These are the extensive notes I took on the Mexico trip. I figured
hey, I've got 'em, why not post 'em. Maybe some day a high schooler
will need material for her school paper. Here it is, thanks to the Internet.
I took these notes intending to write a science fiction novel with a little
action. That's why they concentrate so heavily on (a) description of
what's around us and (b) crime and action. So it's not the usual tourist stuff.
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 10TH -- MERIDA
Lunch, across from the hotel. Just crossing the street, the light is blinding. I definitely need sunglasses! It's a little warm, maybe 75 degrees & humid, but not too burning. The air smells muggy and humid.
Burned upper lip from hot food. The waiter helped us learn a little Spanish, by giving us the Spanish & English phrases from the menu. The windows are tinted gray-green in differing shades.
We take a walk around Merida. The stucco theme is everywhere. On modern buildings, it's an even-colored white stucco. Otherwise, peach or tan colors often with uneven shading. Often brightly-colored stucco. The window tops are arched, not rectangular. There's artistic iron grillwork and gratings on the windows. Red blotchy marble tiles over stucco sometimes.
We smell exhaust fumes from cars; I suspect Mexico lacks the USA's air quality regulations. The car motors rumble like they need tuning.
Christmas lights & Christmas trees. We hear "Rudolph the Reindeer" and "O Christmas Tree", and "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas". Decorations, including huge blood red bows and green wreaths.
A white police car with yellow marks: "Gubierno de Yucatan"
We go to a museum in Merida. Many Mexican artifacts are now in Britain and Germany, who came to Mexico early on and basically stole them. I ask the museum guide if he's angry about this, and wants them returned. He says it's OK, because right now Mexico doesn't have the basic cultural interests to preserve these things properly. Mexico must build "museum skills" before getting the objects back. So it's kind of like Britain & Germany are caretakers. I'll get many such surprise answers on this trip. I know a lot less about Mexico than I'd thought.
Shop merchant hassle us, trying to drag us into their shops. "Where are you from?" they ask, and when we respond, they try to think of something clever to say that will indicate they're "special". Sometimes they say "Boston, oh, the Celtics!!" (our local basketball team)
As we enter the main square, hawkers are everywhere. Another hawker is on crutches with a leg missing. He says "I like practicing my English on tourists and helping people." Yeah, right. Then he says, "You want to do some shopping, just five minutes?" As we walk away he yells, "Good price!" Another line we get is "If I don't sell something, I don't eat today." With one hawker, I pretend I don't speak English, giving him some of my tourist German. It doesn't work. In fact later, he recognizes us and yells out, "Hey, Germany!" Sometimes they follow you and try to hand you things, like woven bracelets.
A procession comes through the town square. It's tightly packed and with many kids. They're holding palm fronds, with green choir robes and white puritan-style tops, and singing. In the main square, there are crowds milling. The tourists are easily noted by their light skin (or asian appearance). A small park is in the middle of the square. People are squatting all over the sidewalks, hawking stuff: mats, t-shirts, rugs, blankets.
There's construction here too. Men have the area roped off with blue metal fences. There's dust everywhere and overpowering car fumes -- really potent. The fumes are sooty, not like in the US where there's just a smell but no "texture". But there aren't as many smokers here as we'd thought -- not at all like Ireland, which was stifling with cigarette smoke. Signs say "Gracias par no fumar" = "thanks for not smoking". Men with backwards baseball caps, t-shirts, and jeans rolled up over boots are swabbing down the street.
There's a stone church here with watermarks from decades (or centuries) of rain. A bride & groom are out front.
A policeman with a flashlight & whistle directs traffic. He has brown pants with a white stipe, and a tan shirt with a reflective "X" crossed on the back. I later learn these are "tourist" police, to be found here but not in San Cristobal.
Dinner: The restaurant has stones enmeshed in cement with candles. There's the smell of bug spray.
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 11TH -- CHICHEN-ITZA
We've hired a tour guide, Jorge. Today we go off to see the ruins
of Chichen-Itza, and I ask Jorge many questions as we drive.
I've decided to locate my novel in San Cristobal, in Chiapas, because it was the site of revolutionary activity a few years ago. Main industries in Chiapas: cement, tourism, honey production, salt mining, and fishing. Japanese and Korean companies often come for octopus fishing.
Mexican culture: they have time to give warmth to other people. It's not the fast life. Some people in the USA live to work. But in Mexico people work 8-9 hours a day even though they're relaxed. Most people come and say to Mexico: "You have oil & mining"... so why not prosperity? It's not that easy.
Jorge on NAFTA: "We do see industry in Mexico, but there's no money in my pocket. The rich get richer. Big merchant companies and enterprises do not allow us to grow. The gov't doesn't allow competition; they support their favorites. There's both incompetency and corruption in the government. Here, all the foreign companies love to say their factories are "Mexican owned", like Nissan, but it turns out it's the cousin or uncle or friend of the government who gets that role.
If you have no job, but have a friend in the government who is in politics (the PRI) you can have a job, but you have to support the goverment and help them. Jorge knows a guy who represents the simple workers in politics but does nothing to help them. All the leaders are rich people.
The PRI is the party with power but it is currently falling. PAN "national action party" and PRD are other parties. 80% are PRI currently.
Bribery: The last eight years this problem has changed. Bribery used to happen at any main office; it's less now. How does bribery work? Jorge says, let's say I need a license to open my own store. I have to a government office and say that I am coming on behalf of some group (possibly a union) that supports the party. Otherwise, they say "Come back another day". Or they say "You must meet this requirement and that requirement"... but there's always more and more. Even though Mexicans are against bribes, they have to pay bribes anyway, just to get on with their lives.
An example. Usually they don't ask for money; it's implied. Six months ago, Jorge was trying to renew his federal drivers license. He belongs to a group. He failed the test. In the old days, the tester would say "give me 50 pesos". Or "300 pesos". But six months ago, she just opened her drawer and said put in whatever you want. This is an improvement over the way it was.
A dialogue example. You go to the information desk.
"What are you planning to do?"
"Open a restaurant."
"OK. You need a health permit for every worker, pay land taxes, report income. A license to sell alcohol. Do you have requirements and all documents, like birth certificate. The NOM -- National Mexican Norms ensures quality of the food you will be selling. They check that all employees are healthy & the place is clean." If one paper is missing, "please give me a hand"... bribery.
For a tourist license, must take a test on anthropology & language. Costs money. A friend of Jorge's couldn't make the test. "Give me 1500 pesos and I'll give you a hand & help you get your papers." It's hard to get a job for the first time since you can't afford to pay the fees without a job.
High school students need a test for admission to University. 2000 students go there. The test takes three hours & they tell you whether you've gotten in. You need to get someone inside the school: a teacher, director, and say "give me a hand". It doesn't even matter whether you've done well on the test. "Give me a hand" is "echar una mana". Corruption at all levels, not just the highest levels.
American companies hire Mexican people because the labor is cheaper. The wages the Mexicans earn at US jobs pay more than Mexican jobs, but they're still bad. Human rights aren't very strong in Mexico. Sometimes foreigners hire
Mexicans to work but don't treat them right.
Hundreds of bikes here. People don't get paid more than $70 a week, plus social security, plus credits for the house. 24% yearly interest on a loan is considered cheap.
When someone is pursued by the law for any reason, all the branches of the Mexican government work together: police, army, special agents. If someone tries to escape, no bribe will help -- it's too important. Perhaps if the runner had a very good relation in the authorities. This happened when one the governor of Quintanaro, a year ago, he was being hidden and managed to escape from the airport in Cancun. Must have been bribes and a private plane.
Drugs & violent crime are heavily punsihed. Mexico is supposedly working with the US government. Drugs are produced in South America and they come to Yucatan. Someone is in charge of collecting it and taking it to Mexico for a border crossing. You would need to bribe a high-ranking guard for this, not just bribe a low-level one, because it involves too many people.
There are two main mob groups in Mexico, both near the north border with the US. The great majority of these drugs are consumed in the USA.
Jorge has met tourists. He can tell from their smiles whether they're stressed out or whether they don't want to be rushed. Jorge has studied psychology.
It's easy to talk about changing politics when you're not struggling for survival.
Personality quirks of my guide. He likes to tap my knee for emphasis. He likes to point & wave his hands. He points to his own eye: "Get it?" He has short hair, greased back and "up", and very thin sideburns. Brown shoes and dockers, a plaid dressy shirt with a baseball cap saying "Olympic Games 2000". "cool" sunglasses, brown braided leather belt. Short sleeves, button-down collar with white t-shirt underneath. Wearing a green-yellow tourist guide necklace says "official tour guide". Likes to repeat phrase for emphasis. "This stairway... hmm? (making sure we see it)... this stairway was... (and he goes on)." When he makes a statement, he holds up a finger as if to say "interesting, yes?" He keeps saying "Look carefully." and then talks about what we're supposed to look at. Also, "This is interesting to know."
On the way to Chichen-Itza, we pass through a Mayan village. Lots of straw roofs. Children, dirty, all cluster around the car, asking for money. I don't have much change to give them.
The villagers are bilingual in Mayan & Spanish. Jorge's great-grandmother used to live in a town like this. They grow corn & vegetables. She moved to Merida and married. Main meals: corn, beans, chili. Dirt road. Deer in the jungle. We pass men cooking: they dig a shallow hole in the ground & start a fire. Then they drop in pork & cover it with banana leaves, water and paprike, radish spice, and rub the meat with syrup and a mixture of lemon and paprika. Then more banana leaves. They cover it back up with soil, still burning. Two hours later they open it and eat.
The villagers here are used to photos being taken. The natives think it's bad when you use the flash. Our tour guide was once in Chiapas and a native grabbed someone's camera and smashed it to the ground.
In Chiapas, Zapatistas stop the buses and ask for money. The Zapatistas are "polite", unlike bandits. It's a way of demonstrating their control over the land. There's power sharing in Chiapas between the revolutionaries and the government. They want to become independent. There are much more poor in Chiapas than here in Merida. The government has "forgotten" the Chiapas natives. People in Yucatan complain about currency devaluation, but in Chiapas they complain about needing jobs, education, and food.
The government is always saying "let's talk", but are they really listening? The land-owners pay the workers very poorly. The owner says I'll give you money, but you'd better shut up about the conditions, especially when the inspectors show up. They refuse to pay "imfoanavit", which is this institution that gives houses to workers who make minimum wage. The owner is supposed to give three services: 1. social security, 2. imfoanavich, 3. medical services. Also minimum wage. But in Chiapas most business-owners don't give all these services.
The role of religion is huge. 80% catholics of 96 million people in Mexico. 55% are young: 18-28 yrs old.
At Chichen-Itza: vines over the path. A blue butterfly. The wind through the trees is a soft sound. Clay among the sandy ground. Grass sporadically and
sand & small rocks where people walk. The wind blows my hat off!
In the Yucatan, after they're buried for 3 years, they remove the skeletons and make a shrine with a tiny box with the bones. Or they wait until someone else in the family dies, which can be a convenient time to dig up. More or less everyone has this practice. The box makes an above-ground shrine. It's a Mayan tradition, but practiced by moderns as well. Not in Chiapas.
After the ruins, we stop at the gift shop area. There are brown "peasant farmer" dolls on the restroom doors for male & female.
We go to a restaurant here where teenagers dance on a stage. The women balance trays on their heads of glasses. The men balance bottles on their heads -- probably beer. The dance is a kind of stomping feet & spinning tap dance. The 14-year-old girl has a black scarf with tassles, many gold necklaces, and a white frilly dress in three "layers" with floral embroidery. The men wear all white shirts, not tucked in, but buttoned at the collar. All wear white sandals. The men tap dance with one arm behind the back. They are serious, not smiling. The women have hair done up in a bow, a cone of red flowers.
There are rows and rows of long banquet tables here, with white tablecloths. A buffet lines one wall, ending in a cash register. Bare fluorescent bulbs & stucco walls. Red clay tiles on the floor. The sounds are creaking and grating for chairs on the floor. The dancers whistle and roll their r's while singing.
In the corner of the stage there's a fountain with a trickle of water, lit by colored lights. Tall plants in large clay plots surround the room: palm leaves.
This is a popular restaurant for tourists. A busload of Japanese come in. On the way out, a bunch of Indians sell stuff. "Amigo! One dollar!" says a hawker trying to sell a black statuette.
I'm asking questions about a fiction character, Juanita, who leaves the village and gets a career job in biotech. A 20-year-old woman with a "connection" might feel guilty that she has the perk that others don't. This connection could help someone younger with no professional career get a job, when an older person with experience doesn't. It can break friendships, but sometimes people are understanding. If you've got a connection in the gov't, perhaps a friend or relation, they may not have much power to help you -- just in the office they work in.
For example, Jorge knows a guy, "A". His mother is the cousin of the local governor, whom she's never even seen. Apparently his great-grandmother used to play together with the governor's grandmother or something, long ago. "A" quit lawyer school and got a job as a messenger for a bank. He was able to sneak into the PRI and now he works for the party, doing publicity for the next presidential candidate. He gets a wage: 3000 pesos a month. Many people are trying to get a special position in politics.
Mexico has a federal government with a president. Each of its 31 states has a governor. Each city has a mayor. Yucatan has 1.5m people. Merida 850,000.
On the road, we keep passing trucks with kids sitting in the back, and floral decorations, usually with a huge picture or sheet with the Virgin of Guadelupe. These teenagers are "pilgrims" who are going to the festival in Merida on the night of Dec 11 and the day of Dec 12th, The Fesitval of the Virgin of Guadelupe.
We stop at a village on the way back & visit one household. There's a grade school nearby the government built. That where they'd go if there were a big storm. School is 8am-2pm, and includes adult literacy. The villagers live in poverty, but are often happy because they don't know there's anything better. The lady who is head of the household goes to Merida to earn $30 a week to clean house and cook for a middle class family. People in the village are friendly to one another. They have a "plastinak"(?), a big plastic container to store clean water, which trucks deliver. The government has supplied these, and the lights we see, too.
They paint the walls white because they're in the jungle -- you can see tarantulas and snakes on the walls more easily.
These villagers collect seeds from the squash they grow, and go sell them in the city. They give the squash to their pigs. It's a really filthy shack. Probably the most disgusting place I have ever been in. Meaning no disrespect to the villagers who don't seem to mind. It's not a hygenic, sanitary enivronment to raise kids in. Trash all around.
I ask our guide, "Why don't they clean up? Are they lazy?" Well, he says, 100 years ago these people were basically slaves. So relatively speaking, they're doing better. Jorge says they do care about trash, but they're too busy surviving to find time to pick it up. This is just the way they were raised.
There are always government education campaigns, "wash your hands", and the government gives out free vaccinations and education. There's a very high rate of death for babies aged up to 5 years old.
They have electricity, but no telephones here. They have elementary schools in a village like this with 10,000 people. Only a few high schools outside Merida (not none). But University only in Merida. High school and University are free, but it costs money to live in the city: room & food. The first generation to leave the village and make a career has it very hard -- but it is possible for them to go to college straight from the village. Sometimes, parents don't want their kids to go to high school: "Stay at home, we need the money, and help with pottery, embroidering, or farming."
They have evening school for college and high school in Merida. Many people go and work during the day and take class at night 7-11pm. Someone who has done this could, by the age of 30, afford to bring his or her parents from the village into town and get them decent living conditions in an apartment. Our guide, Jorge, once met a doctor who told a story about growing up in a village. Apparently there was a famine and they were so desperate for good they used to chop up the husk of a corn cob to make soup.
Jorge has never met his own father, who used to be a shoeshiner and was able to study. Jorge and his mother went to live with his Uncle. Jorge's mother was an alcoholic (apparently a common problem for the Indians). Even in the middle of their poverty, Goerge says he was a happy kid. He used to play a lot & have friends. He used to have a series of stepfathers who would slap him. But Jorge managed to study Accounting. He started working from that moment on, and started giving money to the uncle he lived with in a straw village hut much like the one we'd seen.
I saw a buzzard in the sky, a huge black winged bird, circling.
The more modern area of Merida, the northern section, is less religious and has modern-looking malls and shopping areas. Most foreigners think that religion in third world countries is trying to manipulate & pacify people -- to control them. People identify with the Virgin of Guadelupe. Miguel Hidalgo y Costika used the church to control the native people & overthrow the government, so the Virgin of Guadelupe was a patriotic symbol as well -- but in the modern era, just a religious symbol. Teenagers are running and carrying the torch for the Virgin. Some stay over, some go back the same day.
Foreigners in Chiapas wouldn't get hostility unless they're mistreating the Meixicans. It's not respectful to ask "Are you an Indian?"... some people are proud to have Spanish heritage, even if they are really mixed-race people. About 10% of people will say "I'm from Argentina but my mother comes from Germany or Italy", or "I'm Spanish descendant." The other 90% just say "I'm Mexican." Only the upper class really cares.
There's a tradition that kids will have two last names (one each from parents), and two first names also. If you have a Mayan name, some people will make fun of it and use it as an insult.
A good-sized house in East Merida would cost $10,000. But in northern Merida, the rich section where they have what we'd think of in the USA as middle-class malls and homes, houses are worth $50,000 or more.
Driving home, there are balloons and palm leaves, and pictures of the Virgin, and sometimes a flag of Mexico. People stand at a stoplight and sell toasted bread to waiting cars. The car ahead of us has an aromatizer hanging from the rearview mirror. We pass "Super Bodega", a supermarket. In Merida, 10% of the people have a Christian Lebanese background (not other parts of Mexico). The Lebanese came to Mexico 120 years ago, selling garments. They're known as good merchants. They open a local chain of supermarkets, "San Fransisco De Asis". Names include 'Mafud', 'Dajer', 'Hadad', 'Abraham', 'Shakar', 'Assiz'.
When we get back to Merida, Amy rests at the hotel, and I go off in search of "Festival de Senora Nuestra de Guadelupe". The main square, which is kind of run down, has only a small crowd (both Mexicans and tourists) around a mime performing. His face is painted white and his long hair is in a bow.
Finally, I find it. It's taking place at the edge of town, in a small grassy square right outside a church, San Cristobal Cathedral (?). A few vendors sell balloons and cotton candy. It's night. No stars are out. The smell of dough boys and fire. Boys and girls -- the pilgrims -- run up with torches shouting "Maria! Maria!" and dump their torches on the pavement in front of the church. They're all wearing t-shirts with Virgin on them.
Directly in front of the church, there's a roped off area, where boy scouts are giving access to the inside, where mass after mass is being held. They have a red fleur-de-lis on the shoulder. A rope cuts off the entrance to the church. Inside the church, from what I can see, is a panel of flowers and a blue 2.5 foot statue of the Virgin. The Virgin seems always to be dressed in light blue.
There's a small ferris wheel. The festival is all enclosed in about one small block, which would normally be an empty park. Mexicans swarm the streets. I don't see any other tourists here at all -- but it's early season for tourism, which doesn't really pick up until December 19th. There are lots of kids.
A vendor is balancing a beam of toys over his shoulder. More kids show up shouting "M! A! R, I, A!" (in Spanish, of course). They cheer and clap for themselves. Or they chant "Maria! Maria!" or Give the army song, "Soldiers have to march all day (Soldiers have to march all day). To guard the good old U.S.A. (To guard the good old U.S.A.)" That's the tune, only of course they are chanting something in Spanish, probably praising Maria or something.
The church has a surrounding fence, defining a courtyard outside the church. The party is happening in that area, also, and in the streets around. The courtyard is packed with white plastic chairs and wood folding tables saying "Coca Cola". People are eating food and talking here. At one side is a huge painting on a huge cloth (maybe it's a bedsheet?), and it's been set up for people to have their photos taken in front of it. There are guitar players and singers dressed in ties and blazers, on a small stage. There's no lighting for them.
The cathedral itself is all stone. Christmas lights adorn it, and strings run from the church down to the street on an angle that supports bright flags. The stonework is beautiful. There are lots of small booths packed together, selling religious items, pictures, and books. (I wonder what Jesus would have thought of that -- wasn't he supposed to be knocking over merchant's tables in a church?)
A bevy of schoolgirls mingle, mid-teens, all with a "uniform", that same Virgin t-shirt. There's upbeat music, mexican style. Mariachi music. There's some cigarette smoke, not too bad, and noise from the crowd. There are a few carnival games, like a rifle shoot, with toys & dolls to win. Kids play around outside on a huge field of sand: seesaws and slides. When the people aren't here this must be a small playground. There are extremely low-end commercial toys here of all sorts.
The ferris wheel machinery clanks and whirrs. It's 30 feet tall (3 stories), with fluorescent lights on the spokes. It looks old but the bucket seats have been recently painted. I trip over an elecric cable laid across the path. There's a press of people. Most of the tables & chairs have adverts on them. They're wood or metal or plastic, usually folding. There are a few trees in this "park", but the sky is open. The many lights are a bit overwhelming. Everything is packed in here. There's the smell of fried & grilled meat. The air is not so fresh; that's from motor exhaust. Another group of kids arrive with a torch, this time on bicycles. The runners are clapping & cheering. They're having fun.
Off to one side is a fire engine and an ambulance, waiting for a need. There's the smell of mosquito repellent. There's a little wind, a fair breeze. Even though it's evening, it's not too warm, and not too cold.
As people exit from the last mass, I sneak into a side door of the church for a peek, with a nod from the guy guarding the door. Inside the church, a woman dressed like a nun is singing a sweet song, but it's a pop tune, over the church's public address system. There are lots of fans whirring. There's orange-fake-brown paint on the simple wooden pews. Ropes rope off the aisles. Behind the podium there's a huge wall-hanging in the simple colors of the Mexican flag. One big banner above it all says "Acaso ? no estoy yo aqui que soy tu madre?".
The Cathedral is huge and white, stucco walls with huge murals -- most of the Virgin of Guadelupe appearing in the sky with "shinies", star streaks, all around her. Small stained glass windows are high up in this cavernous worship space -- perhaps 3 stories tall. Girl scouts serve as ushers as a new crowd files in, which is my cue to leave politely. Nuns in pure white, with the head cowl thing, and a black rope belt with a black string necklace with a cross. There are national flags of many south american nations on the walls: Chile, Cuba, Honduras. One banner says "2000 ano de la santisima trinidad y de la sagrada EUCARISTIA".
There's church music as the new group comes in, but it's muzak iwth a rock beat and an organ-synth tune. On one wall, a banner in red block letters cut out from shiny metallic material says "Jesus yo confidenti". In one corner there's a full-size mock-up of priests, including a dead jesus. The people sitting are serious, even before the ceremony begins. There's only a little talking with each other.
Outside, the teens and youths are all smiling. These ones have long-sleeved Maria shirts, with red collar, red elbows, and red cuffs on a white shirt. The Maria pic has the traditional blue dress and "shinys" coming out of her. One vendor has a rolling toy attached to a stick, and when he moves it across the ground, it makes a "skritch skritch" noise to attract customers.
I get a sense of jubilation from being here. These people really love the Virgin. And they're having a good time here in this small community. Apparently, Dec 12th is the real holiday, but this party started tonight and will go for more than 24 hours! Finally I run out of notebook to write in, and just relax and enjoy the proceedings. I even buy an orange soda, although I don't dare eat any of the vendors' food.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 12TH -- UXMAL
As we're driving to the ruins, I fire a barrage of questions at our guide, Jorge. I ask him what were the kids shouting last night. He says probably "Viva Maria" or "Long live Mexico". He uses the term "The Lady" to refer to the Virgin of Guadelupe.
He says that in Mexico, they have not really reached the 'fast life'. People have time for their families. A very low divorce rate. It's not stressful. Example: you go to some office to pay your water bill. You stand in line, and some guy says hello (a stranger) and you start chatting. The stranger starts telling you his problems (his grandfather is ill) and possibly you spend 5-6 hours. It's a waste of time.
He continues, The problem with Mexico is that you have to be a simple employee to get paid a pension after 72 years old. You have to work for the same company for a long time (although switching is OK). You pay social security directly to the government, but the laws can change. You might have to pay a special fee or your investment goes away.
It can take 3-4 hours to pay your electricity bill, standing in line. Every big company has messengers you can send to pay your bills for you. It's common to have bank accounts, but not everyone -- only those who have a very good income.
People are slowly accepting car insurance in Mexico, but not everyone has it.
Travelling to the US is sticky, because they want to make sure you'll come back to Mexico after your vacation. They'll ask you: Do you have a large Mexican bank account? Have you got a car or property? Where do you work, please bring invoices as proof of salary? How long will you stay in the USA?
The rich have the highest rates of suicide in the city. People start to depend on material things. "Do you have the things or do the things have you?" Some Mexicans cannot handle the stress of the big city. Some Mexicans vacation in Yucatan to relax.
There isn't a mental pressure to get things done quickly in Mexico. Meeting in an office can be chatty. There's not so much competition in Mexico. They don't care what other people have, unlike the first world, where "they're like animals".
They have socialized medicine, but they don't have the long lines like in Canada waiting for surgery. It's very very cheap compared to other countries.
We stop at a marketplace, "Ulman" or "Uman", about 25,000 people, some 20km from Merida. This marketplace is close enough to Merida that it's villagers are "in touch" with the city. Some people I see. "huipal" -- the white floral dress I've been seeing. The tan shirts are traffic policemen. Tall guys with big hat, jeans, white boots, belt, long sleeves. There are little two-wheel carriages, 3 pesos a ride.
There are young sharks ("cazon", a delicacy) & fish. We see the markets where they sell the seeds from the squash: peel the shell off, add lemon juice, chili, salt. We see "horchata", a frothy light brown drink sold in old soda bottles. It's a drink made from rice, very thick like syrup -- you mix it with cinammon and sugar (or honey). We also see mandarin oranges, green & orange colors. You remove the skin and it divides up naturally. 25 pesos a sack of 100 oranges.
There's a flower seller. Flowers are very important, especially for religious festivals. Local corn, too. Jorge's great grandmother had to eat the husks in a bad crop season when locusts came in. Also apples & pears, which are not grown in tropical Yucatan, instead colder areas like north Mexico: Monterrey & Chihuahua. Also "hicama root", very sweet & juicy. You remove the skin & wash it.
There are flies everywhere here. Ugh. All these people are bilingual in Spanish and the Mayan tongue. There's a market here every day from 6am-1pm. A typical farmer always carries a "coa", a kind of machete, which is good for digging out herbs. In the direct sunlight it is hot, but the air itself is not so hot. The street is filled with people sitting on newspapers or burlap. It's common to find a small town with a big church like the one we can see in the distance. It's quite plain: no bell tower. This is a square with trees in big pink "planters" you can sit on.
Our guide says "Hello!" and gives a big hug to a stranger. There's the smell of vegetables and raw meet at room temperature -- slightly rotting. The people aren't smiling. Everyone has bikes. Smells like tortillas. Its a wide street, with sharp shadows because of the harsh sun. The stucco is pink.
Someone's selling hardware. There's an 80-yr-old lady selling stuff. Our guide says that Mexicans never stop working as they get old. They don't get infirm, until they're about ready to die. They walk to church & back even at a very old age. Jorge had an elderly uncle who had to be picked up a couple of times at the police station; the police found him wandering around, senile and lost. Smiling old men often have bad eyesight but still smiling & walking.
I brave the medium-size warehouse like building with pink stucco where the meat vendors sell their unrefigerated stuff. There are fans overhead. There's an overpowering meat smell, which changes as I walk past differing kinds of meat. Raw meat and people frying or cooking meat. There's blood spilled on the floor. It's quite dirty in here. Smell makes me nauseous! Sounds: christmas carols playing on one of the vendors' radios. The crowd's chatter and flies. "shika shika" of sharpening knives. Glass bottles clanking against each other.
There's corn dough for tortillas; a kind of paste. I smell sausage being cooked, a smoky smell with hot peppers. There's a seed, paprika, you smash and sell the seasonings in small plastic bags. The black paste is a mixture of chilis, used to marinade pork & meat. There's pork skins, fried, a very strong smell. The ladies no longer have to grind the corn to make tortillas. Instead, they bring their corn here to a small workshop & grind it here. Sort of like an Internet Cafe, but no coffee, no computers, just the corn grinding machines.
Soccer and baseball are the two most important Mexican sports.
I ask our guide, Do these villages have health concerns? Some don't know, but most do know. All this raw meat is probably animals killed this morning, early. So it's not very old meat. What isn't sold is indeed put in a fridge.
The entire market is basically laid out along the streets of a T junction. The pavement is OK, a little rough but not gravel. Standing in the shade is much nicer! Little stalls line the sidewalks, making it too tight to walk double. Much of the clothing is US-style lower-class stuff. A smashed fishing hat.
There's a problem with alcohol in the villages. The head of a household can spend money in bars. But there's little trouble with violent crime here.
Our tour guide parked his car alongside a row of the bicycle-taxis. Some guy tells him, "You're mis-parked" as though guide should apologize. Our guide thinks that's rude.
There are shoes & belts & dresses for sale here. We buy a hat (though I lose it on an airplane later). There are handmade, embroidered dresses. The leather for the belts comes from elsewhere in Mexico.
I see a guy with a missing leg. I've seen that occasionally here, surprising since in the US it's quite rare. Our guide, Jorge, says that when somebody has diabetes in Mexico, often an amputation is required due to poor medicine and poor health.
Now we drive towards the Uxmal ruins.
What is their attitude towards the US? They love Americans, as long as they bring money! There's a Mexican saying, "no hard feelings between Mexico & US, it's just business is business." A few Mexicans think that the US is trying to control Mexico, but businessmen who make money off the US are very happy with the relationship. There's a Mexican saying "Poor Mexico. It's so far away from God & so close to the USA." It means Mexico is a poor country living next to the USA, a rich country, which does nothing to help Mexico. Some blame Americans, some don't.
The pilgrims ("peregrinos") we saw are called "los corredores", or "runners". From the age of 5 or 6 they start their religious education. At 12 their first communion. Saturday religious classes: 1 or 2 hours, and Sunday mass. Then communion, a big mass for all the kids about to "graduate". Necessary in order to marry under church law: a church certificate of communion & baptism. 3 times a week you must go for pre-marriage chats, 2 hrs each, for 3 months. Need a certificate that you've been to the chats. Salsa music & a feast after the communion, a big social event for family & friends. Mainly brandy is served, and champagne to toast, which must be imported from out of Mexico (it's a Spanish custom).
Wedding: The old men at the party must dance with the bride. The old friends of the groom's grab him and toss him around, and (cheering & clapping) take him to the restroom and take off his clothes and leave him in underwear. They give the clothing to the bride, who must go to the restroom and dress him again. About 80% follow this custom after the dancing w/bride. The bride & her friends visit every table, saying hello to every guest. Women friends of the bride collect money for the honeymoon and clip the money behind the bride's head, all over the veil.
Merida is a savannah-type jungle, not a rainforest, so it's not very dense. This kind of jungle is "sub-tropical". There's a 5-6 month rainy season. Chiapas is a rainforest. Trees have very wide trunks. They have parrots, racoons, white tailed deer, snakes (incl. boa & guacamayes), jaguar. The snakes aren't dangerous unless you step on them. Rattlesnakes don't bite you unless you annoy them with a stick or step on them. "ochcan", the Mayan name for boa. Also rabbits, and ocelots (tiny jaguars). Some villages have problems with animals. Jaguars are blank & shiny -- they look like panthers but aren't. There are very few jaguars left, they've been hunted for their skins. Swamps with crocodiles & alligators, and over 300 species of birds, including 40 migratory birds. You can take a boat ride and go see pink flamingos. There are rivers in the Chiapas jungle.
We pass a red field of clay, where engineers are experimenting with agriculture. Most fields are just fossilized limestone and clay. Chiapas has better soil -- also red & brown -- but more rain makes it better soil. Stucco is a very fine layer over stone or cement or wood.
I take my sunglasses off and get a sunburn just below my eyes and upper cheeks where I failed to put suntan lotion. The wind blows our hats off, and we have to either chase them or make a quick motion to keep it on. The wind blows leaves around. Under a tree, leaves & sticks fall on us from above when wind blows.
We can pity the ancient Mayans because they didn't know there was more to life than primitive ways. All they knew was what they were raised to know. However, isn't that the same today? Jobs, family, marriage, humans just tend to do whatever is normal in society -- in other words, what we are raised to do. What will they pity us for 1000 years from now? The jungle isn't open, like forests in the USA. You can't just step between the trees. It's so dense, you need a machete to open a pathway.
A bouganvillea is a wonderful tree with red flowers. It's three stories tall with cascades of leaves like hanging moss coming off of it.
As we drive back from Uxmal, I ask our guide to characterize a young professional, "Joan" from the modern area of the city. It's possible that he could have relatives who lived in a straw hut back in the village, but only distant relatives -- it would be very selfish of him to keep close relatives in such poverty. Jorge's mother has 11 siblings, and they have extended family reunions. Big companies will give a "13th month" ("aguinaldo") of pay: an end-of-year bonus of about 45% of one month's salary.
Joan might be competitive and have the "I'm better than you" attitude. She would be not rich, but not poor. She would try to get her company's owner to like her and "give her a hand". $1000 a month is a good, modest living, salary. Jorge's uncle the accountant earns $600 a month. Most people who leave the village for a career never return. Possibly the people remaining in the village feel some resentment. Usually, Mexican youngsters stay in frequent contact with their parents. There's no social obligation for them to return to the small town -- after all, they can still attend church with their small town friends.
There's some machismo in Mexico. At the workplace, women get respect, but at home, the man might say "you have to be looking after my children, don't get a job". Lots of jealousy. In last 20 years, men are thinking more progressively, but still many treat women this way. Husband may say "You may have a career, but I'm still the one responsible for the household." Many men accept a career woman because they want the extra money. Also, families tend to have no more than three children. In the new generation, typically in a couple, both work.
Mexicans who leave to go to the USA (for financial success) get homesick about stuff like the Virgin of Guadelupe festival. Eventually they forget and move on. Jorge says "perhaps success lies not in material things but in things can live without." Merida has plenty of poverty, but in Chiapas, there's misery. Half-naked undernourished children. Crime rates are high in Chiapas because people are trying to survive.
I ask our guide about a section of my book, where the hero asks the Zapatistas for assistance against the Mexican government. He says, Mexican gov't will pursue anyone who aids the Zapatistas. Zapatistas won't want to talk with the guy because he's an American. He would have to explain himself and convince them. They wouldn't trust him: "You have come to Mexico & now you're fleeing... why?" Mexican saying, "When there's nothing to hide, what is there no fear?" or "One who owes nothing has nothing to fear."
We ask our guide, Jorge, to take us to the rich area of Merida: the north side. There are two big towers, both banks. Surprisingly, all these USA companies start popping up, in roadside shopping centers that look very much like the USA: TGI Friday's, Sam's Club, Wendy's, Sears in a big mall, Office Depot, "7 Eleven" (abierto 24 horas), Pizza Hut, Domino's, Nokia, Grease Monkey, Ace Hardware, "farmacias". The buildings are all low. Chevrolet. A convention center which holds up to 3000 people. There are Mayan names for all the meeting rooms. They use the ancient Mayan architectural ideas in the convention center. Only 25% of the city lives in the modern area; it's expensive and new. Many people prefer things that come from abroad (Usually USA), ("amalinchista"), that's fashionable. Honda, GoodYear,
We come to a stop sign, where a 10-year-old is juggling lemons and begging. Give him 2-3 pesos. 5 pesos is generous. North Gym, Pizza Hut, a private club for tennis. The rooftops have that cylindrical clay shingle thing, which Jorge calls "cantina" architecture. The fences aren't high on rich houses because the crime rate is low in Merida. There's a private school here, too. "Bienas Railes", real estate, carved into grey rock. Kid's Planet, in bright cartoony letters. Gambling is not legal in Yucatan. Hooters, Burger King. Superkin(?) a minimart ("24 horas"). Carmen Travel Service. Ozzy Collection "magic fashions". Coconut trees. We see grey stone everywhere; that's limestone.
I return to the Festival of Guadelupe, still in progress, with Amy. At 4pm, the sun is already dropping, making long shadows. There's wind. The heat roils of the food vendors and onto me as I walk past. Only 20% as many people are around tonight as last night, maybe less. There are speakers outside the church that let you hear the guy at the microphone inside. Mass and mass and more mass for all the pilgrims, one mass after another. Inside the church they're singing a hymn. Outside, there's rock music. There's a guy with a flat cylinder on his head to which is strapped lollipops for sale!
On the way back, we stop at an Internet Cafe and read our email. The Mexican keyboard has some oddities. On Windows 95, "start" is Inicio. "run" -> ejecutar. "telnet" has "OK" -> acceptar, and "cancel" -> "cancelar".
MONDAY, DECEMBER 13TH -- BIOTECH PLACES & DZIBILCHALTUN RUINS
We get up early again to meet our guide. Today we're going to visit some biologists. In the lobby of the Hyatt, there's the rumble of a rolling cart. The splash & trickle of the fountain. A hotel guest is hunched over his laptop.
Jorge says a nice middle-class house can be bought for $20,000. Most of the time, Mexicans prefer a house. People don't like apartments so much; they would rather live in a tiny 1-room house w/tiny kitchen. The "infoamavit" program will get you a house. If you can show that you earn minimum wage (45 pesos/day), then the government will give you infoamavit. Otherwise, you have to get your company to pay for it. There's a pay where, if you only earn a little more than minimum wage, it just doesn't pay: quit and get a minimum wage job so you can get a house. There is no welfare system for those cannot earn minimum wage.
Now we go to a professional university, "Instituto Tecnologico de Merida". After high school, students spend 4-6 years here. We go to the main office. On the big glass windows, snowmen and candy canes have been drawn in a speckled snow pattern, as though sprayed from a can. There are wreaths and lights, and a row of punch cards for a time clock. "In" & "Out", and wooden punch clock. The walls are all stucco, and with fluorescent lights. The floor is tiled and clean. Outside, all the walkways for students are cement. There are glass doors everywhere with the school symbol. The lobby has a pay phone.
I notice some office names in the diorama of the campus, "Laboratorio de Bioquimica", "Lab de Analis de Alimentos", "Lab de Microbiologia". On the way up, the stairwell has a big mural of the stabbing of local indians. This is a common theme in Mexico: murals of the atrocities done to the inhabitants. The PR office is the "Departmento de Comunicacion y Difusion". Inside, there's a big diorama of a snow-covered mountain village, made from a brown plastic sheet placed over stacks of bricks arrange like a mountain. Cotton balls make snow and small model houses are placed. There are peach-colored drapes over the window, and a xerox machine. A big fan, and a computer.
Outside, we can see palm trees all over campus between the walkways. There's a plain green "barrel" for trash. We pass a decrepit cement water fountain with green moss and bit of trash in it. There are students sitting in groups. The clouds are heavy, but its only drizzling. The light is diffuse and directionless. We hear the chirping of birds. Around a tree is a circle of cement benches. Everything is painted lime green. The buildings are squat, all one-story tall. Orange drapes give privacy to the classrooms. We pass a corkboard with messages. There are students standing and sitting on a raised cement walkway above the grass and gravel. The grass is patchy and an unhealthy yellow, with weeds. There's a parking lot and a computer lab. There's a bathroom smell inside, like a shower room in the USA. It's humid.
We go up the stucco and tile stairs. There are fire hydrants on the walls and I wonder how, with this humidity, this place could possibly burn up. It's muggy but not hot. There's an a/c in the area, which is probably more for humidity than temperature (at least in winter). There's an administrative area with a water cooler and some very nice chairs for waiting.
We go see their system administrator, a young hacker. There are over 100 computers here for the students, and in-between semesters they do adult education for the local villagers. "Solo personal autoraizado" with a red hand in red writing. "Site de comunicaciones y redes", and "area de servidores". There's a hum and rush of air, the warble of the air conditioner, and light green stucco.
They have optical fiber here: this is the router room of the computer complex. It's 10'x15' and a computer rack with lots of blue and gray wires with the square ethernet plugs. There's an email server (our guide says "servant"!) "labna". All the servers have Mayan names. RTN = Red Tecnol/ogica Nacional. Wrong-colored plaster where the wires feed through the walls to the outside. There's a plastic and metal closet against the wall.
I ask the computer center guy for anecdotes. He started a year ago, when he knew something about computers but wasn't very informed. He loves all the people who come here and ask silly questions. Once, some student came who was working on a word processor. He was not able to find the "tools" on the screen, because he was using full screen mode, and he thought everything was broken. The computer asks "do you want to keep your work?". One user thought he had to shut off the monitor in response to this.
This hacker is only "pale" Mexican brown. He's got a dressy t-shirt, stripes and a lizard, with pink sunglasses. Jeans and a digital watch with a cloth wristband. Black hair neatly combed, and brown shoes. Nobody in Mexico wears sneakers... that's how Mexicans tell the difference between Americans and Candians.
I ask the hacker what could James Bond do here, if he broke in. Well, there's only one student who broke into the files of the school. But recently they've put in a firewall. People from other countries have tried to hack in. The server room is restricted, but it's only a half-room. It shares a room with a public computer cluster, and the separating wall doesn't reach to the ceiling. So theoretically, anyone could just climb over the wall. He says there's an alarm on the door, and a security guard in the front at night. No access: even the janitor doesn't get in to clean the server room. There are flurorescent lights above.
Is there some technology they can't get from the US? He says no, they're very close to the States, but it can take them an extra 5 months to get something in a local Merida provider after it comes out in the US. Everything is also much more expensive in Mexico. But no import/export restrictions on technology.
This is a public school with no tuition fee. Just take the admission test, and pay your own books & materials. Outside is an acacia tree, and a "flame tree". Some buildings are 2 stories. There are tons of gum on the walls and cement walkways. The dirt has that reddish clay-like feature. "Sociedad de Alumnos". When students graduate, they must perform 640 hours of public (or private) service for free. You need a paper saying you've done this: sometimes before, sometimes after you get the degree. It's possible to do this social service part-time.
Our guide says "As you can see, we are not a tall people," referring to Mexicans. Students wear t-shirts & jeans, and carry books.
We pass through a chemical engineering laboratory. It has brick tiles and is covered with plasticky stuff (like a gym floor). Some students have dress shirts. There are lots of metal tubes in a room 2 stories high, and big fans in the wall. It has a corrugated metal roof. There are brick walls. The room is filled with glass bulbs and metal pipes - filthy - connected together across the room. The sounds of people talking & echoes. There's a faint chemical smell. A fresh smell, as if after a rain.
We walk through a machine shop. There's a smell of oil. It's 2 stories high, and lime green stucco like the rest of campus. There's a row of ancient wooden bookcases. It's not so hot, but extremely humid. Red fire extinguishers on the walls. Outside, the smell of trash.
We go to the bio lab. There's a very strong smell that Amy says is a "base" smell (as opposed to an acidic smell). The lab is specialized for food research. The floor is filthy and stucco covered, but its peeling, revealing the cement. The professor leads us to his lab. He has a mustache and a few strands of gray in his black hair beginning to bald. He's wearing a plaid shirt with pens in the pocket, and a black (snake skin?) belt, and black dress pants, and dress shoes. They're working on food science, like making octopus (lots of octopus fishing nearby) taste like turkey. Sign says "Peligro no fumar".
Outside, the birds give a clipped "cheap" -> "chip" or "eet". Students on the 2nd level of a building's balcony are laughing and pointing at each other. The air smells fresh like a basketball court. Only some students are smoking.
The lab is small, but smells just like a lab should. The head of food technology has dark brown glasses and a serious expression. He wears a silver-colored analog watch. They're trying to strengthen and enrich vegetables. They work directly with food plants here in Yucatan. It's very hot in here. The room is only 20'x20', plus two small office along one wall with a glass partition and doors. There are two black lab benches.
I ask, What's different here in biotech research? They are not able to do the research they want to, because they are not able to get access to some things. There are certain problems with a lack of ingredients due to a teechnology ban. But they have a good relation with England. What's banned? Well, certain chemicals they need to separate protein. The laws of Mexico forbid it because Mexico is worried about being used for drugs. They can't have: t-chloramide, which used to be allowed, and sulfites. Also they have a lack of money, so no reading gels for electrophoresis. It can be very frustrating to them.
I ask, What kind of jobs might an unspecialized person do here? Well, they have technicians who get field jobs. They are trained to collect samples and to with the equipment here.
These guys have been VERY nice to us. Any anecdotes about the lab? Sometimes when people work with acid and water, they have problems with explosions.
I ask, What hobbies might a typical biologist have? Or do they just focus on work and don't have hobbies? Only about 10% are obsessed. Most people have time for recreation: have a drink, play soccer, big parties, joint parties with other departments. He says that today they just had a big "end of year" party.
The microbiology lab is the same size, also with two offices. The black lab tables have spots and scars where acid has been dropped! They work trying to get the skin of the orange to retain vitamin B12. The cement floor is scarred & scuffed. The grey pain shows the cement underneath. Amy looks and the equipment and writes "inject air & microorg. Liquid enriched for bio reactor. To add oxygen to be shaken". The lab door says "Tecnologia Enzimatica y Microbiana" There's a hood, and one of those emergency water flood things on the ceiling. There's a hood where the base is totally rusted -- very orange! The workbenches are white tile.
We leave, and our guide takes us to a government biotech research place, called "Semana Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia"
We pass through a guard station that is a little like Disneyland's: one big roof and two little offices for the guards to stand, dressed in brown & tan. Lime stucco. We get orange "visitante" cards. "Centro de Investigacion y de Estudios Quanzados del I.P.N." There are cement walkways here, too, and huge murals of the sun and planets on the walkways. There's mint-blue stucco on the 1 or 2 story buildings. A few trees along the way hold a few birds. There's dried up grass. The cement is cracking, and a radio plays loud enough to hear from outside.
The biotech lab is 25'x20', with a tiled floor, black lab tables, and white tile walls. Wooden stools abound. We meet a mid-30s woman, a research assistant. In the lab, the doctors are the highest level, then research assistants, then students. She has gold earrings.
Dealing with students is the most difficult thing about her job. She says they do not have the proper items to work. They have sophisticated equipment, but not the proper chemicals. It takes a long time to get the money for stuff they need. Sometimes, when a chemical is a controlled substance because it might be used to make drugs, a famous professor has to "sign for it", basically personally guaranteeing it won't be misused. So they do get the stuff they want, it just takes a long time and is expensive. Even thought it's banned by Mexico. For example, carbon tetrachloride.
Regulation of chemical is getting better, not stricter, over time. They have a special storage facility for these controlled substances. Amy says her lab in the USA worked similarly. The woman wears sandals witih leather straps and red socks. Faded jeans, a black turtleneck shirt, a ring. Her black hair is tied back. Red glasses, broad lips with lipstick.
I ask, What are the differences between biotech in the US and Mexico? She says that people are just as smart in Mexico as the US, but the amount of knowledge is not the same, so they are not so up-to-date on the cutting edge stuff. They also lack facilities in Mexico: libraries, for example. In Mexico, often safety regulations are not enforced. She went to work in the UK, where there were harsh penalties for getting caught breaking safety rules. But in Mexico, not. She says it's a question of education: people just don't understand the hazards here.
They have to wait weeks & months for large & small equipment. For example, reagents. Thus, the first world has more opportunity than Mexico to write cutting-edge research papers, and get them out faster. People from the first world think that Mexicans are LAZY but this is just not true! When she visited the UK, she was able to do research in 1.5 months that would have taken 6 months in Mexico. In Mexico, there centralism: everything is in Mexico City and there's prejudice about the quality of the work done in outlying areas.
I ask, What's it like to be a woman scientist? She loves her work. "I'm doing this work not for the money: men have the responsibility of being support of house. So a woman can give help to the household, but she knows that the man is really responsible even though the woman works. This means that she's passionate for the work itself. Science is not for making money." Her husband is American, and he says "The more I live here, the more I realize that Mexicans are less macho than I imagined." However, macho extremes are of course possible here.
I ask her to describe the personalities and the workplace environment. "I am happy with my partner and have a good relationship with my boss. We are very low key here. We are both from Yucatan (local) and we've known each other since high school: 15 years. I've been doing science since I was 19 years old. We stay more than 8 hours a day but don't get paid for the overtime, but we love it. It's a conflict for women because I want to take care of children & see my husband."
Her boss speaks up. His wife is a chemist & she works in a lab but also works around the husband. Then the woman says, "By my husband is an American husband. He cooks for me!" Men do help the women in Mexico, I am assured, even if they are not American.
There's sometimes conflict with people working in neighboring labs, here at this facility. "We're so busy that we don't even know what's happening next door."
Young students have a "neo-liberalism" attitude. "I don't like it," she says. "I respect my boss and family and grandmother. Even though I have a PhD or postdoc, I will always respect the person who taught me." But some young people try to do more than their mentors and say "I'm better than you." This is a new trend for Mexico. She says that the last generation with good habits was born in 1962. In other words, anyone younger than 37 may have a neo-liberalism attitude. "They're very nice but suffer process of change. These people have everything and don't appreciate it."
What's her typical day like? 9am: check on equipment. Work with computers, work with technicians, deal with students and their necessities. It varies. Take a field trip and collect samples or pick up equipment, or need to teach the students, or supervise protocols and analysis. She's always under stress because she's trying to get the chemicals.
A research assistant needs a B.S. or an M.S. She has an MS and says you need a PhD to be a boss. She went to university in England, got her MS at Newcastle.
This lab is nicer than the one at the University. There's a protein analyzer, and Amy writes "level stuff". We thank them and walk to a different lab in the same complex. The mud amongst the grass is muddy, like clay.
There's a 15-day school vacation at the end of December.
Jorge, our guide, is wearing a yellow shirt with orange checkered stripes, with a t-shirt underneath. Maybe wearing an undershirt is another way to tell
Mexicans from Americans. Also, leather belt, white dockers, brown shoes, an analog watch, and a cell phone clipped to his belt.
At the next lab, a very young woman helps us. She is short, black hair tied back with a brown clip, stud earrings, very dark brown eyes. Freckles on her pale-brown skin. A denim shirt and faded jeans. She's only been here for a year. She's had confidence in her work colleagues. She was integrated with the lab very quickly and gets along with everyone.
I ask, What's the personality of people who work here? She says that even though they work here, they have a good relation as friends outside of the job. They do parties and birthdays with people from other labs. They just had a Christmas party where they switched gifts. After you finish your social service (required after University graduation), you make a report like a thesis -- she did this here in her job, not during school -- that's part of finishing school. They held a party for her when she finished her thesis.
I ask if she has a funny anecdote for me. She says that once standing here by the lab bench, one of the pipes on the wall start leaking, releasing a gas. At first, they thought it was gas because the pipe was colored yellow! They ran outside and turned off the tap but it turned out it was only oxygen (or compressed air?) being released -- the colors on the pipes had been accidentally switched. Orange instead of yellow.
What's it like to be a woman in science? She knows when she first came here, there were other people who didn't agree that she should come here. Not because she's a woman, but because she's so young. She has a B.S. in Chemical Eng.
I ask, Where would you work if you were too young to work here? She says she made her thesis before she started getting paid... she worked here as part of her "service hours". She got the job because one of the doctors liked her. There was someone else working here, who'd worked here for 6 years, but who was not "on a contract", who did NOT get the job. Having a contract means you have social security and infoamavit & the 13th month.
They have deep blue cabinets in this lab, which is L-shaped because the room is shared with an office cut off by glass partitions. Orange & yellow pipes on the walls, thin ones, maybe 2 cm across. It's clean and the A/C is humming. They have a gas chromatograph, white fridges, wooden stools, a white-tiled sink with a bunch of lab glasses: beakers, washed and draining in a commonplace plastic dish drainer rack. Computers along the walls. Yellow and metal and blue pipes for gas.
Another anecdote: Some people came from other places in Mexico to do their theses & needed to be taught. There's a new student getting an MS, and professors are having trouble with her. One year ago, a couple of Swedes came here and they were arrogant and thought that Mexicans didn't know anything. She would order people around, but the Mexicans just ignored her and laughed. Mexicans don't get mad -- they just laugh. But in the end, the Mexicans had to show them everything -- how to use the equipment, etc. When the Swedes finally left, here they held a big party! The doctor who invited the Swedes had problems with them, too.
All the bosses have PhD, and almost all the bosses are foreigners. Only 1 or 2 are from Yucatan. Mostly Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina. They have to send out to Mexico City for research on some animals that they're not allowed to have here. The Chamber of Environment is in charge of authorizing animals: lobsters, sunfish. (This is another agricultural-specializing biotech lab.)
There are pay categories from A to I. She is a "B" at 1300 pesos/month. One of her friends is an "I" at 5500 pesos/month. Even though she makes more than minimum wage, the government pays her infoamavich... any professional institution would. She does not make enough to live in north merida in the rich section. If she wanted to buy a car: impossible! You'd need 5000 pesos a month for that. But her institution might help her. Big companies, for example, give infonavich credit.
They work 8-5 but have a half hour for lunch. No siesta. Mexican normally eat breakfast 6-8am, lunch 12:30-2, and dinner 7-9pm. Most high-tech or modern cmopanies don't do a siesta. But even professionals may take a siesta if it's convenient, for example, if you live really close to work.
It's raining. Rain fills the streets. It's raining so hard, the drains can't keep up. We pass "Euronovias", a bridal shop. "novia" & "nobio" are bride & groom in Spanish OR the same term means girlfriend & boyfriend. We pass a man, walking, who drops litter. The older woman scientist might afford a car and shop at the mall on the north side, but couldn't afford a house here. The first generation to leave the village may actually prefer a house in the older part of town because there's less culture shock to live there.
Movies here are in English w/Spanish subtitles, except disney films for kids -- they assume kids may not know english yet. On a salary of 5500 pesos, you can't come often to the mall. Mexicans who can afford it like to buy trendy jeans. Cheap jeans: 40 pesos. Trendy: 900 pesos! "Neoliberalism": things normal in the USA become trendy & luxury items in Mexico. Merida is typical of Mexico: a big city with tiny villages all around, where people live modestly.
Our guide, Jorge, says that all these changes in technology are good as long as the young remember the sacrifices that people have made who came before them.
Chiapas is not as dangerous as Mexico City, Jorge says. Drivers are sometimes assaulted, even on public buses, so don't drive around late at night in Chiapas. Robberies have been a problem for tourists who go from Palenque to the ruins at Yaxchilan. So every morning at 6am, there's a convoy of policemen who go with a bunch of buses, basically guarding them en route. If you miss the fleet, then you cannot go. The Zapatistas stop you with an AK-47, which is quite popular. The gun is also called the "goat horn", or "cuerno de chivo". They wear a ski mask garment that covers the head, called a "pasamontanas", with a tidle over the 'n'. They ask for money.
I ask what are the elements of conflict in family life? Jorge says that the role of mothers is very important in Mexico. The son keeps confidence with mother, tells more to mother (about girlfriends, marriage) than to father. Most mothers ask for respect. One conflict could be the parents not accepting a marriage. If there's a pregnancy, the parents may be against the marriage. Or they may accept the marriage but both families give help. Often couples break up after 1-2 years. Parents NEVER have an abortion. If a 16-yr-old gets pregnant, she will have to bear the child. Usually the child drops out of school.
Typically, parents force them to marry. Lots of social pressure not to be an unwed mother. What would be the reasons NOT to marry? Well, if they come from very well-bred well-educated families, the parents may just say "They made a mistake", and accept the single mother. In Mexico you can see many mature young people still living with parents, until 26 years old. Some marriages break up in 2-3 years, some stay married. Of course, you can't get a divorce in Catholicism, so if you marry once, you can't marry again -- at least not a church marriage. However, it's possible to get a civil divorce and a civil remarriage.
Jorge has a friend who's 26. She got pregnant at 17 and both families agreed to a marriage -- but it was a civil marriage only. The Mexican saying "You cannot even bathe yourself", it means you're very young and naive. The couple had the first baby, a second baby two years later -- they ended up married for six years. But since it was only a civil marriage, she is still free to get a church marriage. But she'll need to find a man who loves her and accepts her two children. She has an alcohol problem, too.
We see a buzzard -- it's all black. Here in Yucatan, the dry season is Apr & May. Jun-Nov is the rainy season: a couple of hours of rain almost every afternoon. Rains come and then quickly vanish here: not like in good old New England! Some days, though, it rains all day for a couple of days.
Culture in Chiapas: life is more poor, they depend on tourism & farming. Jungle, rainforest, rivers. The Lacandon are a Mayan people who are direct descendants of natives without much influence from the outside. They're still living in the jungle.
We're passing through a village. Corrugated metal replaces the straw roofs sometimes. Stucco is cracking and falling off, revealing cement on some buildings. A man has a mustache & beard, lots of long hair. They sell handcrafts for tourists, including bows and arrows.
You can't bargain in a mall. But you can bargain at a Mayan marketplace or in a village. Would you find a mall (like in North Merida) in Chiapas? Maybe around Tuxtla, but not Palenque. Tuxtla is the capital. The authorities and the banditos cary guns in Chiapas.
The bandits are by themselves; they are not allied with the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas hold up buses "politely", asking for money and getting 10 pesos from each tourist. The banditos are violent; they'll stick the gun right up to your head and rip off your jewelry and watch. From Palenque to Ocosingo there's a jungle where the Zapatistas area. It's a a beautiful town that is very touristy. There's a beautiful canyon nearby, waterfalls, lakes, and jungle.
How would a hold-up work? Three or four Zapatistas stop the bus, and tell them "nothing to worry about. 10 pesos per tourist". It shows they have control politically, and they won't take anything violently. They get maybe 100-500 pesos for the whole bus. Would they get angry if you refused to give money? Jorge says, I don't want to find out. Both men and women are Zapatistas. They dress differently than banditos.
A bandito would get you out of your car, hit you, search your body, then it's all over and they leave. Banditos mostly at night.
Other kinds of crime: well, you can get mugged in Tuxtla if you're walking around at night. Palenque is OK to walk during day, but at night, even for Mexicans it is not safe to walk around.
Most villages are on the Zapatista's side in Chiapas. The government keeps trying to "have chats" with them. Since 1994 this Zapatista movement. Twice they broke off relations. The government then says to the people, "please, let's chat". When it started in 1994, the government sent the army over there.
Two financial problems the Zapatistas caused: Many people think that Zapatistas caused the devaluation of Mexican currency, because investors stopped investing when the Zapatista uprising happened. Also bad for tourism industry. Thus the politicians and businessmen are angry with the Zapatistas.
There are 2.5m Indians in Mexico, the biggest concentration of native american people. The woman is a symbol of respect, the old Mayan fertility god -- the calendar is based on 260 days (length of gestation). A macho man still respects his mother, and respects his wife because she's a mother. The mother always supports her girls -- very close, especially when girls are teenaged. They visit church to pay tribute to Virgin of Guadelupe, and visit graveyards and bring floewers. Your mother is an inspiration to work hard, so you can take care of her. In the old days, typically parents would come to live with their children, who'd take care of them, instead of sending them to a retirement home (except for the rich). Children can even look after their elderly parents if they're living in a separate home. The woman is typically given more money and attention by the children.
Ten years ago, Jorge's father was studying & was invited by a travel agency to work in Cancun. The first tourists were coming to Merida in the 1970s and 1980s. But Jorge's mother didn't want him to go: the schools in Cancun are dangerous and there's drugs there. The mother had a veto over moving. She didn't like the quality of life there. "All the people my son will be dealing with will be different: discos, bars, drugs, because there's money flowing." Teenagers get too much "experience". Parents try to protect their kids from drugs. There's now a drug problem in Merida, too, but less than bigger cities. Cancun is the fast life.
Kids have pinatas at birthday parties until the age of 11 or 12. They have clowns. For food, tamales or spaghetti, or sandwiches, plus a cake with candles and they sing Happy Birthday. First, you break the pinata, then sing. Chant "mordida" or whistle while the birthday kid bites the cake. They wait until the kid is distracted and then push his face into the cake. Then maybe a show. All relatives prepare the food. Adults also have this face-in-the-cake ritual.
An office party: refreshments, sodas, perhaps a cake, spaghetti, nachos, usually beer or bacardi rum, potato chips, refried black beans pureed w/nachos, cheese chips, also jalapeno & chili next to the chips & melted cheese.
Young ladies have a debutante-style coming-out party when they're 15: it's both a social and a religious thing. You rent a special place and invite 500 people. It can cost 30,000 pesos. You buy her a dress. The most important thing is having a mass at the church, to show gratefulness, before the party. Afterwards, a reception which may go to 3 or 4 am, during which the father gives a speech, like "She's always been a good girl and we pray to God she'll have a good life." They talk about her childhood and all the things they've taught her.
Dancing and music. They play tropical music & disco in English and Spanish.
Then at midnight, they have dinner. 95% of teenagers love this party and look forward to it for years.
nina = girl up to 12. senorita = young woman, unmarried. A senora is someone married, but anyone 35 years old or older is senora. When in doubt, call someone a senorita, because it's a compliment. It's like saying "you look young".
I take a taxi ride. There's a white braided rug over the driver's car seat. A plush interior. It's a compact car. The driver accelerates right into traffic that's clearly stopped at a light, and then brakes heavily. Ugh. The same rug-like white material covers the back seat. He couldn't speak any english, so I wrote down the street numbers for him.
We park dark green buses -- the community buses -- with yellow on the winshield giving their destinations. There are ads on the sides and back in plain yellow scriptz. It's very much like the MBTA but not as extensive.
The sidewalks are often too narrow. Once I had to turn my back to a wall because a bus rode up very close, right up to the curb, missing me by only a foot.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 14TH -- OAXACA
We fly to Oaxaca, going out of our way through Mexico City first. We go to the main square and have dinner. We hear "jingle bells" in Spanish, the only words in English being "jingle bells", with a rock beat. This is weird, because there's no snow in Mexico. So how can they just pick up American customs like Jingle Bells? (Although, to be fair, I don't think I have ever personally gone for a horse-drawn sleigh ride!)
There's a gathering just off the town plaza with a white polar bear costume and an MC doing some kind of Santa Claus lap sitting thing. There's a gingerbread house with lights and "Coca-Cola" signs all over it. This event must have been sponsored by Coca-Cola.
At the restaurant, the restroom doors say "hombres" & "damas".
The next morning, we hear the insistent CLANK of a church bell every half hour at 6:30 and 7:30. They ring perhaps 20 times. We can also hear the rumble of cars passing.
We go to a different hotel to meet a tour guide, and while we're waiting, we meet an American PhD in the lobby who lives here and makes films about weird places in the world. His next project is something about the Millenium and ancient Mayan ruins. We ask him for an insight into Mexico. He says that many Mexicans are lazy. They open their shop but don't bother to get any cash to give change, so they just turn away customers until one comes by with exact change. He says Mexico is very different from (safer than) Columbia. "I wouldn't set one foot in Colombia."
By now, I've decided that the best area to set my book would be in Chiapas, especially San Cristobal. It's a hotbed of revolutionary activity and crime.
I've transcribed information from a hotel tour book on Chiapas:
-- capital is Tuxtla Gutierrez
-- a coffee-growing region
-- home of Mexico's "marimba" music
-- there's an airport in Tuxtla
-- Tuxtla City Zoo has only animals native to the region: extremely rare quetzal bird & harpy eagle
"San Cristobal" is a main city, short for "San Cristobal de Las Casas". It's an indigenous Chiapaneca town in the heart of the state's jungle highlands at 7,200 feet. It's a two hour drive (or bus ride) from Tuxtla.
Tuxtla has tropical heat and plant life, but as you gain elevation towards San Cristobal, this gradually gives way to nippy mountain air and pine forests. The days are sunny and warm in San Cristobal, but the nights are chilly (or cold if raining).
San Cristobal: Amber is plentiful in the region, and shops sell it in jewelry, especially with silver. The indigeous presence is overwhelming. It's a market town, drawing Indians from the surrounding areas to sell handwoven good and earthenware.
The Chamulas are the most prominent members of the Tzotzil & Tzeltal Mayan tribes. Chamula women wear blue tops and black woolen skirts and serapes. They display stacks of cotton tablecloths, pillowcases, and thick woolen sweaters. San Juan Chamula is eight miles north of San Cristobal. There are a small number of streets in the town square, but the main attraction is the church. They practice a blend of Christian and Indian religions.
Tourists can take horseback excursions over winding mountain trails. By car, they can go to the Lakes of Montebello, practically on the Guatemalan border. A lovely chain of lakes.
There's another local indigenous group: the Lacandan Indians, who live deep in Chiapas rainforest. They resist 20th century changes the most of all native Indians in N. America. There are only about 600 Lacandan left.
You can take a small charter flight from San Cristobal's new airport to the Mayan ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilan in the Chiapas rain forest. Both are accessible by boat via Usumacinta River, but it takes a rugged camper to hike it. Bonampak is Mayan for "painted walls". Yaxchilan is buried deep in forest in a loop of the Usumacinta River, barely inside Mexico.
Tuxtla: avg temp 76.5 degrees. Alt 1,731 ft. Pop 295,000. Airport: "Tuxtla Gutierrez". Airlines: Aerocaribe, Aviacsa, Mexicana de Aviacion.
I've asked our tour guide, Nicolas, to drum up some research on Chiapas. He says they farm coffee, beans, corn. The climate is 24-27 degrees Celsius. It rains, whether the rainy season or not. They use a "manta" for dressing, it's a kind of wool. Mountainous, but there are somewhat flat valley areas.
In the Indian villages, the town decides everything together. The villages are a 3 hour walk away from the main road, or even as much as 13 hours away. Most of the roads have been closed because Chiapas flooded, and it will take 3-5 years to repair the roads: there's no money.
EPR "ejescito popular revolucionario" (sp?) almost the same (?) as Zapatistas.
Government considers villages around San Cristobal part of the Zapatistas. Most of the poor people are obligated to do what the rich people want. The rich people try to control the villages that normally work by unanimous consent. The poor people don't want to be controlled.
The army & federal police are established over in Chiapas, but they don't allow you to go into the villages. "They don't want you to see what's going on, that's why they don't let you take pictures." Later, I learn that this view is wrong.
Many poor people have a family member who's in jail unfairly. The government sometimes imprisons people for 5-10 years.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 15TH -- OAXACA & MITLA RUINS
We meet our guide Nicolas early in the morning. I ask him about the strange Christmas tree and Santa's lap thing. He says that only started ten years ago. The young people rebel against the old Mexican culture and they want to be different.
What kinds of industry is in Chiapas? He says hotel, restaurants, travel agencies. Rich people own a lot of land. He says they grow "mice"... he means "maize". Rich people give 30 pesos a day. That's the local minimum wage in Oaxaca. People who work in a hotel, work 8 hours a day. But farmers can work 12-14 hours. There are bad working conditions. Only given a few minutes at lunch, no break time. In restaurants, most of the time if you order something from the kitchen, but it's a mistake and the customer doesn't want it, the waiter or waitress must pay for it. Similarly, if a customer doesn't pay the hotel bill, the employee pays.
10 or 20% of the young people from these villages go to the USA to work illegally. Note, it's not illegal in Mexico to do this, so if you get caught crossing the border and sent back to Mexico, the Mexico government doesn't imprison you. However, the Mexican government is quite strict about many things. If you have a gram of cocaine you go to jail for five years. Or one cigarette of marijuana. You can pay the cops 1000 or 2000 pesos and they'll let you go. How do you feel about bribery? "We are used to it."
I ask him to play out a scene for us. What would it be like to bribe a policeman? Let's say Nancy is driving. If she drives OK, then no problem. But if she breaks the law, policeman are very alert because they are looking for an opportunity to get bribed. So they'll pull you over for even small infractions.
Policeman: Good morning
Nancy: What did I do?
Policeman: You passed a stop light
Nancy: We can negotiate about this. Shows bill to policeman: 20, 50, or 100 pesos. "Let's make a deal."
Policeman: Either "No way.", or depending on how much "yes".
To get a ticket for running a red light costs 50-60 pesos. So bribery costs about as much as the ticket, but now Nancy doesn't have to go to "Transito". (some gov't office??). I say, also Nancy doesn't have it on her driving record. But Nicolas says "In Mexico, we don't care about driving record." But... if you get a lot of tickets, they do take your license away.
Nicolas got a ticket, but didn't have money to pay it, so he had to go work for the government for free. He cleaned roads for 80 hours.
We stop at a gas station. A guy in drab green fills our tank.
Nicolas says "all" police are corrupt. Even if you try to bribe an honest policement, bribery is so commonplace that you won't get arrested for attempted bribery. Policemen only get paid every 2 weeks. They make 1000 pesos, for 6 days a week at 8 hours a day. So some police really need the money. Even taking the bus to work can be expensive: 3 pesos each way.
"loxichas" is a community where people were unfairly jailed. Many other communities have this too. People the government says may be revolutionaries, or who are "causing trouble" get jailed. This jailing problem is almost as big in Oaxaca as it is in Chiapas. He says the government doesn't have informants trying to see who is speaking out against the government. A government employee would have to hear you badmouthing the government.
Not so many tourists go to San Cristobal. Villagers need tourists for money, but 30% in San Cristobal don't like the tourists. Outside San Cristobal, in the villages, 90% don't like tourists.
We go to the ruins in the village of Mitla. There are cobblestone streets and chickens walking around outside. I ask our guide if the chickens, not being fenced in, run away or get stolen. He says no. Kind of like cats or dogs, I guess they know where home is.
The car is bouncing on these roads so much I can't even write!
We see some cool-looking cactus fences. They are literally rowrs of straight vertical cacti, side by side in a row, 4-12 feet high, 8 inches wide, forming a fence. No branch offshoots, just vertical. The fence is held together by horizontal wooden branches at the 3-foot level tied on with metal wire.
After seeing the ruins, we shop in a marketplace right next to the parking lot. This is the best stuff we've seen yet, and very cheap. (But our guide later says there are much better places to get Indian artifacts, and takes Amy there.)
Our guide says the people in the village market might make 200 pesos a day. One old woman seems particularly desperate. She insists on showing us a shirt, over and over. We keep saying "No, gracias." but she won't go away. Other women are nicer to us. No men here. We see black polished vases that apparently are unique to Oaxaca. We see beautiful hand-painted sculptures. Brown clay stauettes. We buy quite a bit of stuff, and the women are always having to get change from each other. One women grudingly offers me a small clay bird because she can't get 10 pesos change for me, from the 100 pesos I've given her for a small dragon.
Sometimes in Oaxaca they'll have a big party and just close off the street for the party. We're now only about 250 miles from Mexico City.
The small village at Mitla: stucco buildings, often cracking or "peeling" stucco. On the main road, there are rows and rows of shops selling Indian art, bright-colored rugs. Paved street, but many bumps. Occasionally, we see a sign "Tope" and a wide speed bump. I see a sign "no consumas drogas" -- "don't use drugs," I assume.
Just outside the village is an open land fill. It's just a dump. Filthy mud mounds of dirt and charred grey paper spotted with bright pieces of blue or red plastic. Small threads of smoke rise up from the burning. Occasionally by the roadside there's burning garbage with no one to tend it. Our guide says people don't care if there's a fire. There's plenty of garbage along the roadside. Nicolas says people are raised to just throw garbage anywhere. We're high up in the mountains and the roads are very twisty. Small cement posts line the roadside: half white at the top, half black at the bottom. Some posts have been knocked over as though a car went off the road! The guardrails along the precipitous drop are sporadic.
Sometimes it's clear that the mountain face has been cut away for the road, as we drive through an area with a sheer vertical rock wall. We're at the same height as the clouds up here. We see weird riverbed-like rock formations. There are really big floods here which wash away sections of the land, leaving little "toadstools", then after the floods they become a dry riverbed.
Our guide says that around San Cristobal it's a semi-desert (like here in Oaxaca) because the mountains block rainfall. There's a triangular groove to one side of the road for drainage. I see a raven-like bird, a "buitres", black with brown wingtips. These birds are found all over Mexico, including Chiapas (buzzards, too).
It's cooler up here in the mountains. People who live in the Oaxaca mountains raise goats, sheep, cows, horses, mules, and donkeys. To get to Chiapas from Oaxaca, drive down the mountains, two hours flat around the coast, the back up the mountains. I see small cows with a brown top & white bottom -- not mottled.
We turn off from the paved mountain road onto a gravel side street. There's red dirt here, kind of like being on Mars! In the distance, on the mountains, there's a faint red hue amongst the scattered green shrubs and trees that dot the mountainside.
We see Tweety Bird and some other cartoon characters from the USA. Nicolas says that in Chiapas, such culture hasn't yet invaded -- but they do have Coca-Cola everywhere.
I ask, what are the mountain people like in Chiapas? A little closed-minded. They don't want to mix with other people. They think they are OK doing things as they're doing. They're poor but happy -- except that in Chiapas there are problems so sometimes they're unhappy.
Our guide, Nicolas, has a Russian name, but his family is Zapotecos. He has a brown skin color like a South Asian, and an eagle nose. He drives close to the edge of the mountain road on the left to avoid potholes on the right. And this is a two-way road. Yikes! No railings at all on this gravel road.
Nicolas says that if someone on the street wanted his photo, he would say no, because most people who take photos here are professional photographers who would make money. He says people feel exploited and their privacy is invaded. He says people in the USA think Mexicans are weird and backwards but we say NO -- we're humans too and our culture does make sense.
Nicolas has family in California, which he visited as an illegal alien, and they were surprised that he spoke Spanish. They thought he was an indian and would dress like one. They thought he'd never speak Spanish in his life. Another cousin thought it was weird that Nicolas ate a hamburger!
We pass a home I'd like a picture of. Nicolas stops the car, and calls to the old woman. There's this incredible look on her face of the necessity of money. We give her 10 pesos and she goes "oh!" with her face and ambles right over to the car. She's wizened and has a wrinkled face, but I bet that's the sun's effect. I bet she isn't older than 50. She looks more like 80.
"Hierve El Agua" -- some sign I saw.
We drive up to a "natural spring" that tourists go to. There are food vendors lined up by the mountain edge but we don't dare eat or drink anything. Our guide has a different idea about food safety than we do. He offers an orange, but we say no. He insists that it's safe, but then I ask, "Is it safe to drink the water?" (which we KNOW it's not) and he assures us that it is. OK. No safety tips from the guide or we'll end up with stomach cramps and diarrhea.
This is a mountain vista. We walk down a trail. The rock is volcanic and very uneven and craggy. It's pitted like moon rock. The dirt is grey but slightly red from the clay. It's very windy up here. My hat is yanked against my chip strap many times. I can hear the wind blowing through the trees. It's very peaceful and silent here. Everything has been dried out, presumably the wind whips away any moisture. Shrubs and long grass here.
We see an expanse of mountains around us. It's all covered with trees, except one sheer cliff face, white, where bushes cannot grow. Red ants on the ground. He shows us the natural spring. Not that big a deal. The view is much more impressive.
Chiapas crops: corn, beans, coffee, depend on the rainy season. Yes, San Cristobal is in the mountains, but there are some flattish places where crops can be placed. Cacti grow on a hillside studded with rocks and yellow dry grass. The grass is two feet high here. Yellow or brown. It looks dried out.
"piru", a tree or bush I believe. You make tea with the leaves to help a stomach ache. Very gnarled branches and green leaves at the tips. Small, fern-like leaves. A mint-like smell.
The corn fields in the distance look like brown "ripples" on the land. Piles of brown the size of a cow dot the field. Nicolas says those are piles of corn husks, fed to cows, donkeys, and horses.
Another gust of wind. It's very windy! The gust picks my hat off my head and puts it back onto my shoulders, held by the string. Little drops of water are picked up from the river below and find their way to my face. A stronger gust buffets us, causing rustling wind noises as it rushes past our ears.
The shrubs and trees are green here, but there are dots of bright yellow flowers on the shrubs, and dots of white and red flowers on the trees. There are yellow butterflies and even tiny one inch purple flowers from the bushes.
We drive back. The dirt and gravel road is very dusty. Some of the houses don't use professional bricks -- just homemade adobe bricks of slightly irregular shapes.
In Oaxaca, most villages have a high school, or if they don't, you can walk an hour to get to one. You pay 200 pesos a year and pay your own stationery & books. Farmers earn 5 pesos a day, so 200 is a lot! Primary & secondary school is not so costly: 80 or 100 pesos a year.
Most children have to move to the center of Oaxaca for college. Colleges are "free" but there's an annual payment??? I don't understand what Nicolas is saying.
In Chiapas, the rainy season is March to October. Then no rain Nov-Feb. We see green on the mountain rocks; it's lichen, which we didn't see higher up. There are animals grazing to the side of the road. There are black goats & brown goats grazing under the eye of a 10-yr-old boy with a filthy deep blue shirt. There's burning garbage strewn on the side of the road.
Tourism is mostly July, August, December, around Easter, and around the Day of the Dead.
On the way back from Mitla, we slowly rediscover civilization and stop at the first restaurant that takes credit cards. It's scary to be eating this far out... flies in restaurant although clean otherwise. They're using a bulldozer to build something; they're taking away the rubble from a demolished wing. I sit in the bathroom and choke on the dusty air, with bulldozer sounds right next to me on the other side of the wall. I imagine the headline: "Gringo Dies in Freak Bulldozer Accident" but fortunately the bathroom wall stays intact.
I ask my guide, what would Chiapas people think about the new biotech lab I'm planning to have in my book? He says they would think it OK because the lab is giving them money and helping with economic growth. People who work there would be having an experience they'd never had before: working for a big company. They'd be proud to have a job there.
But what about the hatred of people who don't have a job? Well, first the outsiders must "win over" the local people's trust. Give them money, fix up the church, or build a hospital or school.
What if a company took over land that was farmland, charges high rent, and only offered minimum wage jobs, and did nothing for the town? That would make them angry, he says.
What if it turned out that the biology research was immoral? Different generations might fight, the older not liking it, and the younger just wanting the money.
"caciques" = "rich people". Rich people will take care of the police. After all the rich are the "owners" of the community. In Chiapas there are some collectives, where the land belongs to the community and they decide whether to sell it. Nicolas thinks that probably the Zapatistas wouldn't allow the government to set up a biotech lab.
There's a Mexican saying, "I'll be dreaming with you tonight", in other words, I'll be sharing your thoughts.
The owner of the restaurant comes out and shows up how natural dyes are made. Probably this is why Nicolas took us here -- so we'd buy some of the rugs! Amy likes the rugs, though, and besides, we're curious how the dyes work.
They get powder from various sources, and put the powder under a stone rolling pin, making a paste. That paste goes into water for color.
Indigo grows on the coast in "heletepec"(?). They let the leaves ferment for one week.
The owner of the restaurant dresses modern. Clean, with styled hair, patterned grey shirt with white symbols. Jeans (not faded), brown belt buckle, brown shoes. His assistant: she has a machine-made simple plaid dress onto which red flowers have been embroidered.
They ferment spanish moss, boiling it every 4 or 5 hours for a few days.
She is carding the wool between two cards of metal brushes. Wool has a lot of impurities. When you card it, the impurities fall out. Usually a woman does carding and spinning.
"huizache": inedible, looks like green beans. Dry and grind it to get jet black dye.
Dyes with natural colors takes a long time, and is also more expensive than chemical dyes. You can dye 10 kilos a day natural but 100 kilos chemical. Also, you must handle the natural dyes right or it won't be "colorfast"... I guess that means it will run in the wash. I ask him why he bothers with the natural dyes. He says that tourists come here to buy something authentic and traditional.
The original Indians had dyes and spinning, and then the Spanish introduced wheel and loom.
Fermenting happens with a bucket of water and the wool in the bucket. Chemical dyes: boil with wool for 30 minutes. But natural dyes, boil & ferment for days.
As we drive away, I ask Nicolas: What are the common mistakes that Americans make when they are new to Mexico? He says that locals would not want an American around. "Whenever we see an American, we see dollar signs". Americans who talk too much or invade your privacy. Or Americans who try to do something that locals have been doing for years, and it turns out the American can't do it. If you try to get the Indians to do stuff for you for free or get too intrusive.
The black pottery is unique to Oaxaca, because minerals in the ground turn black. Elsewhere, the bottery may just be painted black... but you'd be able to tell the difference.
We pass through a checkpoint. Men with machine guns, green caps, black boots, green helmet, army green w/green jacket with many pockets. "green fatigues"? They didn't stop us. Nicolas says they are looking for drugs, guns, machine guns, illegal aliens from Guatemala or Nicaragua. If Guatemalans want to illegally enter the US, they first illegally enter Mexico. To be legal, a Guatemalan must provide a visa saying he has permission for vacation, job, school, etc. It's much easier to come to Mexico because of the Pacific ocean. Guatemalans just arrive by ship.
Nicolas tells us how he went to the US illegally himself. (Yikes!) He crossed by running along the beach. His cousin was caught by the border patrol and Nicolas was afraid to be alone, so they got caught together. The border patrol took them to San Diego and asked for their names and signatures, but of course they gave false names.
When Nicolas got caught they kicked him out of the USA. But Nicolas got a "coyote" to take him back to the US and they got in: same thing, running on the beach. The coyote (14,000 pesos) knew what time the water patrol was changing guard: 4:30-5am.
Nicolas stayed three years in the US, worked and studied. You don't need permission to come back to Mexico because he can prove he's from Mexico. Just go to the border and say "I live here -- all my family is here, you can call them." I ask why would an illegal Mexican in the US return to Mexico? Nicolas says someone from the villages would probably stay, because in Mexico they're poor and haven't enough money to farm or do anything. But a Mexican from the city is more likely to come back because he has a future.\
In the US, he got a high school education. They didn't ask for ID, just a certificate of elementary school.
There was a girl who was an illegal in the US. She was 35 years old and had 2 little kids. She applied for alien resident cards. The lawyer told her she had to prove that the children were starting high school. She asked the school for proof, and that helped her to get the alien resident card. Her kids can become full citizens.
Jobs Nicolas had: party rentals, Sizzler Restaurant, Burger King, Taco Bell, Cannery, bakery. He bought a Social Security Number go he could get a job. A birth certificate and a driver's license was enough to get into Mexico.
That evening, Amy and I walk around. We hear on the radio "the little drummer boy". There's a "calenda", a procession -- especially popular on Xmas eve. A "posada" is the Mary & Joseph parade thing where they ask if they can sleep at various houses. Dec 23rd is last posada. They break pinatas on the first or last posada, and give tamales and chocolates and fruits to the kids.
Kids in the back of a pickup truck dressed as angels. "Wise men", little boys on ponies, wear false beards and mustaches. very cute! Everyone is smiling and carrying candles with red cellophane around them. There's a paper mache doll with a kid's face sticking out of the middle through a rectangular hole.
The trailing end of the parade is just a bunch of kids and parents holding the candles on the end of sticks with the red cellophane in a flower shape. The religious nature of the procession is at odds with the beating rock music that comes from the Zocalo square. Squeaky techno voices and a driving rock beat that makes the ground vibrate.
Some kids are gleeful, and some kids are too young to know what's happening. There's a kid in a shepard beard -- so cute! One kid wears "black face" since one of the three wise men was a moor. The parade of kids is pointing, hopping, raising the stick-candles. One kid drags his candle unlit behind him, bored, his Mom dragging him by one arm. A girl with white dress and "angel wings" of real bird feathers.
Meanwhile, across the square, there's the dancing polar bears and the rock music, right next to the 16th century church. The techno music -- this is the Coca-Cola sponsored event. I don't see any animosity, but the clash of old and new is severe here. In front of a huge Xmas tree there's a Santa with a line for kids in front of a Coca-Cola house.
There are numerous vendors in the town square, selling cotton candy and blowing bubbles to "advertise" their wares.
There's a kid (12 years) on the Coca-Cola stage with a microphone, doing some kind of Karaoke? She's next to a Walrus costume guy in a grey suit, and the polar bear with the red Coca-Cola scarf. A mob stands around the stage separated by a white metal crowd separators... like jail bars but squat.
There's a huge speaker system and an MC. A kid hops up on stage and shakes the hand of the Walrus. He gets a big hug! There's another kid, 3 years old, riding on the shoulders of his father. There's one bright light over the stage. There's a kid wearing a fake halo made from wire and tinsel. One kid has a painted-on mustache.
A woman in charge comes out, wearing a Coca-Cola banner in the style of Miss Universe. A youngish woman, hair very severely back, in a brown work suit. She walks on stage and talks with the walrus privately.
The Xmas tree casts a shadow on the church from an opposing bright spotlight. The "santa house" is brown & orange with Coca-Cola all over it. Wreaths and windows. It's only 15'x15' with fake snow on the roof.
Inside the church, the only lighting is very long fluorescent bare bulbs, placed vertically against the ancient columns by the speakers. Huge "sun" rays surround Jesus on the main wall. Red velvet chair for the priest. A row of candled burn in printed glassware of varying designs: usually Virgin Mary, etc. Off to the one side of the church, a mini-chapel where a mass is ongoing (it's 7pm now). There are many other mini-offshoots of the church, little rooms which may have a statue or a big painting dominating a few pews.
Back in the main square, there's a concert by a school orchestra, probably junior high. strings, brass, violin, trombone, bass, french horn. These instruments are expensive -- these kids must be middle class or rich, or maybe the school owns the instruments. There's a really bright rack of three spotlights illuminating the orchestra. The kids are dressed in white shirt & vests on a mini-stage with stereo amplifiers they're not using. There's a large white sign (10'x10') "Centro de Seguridad Social"
Another two of these triple-light racks glare into the audience. To one side are picnic tables with mothers chatting behind it, where a food sale is going on.
There are rows of chairs before the stage. To one side is some of that pressed metal artwork we've seen in Oaxaca. A sheet of metal into which has been dimpled a pattern: fruits and teapots, still life.
Across the square, there's costume jewelry for sale at vendor tables, and black Oaxaca pottery with stylish holes. Popcorn in bags, and junky kids toys. Baloons in various cartoon shapes, and metallic balloons that float.
We have dinner. A Spanish style restaurant on the main square, 2nd floor. The restaurant has marooon, shaped tiles, stucco walls, ceiling with open wooden beams, dark wood and rounded archways giving a view onto the square.
Serenaders come to play: 5 men in black pants, red glossy shirts and black vests. One has a red "pirate" head kerchief. There's a kid -- 16 years? -- in one corner with a tamborine. He's frowning and looking over the edge through an open window to the square below. It's symbolic of kids & adults generations having differing views on tradition.
Clean cut men with serious mustaches! Black patterned shoes. They stand somewhat spread out among those seated on the porch: mostly tourists in plain dark wood chairs and tables with white tablecloths and poinsettias. There are rich Mexicans here: pale skins mean mostly Spanish in their blood, of course.
I smile at one of the seranaders and he smiles back. Now the kid is clapping two wood percussion knockers together, still staring over the balcony to the outside. The desserts are much less sweet than the USA. The cheesecake is almost a plain substrate. No sugar high from eating it.
There's a table of obviously German people: 1. a dirty man, blonde, rugged, unshaved with ponytail & glasses. A black & white sweater and a little rowdy. Black & white sweater rolled half-way up arms. 2. Blond & brown (bleached?) man with hair up and distinctive octagonal glasses and a sport coat over a striped shirt. 3. Checkered shirt, half-collar & glasses, short hair but long sideburns and earrings. 4. a mexican-looking woman. They're all smoking, of course.
The Germans are talking animatedly in pairs. One guy chews into the bread without breaking off a piece. He has wire-frame glasses, too.
In a US restaurant, you give the waiter your credit card, he returns with the slip to sign AND the card. You pocket the card, sign it, and walk out. Usually gives no opportunity for the waiter to check that your signature matches.
However, in Mexico, it's different. The waiter brings back the slip to sign but keeps the card to check the signature. If I just sign the slip and walk out (out of habit), then that means I'm leaving the card behind!
In the square, there's a band. An electric guitar with too much bass playing harmony, drums with red razzle dazzle. Two guys playing a huge wooden merimba with two levels to it. One guy: 3 mallets. One guy: 4 mallets!
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 16TH -- OAXACA
Good morning. I order french toast for breakfast. I get smallish toast slices, cinammon & sugar. There's butter in the egg batter. You can add honey. The french toast is a little under-cooked -- raw eggs, a nightmare for a traveler hoping not to get sick. I eat the crusty edges and avoid the center.
The Chichonal volcano erupted in 1981. It's part of the Chiapas highlands.
The Zapatistas wear a black ski mask. They sell "Subcommandante Marcos" dolls in San Cristobal.
The bathrooms are labelled "damas" and "caballeros". "propina" means "tip".
I have an idea for the book. How about a Lord of the Flies thing. Remember how in that book, the boys were fighting, and then the adults fight World War II sort of the same way? Well, the Indians reacting to technology might mirror how society reacts to technology globally.
People here go to mass, 45 minute or 30 minutes every day.
We're getting a tour of middle class areas from Nicolas, our tour guide. I've asked him to show us where one of my characters might live: a young woman who works in biotech. No zoning laws here, so residences are right next to marts and markets. Gates in cement walls. There are some apartments here. I see a "Rotoplus" water container on a roof. Most people cook for themselves.
There's a dog on one roof we pass. People dress better in this area, and the cars are OK, but not the houses. There's a line of laundry. The stucco is sometimes heavy and with much texture. There's a big difference between lower & middle class. But not so much difference between the middle & rich class culture. Poor people are really poor here: no car, no house. Rich houses have better paint jobs.
Middle people don't want to appear poor. I ask why the houses aren't better kept up. He says people don't have the extra money to spare for paint. They're probably working an extra part-time job and don't have time anyway. People usually focus first on clothing, then car, then house in that order.
Younger people may want to live with their family until they're married, even if they can afford a house. Even Nicolas is married and lives at home. He doesn't care about a house; what he really wants is a car. (It turns out our tour guides have been getting their car for the day only from their agency.)
Nicolas is younger, mid-20s? Beard & mustache, no sideburns. Tan baseball cap. Gold bracelet. t-shirt, no logo or small logo. Dressy pants & brown shoes.
We've asked Nicolas if we can visit some biotech labs here. I'm still trying to get a feel for biotech in Mexico for my book. He takes us to some laboratory. Ugh! The toilet doesn't flush; when Amy presses the lever it just makes a clicking noise, no force feedback. They just pour a pail of water into it. There's a hose for the sink that goes to a hole in the floor. There's a metal plate over the top of the toilet tank.
People are happy even though they don't have money here. There isn't the competitive drive of the US. Children enjoy going to school and hate vacation because their parents make them work.
This lab is a place for analyzing blood for a hospital. There's a small room with a midsize fridge for chemicals. A small 8'x8' room with shelves of chemicals. Old-looking. A centrifuge and a small office: 8'x6' with a computer. It's just this doctor and his female assistant. White stucco.
I interview the guy, but he's no use at all. He insists that science in Mexico is the same as the US. No difference at all. I think he's totally out of touch with reality. He went to California to study. "Unam" is the main school in Mexico City. "People from the US don't know about local viruses like we do."
We leave. Nicolas says they don't always have a meritocracy in Mexico. He was in the US working in a cannery as a packer and he became a forklift drive because he spoke English and worked hard. He earned more that way. But in Mexico, people who chat up the boss win. There are unions: if you're in good, you get a promotion. Hard workers want to work and don't have time to talk.
People who like to work don't like the ones who like to talk. Sometimes there are fights. If a manager has made a mistake, and you tell him that, he'll get angry. To get a job you must get a reference.
Now we go to the local University. There's a bus stop here, with students waiting. Two hug, like they're parting for Xmas break. One is holding a manila folder. The parking lot is filthy: trash all over, and two snack stands for selling things.
The University has cement walkways. There are some new buildings here. There's a fresh wood frame with a cement foundation. Not completely built, and it's filled with students in chairs having class taught! I guess they need the space. Trash on the ground. I ask Nicolas again about it, "It's just the culture to drop trash anywhere. People think, It's not my job to pick up garbage. Housekeeping service will do it."
Students are proud to graduate from this university. They take entrance exams and must come from high school (3 yrs, grades 10-12). The school is closed for Xmas break, so we leave.
OK. I have to face reality here. I'm not getting a good sense for Chiapas here in Oaxaca. I naively thought that Mexico would have a pretty similar culture everywhere. But Chiapas is really different from its neighbors, Yucatan and Oaxaca. I'm going to have to go to Chiapas, despite the traveler advisories. Nicolas helps me book a flight. Amy will stay here while I go.
Lunch at the airport involves a horribly tough, thin steak thing, very greasy. And plain refried beans, with string cheese. Ugh. I get tickets to and go through the metal detector. I'm wearing a big hat, which I use to store the stuff from my pockets as I go through the detector. The guards in black don't even bother too look in the hat! I could have snuck anything through!
I walk outside to a rollable stairway up into the jet. The tarmac is black with yellow lines. It's a small jet: 18 rows of 5 seats each. Brown grass in distance, then trees, then mountains & clouds in a haze. Clouds don't necessarily mean rain in Oaxaca. Dim sunlight.
The flight is only 10% full. Announcements are in both English & Spanish over the loudspeaker. A thin slice of sky peeks between the heavy dark cloud cover and the tall mountains on the horizon. The side of the runway has 3 foot tall grass, brownish with some yellow and green. There are villages going up onto the foothills of the mountains. The mountains are one huge encircling range.
The whine of engines is concurrent with the blowing of air through the overhead air each seat has. A rumble of wheels and a low hum. Vibrations, very bumpy. The baggage racks shudder and vibrate. Oaxaca is dirt roads amidst rectangular fields. The sun and clouds make reflections on the water. The reflections change as our airplane moves (changing our angle with respect to the water). Dirt roads through the forest surround little clusters of towns, which are quite spread out from each other. Wisps of cloud, and finally a white blur seals off the view as we rise into the cloud bank.
A little turbulence, with a few drops which I can feel in my stomach. Yikes! Please, don't crash this plane! We rise above the clouds and for the first time there's harsh sunlight. It's hot! I can feel the sunlight through the window. I close it.
This plane is a McDonnel Douglas DC9. "Chaleco saluavidas abajo de su asiento" = "Life vest is under your seat". "abroche su cinturon" = "fasten your seat belt". My seat back is upright and my tray table is stowed, but stewardess asks me to open my window! (Why? So I can see it better if we crash?) I obediently do it.
Now we're coming in for the landing. There's a terrible groaning and vibration on the left side of the aircraft as we turn left into the descent. Like a sick whale. Fields: lots of green trees. This place is greener than Oaxaca. The mountains with green and occasional white where a sheer cliff is too vertical for trees to grow. There's an airstrip in the middle of a field.
The force of landing jars open the tray table next to me, startling me. In the distance a row of yellow stucco houses with traditional red cylinder roofs. The cabin door is unlocked and wide open the whole trip.
There's steam or something coming down from the vent just in front of the cabin door. Some trick of humidity? I go down the rolling stairs at Tuxtla and got a taxi. There's a putrid smell here with the windows open as we cross town. They're building a small parallel highway. There are kids on bikes, baseball caps & t-shirts & backpacks. Also men on bikes. Behind a chain fence are many colorful little house-shack things and many shrines. Is that a cemetary?
The city looks similar to Oaxaca, but dirtier. There are lots of signs for ships along the highway. Men on motorscooters. An old man with a painter's cap is pushing a squat popsicle cart, all hunched over.
Pepsi, Domino's Pizza, etc. The driver points stuff out to me, talking happily in Spanish and of course I have no idea what he's saying, but he doesn't seem to notice. I think he says "central boulevard"... maybe this is the main street of Tuxtla. We pass an army green truck, empty, on the highway.
There's a white beetle volkswagon, painted up with a yellow stripe and numbers as a "taxi". Sam's Club, McDonald's, "Pemex" is the gas station we saw in Oaxaca, too.
A small minibus / van crammed with 10 people. It's white with a stripe. "collectivo": a collective taxi.
There's a man, an Indian, with a pink/purple mauve sweater, with crutches and a missing leg, going amongst the cars with a small boy and begging with a metal cup. KFC. Nissan cars. BBV = "Banco Bilbao Vizcaya"(?) we saw that in Oaxaca, too.
Two one-way streets around a central island with tall palm trees. There are three lanes each way, tons of signs jammed in and businesses on the side of the road. There are cute little sub-compact cars here, junky & with patchy paintwork. I think, what kind of damage & repair could have caused that patchy paintwork?
John Deere. Honda. Some people are in faddish dumpy clothing, like teenagers in the US who want a sportscar but can only afford a broken down rusty one. Just another example of how lower class in the US is like middle class here in Mexico. We see one fancy honda motorcycle, sleek with pink tiger stripes. The crowded signs are jutting out over the street.
Yikes! Now I'm in the bus station and have no idea how to find my actual bus. I'm alone in a remote violent part of a third-world country. I'm a foot taller than everyone else here. There are no tourists here at all. I missed the 4pm bus, so I wait, but discover I should go across the street for the 5:30 bus to San Cristobal.
Nobody speaks English here, but I get by (barely!) with my tourist phrasebook. This is only Tuxtla. It's going to get worse out in the frontier, in San Cristobal. Probably foolishly, I stick lots of cash & a credit card into my left shoe, in case I get mugged. It's fairly flat but I would not want to run like this. A guy with the shirt "equipajero" on the back helps me. It's a dark blue with a green stripe. A sign on the TV commercial: "consulte a su pediatria" ... consult your doctor before taking this drug?
It's weird to be the only gringo in the bus station: but the TV is playing music videos, many of which are American in English. On the TV is a children's show with a talking water spritzer and talking computer graphics household items. Another commercial shows a mexican girl kissing and hugging and brushing the hair of "Kelly", a white doll with blonde hair. How's that for cultural indoctrination? Little girls being taught that the best thing to be is WHITE.
I manage to parrot some Spanish from the guidebook fairly fluently and without actually reading it. If I miss this bus, I'll be stranded here. I've gotten another person to confirm that I'm standing in the right place. So I feel better now. (I'm told later that although no one dresses like an Indian in Tuxtla, that there are plenty of native villagers here.)
A guy with a wand sweeps me for metallic objects before I get on the bus. The bus is fancy: it's like an airplane inside, but all grab blue & grey colors. It's clean & modern. Midnight blue velvety curtains over the windows secured by velcro. There's an Indian mother with a video game bleeping and a baby in her lap, sitting next to the father. Some Mexicans have Indian features, but severely Indian appearances have the eagle nose, very dark skin, severely black hair, and a sort of alien body language.
I purchased an assigned seat in the front row, "so I can see", but a partition totally blocks by view forward. There are air and light fixtures overhead, like in an airplane. It's 5:30, a little cold but not much. My left foot hurts where I've stashed the credit card.
A dozen young men (college?) board with clean white dress shirts, immaculate appearance and black pants, and ties. Smiling and very polite. They say "buenos tardes" to everyone as they enter. Are they tourists? They're wearing pocket protectors that say Jesuchristo.
Driver is wearing a jacket -- formal -- and a red tie & white shirt. Some Mexicans have dark blotches like moles. There are a few TVs in the bus; including one right in front of me.
The students ask me to take their picture, so I step into the aisle and hold on with one hand as the bus moves. They hand me like six cameras in succession. I'm interviewing a student, who comes to sit next to me in the front and speaks some English. He's worked in Monterrey selling cell phones. They're Mormon missionaries from Monterrey. "Elder" is his Mormon name.
The missionaries don't go to the villages -- dangerous -- the Indians kill missionaries! Yikes! The FBI of Mexico is the "Procuraduria General de la Republica".
This guy is very talkative but he keeps straying from the questions I'm asking him. I think he's trying to get control of the conversation so he can convert me to being a Mormon! This might be an eerie theme for the book: someone who appears friendly to the desperate protagonist, but turns out to have a underlying motive.
The Indian villages all have different cultures and styles of clothing. They're not social with other Indian cultures. Indians learn a small amount of English to help sell to tourists in the marketplace. What would an Indiain seller woman think of tourists? She thinks tourists come from a far, far, place and they are very rich! Tourists dress strangely and are very tall, with white skin. North Mexicans can be just as strange to these local people as Americans, because the skin is not so dark and their culture is similar to USA.
Last time on the bus, he ate just before the trip and threw up in the bathroom. Great news. There are twisty parts here in the bus and I'm nauseous. Too much writing. I'm sweating too, it's hot outside, but too many people in the bus makes it hot inside. We're going up a road, it's dark now. Arggh. I'm in agony, trying to keep myself from vomiting.
(I'm writing this following part after I get off the bus!)
He says he can give me a book on Mormonism, but it's in Spanish, so he gives me a magazine instead. I accept this as the price for my being able to question him. The boys are 18-25 years. Every Mormon must do 2 years missionary work. For some of the guys this trip to San Cristobal is extra missionary work. Now I want my missionary friend to leave me be.
The bus is bumping. It's cold and drizzling, but I'm sweating and clenching my stomach against "hiccups" of bile. Inside, I'm clenching my stomach muscles trying to burp a little to release gas but no liquid. There are no straight segments at all here. There are always tight curves. The bus lurches from one curve left to one curve right. That's the worst, when it lurches. I ask the driver if he can stop for just a couple of minutes, but he says no. I pantomime vomiting noises. He says go to the bathroom to throw up. Great.
Please please don't throw up. It almost makes me start praying. I can't watch the TV (some movie with Jodie Foster, English with Spanish subtitles). I can't se the road: curtains block view and it's dark out and raining. Sick sick sick.
Suddenly we get a straight stretch, a speed bump (they're wide here in Mexico) and a stop light! I meekly hope this is the end. I must get off this bus! We arrive at 7:27 but I feel shaky. My legs are shaking as I get off. I've been sitting with my muscles in a clenched position this whole time, giving me the shakes. The nausea started in my stomach, gut-wrenching, and ended up in my head: disorientation, light-headedness. Thank goodness I didn't eat dinner before leaving.
This is the missionary's 3rd time to San Cristobal. They stay in the town - they don't dare go the villages. He's lived in Chiapas for two years. They're here mostly to convert Catholics, not Indians. I get a magazine, "The Ensign of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints". It's in English, saying things like "Confession involves recognizing God's power."
I say goodbye to the missionaries and sit there. I don't feel well enough to move until 7:53, still feeling queasy.
I take a taxi to my hotel. Rugs cover the seats again. Indian driver. Hanging from his rearview mirror dangles an amber jewelry. Affixed to the ceiling is an embroidered Virgin of Guadelupe mat thing with red fringe hanging down. There's a rug on the dashboard, too.
The porter makes a big deal of turning on the lights and showing me the room. He had a real patter going -- too bad for me it was all in Spanish! I guess he's doing that to get a big tip.
There's an Indian on the sidewalk grilling corn over a very short cinderblock fire!! (And selling them of course). I book into the hotel and go for dinner at "El Fog/on de Jovel", which the guidebook says is a place to try local chiapecan fare.
It's -- well, it's overwhelming. The ceiling is tall arched, a pyramid roof of glass and wood. There's a huge spanish moss diorama and potted plants all over. It's quite crowded but very nice. Stucco-tan columns with Spanish arches separate the main entrance from a raised area along the edges of the room.
The waiter asks me what menu I want: French, Italian, English, Spanish.
I've ordered an appetizer of soft tortillas with all the fixings.
"Parillada chiapaneca", a "chiapaneca BBQ -- appetizing local meats grilled over charcoal. Chicken, ham, beef, sausage, spare ribs, fondue, chunks of onion and pineapple."
I've ordered "cheesy chicken", as least likely to kill me. It's chicken with BBQ sauce covered with cheese. They have "enchiladas de mole with onion tacos".
The place is empty except me. Flags hang here. Two Indians play the merimba. I tip them and they let me take a photo.
The appetizer is good. I eat the feta cheese even though I probably shouldn't. The menu says "all green carefully washed & sanitized." Right! Washed in water I can't drink! Still, it's a somewhat upscale restaurant.
The merimba tune has a rolling base like a polka. The guys hold two mallets in each hand, but he's only guiding mallets in pairs, not individually. They end with an upbeat flourish: bom BOM!
It's a large space but cluttered; gives the feeling of being very private. Would be romantic. Candlelight, lights all around, gives a soft ambient glow.
The soft tacos have a great corn texture. The hot peppers are just right. The slight burning in my mouth is quite pleasant and not painful. I really can't smell anything here. Damn. I'm trying to collect smells for my book, but my nose isn't sensitive.
The pace of the music is a little too fast, it reminds me of music of Austria. The wood blocks and the music has a cheery, accordion-like sound. Mm... some kind of chunky cornmeal dish on the side. It was good, but I had to cut up the chicken and the cheese: it was huge and gloppy!
I'm still hungry, so I order another dish. Cecina Chiapaneca: "dried beef, chiapas style marinated in lime juice and then sun-dried. Served with boiled black beans."
The soft tacos from my appetizer cooled down pretty rapidly. Small circles. By themselves, they are somewhat bland. It melts into a paste in my mouth as I chew. Nice corn texture.
"mole chiapeneco" = chocolate and poultry. Ugh! (Amy would like this.)
"capeados" -- "battered vegetables: green beans, cabbage, cauliflower cooked with cheese and covered with egg batter"
"Fogon" is a hearty "house salad"
"alabanux tzotzil" = "a local speciality, combinates pork rinds, radishes, tomatos, onions, in style of local Tzotzils"
For dessert, they have "caite chamula", a specialty. "Prepared with the pulp of the chayotce(?) fruit (vegetable pear) served in its skin.
"Jovel" is the name the native Tzotzils and Tzeltals gave this valley.
"Coletto" = person or things related to San Cristobal. (?? I get a different definition later ??) (I think it's "coleto"?)
They cook in coal stoves "the old fashioned way" and don't take credit cards.
I try to order the "pastel de la casa", a homemade cake, but they're out. I order the chamula fruit thing - I can't believe I'm doing this, after I saw in Merida how unhygenically the villagers handle their fruit. Ugh! Oh well, if I start choking I'll just swig more Sprite (I never order water here, only soda.)
The table nearby is being served drinks in wood mugs and the waiter has placed lit sparklers in the drinks! The waiter is dressed Indian style: a sleeveless wool sweater reaching to the knees and tied with a red bandana type "belt" and a pyramidal straw hat: reminds me of vietnam.
Fuck. I finished my Sprite without thinking. I was supposed to save it for this probably horrid delicacy. Hmm... it smells like warm fruit cake. It looks like a melon that's been split open, green/brown with applesauce-like mush inside plus raisins.
Hey! It's good. It tastes like hot sponge cake with heavy apples in it, or hot bread pudding, with a slightly pumpkin taste, but sweet. Sugar & cinnamon have obviously been added. The consistency is kind of like a pumpkin pie but not as finely ground up. Consistency of very boiled squash or baked butternut squash (but no strings). Tiny plate, tiny spoon.
For the merimba, any long notes use a rapid vibrato. I guess the wood blocks don't sustain a long note very long with just one plonk. They're playing a silly kid's tune now. Is this song the "Mexican hat dance"?
The whole meal only comes to 131 pesos. It's sprinkling lightly outside. It's a little windy and cold. 50 degrees?
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 17TH -- CHIAPAS
Good morning. Last night I called a tour guide, who told me to wait here. The air is fresh. The chill is burning away as the sun comes up around 8:30am. The huge thing in the center is a deli on a big platform. I buy a Fanta and sit on one of the hard green metal chairs. They all say "Coca-Cola" as does the multicolored sunshade umbrellas things around each green metal table.
Shoeshine boys approach me -- eager -- but I point to my feet. I have sneakers, not shoes. They want to shine them anyway. Honking of horns. The square is not too large. All the grass areas are fenced off with more of the same dark green metal. A short man with a backpack carries a load of Spanish newspapers. The newspapermen hustle and I'm approached by three. A shoeshiner calls out "shoeshine" in English.
A 10-year-old kid pushes a cart marked "helados", popsicles, wearing a striped traditional wool jacket with a hood. The stripes are vertical: grey & dark blue.
The shick shick of a handheld broom as a man cleans up the area in front of his shoeshine stand. Stands line the plaza. I can count maybe eight or more shoeshiners. A typical one has a rusting metal chair with a canope over it which is dirty and tan, and also says "Coca-Cola".
An merchant carrying a rack of amber jewelry approaches me. He goes from 100 pesos to 50 pesos for an amber necklace. He communicates that in the few English words he knows. I offer him 5 pesos just to take a photograph. He holds out for 10. Okay, wiseguy. That's about one dollar. Bugs are imbedded in his amber. "No thanks," I say, "I've got enough tree sap with bugs at home." When the guy smiles, his teeth -- all his top ones in front -- are outlined with a silverish metal. Possibly tin? (I'm told later this is merely an Indian decoration.)
To one side of the plaza is a church. But to one side of the church, barely adjacent to the plaza, is another plaza-like space. Holey moley -- they have the sit on Santa's lap thing set up there -- just like Oaxaca! It must be a national program, but I hadn't expected the incursion of Coca-Cola culture this far in. Chiapas is the backwater of Mexico, bordering Guatemala and containing the real "hold outs" -- Indians who don't want to be part of modern society.
This is the Plaza 31 de Mayo by the way. I wonder what happened on May 31st some year. There's a loud cheeping, chirping, & calling from birds. A woman sells scarves. She's short: five feet high with a black shaggy (animal skin?) dress. Dark hair in braids. Sack over her sholders.
There are pigeons here just like the ones from home. I could four groups of obvious tourists, probably also here to meet tour guides. No, six groups, but two are loners like me. One has a scruffy big blonde beard, long hair & sunglasses. Another is thin, with thin blue jacket & hiking boots, hunched over a notebook on a park bench: dark green metal.
I grab a garbage bag from a hotel because I've just bought some of those Marcos dolls! Three little girls & a senora with two teeth entirely silvered going "marcos, marcos" at me. I haven't seen those tooth decorations elsewhere in Mexico.
More tourists! They're descending on the town square. (I later learn that Amy saw more tourists back in Oaxaca, also, because this weekend is the big December break when people travel. So if this is "a lot" of tourists, there must be almost none at all during off times of the year.)
For the book, this would be a great place for two caucasians to meet covertly, because they wouldn't stand out as much. Normally gringos are out of place. A lot of the tourists are sitting together chatting, getting mobbed by sellers.
Hawkers often say "amigo" to get your attention. I have to say "no, gracias" usually 3-5 times while they show me different wares. There are lots of tourists: a dozen? An old lady with dyed red hair and a horrid yellow floral shirt & brown leather handbag. Rich, but ugly.
Police are all over the place here. There must be 100 cops within a 5 block radius of the town square. Three guys with all black: black caps, black boots. In yellow on their backs it says "agente de vialidad". No guns or sticks. They do have tool belts though including a walkie talkie.
There's a businessman dressed middle/upper class. Brown casual dress shirt & dress pants & gets out of a white new clean volkswagon with a briefcase. He looks healthy and has a big mustache & glasses. He walks with one of the Vialidad police.
Help! I'm being followed by four girls! Ages 5, 7, 10, 12. They hold up their wares, saying "amigo", and invade my personal space, so I take a step back. But they give chase, and soon I have been backed against a fence! No amount of "no, gracias" gets them to go away. I think these are the girls I bought the Marcos dolls from earlier.
Although the tour guide I spoke with last night said I could have a private tour, he must have misunderstood me and not bothered to find out! They only do group tours. But they tell me to go to Viajes Nichim and ask for a Mr. Lopez.
In their office, there's a tiny Xmas tree decorated with lights, little baskets, and little "Zapatista dolls"! I'll have to amuse myself and return at 11:30. What a waste of time. Maybe I'll do some shopping.
Different kinds of policemen: Other guys with rifle & a belt of bullets. Dark blue with military cap. Other guy dressed same but machine gun not rifle & no bullets. Guy has canteen on his tool belt & dark blue uniform.
There's a kid with a mechanical knee. His leg bends the wrong way and his foot is splayed out at a weird angle. He uses a cane to help himself. His t-shirt says "Stronger Than All" is huge block letters and he has a bowl cut. The sidewalk is narrow, only three feet, so I have to stop whenever someone comes the other way to pass me. Some sidewalks are cement; others are all flat rocks. The streets are only wide enough for one way of traffic, plus a lane of parked cars.
Pesos are written with a "$" symbol. So $5 in Mexico means 5 pesos, not 5 US dollars.
I walk around getting some recommendations about tour guides. The Santa's display is to the left of the big yellow church in the main square. There's a giant wooden cross in the same plaza. I walk back through the square and the same little girl spots me again and chases me, calling out "Este Marcos!", probably referring to the dolls. I find I can run more quickly than she can.
There's another dark blue uniform policeman witih a fancy machine gun. It looks too big to be an UZI. Kind of fancy all metal rifle thing. He's leaning in a doorway with a bored expression, with gun over shoulder on a strap, and one hand on the gun as if ready for action. They are probably here to make sure the Zapatista rebels don't try to retake the town.
There's a procession in the main square. Tiny kids all holding hands, and with magic marker "mustaches". There's even one girl in a "Satan" outfit. Three kids ride horses, they're throwing candies to the crowd!
The little Indian girls sometimes have chapped faces. Too much sun? Also, I've seen strange little bumps on the skin. A disease, I suppose. At the front of the processes, a little girl plays "Mary" with a black shoe polish Joseph, as though they're searching for a place to spend the night.
Here's an entirely different kind of policeman. Black t-shirts with yellow writing & holding radios. They're young. "Direccion de Proteccion Ciudadana". They have pistols. One guy is really old, holds his radio. They're wearing baseball caps, and wait -- it's not a uniform, they're just wearing t-shirts and dress pants, all over different styles. I later learn these are like "Night Watch" -- preventative policemen.
Here's another new type: a military looking guy in green fatigues and muddy black boots. Must be military police. A pistol in his army belt holster. Also two other green packages on his utility belt. His shoulder patch has two crossed swords and says "9 R.C.M." The lapels on his shoulders are one star. The guy is probably in his 40s. His hair is greying and he's loitering outside the bank. There's a younger fellow with him who's gone into the bank and stands in line with a briefcase and shoulder bag. I wonder what's going on.
I'm in a hotel bathroom. There's a funny design that's typical for the region. The faucet spout has an activating level right in the middle, which you have to push to the side for water to come out.
The church off the main square is just called "The Cathedral", or "San Cristobal Cathedral", although there are other churches in this town. The main square has a number of international restaurants. This place feels somewhat touristy to me -- lots of shops in a five-block radius. But outside that radius (especially 10 blocks away) things start to deteriorate. I go in a hotel restaurant for an early lunch.
I order tacos de pollo. The restaurant is 30'x20' with exposed wooden beams above and a bar to one side. The waiter is in a ghastly pink striped vest with a red bow tie and slacks. The walls contain more of these rounded arches that I've come to expect from Spanish architecture. The top of the wall is stucco yellow, the bottom stucco red, with an uneven variance to the color that is probably supposed to suggest an older time (back when dyes and paints had uneven color!) The paintwork shows the brushstrokes, too. It varies from dark yellow to whitish yellow.
Piano music plays on the loudspeaker. The chatter of people and the smell of cigarette smoke. Paintings along one wall of the Indians. The menu contains many touristy things, including "ensaladas", "hamburguesas", "sandwiches", "de la parrilla", and "super nachos".
Next to me two staff are eating lunch. One is a 25-year-old bellman, hunched over his plate. He has a modern hair style, parted in the middle, and mulatto (mottled) hands, but not face. He uses his hands to eat. He takes a soft taco and wipes up the food.
Weird -- the tacos de pollo I ordered seems to be deep-fried. Small tacos rolled up with feta cheese & shredded lettuc and hot salsa. The feta cheese (if that's what it is) is a little melted and has a potent texture and taste. The salsa is spicy but not too hot. The fried tacos are not too greasy. The chicken inside is shredded.
I get good at saying to waiters, "uno mas", which means "one more". He brings me another bottle of Sprite, a glass bottle with a pop lid. I don't think I've seen any cans of soda in Mexico. He fills my glass before setting the bottle down.
The "super nachos" look a little strange. There are cut up peppers on them, making it hot! They have bean paste, not refried beans, but whole beans. Also hips are thinner than we're used to in the USA. There's a lot of "stuff", and not so much "chips" (the opposite of the usual USA formula).
While I'm waiting for my bill, and old wrinkled guy with a tan hat and tan jacket walks in with a big frown. He looks discouraged. He stands at the entrance and meekly shows a "roll" of what look like lottery tickets. Patrons ignore him. He shuffles out. It's a reminder that, even in this posh Spanish-style restaurant, the poor are out there. We can't forget them, even here. Lunch is only 49 pesos for the two sprites, tacos and nachos.
The weather is not hot, but not cold. There's a warm sun, but it's also windy, causing a weird contrast as I walk into and out of shadow, and into and out of shelter. There are ominous black clouds above, blotting the sun.
Finally I meet Senor Lopez. He speaks pretty good English. Although I'm not sure I'll be able to use Indians in my book, I can't leave without visiting the two most touristy Indian villages nearby: Chamula and Zincantan.
He says, Chiapas in all of Mexico is very special. Nobody believes this, but actually it is the richest area. Production of electricity from hydroelectric dams. 50% of all Mexico's electricity comes from the Hidalgo River. Also oil and natural gas here.
Chiapas is the most indigenous state. There are seven main indigenous groups in Chiapas. Each have their own language. The "coletos" are the mixed-race people: Spanish & Indian. They are very closed-minded to changes. Many think of themselves as descended from the Spanish and there's a deep feeling of racism against the Indians.
There's a new generation of coletos who have gone elsewhere to study or work. These younger ones have a new vision of the world, and don't have the racial problems. San Cristobal has changed because people have come here with other ideas. Younger people can have racism too, however, if their parents have taught that.
There are two kinds of coletos: new and old. The new are involved with and sympathize with the Zapatistas. The old coletos refuse that completely; they are afraid for the economy. (Some say the Zapatista uprising is what caused the devaluation of the peso.)
We're driving to Indian villages. The outskirts of San Cristobal look like what I'm used to seeing on roadsides, but we're in the mountains.
Indians arrive every day to San Cristobal to buy and sell products. They are in contact with local people and tourists. 25-30 years ago racism. 40-50 years ago, Indian people didn't have a right to walk on the sidewalks! The sidewalks were owned by the owners of houses. A long time ago (1930), merchants would wait for the Indians to arrive on the bus at the border of town. The merchants would then give the Indians insufficient money for their products. The Indians had no choice but to sell cheap to the merchants, because the Indians themselves could not go into town. The traders of San Cristobal didn't allow Indians into the marketplace.
But the Indian people were well organized and had a strike. They refused to go to San Cristobal. This was a problem, because Indians supply all the food to the town! Maize, sugar cane, beans vegetables, chickens & turkeys. After the strike, the townspeople understood that the Indians were important.
We arrive at a cemetary. A little girl comes running alongside us. She tosses a necklace into the car and says "a present!" Sure, a present you have to pay for, says my guide, and throws it back. Seven little girls attack the car, trying to sell, and begging money. Frankly, the woven wrist-bands don't interest me. ut I give them my change anyway, for a picture. The tour guide says that tourists who give money to them are teaching these kids to be beggars. Begging brings money. He says I should only give money if I really want to buy something. Oops.
One little girl whines in a phony way, and even puts her fist up to her eyes, as though rubbing tears. Then she bursts out laughing and all the girls giggle.
He says, It's easy for tourists to think that these people have no nourishment but no, it's just a different culture. Don't feel sorry for them. The poorness and misery is complex.
There are only 4000-5000 people living in the town center. But for the most important religious ceremonies, Chamula is the center for some 95,000 people who live in outlying areas. They live in small mini-towns called "paraje". Lots of farms basically with no real continuity as a village, except maybe a church. People come from all over to Chamula for festivals.
Children help parents to harvest the vegetables or work around the house.
Chamula say they are Catholic, but really are a mixture. The Catholic priest refuses to come to this church. He only comes 2-3 times a year to baptise kids.
People who grow up in an Indian village must at the age of 18 or 20 give social services to the community. For example, "police services", "majordomo" (which is a religious position), "alferez". You get prestige and respect for doing this work. My tour guide did his service as a majordomo, and ended up taking out a loan and spending 60,000 pesos on his job. He got social power. There's a hierarchy in the religon. There are 40 saints, each with his own festival, and each festival needs 30 families to run it.
There's not much hygiene here, my tour guide says. And this is pretty scary, because later on he says there IS hygience, when clearly there isn't. So this place must be even worse.
He says that the three crosses on the border of the Indian village are to protect the entrance. When the Christians arrived here, the cross was already a religious symbol. "corn" or "the tree of life". The Indians were confused by Jesus. A man died on the cross? But the cross is life!
There's a creation myth that the first men were made of clay, but they were destroyed by fire because they didn't remember the gods. The second generation of men were made with wood from a sacred tree, but they were also destroyed by a flood because they didn't remember the gods. Then the gods called to wind, air, sky, clouds, and said "take the yellow corn to make men". They had festivals and remembered the gods, and the gods wre happy. The Indian crosses are green, beacuse green is the natural color.
Colors of Indian tradition: East is red. West is black. Here is green. North is white. South is yellow. Not so strong light in south. Very strong light in North. All these colors relate to the sun.
Chamula is not as run down as I'd expected. The villages seem less impoverished than those I'd seen in Yucatan. Land is more fertile here than Oaxaca, my tour guide says. Trading is the main activity of the people here. Living standards are rising. We see some stucco buildings, where 25 years ago these would all have been hay and adobe. The 18-year-olds who do community service here spend money here and keep the town in money.
It's a pyramid in San Cristobal: 20% are rich and 80% are poor. In these Indian communities, they are all the same. Each here owns his own home. Indians who take up another religion are forced to leave the villages (or are killed!). So the government tries to convince the Indians to let them stay and have religious tolerance. Unfortunately, tradition and religion cannot be separated. The protestants says that God does not need festivals, for example. The Zapatistas demand that the Indian tradition be left alone and protected.
Many Indians here are barefoot. It's a beautiful white church. Yes, they have the Day of the Dead festival in Chamula. The white church is three stories high: not immense, but a nice clean white stucco on the outside, a little "peeling".
The new generation of Indians speak Spanish, the old don't.
There's a small procession of twenty people. Guitars, maracas, and a women with bright one-color shawls. Some are holding bowls of burning leaves. We go inside.
Wow! It's one huge room with no seats. Pine needles are all over the ground. There are tables along the walls and mannequins of saints on these tables. Hundreds of painted glasses with candles stuck right into the floor (no holders). The Indians wear sandals and shoes.
My guide says that the shaman (medicine man) is the most important person in the Indian society. He interprets between the humans and the saints. There's burning incense, really overpowering stink.
The small procession (including an accordion) walks in and to the front of the church. Men wear white headscarves, sheep woolly sleeveless coats. Harplike instruments. Woman with the torch/bowl thing carry cloth bags of incense.
We go in. Normally, they'd charge us to enter the church, but there's nobody on duty to take the fee.
Animal sacrifices are done here, my guide says. They drink alcohol, too. Depending on what the ritual is, they use beverages (like cherry fanta or pineapple Fanta) that match the right sun-based color system. Coca-Cola is used for black. 25 years ago they had no Coca-Cola here. When they "cure" people, they use a lot of colors.
Above there are white cloths banners with floral patterns hung from the ceiling. At front is a smaller private area. Bells are ringing: clank, clank. Not tonal at all. When they think they have sinned or have a spiritual illness, they come and stand in front of their saints and give a self-confession while looking into the mirrors hung around the saint's necks.
There are some saints that are the "no good" saints. They get no flowers, no candles, and no confessions, because a local church caught fire and the saints did not protect it. The candles caught the pine needles on fire.
The saints are painted wooden statuettes in boxes with a door, perhaps 3 feet high. To wish to fix family troubles, a cermony with red (hate) and yellow (jealousy). At the front of the church is a smoky alove with even more saints and tons of burning incense.
Sheep are sacred here. They shear sheep for wool but don't kill them. They let the sheep live & die naturally.
There are 52 men who are the religous authorities. Also there are political authorities. Their political meetings are always open to the public, which keeps down corruption. One person is the intermediary between the Mexican & Indian law. Many pilgrims come here who don't like in Chamula but are a part of the Chamula society.
The three crosses represent the three suburbs into which Chamula is broken. We're walking through the streets of the living area. Cement brick houses, and a cement walkway. Corrugated iron roofs. Roofs from those rounded red clay tiles. Chickens.
My guide says that in Zincantan it's different: people are more open-minded. Both Zincantan and Chamula are the Tzotzil tribe. Tzeltals are elsewhere.
It's very bright here in the sun as we walk back to the car. My guide, Mr. Lopez, pays a kid who's been watching the car so nobody makes scratches in it. Four girls run up and ask if they can get in and he lets them. They pile into the back seat. They're wearing one-color shawls, all smiles & giggling, black hair in braids and bouncing in the car. I think being in a car is an unusual and fun experience for them. We let them out at the top of the hill leading to the town.
There are chickens loose on the road. He says the Indians don't mind having tourists, but don't take photos of people -- that will make them angry. Instead, take a panoramic photo of a wide area. Some believe that they will lose their souls. But recently most have understood that this is not true.
In Chamula they grow vegetables, but in Zincantan they grow flowers, so we see a bunch of hothouses. Basically a plastic sheet over a very long wood frame with a peaked roof. The sun glints and reflects from these plastic sheets, making a sparkling effect. Wisps of cloud invade the valley.
At Zincantan we have to stop at the Oficina de Turismo. The tour guide signs saying that we won't take any photographs here. It costs 5 pesos. But then he says it's OK for me to do so. OK, buddy, but I've heard they pelt you with rocks around here. I take lots of photos and don't get pelted.
The ladies wear the Indian costume, but men wear a mix of traditional Indian costume and modern style: blue jeans. In the church, color is important. A tiled floor, pews, and the saints at front. Many candles, but not as many. The Catholic priest will come into this church and he gives mass every Sunday. They don't do the old ceremonies here anymore. But they still sacrifice animals and do ceremonies at home.
The mirrors here are not used for ornamental. They're used only for decoration. Simple wooden pews. There are 1 foot high animals in clay, simple and blocky with a rough paint job: bull, jaguar, etc. With holes in them for candles.
There are fluorescent lights, a Mayan cross, and they dress it up with lots of flowers bouquets. There's a weird tinny music -- it's Christmas music -- coming from some computer chip or something, belting out holiday tunes. This is weird, we have the combination of (1) old Mayan (2) new Christian (3) modern Xmas songs. My guide says in 30 years this will all be gone and it will be purely modern.
The young people don't always dress in the traditional way, they combine their red ponchos with jeans or sneakers. I ask, what do Indians think about the transition? My guide says they feel they can preserve their tradition. Once combined with Catholicism, they will be able to retain their symbols and culture.
They usually always work outside, and only come inside to sleep. Many of the decorative silvered teeth here.
Senor Lopez takes me to some friends he has here. A family of women who make embroidered goods. Their house is cement blocks, adobe and wood, with corrugated iron roof. Everyone is smiling & happy. These people are the "superstars" of their village, because they know all the tour guides, and know people in government. They fly around Mexico and give exhibitions! They even got their photo in National Geographic -- weird, I'd always thought of people in National Geographic as being destitue poor people, but now I see that it's the superstars who make it in.
They draw with a black felt pen on the cloth and embroider over that. Others are shelling brown pea-like vegetables. There's an exterior outhouse with cloth covering the door. The women have very dark hair with a part in the middle and two braids. They learn things from foreigners, how people live all over the world. They've learn some Italian (it's similar to Spanish). The women are mostly 12-20, but others are older, 40-50 years.
I ask the women, through my guide's translation, "What is an American like?" They're very tall -- it's always a surprise. Maybe because foreigners eat more or they have things people in the village don't have.
How are American's strange? Skin color & clothing. Indians eat mostly with fingers. Many Indians have some forks & knives, but not usually. They try to imagine what the place is like that Americans come from. They are surprised by the big buildings in Mexico City: it's beyond their imagination.
I'm trying to ask if they would dump their culture for money. I ask, If you had more money, what would you change and what would you keep the same? She says that they wouldn't do embroidery. They would travel, but keep their home here in the village, or in San Cristobal but come back to Zincantan for festivals.
My guide says "they do have hygiene" in Zincantan. Not from what I can see, but I guess what he's saying is it's better than Chamula. Here, the chickens are running around loose and everyone is barefoot and looks pretty dirty.
They get 30 pesos for 2 days work, the lowest pay in Mexico. My guide says that they're happy just working, they don't give commercial value to their time. One woman has a silver star on her tooth.
I feel sorry for them, so I give them 500 pesos for 6 place mats they'd normally sell for 180. They giggle, and my guide translates: "If you have so much money, why don't you take a woman from the village?"
We drive away. Mist invades the city: it's clouds, we're up in the mountains high enough for that.
My guide says the villagers their garbage and have trouble with polluted rivers. Farmers burn their fields to prepare for the next season: that's rudimentary agricultural practice. After the winter they burn the plants; less work than pulling plants out. The land here is so fertile that it doesn't matter if they do this. In Oaxaca, the land is not so fertile, and they're forced to use every part of the corn because it's so valuable. My guide seems proud of this.
Their education is bilingual. The teachers were coletos, who didn't speak the local language, so the government has tried sending Indian teachers. There's educational reform happening. At 3 years, they go 3 years kindergarden, then 6 elementary, then 3 secondary school. They will be obliged to go to high school also for grades 10,11,12. They use satellite TV to educate.
Back in San Cristobal, we go to a restaurant so I can keep quizzing my guide. I feel filthy all over having visited the women in Zincantan and handled their tablecloths. This place is a bar / restaurant. It's smoky from cigars. We go to a balcony on the 2nd floor that runs all along the edge of the place. Below is the bar and an area that must be a dance floor. This isn't a place tourists normally go to! Tables are not wiped off, bathroom no soap. Tables are tiled. Stucco walls with that uneven yellow coloring. The ceiling has wooden beams and all glass letting diffuse light through from the setting sun.
Off to one side, downstairs, drums, organ, speakers, set up for a band. Vines hang from the ceiling. Chairs are carved wood: blocky flowers & painted bright colors. There's a severe-looking guy in a "gym" t-shirt with short-short hair and mustache & beard. A necklace with a stylized Christian cross.
The Zapatistas are a very complex movement, created 15 years ago when people from the USA after the 1968 massacre (the gov't killed university students) many joined a movement. The Zapatistas are in Oaxaca and Guerrero, but there the movement did not prosper. Yes, there are poor Indians there, but here in Chiapas there are jungles & mountains that are natural protection for the rebels.
The leader is called "Subcommander Marcos" because he's subservient to the people working for him -- a political committee. It's an Indian tradition. The group gives the commands, and the subcommander obeys.
The movement at first tried to involve all Mexicans, especially low status Mexicans and even coletos. The Zapatistas say that the revolution of 1910 is still unfinished. Why didn't the Zapatistas get popular response from the people even when there's serious corruption in the government? 70% of Mexico's people says that it's bad to have corruption. It's very serious, especially in the PRI which has been in power for 70 years.
But people say it's also not good for us to have trouble with guerillas. Many Mexicans know that corruption isn't good. They sympathize with the Zapatistas because the rebels have the same demands as all Mexicans: education & health.
But a civil war would be a disaster! Investors don't want to invest. It's better to work inside the system. When the Zapatistas understood that Plan A didn't work -- getting all of Mexico involved -- they went to Plan B. They asked society, "What do you want?", and Mexicans say "start a political party, don't fight with guns." So the war stopped because of Mexican society. Mexico sent the army here, and there were demonstrations all throughout Mexico. The Zapatistas are still at large.
I ask, would the Zapatistas perhaps bring in this biotech industrial center I want in my book? He says, Zapatistas don't want the Indians' culture to change, so they wouldn't want technology in this way. The Mexican gov't might do it, however, as part of its quest to quiet the rebellion. Technology is a force for cultural change.
Twenty years ago, the Zapatistas didn't exist, and they're becoming less and less popular now. The Zapatistas want construction of schools & hospitals, but the Indians don't want outsiders to come and "invade" their turf. However, as the Indians villages see more of the outside world and have better contact, perhaps they will begin to want hospitals and schools.
Sometimes the government comes to build a school, but the Zapatistas say "it's not enough!!" and prevent the building from happening. The Zapatistas are holding out for a better deal -- a promise of schools ALL over the region. But the Indians who do want hospitals don't understand why the Zapatistas are stopping construction. We want electricty and paved roads. The Zapatistas are holding out for signing the agreements of 'San Andreas Norenza'(?).
San Cristobal is not a Zapatista area (but it's the last government stronghold -- any further east, north, or south it's all Zapatista.) There has been a great influx of Indians to San Cristobal because of job opportunities: restaurants and hotels for the tourists. Maids: more Indians than coletos. Secretaries: coletos only, or Indians with schooling.
I ask, what if the biotech center was doing something like cloning, which may be unethical? My guide says that the people just want jobs, they'd be likely to put up with unethical behavior. Many of them might not really understand it. They might think it's strange.
They do have abortion in Chiapas, and they have abortion bombers just like in the USA. Perhaps the abortion bombers would attack the new biotech laboratory. Usually, crazies here in Mexico use bombs.
Chiapas does have one University, but its departments are spread throughout the state. Tuxtla has the Medicine department & architecture. San Cristobal has the law & social sciences.
Where around San Cristobal could this big biotech laboratory be built? Maybe 12 big buildings. He says, how about between Huixtan and San Cristobal? It's near the brand new airport, and near the military base (for protection), but not too far from San Cristobal, where all the workers would live. Also, the land is a little flat there.
Most Indians want to leave their village and get a job. Usually people live with their parents -- building a house is no problem, but getting land is a big problem. Usually if an Indian has the opportunity to go outside the village and get a job, he goes.
I've made up a character, "Juanita", who grew up in the villages, but goes to University, and becomes a biologist. What kind of person might Juanita be? Well, if they have land -- if they're traders -- then they might be able to afford it. But if they're selling handcrafts, it would be impossible.
Possibly Juanita leaves at 16 and goes to the city to get a job as a waitress or maid. She would be a very, very smart person. Competitive. Perhaps Juanita's sister is jealous. The family would be grateful for the money Juanita sends home. The family would not resent being given money like this. Probably the parents would come to live with Juanita in the city. Juanita would be studying at the same time she's working (at 16 years old). Why doesn't the sister leave, too? Maybe she's afraid to go out.
Why would someone NOT leave the village? Well, possibly if they have much social power, they'd want to stay in the village, the social being more important than money. For example, those women in Zincantan (one named Pasquale) doing embroidery have a social life in the town. They know many tour guides and have been in cultural magazines, so they have social importance.
Three months ago, Pasquale's family (P) got in trouble with another family (Q). Some tour guide (TG) wanted to marry a girl (G) from family Q. TG told the government that P would give him 1000 pesos to take G away, out of the city, so that P could get "social status", becaus G was a rival. This was a lie, but P got in trouble anyway, and P's brother went to jail for that. P called a friend in government, who sent a lawyer from Tuxtla.
These Indian families also fight over tour guides, because if you make friends with a tour guide, he will bring tourists right to your home and you make money. Sometimes they will bribe the guides with a gift like brandy or soft drinks. Once my tour guide was being "seduced" by a family, and he went to one of the town festivals. They were angry, saying "Why didn't you tell us you were coming to the festival? We would have made you a good meal and taken special care of you?" Loyalty is very important.
The Zapatistas would try to shut down a new biotech lab, because it would not be acceptable, it would change the culture. But mixed-race people would like the lab, "We can get jobs". Coletos don't have an Indian culture to be destroyed, so they don't care. The Zapatistas would do something violent to the lab, like try to blow it up or take it over.
Usually in Mexico conflicts are open, not hidden. So violence, not espionage.
The Mexican FBI is "PGR" : Procuraduria General de la Republica" They investigate drugs, etc.
Also military police, that "RCM" guy I saw, is in the army.
Also La Policia Municipal, the town's police.
I say goodnight and go to get a real dinner. There's a rock band just off the square, where the Santa house is, left of the church. There's a huge crowd and a guy with a video camera channeling the video into a TV to the right of the stage. There's a fog machine & colored lights & a backdrop with some poor attempt at fingerpainting. It's more like upbeat folk music than rock music.
The TV has a video "effect" of stop-motion, like a stroboscope. There's the smell of cigarette smoke. The sound of the crowd talking. My legs ache from standing and I have to use the toilet badly. Lights from the street lamps give an uneven lighting to the square. It's quite dim here.
I go to watch a film at Na Bolom about the Zapatistas, but I missed it. Damn!
A woman I sensed was a "suffering intellectual" sort of had a "pearls before swine" attitude. She said, "the people coming late probably thought 'oh well, Mexico time, I can arrive late'". I arrived only 15-20 late, just after a bunch of other people (also late) showed up.
Then dinner at Restaurante Normita. "Tostada": appetizer of fried taco crisp... like sand dollars witih "Queso", the feta cheese stuff I've seen a lot in Mexico.
The restaurant's speakers are playing soft pop in English: The Beatles. Sitting area is 20'x20' with six tables. Stucco of course, a few tapestries on the wall. 1/3 of the room is taken up by a small kitchen and a fridge for soda.
Why is it whenever I ask "dos Sprite", I only get one? I guess they just want to serve 'em one at a time or something. I order "papas fritos", kind of hoping that's french fries. It may not be. For the tostados, they serve 5 bowls of topping: hot peppers (green), green & seeds soup thing, red & seeds soup thing, the feta cheese, and some liquidy cheese thing.
Now "Funkytown" is playing. Man, I love these tostados -- hot, but good. The green sauce is mild. The red stuff is probably just tomato paste. Now "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do" plays, in English.
The hot pepper wedges are big: 1cm x 4cm. The guy brought me a 2nd Sprite well before I needed it. OK, I'm satisfied. ow ow ow ow hot hot hot hot. My mouth is burning up! The carbonated Sprite just tickles it without really helping. I'm getting the "plato tipico coleto", sort of a typical smorgasborg: enslata, chorizo, longaniza, carne, costilla, pollo, guacamole y frijoles.
Wow, I ordered french fries as an extra & it's really greasy. Oig!
I'm taking my life into my own hands to eat this catsup. It's a red refillable plastic thing that sits on the table and is very greasy.
Wait a second, is this squid or something? Yikes! "Who Can It Be Now" plays (Men at Work, I believe). The beef is extremely hard and unappetizing. Ugh. What was I thinking, getting a "combo platter" of meats I won't be able to identify? I leave most of the meal alone, pay, and leave in disgust.
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 18TH -- CHIAPAS
Good morning. At 8am there's a natural gas smell from a truck I pass on the street. Chilly. Diffuse white light from a sky which is totally cloud-covered. It's grey-white, not dark. The secondary courtyard off the town square is empty except for the occasional pedestrian, and the fluttering, chirping pigeons. I get a sense that the tourists don't show up until about 9am, so it's still early here.
There's a hand-painted picture on cloth of Santa with a girl in his lap, handing her a Coca-Cola bottle and they're both smiling. There's a diorama here, withi a wood frame and red plastic on top. 12'x7', with Spanish moss for trees, clay dolls: unpainted & amateurish: cows, lizards, people, balsa wood marketplace and church. A tiny market: 8 stalls and a stone path, tiny 'baskets & pottery' for sale. A stall with a donkey, a church which is raised up with steps leading up -- nice image, "up". This diorama encapsulates all the things important to local life.
The Christmas tree is decorated with red bottle tops and silver "bottles" which say Coca-Cola. A bell rings out 8 times. There's a pale blue building which I believe is the government center. There's a clock high up on it.
There's a Mexican phrase, "When she was younger & prettier", to refer to the past. The girls we saw in Zincantan: "They work from sun up to sun down. They don't value their time. It's not a competitive attitude. That's why they sell placemats (2 days work) for 30 pesos.
Here's an idea: The biotech center might attract illegal aliens from Guatemala.
The sky at 8:30am is perfectly white-grey. This shortens the apparent horizon if there are no buildings within view. Right now I'm sitting in the courtyard of a hotel getting this effect.
Many Mexicans wear jackets in the morning. It feels cold to them.
I meet with a woman, Gabriela Gudino, who I've made an appointment with. But I'd like to ditch her and go back to Senor Lopez, who was great yesterday!
We go to the hotel's bar and sit. Fanta is "un producto de The Coca-Cola Company".
So, this is a ladino! The kind of mixed-race person who really believes that she's pure Spanish, that she's better than other people. She's got too much eye makeup, too much lipstick, too much eyeshadow, and is dressed in a upper-class sweater. Brown hair, upscale appearance. She wrings her hands -- she's cold here: this is the coldest area of Chiapas, I'm told. She wears perfume, a ring, many bracelets, a nice sweater over a turtleneck. But her teeth are uneven, all at differing heights.
The son of the hotel's owner has been sick. Three days, a fever, vomiting, but no sore throat or other flu symptoms. They put cold towels on his forehead. She prefers "natural medicine". There are many women here who do natural medicine. Without saying anything, I find it amusing that someone who so desperately wants to be a "modern woman", and reject the Indian culture, prefers alternative medicine to real doctors.
Earrings of blue Mayan polished stone. Big hands. She's tall. She may have grown up wealthy -- or at least, well nourished. Long eyelashes.
I ask her about the Zapatistas. She says she's not very involved in politics. This is not even a real Indian problem, she says. The leader is not even from Chiapas. They've asked for education and some independence, but she thinks it's not really about the Indian people. She thinks it's about power.
She says that outside groups like the UNO keep muscling in and telling the Mexicans what to do with the Indians. I think she's implying that if the Indians don't say what they want, these outsiders must not be representing them.
She says that the local religious guy has been helping the Indians, but she says that all he really wants is power. He wanted to build schools for the Indians, but then he wants them to come to church. The bishop in San Cristobal is an old man, about to retire because the Catholic Church won't accept a man older than 75 years.
I ask her to identify the types of people in San Cristobal. She says there are two groups:
1. People who "wants" votes for left parties, involved in Zapatistas, and the bishop and the priests
2. Right side: Against these people, but not against the Indians
She says we don't even know really who the Zapatistas are. How many are there?
I ask her a number of questions, but she doesn't really get what I'm after.
Chiapas was once a province of Guatemala. For 11 months before Sep 1824 it was an independent country.
Maybe I can get her to show her colors and say something racist about the Indians. I ask her: the Indians who come to San Cristobal & become modern: what are they like?
- People who change their religion, local tradition, customs, must come here because they will be rejected by their village. They come here to find a job.
- Others who were very young when their parents came here and have grown up in the city... may have been born in the village.
- Indians who only work in the marketplace. They still speak their own Indian language, and they work in nearby communities. They don't become maids, they just work in the market.
The waiters & maids & babysitters all rent an apartment in the city. They prefer a house to an apartment, but land is very expensive. The owners of this hotel, for example, are Swiss, have money but even they rent an apartment. In communities, land cannot be sold to outsiders. It's not a written law, but a tradition.
In 1975, the first Jehovah's Witnesses and protestants came and "caused trouble" by converting the Indians to protestants. All these Indian people were sent away. (I guess Catholics are the alien religion the Indians accept, Protestants aren't.) The Chamula think they are the "sons of St. John the Baptist".
To write my book, I need to write about badguys as well as goodguys. Who are the badguys in Chiapas?
1. assassination: political leaders or revenge
2. kidnapping. They kidnap rich people & demand ransom money.
4. The organization that runs Taxis has 2 or 3 subgroups which are always fighting. Sometimes one group will kidnap a taxi driver from another group, and take his car.
5. stolen cars might be taken to someone's house or driven across the state
Indians of the same or different cultures fight each other.
Mestizos = mixture of Indian and Spanish, maybe born in village or born in San Cristobal. Coletos = mixed race, but born in San Cristobal.
There aren't many Guatemalans here in San Cristobal. "Tapachula". There's more closer to the Guatemalan border.
I close the interview, and offer to pay her, but she refuses. Doesn't want to be associated with tour guides? We shake hands and I notice she has heavy hand lotion.
The bank is weird because it has a high-tech feel. Marble floor tiles, and fluorescent lights. Holiday wreaths & a Xmas tree. A queue with signs "tiempo estimado de espera en esta fila": how long you're going to stand in line, I guess, with an LED display "'2' minutos" at the front of the line.
It's a large space with one big room, teller's windows on the left, white stucco walls. On right & in back there's a raised area with grey carpeting for bank manager types. An IBM computer says "favor de no tocar", must mean don't touch. All the computers here in Mexico seem to be IBM.
At the head of the line, an automatic box says in Spanish when people can go to the teller window. It's a recorded voice with a white arrow lighting up pointing left or right. The teller's windows are glass with a nine-inch vertical crack for dealing with the tellers. Behind, cameras watch each location.
There's a special line for dealing with cashing my travelers' checks. The stucco wall is bare. Teller lady: red sweater, black hair poofy and "holiday" bow in her hair. A little overweight. Gold rings, 4th finger both hands. Ultraviolet light that she uses for my passport.
She stamps my travelers' checks, takes my passport. She has a fast-counting money machine for dollar bills, but doesn't need it for just 1000 pesos.
A market woman sits impassively, frowning, at the front entrance. She selling what appear to be bread rolls(?) with lots of flour on the top, making them appear white.
I buy some amber jewelry. The sign says "ambar con insectos" -- amber with insects, ugh. Yikes! I lost my book but I went back to the jewelry shop & found it.
Even the hotels here have public restrooms with no soap. Sigh. I go to a pharmacy and show the lady I need a drug for the bus, by drawing a squiggle and saying "bus" in Spanish. She gives me dramamine.
I go to Senor Lopez's office but he's busy. Darn! Most Indians cannot read or write, I am told. I try to give him an "extra" tip (yesterday I ran out of cash part-way through his tip) but he doesn't take it. Pride? Possibly embarassed that I do this in front of his co-worker in the office?
I ask him what tourists do here in Mexico to get in trouble. He says tourists are a little crazy, but it's OK because they have money. He says come back later and he will get someone to meet with me.
I get lunch. Tacos de Pollo -- the same thing, fried small rolls of taco around shredded chicken with shredded lettuce & tomato. Chilaquiles Pollo -- it's a tomato sauce under & around. Tacos are crunchy and flavorful. The cheese is good.
Argh! I knocked my head on a low door. It was a door leading to a short flight of 3 steps, so I was looking down so I could place my feet on the steps, and didn't notice. It knocked me right flat on my back, involuntarily. It really hurts! I sit up and sit there for a full minute gathering myself. Embarassed, I wave at the tourists staring at me.
There doesn't seem to be any blood, but immediately, groping with my hand, I feel a huge bump. The top of my head feels very delicate. It stings where I touch the bump. I feel kind of like I have a headache at the top of my head, inside the brain, and it also hurts on top of the head, outside the skull.
The pain makes me a little unable to concentrate. I feel like just sitting and staring. Well, besides this, no injuries in Mexico (yet). I hope I don't die today, in this foreign, hostile place. Actually, this area doesn't seem as dangerous as I'd feared. I still don't want to walk around at night or leave the town without a guide, though.
www.chiapasonly.com.mx <-- a tourism web site
The pain is more focused and less generally all-over after 10 minutes. Opening my jaw or moving my face tends to tug on the skin and it hurts more.
I meet Senor Lopez & we're going out to the airport and to drive past the site where the biotech place will go in my book. We stop at a Pemex, which looks pretty modern. It's an open space, all concrete on the ground, with pumps in rows. A big green blocky "roof" on the pillars over the pumps.
"La Foca Coletta", a local newspaper. "Ciudad Real" another local newspaper.
Some other newspaper is really the most important one in San Cristobal, but the owner was involved with the Zapatistas and was a candidate for state governor. There was an attempt to kill him. How did they try to kill him? A car crash in the road.
The market "Merposur". The airport is Corazon de Maria Aeroporto.
All this area was cornfields 25 years ago, now there's a hotel, a cement manufacturer. We pass a collectivo bus with the green stripe, the white funny blocky shape.
The license plates here have three letters and four numbers and say Chiapas at the bottom.
My guide takes us to a place where the government has created workshops to help people. La Albarada. They learn bakery, tapestries, carpentry, ironwork, how to raise chickens & turkeys & pigs. The government pays them to come here, but after graduation they are required to stay and help teach others. The idea is tohelp these Indians set up their own service in their own community. Sometimes the government helps them set up shop, too.
They produce gas from pig excrement. These workshop educational areas existed the Zapatistas came, but the Zapatistas said that this is not enough. There are over 2000 people here. Possibly they could teach the most menial jobs here in biotech. This facility is only for Indians, not coletos. Some participants live in the city, some in the villages. Pasquale's family (the one in Zincantan) came here.
It's still possible for people to survive selling handcrafts even if they do not come to a school like this.
I notice that Senor Lopez's car has labels all in English. Some Mexicans are angry at the USA for not adapting their products to Mexico.
Senor Lopez says that everything Nicolas and Jorge told me is untrue about "needing permission" from the government to get a job. I'm not sure whether to believe him. He admits it could happen, but he says now we have more political diversity.
There's a military base nearby, and caves. We're passing a national park, with men playing soccer: bare backs vs. shirts. Rancho Nuevo National Park, and Rancho Nuevo Military Base. There's only one military baes in the area. The next closest one (and bigger) is in Ocosingo.
I ask, if foreigners live in Mexico a long time, do they eventually get used to the water? He says no, you always have to drink bottled water. However, in big, high-tech companies they would provide pure water (aqua purificada) to all the taps. Hotels here don't have this, though. Even local Mexicans may prefer the purified water.
We arrive at the brand new airport. There's construction going on, and no fences at all! Across the road from the airport are black sheep... "baaaaaa"... with peasant boys & girls watching over them. The airport has a weak metal chain fence, but it ends... basically there's no security here. Anyone can get out to the landing strip. In fact, I do, to get a few photos.
Outside the cafeteria, a balcony that leads straight to the airport tarmac, if you hop over the three foot wall. Inside, light comes from the sun. The guards have night sticks, and no guns! They do have a tool belt with three packets on it.
A plane goes to take off. The propellers become a blur. The wind moves the Mexican flag on a pole by the runway. There's a guy in a suit & tie with industrial soundproof headphones, who waves the plane on with two paddles of red & white stripes. The plane says "Aeromar", and taxis forward and right to the single runway.
The airport opened four months ago, and now there's a direct flight on Aeromar to Mexico City. To get to the airport highway, take the Pan-American Highway (Rt 190), then the road to Palenque (Rt 199). The military base is on Rt 190, so the biotech base probably would be, also.
A sign by the roadside announces "Military Zone". I grab many photos of the military base as we drive by. Nobody shoots us or chases our car.
On a Coca-Cola billboard, "Refr/escate ya!".
We pass through a suburb of San Cristobal "Lagos de Maria Eugenia", which he pronounced "ay-you-HEN-ee-uh". There are two boys each pushing a tiny helados cart. Shops & markets here. Suddenly, we're in San Cristobal again.
"Vialidad" are the municipal police: the traffic police. There are federal traffic police close to the military base checkpoint. The check cars that look suspicious. How do they look suspicious? Well, if they have no license plates...
Senor Lopez is busy in the afternoon, but there's a guy he wants me to meet, Senor Alfonso. Pronounced "Ahl-FONE-soh". "He's a little crazy, like you." OK. I set up a meeting with Alfonso, and now I've got some more time on my hands.
Two more green uniformed army guys at the bank. One three stripes, one two stripes. One wears a cell phone on his uniform in a fancy see-through case. They're in line at the "Caja especial de d/olares" where I'm waiting to get more travelers' checks cashed. This time I watch the lady at the counter, she uses an ultraviolet light to make the hexagons light up in a pattern that matches but is not limited to the red ones on the right.
When someone asks "are you here for work or vacation?" it's a way of asking me whether the photo of him I'm about to take is something I'm going to sell.
"In militian de Ciudad Real".
Police are everywhere here! I don't really need sunglasses. I can usually stay in the shade on one sidewalk or the other. I go to a market, and see the same embroidered placemats I've seen before: these have an asking price of 25 pesos, though -- so I bet I could have haggled for less. What's the point? I think I would feel as if I were helping to exploit these people if I were to haggle.
I buy two colorful blankets. I negotiate her from 360 a pair to 260 a pair. Why haggle? Because I'm supposed to? But what about "fair market value"? These good are really worth more. Another lady punches up the amount on a credit-card-size calculator to show me the amount, because presumably she cannot say it in English, and I certainly can't say it in Spanish. Another lady uses her hands instead "10, 10, 5" means 25 pesos.
I go to Domino's Pizza. It's surprisingly clean -- the cleanest place I've seen here in San Cristobal. American culture isn't all bad! For the first time, I'm not worried about the quality of the food I'm eating in Chiapas. I get the Mexicana Pizza, and go upstairs to use the bathroom. Two guys are on duty whose only job is to clean up. A TV on the well shows MTV music, the Greatest Music Videos of All Time. Aha's "Take on me" is apparently #14. I sit to eat. #13 is REM's "Losing My Religion", a particularly appropriate song for this area, where the Indians are indeed losing their religion to Catholicism.
The Mexicana has chiles & onions on it. Yum! But hot. Downstairs, there's some commotion and suddenly everyone is singing Happy Birthday (in Spanish) to one of the staff.
I leave. The sun is so bright (when I'm not in shadow) that I stub my toe on a sidewalk bump I can't see properly. Pigeons here are white & grey, and grey w/green head.
I go to meet Alfonso. San Cristobal is at the top of a hill. This it is the highest point in Chiapas and has the coldest weather.
Alfonso is quite a character. He wants to talk about the Zapatistas, and nothing else. OK, tell me about the Zapatistas. He says there've been economic problems in Chiapas since it was part of Guatemala in the 16th century.
Alfonso has a dark fungal-like growth on his neck. Looks like cancer to me. A dark blotch the size and shape of a wad of gum. A BLACK wad.
Chiapas has natural gas, and possibly uranium, although apparently that's unproven.
Alfonso gives me this weird National Enquirer story. "I never read this anywhere, but this is what I think is true." He says the US took notice of Chiapas because of its natural resources, and the Zapatistas wanted a revolution so that the US would not take over Chiapas. Hmm... pretty crazy.
Zapatistas are all mestizzos, not Indians. (I think the idea is that the Zapatistas are a high-falutin' intellectual bunch, and only mestizzos have the needed schooling?) They're just using the Indians to place pressure on the government. He thinks the Mexican government wants to keep the Indians ignorant, so they remain servants.
Alfonso has wireframe glasses, a brown wool cap plonk across his head, a bushy mustache which is going grey. His dishelveled hair peeks out from under his cap. He's wearing a t-shirt but there's a vest over it -- a drab & ugly one, a simple peasant cloth. He's light-skinned, as though he's more Spanish. Alfonso looks like a lowlife, but he's very friendly.
I ask, What do the Zapatistas actually do? He has no idea. "Nobody knows."
What kinds of illegal activities are happening in San Cristobal?
-- Italian criminals, not mafia but smuggling drugs from Colombia to the USA
-- PRI is nasty
-- drugs passing through Mexico. They cross the border. Marijuana grows all over Mexico. But that's a soft drug. The authorities are interesting really in cocaine from Peru or Colombia, which comes through the small countries into Guatemala.
There are guards at the border of Guatemala, but very few. There's a lot of corruption to help drugs across the border. "Just keep your silence."
In 1994, a lot of small planes were flying around the jungle and dropping packets of cocaine. The Zapatistas would pick up the packets and sell the cocaine all around San Cristobal. "grapas" = grams, i.e. small plastic bags with a gram of cocaine.
During the 1994 rebellion, the Zapatistas were selling cocaine for money to get food & weapons. In San Cristobal cocaine was very available, and very pure.
All around Chiapas there are road blocks. The guards stopping you say "We're sorry, it's our job, we have to look, so please excuse us." It takes 30 minutes to search the car.
People put these grapas in their corn or bean bags, and walk over the mountains instead of going by car. There are no soldiers barring the way there. They bring them to San Cristobal and then by car or by DHL (or Fedex or other mail delivery service).
Also, if a relative goes to Mexico City, he or she might bring. For example, a lady with three children brings in smelly baby dirty "Pampers" diapers. When the guard questions her, she says, "I'm poor, I need to wash my pampers. I can't just throw them out. That's why I save them." The guards don't want to search through it.
The Bishop stopped that activity. He said stop the drugs in 1994. The Zapatistas really needed money at the very beginning, because they were fighting "with broomsticks".
The Mexican government has American weapons. The Zapatistas have to buy Russian weapons (I think he says: from Cuba?) The war was just eight days: Jan 1 to Jan 8th. There were just two big battles. One big one at the military base.
The Zapatistas came first to San Cristobal on Dec 31, 1993: New Year's Eve. Everybody was drinking & partying. There were lots of masked people in town. They took over the "Palace de Municipal" = County Palace. Then they went to the police station, and took the weapons of the police and put the police in the jail with no shoes or clothing.
Then the Zapatistas waited one night for the soldiers to come to town. Marcos gave a speech, saying "Citizens of San Cristobal, don't be afraid of us. We are Indian supporters who want only good. If you want to support us, with blankets, food, boots, money, we would appreciate it.
The soldiers did not come to town, so Marcos decided to provoke them. The Zapatistas shot the installations to provoke a counterfire, but the soldiers has no orders to fight back. They were instead hiding in a special shelter.
The next day, Jan 3rd, they fought around the Rancho Nuevo base. Some 1500 or 2000 Zapatistas died. There were lots of press photos: "oh, poor Indians! They are fighting with only wooden sticks, and they get killed!" Lots of human rights groups come here & there are fears of genocide. Then the Mexican army comes into the jungle to finish off the Zapatistas.
But the Zapatistas climb trees and shoot from the trees and win. Alfonso says he saw Military cars carrying black plastic bags for dead soldiers. That means a defeat of the Army. Then more than 12,000 soldiers arrived. "Everywhere you saw green."
There are no roads in the jungle caled "Ecologia preserve". There still exist jaguars and eagles there. The Zapatistas went to hide there.
Could a tourist survive in the jungle? No.
Since 1994, the Mexican government has made roads looking for the Zapatistas. The jungle is not any more fully a jungle.
The rich people need lots and lots of land to raise cattle. But the Indians need land for growing food.
The dark blue police are state police, in charge of supervising the roads.
They carry AR15 machine guns. I know because when I ask my guide, he called one of them over and asked him! Yikes!
Here's a historical story from the 1930s. There was a man named Horatio Trujilo, a mestizo man. Horatio collected Indians to work in coffee farms. He makes money by taking 50% of one month's salary (I think). If the people resist, they don't want to pay, then he kills those people. Poison in drinks, by guns or machete: cutting off their heads.
He charges a lot of money. He lies to the Indians about how much he's going to charge them. The Indians are like slaves. They are not allowed to leave the farm or quit. There's very very low payment. There were many people like Horatio in the 1930s, but this does not happen today.
OK, so what's a modern story of bad people? He says the really bad ones are the ones here in town. The county president. He's bad because he's on the side of the Mexican government.
Also banditos. There was a group of soldiers a year ago who put on Zapatista uniforms, then they stopped tourist buses between San Cristobal and Palenque, and raped tourist women, and took everything: camera, money, passports. It happened several times 2-3 years ago. (I wonder if this was really the Zapatistas or not.)
Then the Federal Road Police make "patrols". That stopped it. These are the 6am convoys I've heard about.
In Chamula, the Indians have a special way of life, and try to keep their ancestral traditions. They want to live outside the Mexican government.
Protestant missionaries go to Chamula. There were 2000 Indians who became protestants and were expelled from Chamula. They live on the north side of town now. When Alfonso means protestant, he often says "evangelist". These two words seem connected to him.
The Chamulas can have up to four wives, but the women can only have one husband! The women are 2nd class citizens. They say, "God created first the man, then the woman. We are the owners of Creation. Women have to work for men because of what Eve did."
The various wives take turns with the household chores. This week one takes care of the man: clean clothing and sleep with him. The other women take care of the fields, goats, children. It's a kind of rotation. One week you wash dishes, another week it's someone else.
The younger generations have more contact with the outside and they can see that there's a better life. There are "professional" Indians: people who go to Mexico City to study to be a doctor or engineer.
He says that the Tzotzilas are "on the side of the PRI", so they get economic support. I suppose he means that the Tzotzilas don't object to the government. I'm not sure whether to believe this! The government approves loans (guarantees) favoring Tzotzilas. They have "pick up" trucks instead of donkeys & mules. The government is against the Indians.
Some drugs still come through San Cristobal. On the south side of Chiapas, the Pacific coast, it's very easy to cross the border by sea. Several (3 of 4) small boats were captured a year ago witih two tons of cocaine. "tapachuk". And there were two big hits of narcotics last year, getting another 1.5 tons of cocaine. Policia Federal de Narcoticos: same as federal police, but a special group just for drugs.
It's getting cold again now at 6pm.
Tell me more about the drug smuggling here in San Cristobal, I say. The druggies call the places where they can get drugs "Farmacias", which is the Spanish word for Pharmacy I've seen on signs everywhere.
How does it work? Well it's a normal house, with a bed, tables, etc. The people in the house are only pushers, not the main people. So it's not expensive maybe only 10 pesos for each grappa.
The "master" first finds a poor Indian. Racial slang "Ay! Hey! Indio!" nasty way to call Indians, especially those who aren't living in villages (?). The master says, "poor people, you want to make some money doing nothing? I will pay your rent."
The Indians sit in the house and sell grappas at 10 pesos a bag. The Indian doesn't even know the job is illegal, because he's naive. At the end of the month, they count the bags that remain & Indian must cough up the money for all the missing bags.
If the police find the house, they capture the poor Indian pusher and ask him to tell the name of the master. Or they stake out the house and wait for the next drug delivery. But the master always knows when a pusher has been captured, and he never goes back to the house. This is because the master has an "ojo" (pronounced "oh-hoh"), a watcher who is watching the house. "ojo" means eyes in Spanish.
The master has many watchers, who walk in the streets, especially where the Farmacias are, and watch the area. They call the master if there's trouble. They are not there to protect the pusher.
What kind of person would the master be like? Alfonso says, a wealthy person. It's impossible to hide your money if you're rich, because you buy a car or you spend your money. So wealth is always obvious. Sometimes they sell things, like metallic products: field tools for farmers, this helps to launder the money so that they can "wash" their riches.
Subcommander Marcos of the Zapatistas helps so that the government gives more respect to the Indians. 20 years ago, if a man likes a nice young Indian woman, he grabs her hand, pulls her to a car, rapes her, and nobody cares because she's only an Indian. Nowadays, that doesn't happen.
Only the girls try to sell the handmade stuff. Mothers teach daughters how to make handcrafts.
The boys never sell handcrafts. Instead the boys sell candy and cigaretts from these wooden shelves (called "kangaroos" because they look like a pouch) they strap to their chests.
"Evangelist people" (he means Indians converted to protestantism) aren't allowed to go back to their lands, to work their fields and farm. So they are forced to do handcrafts. But you can't make any money that way. So, they bring in cheap handcrafts from Guatemala. For example, the cotton bag backpacks, decorated with flowers, are from Guatemala. So when you buy something from an old woman, feeling sorry that she is being exploited -- she may actually be the one DOING the exploiting, exploiting the Guatemalans!
The missionaries are very clever. They make friends and give them gifts. They say, "It's not me giving you this present. The Father, God, sent this gift. I would like to introduce you to my religion so you can meet God. My church will give money to you, but you have to come every Sunday to worship."
The Indians have necessities; they have to live. If these nice people say all I have to do is go to this church and listen to a man talk and talk and talk, I'll do that. Missionaries are usually white North Americans. If you come to a village, with a lot of money, everybody says "You are welcome." The missionaries start learning the language to make friends. In 6 to 12 months they will speak it fluently.
The priest takes a wine cup of sugar cane liquor, so OK, the Indians will do it too. The Indians believe that alcohol will take all their sins away, keep them clean.
Beacuse some of the little girls seem quite desperate to sell, I ask Alfonso if the parents beat them if they don't sell. He's not sure. Maybe hit, maybe no supper. It's hard to understand the Indians. Many families never touch their kids. They "let them grow like animals, very wild, no educations".
Alfonso has a habit of adding "s" to some of his singular nouns in English. He also uses the wrong verb tense or pronoun sometimes. Or he says "has" instead of "have".
To have four wives, it keeps the Indians poor. It takes all the money they can earn to feed the family. In Zincantan, everybody is richer than in Chamula, because no polygamy. Also, no alcoholism problem like there is in Chamula. In Zincantan they accept the white person and get education. White people are allowed to buy land, too.
But in Chamula, they are very racist. They still believe in the Evil Eye. If you shoot me with a camera, that's witchcraft, and I don't want to die.
Spanish for "pushers" is "revendedor", which is literally "resellers".
Sometimes, instead of being Indian, they are ignorant coletos. Maybe some of them know what they're doing, but 90% don't or they are liars!!
The Indians are humans too. "Indio ladino" is a saying, meaning "Indians are very intelligent" (or maybe it's a phrase used to refer to a particularly intelligent Indian?).
The watchers (ojos) aren't ignorant. They know what they are doing. Be more careful. Some of them use pistols. 22 magnum, 38 revolver, 9mm "luger" German pistol, a squarish gun.
Before the Zapatistas, there was marijuana (but not cocaine) in San Cristobal. "villa viciosa", the "Vicious Village", that was the first name for San Cristobal back in the 16th century. In that time, the Spaniards drink & smoke a lot the rum they made with sugar cane and they planted the marijuana plant. Pears, peachers, apples. They called it Vicious Village because marijuana grew so well here, maybe they were disappointed to have to live so far from home in a foreign country.
At the end of the 18th century, took the name San Cristobal. We go outside, and it's cold so my guide pulls frumpy hat down over his face -- it's a ski mask!
The masters are mestizos. The ojos are mostly Indians. They receive instructions: to walk along the Farmacias, especially if they receive notice that something's going to happen. For example, perhaps some new policemen have come to town.
The master keeps control over the watchers by giving them some of the drug. "You can't escape from me, you need me for this drug." At the end of the month they count the bags and the money, "if you run away, you die."
1994, "mafia in pampers". I think this is the term the Zapatistas got from running drugs.
There are maybe 10 Farmacias in town, but he only knows one for sure.
In 1994, Alfonso worked as a translator for journalists. Some of them asked him to get them drugs, and they told him it was very high quality.
He says, "When I was young, in 1968, I smoked some pot but I'm too old for that now."
I haven't seen any pornography here. He says it's not illegal. It's here but under the table. You can rent a porn movie, 5-10 pesos for 24 hours. If you want to sell pornography without government permission, you can bribe someone. It's possible the government is even receiving a monthly payment not to stop the drugs. There are several video clubs for pornography.
Children go into a rental store, and take the porn video out of its box, and put it in another box like that they're allowed to have. So they fool the shop owners and get the video.
There are also special porn magazines, but they are sold in plastic bags so you can't flip through them in the store.
There's that saying again, "poor Mexico -- far from God and close to the United States." He says that "Mexico country has not their own decisions", the US government controls them. Pornography comes from the USA. The Mexican youth are rejecting the church, and they know about Marx and Freud. They think maybe the Roman church is just trying to control the world. The Catholics invented a special Indian version of Mary: The Virgin of Guadelupe, to get Indians to believe in their religion.
Prostitution is not illegal here. You have to have a drink and sit for a while, before to see what kind of women you like.
There are basically two ways to get a prostitute:
1. go to a cabaret, a place for drinking & dancing
2. go straight to a house of prostitution
A white person could never enter a bar like this, because you're white and you'll get spotted. Drunk people would harrass you and gather around you trying to get your money. A waiter comes to your table, and you say to waiter, "I want that one." The prostitute are sitting around flirting and dancing.
Striptease after midnight. It's very cold to be taking your clothes off. This weather is terrible. Their nipples get erect. They start shaking and shivering.
Then there are rooms behind the dancing place. You have to use a condom. If you don't bring one, they'll sell it to you. It costs 250 or 300 pesos for 10-15 minutes. For gringos doing this, the might raise the prices. A beer for 20 pesos becomes 50 pesos. A woman for 300 pesos becomes 600.
If the cabaret is big, they will have their own rooms. But if small, then you have to go to a hotel.
Another way to get a prostitute is to go to a "prostitute house" or "red light house" or "house of sweeties". "cari~nosas" is "sweeties" or "friendlies" and means prostitute. A prostitute house is just somebody's private house. A normal room, a sitting room, in the back 5-10 rooms with beds. The women are there in the sitting room. If it's empty, you wait for them.
Prostitutes always dress like mestizos, "occidental dress", because that's supposed to be more attractive. (don't forget the racism.) The women are Guatemalans and Mexicans, not Indians. Although maybe if they are Indians, they just dress like mestizos.
What's it like? You walk in, and a woman says "can I help you". "guerito" (witih two dots over the u) is "blondy man", it's a friendly word for a white person with blonde hair. Even a whitish Spaniard with brown hair -- it looks blond compared with the raven dark hair.
One cabaret here in San Cristobal is called 'Hawaiano'. It's just outside the ciry to the south.
He says that back after the Vietnam War it was easy to pick up Mexican and North American women for free. But today it's different, especially with AIDS.
Other crime here?
-- stealing cars. They break the glass, there's no alarm for breaking the glass, and take things like stereo. Sometimes they try to steal the whole car, which means getting around the alarm system. You know how when you try to turn the steering wheel without a key, the wheel locks? Somehow they have a trick that gets around the wheel lock, even without a key.
Then they disassemble the car into parts or move it to Guatemala. There are automobile garages where they paint the car & start to take pieces away. Does it happen in San Cristobal? Yes. Two years ago, many problems with stealing cars in "La Hormiga" - (I think this is Spanish for "ants"), which is a suburb of San Cristobal where the Indians lived. The police found 68 or 70 stolen cars underground. They dug a big hole, put plastic down there, and drove the cars in, and then covered it over, to let time pass.
More crime. Many taxis are "piratas" = "pirates". Indians who own a private car, usually stolen, who works as a taxi driver with no permission. They even paint their cars to look like taxis. They can drive you to a remote place and rob you. Taxis have special license plates, and police warn people do NOT take a taxi unless you see the right license plate.
I forgot to ask, but I did notice that real taxis seem to have license plates beginning with "BHA". Perhaps that's the special license plate.
I say, if you can tell the fake taxis from their license plates, then surely the police would be able to grab these guys pretty quickly. My guide says, no, the police let the piratas work, because Marcos says it's OK to let the Indians work outside the system. Piratas of course charge less than real taxis.
There's no collective transportation after 7pm in San Cristobal, so an Indian who wants to get home must take a taxi to his village.
When you get in the taxi, they watch you: do you have rings or fancy watch or nice clothing? If you speak Spanish and you know the town, then you are OK. But if you take a taxi from the bus station, they may take your baggage. A rich person says "oh, just take me to a good hotel"... obviously doesn't even know the are. So the taxi driver notices this and says "I've got a great private hotel in the forest". Then drives there, and "Give me all your money!" Why? "Because you have all these things. I have nothing!" The Indian will have a gun.
Rich tourists always come with a tour agency, so this never really happens. Only backpackers and hitchhikers are really at risk. It's pretty safe to take a priate taxi, actually, you won't lose your life. About the worst that might happen is they might say, "sell me your boots", and you're scared so you say "no, you like them, just take them".
Sometimes hikers come out of the city with girlfriends and go camping outside town but not at a real camping ground (presumably to save money, or out of cluelessness). Those people are in real danger of mugging.
Some gringos are stupid, they say "I come from the USA so nobody can touch me", like they have a star on their chest. Well, that's wrong. Everybody in Mexico says they're friendly, but really they just want money.
Other illegal things:
-- human exploitation. Many hotels don't pay their workers enough.
-- exploitiation in the marketplace.
One year ago, the Indians would take the bus into town to go to the marketplace. But they were not allowed into the marketplace. So mixed women would wait in the bus station, and force the Indians to sell their live animals cheap. They are like wolves, inspecting pigs. "How much for your chicken?" 50 pesos. "You crazy? 20 pesos" They fight. "You crazy!" The Indians let the "ladies" take the pigs or chickens because the Indians are naive and don't know anything about the town. That practice has stopped nowadays and Indians go directly to the market.
We go to a 2nd coffeehouse, and Alfonso pays. He also pays for his cigarettes even though I volunteered to pay. Alfonso is strange, but I've decided that he's cool. He's been very outgoing and has given me little "stage plays" showing me how various scenarios would play out, without my having to prompt him. Phew. I've just made 73 pages of notes in 160 minutes.
One of my books says the Mayans are warlike. No. He says the Indians are not warlike today. The royal Mayans are long gone. They collapsed before the Spanish arrived. Today they are only farmers.
Do the Indians kill missionaries? Yes, but not today.
Corruption at all levels, because Mexican government never pays their employees well. 50-60 pesos a day is not enough to survive, so he has to make his "mordidas", or "bites", which basically means bribes.
Tell me about bribes. Well, let's say you drive through a red light. The police stops you.
driver: "I didn't see it."
police: "Yes, but infraction. Must go to office and must pay a fine."
driver: "Don't do that. We can fix the trouble between us."
Alfonso says that whenever he sees a policeman come, he puts a bank note folded in a green folder. So when the policeman asks for his ID, Alfonso gives this to him.
police: "This photograph isn't very good. Do you have a more recent photograph?" (In other words, pay me more!)
Alfonso: No, man.
police: OK, I go away
The police watch very carefully for you to do something wrong.
Even the federal police on the road will do this. If you brake and one of your brake lights doesn't come on, the police will come up behind you and stop you.
police: "What happened with your light? You know it is dangerous!"
driver: "I don't know what happened. They worked well when I started my trip."
driver: "Come on man, give me a break. Come on man, I buy your cigarettes."
And then the driver offers the policeman more money than the cigarettes are really worth.
police: "I don't smoke tobacco. I smoke vicios".
So basically, the cigarettes are worth more so he wants more money.
Vicios is basically "pot", or any tetrrible vice. It's vicios when you drink a lot, or use some kind of drug. "I have the vicios for this", means an addiction.
Sometimes when you offer a bribe to a policeman, he says
police: Hey! Are you trying to corrupt me? I will take you to jail."
(this of course is just a tactic to get more money from you.)
driver: No! Be friendly, I will give you some more.
Alfonso says "It's funny, but the Mexican people allow this bribery."
Rich people at the high level receive corruption. If a Mexican wants to start a tobacco factory, the government says "No, we don't want any more tobacco factories." So the rich person says, "OK, I give you money."
It's no longer seen today, but graffiti used to say "La soluci/on somos todos. La corrupci/on somos todos." This is funny beacuse 12 years ago, President Brutijo had a government slogan "the solution to our problems is everyone", so the joke goes "the corruption is everyone". The graffiti today is usually "Viva Marcos" or "Viva EZLN"
"nosotros los pobres no tenemos que perder solo las cadenas" means "we poor people have nothing to lose, only the chains".
We head back to the office and I say goodbye to Alfonso. Because Senor Lopez doesn't show up, I end up chatting with his assistant.
Sometimes the police stop you even if you have not broken a law. They ask you for your license, especially if you driving a luxury car. They say please open your trunk. Federal police search the car. They say "everything is OK, but it is too cold here. Do you have some money for coffee? We have to work all night."
Alfonso says, "It is best to give it. If you don't give the money, then next time we pass, they stop us even if we have tourists and ask for everyone's passport and visas."
They don't have the right to ask for tourist's passport and visas, although they can do this with Mexicans. They are not members of the immigration police, who are the only ones with this right. The army also asks tourists their passports and they also don't have the right. Lots of people cross from Guatemala to Mexico try to go through to the US illegally. So that's why police can ask for the passport of a Mexican-looking guy.
But here in Chiapas, because of the uprising, they think they have the right to ask papers from everybody. They're trying to find out which people are really tourists, and which people are "political tourists", who are posing as tourists just to be able to contact the Zapatistas. People from the USA & Europe trying to be in touch with Marcos.
There are army checkpoints on the way to the ELZN in the jungle. They take pictures of you at the checkpoint. The ELZN is in the Reserva Integral de la Biosfera. 'Montes Azules' in East Chiapas.
The intelligence army corps is "cuerpo de inteligencia militar". They are at the checkpoints, too. The intelligence police are dressed similarly to the regular police, so you can't tell them apart. But if you look, you can tell that they are not simple soldiers. They are really officers (i.e. superiors of the regular police) even if they have simple uniforms.
How do you notice this? Well, their face is different. They don't smile, and they speak very hard & agressively. They're not lazy. The intelligence officers don't give orders in front of people, so you can't tell from that. But if the simple army guy says "OK, you can keep going", maybe the other guy says "No! Stop! I want to know where you are from and what you are doing here." So you can tell that the other guy is an intelligence officer.
Yaxchilan is an archelogic site on the way through the forest. Because it's close to the Zapatistas, a lot of tour guides & tourists get scrutinized when they go there. There are three military checkpoints on the way to Yaxchilan (see the map). Rioc Chocamas.
Basically everywhere east of San Cristobal is a Zapatista area. If you draw a north/south line through San Cristobal, everywhere east of that. The government has been saying that the Zapatistas are about to take over the Reserva de Zona Arbolada la Frailes Cana & Reserva de la Bioserfa el Trivafo & Reserva de la Biosfera La Sepultura which is the jungle in the southwest of Chiapas.
I get this image in my head of standing at the edge of a cliff. This is as far as government control stretches. It's scary.
Of course, the government has some control even in the Zapatista areas. The only area the government has no control is in the jungles.
I ask, how is this power shared? Well, there's a big army base east of Ocosingo and some government authorities there, but there are also the traditional Indian authorities. Basically, the real power is in the hands of the Indians, because if criminals get caught they go to Indian jail under Indian law, not a Mexican government jail. No constitution, no trial, no lawyers. Also the people pay taxes to the indigenous authorities.
The San Juan Chamula call themselves a traditional people, but they use Catholic symbols to perform the old Mayan rituals and have the old Mayan beliefs. They don't want other people to have another religion. If one Indian changes religion, they expel the whole family: even the parents if the child converts.
Three months ago, a presbyterian church was working in San Juan Chamula. There were coleto missionaries who went there and converted people. There were seven Indians who were talking with them (converted, I assume) who got killed by the other Indians.
How did they kill, I ask, expecting a machete or stabbing. With a Kalashnicof 47, he says.
Web sites for tourism: www.unach.mx, www.wotw.com/mundomaya, mexico-travel.com
An ugly tourist couple comes in. They have brown skin, but are clearly Americans from their dress and hair style. We're sitting in the tour guides office and they come in and just start asking questions with no intention of hiring the guide.
Tourist: "How does the government take power away from the Indians?"
The guide says, "Well, for the first time when the Spanish come here --"
Tourist (interrupts): " -- but that was long ago."
The guide talks about poor people...
Tourist (interrrupts): "but there are poor people everywhere!"
This makes me mad. They're demanding, asking questions as though this guide is responsible for defending what he's saying. They're not listening.
They're pointing to the map and demanding to know where they should go next.
Same sneakers: dark blue with white bottoms. "pocket pag" strapped in front of her stomach. Wearing jackets, faux wool, the expensive kind that hikers wear.
South of San Cristobal the % of Indians is less than 50%. North, it's more than 50%. In Guatemala it's almost 70% Indians.
The tourists insist they didn't see any Indians at all in Tuxtla. The guide says that the Indians in Tuxtla don't wear their traditional clothing, so when you go through Tuxtla you can't see any obvious "Indians" but they're there.
These tourists are from Los Angeles and are driving down to South America. Sounds crazy to me. The tourist asserts, "You cannot turn your back on civilization. If you do, it will run you over." The tourists seem to insist they have everything figured out, and they know what's right for the Indians.
The tour guide is explaining that the Indians pray to the Gods for rain. Instead of respecting the Indians and listening, the tourists break out laughing. "To PRAY!" she laughs, filling in the end of his sentence with an amused tone. They chuckle when he is done talking about the myths. "It's a nice STORY," he says in a superior tone.
I bet you they will leave without paying him for the 45 minutes they've been asking him questions. They say thank you and turn to go. I speak up and them if they can spare 30 pesos for my friend, since normally he gets paid for his time. They do it.
OK, so back to the Kalashnicofs. Here's the story. The US is a big weapons maker. Drugs go north and guns go south.
Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada in the 80s, remember? The US was fighting against an army with Soviet weapons (these Kalashnicofs). The US won, and when they occupied Grenada they picked up these Soviet guns from the losers. Then the CIA gave these guns to the Contras fighting in Honduras & Nicaragua. Remember Oliver North and the Iran/Contra scandal? When the Contras gave up and signed the peace accords, they never handed over their weapons -- they kept them. Then they sold those guns and now they come through Guatemala to Mexico. The Zapatistas and the Indians in Chiapas all have these Soviet guns.
The Zapatistas also got self-propelled antitank rockets. The army just captured a shipment of these "Motozinta de Mendoza" very close to the Guatemalan border, to the SSE of San Cristobal.
I ask, What's the difference between Guatemala & Mexico? They're both very poor people, but Guatemala is smaller, so it's easier to see the poor people. Not sure what he means by this.
I mention that I haven't seen many smokers here. He says that there's an Indian tradition of snorting tobacco in the nose, but only the high-level rulers do that. So there's no tradition of smoking cigarettes here. However, they had marijuana even before the Spanish came. Marijuana is from Mexico. The Spanish discovered it; they did not bring it with them. Also coffee, and corn -- the Spanish had neither of those things when they came here in 16th century.
250,000 tourists came to Chiapas in 1998. Since there's Tuxtla and Palenque, I would guess maybe only 100,000 came through San Cristobal. Actually, probably a lot less, because it's hard to get to San Cristobal. Let's assume that a fair percentage of them is around during December, which is probably the peak of the season. So there might be more than 2,000 tourists here this week. Frankly, I didn't see many gringos when I arrived, but as the weekend continued, more arrived -- this is the start of the high season I guess because of Xmas vacations. I wonder if this tourism number includes other Mexicans.
From what I've seen, I would guess that there are fewer than 500 tourists here. The main square and the surrounding 10 city blocks just aren't big enough to hide 5,000 tourists. San Cristobal is a fairly small town.
Do the Zapatistas want independence from Mexico? No. They want the indigenous peolpe to have representation in the state government. Chiapas is a rich state, with itst natural gas and electricity, but the rich owners don't pay enough money to the workers. Market forces are not pushing the price of labor up, because the productive land is in the hands of just a few people, so they can act together like a cartel to keep prices down. Also the indigenous people are desperate for jobs, and there are a lot of them, so if there's a strike, the rich people know that there are plenty of non-strikers who need a job. And of course, most of the jobs are menial, requiring little education, so it's easy for one Indian to replace another without much training.
If an Indian demands to get paid minimum wage, the rich people kill them to make an example of them! This doesn't happen around San Cristobal, but yes it does in Tuxtla. I get the impression that the Zapatista oversight has resulted in better treatment of Indians locally.
There are a lot of of guns here.
a) "White class" landholder private army
d) army auxilitaries, "paramilitary army"
Two years ago they killed 46 people working in a field in Acteal. Rich people don't do this directly; they hire gunmen, or make threats around San Cristobal.
Mestizos call themselves "ladino" because they are thinking that they have nothing to do with the indigenous people. The political power is in the hands of the ladinos. He says that "ladino" is a Jewish word, meaning Jews living in Spain, which has been taken for this new definition. Mixed-race people call themselves ladinos to distance themselves from the Indians. This is basically racism.
I offer him money, but he refuses. There's no need to pay. I go back to the hotel. Tomorrow I start to go home!
Apparently one cannot stop and write in one's notebook at 9pm on the sidewalk. I was doing this when a Mexican man stopped and just stared at me, quite close, invading my private space. An older man, heavy, with greying hair, holding a partially eaten corn cob on a stick. He says something in Spanish. I think he's commenting on how tall I am. He does not seem dangerous, but very weird.
I say, ha ha, yes yes, it's amazing how tall I am. I even hit my head on a door this morning. Then the guy talks some more in Spanish, and I catch the word "mezcal", which is an alcohol made from cacti. Yikes! This guy is drunk! I excuse myself and walk away.
Hey, look at this. There's a small space heater in my room I didn't notice. Of course there's no need for central heating here most of the time, but in December -- well, it's been cold the last two nights. I will definitely use this tonight! The window to the outside doesn't actually close fully.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 19TH -- CHIAPAS
Today, I got up early after a much deserved 8 hours of sleep. I woke to an ovewhelming smell, so powerful I cannot sleep. It smells like the fruitish dessert I ate my first night here.
The heater only counteracted the drafts a little last night. The blankets are fuzzy with overuse, and the fuzziness feel like dirt to me. The room has yellow and dark orange stucco on the walls like a pumpkin. The doors are heavy wood, stained dark. A grey rug. The phone is off-white and it's a rotary phone! I haven't used one of those in perhaps 15 years! (Well, maybe occasionally.)
Birds are cheeping outside. They sound like the squeak of a chair against the floor. The pitch goes down a bit and swoops all the way up. "erk erk" then a deeper "erk erk". At 6:30 I heard the distant clank clank of the church bell.
Then at 7am a new bell rings.. some other church? A more melodic clanking.
I leave at 11am, so I have some time to kill, and unfortunately no tour guide. Children are selling goods in the main square as usual. They use a whining, pleading voice with a phony inflection. They really ham it up.
There's a mostly dark grey pigeon here, touching its beak to the pavement and moving in sudden, jabbing motions. I can smell my suntan lotion, which I've been diligently putting on every day. Only minor problems with sunburn, in areas where I've missed putting the lotion on.
The cool is lifting off the town as the sun edges its way over the buildings. Even at 8:30 the plaza is already going in a small way. A student walks through with backpack, sweater, black hair past her shoulders and spread wide. She holds herself confidently and strides quickly. A clean white sweater, hair well-cared for, and just a little wavy. From her skin color, she's a coleto, but clearly she is well-off -- probably a tourist.
There are tourists here, dressed as though to clash with the environment. Sneakers, backpacks, jeans. One woman has a jacket wrapped around her waist and a huge white barette. A tall coleto in a leather jacket & dress slacks & shoes wears sunglasses.
An Indian woman wears a baby on her back, in a pouch slung over her left shoulder. She has a colorful top blouse, embroidered with flowers and stripes. Her hair is one long braid. She wears a simple black skirt, pure black, just below her knee, and sandals.
There's a brown Mexican student & his white girlfriend. They walk through the square looking lost. After only a couple of days, I already feel like I know this place. I'm secure and comfortable and the area doesn't frighten me now -- at least, not during the day.
There's a young man with a shabby black t-shirt and dress pants. A conflict -- his last clean clothing? White and obviously a tourist. He has two extra bags with him: garbage bags with rugs and dirty clothes tossed together. (Wait, that's me!)
"Securidad Privada" a private security guard with a white shirt and red pockets. Brown pants & a night stick, a brown cap, leans against a door.
There's a police car, dark blue, with lights on the top. It says "Estada de Chiapas", "Direccion de Seguridad Publica". All that text is in a yellow logo with sun rays streaming out of it, and a four-digit number in yellow.
Because I can't find a tour guide, and have some time to kill, I walk downhill to the bus station. As I start getting out of the main area of 10 blocks or so, things become more and more shabby. There's dirt and sand on the sidewalk. I see the same big black plastic containers I'm told hold purified water delivered by truck.
In the bus station, I wait for the bus and watch the TV hanging in the corner. On the TV, they're speaking in Spanish "Frosty 'cay jana'??" to the tune of Frosty the snowman. There's a guy in a big baggy white felt suit playing frosty the snowman. It's a kid's program. Girls with futuristic silver jumpsuits run through a candy-colored obstacle course of balloon "moonbounce"-style runways.
There's a sign, "prohibido la persona que sea sorprendida sera consignada a las autoridades".
The bus is a half-hour late but I found a baggage handler and managed to communicate. He reassured me that a bus would really be coming.
With dramamine, the bus ride back to Tuxtla was much, much more pleasant. It's a winding road with a drainage ditch. There's an occasional shrine with a blue cross, and a lei-style ring of flowers over it. The road is slightly banked for sharp turns. This is like a roller coaster ride. There's no rail on the mountain side. The soil is ruddy -- it's the clay again.
The primary trees here on the mountain are pine trees. It's impossible to sleep, because the tight turns yank my head back and forth on the headrest. From this vantage on the mountain road, I can see the valley. It's dotted with the same hothouses for growing flowers. The pine forest is interrupted by squares that have been cut out of them on the mountainside. The squares are fields: green & brown. There are cloud wisps at the same level we're at.
I yawn and my ears pop. We pass cornfields stick into niches where the slope is not so bad, but it's hardly flat! From here, we can see down into the valley and then up again to the mountains which form the horizon beyond the valley. The mountain tops are wreathed and partially obscured by clouds.
I have to actively use my muscles against the turns to keep from slipping over. I can't just assume I'll stay in my seat.
We pass lots of signs saying "Superior", which seems to be a kind of beer. It's also a Coca-Cola brand I think. Some of these fields, built right onto a slope, are amazing! The mountains are like a patchwork of fields and forests. The rows of vegetables are usually oriented so that each row is horizontal. There's corn being grown right up to the edge of the highway. I take several photos, knowing they'll be blurry.
We're on highway 190 by the way.
Ugh. I'm getting carsick now that we're about one hour into the two hour bus ride. It's a fuzzy, light-headed feeling.
Now we pass some Indians carrying the corn out. The corn from the mountain field right here is wrapped into a cylindrical bundle and they're carrying it on their backs, over a little trail and up to the highway where there's a car waiting.
Soft pop music plays on the radio as the driver talks with his buddy in the front seat. There's a bee on the bus with me. It's yellow & black, and buzzes near the window. My drawing the curtain all the way I manage to keep it up against the window.
Two oncoming cars flash their lights at us. A warning that something's up ahead? We come to a very slow moving truck -- 10 mph maybe. It's got a red wooden frame and it's loaded all the way to the top with green sacks of hot peppers!
The collective buses are minivans saying "colectivo" or "transporte colectivo".
I eat greasy fries and tex-mex at the Tuxtla airport. There are flies here. I met a guy from London, a young lawyer on a brief detour from a six-person tour group. He tells me that half the Mexican army is in Chiapas.
Our airplane is very small. Its a twin-prop "J32", all white except for the aerocaribe logo in blue. It only has 21 seats, and only half are filled.
The propellers come to life with a vacuum cleaner kind of whirr that rises in pitch. There's a rumble and vibration. The cabin is too small for me to stand upright. Behind me are two insanely grinning parents who dote on their toddler, as he yelps loudly and babbles and makes ape-like noises. The kid also jostles my chair as I'm trying to sleep.
We fly to Oaxaca. I met Amy, and we flew together to Mexico City. We were lucky enough to have a hotel right in the airport: The Marriott.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 20TH -- MEXICO CITY
We don't have any time to explore Mexico City, nor do we really want to. Our original plans were to visit here, but we decided at the last moment it was too dangerous. Lots of traveler's advisories warned us away. So we go straight to the airport, and fly out to Texas to visit with Amy's family. They are throwing us an engagement party tonight, which should be fun.
Now we're flying home on American Airlines. Finally they're speaking English! There's the time-honored tradition of showing us how seat belts work. They announce over the loudspeakers: "passengers may not use electronic devices during portions of the flight. This is because the electronic signals may interfere with the delicate equipment aboard the airplane." I think to myself, finishing the sentence: "CAUSING US ALL TO CRASH AND DIE!"
In the event of a water landing, the seat cushion becomes a floatation device. (Right, very handy for those of us still alive.)
We finally fly away from Mexico City. From the air, all I can see are buildings for as far as I can see. What a city! Finally, we are going home.
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