Friday, November 16, 2012

The Wonders of Chiapas

At 7am the streets of Oaxaca are still asleep. A stoic clatter floats past the aged stone and crumbling facades weathered by the years, and finally settles next to an indistinct building, finally choking amongst the faint chant of a few local birds. A dark woman steps out of the threshold of the house with a heavy rucksack, her eyes bright with excitement. Our story stretches back to the Children Center where we worked, our friendship growing little by little, every 15-minute break before each of my students’ lesson. "RG", as we shall call her, is the co-founder of an Asian NGO dedicated to the education of children, very similar to the one we were volunteering at.  She now stood ready for what would become a twelve-hour drive across 360 miles of mountain roads, sleepy villages, military outposts and speed bumps, across a half-moon shape that would barely touch the Pacific Ocean before bumping back North to our final destination, San Cristobal de las Casas, in the world-famous state of Chiapas.

Spent the previous day installing these bad boys on the 300TD... with a skid plate, and for $200, well worth it!
We start off the day very well, getting half lost on a winding mountain road...
...and finally got on track! Phew! Note the nightmarish passing maneuver.
What can I say about all this driving? The car was up to the challenge and performed flawlessly, we had a bag full of traditional corn tostadas, a full tank of fuel and loads of non-sequitur conversation. The landscapes ranged from lush mountains to blood-spiking cliffs with falling rocks and no guardrails. We witnessed some of the most dangerous, plain stupidest passing maneuvers to ever take place on a road, some of them with two rows of cars and eighteen-wheelers, some of them around curves with no visibility.

Landscapes began becoming more and more beautiful by the mile...
At this point I began realizing that I might need a fan clutch, but nothing to worry about.
Locals do not treat their land too well... notice the huge amount of trash on the shoulder.
That jackass! You got to be frikkin' kidding me!
We are happy to report that Mexico is investing heavily in renewable energy!
Stunning sunset at the Chiapas border... still a couple hours to our destination.
The very commercial town on Tuxtla Gutierrez! Not half as pretty as San Cristobal...
As soon as we arrived to San Cristobal de las Casas, we headed for some dinner. We decided to first pay a visit to our Couchsurfing host, Erika, who worked in a café downtown. A hefty ham sandwich later, we got talking about some local history, and the reason there were so many foreigners in town. Back in 1994, the local peasants revolted against the exploitative land practices by the local caciques; the Zapatistas occupied several towns, including San Cristobal, without any opposition by the fearful Mexican government. The rebellion became famous around the world, and many foreign activists came to settle or witness the new order in what is derogatorily known as “zapaturismo”. Only in San Cristobal you will be able to be given directions in fluent English, smell true Belgian chocolate, taste Ukrainian pastries and haggle with Italians in the same day.

Darn cold morning, but what views! What deliciously dry air, compared to the coast!
San Cristobal's beautifully renovated buildings, a stunning contrast to Oaxaca's flavorful texture.
Beautiful "zocalo", or main square. To your left is the "Real de Guadalupe" street.
The following morning I woke up to find out I was breathing steam out of my mouth. According to Erika, in the last few years climate change has been cooling down the town’s temperature, so very few homes are actually equipped with heaters. The sun rose, and we got out to do some errands and take a look at the historic center. Erika and I, by some miracle of a Higher Force, came across the only leather jacket in the world that could possibly look good on me –an instant purchase at $22. Following that we got into the convent of Santo Domingo, a gorgeous baroque church. As we walked through the museum, I quietly started making passive-aggressive comments on the botched restorations done on many of the paintings in the museum. Many of the colors had been flattened by what seemed to be a mix of 19th Century impressionism and toddler book-coloring technique. Given our indignation, we called the attention of one of the guides, who said our complaints were not the first ones to reach the museum. Eventually we reached a painting of Christ with two cherubs that rivaled the Borja paintings in their ape-ness. We instantly exploded in a loud laughter that echoed throughout the museum, and fled upstairs into the impressive textiles section.

Real de Guadalupe, the main commercial artery in town. Lots of foreigners!
Much unlike San Miguel de Allende, the town has not lost its flavor to its visitors.
Juaguars are a sacred animal to most pre-Hispanic civilizations, you will see them everywhere!
Local textiles of the finest craftsmanship, all made by hand in the nearby villages, and sold by the main church.
Beautifully preserved Mayan bas-relief. Brace yourselves for the paintings in the gallery...
Look at those cherubs, then look at Christ. Did someone botch up something?
We really had to get out due to all the laughter...
...and I found the shield of my province in Spain, Castilla y León!
Gorgeous, hand-knitted dressed in the textiles section upstairs.
For being such a small, remote corner of the Earth, the variety of patters and fabrics in Chiapas is astounding!
The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to picture-snapping and food. The next day, however, would consist on nearly five hours of jungle and winding mountain roads. RG stepped up to the game, and very kindly reserved us a hostel in Palenque. On the way there we got the car registered twice by the Mexican military, probably more out of curiosity than out of concern. I do not blame them: how often do you see a thirty-year-old Mercedes wagon in the jungle?

...the obvious drawbacks on driving an interesting vehicle.
The ruins of Palenque were utterly breathtaking. The main religious complex featured a full patio, a tower several stories high, and an interesting network of vaults worthy of any Indiana Jones film. However, it was the most conspicuous, emptiest, most run down temple that struck my fancy. I climbed the winding staircase, and sat down at the edge of the top to listen to the jaguars roar. Or so I thought: many local monkeys imitate jaguars to keep predators away. Back on the top of the temple, I felt immensely comfortable, as if there was a force keeping me there, overlooking the lush trees. I do not recall how much time I spent up there, but I do recall I was stripped of all my strength and morale on my way down. Not even the sugariest ice cream could raise my spirits, and RG definitely felt it –judging from her increased concern and tender hugging.

Howdy pardner! You like stone? BOOM, HERE'S SOME STONE.
Reconstructed tower in the main religious complex.
No rolling boulders, mine carts or secret arrow shootings, promise!
Silly picture, but I couldn't but notice this bright red moss growing in every temple!
The visit eventually takes you to the very inside of the jungle. Imagine the howling monkeys above you...
Stunning lighting conditions from the energy-stealing structure.
"Foreigner tree: it becomes red and peels in the summer, and it's bright white in the winter"
That very night we decided to add a new passenger to our group: Manuel, a fellow Spaniard trained in therapeutic massage, a friendly fellow with a broad smile and youthful spirit. The next day we would drive to Mérida, on the Yucatán peninsula, where many, many adventures –and awkward situations– would await us.

Dear mom: yes, I am taking care of myself. I am eating well and sleeping well as you can see.
Special thanks to RG for her pictures from the roads to all these destinations. Many a time I did not feel it was safe to multitask, regardless of how interesting any situation at the wheel could get. Thanks for reading and subscribe to my facebook page for frequent updates!

1 comment:

  1. Just wonderful! I am enjoying that you are back on the road and am envious that the expedition team could not be there to convoy with you. Safe travels my friend.-Bernard