Mexico

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Way back we spent a lovely week exploring San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico.  Home to both local craftsman as well as foreign artists San Cristobal is a shopper’s dream.  Tom and I definitely did our share of perusing the markets but our best find comes from Bela who showed us the most amazing shawl in modern colours.

Often the Mayan fabric, thought intricate and impressive, has pretty brash colours, at least to my eye, so when I saw a hand-woven scarf with rich purples mixed with bright lime greens and tiny details of teal I was interested to find out who made them.  Leave it to the French to track down a women’s co-operative of weavers, suggest a few modern colour combinations and, as they say, Voila!  Amazing fabrics in great colours.  Bela explained where the co-op was (well sort of) and we decided to track it down before we left.

On a whim, after returning from a visit to San Juan Chamula, I pulled Tom off the bus in the middle of nowhere convinced that the co-op was close at hand.  The soccer field and a white building where the two main landmarks Bela mentioned and after a bit of aimless wandering a group of construction workers pointed us in the right direction.

We arrived to a few small buildings, a play park and a couple of cars.  We poked around and were greeted by friendly gal who took us straight to the stock room.  Shelves from floor to ceiling were jam-packed with thousands of scarves, table linens, bags, tea-towels and shawls. It was pretty overwhelming and even more overwhelming to think every item was woven by hand, thread by thread.  We treated ourselves to a few things.

Scarf
Modern Colours

Jolom Mayaetik, meaning “Mayan Women Weavers”, is a co-operative made up of 250 women from 11 different communities within the Chiapas Highlands.  A group of three women from each community form a General Assembly. The General assembly represents the co-op with different organizations in both Mexico and other parts of the world.  The women in Jolom Mayaetik are trained on the back-strap loom as well as the pedal loom and, for some, the sewing machine.  Many of the women receive training in book-keeping, administration and design.

Backstrap Loom
The products at this collective are by far some of the nicest weavings I have seen thus far.  Expect to pay fair prices, quite a bit more than in the markets.  You can check them out here (though the link seems to be down at the moment) or if you are in San Cristobal take a bus to La Quinta San Martin, get off at San Martin, walk to the right until you come to a big white house.

San Cristobal to Palenque

There’s a bit of talk around the drive from San Cristobal to Palenque being a little sketchy and we had heard reports of ‘compulsory contributions’ but we are both into some of the Zapatista theories anyway so decided to carry ten bucks each—so we could donate if we were stopped. The drive was uneventful apart from the 127 topes to Ocosingo in the first hour and a half and he awesome colour of the water in Agua Azul. If you plan to drive highway 199 leave early, give yourself at least five hours and take it easy.

We stayed in the cheapest place we could find in El Panchan, good food, real hippies and about fifteen minutes walk to the ruins of Palenque. The ruins are pretty cool and very well maintained with easy walking trails and an impressive site museum. Drove from Palenque to Chetumal the next day to sleep over before our border cross into Belize.

I have been waiting to see Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) since I was a kid. For some reason I find this celebration absolutely fascinating, perhaps it is because the Mexicans seem to have a really great relationship with death or maybe because I love Halloween and three days of it seems too good to be true.

We were told that the place to be on Nov.1 in the San Cristobal area is a small town about 30 min outside called San Juan Chamula. The people here are a very independent group of Mayan descendents called the Tzotzil. They speak a Mayan dialect (yep, called Tzotzil) and follow a very unique religion, which mixes some Christianity with traditional Mayan beliefs.

We arrived with a tour group, led by a Zapatista supporter, to find the graveyard brimming with people. Kids were playing among the graves, grandmothers wailing sorrows and all the men were well on their way to becoming extremely drunk.

The graves are covered in pine needles with marigolds laid out to create a cross on the graves (there are crosses in the Mayan faith so these are not necessarily Christian crosses). The smell of the flowers and pine surrounded us as we watched the festivities taking place. According to our guide the pine is very important to the Tzotzil and it constantly covers their church floor. This gets changed three times a week and I can’t help but wonder if it is a trap for curious foreigners as I saw a few of us just about wipeout in the church.

In the church we were able to see the odd mixture of Mayan belief and Christianity. The last Catholic priest was ousted from the community in 1969 although they do allow a priest to return once a month to baptize the children. The church is filled with all the saints and of course the Virgin Mary, Jesus and Joseph though for Day of the Dead these three were covered with cloths so that bad spirits who return are not able to see them. There was a funeral table set up in the middle of the church and many of the men and women were busy participating in what they called a “ritual”.

No photos are allowed in the church, of church leaders or of any ritual so all we can do is explain what we saw. We did return to the church a few days later to see the usual events which include tonnes of candles in varying colours which represent different things, chickens (an offering which I believe starts off alive…) and soda pop, the more affordable option versus posh (kind of like moonshine). It is pretty wild to see Coca-Cola and Fanta bottles in front of the Virgin Mary.

After our church visit we were able to visit a religious leader’s house for a “donation”. Though it is very expensive to be a leader, as they have to provide everything for all the rituals that occur the whole year. This includes incense, all offerings, candles and fireworks! A woman was unwrapping hundreds of scarves from a saint while a small band played music. Every 5 minutes of so one of the men would yell our “fireworks!” in Tzotzil and then someone outside would send a firework off…in their hand. I was surprised that there were not any injuries from holding fireworks and letting them go. We were offered some posh and some goof tried to refuse it, which is not very polite especially when we were invited in. I figured since it was about 99% alcohol there was a pretty slim chance of getting sick…I did avoid drinking the bugs that were floating in it though.

The following day Nov.2, All Soul’s Day (Day of the Dead is actually more like 4 days) we headed off to the Panteon (grave yard) in San Cristobal de las Casas. It was packed with people visiting the colourful graves of loved ones, mariachis for hire (to sing to the dearly departed), vendors selling tasty treats and indigenous women selling pine needles and marigolds.

The graves are more like condos for the deceased. They are covered structures, with doors, windows and altars housed within. I think everyone from the town was there. We did not stay too long as we hate being those tourists who sit and stare while people are just doing what they normally do but it was a very cool thing to get to witness.

San Cristobal de las Casas is an absolutely charming town set in the highlands of Chiapas. It was a surprise to come into this colonial town after spending the previous two weeks on the beach and we were caught scrambling for warmer clothes as we pulled in.

The Spanish founded the settlement in 1528 but the area was a refuge for Mayan communities years before the Europeans even set foot in the area. Located right in the middle of deeply indigenous areas, San Cristobal is a place where modern life and Mayan rituals come face-to-face making it a must-see when traveling in Mexico.

And, of course, who isn’t the tiny bit interested in the Zapatistas. So far things have remained calm since the 1994 EZLN uprising took place but you can sure see their influence in the community and, perhaps, this is why there seems to be a relatively happy feeling amongst the community (or maybe not…depends whom you talk to). And, if you are interested, you can visit them…safely. A guide we met told us they were happy to receive tourists to promote better understanding of what the EZLN stands for since, as they say, the media portrays them unfairly. I was curious but we did not have enough time to visit, perhaps next time.

We found our parking lot and happily unloaded our things into the cutest little rental apartment ever. Not much to rave about on the outside but once inside we were happy to discover a fairy-tale like cottage complete with a small courtyard, big wooden furniture and a real fireplace!

The apartment we stayed in is one of three on the property and if you are looking for a place to stay in San Cristobal we would highly recommend it. Located about 3 blocks from the centre of town it has everything you could need including Internet. And if you have any questions just ask Bela, who owns the bed and breakfast next door, she has lived in the area for 15 years and is a very interesting lady.

We spent our time here mostly wandering around on foot and snapping photos. Well, that is not completely true we did quite a bit of shopping as the markets are full of indigenous crafts – we stocked up on adorable hand-made toys, shawls, scarves, leather products and a few other tidbits…now we just have to figure out where to put them all in the car!

We checked out two interesting museums, the Maya Medicine museum which explained the used of herbs, candles and health practitioners used by the indigenous community. Did you know if you are born with 6 fingers you are marked by god to be a healer?

Na-Bolom, the other museum, is the former home of Swiss anthropologist Trudy Blom and her husband, Danish archeologist Frans Blom. They explored the ancient ruins in the area and studied the Lancadon people of the Chiapas area. Today it is a support and research centre dedicated to protecting the indigenous cultures as well as the local environment. It has a great collection of photos, artifacts and a massive library. I was please to see that Trudy was a gal after my own heart as she had a very extensive collection of jewellery! You can rent rooms, volunteer and hold conferences at Na-Bolom.

A highlight of the week in San Cristobal was coming across a mariachi serenade while we walked home one evening. Traditionally in Mexico the young man calls in mariachis when he is proposing to his girlfriend. So cute! And the really drunk friends are pretty amusing as well.


Mariachi Serenade in San Cristobal from Kels M on Vimeo.

After saying good-bye to our lovely hosts in Puerto Escondido, waiting for an HOUR at Banorte to change some money and chugging down one last guayaba licuado (guava shake) Tom and I were on our way to San Cristobal de las Casas.

After a seriously windy drive in the Istmo de Tehuantepec, the wind speed was 50knot/hour or something mad like that, we managed to keep the surfboards on the roof and little Marlin on the road. We passed acres of wind farms on the drive but oddly enough not many of them were spinning. I found this rather odd that none of them seemed to be moving in the strong gales that were threatening to blow us into the ditch.


Apparently these strong air currents are naturally created between the Caribbean coast and the Pacific coast. We think it has something to do with the hot air moving across to the cooler Pacific in attempts to balance out the temperature difference. The wind power that can be generated here is so strong that the Japanese want to build their own wind farms here so they can power a high-speed train between the two coasts.

We arrived in Arriaga, our rest stop, just as the sun was setting, and found a small hotel with hot water, A/C and internet…all for $20! We thought we had totally lucked out, this all changed when we went to bed and were kept awake all night by howling winds that seemed to shake the roof every 45 minutes or so. I think that I might have cracked a tooth that night clenching my jaw so hard while I was trying to catch some zzzs.

According to the guy at the front desk hurricane-type weather is typical of the region. Good times.

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