The Gringos Enter... The Maya Zone. (9/24/96)
...George Lucas didn't have to make all that stuff up. The Mayans did it for him.
July 26 - September 24, 1996
Dear Friends and Family:
This hereby ends the long silence from south of the border! Not only are we alive and well, we are thriving at yet another kicked-back beachside setting, Xcacel, on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan penninsula. Yes, still in Mexico, much even to our surprise. Our six-month visa expired 3 days ago, necessitating a trip to the immigration office in Cancun and some grovelling for a 3 week extension which, much to our amazement, we received. So we're now making our way down the Caribbean coast towards the Belizean border at Chetumal at the average velocity of a Mexican beach crab.
This letter may read a little differently than most others you've received from us. For one thing, it's being written by hand, with an actual pen, stream-of-consciousness style, just like all my papers in college (you know, no editing, just get it down on paper and hope for the best...). Furthermore, it's being written by me, Whitney, so that explains the tasteful humor. Here it seems appropriate for all of us to lower our heads for a brief moment of silence to observe the recent passing of our dearly beloved Compaq LTE Lite 386, the sturdy little Laptop Who Could (at least, it could for the first 5 months of our trip). Yes, the little guy's power supply just up and died one morning, the very day we were packing it up for a trip to the Mexican computer doctor to see to the vertical lines that were consuming the center of the screen (can't play a decent game of solitaire, you know, with advanced screen failure, but lord knows, we tried!). OK, you can raise your heads now. Anybody got a spare Compaq we can ravage for parts? Thanks to the miracle of our thoroughly modern Moms, totally armed with an army of late model computers and fax machines, we can still send and receive messages the old fashioned way: fax to e-mail to fax... so stay in touch!
Now for some answers to your burning question: where on earth have we been? We sent our last missive from little Puerto Angel, on the pacific coast of Oaxaca, where we spent 11 days in a wide silk hammock, rising only ocassionally to body surf at various white sand beaches or eat a barbecued tuna steak marinated in soy sauce, sugar and tequila. The community we stayed in once made its living from the slaughter and processing of sea turtles that came ashore to lay their eggs. When turtle protection measures went into effect a few years ago, the community was left tradeless, and has been struggling to convert to an "eco-tourism" -based economy. Nearby Zipolite and Puerto Escondido are well-known surf meccas which attract beach dudes from around the world. In Puerto Angel, where we were entranced by the easy livin' as much as by the sporadic Olympic coverage, is a quiet fishing village with a moderate amount of tourism. Perhaps there would be more of us tourists if it weren't for the large, unavoidable Mexican navy facility located on prime beach-front real estate right in the center of town. The fishermen, with the ocassional tourist in tow, go out at dawn in small dories to troll their handlines (yes, handlines) through the still abundant schools of yellowfin tuna, sailfish and even marlin swimming in the deep trenches offshore. The handline technique they use explains the strange array of unusual scars and 3-fingered men in town.
Speaking of Olympics, Dave and I watched as much as we could from the odd bar or restaurant. It was American video coverage, Mexican commentary, mixed with the ocassional interview with a Mexican athlete. These interviews looked as though they were beamed live from a makeshift stage erected in some Atlantan men's room, with a backdrop that somebody's mom sewed up in a hurry. In the end, the Mexicans were quite embarrassed by their national showing-- one bronze medal for race-walking-- resulting in a congressional demand for yet another official inquiry to determine why virtually all their hopefuls fell short. This would be a congressional inquiry not unlike the one launched by Carlos Salinas after the disappointment of the Barcelona Olympic effort in 1992. The commercialism of the games certainly stood out in high relief, but it was interesting to see virtually every black-and-white portable TV in Mexico wired up to bring the games into even the tiniest kiosks, fruit shops and taco stands lining the streets.
Once the games were over and our base tans were sufficiently developed, we dragged our lazy bones back into the car, cranked up the air conditioner, and made the 8-hour ride through hot, humid lowlands along the lower pacific coastline, then turned inland towards the highlands of Chiapas, a complete change of scenery, temperature, and political temperament. We installed ourselves in a small apartment in San Cristobal de las Casas, a town of 70,000 or more that sits in a valley surrounded by hamlets of various indigenous groups. We spent 3 incredible weeks in San Cristobal filling our minds with as much information and borrowed experience as we could garner from the friends we made. By most measures, Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico, and like its southern boundary neighbor, Guatemala, it has suffered centuries of internal conflict as well as fiscal neglect and violent intrusion by the federal government. Much of the population is indian and lives according to centuries-old traditions which are most evident in their colorful and beautiful dress. Chiapas includes a large portion of what remains of the tropical rainforest in Mexico. The indigenous people, unable to access the state's considerable natural wealth which is controlled by an appallingly tiny minority of wealthy landowners, have been forced to move into the tropical rainforest, clear-cutting and burning the jungle to plant crops. The jungle soil is only productive for 3 years on average, so new plots are cleared and burned, and the old plots are used to graze cattle which chew the fields down to the point where regeneration becomes impossible.
Ecological destruction is only one small part of the trouble in Chiapas. Most of all, Chiapas is being watched closely here and abroad because it is the base of operations for the EZLN, the Zapatista movement, a populist uprising lead by the mysteriously ski-masked SubCommandante Marcos. In 1994, the EZLN seized control of San Cristobal and Ocosingo, another Chiapas town, thereby demonstrating to the Mexican government and the world that they were a serious force to be reckoned with. These attacks, while brief and relatively moderate in scale (although 400 were killed), greatly embarrassed the Mexican government which, in the midst of a serious economic crisis that alarmed international markets and governments, had continuously insisted that there were no guerilla elements in Mexico. Recently, the government and EZLN have been "negotiating", although these talks broke off just a few weeks ago when it became clear that the government is stonewalling.
The EZLN's demands are not extreme, as they have no special leftist or rightist ideology. In the summary we read which is ostensibly the basis for their negotiations with the government, they demand basic services and human rights, not only for the indigenous groups in Chiapas but for all the poor people in Mexico (bear in mind that over 60% of Mexicans live in poverty). Aside from basic services such as healthcare, food subsidies, and civil infrastructure (electricity and subsidized housing, for instance), the EZLN is demanding reforms to the electoral and judicial systems. Sounds straightforward, but in a country where disappearances, political assasinations, jury-riggings and electoral fraud are standard daily fare in the local newspapers, this is asking for the sun, moon and stars. Marcos, purportedly an ex-university lecturer from Mexico City, has done a brilliant job managing public relations abroad via modern communications technology including the Internet, thereby securing the attention and vigilance of human rights organizations in the US and Europe. To his credit, remarkably little bloodshed has occurred since the 1994 attacks, although now that talks have broken off, we'll see what happens next. Ironically, at almost the exact moment that negotiations broke off, the EPR, a true guerilla rebel group with a decidedly Marxist agenda, attacked government installations in 6 different places in Mexico including the resort town of Huatulco, only a few miles from Puerto Angel. This group is not interested in discussions and criticize the EZLN for all talk, no action. But only the EZLN has gained popular support nationwide.
That's the simplest version of the story, and we bother you with the details only because it has been a terribly important element of our travels here. We read everything we can on the subject, talk to anybody who's willing regardless of their orientation or bias. We know enough now to observe (lamely, perhaps) that the situation in Chiapas is extremely complex, especially when you add in the complicating influences and interests of the various indigenous groups, the Catholic church, various protestant and evangelical sects, not to mention the ruling party (the PRI, in power continuously since the 1920's at virtually every level of goverment including the presidency thanks in large part to electoral fraud). We've learned enough not to trivialize, let alone dismiss, the significance of the EZLN or the EPR, even for those of us who live in other countries. The scale of the atrocities committed thus far in supressing these and other popular uprisings may not yet be on the level of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, but the trajectory looks familiar. Meanwhile, it seems amazing to us that these events are viewed as inconsequential by the international markets who continue to promote investment in the Mexican market, touting a strengthening economy and political environment that is sufficiently stable to stake your dollars on it.
Enough sermonizing. Now that we've got that off our chest, we'll move on to the lighter side of our stay in San Cristobal. We stayed in a small apartment rented to us by an American woman, a 40-year resident of San Cristobal, who remembers when the place had no cars, one restaurant and one hotel, hard to imagine today amid the sea of tourist services. In spite of the development, San Cristobal has great charm, and it was easy to meet people and make friends in the various hangout joints in town. We met a couple from UC Davis, Chris and Shannon, who patiently gave us an overview of local and national politics. Shannon is working near San Cristobal as a human rights observer and managed the Peace House for Global Exchange, a human rights and eco-travel organization based in San Francisco. Chris is doing doctoral work in political science, and is analysing the development of US policy on privacy protection as it relates to the Internet, as well as the rise of the militia movement in the US. After spending a few days with these guys, Dave and I hereby resolve to read more non-fiction and stop called ourselves "educated". We know nothing! We're not worthy!
Another memorable group we met was a group of artists, American and Mexican singers, dancers, puppeteers and spiritualists, who travel around North and Central America in a brightly painted bus called the "Elote"-- the "Corn Cob"-- because that's exactly what it's painted to look like. They support themselves by giving impromptu performances while travelling en route to various human rights or spiritual events, including the annual "Rainbow" gatherings in the US. We met them at a low point in their trip, as the rain had destroyed alot of their costumes, the flu was making its rounds, and money was low, but their enthusiasm and commitment to their work "for Peace" was admirable. Some of the members have been on the road together for 17 years!
There are hundreds of interesting villages around San Cristobal, and because we had a car, we were able to go to some of the less visited ones. Each village has its own completely unique style of dress, pattern of cloth, colors, embroidery, and each one seems more beautiful that the next, although their beautiful dress creates a strong contrast to the terrible poverty most of them live in. Nearly everyone who visits San Cristobal visits San Juan de Chamula, just a few miles away, which is completely unique due to its unusual approach to Christianity. Elements of Catholicism have been merged with pre-colonial indigenous spiritualism. The church itself is adorned with bright paint, not unusual in Mexico, and a variety of life-size patron saints line the walls, each in its own elaborate and ornate glass box, but that's where the similarity to other Mexican churches ends. The floor of the church is covered with a thick layer of pine needles and the walls are adorned with pine boughs, filling the interior with the fragrance of the woods. There are no pews, there is no mass, there is no parish priest, there is no gathering of villagers at any special day or time. Worship is either individual or in small family groups lead by a male or female shaman. These small groups sit on the floor before the relevant patron saint, often for the purpose of healing a member of the family. Before them the shaman will light a number of tapers, attached directly to the floor with a drop of wax, each color of candle having a special healing significance. The candles and burning incense give off smoke which creates a mysterious, hazy, peaceful quality to the light, like standing in a thick forest where only a little sunlight filters down to the earth. Also, there might be some coca-colas or pepsi bottles, luxury drinks which will be drunk together at the breaks in the ceremony, or "posh", the local high-proof firewater. There may be eggs or even a live chicken which may or may not be killed during the ceremony, depending on the nature of the problem. It's not necessarily a sacrifice; the eggs or chicken are used to draw off the bad spirits, and may be contaminated as a result. The healing ceremony might begin with casual talk, questions about the nature of the problem. Then the shaman takes the hands of the person being healed to check his pulse and gauge his truthfulness in answering the shaman's questions. The shaman then chants for quite a while, there may be a break where the participants talk casually in a regular tone of voice, then more chanting and healing. Dave was struck hard by the similarities he observed between the Chamulan practice and the practice he saw in Tibet: same pine fragrance, same style of chanting, same checking of pulse, similar candles and offerings. Was there some sort of transmission between cultures ages ago, or is there some universal wisdom at work?
Another intriguing practice that we observed in Chamula and other villages as well is the gathering of the "cargo-holders"-- the men elected to carry out certain civic and spiritual duties, including funding and organizing the various festivals to honor the patron saints-- in the central square on Sundays. The cargoholders have special dress all their own: in the instances we saw they wore thick black or white woolen tunics tied at the waist with a bright sash, traditional sandals, bare legs, and a straw bonnet with long bright ribbons trailing down. They move in a procession from the city hall to sit in the center of the square to receive input, requests, criticisms from anyone who cares to approach. Afterward, there seems to be much drinking of posh; even public drunkeness seems to have a ritual importance.
We left San Cristobal after 3 weeks, but we've already decided to go back on our way back to the States. Our next destination was Palenque, one of the mega-sights among Mexican ruins, and our first glimpse of the Mayan heritage. Our American landlady in San Cristobal, Frances, has a son living in a small jungle enclave called "El Panchan". We headed for Palenque and El Panchan, planning on spending a night or two, expecting to hate the jungle heat and humidity after cool weather in San Cristobal. We stayed 8 days. El Panchan proved to be a little paradise: the thick jungle canopy, clear streams and rivers, unexcavated ruins, toucans and howler monkeys in the trees, all offset the discomfort of 99% humidity and steamy heat. El Panchan is a private piece of the jungle owned by Moises Morales, an elderly gentleman who is a world-reknowned expert on Mayan life and the Palenque ruins (at least according to him, but we were mostly impressed). We toured the ruins with him in a unique way, starting with a 2-hour walk through the unseen Palenque still covered with trees and vines. El Panchan is a small community which consists of a number of artists living in simple bungalows amid beautiful gardens and streams, as well as a few travellers who found the place and never left. We bonded quickly with some of the other travellers and local residents, and passed an easy week touring the ruins, stomping in the streams and waterfalls, learning to make sushi and juggle scarves, reading, writing, and sweating profusely. Plus, we spent a considerable amount of time provoking and then defending ourselves from a baby coatimundi, the pet of one of the residents. A coatimundi is a relative of the raccoon; it has a rat-shaped body the size of a beasty housecat, a long, thin, ringed tail that it uses for balance, large, beady eyes, little ratty ears and a long nose like an anteater. It has all the personality of a pissed off, hyperactive ground squirrel. We'd like to go on record as saying that coatimundis make lousy pets, as evidenced by the painful nips we had all over our poor bodies upon leaving El Panchan. In fairness, though, they are awfully curious and cute, if you like small rodent-like creatures and enjoy having a pointy nose inserted deeply into inappropriate places like your ear canals and nostrils (looking for grubs and other treats, I guess). We expect to find El Panchan laid to waste when we stop by on our way north. When this guy gets a few pounds on him, he's going to be quite a terror.
From El Panchan, we drove to the Yucatan penninsula. Early in our trip, someone had told us that Mexico has 3 basic parts: the remote, desert northwest of Baja and northwest mainland, the colonial middle including Mexico City, and the Yucatan penninsula. The Yucatan really is quite different from the rest of Mexico, and we love it just as much. The Mayan people who live here are exceptionally friendly, the history of the Mayas is in evidence in literally hundreds (if not thousands) of sites in various stages of excavation, and the countryside consists of low jungle and scrub, full of exotic birds, plus snakes, tarantulas, and other exotica. In spite of the heat, we've spent a good number of nights camping in our van in the jungle, alongside the ruins, at the side of the highway, at a deserted, fallen down hacienda, or at the beach. Ocassionally we take refuge in the air-conditioned comfort of a cheap hotel room to take a shower and watch TV. We hit all the major ruins, and can actually tell them apart. The big sites like Palenque, Chichen Itza and Uxmal certainly give you a flavor for the size of the Maya empire and the scale they were capable of, but the smaller sites are just as appealing for the detail they reveal. We climbed to the top of one large pyramid in Edzna at sunset and looked off in the distance at another "hill", strangely shaped. The guard who climbed up with us told us, yup, it's yet another pyramid that has yet to be excavated, much bigger than the one we were sitting on. He then told us about the strange white lights that streak through the sky: aliens, of course. Keep your eyes peeled. My eyes are always peeled anyway, always watchful for the snakes and spiders that get bigger and bigger in my imagination every day. Dave, nevertheless, insists on stuffing his entire body into the odd unexcavated hole in the ground that promises to be the doorway to some Mayan tomb overlooked by the archeologists.
We hit the big tourist C-spots-- Cancun, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen-- with considerable impact on our tight budget, but they had their advantages: namely, Sam's Wholesale Club, Monday Night Football, and decent cheeseburgers. The Caribbean water is absolutely breathtaking, postcard-like. The very good news is that the same white sand and clear warm water is available for cheap here on the beach at Xcacel, about 60 miles south of Cancun. (At least, it's here for now; the development of the Cancun-Tulum corridor is expanding at a ferocious pace. One person we talked to claimed that a $20,000 beachfront parcel purchased 12 years ago recently sold for over $2 million to a developer.) A diveshop at the the beach advertises a cavern dive in the local Dos Ojos "cenote", a large, freshwater well, as being "the dive of a lifetime". Yeah, right. Well... we went and it probably was! If you've ever walked through an enormous cave with giant stalactites and stalagmites, imagine that cave flooded with clear blue water. Diving in a cave is like flying through a dry cave; you can swim up to the ceiling to have a closer look or hover over a big deep hole to shine your light down inside. A second cave dive we did was through narrower passages in the total dark, a very different, creepy but thrilling experience.
September 24 Update:
Well, we did it: we crossed the border. We're in San Ignacio in Western Belize, where we've found a computer to type up this newsletter and e-mail it off to Mom for distribution. Belize has lots to offer, not the least of which is the beachlife and snorkling in the cayes to the east, but we're eager to move on to Guatemala. For a number of reasons, including our tendency to linger in a favorite spot for much longer than expected, we've decided to turn north after Guatemala and make our way home in time (barely!) for Christmas. We've allowed only six weeks for Guatemala, which doesn't seem like enough, and another six weeks to revisit favorite places and friends in Mexico as well as family in the western US. There's so much to come back for, especially in the Chiapas/Yucatan/Belizean "Maya Route", that we've had to pass up. Our trip literally gets better and better.
As always, we'd love to hear from you in spite of the communications challenge. Please drop us a line at DavidAdair@myrealbox.com and our moms will see that we get it.