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.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Face Lift: The Beginning


At long last I have gone and done it. After ten years of avoiding the issue, I am getting the house a face lift.

I actually liked the patina that the front of the place had developed over the years. My house has a pleasant, traditional design. It's a classic of its kind with a stately presence, but with the wear and tear it has endured over the years, it has blended into the street, and I like that.

I always figured that an unkempt facade provided a small measure of security, assuming that any potential house robbers would be less attracted to places that did not look well-to-do. And these old stone houses are notoriously difficult to keep fresh looking anyhow. It's easier just to relax and not fret about frequent touch ups and repairs. After all, if a house is this old, why can't it look its age? Those of us humans who are at peace with the aging process decide to take care of our health but not worry excessively about normal wrinkles, sags and graying or falling hair. Cracks, peeling paint and mold streaks add character to an old house in the tropics and can be gracefully ignored in my book, at least to a certain extent.

But things deteriorated beyond the "gracefully aging" stage. This was brought home to me not long ago when I walked out the front door one morning and found several chunks of the facade, each about the size of a large candy bar, laying where they had fallen on the sidewalk. I realized that despite my affection for the house's patina, for reasons of safety it was in need of a face lift.



Actually, for years neighbors had been asking me why I didn't redo my house. "I thought gringos liked things nice and new," one said. A number of buildings on the block have been redone and freshly painted over the past couple of years, and in its scruffiness my place was beginning to stand out from the rest.

The city has a program to preserve and restore the city's architectural heritage, officially called, "Programa de Rescate de Fachadas del Ayuntamiento de Mérida." Literally that means, Facade Recovery Program of the City of Mérida. The program employs a squadron of skilled artisans who repair and carefully reproduce deteriorating facades of historic buildings in the city. The work is done free of cost. All a building owner has to do is get on the list, wait for the work to be scheduled, sign a contract, and provide needed materials. It's very organized. A detailed budget of materials and their costs is delivered beforehand and the contract describing the building owner and city's responsibilities during the project is explained in detail.

That's a pretty good deal, and the quality of the work is top notch. Construction makes a bit of a mess of the house, but will be worthwhile in the end. The historic facade will be renewed and ready to accumulate another few decades of patina before it needs serious attention again. I was a bit tired of living with the pink prior owners had painted the place years ago anyhow, so now I can make a change. And more important, no innocent passerby is going to get clobbered in the head by a falling chunk of my house.