Friday, April 8, 2011

The Earthquake and Tsotsil Villages

After the trip to Tonina, I spent Tuesday just messing around; writing, playing with photos, a quick trip to the market. I found a Teach-Yourself-Spanish program on the web so checked it out just for fun. It looked like a great way to learn Spanish, with active videos, photos and interactive tests. I took the first lesson, which was the basic stuff like “How are you”, “What’s your name”, etc. But missed several answers on the spelling test. I guess if it weren’t for spell checkers I could never be a writer in any language, even one as simple (to spell) as Spanish.

On my forays into the world, I write down the words I see on signs that I don’t know. I’ve discovered the word for wholesaler and retailer, workshop, “good prices”, etc. It’s a lot of fun. My little Mexican Spanish phrasebook is rather limited so I come home and look up words in the web-based dictionary.

Detail of Tsotsil weaving, all done with fingers and thread.
A while before this trip, I made the e-acquaintence of a woman here in San Cristobal. She asked me to go with her to Tsotsil villages and photograph the artisans at work, and possibly write up something for the web about them. Brigitte and her husband Bob have a beautiful home a few blocks from the old market, up the hill. She invited me for dinner on Wednesday evening. Her home is exquisite. Honestly, it could be featured in Architectural Digest. They purchased a ‘ruin’ in her words, gutted it and built something more to her liking.  The French country kitchen has Mexican tile and fixtures, features a 6 burner gas stove/oven, a quiet dishwasher, lots of cupboard and counter space, and a huge table that seats 6 comfortably in the middle. Floors throughout the house are thick red brick. Walls are deeply textured and colored a soft orange cream. At night the soft lighting enhances the undulating wall surface and makes for a beautiful romantic setting. Most of the furniture is handmade and handpainted with delicate designs. The upholstery on several chairs is handwoven Tsotsil cloth and the floors feature original Iranian Bokara rugs.

Pascuala weaving at her home. 

They have three dogs. One is a Mexican hairless, the first I’ve ever seen. Biscot has hair on her head and around her face, but nowhere else, and she’s a good sized dog, probably 30 pounds. It’s very weird petting a hairless dog. It’s like she’s wearing a fine leather jacket. Then there’s darling little Frodo, a Chihuahua mix with the homeliest face but sweetest personality. Everyone falls in love with Frodo. The other dog is a shy, chubby black Chihuahua they call the Pig.

Brigitte and I hiked down the hill to the Gelateria to fetch some icecream for dessert, while Bob stayed behind to keep an eye on the apple crisp.  Brigitte is fluent in  French, English, Spanish and speaks a lot of Tsotsil. We stopped several places where she had indigenous friends. An hour and a half later, we got home to the smell of burned sugar. Bob mentioned the dessert was a bit crisp, but we could eat the middle. Brigitte was quite miffed about it. As it turned out, I think he hit on something good. The sugars had carmelized and that was one of the best apple crisps I’ve ever tasted. She served up a delicious dinner of cucumber salad, rice and Vietnamese porkchops. I asked if she ever bought meat at that stinky meat market and she looked at me as if I’d lost my mind.

Wednesday morning, I was sitting on the couch typing away on my laptop when the windows began to rattle. I thought perhaps my upstairs neighbor was opening her sliding door, but then wondered how that could possibly make my windows rattle. All of a sudden the couch lurched sideways and I high tailed it out the door. It was an earthquake.  I waited around outside. The electric line to the house swayed back and forth, but the trees seemed quiet and stable. The ground under my feet wasn’t vibrating. Nothing else happened. It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about earthquakes, wondering how often they must happen here based on the observation of the subsiding mountainside.




I headed back to Brigitte’s. The plan for the day was to go to Zinacantan to photograph a weaver at work. She asked if I’d felt the earthquake. Apparently it was much stronger in her area, and was centered about 100 miles north in Veracruz state. She told me this was their 20th quake since they’d moved here four years ago. They happen all the time. Good to know. Next time the window rattles, I’ll be out of the house in a flash.

We took a combi to Zinacantan, a village to the northwest of San Cristobal. As we descended into the town, I could see hundreds of greenhouses built in a very orderly fashion all over the hillsides. Brigitte said they grow flowers here, and supply most of southern Mexico’s florists. Pascuala’s house is right across the street from the large City Hall.  We arrived to much fanfare. The ladies all knew Brigitte and after I was introduced they pulled out chairs for us. (She whispered to me that was a sign of acceptance.) Pascuala’s sister, cousin, neice and mother were there, each doing some kind of embroidery or handwork. Her home is a block building with a large deep porch, lined with racks and tables to display their crafts. Brigitte commented on Pascuala’s hairdo. It was in the traditional knot at the top of the forehead, not a style often seen these days. Most of the women prefer to braid their hair into one or two pigtails. Once in a while I see little girls with French braids marching down both sides of their heads. Pascuala is a very sharp businesswoman. She wants the publicity photos to be authentic and traditional.

Pascuala

We discussed setting up for the photo shoot. It was necessary to move white buckets and large plastic bags full of grain, clothing, and trash. Pascuala hung a bunch of long table runners to create a colorful background, then set up her backstrap loom and went to work. The minute I got out the cameras the other ladies ran off and hid in the shadows. Eventually, when it became clear that I would be taking photos only of Pascuala, they drifted back and chatted with each other and Brigitte. We put out a little corn to entice a chicken into the scene, then a big rooster came over and bullied his way in. It was so much fun trying to catch Pascuala in the midst of some loom move. Some of the photos show her arms blurred, she moves so fast. I finally had to ask her pose to get a good shot of how she lifts the threads. Afterwards, I got more candid shots of her and Brigitte discussing some design Brigitte wants on headboards for her guest room. It was a lovely productive couple of hours, and I think Pascuala liked several of the shots. I’ll give Brigitte a CD with all of them, and I’ll work on the best ones to enhance the clarity and lighting.

While we were in Zinacantan, we went over to the big white church. I can tell Brigitte loves visiting the villages, it gives her a chance to practice her Tsotsil and make new friends. Inside the church, there were very few benches, instead people prefer to sit on the floor. I have never seen so many flowers. Every open tabletop, every bench, every spot in front of a saint had a vase of flowers, of every kind you can imagine. The church smelled heavenly. It was an interesting church, and some of the practices in the church are not exactly traditional Catholic. For instance, people light candles in front of themselves when they pray, so the floors are tile and covered with bumps of wax. There are two figures of Jesus, a white and a black one, both prone in glass display cases in the middle of the room. The saints are dressed in the finest handwoven materials and completely covered up as they are in mourning now until Easter. The walls of the church were probably once white, but now they are gray from the smoke of candles. Designs in the walls are classic Mayan geometry, painted black, so the whole inside of the church is black and gray. It’s not as depressing or dirty as it might seem. Everything is very clean and the flowers are highlighted by sunshine streaming in from high windows.

We hopped in a taxi and went on down the road to San Juan Chamula, a very different Tsotsil village. About 80,000 people live there, and its church has very unusual ceremonies on Fridays when healers and shamans come in to sacrifice chickens and drive out evil spirits.
San Juan Bautista Church, Chamula

Before I could close the door on the taxi I was accosted by three or four girls, about 12 or 13 years old. One was insistent on giving me a little bracelet even though I told her I didn’t want to buy anything. Her name was Maria, she spoke a little English, it was a present, she would find me later after we saw the church, I would buy something from her then, no? Whew! I was exhausted by her persistence.

We purchased entry into the church for 20 pesos each. It was a completely different experience. Like Zinacantan, people sit or kneel on the floor, but in addition, the tile floor is covered with the thin long needles of the local evergreen trees. It makes walking extremely dangerous and slippery. Little boys, behind their mother’s backs were running, then landing on their knees to slide on the needles across the floor. It was an extreme fire hazard as well, because here, people also lit candles and stuck them to the floor in little pools of tile they created by pushing the needles out of the way.  The place seemed crowded to me, with tourists and locals doing their daily religious activities, but Brigitte assured me this was nothing. There are times, especially on Fridays when the place is packed.

Note the interesting symbols. 

The walls of this church are almost black from a couple of centuries of candle burning. And there weren’t just a few, there were hundreds, all over the place, many in glass containers, most were little sticks stuck to the floor and with the breeze from the mostly open front door, they were burning up fast and furious. Another interesting practice is the act of drinking coke and “posh” a powerful alcoholic drink made from sugar.  I saw many blankets spread on the floor, candles lit in front, and four or five cans of coke lined up like some kind of sacred object.  The people, while praying are chanting and with the entire inner volume of the church filled with smoke, it resembles a Buddhist temple.  Brigitte told me that another practice is to get good and drunk, then go over to a saint and pray for guidance. The saints have  mirrors hanging down on cords. The petitioner looks into the mirror and often goes into a rapture, speaking in tongues, answering their own question.

Upon emerging from the church, Maria, accosted me yet again, insisting that I buy one of her woven belts, she’d given me a present, now I should buy the belt, etc etc. I looked helplessly at Brigitte who said “Give her back the present.” So I took the little bracelet out and dropped it onto the girl’s arm. Finally she went away.

Brigitte wanted to visit the huge market, a large roof over an open concrete structure just off the main plaza. It was about half full of vendors and the place was filthy. Brigitte said the Chamulans are quite dirty people, bathing is not a communal value, nor is washing clothes. I began to take a closer look, and she was right. The whole town had a much more grungy feel to it than even the darkest alley in the old market, and a lot of the people actually had dirt on their skin. She said, “Not a place you want to get lunch.” It was such a contrast to the beautiful and orderly Zinacantan.

Chamula has other problems of a religious nature. Evangelical missionaries have made inroads in the population, and those who don’t follow the strange version of Catholocism exemplified by the unusual church are summarily kicked out. Many of them now live on the outskirts of San Cristobal in areas called New Jeruselem and Calvary. The problem is, most of those people are cut off from their families, are dirt poor and have no plumbing, no electricity, etc. There is a terrible problem with e-coli getting into the air and blowing around. I’ve been told that especially in the spring, it’s difficult not to get sick, no matter how careful you are with washing your hands and eating only cooked food.