Home again

viewAh, why do we ever leave here? we asked ourselves with a collective sigh on arriving home last Thursday. Michael built a fire and we had drinks and he made dinner and we went to sleep early in our own comfy bed, with good reading lights and surrounded by silence. “Let’s never travel again, OK?” I recall one of us saying.

We both feel our Mexico trip was not a success, and coming home we were reminded of Thomas Moore’s aphorism on travel (which I just found and gender-edited a bit). “We travel the world over in search of what we need, and return home to find it.” Take climate and congestion: Mérida, our first stop in the Yucatán, was way too hot – 100+ degrees every day (40 C), and terribly crowded with tourists. While here in Cañar we have a perfect climate with average high of 65F (18C), and no sightseers to speak of. Our second destination, Campeche, on the Gulf of Mexico, was a mite less hot, and not so crowded, but a fierce wind nearly blew us off our feet. San Cristobal, our last destination in the mountains of Chiapas, has a delightful climate, but we made the mistake of landing smack in the middle of Mexico’s biggest holiday of the year: two weeks around Easter. All children are out of school and, as in Ecuador, everyone wants to be somewhere else: the beach, the mountains, the city, the country. During our ten-day visit in San Cristobal, half of Mexico seemed to be there. All hotel prices go up, restaurants are overcrowded, streets are packed, and there’s a general air of making the most of the exodus, both among the travelers (lots of partying) and the businesses of the host city.congestionBy the way, that red/white building close on the right is a Burger King, which brings me to Michael’s recurring lament, “Where’s the old Mexico?” (It was partly his nostalgia that took us on this adventure.) The face of globalization is everywhere: Pizza Hut, KFC, Holiday Inn, Ramada, McDonald’s, often disguised within old buildings. And these were only what we saw walking the city streets. In our daily searches for small things – water, toothpaste, or yogurt – an OXXO store sat at every corner and, we soon realized, is a ubiquitous presence in Mexican cities and towns. Something like the 7-Eleven, but Mexican-owned, with 11,000 stores across Latin America. Michael yearned for the small mom-and-pop shops he remembers, but the closest we came was the orange juice and other street vendors. (Again, of course, we were not hanging out in the barrios, where I’m sure small business must still exist. But OXXO (no kisses & hugs there) has certainly taken a chunk from them.)vendor orangevendor tacosFood: When we think of Mexican food, I suspect we are remembering meals from many years ago, with a patina of nostalgia and romance. “Remember that great huitlacoche we had in Guanajuato in 1989?” Michael asks. (“No,” I reply, “but I do remember the evening and what I was wearing,”)

“Well, this isn’t nearly as good,” he declares. He was very much enjoying the Margarita, however. (We were never disappointed with those.)M. margaritaFor me, going out to search for meals twice a day was agony: trouble making a choice (always!), servings too large, flavors not what I expected. It was almost a relief to get an intestinal infection from contaminated juice so I didn’t have to eat for a few days. (Of course, there was that 12-hour bus ride ahead that sent Michael to the pharmacy for me). Once I was eating again, I remembered that no one makes chicken soup like Mexico.chicken soupHowever, eating abroad also reminds me that Michael is about the best cook around, and we don’t have to leave home for this….. or this….shrimp  tapas

Many come to San Cristobal for the re-enactment of the Good Friday crucifixion, which took place in a plaza near our hotel, and included an elaborate procession to several churches in the historic center. I was sick that day, and between bouts of intestinal distress I went out to photograph. Worthy of Cecil B. deMille, this is religious drama at its best for which the players must prepare all year: Roman soldiers, Pilate’s court, the two thieves, and Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. jesus + two thievesjesus in rope behind soldier roman solider thief on the crossThat night I was able to get a few shots of the candlelight procession, which was taking Jesus from the cave to the church where he would wait to rise on Easter Sunday:procession 2 procession 3 procession 4We traveled the next day and so I missed the burning of Judas. But I had seen enough. The people of San Cristobal are rightly proud of their religious customs around Semana Santa, and I have to say the Passion of Christ, as it is called, was played out with great respect and solemnity, despite all the clicking of cell phones and cameras.

OK. Back to Cañar, where “real” life continues – such as, watching the quinoa in our back field grow to maturity. There’s nothing like the pleasures of a simple life, no?quinoa

San Cristóbal de las Casas

Riding 14 hours overnight on an uncomfortable bus from Campeche, on the Gulf of Mexico, to the highlands of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border, reminds us what hard work traveling in Mexico can be. It also reminds us how huge this country is – maybe ten times the size of Ecuador? Below you can see our trail from Cancún to Mérida to Campeche to San Cristóbal de las Casas. Next week we must retrace our steps to catch our flight back to Ecuador.imageBut here we are, settled into San Cristóbal for ten days of Semana Santa, and the suffering has paid off.imageA beautiful colonial city (and yet another UNESCO gem), Michael and I traveled here during our Costa Rica years in the late 1980s. I remember it was very cold, there were few indigenous people in the town, and the guidebooks warned us not to photograph in their villages, where a European tourist had done so in a church and been killed. Although now chock-full of tourists from every part of the globe, including thousands of Mexicans here for Semana Santa (Easter week), San Cristóbal remains a fascinating (and complicated) place to experience indigenous Mexico. (More on that in a moment.) At 2200 meters (7260 feet), and surrounded by mountains and pine forests, the climate and scenery suit us perfectly; in fact it feels a bit like home in Cañar, except for the incredible colonial churches on every corner and the religious art filling them.imageimageimageimageimage
Home to the Mayan people for thousands of years, the Spanish conquered the region in 1528 and the native peoples, who had been part of the most brilliant civilization in pre-Hispanic America, soon suffered loss of communal lands, diseases, taxes and forced labor. Familiar story. One epidemic in 1544 killed about half the indigenous population of Chiapas.imageThe city is named for Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican monk who arrived here in 1545, saw the terrible exploitation of native peoples and as bishop of Chiapas became the greatest defender the indigenous in colonial times.
Since that date the city has gone through many names changes before it settled on San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Today, the local indigenous peoples are everywhere present in the streets and ubiquitous open-air markets, dressed in their stunning hand-woven and embroidered clothing. At first, one can only stare in wonder:image
Then, I began to see young children, many under ten years, hawking trinkets and shining shoes. Everywhere. Old barefoot women carrying armloads of woven belts and shawls to sell, walking the streets all day. Legions of young women with babies on their backs, or in tow, selling embroidered blouses. On our first day here, we saw government rally to “support” 6,000 single mothers in Chiapas. This was the face of poverty like nothing we’ve seen in Ecuador.
(Michael playing chess surrounded by (older) shoeshine kids.)
Hadn’t the 1994 uprising by the indigenous communities, led by Comandante Marcos and the Zapatistas (EZLN), that brought the world’s attention to the abysmal conditions in Chiapas, made a difference? In an effort to understand we saw a pretty good documentary film, “Zapatista” that showed armed indigenous farmers occupying city hall in San Cristobal (a few blocks from our hotel), and then being massacred by the army in the market in Ocosingo, a town two hours from here. By the end of the narrative (2007) we learned how contradictory the movement had been. Led by a Marxist philosophy professor from Mexico City, come to organize the peasants, the Mexican military moved in with tanks and helicopters as though at war (it was a war). Aiding by paramilitaries, many villagers were killed and eventually 21,000 were displaced from their homes. Evangelical missionaries got involved, further splintering communities that had long practiced a mix of animistic pre-Hispanic rituals and Catholicism. Government promises from three Mexican presidents came to nothing; disillusionment set in and now – 20 years later – the movement is pretty much dead (except for the Zapatista trinkets in every tourist shop.)
But in the end didn’t the uprising have a positive effect on conditions for Chiapas’ indigenous? We asked a woman we came across who has worked with a women’s weaving cooperative for ten years. “Somewhat,” was her answer. “There is more indigenous pride. Before, if an Indian met a townsperson on the sidewalks of San Cristobal, the Indian had to step off into the street. The situation of women is better, with the organizing of cooperatives where they are earning their own money. There are now autonomous villages where the military and outsiders can’t enter. But the conflict within and between communities has intensified and caused a massive migration to the edges of San Cristóbal. The evangelical movement, encouraged by the government in the face of the uprising, split communities, and whichever group was in the majority expelled the others.”
So, some 20 years later, most villages do not have running water or electricity, two of the original EZLN demands. The Mayans farm the least productive land, with the least amount of government services. Of the 4.8 million people of Chiapas, one quarter are indigenous, and among them speak 30 languages. Hearing vendors talking to one another always turns my head with the music.image
But to come back to the poverty we see around us in San Cristobal: according to our Lonely Planet guidebook, many of the men, women and children on the streets are displaced villagers, living in the “belt of misery” of poor, violence-ridden shantytowns ringed around the edges of the city. Most have been expelled from their villages as a result of political-religious conflicts – a sad conclusion to twenty years of struggle to create better and longer lives.
To finish on a sunnier note, here is Michael after a successful day of playing chess on the plaza.image

Campeche – (or) Lord Sun Sheep Tick

A three-hour bus ride from from Mérida took us to the smaller coastal city of Campeche, also a UNESCO site and described accurately in the guidebooks as a “colonial gem.” After the rigors and heat of Mérida, we immediately loved this place. Cooler, due to a terrific windstorm our first day. (Here I am, blown in with one of the 16th century pirates who regularly sacked Campeche and killed its Spanish settlers after it became a rich port exploiting the local resources – once the native Mayan were vanquished, of course).
Quieter and safer since 1685, when King Carlos of Spain ordered a wall built around the city. Some of the ramparts remain, and workers are busy reconstructing the rest of the wall, cutting blocks of the skull-white fine limestone the city is built upon, covering everything with a thin layer of dust.
And more recently, with the UNESCO anointment in 1999, the restoration of many of the one-story houses within the historic center, painted ice-cream tones, and the creation of several pedestrian-only streets. Ah, how I love quiet, walkable, “gawkable” streets.
Plazas and walkways are dotted with the amazing bronze sculptures of an artist we’d never heard of, but will not soon forget, Leonora Carrington.
Born 1917 into upper-class England, Carrington was a rebellious girl who declared herself a Surrealist by age 19, ended up with Max Ernst in Nazi France in the 1930’s, in Spain during the civil war, then in Mexico by age 25, where she joined the great Mexican artistic movement of the period: Frida + Diego, Buñuel, et al. When we saw the date on the base of one sculpture as 2010, we couldn’t believe she was still working. But she was; she only died in 2011, at 94, an iconoclast faithful to her Surrealist visions to the very end. I can’t wait to read her biography.image
imageBack to Campeche: originally a Maya city called A Kim Pech (with the wonderful translation, “Lord Sun Sheep Tick”), the city is doing it best to promote tourism, fast becoming one base of its economy, and interestingly most of the tourists are Europeans – especially French, according to conversations we heard around us. Cultural life abounds with mansions and 18th century convents restored into cultural centers, with music, dancing and readings every night. Young people are everywhere, interviewing tourists for their high school project – “What most you like about our city?” on their way to dance and music classes. I came across several excellent bookstores, which always makes me happy whether I buy or not.image
We were sorry to leave after two days but we were worried about traveling during Semana Santa, the long Easter vacation that many Mexicans stretch to ten days. So we bought bus tickets for our next destination: the highlands of Chiapas and San Cristobal de las Casas, a city Michael and I visited in the 1980s during our first years in Costa Rica. Our only choice to get there was an overnight bus trip, 12 hours that turned into 14 hours when some local indigenous communities blocked the road. Although the Zapatista movement has settled down, political turmoil remains, it seems.
More from San Cristobal soon….image

The Mexico We Didn’t Know

imageDear Friends: We are in Mérida, Mexico, in the Yucatán Peninsula, where yesterday it was 98 degrees. Today is to be 101. And tomorrow, the temperature will be 104. That’s one-hundred-and-four degrees farenheit! It’s taken us several days to adapt to such a hot climate, or perhaps I should say to learn to survive. The first days we rushed about, stayed out in the mid-day heat like mad dogs, ate too large a lunch at 12:00 sharp, then collapsed in our hotel for several hours in a siesta-stupor. The only thing to revive us was dipping into the grotto-like swimming pool at our small hotel, where M. and I donned swimming suits and swam a few strokes for the first time in about 10 years.image
Now we’ve learned: Like the locals, you go out and about in the early morning, (walking very slow), have lunch between 1:00 and 3:00, stay indoors between 3:00 and 8:00, and venture out for nighttime activities at about 9:00 (when concerts and other cultural activities start). We have a couple of margaritas about 10:30 PM on one of the leafy plazas, and go to bed about midnight. It’s a wild life for us (in Cañar, we’re in bed before 9:30, and the difference in temperature between there and here is about 50 degrees F.)

But we are enjoying ourselves nonetheless, in part because we’ve ended up in this quirky small hotel in the historic center where we are the only guests.
image Casa Mexilio is a colonial townhouse converted into a warren of eight high-ceilinged rooms, narrow twisting stairways, terraces in surprising places, interior balconies with tile awnings (Escher could have been the architect), a small limestone pool at ground level, wrought iron galore, and crammed with Mexican antiques. Oh, and I didn’t mention the mourning cat who has recently lost her three kittens (died soon after birth) and wanders around at night, howling for them. We call her la gata llorona, the crying cat.

(Our room)

The “sala,” or breakfast room, but since no breakfast is offered because we are the only guests, every morning we go around the corner to this lovely place, La Flor de Santiago.
Tripadvisor respondents had many complaints about Casa Mexilio: rude ex-pat owner (“too long in Mexico”), dusty, creepy, Dracula-like. But I had a feeling these might endear us to the place, so I made a reservation for five nights in the Enrique Granados room (a famous Mexican composer). Also, I confess, I like staying in a place where we don’t have to talk to anyone, especially other sun-stunned tourists (like us) that I see out on the streets in large groups, or couples arguing in the market about what Yucatán handcrafts to buy.

Mérida itself has been something of a disappointment. Perhaps because it is so hot, much of life takes place behind tall walls and closed doors. Every house and hotel has a beautiful garden, patio, or terrace inside, but out on the narrow streets traffic thunders by at frightening speeds. The noise level is terrific. Many streets in the historic center are lined with run-down houses, some nothing but facades. Because this is a UNESCO city, these houses cannot be torn down, but neither do the owners want to invest the money to restore them. Many properties are for sale.

And tourism has come full-tilt to Mérida, so streets in tourist areas are teeming with aggressive and insistent vendors and hawkers, haranguing us in broken English to eat at their restaurant or buy their handcrafts or take their tours to Maya sites. In contrast are the quiet and sad-eyed Mayan village women who walk the streets day and night offering their blouses and bags. I finally don’t want to make eye contact with anyone. and that’s no way to travel.

We leave Mérida tomorrow for Campeche, about three hours away by bus, a “colonial gem” on the coast where it’s reported to be even hotter. But a storm is predicted which should bring cooler temperatures. Then we head for the mountains of Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas, where hotels have fireplaces and heated floors. Ah, heaven…….
(Finally, a few images of the beautiful floors in every old house, called “baldosas,” tiles made of poured cement with dyed patterns – classic Mexico.)