The musings and misadventures of a girl unprepared

Friday, 12 September 2014

San Cristóbal de las Casas

I know, I can't believe it either, but I'm FINALLY getting around to writing about what happened during my time in San Cristóbal de las Casas. It's going to take more than one post (I did live there for over a month!) so bear with me, and I hope you find it as interesting to read about as I did living it.

If you were following my adventures all those months ago in July (oopsy), you may recall that my last actual travel post was Camping in the Clouds and I'd basically just arrived in San Cris before heading off to camp in the jungle for a few days. Well you'll be happy to know that I didn't die from those ridiculous bug bites I'd received from whatever nasties decided to gnaw at my poor leg, nor did the exhaustion entirely stop me from putting my tourist hat on (though I was a tad lazy for the first two weeks...).

I did a lot of pottering about the city by myself in the following days, as both Adriana and Manu have jobs and the like, To be honest I thoroughly enjoyed this down time as Greg and I had been doing some really fast, hardcore travelling through the country for a month, and it was nice to just take a breather for a few days. Thus began my love affair with Jack Kerouac and Chiapas' finest hot chocolate, because seriously, no one does hot chocolate like the Mexicans. I tried a LOT of it while I was there, but if you're ever in town I'd recommend Oh La La, which is a French bakery and also does A-MAY-ZING chocolate eclairs, or another place, that is slightly more pricey but worth every penny, called something like Xocolates and can be found in a mini shopping centre thing just off Guadalupe. The whole cafe is dedicated to hot chocolate, meaning you can have it made just the way you like it, down to the flavour, sweetness and type of milk they use.

Source: Murdo McDermid.

'I stumbled after as usual as I've been doing all my life after people that interest me, because the only people that interest me are the mas ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing... but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night...'
- Jack Kerouac, On The Road

As well as chilling in the days, I tended to use the nights to party with the locals and couchsurfing friends, resulting in one fateful mezcal story (which unfortunately isn't blog appropriate) and ridiculous amounts of dancing. It was here I actually discovered just how much I adore salsa dancing, and I still can't get over the novelty of being asked to dance rather than simply having someone come up behind me and grind on me/touch me inappropriately. It's nice to be able to go out at night without having to punch someone in the mouth for being a total perv.

Most of our nights where spent in a bar called Revolución (ironically situated directly across from a Burger King), which is probably the most popular in the city and has a different music themed night every day of the week. However, I should probably note that as much fun as it can be, it's one of those places where you always see the same people, which tends to result in a lot of drama and the inability to escape your antics from the previous nights. One of those 'everybody knows everybody's business' kind of places. But fun, nevertheless.

Outside Revo after the unlucky Mexico vs Holland World Cup match.

I was also lucky enough to be in the city for the festival of San Juan Chamula, which is a festival in the indigenous town of the same name, situated in the hills next to San Cris. It was quite a surreal experience, not only because my friend Justin and I where clearly the only blonde people around, but also because the language spoken in the town was Tzotzil, not Spanish, so even my other Spanish-speaking Mexican friends stood out. We were surrounded by people in their traditional dress (which unfortunately I couldn't take any pictures of at the time because cameras weren't allowed), with loud music blasting from the huge stage at the front which reminded me of something between Mexican folk and a German Oompah ensemble.

The church was another other-worldly experience. Due to the Spanish Conquest and the subsequent 'conversions' to Christianity that took place, the religious practices of the people have taken on a compromise combining Christian practices with those of the traditional Mayan religion. There were giant statues of saints bordering a spacious hall, all of which were ornately decorated with colourful fabrics and tinsel, whilst the floor was littered with hay and candles. Seriously, there were candles everywhere (healthy and safety alert!). The local people were kneeling by various saints with their little lines of candles, praying and utter rituals, which involved pouring sweet drinks such as Coke and others I didn't recognise around their candle-altars. Some swayed and others seemed to be blessing family members, and we even saw one sacrifice a chicken.

Perhaps it was the copious amounts of Pox we had been drinking or the sugar high I was getting from the delicious, delicious churros I was gorging on, but the whole scene was utterly enchanting, despite being somewhat bizarre. It felt very strange to be an onlooker to all this; I didn't feel right treating other's personal, religious beliefs and a spectacle to be leered at, especially by some white, privileged tourist without the foggiest idea about what was actually going on. Finding the line between intrigue and accidental disrespect for another culture can often be quite difficult. So feeling enlightened, yet a bit awkward, we decided to leave and head back to San Cris to leave the locals to do their thing in peace.

To give you an idea of the traditional dress, these are a few of the street sellers from San Cris who's picture Murdo took with permission. Apparently in some of the communities it is believed that by having your picture taken can be dangerous because the camera can steal your soul through your eyes, which means that you can even be arrested for taking a picture in some areas. So respect local customs and don't go wielding your camera like a lunatic unless you know what the deal is.

In amongst the chilling and the hot chocolate and the partying, I also had the opportunity to help Adriana out in teaching some of her English classes in the local area: one in a rural community about one and a half hours drive away through the hills and another in the prison of a neighbouring town. And surprisingly, the two experiences weren't all that different. Whilst I've previously taught in a school back home, I have never come across a group of children so eager to learn and grateful for their lessons as I did in the village. We just did a simple English lesson about family (which, if you know my rather complicated, modern family, is always an interesting one!) but they were all so enthusiastic and excited to learn, unlike a lot of the kids back home. It was a lovely to share just a few hours with such a delightful group of children and the time flew by.

The main difference between that class and the one in the prison, mainly just lay in the age of the pupils. It is a male-only prison and the class is of course free and completely voluntary, yet so many people showed up! We taught a little about the differences between British English and American English, as well as attempting to explain the UK, Great Britain and England (no, they are not all the same thing). The guys were so lovely and full of questions, it made it really difficult for me to believe that these were actually 'criminals', locked up for one reason or another. It was one of those perspective changing situations, and I was really sad to have to say goodbye to the class, knowing it's likely that I won't be able to return for a very long time, if at all.

Finally, I got to meet so many awesome people in my first two weeks of stay. I spent a lot of time with Adriana's flatmate Brenda, and consequently ended up meeting a lot of the couchsurfers she had staying over. This further resulted in meeting random people in the street during meal times, because a lot of the tables would be situated outside of a restaurant, and well, the world is just a small place and everyone seems to know everyone in San Cris. So our unlikely band of 'hitch-hikers' spent a lot of time together dreaming up all sorts of ridiculous plans, playing cards and munching on cheap empanadas. And to my surprise, these hypothetical ideas of hitch-hiking became reality, and I ended up joining an Italian guy called Mirko in hitch-hiking to Palenque and escaping San Cris for a little while. But that's its own blog post entirely. 

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