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Thursday, December 20, 2007

San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán

Like every other morning in San Cristobal, our day started at the Comedor Caminero. They were just a block or so from our hotel, and were always packed with people looking for the same thing as us: a tasty, cheap breakfast. They were so good we weren't even tempted to go anywhere else!

We were off to spend the day on a tour. Yep, that's right, a tour. We're not tour people, but on the recommendation of a woman that we met, who had lived in San Cristobal for over 15 years, we did. Cesario was our tour guide, a man that had grown up in San Juan Chamula. Because of this, he was allowed to guide people in these towns, and was able to teach us what we were seeing, what the people believed, how they looked at outsiders, what they expected from US, and most importantly how we should behave, showing the proper respect to the people that lived there.

After meeting in town, we boarded a van and rode to San Juan Chamula. After getting out, we all gathered and listened to a little bit of Cesario's background information. He then led us up a hill that overlooked Chamula, spoke some more, and then led us down into the valley and past the cemetery, and then into the town's main square, where there was a market that day.

This was a local market, where the people in the surrounding communities came to sell their products and to buy food. Bags of grain were laid out, piles of wool shorn from the sheep, and all sorts of produce, both cultivated and collected from native plants and trees. In the picture on the left, a boy is showing me this bean sort of pod that he was selling. I'd seen them for sale several times and finally asked what it was. He held it out, pinched off one end and then peeled it open, revealing little green pea/beans inside. I asked him how people ate it, and he told me that it was eaten raw. He offered me some, so I tried it. It tasted awful.

He laughed at me. I told him I didn't like it and he laughed even harder. When I spit some out, I asked again how it was cooked, and he insisted that it was eaten raw. And then he laughed even harder. I told him that I didn't think so, and then his friend was laughing, too. I tried to get him to eat one, to 'show me' and he refused, laughing the entire time. It was a pretty good joke on the gringo, and I STILL don't know what they do with it. I _do_ know that it's not eaten raw, though!

One of the fascinating things that we learned about the local culture was about how they handle criminals. The local communities operate separate from the federal government, and handle things the way they have for centuries. When someone breaks a law, stealing for instance, they are locked up in the local jail, just a block from the market. In the picture, you can see the iron gate, which secures the single cell. The doorway on the left is the cell for women, which is slightly set back, to afford more privacy.

The 'criminal' is locked up for a few days and people are allowed to throw things at them and yell at them in any way. After the few days of public castigation, they are released and they then have to make amends, by paying for or replacing whatever was stolen. After that, they then have to serve the community for a period of time, the length of time depending on the severity of their 'crime.' If you look in the picture of the market above, you'll actually see three 'criminals' standing around. They have to wear certain clothes, the white ones you see in the picture, to indicate their status. They serve as the policemen! They're hanging around the market, walking around with their batons, patrolling the area. After their time is up, they go back to being just regular citizens again, and that's the end of it.

One of their jobs is to make sure no one takes pictures of the local leaders. We were there on the day that they all sat in the town square in a semi-circle, available to the whole community. Anyone that had a complaint or a 'civil suit' could come and present their case before the leaders. If you click on the picture to the right, you can see them all sitting in the background. I wasn't about to take a picture, and discovered only later that they were in the background.

In the market, Cesario introduced us to two old ladies that both were there every market day. They used wool from their sheep to make yarn, which they then wove into shawls and other items. They were both deaf and mute, and the lady in the picture to the left helped translate. They were both quite proud of their handiwork, and were happy to demonstrate how they spun their yarn by hand, with what looked like a small wooden knitting needle that they spun on the ground, turning a combed wad of wool into the yarn.

We took a picture of them both, holding up a few of the things that they made, which we bought. The shawl on the right kept Susan warm for our entire trip! The weather was much colder than we were prepared for, so adding some local shawls and sweaters to our backpacks was necessary.

One of the highlights of our trip was visiting the local church. This was a Mayan church, nominally Catholic. Inside there were no pews, no priest and no collection plate. Pine needles were strewn all over the floor, and people that were there to worship would just clear a space on the tiled floor and sit down. They lit candles, had bottles of liquor, bottles of soda and although we didn't see any when we were inside, chickens and eggs often appear.

Inside, we carefully walked through, smelling the pine needles and incense, keeping a respectful distance from others, soaking it all in. Cesario impressed upon us the independence of the people, how they had continued their Mayan traditions and manner of worship even after being 'converted' by the Spanish priests. It was certainly different than any other church we'd seen, with people of all ages sprawled along the edges, talking quietly with each other, sitting silently, praying or chanting. Candles were scattered in groups, some attended and some left to burn by themselves. Some people were quite fervent, but most were quietly enjoying the sun shining through the high windows, the sounds of thankful people, and the smell of pine.

Arriving in Zinacantán, we made our way to a family´s home, where they worked and (of course) also offered their products for sale.

Cesario took the opportunity to now explain some of the things we´d seen in the church in Chamula. He passed around a sample of the "posh" that we´d seen, which is sort of like a rum concoction, with herbs. It tasted pretty good!

He also explained the purpose of the different colors of the candles, and also the reason why Coca-Cola, Fanta Strawberry, Fanta Orange and Sprite are used in the rituals. The color of the candles matches the colors of the soda, and each means the same thing. The white stands for tortillas, or bread. In times past, pre-soda days, chicha would have been used, which was also bubbly! I´ll post more details on this later.

The mother of the family demonstrated her backstrap loom for us, and we got to see one of her daughters preparing the long strands of thread for the next weaving. After a bit of that, she went into their kitchen, where the other girls had started a fire, and they all prepared some homemade tortillas.

They soak the corn with lime, which softens the kernel, and then it´s ground by hand with a mortar and pestle type grinder, and then the masa, the paste, is formed by hand into the flat tortilla. Then they toast it over the fire, which you can see below.

They had a bowl of ground, toasted pumpkin seeds, which we could put on the tortilla, and then roll it all up and eat it. I did.

Of course, when we were leaving, many if not all of us did buy some of their wares, and gladly so. This family was nowhere near the poorest in the community, and with so many mouths to feed in their family, it was wonderful to see them doing so well.

The sunflower type designs that you see in the picture is their handiwork, and while this is the town where they make this design, you can see it in markets for miles and miles all around the area.

After leaving the house, we continued to walk for a few minutes toward the center of town. When we arrived in the town square, the market had already closed for the day. It was very windy the day that we visited, and although it was sunny and mostly clear, being up at a higher altitude made it pleasantly brisk.

The last of the people were cleaning up, packing their things and getting ready to head back into the small hamlets that surround the main town. The people in the two different communities have a different style of dress, so before continuing on, Cesario took the opportunity to point out how people from each community will have stalls in the other on market days.

Before continuing into the church, Cesario explained more about the differences between the two communites. He constantly impressed upon us that each of the two communities had very different ways of dress, and also ways of worship. Whereas in the last church in Chamula, there were chickens, eggs, liquor and Coca-cola, inside this church you wouldn´t find anything like that.

Indeed, upon entering, there was a service being performed, which you might have seen inside any give church on any given day, anywhere in Mexico. The people were orderly sitting in the pews, quietly listening to the priest. We didn´t linger inside, but just looked around a bit and then left.

It was pretty, but not nearly as interesting. : )

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Off to Mexico!

Traveling in Central America can be an adventure...just on the buses. Depending on which type of bus you take, a trip could take two hours, three, or maybe even five. The fastest and most secure way to travel is by a shuttle, which is a 12 or 15 passenger van that goes from one location directly to another. After that, you could take a first class bus, which may stop a couple of times to let passengers on and off, but it´s also pretty quick and direct. The slowest means of travel is the second class buses, or the chicken buses as some people call them. They stop anywhere along the way to let anyone on or off, with whatever it is that they´re carrying.

Our transport from Antigua directly to San Cristóbal de las Casas was on a shuttle. The picture above shows what was on the window. We thought it was pretty funny. We left at 5:00 in the morning and arrived in San Cristóbal at around 4:00 or so in the afternoon.

Along the way, of course, we had to cross the border between Guatemala and Mexico. It was a little strange to arrive at what seemed to be the border...to check out of Guatemala...and then there wasn´t a ´check-in´to Mexico. The picture on the right is of this ´no man´s land´that we navigated, following the driver of the bus through alleyways, corridors and vendor´s stalls until we came out after a while on the edge of this ´village´and reboarded the van. The vendors there had wads of both quetzales and pesos, there were houses, cars, and markets, restaurants and stalls, all in-between the two countries.

After driving for a couple of minutes through this all, we finally saw this sight:

Then, we got back off of the van and went into the customs agent´s office in Mexico. After getting everything stamped, we got back on the van and continued for a few more hours until we arrived at San Cristóbal de las Casas.

The first thing we had to do, of course, was to search for a place to stay and also get a bite to eat. After looking at several different places, we were both getting a little grumpy (the jaguars were coming out) from not having ANYTHING to eat all day, so we broke down and ate at a little place.
Susan had some quesadillas with avocado on the side. I ate my sychronizadas (sort of a ham quesadilla with tomato and lettuce inside) so fast that there isn´t a picture to share.
Just a block down the street, we finally found a place to stay.

After searching a bit, we found a nice place to stay, just across from this church:

We figured that we´d always be able to find it, as bright as it was! As it turns out, the people that have the little stalls there in front are always there, selling fresh fruit and other food. There was also a laundry a couple of blocks away, an internet place a couple of doors down, and a nice bakery, too. Susan is addicted to the chocolate donuts. : )

After leaving our bags, we went for a walk around the town. We wandered through the markets and enjoyed seeing all of the variety of the produce that was for sale.
Here in this town, the population is partly mestizos, a mixture of Spanish and Indigenous people, and then also ¨pure¨ indigenous people, which are Mayan. As I understand, Chiapas, the state that we´re in, has the highest percentage of indigenous people in all of Mexico.

Taking pictures of people isn´t as accepted here as in other places, and so you´ll notice that are pictures are more of items and not people. We´re just doing our best to be respectful and polite, as these people are much more autonomous than any other state in Mexico, with very strong local customs and different attitudes.
As foreigners we´re welcome, but we are expected to be very respectful of local customs as a condition to being treated respectfully as well. Seeing the local market was wonderful, and looking at the lillies in the picture on the right, you can imagine how beautiful it was to see men carrying large bundles of them on their backs, walking to their stalls in the market. Were it not for the ´taking photos´issue, I´d have easily shown you a photo that looked just like a Diego Rivera painting. Beautiful!
Pictures from a distance are fine, but even still we were careful to be polite. A lot of work went into each individual stall, with the proprietors taking pride in their produce. The colors were so rich, and the smells were strong, both of the herbs, the pineapple stands, and also the butcher stalls.

All along the southern part of the market were Mayan women that were standing around with three or four chickens in each hand, all tied at the feet and hanging head down. People would come by and inspect them, hefting them in their hands to determine their weight, turning them around and poking them. It´s a tough life for a
rooster, you know!
The woman in the photo on the right already bought one, and was sitting on the side of the road nursing her baby. We know what she was cooking for dinner that night. I´m not sure if it was just what the lady was offering to everyone or just to me, but at $10 I think the price was a little high. The chickens were of course "free range" "organic" and "heirloom breeds" but all of that meant that they were a little on the skinny side, not the overstuffed fat American ones we find in the supermarket back at home. If that was the going rate, good for her!
This little girl was playing with the metal tongs that her grandmother was using to pluck out roasted corn that she was selling on the roadside. We watched her for a little while, and she kept poking the corn until finally her abuela took the tongs away and rearranged them again. This is a pretty common sight, as everywhere you go people are selling their corn that they´ve cooked on grills, boiled, or in the case of this woman, grilled and then kept warm in hot water.

After all of this, we were quite hungry again, as you can imagine. The smell and the sight of tacos al pastor drew us inside. Here is a short video of the man slicing off the pork for the tacos:

The pork is sliced thinly and then marinated in vinegar and spices overnight. Then, it´s arranged on a vertical spit, in between a pineapple that´s been split vertically as well. Each taco they made here had little chips of the roasted pineapple included as well.

It´s good to be in Mexico.

Last night in Antigua

Here´s just a few more photos from Guatemala, for now. This is our little hotel that we stayed in for a few nights. It was called Hotel La Casa de Don Ismael. We mention it because it was so very comfortable, clean and quaint. The family that runs it were exceptionally polite and pleasant, and it was a joy to stay there and to be able to recommend it to others. It wasn´t the cheapest place that we could find, by far, but at $18 or so per night, it was a great value. So, please go!
Here are some photos of our big night out, too:

And a post like this wouldn´t be complete without a photo of the Estufo Cordero, the Lamb Stew:


Monday, December 17, 2007

Wandering around Antigua

Cobblestone streets, clear and cool weather in the middle of December, good food, colonial architecture...¿what´s not to like about Antigua? Antigua used to be the capital of Guatemala, until the city was abandoned after a year of earthquakes. Even still, not all of the people left, and they eventually came back and the city has been continuously settled ever since.

Many of the ruins are still intact...as ruins. In other places, they´ve been rebuilt and the city is full of one story buildings, with courtyards hidden behind the large wooden doorways.

With our new friends, we enjoyed just wandering around a bit, not on a set plan or agenda, just wandering around absorbing the warm sunshine and the smells and sights.

This is right next to the Spanish Embassy, and is part of an arts complex, with theater productions and art shows.

Of course there is a market, just like in every town, big or small. This one had lots of things around the exterior, but inside was the food. We didn´t stop to eat here, but just look at the variety!

This was the section where there was prepared food, and in other parts there were the bags of different kinds of beans and other dried goods. Some stalls were full of greens and herbs, just amazing the selection that they had...and of course it smelled wonderful.

In the center of town is a large fountain, with mermaids of all things! In the shade and around the fountain were lots of locals, milling around, eating ice creams from the vendors...and just relaxing. This is a picture of a little boy of probably about three years old or so, who was all dressed up. He even had a little moustache painted onto his face. He wasn´t so keen on having his picture taken, but his mother was encouraging it, so we obliged.

The clothes are not the normal, everyday clothes, but are the classic ´campesino´outfit that was worn years and years ago. About half of the people we saw were wearing western style clothing (mostly men) and the other half wore indigenous clothing (mostly women).

It seemed that everywhere you turned there was a beautiful picture just waiting for you to come along and take it. Not just Susan, but the volcano, too. : ) She was taking almost all of the pictures in this batch, so she´s not in many of them.

On that street we stopped for a coffee, a wonderful coffee, and the women were preparing for their lunch and dinner traffic. I saw that they were preparing dozens of these small clay bowls, full of pickled, hot carrots and jalapeños. They gladly gave me one when they saw how excited I was about them, so I took them out to share with everyone. No one else was as excited, so I think I ate the whole bowl. Wow, were they hot! But tasty, too.
It´s funny, but in a country that is famous for it´s coffee, it´s actually hard to find a decent cup. In most places, coffee is a watery cup of instant coffee. We all had a little coffee while waiting for Steve to get up. While I was busy procuring the carrots, Marianne went to find Steve. Apparently he was passed out on his bed and didn´t even close the door to his room. Susan and I missed that party! As it turns out, they closed the bar and then took a of bottle of wine to go...and drank it on the roof deck of our hotel.
Not everyone was having coffee. Or hot carrots and jalapeños. I have to admit that I got a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, too. Poor Dana didn´t hike up the volcano with us because she was feeling poorly, and wasn´t quite herself, even after the Pepto...the whole bottle, of course.

Why was I feeling a little less then perfect myself? Well, the night before I had a michelada too many. I´m used to the Baja California michelada, which is a sort of bloody mary type drink: Clamato juice, beer, lime juice, hot sauce, worchester sauce and pepper. Wow!
So Susan and I were exhausted from the volcano hike, but we were still hungry. We stopped in the only place we could find that wasn´t a bar and had a wonderful meal. Susan had Chilean wine (a couple of glasses) and I had a GUATEMALAN michelada. It was the same, except it didn´t have the Clamato juice. Well, it was extremely good. And very lime-y. Oh! I forgot to mention, that the rim of the glass is usually salted. MMMmmm. Like a margarita.
So anyway, I should have had only one...but it was SO good I had another. Between the high dose of lime juice, LIME SALT on the rim, the hot sauce...well, my stomach was a little less than settled.
Not that that stopped us the next day from dragging Brad and Dana over to the same place so THEY could have one. Susan even had one. Dana didn´t. Susan said her lips were chapped from the experience. Right now, our mouths are both watering just at the thought of another. When we get done....well, I think I saw a place that served them here...

After wandering around for a couple of days, we decided to move along. After consulting the Rough Guide, we decided to take the next bus (shuttle) out of town. When you´re this close to Mexico, how could you NOT go?
We´re in Chiapas right now, and are catching up on the blog. Check again tomorrow and we´ll catch up some more. Wow!

Volcan Pacayo

While in Antigua we heard from some people that you could take a trip to the top of one of the volcanos that were near the city. It sounded like it would be quite an experience, and why there at our little hotel there was a little sign, with photos of the hike and the lava from the volcano. Wow! Sounds good. We made arrangements and were sure to be back at the hotel at 2:00 to meet the bus that would take us there. We were there on time, and were the first people to be picked up. Unfortunately, the bus driver had other people to pick up...and couldn´t find one hotel...and so we drove around the city for an hour before we even made our way to the volcano.

Instead of it being one of the three right near Antigua, however, it was one near Guatemala City, about an hour away. On the left is a photo of Guatemala City, as we were driving higher and higher up into the mountains.

So, after quite a while of driving we finally arrived at a National Park, high up on the side of the volcano. We all got out and met the guide from the park that would escort us to the top. Horses were there, available to rent, which they continually reminded us of while we were struggling up the trail. Because we got such a late start, we had to hurry, with just a few stops to rest. Needless to say, we were quite exhausted on the extremely steep trail.

The photo on the left is another view back over the mountains and to Guatemala City in the far distance below. Even at this height, there were fields of the ever-present corn, which had already been harvested.

At each stop for a rest, the small boys that were right behind us, on their horses, kept singing out, ¨Horses es possible, horses es possible, 3 kilometers more, horses es possible¨ Of course that was terribly encouraging while you´re sweating, chuffing, and trying to miss the horse droppings all along the trail.

After hiking a bit more, we got a clear view of the lake that you can see in the picture on the right. The vistas were absolutely amazing. As you can see, as it got later the clouds started getting thicker and more ominous.

Our guide kept encouraging us to press on quickly, apologizing again for having to hurry, that normally we could take more time, but not now, since we were late and had to get to the summit for sunset.

After some time we did finally reach the summit, and looking towards the west, this is what we saw, in the photo on the left. A picture just can´t do it justice, with the dark mountains and the dark clouds rolling in. The clouds obscured the volcano, which was to our left as we reached the summit of the mountain we´d been climbing.

By this time, the boys with the horses had disappeared, and we were in an area with pine trees and it was also much colder than it had been. Of course, with a little rest we were cold from the wind, and we were all of course quite sweaty from the climb.

Through the pine trees, we´d occasionally get a glimpse of the lava when the clouds were thin. We weren´t quite sure of what was going to happen next, since there wasn´t much communication, either in English or Spanish. There were streams of people who´d arrived earlier (on time) who were now climbing back up to where we were waiting. They were all visibly excited and shouted ¨just a little bit more¨to us as they passed.

After everyone had gathered and rested a bit, we then started to descend towards the volcano´s lava floes. The closer we got to the trough between the mountain and volcano, the better we could see the volcano itself.

If you click on the picture to the right, you´ll see the people down below, picking their way through the dried lava. It was quite slippery on this slope (as many are!) since now the dirt below our feet was virtually all volcanic. It was very light and crumbly, almost like kicking your way through fine snow. We all slid a little bit, and would periodically just stop walking and just slide for a few feet down the hill.

Once we´d reached the bottom, we started to ascend the volcano itself. The good news was that the drived lava floes were very sharp and rough, so our shoes had a lot of traction. The bad news was that the lava was very sharp and rough, so our hands, elbows, knees and head wouldn´t stand a chance of being safe.

As you can see from the picture above (Susan on the left, Marianne in the center) it was getting increasingly darker as we went on. The flowing lava above cast a red glow across the clouds, which the camera didn´t pick up very well. The closer we got, the louder the volcano became, as well. It was a dull roar at times, and at others we could hear the sound of rolling boulders, not dense, deep thuds, but rather almost like chalk on a chalkboard, a grinding sound along with the thuds.

The lava we were hiking over was at times disconcertingly warm. Hot you could call it...and at times alarmingly so. At one point we walked past this:

The two pictures are taken at the exact same point, looking down (no feet included for perspective) at this dinner-plate sized hole, where you could see the lava still red-hot below. The one on the left is with the flash, and the one on the right without.

We were certainly getting closer and closer to the source!

This was as far as we climbed. Everyone stopped and we took pictures...and all the while we could hear the volcano much louder than ever. Every now and then, we´d see the floes moving rapidly, and occasionally large red-hot boulders would come tumbing down.

It was at this time that everyone decided we´d had quite enough and we returned to the park entrance. Not everyone had flashlights, so we proceeded very carefully, taking as long to walk back down as it did to walk up. Needless to say, we were quite excited by the hike, and were quite sore for a couple of days!