Thursday, January 6, 2011

San Cristobal de las Casas

We were back on the Pan American Highway and heading south down the coast. Well, that’s not true at all. In fact, the coast of Mexico hadn’t been running north-south since the last time we were on the actual Pan Am back in Puerto Vallarta, instead veering to the southeast until turning north for a while at the isthmus, the narrowest point at only about 130 miles wide. But, “We were back on the road and heading northeast towards Tierra del Fuego” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

For a major intercontinental thoroughfare, the Pan American Highway has some lonesome stretches, and I suspect we haven’t seen anything yet. We pulled off a dirt side road and bounced down to a beach where locals were enjoying their own stretch of empty coastline; 50 miles up the road, beachfront developments at Huatulco bring top dollar.




We stopped over in Tehuantepec for the night, mentioned only as a waypoint in our guidebooks. Wandering around looking for the one restaurant in the Lonely Planet, we ended up asking a young couple if they knew where it was. They offered to walk us there as we made conversation in our limited Spanish. When they asked what we thought of Tehuantepec, we said “Nos gusta,” we liked it. They just looked at each other and shook their heads, not believing that a tourist would actually find their little town interesting; But we really did. The central square was filled with stalls across from the large indoor mercado and a traveling fair with bumper cars and a ferris wheel had set up down the block.


And of course the clincher for me, a new form of hacked motorcycle transportation. Each town seems to have its own version of something like it from motorcycles (or bicycles) with rickshaw-like trailers to those with the front wheel and handle bars replaced by a seat with two wheels on either side. Still other towns had variations on the “tuk-tuks” you see in Asia, but each with it’s own twist. Each time I see a new one, I picture a guy in a suit rolling into town “Musicman-style” singing a showtune about his brand new “fantasmic moto-scoot-maporter” and convincing the whole town to buy them before moving on to the next one.


In Tehuantepec, the one they went for consists of the front half of a motorcycle, complete with the most bad-ass 1970’s touring fairing available, welded to a miniature cattle cart in which people would stand up as they weaved in and out of traffic and through narrow streets crowded with stalls.



Soon after leaving Oaxaca state and entering Chiapas, the road started to climb on the way to San Cristobal de las Casas. Up the steeper hills, there was usually enough room for trucks and vans to hug the right shoulder as other drivers passed around curves and across solid lines. In the rare instances when we were not the slower traffic, we’d find ourselves doing it too when there was enough space and we could keep our eyes off the sunset colors in the clouds below.



At over 7000 ft In San Cristobal, our shorts and flip flops are completely out of place and after finding a room, laundry was the first priority. Judging by the size of the bundle we picked up later in the evening, It’s possible that we let it go a little long this time.


We spent the next day in a café, catching up on some work projects for people back home and updating the blog. On a trip like this, we’re realizing that there’s a temptation to think you need to see something new and do something awesome everyday; But sometimes, just walking around in a different country, ordering a coffee and making conversation with the waiter in another language, and absorbing the feel and pace of a town is enough.




Between the Burger King and the profile of the mountains that reminded me of Mount Tamalpais where I grew up in Marin County, it was easy to feel like we could have been anywhere.



Though the churches have a way of bringing you back.





Nightlife centered around the pedestrian walkways spoking out from the zocalo in which a vibraphone-led jazz band held court on the gazebo stage as people danced and enjoyed the evening in the park surrounding them. A makeshift market appeared in front of the main cathedral with rows upon rows of women sitting among piles of woven hats, sweaters and animals figures sewn together from wool and stuffing; Favorite shapes included llamas, donkeys and horses, some with black-hooded Zapatisa riders.

San Cristobal de las Casas is no stranger to foreigners as evidenced by the common sight of backpackers, usually a large pack worn on the back and a small pack in front; 20 something tour groups, identifiable by the bunching of college sweatshirts; retired couples, with enough belt-mounted pouches to make Batman seem like an unprepared hack; and great Italian and Spanish restaurants, expat owners having never left after a visit. We sat down at Café Prague along one of several pedestrian thoroughfares we’d find during our stay and had a nice dinner while a rotation of talented musicians and singers occupied the tiny café stage. We realized that this was the first time we couldn’t look around us and find a single clue we were in Mexico; Usually, the plaster on the walls doesn’t quite reach the floor or the tables are 70’s kitchen Formica, but this place, and much of San Cristobal de las Casas, was modern in design and filled with metropolitan young people, meeting friends for drinks and texting the ones who were late.



But the reminders would walk in the door every few minutes: kids probably 4-10 years old, usually in groups of two or three, selling small ceramic animals, woven belts or gum. They’d approach and start unloading their wares as they called out the name of each animal they placed on the table. As usual, we felt torn between how small 10 pesos was to us versus what it would be to their family, but didn’t want to encourage parents to send their kids, often so young they wouldn’t be allowed to play outside in the yard alone in the US, out on the streets among strangers at 11 pm. They would usually accept a “no gracias” but one member of a dirt-faced duo followed up asking if he could have some of our cacahuates, peanuts the waiter had left on the table. We said yes, and a hand in fingerless gloves straight out of the wardrobe closet from Oliver Twist dragged across the plate, enclosing half of the nuts in a tiny fist. The next boy stepped up, gave us a quick look, and did the same, leaving the plate empty.

While in Zipolite, we had some time to think a little about our plan of helping out the communities we travelled through, even in some small way. The picture a lot of people have is to strolling into a village, noticing that all their problems could be solved with a new $100 water pump, donating the money and leaving a hero, local women naming their first borns after them for decades to come. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way and our approach is usually to identify an issue and support someone local who’s already working on the problem and knows much better than us what needs to be done.

We’d located the Oaxaca Street Children Grassroots program after seeing the sad, empty little eyes going table to table in Oaxaca and found the Chiapas Children’s Project working in San Cristobal de las Casas. We made a donation to CCP and contacted the founder who put us in touch with the director. On a Friday evening, we found our way to “La Chozita,” the afterschool facility and program then funded and met with Enrique and 8 of the kids in the program. La Chozita provides a comprehensive after-school schedule of activities for about 25 kids including computer skills, art, music, philosophy, and sports, but most importantly, shows them that they have options in life. In addition, the program requires from parents that the children not be involved in any of the money-making responsibility of the family while enrolled.


We talked with the kids about their favorite subjects, history being the clear winner, and gave an impromptu presentation about our trip, definitely pushing our Spanish to the limit. It was nice that we’d visited many of the places they’d studied and we traced our route on a remarkably accurate outline of Mexico, Central America and South America that Enrique drew on the white board. We eventually resorted to showing them a few of our videos on YouTube; Each time they’d see one of us in the video, they’d turn around and point to us like “Hey! You’re famous!”

The two cakes in the middle of the table were part of Mexican tradition; Each person cut their own piece and whoever found one of the 10 munecas, small plastic dolls, hidden inside had to “throw a party and make tamales on Valentines Day.” Let’s just say that after Ann’s cut, I knew our plans for February 14th.



We had a great visit with Enrique and his kids and appreciated the authoritative yet friendly and loving bond he had with each of them. Though he also works as a professor at a nearby university, it’s easy to tell that this is his passion. And while you wish programs like this were available to more than 25 or so kids, as Enrique put it, you have to start somewhere and maybe these kids will rub off on their friends or come back to Chiapas as leaders in the future.

While in San Cristobal, we also took a day trip back down the hill in Chivas de Corzo for a boat tour up the Canyon de Sumidero.

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Once loaded on the 20 person boats, we entered the Sumidero under a bridge that carries the Pan American Highway, a long drive. Underneath it were two orange platforms which were, ahem… a long dive.

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Along the banks crocodiles sunned themselves and freaky-looking black vulture-like birds spread their wings on the banks, wondering at how imposing it made their shadows look.






Plus iguanas and monkeys barely visible as black shapes high in the trees.


The walls of the Canyon de Sumidero climb impressively up from the river, reminding us of a cross between Yosemite and the Milford Sound in New Zealand.






Unfortunately, anything thrown in the river above the canyon washes down into it where it collects. While they are working to clean it up, it currently looks like something’s about to grab Luke Skywalker’s Storm Trooper-costumed leg and drag him below the muck in the garbage masher on the detention level where Princess Leia is being held of the Death Star.




Hard to see this amount of trash, especially just down river from something as bizarre and beautiful as this Christmas tree formation left behind by centuries of mineral deposits from the water seeping out of the canyon wall. Notice how tiny the boat at its base looks in the picture below.





We’d planned to stay a couple nights in San Cristobal de las Casas but ended up staying four; Maybe we knew this would be our last European-feeling city for a while as we turned toward the Yucatan and the land of Mayan ruins.