for children at home, though far more than pencils are needed to help these people.

Despite their impoverished lives and primitive living conditions, the people are always impeccably dressed and well groomed. You can tell the differing tribes by their clothing. (You can even tell things like marital status—an unmarried Zinacantecan man, for instance, will leave the ribbons of his hat untied.) Though we occasionally felt resentment in some of the poorer areas, we never felt unsafe, except when we were stopped and questioned at the military checkpoints (which only happened if we travelled after dark, which we quickly learned not to do.)

Driving back to Cancún, we spent a few days on the Mayan Riviera, which was so over-crowded with tourists it seemed to have little to do with the real Mexico. We made a day trip to a cenote (a cavern filled with fresh water, part of a vast system of underground limestone caverns stretching throughout the Yucatán Peninsula.) Judging by the artefacts left behind, this one was determined to have been a place of (non-human) sacrifice serving various purposes, such as supplicating the gods for fertility or rain. We were even able to kayak in one of the underground caves before heading back home.


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