Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Welcome to Zapatista Country
"So this is where the 'hair skirt' ladies come from!" I said to Big Dog as we entered the village of Chamula, a few kilometers out of San Cristobal de Las Casas.
We had seen them all over SCLC (San Cristobal), selling macrame wrist bands, shawls and embroidered blouses. Women and girls in skirts made of furry black material, puffy-sleeved satin blouses and hair in braids.
"And the men are in hair vests!"
In the past, the vests and skirts were made of goat skin. Today. they are made of that horrible synthetic material you might get to make a bear suit.
It was Mardi Gras and the culmination of a week of celebrations in this town. People were everywhere. (You could tell the out-of-towners by their costumes.) But unlike festivals in Japan, or even other parts of Mexico, this one was an exclusive one. Foreigners were merely tolerated, and then not at all if they broke any rules. Like taking photos. (Once again, this rule only applies to foreigners. In guidebooks, they tell us that the locals "believe a photograph captures their soul" but watching all the colorfully costumed locals happily taking snapshots of each other with cellphones, you have wonder if only foreigners are capable of capturing souls with photographs.)
"What are they doing?"
We had gathered where there was a small mob. Men in hair vests were on either side of a double rope.
"Are they going to play tug of war?"
As we got closer, we saw that there was a bull in the middle. He looked scared and I felt bad for the poor animal. I wasn't sure I wanted to stay and see what happened to it.
Suddenly there was shouting and men waving sticks coming towards us. Uh-oh, they're going to set the bull free. I jumped back to the side of the street. But now, the angry men were coming after a Caucasian couple.
"I didn't do anything!" the man shouted, but the angry mob kept advancing.
"Fuck you!" one of them said to the man (in English.)
"You fuck off!" the man shouted back.
The mob grew, and grew more menacing. Wisely, the woman pulled her guy away and they walked off.
"He wasn't taking any photos," said Big Dog. "It was that group of gringos next to him."
"They're getting drunk and belligerent. I don't like this vibe."
"Let's get out of here."
"Yeah, before something really nasty happens."
What a difference from Japanese festivals which are just as colorful, strange, exotic and wonderful as any here. The Japanese also get mightily drunk during their festivals, but there is no aggression, no exclusion. They LOVE having outsiders experience what they feel is a special part of their culture. They WANT you to join in, get crazy and enjoy the festival. The gods would have it no other way. The sake flows easily and is offered to all participants, Japanese and non-Japanese.
I attribute the difference to a lack of confidence and the fact that these people were subjugated by outsiders for so long. Big Dog thinks it has to do with control.
"In a world where so much feels out of control, they guard what little they CAN control. Like having people take photos. Or enter their churches. Or have a good time."
It sounds a little stingy. Especially during a festival.
The indigenous peoples have been downtrodden everywhere, but until now, we have not had this unwelcoming vibe anywhere else. ("And don't they know the rest of the world was on their side during the Zapatista struggle?" They don't. At least not these villagers.) Maybe it's the sheer number of visitors to this part of Mexico that scares the locals, makes them less spiritually generous.
Or maybe it's just the itchy material of their skirts and vests.
Friday, February 17, 2012
Mayan Ruins and Lessons
Our first one was small but jungly Ek Balam, with its superbly restored carvings on the main pyramid, followed by Chichen Itza the next day.
Chichen Itza is so well-known, we all feel like out of all the ruins we have to see it, but it is by no means the best archeological site. The craftsmanship here is not as good as other sites and so much of the site is roped off. The biggest bummer, though, are the tour buses filled with yahoos from Cancun's Zona Hoteleria. The ball court is supposed to have dynamite acoustics but all you can hear is "and then, she was, like, no way..." "so, I was, like, OMG!" Do people from other countries yak on about completely mundane matters, too? Perhaps they do and I am just lucky enough not to understand them.
The roots of tic-tac-toe?
Kinich Kakmo was a pyramid in the town of Izamal. From the street, you see a long flight of giant steps. (All of the ancient Mayan structures have giant steps. Were the ancient Mayans much bigger than present day Mayans?) After struggling up this flight, you come to a level spot and there in front of you is...another giant flight of steps to the REAL top of the pyramid. It was fun to watch the expressions of the people who had huffed and puffed their way to the top of the first steps only to find another set in front of them.
Unlike the others, the craftsmanship of the structures at Uxmal, further south, was astonishingly advanced. Stones were cut perfectly, eliminating the need for much mortar. Because it's not as crowded, nor does it have the yahoo population, there's more of a sense of mystery. You feel it particularly in the southern end -- it was probably a place of magic during its days -- with the House of the Mother of the Dwarf of Uxmal, as well as the phallic carvings.
Iggy stands guard
And now, Palenque, set in the lush jungles of Chiapas. It is huge. Lots of structures, some identifiable bas reliefs (many other sites have carvings too, but often times, they are so worn, you could not possibly imagine what they were supposed to depict) and even a cascading waterfall!
Palenque's "Queen's Bath." Now, who wouldn't want a bath like this?!
What is most fascinating to me is how you can see the rise and fall of a civilization through these ruins. Uxmal, which I thought had the highest quality craftsmanship, was built during the mid-point of the Mayan Civilization. I still don't know how they lost the know-how, but latter cities don't compare. We all think of progress as a given, to a certain extent. We think our age is better than that of 100 years ago, or 1000 years ago. We look at all the glorious achievements of mankind and think we'll continue to move forward, forever. Yet seeing the remains of cities hundreds of years apart, I realized that that is not always the case. Society deteriorates. Civilizations crumble.
The decline of the Mayans seems to have come from several factors. Their slash-and-burn farming techniques and clear cutting weakened the productivity of the land and changed weather patterns, bringing about hundreds of years of drought. The lack of adequate food was a cause of constant warfare, malnutrition and disease. If there were Mayans who warned of "global drying" there were probably many more in positions of great power who poo-poo'd them. Until it was too late, no matter how much blood was spilt for Chak Mool, their rain god.
This is the Mayan lesson we should be heeding. Be better custodians of our planet. If not, then we, too, are doomed.
Ukiyoe-esque relief of a Mayan King
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Mexico Is An Elephant
Remember that fable about the blind men and the elephant? Each person felt one part of the elephant and came to his own conclusion about what the animal was like. The one near its trunk concluded that "an elephant is like a snake," while the one near its leg concluded that "an elephant is like a tree." Or something like that.
Mexico is like that. Depending on which part you see, you get a completely different picture of Mexico.
Until now, I have only been on the Pacific Coast and central interior of Mexico but have had the audacity to write generalizations about Mexico based on that experience. I know better than to do that now.
The Yucatan area (the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatan and Campeche) has a completely different vibe. There are a thousand times more tourists here for sure. It's been a tourist draw for much, much longer and tourism is very well developed. It also seems the sheer number of visitors changes how the locals respond. They are not quite as over-the-top welcoming as in other areas, prices are jacked up more, and sometimes there is a two-tier price system: one price for Mexican nationals and one for foreigners.
The topography is also very different from what we have seen in other parts of Mexico. The Yucatan, especially the northern part, is FLAT with a sort of shrubby landscape that stays pretty much the same for the whole area. Driving the highways, you feel like you are in a maze, with a dense wall of green that you cannot see beyond.
We're blazing through towns and villages. We get to places, thinking we might hang out for a few days and leave within minutes. We keep comparing them to other places we have been and so far, they just haven't been up to par.
I had hopes for Merida -- friends had raved about the place -- but the colonial architecture is not as well-restored, there's a hodge-podge of newer, uglier buildings interspersed and worst of all, you cannot buy a beer after a certain hour on Sundays.
"I can see why people stay here, though," I said to Big Dog. "It's got art, music, cultural events. And while there are better towns for all of that in Mexico, they're all a bit colder this time of year. I'd give it a 7 on our 10 point scale."
"Huhn. You're still trying to find the positive in this place," BD snuffed. "It's still a 5 for me."
We're now in Campeche where the colonial architecture is stunningly restored, at least within the walled part of the city. The city makes an effort to keep it that way, with frequent fresh coats of paint. It's prettier but much sleepier than Merida, with less going on.
And it's still hard to find a shop selling beer!
So close to the garishness of Cancun's Hotel Zone, we find a quiet Mexican scene.
Quiet street of Izamal
Merida's cute dancers
Pretty pastel colored colonial buildings of Campeche
Monday, February 06, 2012
But, here we are, flying south again, this time towards the Yucatan Peninsula.
Will it be all touristy? Will it be a noisy mess of springbreakers? Or will it be chilled-out? What are the locals like over there?
February has some interesting dates: 2-10-2012 (2102012!), 2-12-2012, 2-21-2012 (21022012!) I know. Getting too obsessed with numbers is a sure sign of craziness, but I am secretly hoping to get some answers from the Mayan Gods.
Will they? Will they let me in on their secrets? Will I find the key to the Mystery of Life?