Thursday, April 24, 2008

Chiapas Trip Part 2 - Around San Cristobal/ Chiapas Travel

As I mentioned in my last post, San Cristobal makes a great base from which to take day trips around the countryside. After our first day of wandering in the city, that's what we did. This involved going in vans with other travelers to see waterfalls, take boat trips, and visit Mayan villages. It's really the only way to feasibly see these areas without a car of your own (and there's still some sketchiness to driving in Chiapas; you hear of unofficial document-check sites that spring up on lonely roads, but are really bandits or Zapatistas or something. Anyway, we didn't try it.)

Our first day trip was to Sumidero Canyon, a dramatic stretch of the Rio Grijalva that goes through a narrow gorge. We took a fast lancha over the green water -- fast -- slowing down to gawk at sunning crocodiles and troupes of spider monkeys making their way through the treetops. It was gorgeously sunny and egrets were everywhere, sailing in twos just above the surface of the river, and the sky was just filled with circling black vultures. At one point, in a narrow part of the canyon, you looked up and up and the rock seemed to stretch so far up on both sides (the boat pilot said its highest point was one mile, but we didn't know whether to believe him) and the shapes of the circling birds seemed to recede into forever, until they were only specks so high overhead.
Funny thing about the crocodiles. In days after, when we'd meet others who'd done the same trip on different days, they all seemed to have seen the exact same number of crocs (2) under the exact same circumstances, giving rise to rumors that the guides have two trained crocodiles waiting at specified bends in the river. Ha!

The next day we took a much longer trip that was ostensibly about going to the Lagos de Montebello, down at the Guatemalan border. Well, we did end up making it to the lakes by evening, to find them relatively unspectacular, but along the way we had seen much more interesting sites: the waterfall of El Chiflon, the Tzeltal (Mayan) village of Amantenagro del Valle (known for its pottery), and some caves filled with very strange rock formations.

A potter named Maria:
The bird planters you see everywhere in Chiapas, made in Amantenango:
Interestingly, this day we ended up on a tour van not with foreign travelers, but with Mexican tourists. There were two brothers and a sister from Monterrey, in their 60s or 70s, and a mother and daughter from Mexico City, among others, and we had such a great time with them! We were the only non-Spanish speakers, and they helped translate for us. I should note here, we met NO other travelers from the US. For some reason, Americans don't go to Chiapas. There were Europeans and Israelis, primarily. Huh.If you're going to Chiapas, you can safely give the Lagos de Montebello a miss, unless you're planning on kayaking or something, but the pottery at Amantenango and the waterfall at El Chiflon more than made the day worth it. My only regret is that we only waded at El Chiflon, and didn't swim -- it would have been PERFECT swimming, sea-green water, perfect temperature, stretches of smooth rock in lazy bends of green water, with little chutes and eddies. . . But we only had an hour so we just waded, thinking we'd get our waterfall swimming fix at Agua Azul later on. Well, that was not going to be, alas, but we didn't know it yet!! (That story is for later.)
P.S. Those are only the "tiptoes" of the waterfall -- up above that there's the really high, dramatic part of the cascade, then it goes over a series of smaller drops, each with their own little plunge pools, one of which was just the perfect shady spot for wading.

Our third and final day trip was the most interesting, and took us to two Mayan villages near San Cristobal. San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan are both Tzotzil villages, but they couldn't be more different. Chamula. . . this was the strangest day of our entire trip. Really strange! First, there was a mild pall of fear cast over all us tourists because of the Chamulans' reputation for not tolerating photography -- you see, they believe they have 13 souls (12 human and one animal) and that when you take their picture, you steal one of their souls. Really! These girls let me take their picture (for 30 pesos), but I noticed that none of them looked at the camera. I wonder if that is their compromise, and they believe it protects their souls.
It's a fascinating experience, going to this village where they clearly have entered the modern era to some degree (there are satellite dishes and pretty nice cars, not to mention more Coca Cola than you've ever seen in your life), but they really truly stick to their old customs! They wear their traditional costumes, intricately embroidered blouses and furry black wool skirts for the women, and wool tunics and ribboned hats for the men, and they practice a very colorful blend of Catholicism and their old, mystic religion in the village church.
And here's the thing that had us all reeling: Coca Cola is part of their religion. Really! I want to know so much more, but here's the gist: there are no priests (ostensibly "Catholic," they actually worship John the Baptist above Christ), but five levels of shamans. For ills both physical and spiritual, you go to the church to consult a shaman. Once you tell him your problem he sends you off for supplies for your ritual. These involve white taper candles, eggs, Coca Cola (X number of bottles, depending on the severity of the problem), bottles of "posh" (sugar cane liquor, also used as medicine, even for babies and young children), and, in many case, a chicken or several to sacrifice in the church. We'd intentionally waited until Sunday/market day to go to Chamula, because that is when all of this is in full swing. The village zocalo and the church were crammed full, and walking into that church was like walking into another world. (Photography is absolutely forbidden, so sorry, no photos!)

There are Catholic saints in glass cases, but there any feel of Catholicism ends. The floor is strewn with fresh pine needles (the fragrance!) and covered with lit candles. It's dangerous to walk in there! Really. Every few paces is a shaman and client at work, and they'll have softened the ends of some fifty candles and stuck them right to the floor, and they pray as the candles burn down. Next to each client was their stock of Coca Cola, posh, eggs, and chickens in bags awaiting their fates. We avoided watching any actual neck-wrenching, personally.

The kicker is that the village leaders make big $$$ as the Coca Cola suppliers, and there it begins to make a kind of terrible capitolist sense. Shamans, apparently, will be shunned for refusing to use Coke in their rituals. It's a shunning society -- and worse. There's a charming little story in the town history I bought in the square that tells how in 1914 a Municipal President tried to change certain customs. Well, he was overthrown, and before they executed him, the townspeople made him dig his own grave. Oy. So, you can imagine that socially the Chamulans are really steeped in the old ways. The average age of marriage for the girls is a ripe old 13, and marriages are all arranged by the parents, with the girl having no right to refuse a suitor. Apparently the boys "shop" for wives on market Sundays! Our guide Fernando asked what traits we supposed the boys were looking for, and a smart-aleck Israeli named Charon quipped, "Brains?"

Ha. Not so! Fernando's answer was that of course they are looking for strong workers; specifically, they look at the one exposed body part -- the calves -- to see if a girl is strong or not!

Buying more weavings in the square:
Ooh, and I bought some embroidery yarn that they use in the weavings. Not all this! Just a selection. Don't know what I'm going to do with it, but some day I'll think of something:
Really, San Juan Chamula is another world, another time! But in Zinacantan, not 7 km away, though they are also Tzotzil people, things are really different. Because they have more communal wealth due to a greenhouse program that exports flowers all over Mexico, they have more education, and hence. . . change. Couples marry for love -- actually, they "escape" together and come back when the girl is pregnant, and are married in church by a priest!!

In Zinacantan we watched weavers at work, and we -- of course -- shopped, and we also got to see the inside of a traditional house and watch the women making tortillas over a wood fire. And then we got to eat fresh tortillas!
Note how all the Zinacantan women are wearing the same color scheme of purple and blue. Their clothing is so gorgeous!

Women weaving on a backstrap loom:

In the courtyard:

There's much more interesting stuff to tell, but this post is getting a little long, so I'll leave it at that.

Tomorrow we're off to the SCBWI conference in Seattle, where we will get to have lunch with Arthur Levine and talk about Goblin Fruit (yay!!), and have a "West Coast Kids Lit Drink Night" organized by the inimitable Betsy Bird. Can't wait! More after the weekend. Cheers!


Amber Lough said...

Your pictures are beautiful, and you can tell you've got some talent in travel writing. Thanks for sharing it all--I could see it in my mind, which now makes me want to go there someday.

I am a little jealous about the SCBWI conference. :-) Be sure to tell us all about that, too! And say hi to Mr. Levine for me.

Granny Smith said...

I feel almost as though I should be paying for the privilege of sharing your trip through your graphic words. You have energized my never-quite-dormant travel lust.

Your photos are beautiful. Thank you for sharing

GreenishLady said...

What a fascinating and beautiful place. You really got "under the skin" of the place, winkling out so much information! I loved these posts. Thank you for bringing me along on the trip!

Annie Jeffries said...

Laini, just went through your fabulous Mexico posts. The colors just EXPLODE off the screen. What a world they live in.

Alex S said...

Another super post! And the photos are just incredible. I am sooooo deeply, profoundly inspired Fatty by CocaCola being part of the religion that I am now considering founding a religion myself based entirely on pop-tarts, Trader Joes Super Nutty Toffee Cereal, and cupcakes.

Claudia said...

Look at all those colours!!! Gorgeous!

lkmadigan said...

Ohh, the colors!

Have fun at the conference.


Amber Lough said...

I forgot to say...good luck with your first writing workshop! You'll be fabulous. :-)

Tinker said...

Wow! Semi-tame crocodiles, wonderful waterfalls, so many colors and culture-shock - what a trip! The religious rites involving coca cola, remind me of the orange Nehi the tribe used in Joe Vs the Volcano - I wonder if that's where the writer got the idea?
Can't wait to hear about the rest of the trip. Good luck with your workshop!

Alex S said...

I want to officially announce right here what a meanie Laini is. She signed out of her blogger account before she headed to Seattle so that I could not hijack her blog and write a post on here for all of you to enjoy (or not). AND JENNIFER FOX, if you are here, I need your phone number!!!!

Sustenance Scout said...

Just stopping in to say write on, Laini! You are a travel writer and photographer at heart, aren't you? Wonderful stories and photos. Love it all. Thanks for sharing! Karen in not nearly as colorful Denver

andalucy said...

This is exactly the kind of thing I love to read about a place. As greenish lady said, you get under the skin. I'm still glad you write novels instead of travel books though, because I LOVED Blackbringer and look forward to your future novels.

tone almhjell said...

Coca cola! Strong calves! I can't believe it! The best thing is that I know you'll soak it all up, all the colours and strangeness and wonderful moments, and transform it into stories, not travel stories, but *your* stories. If Portland, Oregon sent you off on a dragonfly caravan - where will this take you? Can't wait to find out.

Oh, and I know you'll be, or rather were, great at the writing class. Don't think I've met anyone with such sensible and inspiring things to say about writing and creating in many years.

Heather said...

Must. Have. Embroidery. Yarn. So beautiful! Wonder if I can buy it anywhere else in North America, or will I have to make a trip to Mexcio? Sigh. So be it.

Stephanie Perkins said...

I would travel there just for the color. Wowie wow wow! Thank you for sharing your GORGEOUS photos with us.

Anonymous said...

I had such fun reading this as I traveled there in 2003. It still sounds exactly the same. The church with all the candles, chicken and coke. The people who are afraid to have their picture taken...unless you give money. And the gorgeous weaving they do! Thanks for making me relive my own trip!

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