San Cristobal de Las Casas
Oaxaca sent us off with sweltering hot, humid air and about a thousand memories of a city we will surely miss. After a 10 hour overnight bus ride through mountainous terrain full of surreal half-sleep dreaming and sub zero air conditioning we stepped off the bus in San Cristobal de las Casas. Dawn was upon us now and after exiting the bus we could see our breath for the first time in Mexico. The temperature was hovering slightly above 0° in this highland valley perched in the Chiapas mountains. We fell victim to the convenience of a hostel tout at the bus station boasting of cheap rooms and a free taxi. After a brisk ride through the maze of tiny one-way streets we found our temporary home for the day was bad enough to immediately start looking for another hostel. We found a blissful place called Los Camellos (http://loscamellos.over-blog.com/) run by a Mexican and French duo who are two righteous dudes. I wound up spending a day helping them paint the entrance hallway, helping them spruce up the place a little for business.
From the first moment we set out walking these beautifully petite cobblestone streets decorated with brightly colored colonial Mexican abodes we were comfortably absorbed into the intentionally tranquil pace of life created here. Everyone walks at a very leisurely pace and there is no rush for anything ever. Messages posted on restaurant menus stress that the food is slowly prepared, which is more or less a polite way of stating that if you want fast food you are in the wrong town. The intimate size of the tightly packed street grid paired with narrow knee high sidewalks force you to walk with the locals at their pace thus becoming part of the flow of the city. A quick trot around this beautiful old town unveiled this as an expatriate haven for those looking to match this blissfully tranquil speed of life. There were numerous assortments of eclectic worldly tastes and accents from Thailand to Argentina and everything in between. We got lost and wound up hiking up the back side of the iglesia de Cerro de Guadalupe at the top of a very steep hill. San Cristobal has another church on the opposing side of town on yet another very steep hill. I witnessed people coming here for their daily church visit to which I conclude there are very devout followers in San Cristobal.
San Cristobal is brimming with an indigenous population bringing their cultural heritage, food, produce, and crafts into a mid-sized modern cityscape. The buildings outside of the main walking strip are all ancient with smooth, slippery limestone rock sidewalks full of Mayan women dressed in wool skirts toting their hand made specialties for the market. The city limits are in the heart of the most deeply rooted indigenous area in Mexico with small villages just a stone’s throw away in all directions. Temporary purveying stations are set up along the streets, on sidewalks, in front of stairs of churches, and within daily craft markets around the city. With only a blanket on the ground as their cushion they sit patiently on the ground and wait for someone to express interest in their crafts every day. The vast array of beautifully hand knit wool sweaters, hats, jewelry, religious affections, and blankets were all treasures for travelers.
The food Mercado was primarily indigenous locals offering their produce around the perimeter of the central market building. After passing through ancient wooden doors we found ourselves in a world full of bread, meat, cheese, and fish. These markets are truly a sight to see and are not for weak stomachs. The meat sections can be an eye opening experience, especially in San Cristobal’s Mercado. Most butchers have the cow’s head propped up right on the counter portraying the animal’s ultimate sacrifice while showing you exactly where your dinner came from. Traveling in these mercados has become quite a normalcy to us despite the cultural visual overload. One day I casually cautioned Elissa “be careful, you’re going to step in blood”. This warning came out so natural and nonchalant it had me stop in my tracks and follow up with “Well, I don’t get to say that too often back home”.
Indigenous gente make up about 25 percent of the population in the state of Chiapas and make their living on agriculture, coffee, and selling artisanal goods. We discovered that the local coffee industry in Chiapas is yet another one stained with the greed of outside influence resulting substandard wages and treatment of the workers growing the crop. Spaniards came into the coffee scene upon discovering the land and immediately capitalized on the communication barrier, illiteracy, confusion, and trustworthiness of the locals and in no time set up plantations focused on reaping in fortunes while paying the workers barely livable wages. The bosses often canceled contracts over small infractions, underproduction, or whenever they saw fit. But today the indigenous agricultural industry has become autonomous through the persistence of agricultural techniques and taking matters into their own hands, more or less. Almost all the coffee grown in this area is peasant farmed on small plots of land usually between 2 and 5 hectares. This coffee was utterly delicious and I can still taste the dark roast on my tongue when I think about it. San Cristobal is also home to the third largest amber mine in the world and has yielded some of the most beautiful specimens in the world. A visit to the Museo de Ambar brought light through the deep yellow-orange resin that is mined locally. It turns out the amber industry also has a tainted history in regards to mining rights and ownership. Upon discovering the massive yields these mines were capable of the scene quickly became full of exploitation, incredibly insane working conditions, and extremely little pay (sounds familiar). Old photographs show the mining techniques and the tools for workers consisting of solely of candles and hammers. Amber is sold throughout the streets of San Cristobal but fake versions of the fossilized pine pitch are very common. I’m not sure the amber industry has a happy ending to the industrial side of the story that coffee seems to have but I do know that I was tempted to pick up some of the beautiful fossils.
In our quest to get deeper into the history of the places we travel we parked ourselves in a tiny movie theater in the back of a restaurant researching a documentary about the Zapatista revolution. The movement started right here in Chiapas and was aimed to bring attention to the gap between the rich and the poor, Mexico’s participation in NAFTA, and the growing distance between the government and the actual will of the people. Donning handkerchiefs, guns, and anything that could be used as a weapon farmers amassed their numbers and took over city hall on January 1st, 1994. Raw footage of the events were highlighted as well as the progression of the political side of the movement. The Mexican army’s reaction to this movement was mainly military tactics causing bloodshed, permanent displacement of entire villages and population, a massive tide of homelessness in the depths of the Chiapas jungle terrain. This ultimately put them at risk and within the reach of paramilitary groups trying to take matters into their own hands against the Zapatista movement. We sat with our mouths open in horror as peace talks and false political promises temporarily hushed the movement only to completely ignore their cries for injustice within the walls of Mexican parliament. The movement gained so much support and public backing that the masked, pipe smoking leader Subcomandante Marcos led a country wide tour to Mexico city complete with hundreds of thousands of supporters right into parliament. This was their chance in the spotlight with the whole country listening and backing their cause but the momentum was halted and ultimately stopped due to the lack of attendance of politicians who refused to hear their requests for change. The movie ended with questions for us as to where the movement lies today and what exactly is going on to help those communities looking for education, healthcare, and general rights. What I do know is that Mexican people are persistent and have been caught in a constant battle between a political system that often fails them, forcing them to fight for themselves and to take matters into their own hands if something needs to be fixed. I respect that.
On one of our last days in San Cristobal we took a collectivo to Las Grutas to appease the geologist’s voice in my head and spent some time in a cool cave during a warm Sunday afternoon. We wandered through a lit maze of stalactites, stalagmites, and dripping limestone walls with echoing chambers of this surreal underground river system. Outside there were hundreds of families enjoying birthday parties, barbecuing, and playing on the dangerously fun tobaggon ride. There was a concrete set of four slides put together similar to the potato sack slides you would find at county fairs only they lacked any organization and safety precautions. Hundreds of kids were climbing all over the 5 meter high slides while four lanes were clogged with children sliding on flattened plastic water bottles, potato chip bags, and lids to 5 gallon plastic buckets (the fastest option by far). We found a bottle on the ground and soon began racing down with them. It was like human bowling at the bottom as kids were climbing up the slide and often not looking at who was sliding down at them. This form of entertainment would never fly in America but here parents were laughing and smiling as it seemed to be a natural way of survival of the fittest.
The morning we left San Cristobal I took a stroll through town around 7 in the morning to see the it wake up. Waking up at this time was easy due to the ceremonial 6AM fireworks that went off daily. I wanted the experience of seeing the market’s birth, people on their way to work, and empty walking streets normally packed with tourists. After returning we went to the bus station and scored the last seats on the bus. Just outside of town a small group of indigenous people donning masks had blocked the road carrying large sticks asking for donations to pass. They rapped the side of our bus as we putted along looking through the safety of our bus windows at the reality of their existence. Our worlds were miles apart and only separated by glass at the exact same time.