Notes from Mexico Trip- Johnny Monsarrat Mexico Trip

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 14TH, 1999 – OAXACA

We fly to Oaxaca, going out of our way through Mexico City first. We go to the main square and have dinner. We hear "jingle bells" in Spanish, the only words in English being "jingle bells", with a rock beat. This is weird, because there's no snow in Mexico. So how can they just pick up American customs like Jingle Bells? (Although, to be fair, I don't think I have ever personally gone for a horse-drawn sleigh ride!)

There's a gathering just off the town plaza with a white polar bear costume and an MC doing some kind of Santa Claus lap sitting thing. There's a gingerbread house with lights and "Coca-Cola" signs all over it. This event must have been sponsored by Coca-Cola. At the restaurant, the restroom doors say "hombres" & "damas".

The next morning, we hear the insistent CLANK of a church bell every half hour at 6:30 and 7:30. They ring perhaps 20 times. We can also hear the rumble of cars passing. We go to a different hotel to meet a tour guide, and while we're waiting, we meet an American PhD in the lobby who lives here and makes films about weird places in the world. His next project is something about the Millennium and ancient Mayan ruins.

We ask him for an insight into Mexico. He says that many Mexicans are lazy. They open their shop but don't bother to get any cash to give change, so they just turn away customers until one comes by with exact change. He says Mexico is very different from (safer than) Columbia. "I wouldn't set one foot in Columbia."

By now, I've decided that the best area to set my book would be in Chiapas, especially San Cristobal. It's a hotbed of revolutionary activity and crime. I've transcribed information from a hotel tour book on Chiapas: -- capital is Tuxtla Gutierrez -- a coffee-growing region -- home of Mexico's "marimba" music -- there's an airport in Tuxtla -- Tuxtla City Zoo has only animals native to the region: extremely rare quetzal bird & harpy eagle.

"San Cristobal" is a main city, short for "San Cristobal de Las Casas". It's an indigenous Chiapaneca town in the heart of the state's jungle highlands at 7,200 feet. It's a two hour drive (or bus ride) from Tuxtla. Tuxtla has tropical heat and plant life, but as you gain elevation towards San Cristobal, this gradually gives way to nippy mountain air and pine forests. The days are sunny and warm in San Cristobal, but the nights are chilly (or cold if raining).

San Cristobal: Amber is plentiful in the region, and shops sell it in jewelry, especially with silver. The indigeous presence is overwhelming. It's a market town, drawing Indians from the surrounding areas to sell handwoven good and earthenware.

The Chamulas are the most prominent members of the Tzotzil & Tzeltal Mayan tribes. Chamula women wear blue tops and black woolen skirts and serapes. They display stacks of cotton tablecloths, pillowcases, and thick woolen sweaters. San Juan Chamula is eight miles north of San Cristobal. There are a small number of streets in the town square, but the main attraction is the church. They practice a blend of Christian and Indian religions.

Tourists can take horseback excursions over winding mountain trails. By car, they can go to the Lakes of Montebello, practically on the Guatemalan border. A lovely chain of lakes.

There's another local indigenous group: the Lacandan Indians, who live deep in Chiapas rainforest. They resist 20th century changes the most of all native Indians in N. America. There are only about 600 Lacandan left.

You can take a small charter flight from San Cristobal's new airport to the Mayan ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilan in the Chiapas rain forest. Both are accessible by boat via Usumacinta River, but it takes a rugged camper to hike it. Bonampak is Mayan for "painted walls". Yaxchilan is buried deep in forest in a loop of the Usumacinta River, barely inside Mexico.

Tuxtla: avg temp 76.5 degrees. Alt 1,731 ft. Pop 295,000. Airport: "Tuxtla Gutierrez". Airlines: Aerocaribe, Aviacsa, Mexicana de Aviacion.

I've asked our tour guide, Nicolas, to drum up some research on Chiapas. He says they farm coffee, beans, corn. The climate is 24-27 degrees Celsius. It rains, whether the rainy season or not. They use a "manta" for dressing, it's a kind of wool. Mountainous, but there are somewhat flat valley areas.

In the Indian villages, the town decides everything together. The villages are a 3 hour walk away from the main road, or even as much as 13 hours away. Most of the roads have been closed because Chiapas flooded, and it will take 3-5 years to repair the roads: there's no money.

EPR "ejescito popular revolucionario" (sp?) almost the same (?) as Zapatistas. Government considers villages around San Cristobal part of the Zapatistas. Most of the poor people are obligated to do what the rich people want. The rich people try to control the villages that normally work by unanimous consent. The poor people don't want to be controlled.

The army & federal police are established over in Chiapas, but they don't allow you to go into the villages. "They don't want you to see what's going on, that's why they don't let you take pictures." Later, I learn that this view is wrong. Many poor people have a family member who's in jail unfairly. The government sometimes imprisons people for 5-10 years.

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