Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Villages of Chamula and Zincantan, Chiapas - Day 5

You're going to have to trust me on this!  Today I'm going to have to describe to you in words what was seen
in these two villages.  The village elders have strict rules that no photographs can be taken in either village under penalty of either jail and/or having your camera taken from you.  Neither idea appealed to me.  Some attempted to take photos of the surroundings outside the churches and were quickly and loudly admonished by the village elders.  My camera never left my pocket.

IF you want to see the few photos from eight years ago, you can go to the search feature on the blog and put in Chiapas.  There will be a few photos to see but most were lost when my old computer crashed in 2008.
On that trip you could photograph outside of the churches, but no more.

Below is a postcard that I bought in 2008 of the church in Chamula.

The church from outside looks like any other small village church.  Ahh, but once you step through those doors, I can assure you that you are in a world like no other.  That is what I experienced eight years ago, but on this day recently, it was even more pronounced.  The church is no longer a Catholic church but rather is used by the people for their Tzotzil ceremonies.  As we entered, one's senses were assaulted by incense, thousands of candles on tables, on the floor, in candelabras and being held by the people in the church.
Then the sound of a small band of music to the right along with people standing and sitting on the floor.  It caused one to move forward slowly and carefully so as not to step on a person or a candle. 

On both sides of the building were wooden glass enclosed cases with various statues.  They were saints that people were praying to and making the sign of the cross in front of or lighting a candle.  As we approached the altar, the fragrance of the flowers both there and scattered around the room again assailed one's senses.  On the ceiling above the altar was a painted scene of the sky with the constellations. 

As one turned around to return to the back of the church, it was almost impossible to move because in this area, the people were kneeling with raw eggs, chickens and Coca Cola for Shaman ceremonies.  One could tell who the shamans were by the white clothing and head dress that they wore as they intoned words to the gods.  To say it was extraordinary, would be a major understatement. 

At this point, I stopped and just looked around.  People passed me by, but I'm so glad I did stop as I saw a very, very old woman with a censor and incense blessing the statues and flowers along one side of the building.  It was all I could do to keep my hands from reaching in my pocket to get my camera.  The sight of this woman was one of absolute beauty, spirituality and sensuality all in one gesture.  She will always be in my mind's eye. 

Once I reached the back of the church and many people were leaving, I just sat down.  Overwhelmed by emotion, I saw people from our group with tears streaming down their faces.  This experience truly touched many peoples' souls.

Once out in daylight, no one was chattering or anything but standing slightly dazed from the transformation that had taken place in the past thirty minutes or so.  We had visited another world - one from many centuries ago.

We were brought back to reality by people selling things.  A man put a turquoise bracelet on my arm and I did not even protest.  A little boy of about four years old named Victor, who I had met before going into the church, brought his sister to us.  She had all kinds of things to sell. Purses, pom poms - nothing that we needed but the beauty made us want.  She was business savvy too.

My friend Nora asked if she could take her photo for fifty pesos and she agreed.  Isn't she beautiful?  I bought one of the wool bags such as she is holding.  Beautifully made - price 250 pesos.  I tried to bargain but this young lady would not bargain.  In US prices that is about $12.50.  We praised her and I loved on Victor with a big hug as we headed out of that plaza and headed for another. 

There was a big ceremony going on which we could not figure out with a big statue and all the elders surrounding it in their white pants and black wooly huipiles.  As they started to walk away, Nora attempted to take a photograph but at least three men fussed at her and displayed their displeasure.  That was the end of that.

We headed for a tuk tuk to get us back up the hill and to our bus.  Heck, I was afraid to even take a photo of the two of us in the tuk tuk but it was a rollicking time heading up the hill through the people and the traffic. We were patting ourselves on the back for having the sense to not attempt to get through all the people and stuff in time to make it to the bus.  We were also giggling at the experience which is just fun.  I loved them in Guatemala too.  San Miguel needs those as a means of transportation.  They are like mini golf carts.

We made it to the bus in the nick of time.  Whew!  Then promptly headed for Zincantan approximately twenty minutes away.  This village grows lots and lots of flowers that they export all over Mexico and to Guatemala as well.  So beautiful.

Arriving at this church, there was a Mass going on and we waited until it was over to enter.  This time the flowers assailed our senses as it was masses and masses of roses, gladiolas, and multiple other kinds of flowers everywhere.  Not just on altars.  Just about the time we arrived, Patricio said we were in for a treat.
One of the town elders told him we had to wait at the back of the church as they were having a special ceremony, but that we could watch, if we were very quiet.  We did not make a peep or even move. 

First boys came with huge baskets that were so big and heavy they could hardly carry them into this part of the church.  They were FULL of rose petals.  Other boys began to spread them as a pathway for what was coming next.  The fragrance was exquisite.  Then little tinkly sounding bells began to sound as men dressed in white and carrying a statue came into view.  They were carrying this statue on their shoulders in a glass case and on a platform.  They followed the path of the rose petals which was in the shape of almost a giant circle.

Also in this procession were women carrying large armloads of flowers and some had candles.  They were barefoot. The men had on leather sandals that looked like the sandals that the Roman soldiers wore during the time of Christ.  There were so many things to see that honestly it was overwhelming.  At the very end of the procession,  a man in a long black shroud or huipile with a red cloth wrapped around his head walked very slowly.  I presume he was the Shaman, but that is only my judgement. 

It was an experience, again, of a ceremony that must have been performed for centuries.  No one knew nor to this day, do we know what the purpose of it was or who it honored or what.  When I arrived back in San Miguel, I checked my two Mexican calendars.  One said it as the Feast of  St. Macario and the other calendar said it was the Feast of Santa Maria Eugenia de Jesus.  If any of you reading this do know, it would be much appreciated for you to share that information with all of us.

All we could do after leaving the church was to stand in stunned silence at what we had been privileged to witness.

Eventually we walked a few blocks to a woman's coop of weavers to see a demonstration of back strap loom weaving.  The woman who runs this used to work out in the open air under a very small covered space.  Now, eight years later, it is multiple buildings with a kitchen, an open area to see a collection of huipiles and rebozos and a demonstration. Then two rooms of items for sale.  It was very joyful to see how much this coop has expanded.




 A wedding ceremony in traditional dress was staged with tour participants to show how they dress for this auspicious occasion.  The Zincantan women dressed them.
These are rebozos on statues posed in the buying area.  The colors have changed since 2008 when they were blue and purple.  Now it includes more flowers and the colors of red, yellow and green were added
to the weavings.  So beautiful. 

After the buying frenzy of the tour group, we boarded the bus to return to San Cristobal exhausted from all that we had experienced that day.  The experience was the topic of discussion for many days thereafter.
It certainly was a highlight of the trip.........but still there was more to come!




Friday, March 24, 2017

San Cristobal de las Casas and Na Balom - Day 4

 Day 4 was an "open day".  Yes, there was a city tour with Patricio, but I had done that eight years before so I was up and out, heading about four long blocks from our hotel to the primary zocalo in San Cristobal.  To  me, it is a treasure to just observe the people.  To quietly sit and watch.To see the little things.  One thing I noticed is that the city has become more westernized in the last eight years.  In the past, very few people dressed in regular clothes.  This day it was much different.  These two women and the child were the closest I came to seeing the women of Chamula and they were really only half dressed indigenously in their wooly skirts.  The child, not at all.
There is always an ice cream man in every town in Mexico.  The favorite food, I believe, of Mexico.  I saw this man a few days later over near the church and he pulled his cart up to the front door. He bowed, made the Sign of the Cross several times and then moved on. It was very touching.
 Watching these two boys scamper in front of me playing and laughing, I was surprised to see them later quietly sitting there.  One giving a shoe shine and the other selling all kinds of items. 
 Chiapas is a protest state.  There are many things painted on the sides of buildings - not in a grafitti way, but in a serious way.  Even in this shoe shine booth, while the man was gone, his sign was still up there!  Even though the major uprising was twenty-three years ago, they do not forget!
 Also on my agenda was to get to Na Balom that day.  The House of the Jaguars.  It is a former home, a museum and research facility set up by Frans Blom and his wife Gertrude Duby.  The house exists
to provide sanctuary for the Lacandon peoples of the rainforest who Frans discovered (or they allowed themselves to be discovered by Frans) in the late 1940's.  These people had hidden and lived in the rainforest away from civilization since before the Spaniards arrived.  They were never captured by the Spaniards.  I remember reading in National Geographic as a child about these people.  My fascination with the nomadic peoples of Mexico began then........

Frans discovered Palenque in the late 1920's, returned to the USA to Harvard to get a degree in Archaeology at Harvard and an advanced degree at Tulane where he got funding for further work at Palenque.

Gertrude was a famous documentary photographer from Switzerland and was on her way to the rainforest to photograph the peoples of the Lacandon area when she met Frans.  Initially they both lived in Mexico City where they met the Golden Circle of peoples such as Rivera, Kahlo, Mondotti, Weston and Lechuga, to name a few. Soon, they decided they could not continue their research from Mexico City, found this abandoned hacienda on the outskirts of town in San Cristobal and lived in it while using pack mules or a Cessna from Ocosingo to go into the rainforest.
 It is a lovely place now.  I can just imagine what shape it was in in the 1940's.  Na Balom has accommodations for overnight guests.  This long table serves dinner nightly for researchers, travelers and the Lacandon peoples to share a meal, ideas and conversation.

 A large Jaguar, the symbol of Na Balom, is now in the courtyard.  These jaguars are made in a village called Amantengo de Valle about an hour or so outside of San Cristobal.  I visited there eight years ago, but not on this trip. 
 The research library is a dream.  It is important to me because I have met many times with a woman named Elizabeth who lives in San Miguel who initially set up this library and lived at Na Balom with Trudy and Frans.   Ahh, the stories she has told me.  Amazing. Elizabeth is now in her late 90's and it is difficult to meet with her.  However, I have a DVD to take to her with video taken during her time at Na Balom.  I think she will be happily surprised.  Hopefully it will bring back wonderful memories.
 This was previously Trudy's bedroom.  It now displays her jewelry, her photography and her clothing along with this photo of her.
 This photo of Frans hangs outside in the courtyard.  According to my friend Elizabeth, he was quite a rogue who loved his mescal.  Especially while flying a Cessna!
 The above poster was from an exhibit of Trudy's photography at some point.  It is of Trudy and a Lacandon woman.  Trudy was honored many times, all over the world, for her photography and programs that were set up to preserve the culture of the peoples of the Lacandon jungle.
This last photo was taken in 1948 by a woman who I met in Mexico City in 2003.  She had traveled to the rain forest to visit other archaeological sites and to meet the Lacandon peoples with Frans as the guide along with his wife Trudy.  The woman who took this photograph was Ruth Lechuga.  The photo is from a book
published by the Museo Franz Mayer and Artes de Mexico called Ruth D. Lechuga - Una Memoria Mexicana.

Ruth began photographing the peoples of Mexico in the 1940's.  One year after she arrived from Europe escaping the war atrocities.  Her photography, her knowledge of the indigenous peoples and her collections of masks and textiles can now be seen at the Frans Mayer Museum in Mexico City.  Her collection of photographs is well over 14,000.  It was such an honor to sit and talk with her for almost three hours one day at her home and museum prior to her death. Her life's work wasdocumented and  turned over to the museum.

In the first post about this trip, there is a photo of one of these skiffs or pirogues (which was the name of them when I was growing up in Louisiana).  It is on display at Na Balom.

As I quietly sat for a while at the end of my visit to NaBalom, I was overwhelmed by the idea that two people could save a whole culture from extinction.  That is exactly what Frans and Trudy did, thankfully.

Today, I'm told, there are about six hundred Lacandons living their lives nomadically in the rainforest of Chiapas.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chiapas - Heading to San Cristobal de las Casas via Misol-Ha and Cascadas de Aqua Azul - Day 3

 We headed out of Palenque Wednesday morning about 9AM with the admonition it was going to be a LONG day.  No truer words were ever spoken.  It was nightfall when we finally arrived in San Cristobal.

I would not take anything for the trip however, as the way to see Mexico is on the ground.  IF we had flown to Tuxtla Guitterez and then taken an hour bus ride to San Cristobal, we would have missed so much! 

We would have missed Misol-Ha, a waterfall in the middle of nowhere.  We would also have missed Cascadas de Aqua Azul which was about an hour or so from Misol-Ha.  Both spectacular sights.  But, to me, the best is seeing the people on the sides of the road going about their lives.  To see how they live, what they do for a living and to experience it in a flash, is better then not experiencing it at all.

To see the Palm Oil farms that are causing more deforestation is a sad thing to see, but makes one  realize that coconut oil and palm oil are destroying farm lands and forests, not to mention the rain forest as well.

Raising cattle is another addition to the lifestyle of Chiapas that has caused more deforestation.  It is a double edged sword.
The beauty at Misol-Ha did not show any of the deforestation as it is a protected area where helanconias and ginger plants flourish in the warm, humid, rainy area.  So beautiful
 There were little cabins on the property that can be rented.  To me it would be a perfect spot for a writer.  No distractions other then the sound of the howler monkeys, the beauty of the surroundings and the sounds of the birds.  We were told we might see toucans, but alas, not.  Big disappointment for me.
 Bamboo and banana trees were plentiful everywhere.  I was surprised that more things were not built out of bamboo.  Maybe some day.

 There actually was a little restaurant on the grounds as well, but we were on a mission and did not take time to stop as we were on to Cascada Aqua Azul, another exquisitely beautiful place.
 The same hummingbird that I had in my first post is poised on the edge of the branch in the lower left hand
corner of this photo.  Isn't its camouflaging extraordinary?
A breathtakingingly beautiful sight.  The water was pristinely clean and such a unique color.  Surrounded
by forests, the colors were all striking.
This is a view of the area on the edge of the Lancondon jungle.  Ocosingo is near Tonina, another archaeological site that we did not have time to visit, unfortunately.  It also is the area where we
began to climb to San Cristobal which is 7100 ft. above sea level.

San Cristobal is a gem.  Seven times the population of San Miguel, it still has a small town vibe.
No skyscrapers and no rushing.  Lots of walking and beauty everywhere.  Very indigenous in
its people and architecture.  Good food.  Largest number of expats are Italian first and French
second.    Onward.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Chiapas - The Journey to Villahermosa and Palenque - Day 1 and 2

 Our first day started by leaving the bus station in San Miguel much earlier then planned.  The reason?  Our intrepid and organized tour leader had read and checked and rechecked the newspaper articles about a HUGE group of holding tanks traveling from Veracruz to Tula to be installed at a Pemex plant.  Guess what - it was reported that they were "somewhere" in the vicinity of Queretaro and would be traveling on Hwy 57!  Our path.  These storage tanks, made in Europe, are so large that bridges have to be lifted on the roads to get it through....I kid you not.....Can you imagine?  No, I could not until I saw photos of just that happening.  So, we left early, heading for Mexico City International Airport to fly to Villahermosa.  We lucked out.  No tanks were seen anywhere.  We arrived quite a bit earlier then originally anticipated, but being the troopers we all were, we just vegged out and waited for the flight.  Across the waiting area, sitting on the floor with trusty phone and computer was David, the owner of Los Vagabundos.  He is always busy checking and rechecking every detail to make OUR trip seamless.

To tell you the truth, I've traveled with him over the years so many times since Los Vagabundos was formed that I could not even tell you how many times I've done so, but, each has been an adventure of pleasure.

We finally arrived at our hotel some time around 7:30PM or thereabouts.  It had been a long day.  I forgot to even take a photo of Villahermosa, which we only saw on the outskirts.  At least now I can say that I have been to the State of Tabasco, or better still that I spent the night in Tabasco.  We departed at 8AM
the next morning for Palenque.  8AM!


 As we got off the bus, we were assailed by tropical heat and humidity.  To me it felt like Houston. I thought I was back in my former home.  To many others it was not a pleasant experience.  Any hotel whose reception area is out of doors makes me happy!
Above is ONE of the many forms of transportation we had on this trip.  Others were boats, tuk tuks in Chamula,  and a combi van in Palenque.  All were adventures and fun ways to travel.
If I had just photographed flowers, I do believe my camera would have died of exhaustion.  These were on the grounds of the museum at Palenque.  Lovely, aren't they?
 My room mate, Nora, a former Delta employee, has moved to San Miguel.  We met back in 2002 through a mutual friend, but since she did not live in SMA, we would meet once in a while for a meal or two when she was in town.  However, I knew she is a world traveler and would be great to room with.  What fun.  It would be difficult to name a place that Nora has NOT been or spent a month or so getting to know a culture.  She was a great friend to share the trip with.  We both look forward to future adventures. 
 And, then, there is the guide, Supremo, Patricio Murphy Ruiz.  I wrote about Patrick about eight years ago when we first met in Chiapas.  He is without a doubt, the most knowledgeable and personable guide that I
have ever traveled with.  His degree from Berkley in Anthropology and his life in Chiapas, where he was
born, gives him a unique mixture of two cultures that blend well.  Patricio traveled with us from Palenque to Chiapa de Corzo.  A great addition.  If you are ever traveling anywhere in Chiapas and want an amazing guide ask me for Patricio's contact information. 
 Again, I'm besieged by plants that grow tiny in my gardens in San Miguel but are nearly a tree in Palenque.
This croton was about two stories high!
We were so lucky that it was an overcast day on that Tuesday.  There were very, very few others in the whole area of Palenque except for our group.  How marvelous!  Many years ago when at other archaeological sites, the people were swarming around.  Not here.  It lent itself to a peak experience. 
When I arrive at places like this, one of the things I like to do is stop, sit down and absorb the place rather then to keep moving around and miss things.  It is so interesting to sit and stare at the buildings and try to imagine them being built, what the conditions were like and the purpose of each building.
 This ceiba tree is something I might have missed if I had not been sitting nearby, looked up and realized
that this great wonder was here.
Ahh, and then the boy with the tump line on his head carrying goods somewhere.  The first time I ever saw someone carrying things like this was at a cantera quarry near Guadalajara about thirty years ago.  A short man was carrying a slab of cantera down the mountainside. The cantera probably weighed over 500 pounds. It was a remarkable sight, to put it mildly.  It is unusual today to see someone with a tump line as a means of carrying items.  IF you look at old artwork and drawings, it was a common form centuries ago.
 This photo says so much.  David, our leader, made it to the top. As I sat watching all that was going on, all of a sudden, I saw David literally sprinting up the steps of the pyramid!  His speed was amazing.  What I did not realize was he was trying to get behind one of our most elderly travelers who was slowly but surely climbing the stairs.  He did not let the man know he was behind him, but it was soon apparent that he was
there, just in case.  And, at the top most step, which was very high, it was a good thing David was there as
he had to help the man up that last step.  THAT is the kind of man he is......always watching and helping.  A real gem!  I called to him and he turned around, did this, and I got this GREAT photo.....
 On the ground, sitting on stone slabs were two little girls who were selling little necklaces to tourists.  But, in that black bag, the one little girl had her school work that she was showing to her friend.  Finally, they came over to me and we talked for quite a while about their families, where I live, what was my name, and many other pleasantries.  Those are the experiences that stay close to me, forever.

Then I decided, with another participant to catch a combi van back to the village of Palenque.  When climbing into the van, there was only one person but by the time we stopped and picked up others, there were a total of 17! of us in the van.  What fun. We were the only gringoes. We exited near our hotel after paying twenty pesos each and walked the rest of the way to our hotel.

That evening we all relaxed out on the patio of our hotel for drinks and snacks.  The couple with Nora and I are from Canada and are heading back the end of March.  It is a great Canadian exodus from San Miguel on the first of April each year.

It was interesting to me that most of the people on the bus this trip were not known to me.  In the past, most of us knew each other.  After a while it was apparent that most travelers, not all, were from Canada.  They come the first of November and leave usually the first of April.



Initially, I knew about 4-6 people, but it was delightful to get to know many more by the end of the trip.  The former Canadian Ambassador to Mexico was sitting across the aisle from me on the bus.  We had some delightful conversations as his knowledge of the history of Mexico and its politics was deep.  We also talked about Mexico City in the 70's and 80's - a golden time, in my humble opinion.

As you can see, day two into the trip and we were all already getting to know each other.  Onward tomorrow to more adventures!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chiapas - A Place Like No Other

Chiapas is a unique place to visit.  It is the most indigenously occupied state in Mexico.  More like Guatemala to me then Mexico.  If I'm not mistaken our guide said over 60% of the inhabitants are
indigenous peoples - Mayan in great numbers.  They are a proud, fierce and beautiful people.

For me, being among the indigenous was the purpose of my moving to Mexico.  That is probably
why Michoacan, Chiapas, Oaxaca and the area around Creel where the Tarahumara live are my
favorite places.

Chiapas is pristinely beautiful.  Posted today are eight photos out of 223. These are my favorites.
My first trip eight years ago, we flew into Tuxtla Guiterrez and headed directly for San Cristobal de las Casas thereby using that as the spoke for side trips.  This trip began by flying into Villahermosa, Tabasco and then driving to Palenque the next day for the spectacular beginning of a very different trip then previously.
Above is one photo of Palenque.  Humid and hot and at an altitude of 60 meters, we were lucky that
it was a slightly overcast day and our group was just about the only people at the site!

I'll write a post, just on Palenque next, but wanted to share the above photo as one of my favorites.
The next morning we headed off for a LONG day of driving to San Cristobal de las Casas.  It was a ten hour traveling day.  But, we did stop along the way to see exquisite sites such as above which is Misol-Ha waterfall.  
 Then on to Casacadas de Aqua Azul to wander the area and to enjoy the most spectacularly colored waters which are caused, they say, by the limestone that the falls wash over.  If you look closely at this photo, camouflaged, is a green hummingbird!  It let me get this close without fear.  Amazing.
 And, here are the falls.  The sound, the color, the surroundings elicited sighs from all.  A few even
swam for a while before we had lunch in one of the many palapa restaurants on the grounds.
 The drive was winding and slow.  At many points, as I was sitting next to the window, it was possible for me to look down at the edge of the road and the canyon or whatever was at the edge of the road.  It was a good thing that we had a trusty driver who our tour guide knew and praised.  Whew.

The above photo was taken at an overlook just outside Ocosingo.  We were climbing by this time out of the jungles of the Lancondon peoples and had passed Tonina, another archaeological site.  We were leaving behind the humidity and heat. 
 San Cristobal is in the highlands.  It is 2,140 meters or about 7100 ft above sea level.  I mentioned above that we had passed through part of the Lacondon jungle.  This pirogue or boat was used by the Lancondon
and is on display at NaBalom which I will write about in another post.  The people who lived at Na Balom, Trudy and Frans, are responsible for the discovery of the Lacondon peoples and saving them from extinction.  Their story and lives are very intertwined with Palenque and the peoples of the jungle. 
 We spent several days in San Cristobal along with visiting the villages of Chamula and Zinacantan along with some going to the village of Amantenango del Valle, which I visited many years ago.  The photo above
was taken in Chiapa de Corzo, altitude 420 meters, which was our last stop before heading home.  This was the view outside the room.  The gardens at the hotel were extraordinary.  A post about our adventures there will be forthcoming.
The final photo is of the  Sumidero Canyon.  It is hard to explain to someone that they are going to get in a boat and eventually come to this spectacular canyon.  Some did not go.  It was sad that they missed one
of the most spectacular sights of nature in Mexico.  When I tell you about our adventure on this river, you
will have a chuckle.

For me it was an arduous trip this time.  The various elevations along with lots of walking caused me to
realize that my days of being an intrepid traveler may be slowing down.  It certainly was a beautiful way
to end this chapter of travel, to put it mildly.

IF you ever get a chance to go to Chiapas, GO!  As I tell you some of the intimate details of our adventures, you'll get more of the flavor of this area.  A place like no other.