Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I found a certain fellow grad student positively insufferable. I can’t remember his name, but he played classical guitar and talked incessantly about the time he had spent in Chiapas. He had lived there for a few months, perhaps longer, and it was clearly the best, perhaps the only interesting, time of his life. We would be in a graduate seminar on Emily Dickinson’s poetry and he would draw himself up tall and say “This poem reminds me of one time in Chiapas….” In another class, perhaps literary theory or Chaucer, I’d have to stifle my groan and keep my eyes from rolling as he would again respond to a professor’s request for commentary on a text with the very serious phrase: “You know, one time, when I was in Chiapas…”
Now, I have been to Chiapas. We stayed only a week, and explored only a tiny fraction of what the state offers, but I have to admit, it’s a sweet place to be.
We took the 11 hour over-night bus ride from Oaxaca last Sunday. It wasn’t bad at all. I took the little blue pills, watched a pretty lousy B-movie, conked out, and woke up about 3am. I dozed again on and off, and then there we were, pulling into San Cristobal de las Casas, about 20 minutes ahead of schedule — very un-Mexican. We rubbed our eyes and stumbled out into the bus station with our assorted luggage. I tried to figure out how to call a local number with my cell phone. A little boy ran up and offered to shine my husband’s shoes. “Se los van a quedar chingón” he said (“They’ll look effin’ awesome!”)
San Cristobal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Mexico’s catalogued “magic cities.” Its major industries seem to be artesania and tourism. It’s up in the mountains, with San Francisco-like weather, and a San Francisco-like young international scene. We drank good coffee and surprisingly good wine. We gasped at the presence of a Thai restaurant, ate at a delicious Lebanese restaurant, enjoyed more-than-passable pizza at an Italian restaurant (accompanied by a delicious organic green salad with real blue cheese!), and on the last night splurged on dinner for four at a fine Argentinian steak house. My husband ordered the filet mignon, and between us we drank five glasses of wine, plus polished off pasta, bread and grilled veggies. To entertain the late night guests, the restaurant hosted a comedy theater/tango show that was tremendous fun. (Our son was, of course, asleep by the time the show started, but our daughter loved it.) The cost of the whole evening, including tax and tip: about $75 USD.
San Cristobal has a thriving jazz club and hosts a jazz festival every July. It offers small movie houses where you can go see Last Tango in Paris or a new short by an up-andcoming Mexican film-maker. And if you want to take salsa dancing or yoga classes, you’re in luck. Everything is within walking distance, so for a couple of days, we just walked around, taking in the cobblestone, narrow streets, neo-classic architecture, markets, and indigenous vendors with their colorful collections of blankets, shawls, jewelry, and stuffed toys.
We also took in the natural beauty. On day three, we went on a boat tour of the Cañon del Sumidero. It’s an incredible canyon, with walls reaching up about 40 stories high. Spider monkeys played in the trees and crocodiles with toothy grins sunbathed on the shore. Vultures and cormorants there were aplenty, also bromeliads and cactus. On day five, we went to visit a nearby cave, still dripping and all echoes. I fiddled with my camera trying to crack the code of ISO, white balance, flash, aperture and speed. I so wanted to unlock the beauty of that cave with its stalagmites reaching up and stalactites pushing down. Didn’t really work. Are there any great cave photographers out there?
We also went horse-back riding in the pine forest surrounding the cave. We opted for the half-hour tour, and my daughter said it was the best part of our whole trip. My horse had stinky horse farts and then took a stinky horse dump, so I wasn’t quite so enamored of the experience, but it is a nice feeling to tromp through woods on the back of a large animal.
If you’re into Mayan culture, San Cristobal is also the place for you. We flagged down a taxi driver after our horseback ride on Friday and asked what he would charge to take us to one of the indigenous villages nearby. We ended up hanging out and going on his “tour” for the rest of the day. It turned out that our taxi driver was in guide school and he must have been a star student, because he talked our ear off about the religion, language, economy, history, etc. of the local indigenous people. He spoke a little Tzotzil and took us to visit some “friends” of his who offered us a wonderful lunch of blue corn tortillas cooked over wood on a comal, and served hot with guacamole, cheese, salsa, beans and a paste made of crushed sunflower seeds. These friends just so happened to sell a lot of artesania, too, and we were invited into their shop where they showed us all of their wares. We came away with a small stuffed peacock toy, an embroidered wall hanging, satisfied stomachs, and a few good pictures.
We also visited a church full of flowers — we were there on a Friday during lent, so it was extra decorated with roses, asters, lilies, gladiolas, manzanilla (chamomile) flowers, and more, the floor strewn with petals and smelling like a flower shop. Then we visited the village of the Chamula people … and were in for a whole different religious experience.
The Chamula call themselves Catholics, and are devoted to San Juan (Saint John) whom they say taught them to raise sheep and card the wool for their blankets and clothing. However, they’ve kicked out the priests from their church, don’t hold mass or practice any sacraments inside its walls, and have even removed the pews, so that there is ample room on the church floor for ceremonies and direct communion with God. On the afternoon that we were there, the floor was strewn with green pine needles (the aroma was fantastic, but my kids kept slipping) and there were about five Chamula families and a dozen individuals camped out in different sections of the church floor, before rows and rows of thin, burning candles.
Our taxi-driver-practically-a-guide explained that the white candles are a show of thanks to God, but that the families with green or red or yellow candles had come to ask for something or cure their spirit of some ill that had befallen them. Sickness, for the Chamula, is a result of jealousy, fear, or witchcraft affecting the spirit. It can be cured by direct prayer to their patron saint, along with the lighting of candles. Aguardiente (locally produced alcohol based on corn) is used to purify the body, eggs have a place in the ritual, and so does, sad to say, Coca-cola. The carbonation of this drink apparently helps release bad spirits. In severe cases, the bad spirit can also be redirected into the body of a live chicken, which is then sacrificed and eaten. (Once it’s dead, the spirit is gone so it can do no harm.) Our whole family was quiet with wonder and tried not to stare.
At one point, I noticed a barefoot old woman in braids, who had previously been praying in her ancient Mayan dialect, take out a cell-phone. How amazing that modern technology and ancient rituals can find themselves side by side. … I’d felt the same surprise the previous day watching two Zinacatan women in braids and traditional clothing speaking seriously to each other in Tzotzil over slices of Domino’s pizza.
Of course, no Lam family vacation is complete without stomach failings. My daughter, again, was the victim of abdominal pain and diarrhea in the middle of the night, and again, a doctor had to be located. I called one who — surprise — asked for our address and said he’d be right over. Twenty minutes later, he was standing at our door with his little black bag. I felt like I was in some Tolstoy story and should have been speaking Russian instead of Spanish. The doctor examined Zora, thumped her tummy, took her pulse and temperature, looked down her throat … and prescribed a course of antibiotics and anti-parasite treatment for good measure. I didn’t feel super confident of his skills, but hey, he made house calls and he wrote the script. By the next day, she was feeling much better, especially with the purchase of a half-dozen fuzzy animals (for gifts!! Not all for us!!) at the local market. Oh yes, and watermelon with chile. And tacos. And then hot chocolate.
Last night we got back on the bus, and now we’re home in Oaxaca, staring lovingly at all our Chiapas loot and plotting our next trip back. We didn’t get to Palenque, and we hear those ruins are a must-see. We’d also like to explore Merida, the Yucatan, maybe get a bit south of Cancun for those luscious turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
Chiapas Man, I get it all now … except where Emily Dickinson fits in.