Jaguars, Zapatistas and Coca-Cola

Trip Start Dec 08, 2004
Trip End Dec 07, 2005

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Hola Amigos/as, (see my Spanish is improving!)

As you've probably guessed, we have changed our plans again.

The Spanish lessons turned out to be too expensive in Oaxaca, and we were advised by some fellow travellers to take some in Antigua, Guatemala, which is the next country we are visiting.

We have fallen behind with the updates, as we are now in Palenque. We plan to get some more photos up soon but the internet connections are really slow around here so uploading may have to wait till we find somewhere quicker.

We left Oaxaca on Thurs 20th Jan, and took an overnight bus to St Cristobal de las Casas. Tash slept most of the journey, but I hardly got any kip, I was rewarded at about 4am though. I was looking out of the front window as our coach rounded a hairpin bend, and in the middle of the road was a Jaguar, the 1st wild cat I've ever seen. Jaguars are worshipped and fabled more than any other animal in Mexico and have been since the first human inhabitants arrived here (as we have seen them depicted in all the ruins we have visited). Unfortunately these days they are becoming very rare, so its a real treat to see one!

We spent 3 days in the colonial town of St Cristobal de las Casas. The first couple of days were spent exploring the town, markets and shops and getting to grips with the recent history surrounding the Zapatista uprising of 1994 to present.

Short history lesson follows, I thought some people might be interested in this, especially Ed!

St Cristobal is in Chiapas and is Mexicos southern most state. Its a state wealthy in natural resources but most of the people are poor, especially the indigenous population.

This has caused a lot of tension over the years which came to a head in 1994, when an armed left wing peasant group calling itself the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional) or Zapatistas as they are commonly called sacked and occupied government offices in the towns of St Cristobal, Ocosingo, Las Margaritas and Altamirano.

The Mexican army evicted the Zapatistas within a few days with about 150 people killed, most of them Zapatistas.

The rebels retreated into the forest having got the worlds attention focused on the plight of the people of Chiapas.

Their goal was to overturn a corrupt, wealthy minorities centuries old hold on land, resources and power in state where many peasants were impoverished, marginalised and lacking in education and fundamental civil rights. The Mexican revolution of 1910-20 had little effect here!

The Zapatistas were far outnumbered and outgunned, but they attracted broad support and sympathy both in Mexico and around the world, especially after the Acteal Massacre in 1997 where a paramilitary group associated with the governing party the PRI assassinated 45 people, mostly women, children and a priest in a chapel.

Everywhere we go there are Zapatista T-Shirts, Dolls, Posters etc. Their quest is still ongoing today, with the Mexican Government giving a lot of lip service and promises which are rarely actually materialising for the people here.

Sorry to dampen the tone a bit, but its something i'm really interested in and if you want to read more about it, there are some good web sites to check out: - The Zapatistas own web site

On a lighter note we took a tour on our 3rd day to two of the indigenous villages that surround St Cristobal.

We found some excellent tour guides, called Raul and Alex, who are really popular with the people in the villages, and really show an active interest in preserving their cultures. We were a bit dubious about going on such a tour, as we didn't want the voyeur type experience where you see typical families doing typical duties just for the tourists, but we were assured this wasn't the case here, so we went for it.

The cultures in the villages are very odd, its mostly what you would associate with ancient civilisations but with a good dollop of westernisation thrown in, partly from the Spanish invasion and partly from Americanism which has gripped most of Mexico in recent decades.

The villages are almost autonomous from the rest of Mexico, they have their own police force, which is made up of recently offending criminals as part of their reform/pay back to the society! Strange to imagine, but apparently its very effective.

The towns are governed by a group of leaders, elected by the villagers. The leaders resolve all the disputes in the villages on a Sunday, by talking to the parties involved and settling the matter over a few coca-colas, which the villagers must present to them.

Their religion is a mix between roman catholosism and their own ancient rituals. They have always resisted the Spanish influence but did adopt their churches. Its not your typical roman catholic church, I don't think the pope would be too happy to see Chickens sacrificed, eggs broken, coca-cola burping and chanting more like something akin to Buddhism, oh and no priests, they only come once a month for baptisms if invited! But this is exactly what go's on, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The Coca-Cola thing is really strange and worth a mention. Burping is part of their belief system, used to expel evil spirits. They used to use a drink from Peru, which was black, but this became hard to get hold of so they adopted Coke. The Coca-Cola salesman has the biggest house in the village, and the Pepsi-Cola salesman is runner up with just an 8 bedroom mansion!

We spent some time with a Shaman, and had some great food prepared by the locals, fresh tortillas with crushed pumpkin seed filling, yum!

We didn't get many photos of this trip as they believe photos steal their soul, and most people respect this. The few that don't get their cameras taken from them, and are lucky to get them back! I nearly got pelted with orange peels, just for taking a photo of the market, little did i realise that I had a girl selling fruit in the frame, ooops.

We learnt a lot about the social, political and cultural issues that effect the Mexican indigenous population during our stay in St Cristobal, and hope you've enjoyed our brief insight.
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