Monday, January 30, 2012

Tonina, The Return Trip

Model of Tonina in the evening. It was
a major observatory as well as a religious center.
I do believe that Tonina is my favorite of the Mayan ruins. It is in a temperate zone, not too wet, not steamy like Palenque. It's the highest pyramid in all Mexico, but that is a result of topography. The people of that area used an existing mountain, one that gradually rose up from the valley floor as the base for their 'pyramid'. Nevertheless, it is spectacular and overlooks a beautiful verdant valley with many "ranchitos", large farms that raise chickens, ducks, geese, and cattle. The cheese from this area is famous, and not surprising, judging from the many cows we saw. About half the cattle looked like the Brahmins from India.

Mayan God of Chocolate

This was my second visit to Tonina, I had been last April. (See blog 4/6/11 Tonina ) This time, the weather was cooler, the museum was open (it wasn't a Monday!), and we took a Combi instead of one of the big luxury buses. It's hard to say really, which is preferable. The Combis are cheaper, but the bus is more comfortable. I got motion sickness both times, so I'm not sure which one is better from a nausea perspective.

Since the day was pleasant we opted to walk from the bus station along the main highway into the center of town. The plaza there was the scene of a rather horrible multi-day battle during the Zapatista uprising in 1994, in which the Zapatistas suffered heavy casualties. We looked around but found no commemoration of the event. The federal government won that round, so like Tiananmen Square, they can acknowledge what happened - or ignore it, and hope it gets forgotten.

At the archeological site, the museum was not only open but the entire site was now completely free. This was different from last spring and I asked several times why. "New Policy" I was told, but no reason for the new policy. That seemed awfully strange. The museum is well kept, the bathrooms are clean, there were two guards, one in each salon, and I know there is ongoing archeological work. How could it be completely free?

At the spot in the trail where the highest observatories of the ancient Mayans come into view, there was a new large black sign with red lettering declaring the land to be under EZLN rule (the Zapatistas). Off to the south, an enormous Mexican flag fluttered and spread itself out in the breezes. It flies above the newly enlarged federal military installation, which was situated there after the 1994 rebellion.

Bas relief of a prisoner, a nobleman from
a different city who would be sacrificed
to the gods by being decapitated.

At other federally controlled eco-parks, like Agua Azul, and Misol Ha, there have been ongoing conflicts between soldiers and the EZLN. In fact, at those two sites, we had to pay twice, not much, but once to the EZLN and another entrance fee to the park. I wondered if the now free Tonina site had something to do with the EZLN controlling the property around the ruins. Who knows? Nobody seemed to want to answer the question.

Mayan King picking his nose? 

I had been so disappointed that the museum was closed during my last trip. This time it was open, and well worth a long look. It contained many models, bas-relief sculptures, copies of pages from the ancient Dresden Codex, and a number of decapitated statues of captured prisoners. It was unknown whether the statues were beheaded in lieu of the actual person, or beheaded along with the person, or perhaps, like many ancient sculptures, the heads simply fell off, weakened by time. It's even possible the sculptures were created headless in the first place.

Arnulf and I spent far too much time inside the museum. There wasn't enough day left to climb to the very top of the pyramid, though I think he would have wanted to do that. A guard gently kicked us out and followed us down the many steep steps till we were back on the trail. We stopped for a drink and a little snack at the tienda near the bottom of the hill, then waited at the entrance for a Combi. After half an hour I asked the guard when he thought one might come and he pointed off into the distance, saying we'd need to walk up to the highway to catch a Combi. So off we went, hiking up the hill and across the countryside to find the highway almost deserted, the sun long set. Somehow I'd lost my bearings and we tramped off down the road away from Ocosingo. When a Combi finally passed us, we had to yell for it to stop. Everyone on board had a good laugh when the driver told us he'd be glad to take us to Ocosingo, but it was in the other direction, and we'd have to go all the way to the very end of his route before heading back towards the city. Fine with us, at least we weren't on foot anymore. What an adventure we had! It took almost an hour as we drove down a worsening road until it was thoroughly rutted and the Combi crept along humping up over one gouge at a time. The area was peppered with large and small farms, pleasant homes, barns and many open fields of grassland with cattle. By the time we'd dropped off every passenger, and gotten back onto a paved road it was quite dark.

Finally got back to San Cristobal and home by10:30. John and Mike were thrilled to see me. They'd locked themselves out of the bedroom section of the house and were about ready to hunt up a hotel room if I didn't come home soon. It's so nice to be needed......

The Federal presence.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Gunfire and Fireworks

A few nights ago, I was Skyping with a friend in Australia. She suddenly got all concerned. "Sherry, I hear gunfire, are the Cartels having a battle?"

Gunfire? Then I realized the sounds of fireworks were carrying all the way to Australia. It did sound a bit like gunfire, but I've gotten so used to them I hadn't even noticed.

Every little occasion is reason for fireworks. The parade in Chiapa de Corzo; people shot off black cats right in the middle of the crowd. Several men walked along with what looked like a cord of wood over their shoulders, cloaked in black plastic. The pieces of wood were long sticks with a rocket mounted on top. Once in a while they'd stop, take one out, aim it to the sky and shoot it off. It made a huge racket and then BANG, glittering embers rained down on the crowd.

Sometimes in the early morning, especially on Sundays, the fireworks start long before dawn. Between the early morning truck traffic up and down our well traveled street, clanging church bells on the hour, and fireworks, it's sometimes hard to sleep or sleep in.

However, there's a difference between gunfire and the ubiquitous fireworks. It'a hard to describe other than the actual gunshots (here anyway) are more cracky, it's a report followed by a slight echo. Once in a while I am awakened by a single shot, and it's clearly not fireworks as those tend to be go off in groups. I'm told that many Mexicans have rifles, but use them for agricultural purposes, meaning I suppose, to kill a pig, or shoot a nuisance dog. Even though federal soldiers are often standing around with their assault weapons, I have yet to hear one used.

Thank God for that.


My German buddy, Arnulf, said he would accompany me to Amantenango, a small village south of San Cristobal, to see the sculptors. Around town, the most amazing jaguars, snakes, pumas, and lizards appear in the galleries, made from local clay and painted in elaborate designs. The faces share a similar countenance, that of the artist herself. The premier artists are two women: Juana and Maria Isabel.

Back in April , when I was doing volunteer work for Brigitte, photographing the indigenous artists, we had gone to Amatenango to take pictures of Juana. But it was too late in the day to get good shots and she wasn't very willing to do it that day for some reason. We promised to come back, but that never happened.  Eventually, John took some photos of Juana because he stayed here in Chiapas longer than I did.

The travel books tell of going to Amantenango and being overwhelmed by little children selling their own 'animalitos' to the tourists. Driving through the tiny town, you'd almost miss it, except for the plethora of road side stands packed with painted pottery, baskets and sculptures. The best ones, of course, are from the pro's studios, and those are not so easy to find.

A Rodin-like sculpture in the Plaza.
So, Arnulf and I took a Combi headed to Comitan for $40 pesos. I realized that while the Combi driver might let us off at Amantenango, the price would be the same for the trip to Comitan, which is twice as far away. I suggested we go to Comitan, see what's there, have lunch, and then see the pottery on the way back. Of course, for the moment, I forgot we were in Mexico, the Land of Manana. Nothing happens quickly.

We hiked all around Comitan, which was quite a bit further than expected, bigger and hillier than I'd remembered.  The combi trip took a full two hours and that was with no stops to speak of, just a lot of slowing down to ooze over the topes, those half round log-sized speed bumps that every village seems fond of putting into the middle of the highway. Usually there is a little tienda selling drinks and trinkets next to the tope. I'm guessing a lot of drivers end up breaking an axle when they don't see the tope looming up ahead, and are then in need of sustenance while they wait for help.

Comitan's delightful Plaza.
Comitan is an old city, with many ruins nearby, an unknown fact to us until we went through the museum of anthropology, which, by the way, was free. Lunch was in a nice restaurant that seemed quite popular though I've had much better food at Malena's hole in the wall.  The Plaza has several impressive sculptures.We visited some churches and talked about trees and plants that were unknown to us, growing at that much lower elevation. The day was hot though not as muggy as it might be later during the rainy season. It's a pretty town. At one time I had thought to get an apartment there for a month, just to experience a town with almost NO tourists, certainly without English speakers. But after a day, we both agreed that while it was worth the trip, but not a great place to live.

Around 4pm we boarded a large 2nd class bus, at half the Combi price, for the trip back to San Cristobal. When it finally reached Amantenango, it was almost dark and the vendors were closing up shop. Clearly the large buses would be coming less frequently, so we opted to try again another day.

Full sized Puma or Mountain Lion sculpture,
in front of a church.

Old Mayan pot in the museum.

Another of the lovely
Plaza sculptures.

Arnulf and I both enjoy walking so we walked the couple miles back to the casita for a light dinner of salad, finished off with Kahlua ice cream. It's difficult to eat enough vegetables in Mexico, unless you eat a lot of soups. Fresh, clean, cold salads are hard to come by. The restaurants don't want to mess with making sure the salad greens are super clean and disinfected.  A delicious end to another spectacular day in Mexico!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Canyon del Sumidero

Canon del Sumidero

There's a nice couple in the front apartment in this little casita complex. We share the garden. Rachel and Chuck are from Portland. They were both bus drivers for years, then became train drivers. Both intelligent, especially Chuck who likes classical music and reads a lot. I've enjoyed their company. Rachel has studied Spanish for a long time, and though she knows a lot, has a large vocabulary, she still has some trouble just talking. So I invited her to go to my first Spanish class so I wouldn't be a class of one. Laurie, the lady I went to the Tiangis Organica with, also came so the three of us crowded around Edith's small table in the corner of her little store on the Andador Guadalupe. It's a tiny place, no bigger than a medium sized bedroom in the typical ranch-style home.

She and her partner are both trying to eek out a living there. The partner is a mural painter, quite good too, who works often on large projects. It's common for successful restaurants to decorate at least one wall with a mural, or perhaps have a mural outside as advertisement. That's less common because the taggers don't always respect art and will spray graffiti all over someone's hard work. In addition to teaching Spanish, Edith teaches art and holds small classes in the tienda. Mostly people work on collages from stuff they find, or photos they cut from magazines.

Edith is a good teacher. She doesn't speak English, but she speaks carefully and slowly, explaining how the verb tenses work, and how they are used. I understood her just fine. We reviewed a lot of material. Rachel and Laurie both have a larger vocabulary, but I can talk faster, I've had more practice in the real world. Now I need to slow down, think about what I'm going to say instead of just blurting out common phrases and winging the rest of my intentions.

We had a fun class and later went out for lunch. Arnolfo happened to be walking down the street just as class was over so he came along. Lunch in Mexico is kind of a misnomer. It happens from 2 to 4, and is not called "almuerzo", the word I was taught. It's called La Comida. Which also means The Food. Since it's the BIG meal, that makes sense. And I've gotten used to eating a large breakfast around 8 or 9 in the morning, then la comida in the afternnoon, and a snack for dinner.  Restaurants advertise antojitos (snacks or appetizers) knowing that's what people really want in the evening. A snack might be a single taco, a plate of rice with peas, or a cheese quesadilla.

Tuesday, I joined Chuck and Rachel for a boat ride up the Grijalva river into the Canyon del Sumidero. We were required to have life jackets (good) and a wrist band, which we held up at the military checkpoint on the river. Once the guard was satisfied that we were "legal" we were allowed to continue up the river.

The lowest 'branches' of the Christmas Tree.
The boat fit under it and water dripped on us!
It's quite a canyon. Some canyon walls are over 1000m tall, that's roughly 3000 feet above the surface of the river. Along the banks we got to see the wildlife that is protected by this national park, a crocodile, lots of buzzards, a monkey family in some trees, turtles and lots of floating plastic bottles. I've never seen such a clog of bottles in my life. Where the river eddies there were thousands of them so thick it looked like an ice floe. Further down the river we saw one of those machines I saw on the lake in Patzcuaro, that drifts along pulling up floating debris with an 'escalator' that rotates in and out of the water, and then dumps the trash onto a floating barge. I'm sure the bottles come from up river, from all the little towns. All the time I see people just drop trash, or combi drivers throw empty bottles out the window as they drive along. At the end of the boat ride was a dam with a row of floating drums and chain link to prevent the trash from clogging up the turbines that generate electricity for the entire region.

Christmas Tree Formation
There are a couple of famous icons along the river, one is the Christmas Tree formation, an enormous natural construction caused by a spring high up on the cliff. Like in caves, the formation was deposited over millenia by mineral laden water dripping down, forming sheets of stone. Now plants grow on that stone and from a distance it doesn't look impressive until you realize our entire boat can fit under the lowest "branches" of the tree. The photos are worth a thousand words!

The other icon is a small cave, that our boat also fit into, where the Mexican patron saint, The Virgin of Guadalupe, has been installed inside a shrine. To get up to it, one must hang onto ropes, get a foothold and then climb up to a ledge where a ladder is installed, and held into place by ropes! Rachel made the comment that here is yet another place to put The Virgin!

At the dam, the guide/pilot passed the hat for tips joking that this is where he leaves you if the hat isn't filled.  Then we zoomed around and headed back the way we came.

It was a lovely day on the river. Our pilot loved to ride the waves caused by other boats, so we jolted up and down far more than my neck appreciated, but the little kids on board loved every minute of it. I'd purchased a broad brimmed hat but it was far too windy zooming along in the boat to wear it. Fortunately, we also had plenty of sunscreen.

Not easy to spot these crocs, they look just like logs.

Buzzards by the bunch.

Leaving Chiapa de Corzo, Military checkpoint.
Those are US supplied assault rifles. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A class of one.

The search for a tutor is over. Edith was in the little tienda on the Andador Guadalupe yesterday. She was expecting me since Arnolf had paved the way. She gives Spanish lessons to people who already speak enough to comprehend, but doesn't take on beginners as her English isn't very good. The schedule for group lessons are Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 12:30 till 2:30. The price is $50p per person, but since I will be a class of one, she asked me to pay $100 for the two hours. Not a problem!! The school would have charged me $300p for a two hour group class, and that would include sharing the professor. It was a good thing Arnolf and I met that evening at the theater. Serendipity is everywhere!

Ratones (Big Rats) a delicious confection,
rich thick brownie with almond eyes,
covered in cinnamon chocolate.
I spent some of yesterday morning with Laurie, Linda's friend. She and her boyfriend Tom are from Portland, Oregon and are here for almost four months. Laurie has been coming to San Cristobal for three or four weeks at a time for several years. She likes the town, and the fact that she has friends here. Tom speaks no Spanish at all, so they are looking for a school for him. Laurie agreed with my assessment that most of the schools are overpriced and not very good. I told her about Edith (whom I had not yet met) and she wondered if Edith might teach Tom. I'll have to call her and tell her no. But I will put her onto the website, which has a very good program for beginning Spanish. It's interactive and I used it myself last April to become reacquainted with phrases and conjugations. Plus I learned quite a few words I hadn't known before.

The Andador Guadalupe.
Laurie and I went to the Tiangis Organica to purchase fruit and vegies. My bag ended up full of jars of honey and salsa, spices, a chunk of marble cake, a kilo of blackberries, lettuce, and avocados. Vendors there served freshly made blue corn tortillas, vegetarian tamales, and fresh meat that was arrayed on the table out in the sunshine. They had a full skinned rabbit, plucked chickens, and a goose, plus cut up beef chunks, tripe, and pork. I'm sure if I took some home and either refrigerated it or cooked it right away it would be fine, but some very Americanized version of myself has a tough time buying meat that's been out in the sun for a while.  Besides, I rarely cook meat here. The abundant rotisserie chickens are marvelous as are many dishes in good restaurants, even the al carbon street tacos, where the meat is shaved off a roasted column, are yummy. When I've gotten sick, it's been from restaurant produce, not cooked meats.

Malena's little restaurant serves really good food. Samplings have included Pollo con Mole Verde (chicken in green mole sauce) and Mole de Olla, a spicy beef soup with fresh vegetables and hunks of corn on the cob. She never lets me pay, so I take Yesi shopping and am trying to get her to read an English story in one of the books that John gave her, so we can discuss it. She picked a story called The Jockey, primarily because it's only 4 pages long. Ha! I read through it quickly. It's going to be a tough read. There are many words I'm sure she doesn't know, including slang and some gambling concepts she's not familiar with.

Life in Mexico is falling, by itself, into an interesting routine of chatting with people, tutoring and being tutored, taking photos, and exploring the countryside.

Sign for a Zapatista store.

The Neon Madonna.

Two Brits.
In the afternoon, headed up the Andador to the Guadalupe church that is perched high on a hill, I ran across a couple of English women who'd broken off a tour and were a bit lost. They were climbing the steps to the church thinking there was an indiginous market up there, but it was the wrong church. I ended up spending the entire afternoon with them, gave them tea and some of that good marble cake around 5:00, and then we wandered down the street to see all the stuff for sale in the real indiginous market.

A very good Saturday indeed.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Ah how language changes. I overheard a young man tell someone: lo googliaba. Googlear is the verb for to Google!

And then there are the double entendres. John left Monday for the Oaxacan coast where there is a famous nude beach. In an email I asked if he'd found it, and he replied: Yes, I was hanging out there yesterday, literally.

Yesi and the big pit at Sam's Club.
My search for a teacher goes on. The little tienda, where Edith was supposed to be, was closed yesterday, but today is a new day. Edith is Arnulf's teacher and the one he recommended as a good tutor. Plus, there's Yesi. On Saturday, we'll go over an English story she is supposed to have read, and I'll have my past tenses corrected, again.

We had gone on a search for a goose neck lamp to a shopping center with Sam's Club as it's anchor. The big hole that John almost stepped into back in April, the one I told the store manager about, is still there, filled ever deeper with trash. I can see there was a real effort to warn drivers of its existence.....Can you imagine the damage to your car (not to mention the occupants flying forward) if you dropped a tire directly into that chasm?

And now, about that lamp. Yesterday, Linda came over for lunch. It was a beautiful afternoon, the garden was lovely, the sun was out but it wasn't at all hot. She gave me a tour of her lovely new home, the one she and hubby built after gutting an existing one. Her architect was exceptional. There are curved walls and curved furniture, lots of storage and very dramatic lighting. Their house is just up the street about a block, directly across the street from the house with the hummingbird mural. (See picture in the previous blog) The man in the painting was the father of the current owner. Three years ago, he lived in that house and died suddenly from a bad virus or bacteria in the gut. He went to the hospital with a stomach ache and three days later, left in a hearse. His son painted the mural in homage to his father. A lovely thought, a lovely tribute.

Linda and I walked all through the Centro and eventually found the Tiangis, the place where the organic produce market will be held Saturday morning. Linda and hubby are headed to the beach but her friend Laurie and I will go. The Tiangis (a common word used here for market place) is a large open area inside of a building, with a plastic roof. It's essentially outdoors while being sheltered from the rains. Without Linda pointing it out, I would never have found it on my own.

On the way back, the sun set and all the building were glowing; white, yellow and brown. The densely forested mountains were dark green against the pink and gold sky. It was simply gorgeous. We stopped at a couple of pharmacies to pick up things and passed by a little shop with a huge display of light bulbs just inside the doorway. On a whim, I went in to find......LAMPS!! Not many, but several styles of goose neck lamps, at far more than American prices. But I didn't care. Last night I got to read in bed for the first time, in comfort and joy. The simple things in life. What a pleasure!!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Buying STUFF

I know, I know. I told everyone that I was traveling light for 6 months in Mexico, cause it's a civilized country and you can buy anything you need. HA!!

John told me to bring an electric blanket. The sheer volume of it took up most of my suitcase but it was worth it. The nights here are quite cold and even with three layers of covers that electric blanket has been a God-send. He had told me there were none to be had here. I think he was right.

Malena's baby, Mateo (Yessi's little brother)
with one of the cooks at Malena's restaurant.
My search for a goose neck lamp goes on. Yesterday I hiked up the hill to the area north of the Santo Domingo outdoor produce market. There are a number of stores selling everything from plumbing pieces to plastic everything. The electric store had plugs, extension cords, light bulbs of every imaginable size and shape, but not one lamp. The furniture and appliance store had lamps but they were large ceramic affairs with gaudy lampshades. The cell phone and electronics gadgets store had the tiny clip on reading lights that require batteries, and one saleslady told me the kind I want does exist, but she had no idea where I might buy it. Yesi suggested the Office Depot in Tuxtla or WalMart. We even treked over to Bodega Aurera, a store that is owned (I think) by WalMart. You can certainly get a WalMart credit card there and they sell all the same type of merchandise, except lamps. The only lamp in that store was a clamp lamp, the kind mechanics use under the hoods of cars.

Hmmmm. I have a small goose neck lamp I bought for my Eastern Trip to use in the van, I could have brought it with me, if only I'd known.

On the other hand, all that shopping netted me other things the casita needed: a dish drainer, hangars, a potato masher, a clear plastic box with snap on handles, and for me, another pair of socks. At Bodega Aurera Yesi and I got all kinds of food and personal things like hair conditioner and shampoo for her mother. The trip wasn't entirely a lost cause. Malena (Yesi's mother) gave me a cellphone to use in Mexico. Yesi showed me how to charge it with minutes at the OXXO store. So now Malena can call me. I have a US cell phone which is cheap for me to use but not for someone in Mexico to call me. So far Linda and Malena have both sent texts and called, so it's come in very handy.

I met with Arnolf at Tierra Adentro for lunch and we had a nice visit. He told me about a Russian friend of his who was robbed by three men at Palenque. The Russian refused to hand over his back pack, so the robber whacked him in the head with a machete. He woke up in the hospital with stitches and a really bad headache. Back here in San Cristobal, he went to the hospital to get the stitches out, but since no one spoke English and he didn't speak Spanish, they sent him away. Arnolf, with his own limited Spanish, managed to find the Russian a doctor and get him fixed up.

The street I walk up to the mercado.


A sucker vendor.

Rebosos for sale.

Wonderful murals on the wall of a home.

Closeup of the mural.

I feel quite safe in MX, really, but I still take many precautions like not carrying much money with me, keeping my passport at home and carrying only a photocopy of it and the Visa, stashing money in pockets as well as in my billfold, and staying in fairly peopled areas. I think the Russian had gotten himself somewhat isolated for that to have happened. Yesi thinks it's funny that I want to be home by 8:30 at night. I told her I didn't like to walk at night because I don't see that well and might trip and fall. But that's only half the reason. And San Cris is not Palenque. It's a real town where little children in grade school walk home together without adult supervision, teenagers gather in groups on the streets and people sit outside of bars drinking till the wee hours. But I'm more cautious when I'm alone. With John off in Oaxaca, I'm a lot more careful.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Settling into a real life....

Monday I'd planned to enroll in one of several Spanish language schools, but the first one I went to gave me a bad feeling, like it was a rip off and there was little or no interest in the students, only in money.

I used to ignore feelings like that, on the pretext that feelings are not knowledge, but I've learned the hard way that my intuition is fairly good if I'll let it have full rein. The second and third schools simply were not findable. Google maps gave me a location, but there was no school there. Either they've gone under (maybe too interested in money than in teaching?) or the maps were wrong. So I've been left to my own device, which is to look up words a lot, write them down, and talk to Yesi, Malena's 16 year old daughter who somewhat reluctantly corrects my poor grammar.

The landmark cross in the Church Plaza.
Tuesday evening there was a movie that looked good; Maria, Full of Grace. The shows are in a small theater in the back of the Casa De Pan restaurant. At 6:00 there was an older white haired man standing by the door and as it turned out, we were the entire audience. It's a Columbian movie with English subtitles. And that was a good thing, because Columbian Spanish is difficult to understand, even for fluent speakers. They might as well have been speaking Portuguese.

It's an excellent movie about a 17 year old girl who is rebellious and gets conned into becoming a cocaine mule. She swallows about 60 pellets of cocaine and flies to New York. Other aspects of the plot, good and bad for her, is that she is pregnant and doesn't really want to have much more to do with the baby's father.

After the movie, that white haired gentleman and I decided to have dinner at Casa De Pan. Actually, he had tea as he'd already eaten. His name is Arnulf and he's a retired professor from Studtgardt, Germany, where he taught ethics. We had a wonderful conversation. He is also learning Spanish and has a private tutor, who is one of the teachers at the school I hadn't liked. He pays her directly about half what the school charged and is quite happy with her and his progress. I may have found my "school", as he is willing to introduce me to her and I'm more than willing to pay.

Just off the Andador Guadalupe is a used bookstore run by a black woman from New Orleans named Linda. She's just cute as a button with flared hair, sage colored eyes, and curvy figure. We've hit it off well, and she invited me to go to the organic market on Friday with her and a friend, and also to dinner. She lives a few blocks from the casita. In fact, she once lived in this same casita before she and her husband bought some property up the street. It was so run down and dilapidated that they cleared the lot and started over. I can't wait to see the new house they've built, especially after living in this much older place.

My room mate John 
John took off Monday and overnighted on a bus to one of the small resort towns on the Oaxacan coast. I don't know how long he'll be gone. He's expecting a friend to show up in a week or so and then the three of us may go to Guatemala. Meanwhile, Yesi and I have been hanging out. She speaks English mostly to me and I speak Spanish to her. Today we went to see a movie, The Tower Heist. I'd already seen it and it was good to see it dubbed in fast Spanish. English is a more curt language. It's hard to get an entire thought out in Spanish in the same timeframe as one English sentence, and the same goes for German which is even more curt. The dubbing was good, there were few lapses when Spanish was still coming out of someone's mouth but the mouth had already closed. On the other hand, the sheer speed of the speech made it very hard to follow.

On a domestic front, there are still a few things the house needs like a small lamp for reading in the loft. It appears that small reading lamps come in two forms, the kind that run on batteries and clip to your book, and the non-existant kind. So far not one electronics store, department store, or appliance store that Yesi and I visited today had a lamp. There is a clip on lamp with a goose neck in the kitchen which I will use in the loft until a more suitable one is found. I have no idea where that clip on light came from, or I'd sure go to that store!

Life is settling down. The town is showing itself to be an interesting place with many evening activities and colorful artesanal markets. I feel like I need to find something contributory to do. The Reading Train is almost kaput. John said the people running it were way more interested in making money from the tours. That would appear to be so. During the past weekend there were only a couple of tables and maybe 15 books out for the kids, no little peddle-trains for them to ride, and yet, the big "train" was running full of tourists. Sad to see. I had such high hopes for that project. (See post from April 10, 2011  Reading Train) Linda at the bookstore expressed sadness over it too.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Chiapa de Corzo

Chiapa de Corzo is a small town, almost encroached upon by Tuxtla-Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas. It sits on the banks of the Grijalva River which runs through Canyon del Sumidero, a national park and beautiful gorge with towering walls and lush vegetation. In order to get into the park, most people take a boat from the embarcadero in Chiapa de Corzo.

Every year the town celebrates from the weekend prior to the weekend after January 20th, which is Saint Sebastian's day. John and I boarded a bus and rode down the curvy autopista (toll road) to the town to see the festivities. It was about 20 degrees hotter at that much lower elevation than we were accustomed to in San Cristobal. We surely could have dressed more appropriately.

The town was packed solid with observers and participants in the parades. Music blared out of loudspeakers from amplified live bands, women wore colorful flared dresses and men were in  costumes representing the "Spaniards". The costume consisted of a strange helmet-like hat made from the stiff fibers of the maguay plant, a painted mask, black suits, scarves, and long colorful drapes. The parade moved in some predetermined pattern, sometimes groups of people stopped to dance before moving on. Every once in a while, with no warning, and apparently no concern for safety, someone would light a bunch of fire crackers. At the end of the parade, a couple of giant dancing puppets, a man and woman, kept time to a Mariachi band.

Los Mariachis
In the zocalo, a carnival was set up with dozens of rides, food vendors, outdoor restaurants, and game booths. The air filled with the odors of roasting corn, grilled meats, and burned popcorn. The whole town was so thick with people it was tough to move around.  After a meal of shaved beef wrapped in tortillas that had been cooked upright much like a Greek Gyro, we skirted the fair and wandered down to the river. Its banks are lined with restaurants. The empty tour boats sat anchored out in the river. Hawkers with pamphlets extolling the virtues of various tours trolled for customers. I picked up one flyer and only when we got home did I realize the 'tour' was only for attractions like the zoo and zip-lining at the park, no boat ride was included.

The day was short and night came too quickly. The bus took us to Tuxtla so we hopped off and went to Soriana, a major grocery-department store, not unlike WalMart. After an hour of shopping which was mostly wandering around, it was time to head home. Getting across six lanes of traffic without the benefit of a cross walk or a light, a typical pedestrian experience in Mexico, we were able to catch a bus headed back to San Cristobal.

People of all ages dressed for the parades.

Parade goers stopped to listen to a band.

Smoke from grilling meat,  the best advertisement!

A gaggle of girls in gorgeous dresses. 

The inside of those strange hats.

Man in Spaniard outfit. Note the
different faces on the masks.
Close-up of the men's costume.

A very tired Spaniard holding
his mask.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Music Men

First day in San Cristobal.....Lots of walking. The hills in town are nothing compared to the "pyramid" I lived on last April, that created calves of steel. But just street hiking requires major knee effort as the curbs are at least 10 inches and in many cases over a foot high.

San Cris is a colonial town, the buildings are OLD, made of stone and concrete. The sidewalks are slabs of various stones like granite and chert (slippery as greased snot when it rains) with just enough concrete to hold them in place. The height of the sidewalks has to do with the thickness of the stones, many are more than a foot thick.

By the end of a day of shopping for vegetables and fruit, wandering over the town familiarizing myself with it again, and meeting with Malena and her darling (now one year old) Mateo, my knees were achy and I felt OLD. But the day wasn't over.

Ladder leading to the loft, note the chopped
off top of the ladder. Good thing
it's also nailed to the beam.

The casita is a strange (by American standards) arrangement of rooms which all face out onto the courtyard. The bathroom is a narrow vault with double doors that ought to be left open as nothing airs out well in this humid climate. The large kitchen has a door to the living room, each with a door to the yard, and a second bedroom makes the leg of an L, with it's own entrance. Needless to say, leaving the place requires locking up several doors, including a large steel gate from the garden to the street.

John asked the maintenance guy to put a lock
on the interior door. But any thief with
a screwdriver can get in!!!
Also opening onto the yard are two other apartments with entrances on their opposite sides into a much more attractive garden. Apparently our garden was the "back" yard and treated as a step child by the gardener. It was overgrown with piles of rubble here and there, the poor potted plants were root bound, and the furniture was covered in spider webs. John got on his case and by the time I got here the place looked really nice.

It is, of course Mexico, where nothing is fixed unless it absolutely will not work, or has been destroyed, in which case, it might never be replaced at all. For instance, in the bedroom, there is a double bed and a loft accessible by a wooden ladder. My bed is in the loft. Some past resident put up plastic to cover the sloping roof and after one night I figured out why. The roof leaks. Not water but flecks of wood, dirt, balls of spider web mixed with dust, etc. Where there is no plastic, this 'crap' drifts down slowly until the entire bed is covered in brown and gray flecks. The ladder up to the loft is missing one 'hook', the bit of wood that actually goes over the top of the loft floor. Fortunately the entire thing appears to be bolted to the loft's frame so it's not likely to come crashing down with me on it.

The two other casitas are currently occupied by couples, one from Seattle and the other couple, Matt and Fran, are from the UK. They are living at-large in the world, having figured out a way to make a living from anywhere. Matt is a professional musician who transcribes music for a British firm, so he can do that via computers from anywhere. They purchased a round-the-world ticket and are headed to Australia and New Zealand this Thursday. San Cris has a fabulous music scene with many live performances in bars and restaurants at night. The less talented people are buskers in the streets and on busses.

The garden of the little house. Note the three
doors. Left is the bathroom, then the kitchen,
and on the far right, a bedroom. 

John loves music and usually has the i-pod/radio blaring in the kitchen. I'm sure when Matt was practicing, John went over and chatted him up. Matt and Fran have been here for two months, and during that time, Matt found an equally talented fellow to play with. They were warming up in his casita while I took a nap to their sweet music, then later we went to Entropia, a tiny little bar, to see them. It was amazing. They played off each other and innovated the themes so seamlessly, it was as if they'd been together for years, when in fact they had only played together three times prior to the concert.

Two glasses of wine and a long walk home zonked me out until 10:00 the next morning. Day number 2 was spent recovering with a bit more shopping. A block away is the Tres Pesos store. Like the Dollar Stores in the US, most of the plastic items are $3-10 pesos (way less than a dollar). I hauled home all kinds of goodies like a plastic container of needles, an eyebrow pencil, bucket, pitcher with lid and leaky spout, toothpaste, an apron, etc. Great haul for less than 50 pesos (4 dollars).

My 'loft' is under that sloped roof. 
Another nap later (I love being retired!!) we headed to the Andador Eclisiastico, a walking street, to attend an avant gard Jazz music festival. It was the first festival but the last night of it. The promoters would like to make it an annual event. At $120 pesos, the admission price was a bit steep for most of the locals. But (and this is very Mexican) they left the front doors wide open so the people walking past could hear the music for free! It was held in the same large auditorium where we'd seen Palenque Rojo back in April. That production ran its course and disappeared. I was a bit sad about that, it was one of the best dance productions I've ever seen, right up there with an off-broadway musical.

John, the music man, enjoyed the first group (Sophie y Los Papazuels) a lot and found the second one boring. I thought the whole thing way too loud, the room was freezing, and I had a stomach ache. So I stood in the far back and paced to keep warm. Sophie had an incredible voice and the bongo drummer was spectacular, able to make the bongos whisper love songs or pound like ocean surf. Their arrangements were way out in avant-gard-land and beyond my musical acumen or appreciation, though I certainly enjoyed much of it.

A busy two days in San Cristobal de las Casas....Vacation will soon be over, I enroll in Spanish classes on Monday.

(Turns out this blog has a map function, in case you want to see where this town is in Mexico. Click on the location below....)