Monday, January 10, 2005
Playing post-Christmas posting catch-up
Hi all, I know there's been a lot of dead air since I last posted and I'm just back to say hi and to catch anyone up who's still checking. Uh, Christmas was a crazy whirlwind of activity and also fun. I had Christmas dinner with Ale's family and friends at her mother's place. Afterward we went on a road trip to Chiapas to see the sights. It's probably going to take me a few internet sessions to catch up with all the pictures and stories, so bear with me if you can. Christmas in Mexico City is pretty unbelievable. I guess it's like it is in any city, but multiplied tenfold by the seemingly incessant need for many Mexicans to sell something-anything for cash and their love for markets and all sorts of trinkets. Absolutely anything you can imagine is for sale and the boulevards in parts of downtown become clogged with markets surging over their usual boundaries into the sidewalks and street lanes. Desperate shoppers claw at items and que up for rarities to Cabbage Patch proportions.
This is the interior of Ale's Moms place. It's a modest house in a secured neighborhood located in Mexico State which is actually not in the municipality of Mexico City, but connected to it by urban sprawl. Poinsettas are called Buena Noches here and are even more popular than in th' Couv. We ate a great meal of Bacalau which is a very standard Christmas dish here made from salted cod mixed and cooked with olives, tomatoes and all kinds of other tasty things then presents etc...
Before Christmas we went out on the town to a cantina called El Centenario in a neighborhood called La Condessa which is a pretty ritzy trendy part of town but also beautiful and quiet with many parks, trees, small streets, sidewalk cafes and beautiful, old buildings. Then we went to this bar where there was a rock band playing Doors and Stones covers because the club we wanted to go to was charging lots of cover. These guys were belting out, "Break on Through..." when we sat down.
We went on a road trip down south to Chiapas with Ale and Adriana's mom and Adriana's boyfriend. Twas fun and eye opening to be sure. The roads are quite busy in Mexico especially leading to and out of the big cities and they are, relative to Canada, in a pretty unpredictable state. People who can afford it all travel by toll highway when they can which many advise as the free ones are less direct, more crowded, more subject to robbings and attacks and in terrible condition. To put it this way, every highway I travelled on in Mexico was way more dodgy than the worst highways in Canada and the toll one's were no exception. You'll be cruising at 120km/hour on newly paved perfect blacktop and suddenly there'll be a stretch of unannounced ripped up highway with gravel and huge potholes, but you get used to driving with caution. Mexican drivers often suddenly stop for hazards and other reasons so it's best to remain on your toes and be ready for anything. For this you pay, and regularly, at intersections and towns. The fees are not huge but on a long trip it adds up considerably. And here's a weird tidbit: Some stretches of highway in Mexico are dangerous and attacks have been known to occur so some people travel in convoys of at least two cars or more though the dangerous parts. We buddied up ourselves with another car as we headed through a remote area at night and were running out of gas. Wild wild west homies! The scenery was incredible though and there is so much to see in Chiapas that having a car is a plus.
Chiapas was pretty amazing. Mexico City is fairly flat, hot and dry while Chiapas has a varied climate, and is mostly forested and mountainous. It is tropical and hot in the lowlands and sunny, more sparse and cold in the high altitudes. One of the most striking things about Chiapas though is it's intense poverty. There are a lot of poor people in Mexico, but Chiapas seemed quite exceptional. I've never been to India or China or Thailand etc.. but I imagine many of the small communities we drove through while throngs of mostly children and women either hawked wares or begged for dough through the car window framed by backdrops of sod floor shacks, burros tied to trees and the ever-present military roadblocks were nearly as poor as any anywhere and were the poorest I've seen. Chiapas, has some valuble resources though, and oil which these days seems to guarantee conflict of some kind. A guy we talked to who worked in one of the ruin parks explained that a lot of Chiapan indiginous people need access to land in order to grow food, but there isn't that much left to farm and the government is holding on to all the good stuff so they can pawn it off to industry and tourism to put it very basically I'm sure. I'm not sure, but I think there is still a healthy revolutionary movement here. Signs of protest could be seen in many of the smaller towns, but I'm not sure how it's progressing.
We drove to this place called Palenke where there are extensive ruins of the Mayan Civilization nestled deep within a beautiful humid equatorial rain forest. Also, there are equatorial hippies here and lots of tourists. I was surprised to see so many drum circles, fire dancers etc... going "bugada bugada bugada" late into the night. Despite this, the ruins were really interesting and provoked me to imagine all kinds of bloody ceremonies and ancient ways of life. Of course many of the ancestors of these enigmatic people were more busy hawking bottled water and hot nuts on the fringes of the site than wondering what kind of clay pots carried sacrificial blood or not. One of the many ends to the ol' Colonial switcheroo... In these forest preserves there are a lots of animals. I saw a lot of beautifully colored birds, spider monkeys and heard howling monkeys too. That's real monkeys folks! I'm talking baby monkeys clinging to the back of Mom like on the cover of National Geographic monkeys.
We went to two other ruins in Chiapas. Bonampak and Jaxilan which were both stunning especially Yaxchilan which we took a 45 minute ride on a boat down the Rio Usumacinta which borders Mexico and Guatemala to get to the site. The river is beautiful and remote with little farms along the sides and up until I saw numerous crocs along the bank was tempted to take a dip. No me Gusta with a capital G. These ruins are extensive and are more recessed into the surrounding jungle than Palenke and Bonampak where the forest has been more cut back and since Yaxchilan is more remote, there's a few less tourists and hawkers.
This is a courtyard in the Palace structure that was used to play a ball game like soccer that apparently was played with a huge heavy rubbery ball that was shunted and moved around with your hip.
Many of the ruins were located on the side of large hills or mountains. The Mayans built their temples high on and into the hillsides, overlooking things.
We went to this waterfall, which doesn't look that big but those little dots are people, and this series of falls called Aguas Azules, but they're only Azul in the summer. The water was warm and refreshing and the entire area was amazingly beautiful and popular with food stands and hawkers galore.
San Cristobal is one of the more popular places to visit in Chiapas and proved to be a lot bigger than I thought. There is clearly a lot of tourist money here as it is a popular destination and many downtown businesses seemed to bear the telltale trademarks of being owned by foreigners. Still the town is quaint and bustles with energy. A large market in the centre of town proved a great place to buy trinkets, hippie gear, and beautiful woven crafts made by indigenous women.
New Years was a pretty tame affair in San Cristobal. It was cold but we jacketed up and walked the streets where many people were having little family parties and huddling around fires drinking booze. In the main square we drank at stalls where they sell a hot punch made of fruits and spiked with alcohol which apparently is many a Chiapans drink of choice. The alcohol is called "potch" and is made from distilling fruit and sugar. It's basically moonshine and tasted a little like Aqua Velva mixed with rubbing alcohol. It was hard to drink, but warmed the belly quite nicely and would put you on the fast track to a sidewalk nap if you weren't too careful.
Ok we went to this little town outside of San Cristobal for a brief visit to this church which is popular in the off-beat section of the travel guides to be sure. In this town things are very traditional and in this church they practice a style of Catholicism mixed with local spirituality that was pretty wild. We couldn't take pictures but when we went inside there were people praying on thier knees and drinking coke mixed with potch and lots of it. The building was filled with candles and at the far end where sermons would be normally held and a nativity scene displayed there was a huge tangle of tree branches and effigies set up and interwoven with tons of oscillating Christmas tree lights and so many small electronic christmas song noisemakers that the whole church was filled with this cacophonous sound of discordant electronic twitterings. The poverty in these small towns was extreme. I failed to see the overall "charm" (IE: I wasn't moved to relocate or involve myself too much but pausing for thought at every turn.) even though the people were interesting and the town and countryside pretty. Some people were visibly drunk and passed out in the hot square although it was a holiday time so maybe it was an exceptional day for drinking. We've all had them to be sure. The market was relatively dirty and littered with all sorts of garbage. European backpackers and Mexican tourists weaved amongst the throngs with handycams and this "I guess this is one of those places you're supposed to go" look on their faces. After, everyone gets in their cars and tour busses in the parking lot and heads back to their digs. I had a strange feeling as I left town and I'm not sure entirely what it was but it might of had something to do with the moment of subjective reflection I had while reviewing the newly acquired pictures of said town, chickens in doorways, babies taking care of babies, etc... in the LCD screen of my digital camera while the real town had yet to recede into the distance. It was a weird kind of remote touristy feeling; a sort of Susan Sarrandonesque feeling. Like I'm here, but I'm also not here... I mean, there's probably some babies taking care of babies in my hometown, but I'm not compelled to go snap off some digital pics- or am I? I guess pictures of Junkies and hovels will always be more interesting than the Eiffel tower. The consolation is if the hype brings in a badly needed Euro or two it's worth it I guess.
Chiapas has this amazing huge canyon that a river once ran down but is now a huge reservoir for a hydro project. It's more than a kilometer deep down to the water and the surrounding forest has spider monkeys and it's filled with Crocs! Crikey! We went on a boat tour of the thing and saw a few crocs and some monkeys. This part of the state is much warmer and tropical. At one point a big guy in front of me stood up to get a better shot of this croc and seemed like he might easily fall in and we'd've gotten a pretty good show then.
Well that about wraps up the Chiapas roadshow. It was one of the most interesting places I've ever been and if you've bothered to read down this far, you must've found it slightly interesting too what with all the amazing things on the internet that you could've been reading. My only regret was that we were in such a rush to see the sites that we didn't get many chances to stop and check out some of the countryside or go on some day hikes etc... Although, I'm not sure it's entirely safe to go tromping around in the wilds just anywhere. I'm sure there are lots of people who'd be not pleased to see some German in sweat-wicking spandex checking their GPS position in the middle of their Maize plot. Unfortunately I don't have a picture of that one...