Friday, August 4, 2017

More Marimba

I'm going to caffeinate myself and continue my slapdash speed blogging about our Mexican road trip. Part One is back here. I am supposed to be doing many, many other things instead of blogging to prepare for our looming departure but since I am overwhelmed by all of them -- meh, ignore.

Road trip! Road trip! The most important thing to know about our stay in San Cristobal de Las Casas is Coco bought this wolf hat as a souvenir and has slept in it every night since. There is nothing better than peeking into her room and seeing the top of her little wolf head poking out from underneath the sheets. Wolves have been Coco's spirit animal since she was a wee tiny thing. With the addition of the hat and her constant growling, I'd say her transformation is near complete.


The state of Chiapas in southernmost Mexico borders Guatemala and as a result, the culture in Chiapas is a mix of many things. It's a mix of Mexico and Guatemala, ancient Mayan traditions mixed with Catholicism and a generous dose of voodoo. The feeling in the air is different from anywhere else we've been in Mexico. The locals are slightly more guarded, the Spanish accent a lot harder to understand. A visitor in Chiapas feels a profound sense of "I am most definitely a foreigner here."

San Cristobal is a charming city with its pedestrian-only cobblestone streets, many churches and brightly painted storefronts. Our favorite part was the night market, which sets up in front of the church in the main square every evening. Vendors are not allowed to sell in front of the church during the day but as soon as the sun goes down -- bam, it's business time.

We bought many things including a wolf hat

We soon discovered Chiapas loves the marimba. There are marimbas everywhere. You can't get a coffee without a smiley marimba player welcoming you into the cafe. I soon began yelling at regular intervals, "I GOTTA HAVE MORE MARIMBA." At first amused, Alex soon became quite annoyed by this. But I gotta have more marimba.

We also learned when traveling to Chiapas, it is important to pack for all four seasons because you will experience them all in one day. That is how Lucien came to own the giant gray wool coat in the above photo with the she-wolf. We never thought we would need a giant gray wool coat in Mexico, but Mexico holds many surprises.

Chiapas is known for amber. The kids and I soon began an obsessive love affair with amber, diving in and out of amber shops with maniacal fervor as Alex yawned out on the sidewalk. I bought a gorgeous ring with a super old termite in it and Lucien is now the happy owner of a small piece of amber encasing his favorite insect in the world -- the mighty ant.

There was also an amber museum, which the kids and I enjoyed but Alex completed in about five minutes then went to sit on a bench.

That dude is not seeing the world through amber-colored glasses.

Old bugs stuck forever

It's an amber marimba.
I was not kidding about the marimba in San Cristobal.
I gotta have more marimba.

There are two important things to see if you find yourself in the San Cristobal area. The first is San Juan Chamula church, which lies in the small town of Chamula about half an hour outside San Cristobal. We were told by friends, "San Juan is batshit and magical," which sounded like a winning combination to us.  

The town of Chamula is odd. It feels... just .....weird. That's the best word I can come up with to suit the town. And I don't think I'm too off to call it "slightly, almost imperceptibly, hostile, but it's there, people." It's like the residents of Chamula know they need tourists to make a living but they don't really want you there.

The people of Chamula are their own tribe. Almost the entire population is indigenous, the Tzotzil Mayan people, and speak Tzotzil, an ancient Mayan language. They are entirely autonomous in Mexico and run things completely their own way. They are also intensely private and don't like you staring so you best blink your eyes and look away, son.

The Chamulans have strict traditional methods of dressing: women wear long black skirts made of shaggy wool with bright purple or pink blouses and men wear furry black vests.

That's a group of young women in the bottom left
in their long black hairy wool skirts
in front of the very unique and bizarre San Juan Chamula church.
I'll get to that in a second.

If a man has a position of great authority and responsibility within the community, he will instead wear a long white tunic --

Like this guy in front of the church. 
I'm not sure what his official duties entail 
but one of them is telling tourists, over and over again, 
that no photos are allowed inside the church. 
And my God, he means it.

We've heard tales of tourists trying to take pictures inside San Juan Chamula who've had their cameras ripped out of their hands and smashed on the floor. We've also heard of tourists taking pictures of locals in the town without their permission and receiving pieces of produce thrown at them angrily in response. 

I was nervous every time I took a picture in Chamula, worried I was going to offend and thus receive a cantaloupe to the skull. I tried to keep people out of my pictures as much as possible but sometimes they wandered in when I was taking pictures of other things.

I was taking a picture of the blond German woman at the right,
who had just purchased french fries and thus attracted the attention
of  a gang of hopeful stray dogs.
Then the woman in her black hairy skirt walked in front of me
carrying a thing of smoking incense and chanting.
That's the kind of stuff that happens in Chamula.

I was taking another picture of the many stray dogs
and caught another local woman in her black skirt selling belts.
It was an accident, and I'm glad nobody cantalouped me.

San Juan Chamula church is unlike any church I've ever seen -- understatement -- and we've lived in both Mexico and Europe so our church experience is staggering.

Giant pieces of fabric are draped from the ceiling almost like a circus tent. A thick smoky incense fills the air. There are no pews, no seats whatsoever. The floor is covered in a thick bed of pine needles. There are millions of candles stuck to the floor with melted wax. Statues of saints line the walls in glass cases and are decorated with pineapples and tiny bits of mirror.

Family members sit in groups on the floor, chanting and waving their hands over the candles. Shamans shriek and spit on the floor while performing cleansing rituals on people in the corners. Bottles of Coca-Cola are everywhere -- we learned later they are drunk quickly so the drinker burps, which is believed to expel bad spirits. Animal sacrifice is a regular part of church rituals so chickens, both alive and very recently dead, are held by families or laid beside candles.

So... yeah, they are doing things a little differently in Chamula.

Walking through San Juan Chamula was surreal and deeply moving. It was also a bit tense due to all the candles sitting on the floor. Coco nearly caught on fire when the back of her hair came within half an inch of a large candle that stood nearly tall as her. I yelled and lunged for her but with all the chanting and spitting and burping and shrieking around me, I just blended right in.

Back in San Cristobal, we happened upon a restaurant run by people from Chamula. There are pictures of the inside of San Juan church on the walls of the restaurant so I took pictures of the pictures. That must be OK, right? They were obviously professional photos so the people in them must have known they were being photographed and approved it, right? Please, no cantaloupe!

The inside of San Juan Chamula,
on a much less crowded day than the day we were there.
We could barely get through the many groups seated on the floor,
which is how Coco came to nearly catch on fire squeezing past a candle.

 Candles. Chickens. Coca-Cola.

Candles and a large knife, don't want to know what that's for.

The second important thing to see near San Cristobal is Sumidero Canyon. We took a speedboat tour through the canyon and it was the coolest thing. Jaw-dropping, breathtaking, all those trite things, blah blah blah, sorry, I'm in a hurry.

The ride was gorgeous and enjoyable -- cliffs a kilometer high towering above you on either side! -- until we were reminded that people are polluting jerks. There is one area of Sumidero Canyon where the currents collide. All garbage that has found its way into the water, most of it from the capital city hours away upstream, converges at this spot and gets stuck. The boat driver suddenly cuts the engine as you round a corner and holy hell -- it's garbage island.

You must move very slowly through the fly-infested mess of garbage. On the other side, the boat operator must perform some maneuvers to dislodge the garbage from the propeller. It's pretty horrifying. He told us they have crews out there regularly to clean it up but it's too much for them to keep up with.

Garbage far as the eye can see.
Remember to dispose of your trash properly and recycle your plastics, everybody!

There's one more thing I need to tackle on this post before I bail and start packing up our millions of Legos. That is truly the one item on the to-do list today and trust it, it's one of the biggest. Can't wait to hear the shrieks of protest as I begin disassembling all the children's Lego creations to stuff the bricks back into boxes and bins.

The last thing to be discussed is our journey between San Cristobal and our next destination, Palenque in the north of Chiapas. We knew beforehand this was the toughest leg of the journey. The road is notoriously slow, winding and hilly. It is also known for people trying to stop you all along the way to sell you things. They will accomplish this by standing on either side of the road and pulling up a rope across the street as you approach.

We knew all this but were still not prepared. I have never seen Mario shaken while driving before (and he drives in the constant stressball of Mexico City) but he was sweating bullets on the road between San Cristobal and Palenque. People pass each other on blind curves, the winding path is torturous at times, and at one point the road was nearly completely washed down the hill thanks to a recent landslide. Drivers were queued up in either direction to take turns traversing the one slice of road still in place. I squeaked out, "I don't think we should be doing this!" just as Mario took his turn, floored it and got us to the other side in a burst of adrenaline.

We did encounter the children on either side of the road pulling up ropes and trying to stop us but Mario more or less blew through those tiny blockades. The kids would drop the rope if they saw you weren't going to stop, they have no interest in hurting themselves just to sell you tortillas.

Then we suddenly got stuck in a long snaky line of barely moving traffic. We could not figure out the reason for the delay. Construction? An accident? A great taco stand?

Upon rolling into the tiny town, I could see the reason way up ahead. I am freakishly far-sighted, Alex swears I can see for miles but that's likely an exaggeration. In any event, I can see way farther than him.

A large group of people, seemingly the entire community, were gathered along the sides of the road. Some of them had large boards with what looked to be giant nails sticking out of them. The boards were being placed on the street in front of every car. They were removed, I was assuming, only after each driver had given the people money. Some car occupants were evidently arguing with the town's residents, which is why we sat there barely moving for so long.

I told Mario and Alex what was happening ahead but Alex refused to believe it. He refused to believe people were taking advantage of travelers that way and shook his head, said, "No, you must be wrong. There's no way that's what they're doing. It must be construction or something."

But sure enough, we reached the nail board and were told we needed to pay a "toll" to drive through the town. I told Mario to pay whatever they wanted so we could get moving again, we'd already lost an hour. He paid them 100 pesos, about five bucks. They thanked us and removed the board.

Alex was so hurt when the truth was revealed. He sat near silent after that, occasionally whimpered like a wounded puppy, "I can't believe they would do that...I mean, they have you trapped...." Alex may not view the world through amber colored glasses but he sure does wear his rosy ones from time to time.

The nail board people made me angry at first but it didn't last long. You should have seen the faces of the people; these people have led hard, hard lives. The sad expressions and deep lines on their faces show it. The homes in the area were made of concrete blocks, just one room, corrugated metal roofs, lots of kids sitting outside. Some houses had windows with shutters but others had only holes where windows should be and clotheslines full of tattered clothing. That community is poorer than poor, and the only thing they can possibly capitalize on is the popularity of their road between two well-visited towns.

We'd lost an hour of our day and five bucks but life is harder than I will ever know for people in rural Mexico so you won't hear me complaining.

We detoured from the twisty road to visit the Mayan ruins of Tonina. The Tonina site has some of the best ruins around. The main structure is one of the biggest ruins in the world. It's not really considered a pyramid, it's a much wider structure with many more levels.

Unfortunately, Coco chose Tonina to declare she hated ruins and never wanted to visit any more ruins ever in her entire life.

I call this one "Coco's misery." 
She is very sick of the Mayans.

The rest of us loved Tonina. There are very few visitors, the ruins are expansive and you can climb and explore nearly everywhere, including several tunnels and maze-like buildings. For all that and more, Tonina gets the very impressive rating of 4.5 out of 5 pyramids. *applause*

Nothing is off limits at Tonina so explore every corner,
feel free to fall off every sheer ledge,
while Coco glares at you from below,
and tells you your vacation is "stupid."

Alex at the tippy top

The Mayans had the best views

Coco sat with crossed arms at the bottom as Mario told her stories in an attempt to cheer her while Alex and I climbed all the way to the top with Lucien. It was a lot of work. The last stretch of climbing at the very top was nearly straight up, more like a ladder really, no handrail of course, and was a heart-stopping long stretch of climbing indeed.

I can't accurately describe my discomfort when I'm climbing tricky ruins with Lucien. He loves it, of course, and I want him to challenge himself and feel great about his efforts afterwards. I can't bog him down and squash his excitement and determination with my fear. But OMG, I'm totally freaking out, guys.

My heart stops. It just absolutely stops, feels hollow in my chest. I don't breathe, either. It's some sort of miracle I haven't passed out and fallen off the things myself given the lack of heartbeat and breathing. Sometimes I picture what would happen should Lucien lose his grip or balance and plan how I will react. I mostly stay below him the whole way up or down, stare at his feet and silently will them not to slip. I also brace myself for the inevitability that should they slip, I will fling myself to the bottom to break his fall with my body.

How is something so agonizing so fun at the same time?

These are the short sections with wider steps,
where I can breathe well enough to pull out my camera,
and capture The Loosh in all his giddy glory.

OK, this train don't stop, on to Palenque! The road was still twisty and turny as we pointed the car North again, but also prettier than just about any drive we've ever taken.

Oh Jesus, another Mexican in a truck making me nervous --

Hanging off the back, going at least 80 mph like it's no big deal. 

I'll be back this weekend. The story isn't over yet but my time in Mexico very nearly is.


  1. My first thought when I saw the amber was okay I see where this blog is going, they're going to end up on an island off Costa Rica with Lucien making dinosaurs from insect DNA. Who knew your Paris sequel was going to be so derivative.

    I love your perspective on the people with the nailboards. That made me tear up as I sit here in my cozy house eating plentiful amounts of food to celebrate the weekend where I get to do nothing because apparently nobody should be expected to endure more than five days of 'work' in a row. *sniff*

    And as for the rest, the photos and your adventures are simply stunning. At this point I'm refusing to believe you people are real. Safe travels home, fake blog family!

  2. Sometimes I wish I was tagging along with you and you're family on your trips, you guys have the most interesting adventures.

    Chamula sounds like my kinda town! (I can't tell you how many times I wanted to throw stuff at selfie stick-wielding tourists while on holiday in Italy.)