I’d been warned about the bus journeys between the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. "Don’t get an overnight bus," several people said. I didn’t listen and found myself waiting at 10:00 p.m. in Potchuta for the next rickety bus to San Cristobal de las Casas. I had to meet a friend in Cancun, a night bus was the only option. If only I’d left the beach earlier.
It was my first night trip. After one hour, I wondered if it would be my last. I was lucky enough to get a window seat, but unlucky enough to be squashed up against it by a Mexican guy who had a particular liking for the greasier Mexican foods. He had an endless supply of cheesy flavoured potato chips. He smelt like he hadn’t showered since last year's special potato chip promotion.
I had been told many good things about San Cristobal, a lovely village situated in the Valley of Jovel in the state of Chiapas. It would be worth the ride, I told myself. I dozed off. I was dreaming of being back on the beach with the sun beaming on my face, when I was jogged into reality by a policeman shining a torch in my face. "You, you, come, come." My Mexican friend had disappeared.
I followed the policeman off the bus. I was still half asleep and nervous. I wasn’t in the mood for a hassle. "You bag, you bag," the sturdy cop was pointing in the luggage compartment for me to pull out my bag. I was the only person who had been taken off the bus, the only gringo singled out. I took out my bag, proceeded to open it up following the orders of Senor Sturdy. He searched my bag as a dog sniffed me and my possessions.
When I was given the all clear, Senor Sturdy turned into Senor Sorry, apologised and let me back on the bus. My window seat had been nicked by my so-called Mexican friend. I settled for an aisle seat, thanked my lucky stars that it was a policeman who pulled us over and not the bandits I’d been warned about.
I tried to settle my nerves, next time I’d take the day bus. I had only managed a broken three-hour sleep when we came through the valley. I caught my first glimpse of colonial San Cristobal, my tiredness forgotten. I was struck by the colours of the traditional clothes. I had seen people of Oaxaca, but these were real.
I walked up to find a hostel I had been told about near the main square. There was an array of different coloured buildings. I had a quick peak at the Zocalo, square, it was vibrant. I checked into my desired destination – a huge hostel, with a massive television in the welcoming lounge, very clean, only 50 pesos a night. I was sharing a room with three people who were out. I checked in my laundry and headed out to explore.
San Cristobal is well known for its markets and traditional clothing. I had been in the same pair of trousers for six weeks and needed new ones. I stumbled across a doorway leading to a deep forest of traditional clothes. There was an abundance of stalls to choose from. I was smiled at and greeted by every seller, no hassle. I didn’t feel pressured, not like in Mexico City. I picked out a black poncho which the sales clerk eagerly took down for me to try on.
"What do you think?" I asked her.
"Si Si," she seemed pleased with my choice.
"Is it my colour?"
"Si, Si muy bonito."
I wasn’t sure if she understood, but her smile told me what she thought, or at least how happy she would be if I bought it. She helped me pick out some trousers. It was time to bargain.
"Very good price, two hundred pesos."
"Oh." My smile dropped. I was sure I could get a better price.
"Very good price, two hundred."
"I’m sorry, that’s too much." I rubbed my fingers together and shrugged my shoulders.
"How much?" she asked.
"Sorry. No, it’s ok."
I took off the clothes and she started to panic.
"Ok Ok, 170, last price."
I shrugged my shoulders and walked away. "No, gracias, sorry."
"How much? How much?"
She looked at me in disbelief. It was a little low, but I was told you had to bargain. I continued to walk away and thanked her again. I was about another stall away when she came running after me.
"Ok Ok, 70, 70 last price."
I agreed. What a bargain. I was sure she had made a decent profit, both of us were happy. That was enough shopping for me, time to see the city.
Plaza 31 de Marzo was my first stop. It was early afternoon and buzzing. Local kids who should have been at school were playing on the street. There were several women in traditional clothes scurrying about carrying huge bags of clothes or food to set up in their stalls. Over on the north side of the Plaza, was the huge orange and yellow Santo Domingo Cathedral, once a convent. The locals have made the most of the attraction, setting up various stalls, selling handicrafts and embroideries to catch the eyes of tourist bargain hunters. It certainly worked for me.
"You like tese man?" It was a Mexican Rastafarian.
"Yeah, they’re cool."
He had an impressive array of necklaces and bracelets, not like the usual stuff I’d seen.
"This one made of the skin of the shark."
He picked out a thick dark bracelet and pulled it to show how tough it was. I was a bit dubious.
"Yeah, I caught the shark and made tese, look here the teeth."
I hadn’t noticed the necklaces he had with teeth hanging from them. I wasn’t sure about his story, but it was interesting, so I bought one. I made my way up a steep pathway leading to a fantastic viewpoint of the city. It took a while to get to the top. We were already 2,000 metres above sea level, air was sparse, not to mention the strain of the journey. The effort was worth it, though.
I sat on the wall of the Templo de San Cristobal at the top and looked over the city. I could now see the valley San Cristobal was hidden in. The mountains were clearly protecting the vibrant little city which now looked more like a town. I asked a local woman to take a photo of me overlooking the impressive site. She looked shy at first but then her face beamed as she got the best position possible. Time was pushing on, so I made my way down to the Museo Del Ambar (Amber Museum) which was supposed to have a good collection. It was closed.
I went on to the Na Bolom museum which had a more diverse opening hour. I was greeted by a chirpy chap as though I was the first customer that week."‘Welcome, Welcome, how good to see you today, Sir." His smile was beaming, surprised I was there. He showed me round a little, explained some of the artefacts. It was one of the most colourful museums I’d seen so far on my travels. I liked the artefacts showing the life of the Indians. It wasn’t only a museum, but a cultural centre, restaurant and hotel.
After the tour I went back to the hostel and was greeted by a couple of local lads, Carlos and Juan. They were in great spirits, asked if I wanted tequila. I hadn’t eaten and tried to explain I needed some food, but they insisted. They were funny, laughing and joking. Their English was good.
"So what do you think of San Cristobal de las Guasas?"
"What? De las what?"
"Guasas. This is what we call our city. A guasa is a joke, San Cristobal of the jokes, in English"
They both burst out laughing. They were proud of their new name for the city. We ventured round into the kitchen where a group of people were playing a guitar and singing. After speaking to random people about random things, as you do when you're on your own, Carlos and Juan announced we were off to a salsa bar. Only the three of us went. There was a long queue, but we got in free because Carlos and Juan were friends with the owner. We were all tipsy, sat watching the dancers.
Carlos and Juan were like celebrities, I was introduced to lots of people I wouldn't remember if I saw them again. We danced with a group of local girls, keen to meet the new member of the "Guasas Crew". I was obliged to take some lessons. The night ended about 4:00 a.m. with the guys walking me to the hostel. I was feeling the strain of lack of sleep and the tequila. I woke up as the door shut. My head was pounding, but I was laughing inside.
I only had an hour to spare before my bus. As I left the hostel in search of food, I heard two familiar laughs. "Hey Barry, how is your head today? I thought English were good drinkers?" Carlos was grinning. We said our goodbyes, I thanked them for showing me around. "No problem man, you are welcome anytime in San Cristobal de las Guasas." They walked away chuckling to themselves even though they both faced a 12-hour work shift. Pulling out the station, I regretted spending only a day. There was a lot more to see, but I had had a great time with some locals.