Friday, October 25, 2013

Wanderings: Sidelined in San Cristobal

One afternoon in July I was riding northward, descending through the mountainous highlands of Chiapas towards Palenque, homeward-bound to Mérida. As usual on bus trips, I was not paying much attention to the on-board video screens, until the familiar roar of a single-engine Cessna aircraft and voices speaking American English emanated from the bus speaker system.

The entire busload raptly watched an episode Flying Wild Alaska, a Discovery Channel reality show about the day-to-day adventures of a regional air service in northern Alaska. My fellow passengers appeared fascinated by exotic arctic vistas, the lives of Native people and the daring deeds of bush pilots in Unalakleet and Barrow. I ignored Zapatista signboards and spectacular scenery passing by the bus windows for thirty minutes and watched the show for another reason -- I was seeing images of people I've met, places I lived, and aircraft I may have traveled on when I lived in that region and flew with this air service some years back. It was a surreal ride.

This was only one of several novel experiences of the prior few days.

I had journeyed south from Mérida to see my niece Brittany Burton, who worked for Natik, an NGO in Guatemala last summer and came up to San Cristobal for a few days on business. Brittany and I never lived in the same town while she grew up, so I don't know her terribly well. And I'd never spent time with Brittany apart from her parents, so it was very worthwhile for me to visit San Cristobal to do a little sightseeing with her and tag along while she worked.

Brittany Burton, left, inventories and sorts products with other Natik associates
I was able to accompany Brittany and two other associates of Natik to the nearby pueblo of Zinacantán, where they met with an organizer of local artisans to inventory and pick up a load of handicrafts for Natik online sales (here and here).

Another day we visited San Juan Chamula, a semi-autonomous Tsotsil Maya pueblo near San Cristobal. The remarkable church there is run by the Tsotsil, who observe their religion and healing rites with a blend of Catholic and ancient traditional practices. Hundreds of candles placed on the floor illuminate the building's interior. There are no pews inside. The floor is covered with pine boughs, and their aroma mixes with that of incense as people kneel to pray aloud in their dialect to the statues of saints which line the walls. Visiting this place and observing this blend of traditions is a privilege and a moving experience.

Photography in Chamula is strictly regulated. Taking pictures inside the church or of traditionally-dressed individuals, ceremonies or dances without permission is prohibited, so I left with just my memories and a couple of self-portraits we made in front of the church. We explored the market where I stocked up on delicious organic Chiapas coffee, and had a nice lunch before taking the bus back to San Cristobal.

My most vivid memories of Brittany as she grew up include images of her bundled up on a sled being pulled behind one of her parents' dog teams. And I think that kind of life growing up helped form the confident young woman I met in Chiapas who shares interests in Spanish and this region with me. The person I hung out with on this visit was a competent young professional traveling alone in Central America, speaking good Spanish and adept and creative in her work.

Wandering and hanging out with Brittany for a couple of days, I realized that I would find her interesting and her company enjoyable even if she wasn't my niece. That's a good feeling.

I enjoyed myself on this trip despite feeling a bit under the weather. Being ill resulted in another first. After a couple days of feeling mediocre and toughing it out, I decided I needed to see a doctor. In Mexico, often the easiest thing to do in this circumstance is to go to a Similar. Similares are a chain of Mexican generic-drug pharmacies. Each Similar has a licensed general practitioner on staff who will consult with walk-in patients for $30 pesos, or about two and a half U.S. dollars. I wouldn't go to a Similar to deal with a serious illness, but when you have an upset stomach in a strange town, it's just the thing. The doctor was professional and efficient, and in about 20 minutes I was back on the street with a couple of medications that had me feeling much better within a day or so.

And as it turned out I had plenty of time to rest and recover. On the morning I was to return to Mérida, a series of civil protests closed all roads out of San Cristobal for several days. Brittany couldn't head south and I couldn't head north. We whiled away a couple of extra days waiting for authorities and protesters to work things out. Finally, on a morning when highways were reported to be open I hugged her goodbye, only to receive a message later saying that her bus had been turned back near the Guatemalan border by new protests and that she was returning to San Cristobal. For another day or so, Brittany kept up with work from Internet cafes. We drank a lot of coffee and a few beers, ate some nice meals and had more time to explore this fascinating city before finally heading on our ways.

On the way home to Mérida I ran into a friend in Palenque. But that's another story.

A friend of mine says he loves living in Mexico because he wakes up each morning not knowing what novel experiences he may have before the end of the day. This trip to Chiapas was a perfect example of what he's talking about, what I've come to think of as "The Mexico Effect," in which daily surprises and challenges keep us active, thinking and living in moment. At home or on the road, life is always interesting and rarely dull around here.


  1. Amen to the surprises. They are a good reason to stay in Mexico. Chaos adds spice to my life here.

    I attended a church service in San Miguel this year. A woman told our discussion group: "I love living in San Miguel. It is so orderly. No one likes chaos." When I told her I stay in Mexico because of the chaos, I may as well have said I came here to worship Moloch and sacrifice children. And that is one reason I practice my version of chaos elsewhere in Mexico.

    Have you heard the story of why most of the Indian street vendors are evangelical Christians? A very interesting tale.

  2. Great post! Thanks for sharing that wonderful experience. I have two nieces, both in college, and they only get more interesting as they get older. Hopefully I'll meet one or both of them under similar circumstances one day.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where snow is the main reason for trips canceled at the last minute.

  3. Yup! Mexico is full of surprises. And never a dull moment if you are participating :-)

  4. How wonderful! And the links you provided I found inspiring.

    I recently got in contact with cousins, I was very close to in Quito. I have not seen them for over 20 years! It's another chapter in one's life. A very good and interesting one. To be continued...

  5. The Mexico Effect is definitely my reason for being here - upon returning to the US, I feel like I'm in a perpetual "State of Vanilla".
    In response to Steve's comment about that woman, that church group that he continues to go to is part and parcel the very people I avoid in all of Mexico. They are here to have the same life that they had NOB, hence they all hang out together for EVERYTHING! BORING...........


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