News that is much more local to me: I heard the following from someone I met at Junax, the hostel for volunteers where I was staying: She went to Roberto Barrios, which is one of the 5 Caracoles, the seats of Zapatista Good Government. This community, unlike Oventic where I was, is mixed Zapatista and non-Zapatista (usually this means supporters of the PRI, the political party that ruled Mexico for 71 years till Fox took office). In many Zapatista areas they need foreign activists to be there as observers so that the Army or the paramilitaries don't commit human rights abuses. These volunteers are called 'Campamentistas.'
Anyway, usually it is muy tranquillo at these campamentos. The volunteers sit all day and watch the road and count how many army or police vehicles and personnel go by. If the authorities try to talk to them, they are supposed to act like the're just dumb tourists. Then they come back to San Cristobal and report what they saw. Usually it's boring, but comes with a good feeling, I'm told, that you're helping prevent further violence against Zapatista communities.
Usually. I was told, however, that last wednesday in Roberto Barrios a foreign campamentista was on her way to the bathrooms when some non-zapatista villager pointed a gun at her and told her they weren't wanted there. Later during the night a mob of villagers were throwing rocks at the house where the dozen or so volunteers were trying to sleep, and shouting threats.
Obviously the PRIstas don't want the campamentistas around, because they're stopping the paramilitaries and army from doing nasty stuff to the Zapatista people there. I think this is a new kind of thing going on in Chiapas. I haven't heard of peace campers being threatened before. My friend arrived a couple days after this happened. She and the other volunteers were told by Zapatista security that they should never go anywhere alone. Even when going to the bathrooms they should go in big groups. After a day or so she and several other volunteers there decided to leave.
A few others stayed. I hope they are alright.
While travelling its often hard to keep updated on world events, especially the admitedly somewhat obscure (for the U.S.) subjects that I try to keep track of when I'm home. But lately Bolivia has been erupting into action again, again mostly about the hydrocarbon policies - really really serious stuff going on there, and being in Latin America you get more news of Latin America. I've been following things as best I can for the last few days online, and today La Journada, the leading left-leaning national paper in Mexico, has a front page above the fold story about Bolivia. The situation is getting steadily more intense. Blockades are up in La Paz and now Cochabamaba. Military officers are getting fired by the army for saying in public on televison that the president should resign... I don't know if anyone has much of an idea what will happen, but big changes are afoot soon, I would say. So keep looking at Bolivia Indymedia (if you know spanish), or Jim Schultz's Democracy Center Blog, or Narco News, where mi amigo Luis Gomez is reporting from La Paz pretty regularly.
On the Chiapas Indymedia site is an english translation of the latest from El Sup, Subcommandante Marcos, responding to the football (soccer) team from Milan, Italy, which has accepted his challenge of a game with the Zapatista team. At the bottom of the page is the letter from Italy.
I've been reading almost nothing but Marcos' writing for the last week and this latest is in perfect form with his style of the last 11 years. He uses the letter as an excuse to make biting criticisms of Mexico's government, the U.S. base in Cuba, and even Governor Arnold in California. And he mentions his constant beetle companion, Durito, who wants the team's players arranged in single file instead of 3 ranks. Hilarious.
I hope this tournament really happens.
So I am back from Oventic as of 6pm last night, and back in San Cristobal. Here I will write about my week out in the country at one of the Caracoles, the seats of the Zapatista autonomous 'Buen Gobiernos'. My alter-travellerego-doppelganger Jacob has already written a lot more than I think I will about his experiences in the same place, about a month before me. He had a slightly different take, of course, but he described a lot and took lots of photos (as did I, but he has put more online than I want to take the time to do now), so if you haven't read his blog entries about it already you should now to get a more complete idea of the place...
(brief interrupt: In this cybercafe a table away is a REALLY dorky looking gringo with a straw porkpie hat, flipflops and Docker shorts drinking a can of Dos Equis as he surfs the web. One of the employees is whistling along with 'Dark Side of the Moon' playing on the stereo. outside the strains of a live mariachi band filter in from the street. Ah, its good to be back in San Cristobal.)
So, a brief primer on the Zapatistas: After their 12-day armed insurection in January 1994 and the ensuing armed counterattack by the Mexican military as it chased them through the jungle for months, destroying indigenous villages just for being in the way, things sort of settled down into a tense and long series of peace talks that started and stopped and finally in 1996 resulted in the San Andreas Accords, an agreement which the government never actually followed through on. President Zedillo actually never even submitted the treaty to Congress, much less made the legal changes neccesary to realize the accords.
Eventually new President Fox did submit them to the legislature but still things have not exactly moved forward too fast.
The Zapatistas didn't wait around for what they call the Bad Government to do what they demand, what the Accords demand. They went ahead with their part. Even before the accords were signed, they had set up what they called the Aguascalientes, which was a center of Zapatista effort and where talks and meetings with civil society would happen. The army destroyed it and the villagers there became refugees in their own country. Later the Zapatistas in response built 5 more Aguascalientes (they're named after the town in central mexico where the revolutionary forces met after the Mexican Revolution to finally get together and cooperate to bring order back to the country). Oventic was the first. Each Aguascalientes corresponds roughly to one region and one indigenous group. Oventic for example is Tzotzil. In La Realidad, another Aquascalientes, in 1997 ( i think) they had the first Encuentro, a massive meeting of people from all over the world to talk about how to fight neoliberalism and get the 3 things the Zapatistas are always demanding: democracy, liberty, and justice.
In 2003, the Zapatistas made news again by changing the Aguascalientes into 'Caracoles.' 'Caracol' means 'Snail,' and the community is modelled on the snail, in a way that I dont fully grok. (see the photo above, and 2 others I uploaded to my flickr page. just click on the photo) Its important to them and the Mayan worldview though, that a society is comparable to a snail. Each of the 5 Caracoles would be the seat of a Junta de Buen Gobierno. Each Junta has elected representatives from the municipalities that are clustered around that Caracol. Each municipality, really itself a cluster of villages and towns, has its own local government with 50 elected officials, presided over by a Consejo. They're elected by a huge general assembly ever 3 years or 1 1/2 years where people vote by voice.
Back in the Caracol, the representatives that form the Junta follow the will of the people to get things done in the community. There's a great saying they have, you see it on signs a lot, that translates to 'Here, the people order and the government obeys.' Whenever theres something that has to be decided, people go to the Junta house. Someone goes out and gets a quorum of Junta members and they go to the house and put on the Zapatista ski masks (no, people dont just wear them all the time in Zapatista land) and then let whoever needs them come in.
For example, when I got to Oventic, an hour ride in a collectivo (like a taxi but you share it with others and it only goes to predefined places, so its cheaper) away from San Cristobal, I had to wait 2 hours. Finally I was let into a building with 2 masked Zapatistas. They were from the government of the immediate municipality where Oventic is located. They asked me some questions and looked at the letter from the Mexican Solidarity Network and then let me move on to the next house, the house of the Junta. There were 6 masked people there. They asked me more questions and then gave me a stamped form and told me where the school was. So then I hauled my pack down the hill to the school, and met Efrain.
Efrain is the head teacher of the Oventic Language Academy. He's an amazing man, not only a language teacher but a philosopher poet mystic wiseman. He's also friends of a filmmaker friend of mine, Alex. When I first got there Efrain look at the form the junta had given me and got confused. It said 'Esteban', because the Junta seemed confused when I told them my name, like many spanish speakers seem at my name. So often I tell them Esteban. The Junta all nodded and said, 'ah, Esteban es mejor' (Esteban is better (than Steev)). But Efrain had 'Steev' written in his list of incoming students. Well, we got that straightened out and I found a place to sleep in the little dorm room full of other students (mostly from North Carolina), and then I and the other new students watched a little video about how the Zapatistas built the Oventic Aquascalientes (now Caracol). The video shows tons of army tanks and troops driving past the village and the people shouting angrily at them.
The point is that the Mexican government wanted the Zapatistas to sit around and wait for them to do nothing until the problem just went away. But the Zapatistas went ahead without waiting for handouts or some profound change in Mexican society or politics. They went ahead and started building the kind of society that they wanted, in their territories that the peace accords had ceded to them. And the Caracoles are where most of that is happening. The Caracoles are the space set aside for Civil Society (Civil Society? what's that, you ask, maybe, since even in the 'first world' the idea of civil society has mostly atrophied. Isnt there just the Executive, Judicial, and Legistlative, and then the mob of people that vote every 4-6 years, and that's it? no). Civil Society is the national and international group of people which the Zapatistas appealed to from the start in their uprising. If it wasn't for Civil Society, the Zapatistas surely would have been crushed by the Mexican Army's overwhelming armed force. But the people of Mexico and the world spoke up and said, no, we want you to stop fighting and settle this matter peacefully.
So Civil Society has this space in the center of the snail, so to speak. that is where foreigners can come, meet with Junta, and in the case of Oventic, go to school. Also in the Caracol are the headquarters of various productive cooperatives, like a coffee growers cooperative, a weaving one, one that makes really nice Zapatista leather boots, etcetera.
At the school foreigners who pass through the accreditation process run by the Mexico Solidarity Network may study Spanish or Tzotzil. Last week I was there with 7 other students. One was studying Tzotzil and the rest were learning spanish. I was the third most advanced of the spanish students, after Andreas, a guy from Switzerland who is a really cool computer/video geek and who was also spending the week fixing all the Caracol's computers, and Coqui, a young punky activist woman from Asheville, NC. The others were all basically still beginning students who didnt know any of the language at all when they got there. Which kind of surprises me.
The main thing to understand about the school in Oventic is that it's not really a language school. I mean, you learn some Spanish or Tzotzil, but its mostly about something else: learning about the Zapatistas, about the indigenous culture, and the Zapatista/indigenous way of looking at reality. And, its a yet another way to support the Zapatistas - the money you pay helps support the secondary school that the Zapatista kids go to right there in the same complex of buildings.
But if you want to go there just to learn Spanish you'll be frustrated and disappointed. I had learned this earlier, so I knew what to expect, but I was still frustrated sometimes, by this and other related matters. I kept comparing the experience to my experience at the Escuela de la Montana in Guatemala. I wanted to go out and see how these people lived. I wanted to eat in their homes and hike around the area. None of these things are possible. The Caracol is where internationals can be, not in the communities. And you can't just wander around the country, because its dangerous. In a sense the Zapatista people are still in a state of war. The army and the police and the paramilitary groups that they support are still out there doing horrible things from time to time, and foreigners who are suspected of being involved with the Zapatistas can be deported - this doesnt happen much anymore but it is possible, and often the advice you get is to act like you dont know spanish and youre just a stupid tourist if the police or army question you.
So, at the school you're basically confined to a small little area about the size of 2 football fields. One street where the Junta and other buildings are, and the school grounds at the end of the street. So when you're not in class (and class is only 2 hours a day), you just sit around and read, or talk (and the attitude of most of the other students was not very studious, so no one really practiced speaking spanish amoungst themselves outside of class).
I got a lot of reading done, and I listened to a lot of cynical complaining about Asheville, North Carolina, and participated in various conversations comparing Portland's activist scene to Asheville's. And I walked around taking photos of the huge numbers of murals in town. Every day there was 2 hours of class and one hour or more of some activity - watching a documentary, learning and singing Zapatistas songs, and taking a tour of the medical clinic there, and one day we went to San Andreas, the town where the peace accords were signed, and met with the Zapatista government there.
The 2 hours of class were great, especially because I had Efrain for a teacher. I shared the class with 2 other students, so that was another difference from teh school in Guatemala that was sort of frustrating. When you're used to one on one, undivided attention of the teacher for 5 hours and then you get a shared class for 2 hours, its pretty different. Especially when the other students are quite a bit lower level. I'm sure I helped them a lot with vocabulary, at least.
But again, as I accepted quickly, its not about learnign Spanish. In fact, to avoid further surprised and disappointed students in the future, the should stop even calling it a Language School. It should just be called the Intergalactic Zapatista Political Philosophy Academy for Internationals. I'm not being cynical, I assure you. Like I said, I accepted the situation, and I still got a lot out of it. I was happy to be supporting the Zapatistas, and to be learning more about them. and the classes with Efrain really were great, not for the grammar but for the philosphy, because Efrain really is a very profound, smart, wise man who is very passionate about the ideals of the Zapatistas and teaching others about them in a very mystical way, full of riddles and enigmatic discussion.
The fact that I was able to have these conversations reasonably efficiently is some evidence of my progress at Spanish, I suppose. And certainly linguistic concepts were a wonderful springboard into very deep other subjects. For instance, we learned that the Zapatistas always stress using the active voice rather than passive voice in their communications. Zapatistas would never say, 'The village was destroyed.' They would say 'The army destroyed the village.' the passive voice hides the responsible party, the active agent of the action being performed.
We also had an amazingly deep and mindboggling conversation about the subjunctive mode, and why english doesn't make as much use of it as spanish. What does that mean, culturally, socially? We all admit by now that language has alot to do with the culture that speaks it. But is it the chicken or the egg? Is English the language of capitalism by accident, or did England and then the U.S. become 'masters of the universe' partially because of their language, so precise and streamlined and easy to describe cold hard facts and numbers and monetary amounts? Contrarily, As a mexican woman in Livingston told me, Spanish is like dancing. And the mayan languages are even more different. Efrain told us that in Tzotzil there are no direct objects, only subjects. And there's only one pronoun, or something like that.
The point is that we were delving deep into the fabric of reality there. It was great stuff. If I had signed up for that, it would have been that much greater. But I had signed up for Spanish. Again, I AM NOT COMPLAINING. I'm just saying, right now in my life my priority is learning Spanish. Knowing mayan philosophy is not going to help me conduct better interviews with the mothers of dead mexican girls. Spanish will. So, for that reason, I decided one week in Oventic is enough. This coming week I'm going to enroll in for a week at a school here in San Cristobal, where I can get one on one instruction, lots of it, and stay with a mexican family i can practice talking with.
Then my plan is to get a bus to Mexico City, meet some Indymedia 'kids' there (I'll blog more soon about what I call 'the kids phenomenon') and hang out there for a few days. Then head to the coast just to get a couple days of beach time at Mazatlan, and then north to Juarez, by June 15 or so.
Wow, its amazing how the list of blogs on Indyblogs has ballooned in the last few months, I think as a result of the Indyconference in February. When the story about the conference appeared on the global site, about a month later, with links to indyblogs and my blog and other bloggers that were there, a bunch more imcistas were like, hey, i have a blog too!
Anyway, that was an aside before even starting. Uh... anyway, pues si... oh yeah, i was going to talk about my plans. I think maybe ive been reading too much stuff by Subcommandante Marcos, his style of tangents and postscripts and riddles is perhaps rubbing off...
So, I feel a lot better today. Its quite amazing. The cough is still with me, of course, like an old friend. But the other stuff is mostly disappeared. So, I'm going ahead with my original plan and going off to the village of Oventic tommorrow morning.
Oventic is one of the seats of the Juntos de Buen Gobierno, 5 places of governance which the Zapatistas set up in 2003. It was also the 2nd Aguacaliente, a gathering place where they invited people from the rest of mexico and the world for a conference, i think in 1995 or 1996. I'm still a little hazy on exactly what happened when in the 20 year history of the Zapatistas (yes, 21. they started organizing in secret in 1984, 10 years before they hit the spotlight on january 1, 1994). But I've now, just this week, seen 3 documentaries and am reading a new book called Ya Basta! which is the collected communiques of Marcos, I think everything he wrote for the public since 1994 that was not fiction (he also wrote some collections of stories, and also some children's books). He's an amazing writer, with a really playful but intellectual style.
Anyway, pues si, I am going to Oventic and the conditions will be rustic, as they say, so i may not be online again for a week. My original plan was to be there 2 weeks. But I have heard even more than I heard before that the school there is good for learning about the Zapatistas but not the greatest for spanish. So I might come back after a week and go to a school here in San Cristobal. Or I might stay in Oventic. And even if so, I will probably come into town on the weekend anyway. its only 40 minutes away, i hear.
I'll be sleeping in a hammock and i hear its really great and muy tranquilo. Jacob from SD indymedia wrote about it in his blog, he was there about a month ago. (livejournal doesnt seem to have permalinks to individual blog entries, stupidly enough, so i cant link you straight to the oventic entries he wrote. just scroll down till you find them, if youre interested. he wrote a lot.)
oh, other news: I met Paco from Chiapas Media Project and showed him and a few people from Chiapas Indymedia the rough cut of my Juarez documentary. They had lots of really great comments and advice about it. The mexicans brought up some stuff that was totally right on, that I hadnt thought of before and was embarrassed about, but I had never thought what a Mexican audience would think of it. I was always thinking of the audience as being all gringos. and still i think the majority will be. but it would be nice if the film didnt totally offend and alienate mexicans, no? claro.
Yesterday I went over to the office of Chiapas Indymedia to let Paco make a copy of my Bolivia DVD. He said it would be very interesting to the indigenous people here that he works with. I'm glad I could bring it here to yet another interested audience. Then we went over to Timo's house (Timo is part of Chiapas Indymedia) to watch the first cut of a video that he and Nancy are workign on about International Financial Institutions like the World Bank and IMF. Its going to be good. They have a lot of work still to do but its a good project.
So, yeah, just so ya know, i'm fine, and not seeing a blog entry for a week doesnt mean ive died of dysentary (neccesarily), it just means i'm out in the campo. (country) Hasta luego!
So, as you know, Ive been sick. During this whole trip Ive been sick at some level and type. Lately Ive been dealing with this respitory thing that I get every winter (this time it came a little later in the season). But Ive found I could hold it off and be somewhat comfortable by just taking a lot of drugs - cough syrup, pseudephedrine (sudafed), and acetomeniphen (tylenol).
But its always annoying looking for this stuff at farmacias. All the names are different, brand names of course but even chemical names are sometimes difficult to decipher. I go into a farmacia and ask for somethign for a cough and they bring all this stuff out that I have no idea what it is. Then I just say, tienes dextromethorphan? and they go oh, si, claro, and go back and bring something else out. Also you just cant get pure pseudephrine, in Guate or Mexico. Its always got some other shit in it, either a pain reliever or i dont know what else. But, it works at least.
However, speaking of pain relievers, I cant find acetomeniphen here. It just doesnt exist. I found it in Guatemala, both generic and in Tylenol. But here in Mexico even when you ask for Tylenol they bring you Tylenol that has Parecetemol in it instead. What the fuck? Is it just not sold in all of Mexico? is it illegal, banned? In my experience Paracetemol doesnt work too well. I guess I'll get some ibuprofen, but that doesnt help with a fever. Fucking annoying.
To top it all off yesterday I started getting stomach problems. Just typical travellers digestive ailment, probably, but more serious than before so far on this trip, and I was already sick. Isnt there some rule that you cant have 2 illnesses at the same time? hah. right.
During the past night I was feeling bad enough that if I still feel that bad on monday I dont think I'll go to Oventic like I was planning, whcih would suck. I might have to just hang around San Cristobal a few more days, because Oventic is out in the country and having all these medical problems there would not be good. Maybe I'll study spanish here instead.
It just sucks being sick, especially when youre travelling. especially for 2 months.
Well, yesterday I had another amazing thing happen. I was walking around town again, on my way to get my laundry, actually, and I was right about in the same place, by the bookstore, where my amazing coincidence the previous day had happened. And I hear this voice say my name. I looked around and couldnt see anyone that looked like they were talking to me. Then someone said it again and I was better at figuring out where it came from. A woman, a gringa, was standing there that I didnt recongize at first and she said 'your name is steev, right? we met in Buenos Aires last year.' It was Jen, from Virginia Indymedia, who I had indeed met in Buenos Aires. Wow. I was almost speechless from surprise.
I told her about the Chiapas Indymedia office and she decided to walk along with me there. We caught up on stuff as we walked. She'd been travelling in Mexico for 3 months and was in San Cristobal working at Chiapas Peace House. Wow. I think I'll go back to that same block again now and see what happens today. hah.
I have been on the computer for about 3 hours now so I need to make this quick and wrap this up. I have actually been doing some remote programming work, believe it or not. Just a little, for a friend. He said he would pay me, and would be proud to say these cgi scripts will be 'hecho en Chiapas' (made in Chiapas). Also I just uploaded some photos again, just a few highlights. The one to the left is an example of the huge profusion of grafitti and stencils in San Cristobal, much of it political. Click through to my flickr pages and check out the latest 6 photos.
Sometimes the most amazing coincidences, luck, fate, or will of some higher being happen. For all indymedia people everywhere, a rule of thumb - when travelling, or at least travelling to a place with an Indymedia Center, always have a patch, sticker, t-shirt or something on you that has the name of your local collective, or at least advertises the fact that you do Indymedia work.
My experience yesterday is a perfect case in point. It was truly incredible. In the morning I went to find the office of Chiapas Indymedia (its address was given me by my friend Marcos from New Mexico Indymedia). It was difficult locating it because I dont seem to understand the way the street numbering system works here. But by asking people on the way I figured it out. The office is in a larger building, which I thought at first was a private residence. There were some sleepy looking people washing up and they told me, after I managed to convey what I was looking for, that no one was in the office yet. (I kept asking, at first, for Chiapas Centro de Medios Independentes and they didnt understand till I said Chiapas Indymedia. heh.) I saw the door plastered with indymedia stickers from various other places and a sign with their hours. They were due to be open a little later so I said I would come back.
So, I went walking around, intending to kill a little time (it was about 11am), have lunch somewhere, then go back and see if anyone was there. Bookstores are always a great place to kill time for me, so when I ran across one I stopped in. Another customer stared at me for a second, maybe he was noticing my coca-cola parodying 'anti-capitalista' t-shirt. I smiled and then turned around to look at books, and when i turned back, the guy and a woman were standing there looking at me and she said, 'perdon, vienes ahorita de Guatemala?' (did you just come from Guatemala?) Astounded I said yes, and she introduced herself as Luz. She was the person from Chiapas Indymedia who I'd been corresponding with for the last few weeks! She had seen my Portland Indymedia patch on my backpack when I turned around, and that's how she guessed it was me. She introduced the guy as Timo, also from the IMC there. Amazing. Luz asked if I'd found a place to stay and I said the hotel I was at was not good and I was looking for somewhere else. So she told me that the place where their office was might have space for me. Then she said she was going to Guadalajara for a few days but would see me later, perhaps. Timo said he'd be at the office later that day, and they left.
After lunch I went back to the place and it turns out that the building is a sort of hostel for volunteers and activists working in San Cristobal. Its called Junax and I would recommend it to any IMCistas or others active in social movements who come here. Its at 17 Ejercito Nacional, near the interesction of Calle Cristobal Colon. The woman that runs it, Carmen, is very nice and the place is super comfortable, clean, and beautiful. There are a couple of dorm rooms and many smaller rooms that are all occupied but I happen to have one of the dorms all to myself. There's hot water and access to the kitchen and a nice sitting room, and best of all the indymedia office is right there.
It reminded me a bit of Postal Station 40 in San Francisco, where 3 indybay people live, a block from the offices of Indybay, Whispered Media, and Enemy Combatant Radio. Its much more legit and less dusty than Postal Station 40, but it has a similar feel, a communal atmosphere with many people around working on important socially helpful stuff.
Later in the evening I met Timo and Adolfo at the office and we talked a bunch and I got online from there.
So, I am just super pleased with my luck, especially after being in a really ratty, moldy, musty hotel the first night. I guess I will knock on wood now and hope I will have a similarly nice and fortunate day today. I think I will wander the city a bit more, do some laundry, maybe get a haircut, maybe try to hook up with a guy from the Chiapas Media Project, and maybe climb up to the church of Guadalupe, up high on a hill to the west side of town. Yesterday I went up to the San Cristobal church, also up high but to the east. It was nice but cloudy. Today it's sunnier so it should be a better view.
Following the example of Jacob, another IMCista blogger from San Diego who is in this part of the world too (and is in fact almost doing the inverse of my itinerary - he was in Chiapas and then went to Guatemala. maybe we'll meet when he comes back to mexico), I am going to blog a bit about what Ive been reading.
Local papers are always a great way to get to know a place and here a great way to practice spanish, so I've been reading Prensa Libre a lot. Its the national, sort of slightly left mostly center intelligent newspaper, as opposed to Nuestra Diario, which is the other big national paper but is almost exclusively lowbrow stories about murders and car crashes and photos of pretty girls. Easier to read, but not too interesting. Prensa Libre is actually very interesting, lots of stories you would never see in a gringo newspaper and a usually good, nuanced angle on the TLC (CAFTA) and other important issues. However according to one of my teachers at the Mountain School, their columnists are all over the political map, several are rather conservative.
Today I took the 730 am bus from Tapachula to San Cristobal. It was 8 hours but pretty comfortable except that I didnt eat anything. I guess I expected the bus to take a lunch stop or that the vendors that are ubiquitous in Guatemala that get on the bus and sell food and drink would provide me with something, but none appeared on this one, I guess because it was too first-class. But it was way better than anything I rode in Guate. a bathroom (which worked, unlike Bolivian buses that have them but they're always broken). Air-conditioning. hardly anyone on it. movies (not good movies, but oh well). The only other problem is that the road up into the highlands was insanely curvey and for the first time since childhood i was getting pretty queasy, i wasnt even trying to read. But that passed.
Anyway, I made it to San Cristobal at about 4pm and found a cheap hotel and bought a leftwing national Mexican paper, La Jornada. Its pretty great, though the trade off is that the deeper the political analysis the harder the Spanish is for me to decode. But the greater the motivation is too.
I've been trying to meet up with people from Chiapas Indymedia but the 2 people I have personal addresses for, Paco and Luz, have not answered lately. I think tonite or tommorrow morning I will just go over to the space they have, which I have the address for, and see if I find anyone. It would be great to get a place to crash while I'm here.
To get back to reading material - when I've not been poring over newspapers or my guidebooks, the last 2 books I read were 'First World Ha Ha Ha!' and '100 Years of Solitude.' The first is an anthology I picked up in Xela that collects short essays by dozens of different writers about the Zapatista uprising. Its a great book and I learned a lot, though its now 10 years old and i'm itching to find out more about more recent EZLN events.
The second aforementioned book is the great and famous novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombian Nobel Prize-winning author. Cien Aņos de Soledad is a long complicated fantastic history of the fantastic Buendia family and the town that Jose Arcadio Buendia helped found. The book traces 5 or 6 generations of this ill-fated clan and their fairy-tale like exploits. Its full of tall tales, subtle commentary on latin american culture, and veiled allegories to actual political events, though the story takes place in some never-named land that borders the Carribean Sea. The characters all have similar names so you have to keep referring back to the complicated family tree diagram at the beginning of the book. There's incest, bestiality, 32 civil wars, a rainstorm that lasts 4 years, mystical searches for alchemical inventions, an insomnia plague, magical gypsies, ghosts of ancestors, and an evil banana company that slaughters thousands of employees. Its a really sad and disturbing yet whimsical and hilarious and profound book. Someday I want to read it in Spanish.
San Cristobal is muy muy amable (very agreeable). Pleasant. There are lots of tourists, but not as many as in Antigua. Theres a big university here too, which locates here a bunch of the most hippyfreaky young mexicans that I've ever seen. And the signs of political radicalism and Zapatismo are omnipresent. There's a hunger strike going on in the Zocalo just down the street right now. I don't fully understand what its about, something to do with protesting the relocation of people here. There are cute little kids in the Zocalo selling little dolls of the Zapatistas. A little girl came up to me a while ago and showed me a little doll of a horse with 2 black-masked figures on it. 'Este es Marcos, y este es Ramona' she said, pointing out 2 of the most well-known figures in the EZLN. The horse and 2 riders was too big to carry around but I ended up buying a little Marcos one just to satisfy her. They're really cute and funny. Each one is holding a tiny wooden rifle, or a piece of wood shaped vaguely like a rifle.
I have the feeling that San Cristobal was already a tourist heavy place even before the Zapatistas took it over for 30 hours on January 1, 1994, but that event and those following provided another rich source of material on which to base more locally crafted souvenirs for foreign purchase. It feels like at least half the gringos here are just normal tourists, here just for the pleasantness, on their way to the Yucatan or whatever, and the rest are more socially concious types that are here specifically because of the political situation.
The army is definitely a constant presence in Chiapas. The police or the army stops buses regularly and searches. Once right after the border on the bus to Tapachula yesterday an army dude searched my daypack. But he didnt search my big pack. Same with the soldiers at customs. What the hell? Why only search my little pack? I could be carrying 20 kilos of coke or 6 submachineguns or a stack of childporn or a suitcase nuke in my big pack, and you're not gonna even open it up? are you stupid? Or is it all just a sham? The cursory search of the one bag is just for show so that they appear to be doing something. Just like security in U.S. airports.
Its all just simulacra.
No, not that border. Mexico's other one, with Guatemala. I just crossed it today and am now in Chiapas.
(Before I continue I should just throw this very important link at you, more wonderful hijinks from those political pranksters the Yes Men.)
Pues si, so anyway, I left the mountain school this morning a little sad. It was such a wonderful experience and I learned an incredible amount. The best thing this week in my spanish studies, i think, is something you cant really put on a curriculum - i feel like i got considerably better at understanding when people are talking to me, which used to be what i considered my weakest point. Of course now that i am in Mexico i'm a little worried that people here will be much harder to understand since everyone says they seem to talk a lot faster and less clearer than Guatemalans.
At this moment I'm in Tapachula - i just wrote all this in my journal in spanish, but for your sake i'll translate- about 20 kilometers into Mexico from the Guatemalan border. I thought, till a few days ago, that I could get all the way to San Cristobal, but then discovered after reexamining my guidebooks that it would be too far to do in one day. So I took it easy and stopped here. It was still a 9 am to 4pm process (I did lose one hour befcause Mexico observes daylight savings time and Guate does not).
1 pickup, 1 minibus, 1 chickenbus, one tricycle-taxi that charged too much biking me across the border bridge, and one airconditioned mexican bus from the border to here (I like mexico already!), and I made it to this raindrenched but muy amable city. the streets are filled overflowing with rainwater but the rain stopped and i am at a cybercafe after having just had a delcious dinner at a place right on the Plaza Hidalgo, the central square of Zocalo as they say in Mexico. 4 mole enchiladas, a cappucino, and a mineral water for about 6 dollars. Cheap but I spent way too much on the rest of the day. It almost happens on travelling days, especially on border crossing days, cuz you dont know where stuff is, and hence whether to pay for stuff like taxis or walk, and then if its rainy of otherwise inhospitable sometimes you stop at a hotel thats more expensive that you otherwise might stay at.
esta bien. its okay.
Tommorrow, a 9-hour bus ride into the highlands and to San Cristobal, which is sort of the cultural capital of Chiapas, sort of a hip city, i hear, and where Chiapas Indymedia has an office. I hope to hook up with them this week. Then next week back to studying spanish, this time in Oventic, the Zapatista spanish school.
Hola from Coatepeque, Guatemala. I had to come here, a medium sized city about a 50-minute ride from the school, because i need more cash to pay for next week's classes, and the nearest ATM is here. Its quite a bit lower in altitude so its hot and steamy and has a different culture than the mountain highlands towns.
Everything is going absolutely great at the Mountain School, except for the small detail that my stupid cough, my mystery respiratory thing that happens to me once a year and holds on like a claw around my lungs for months, is still with me. it receded while i travelled in the hot humid atlantic coast area, but getting back to the highlands brought back the cough. it started feeling better a few days ago but then wednesday it got worse again when i went on a hike to this cool volcanic lake on top of a mountain where sacred stuff was happening for Ascension Day - the day Jesus supposedly ascended to heaven, 40 days after Easter. Mayan people gather at the lake and burn stuff and set up little altars and stuff. Very holy stuff. It was super beautiful, fog rolling in and out of the crater above the lake every few minutes. But the ride and the hike up and in were brutal, and my lungs just hated me for it.
So since then the cough is bad again. I dont feel like its really bad aor painful or serious. Its just annoying, needing to cough all the time and annoy people around me like my roomate trying to sleep, for example.
It just really really sucks something like this to mar what is a challenging situation already but ultimately one that, if I was fully fit and robust I would get more out of it.
But, I am learning a lot of spanish. Theres tons of stuff pouring into my brain i have to keep practicing and reviewing it all or it will go no where. but i think i can do that. its really really great.
I'm writing this from an internet cafe in Columba, a little town in the coffee-producing western highlands region of Guatemala. This is my second full day at the Mountain School, a project of PLQE, the school in Xela where I was before. They started this second school out in the country at what used to be a finca, a coffee plantation. The income from the school helps the 2 little villages that are right next to the school, called Fatima and Nuevo San Jose. Its an incredibly poor community, only about 40 or so families total. Many of them make less than minimum wage for Guatemala, and almost all the men work on coffee plantations nearby.
The school is great. Classes are like at the school in Xela, one on one, either 4 hours in the morning or 4 in the afternoon. The classes are in these cute little huts with thatched palm frond roofs out in the 'yard'. The school also has a little building it uses for special events and meetings for the community, and it raises chickens to sell the eggs.
We students at the school sleep at the school, 2 per room, but we have meals with different families in these villages. Its an incredible experience, getting to know these people who live in a totally different way than most of us have ever seen up close. The family I eat with lives in a cinderblock house with a corrugated steel roof. It has a little front room, a kitchen in back, and about 3 bedrooms off to the side. There's a grandmother named Pabla who does most of the cooking, her daughter, Wilma and Wilma's husband, Eddie, and Pabla's son Carlos. Then there's a little boy, francisco, and a little girl, Yasmi, who are Wilma's, and then 2 little cousins, a boy and girl, but I'm not sure whose kids they are or if they sleep there or just hang out and eat.
The men, like i said, work at the plantations, and are gone all day, from 5 am to about 5:30 pm. Meanwhile the women cook, clean, make tortillas (Pabla and Wilma said they make about 100 a day between them), and haul wood. This wood hauling is the most amazing thing. You see women all day walking down the road with these HUGE bundles of sticks, probably waying about 80 pounds, on their backs. ropes from the bundle go around and to a little piece of cloth that goes on the woman's forehead, and that's how they haul the wood. The need so much wood because that's what they use to cook with. All the cooking is done over a wood fire with a big metal plate over it that they put pots or pans on.
The kids who are 7 or older go to a little school right in the village, and i think older high school age kids go somewhere else, like maybe here to Columba, about 10 km away. younger kids run around in the dirt streets and are very friendly and entertaining. Everyone is really friendly, actually. apparently the language school has really done good things for and has established a great rapport with the villages.
The natural surroundings are incredible. Its like the classic archetypal tropical mountain jungle thing. The climate is mild, not too cold, not too hot, and it rains every afternoon on and off, sometimes pretty hard, but mostly just a light warm drizzle. Its great to be away from the cities, the pollution and noise and stuff. Its pretty relaxing and I feel like the environment is helping me learn more and faster, or maybe its because i'm not as sick as before.
So, that's the basic lowdown on the mountain school.
They are all pretty well described on my Flickr pages so just take a look there. I wont really say much more about them, other than to say they are all out of order, because I couldnt figure out how to define the order to upload them. Plus the software I used seems to have not preserved the data for each photo, like the date and stuff. Oh well.
Today I am heading out to la Escuela de la Montaņa, like i think i mentioned yesterday. I found out that there is a village 30 minutes away with an internet cafe, so maybe i will be getting online more than i thought. Which is good and bad, know what I mean?
Anyway, enough. I have my usual computer internet cafe headache. Chao.