Greetings from Chiapas! Yes, Chiapas…home of the infamous 1994 Zapatista uprising. Sounds scarier than it is, though: Today, Chiapas (or at least San Cristobal de las Casas, the cultural capital of Chiapas) is more of a gringo-filled tourist pit stop than any place yet that we have been in Mexico. This town is seething with Brits, Aussies, Frenchies, Danes, Americans, Canadians, even Israelis. All are in town ostensibly to take in the colonial architecture, the surrounding indigenous villages, the Mayan textiles, and the cool mountain air. But I think that the Zapatistas are the real draw. They’re everywhere! On t-shirts, on windows, on little woven horse tchatchkes. Even in bars…
Take last night. After 10 days in Mexico, Ross and I decided it was finally time to give up sleep and give in to tequila; we went out in search of a good local pub. What we found was Cafe Bar Zapatista, complete with images of banditosand a security pat down at the outside door. The inside, however, was a wholly different story. Chic Mexicans drinking two-for-one Dos Equis, a laser and dry ice light show, techno salsa and the latest J. Lo video, and plenty of Chiapans getting down in their tight jeans to a thumping DJ. After a few hours and a few beers, you could almost think you were in some Ibiza club. And then it hit Ross: He stared dumbfoundedly at the writhing techno party in front of us as the DJ announced, “¡Bienvenidos a Cafe Bar Zapata!” Ross’s eyes popped open and he declared, “We’re in Chiapas! This is in Chiapas!” Not quite the dangerous revolutionary state we’d been warned about.
Indeed, Chiapas—and really the whole of Mexico—has been nothing like we expected. In San Cristobal, there is a highly visible middle class that frequents hip clubs, fancy spas (ahhh, the hot stone massages I’ve been dreaming about), and drinks organic coffee. Even the indigenous villages, which are supposedly the hotbeds of the fomenting and anti-foreigner Zapatista revolution, have been quite welcoming. Well, I should say tolerating. Today, we visited two traditional Mayan villages in the San Cristobal highlands. The locals (who mostly speak Tzotzil, a descendent of ancient Mayan) have worked out deals with the city tour guides so the gringos can get a taste of Mayan culture. We wandered around the village, watching family farming and house-building, even witnessing a chicken sacrifice and other pre-Hispanic rituals in the town’s church (where really only the facade is Catholic, and even that is a stretch…it’s covered in bright blue Mayan crosses, which represent a sacred tree and pre-date the Christian cross in Mexico). We were then invited into the home and kitchen of a women’s weaving cooperative, where we watched the meditative hand-weaving of shawls and ate the most delicious, freshly made blue-corn tortillas I’ve ever had. We even got to taste posh, an addictively delicious (and 40% alcohol!) home-made liquor of sugar cane and cinnamon.
It seems that the most of the Zapatistas we may see here in Chiapas are the ubiquitous t-shirts with a masked bandito on them. That, and the little stuffed Zapatista couple riding horeseback that Ross bought. Brilliant propaganda, if you think about it: as long as the Zapatistas remain “hip,” they may continue to drum up both tourist dollars and foreign sympathies. Let’s just hope that this is really all we see of them, as I am sure that the political reality is far more serious than San Cristobal would have the tourists believe.
The good thing about traveling in tourist-frequented locales is that you meet plenty of characters. There is Harry, the Irishman working on Oaxaca’s first bio-diesel plant who we met doing shots in a Mezcal shop; Maritska, the nomadic Dutch woman who was deported from Australia and is now moving to rural Mexico; Jeff, the mysterious fiftysomething at our Oaxaca hostel who took a bus all the way from the States and has been playing guitar on the roofdeck for well over a month, with no plans to leave anytime soon; the Fischers, a friendly doctor couple from DC who spend their vacations working with Operation Smile and who shared an animated taxi ride with us back from the rug-weaving village; even an anonymous basketball-playing linguist who’s been living in Chiapas for 39 years.
But the most memorable meetings were with a few local Oaxaquenos (Oaxaca was our stop prior to Chiapas), who were gracious enough to share their lives and customs with us. Rolfino was our wizened Zapotec guide through a 14km hike in the alpine jungles of Oaxaca (think pines, bromeliads, and agaves, all sharing a 11,000ft hillside). Rolfino, as translated by our feisty Swiss guide, showed us natural cures for prostate cancer, stomach aches, sore throats, even unwanted babies; he then made us a tea out of freshly picked wild mint while mocking our distaste for papaya. Between Rolfino’s explanations of agricultural practices, our Swiss guide (who has made Oaxaca his home for the past six years) interjected with his own explanations, although these were explanations of the “campaigning” practices of the PRI, Mexico’s corrupt ruling party. For eleven months of the year, there is no political presence. Then, during the election month, all of sudden the villages get new houses, good water, and new bikes for their kids. Rolfino just shook his head knowingly as Swissy lambasted the political malfeasance of Mexico’s leaders—and the resignation of its citizens.
But our most memorable afternoon yet was spent in a rug market in a tiny town in the Central Valley of Oaxaca. After being barraged by the waiting salespeople (“Almost free! I give you a price you like. My friend, the time is now for my rugs!”), we were enticed into a shady and quiet tent by a young Zapotec woman, who ordered us to forget the rugs, to sit and relax and chat with her. For over thirty minutes, she patiently explained the intricacies of hand-weaving and vegetable dyes. She told us about her grandfather, a master weaver, and her culture’s reverence for the elders. She told us about how her and her brother were studying history and marketing at the local university, in order to better learn how to keep their village’s customs alive through tourism and the education of young Zapotecs. She told us about the organic cooperative she works with, who are trying to create a sustainable garden for the source of their natural dyes. She applauded us for our long stay in Mexico, introduced us to some American teachers staying at her home, and told us about her boyfriend. Perhaps it was an elaborate sales ploy (we did, in fact, buy one of her rugs), but she graciously gave us respite from attacking vendors with engaging and patient conversation, and she just smiled when we left the first time without buying. Most remarkably, she spoke in perfect and simple Spanish, slow enough so I could translate for Ross. Turns out she also speaks perfect English, but as long as I was willing to converse in Spanish, she would happily stick with that. I think we met the future mayor of Teotitlan del Valle. Lord knows they need a wise leader…
I’ve rambled enough. A few more days in Mexico’s monsooning mountains (enjoying hot rock massages, of course), and then we’re off to the lowland jungles to sweat out a few temple visits.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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