Off back to freezing Britain on Monday. Looking forward to finding some new music as it’s been a while with the same old records. I might just start with these people, who played a fantastic set at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass at the beginning of October down there in the pines of Golden Gate Park:
December 10, 2011
A list of things I’ve lost or had nicked on this jaunt, in chronological order:
one Japanese Spa Minerals roll-on deodorant,
one half-full bottle of Herbal Essences shampoo of a pretty vile green colour,
a pencil case full of teacher’s markers (used to make hitch-hiking signs), assorted company biros
and all the unwanted treasures of departed classrooms.
one pair of nail clippers,
one MUCH BELOVED railwayman’s beret, with harlequin triangles of velvet and tweed,
and a whorled motif of a violin (ALAS! t’was purchased at the West Village Market in Asheville, of local origin).
one MASTA helath passport with a yellow fever certificate:
(that may cause problems for future trips).
sixteen hundred Mexican pesos,
an appetite for maize-based fodder,
and a light green t-shirt with an elephant print (sorry Leo!)
December 8, 2011
Good morning blog readers, from a wet, wet Palenque. Everywhere the rainforest is dripping, hammering on to the iron roofs of all the backpacker cabañas and the palm fronds of the bars, on the tarpaulin covers of all the little horse trucks ferrying people between town, the hippie hangout of El Panchan, and the Mayan ruins.
I’m back on the gringo trail proper after a bit of a detour south to a remote lake in the Montes Azules region, near the Guatemalan border. After being surrounded by gringos, mochileros and ex-pats in San Cristóbal I wanted to try to do something different, to recapture a bit of that spirit of uncertainty and the less travelled road that I feel I’ve lost touch with since leaving the ‘States. So, following the recommendations of a writer and walker by the name of John Noble (Jo will get the reference if she’s reading), I hopped into the back of a colectivo truck amidst the mad clamour of an Ocosingo market Sunday to follow the long, dusty road south into the Lacandon jungle.
Gripping tightly a rickety wooden bench, surrounded by legs of boys balanced on the roof frame, I watched little Zapatista villages spin away: glimpses of the campesinso collective stores, EZLN graffiti, murals of ‘Che. Smoky fires burned inside simple huts, women in wonderful rainbow shawls of flourescent rings turned to stare at our vehicle reproachfully, or looked away. Everywhere children and chickens tripped between the grass and the dusty road.
As evening arrived, the road got worse and worse. Our driver cut the engine as we rolled over lumps of rock, listening to the creaking of the axles and the humming from the undergrowth. You could see the war of ideas taking place over these lands: in almost all of these little hamlets were government billboards proudly recording investments and improvements. Beside the simple signs and notices made by the locals, brand-new bright green waymarkers looking a little out of place on that rutted path. There were military bases too, often positioned just around the bend from some mountain community, proclaiming order, modernity, surveillance. Indeed, at my destination, 5 hours down road, there was a huge base on a wide, gravel airstrip. An enormous Mexican flag hung over the jungle, white doubled over red in the still air. Clean, familiar-looking apartment blocks rose from inside the base’s perimeter, seeming to defy the surrounding walls of vegetation and the roar of wildlife. On the back of the colectivo, I’d got chatting to a soldier called Ismael from Veracruz, travelling back to the base at San Quintín. He was dressed in a smart shirt, carried a laptop bag and fiddled with an impressive mobile phone as we bounced over the remote passes. He was a nice guy with a good laugh – curious about my travels and telling tales of his lonely Christmases spent in Chicago, where he once worked illegally in a warehouse. Not exactly the unthinking bully you expected after seeing the EZLN film.
At Ejido Emiliano Zapata I rented a little cabaña. Sitting outside it and smelling the strange night, I suddenly saw a movement. The furry legs, and then body of a tarantula edging out of a gap in the concrete…
Laguna Miramar is reached by a wide, muddy way covered in hoof prints. You pass little maize plantations cut of the trees: Ceiba, with their huge smooth trunks of silver, Mahagony, and the eerie, deathly forms of Strangler Fig. Strange bird calls ring from the canopy. The last stretch of the track is through a humid tunnel: a messy, hacked-out stretch where vines dangle and insects buzz on dirty pools. Finally, in the advancing semi-circle of light is a turquoise gleam and beached canoes. The gentle lap of forgotten water! The lake stretches away on all sides, around cracks and coves and across to the hazy green throng, clambering all over the far ridges of the opposite shore. When I arrived, a local vigilante was sprawled out in a hammock, next to a quietly smoking fire.
With the help of a sprightly local kid, I took a canoe out on the deep and bright waters. We followed a little gulley at the edge, and then were clambering past a honeycomb of incredible caves and pits, squeezing through fern and creeper. Monkeys and tapirs rustled in the upper world, toucans hopped a branch in the brightness, while down in our morbid reaches bats circled . There are semi-excavated remains around the lake, as well as carvings and paintings on the enormous leaning rock faces. Rodrigo even spun a story about there being some kind of temple or burial site, whose entrance was deep in the cave system. “There is one man who knows where”, he said, flinging a finger across the lake. “He lives in another village, but… he is scared now, he will not come back”. The lad claimed to have found gold coins at another place nearby, and kept pestering me for the value of gold in different countries.
Whether it’s fiction or not, I’m having a pretty good time. I’ve just landed straight into my own Temple of Doom. As we’re crawling and ducking and inching around dark holes, branches scraping at arms, I’m planning out the whole thing. Come back with a bit more money, get the locals on side, tools will be needed of course … but, who to tell first? I feel the pull of the treasure, the gold madness rushing through me.”Take me to the riches, my boy!”
“¿Lo que pasó con el Rambo era verdad, no?” * he chirps, slashing at the floor absent-mindedly with his machete.
* “What happened to Rambo was true, wasn’t it?”
December 2, 2011
San Cristóbal de las Casas is a name that travels far. Up here in the chilly mountains of south-eastern Mexico, its indigenous cultures are still flourishing and you hear a lot of Tzotzil and Tzeltal along with Spanish, sitting out in the sunshine in front of the cathedral. Soft, clipped tones like the clatter of a typewriter from women in thick woolen skirts and beautifully patterned shawls, village specific. Babies tied round backs in a swathe of bright cotton.
This place was where the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) took to the political stage on January 1st, 1994 with a declaration of war on the Mexican state. Their story since then has been an example to oppressed and neglected people around the world of how a well-organised and strong community can take on the all-consuming tide of neoliberalism and globalisation. They continue to show how to manage place in an autonomous way, outside of traditional power structures and hierarchies. I’d come into contact with prints of these defiant, half-masked faces in many a free and idealistic place in Europe, on stickers and t-shirts, graffiti and concert posters. It’s been inspiring to investigate more – to hear some of the speeches of Sub-Comandante Marcos, rejecting our current politics of deception. To watch footage of campesino women holding off the Mexican army from their land. Women are vital to the Zapatista cause, as armed fighters and peaceful protestors, defenders of family and crops. I was reading in a punk rock ‘zine in the US that Zapatista communities are a beacon of gender equality around the world, and the messages of hope and power on all the EZLN souvenirs around San Cristóbal seems to confirm this.
This town is also full of art and independent education, as you might expect from a proudly separate region. The profusion of cultural centres and open workshops reminded me a little of being in the Basque country . It’s no surprise foreigners and the alternatively-minded have flocked to live here around jungle courtyards and on the colourful streets. Up intriguing Real de Guadalupe street step girls with half-shaven heads, ankle socks pulled down over walking boots in that European way which reminds me of being back in Lavapiés. Every traveller’s whim is represented in restaurant, cafe, bookshop and art: great Italian-run eateries, a Lebanese place, inviting courtyards of tertulias and local coffee, with little cinema rooms and pizza and local crafts positioned around the edge. Despite the good intentions, it must be an economy away from the surrounding countryside: this particular part of town, anyway.
One of my favourite shops is home to the output of a collective known as Taller Leñateros, Woodcutter’s Workshop. They’re a group of locals who make paper and card things by recycling, and using traditional Mayan techniques and dyes. Some of their designs are great, like this Mayan on a bike:
Taking a colectivo taxi to the nearby village of San Juan Chamula was an arresting lesson in a distinctive local spirituality. Going into the white-and-green church at the centre of things, you enter a world of hidden meaning.
There were no pews or benches in this church: layers of fresh pine-needles covered the tiled floor. Hundreds of candles shimmered around the edges and in the back chamber, in incense-filled air. People kneeled, brushed aside clearings and stuck beds of candles to the floor, of different colours and sizes. There they prayed, or thought, in tight little threesomes or families. Some of the candles were mere match-sticks, one or two-inches off the ground (I later learned that the size and the colour had significance). Inexplicably, friends poured little shots of Coca-Cola or Fanta for the prostrated to drink in turn.
Best of all, in this warm and welcoming space, was the music. Some festival was going on, and a gathering of young people stood in a semi-circle, swaying or throwing their shoulders to the mournful lilt of a couple of accordions. A lone drum rang, people shook plain maracas. The accordions slowly rolled over the same motif, like a lost fragment of some sea-shanty. It was almost too much to bear, this sad and humble dance of pressed bodies, seeming for a moment like the very march of daily life, until the music stopped, and the solemn crowd broke into smiles.
November 28, 2011
Mexico has a wealth of ruins – be they Aztec, Maya, Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec or ‘eck! I’ve forgotten the others. Vital stop-offs on the backpacker tour, their current native population is generally made up of guys hawking masks and jewellery or kids hidden behind ancient palisades smoking spliffs. They all cost, for some inexplicable reason, 51.00 pesos to enter, and they’re scattered with little information points whose descriptions belie an absolute mastery of the art of saying nothing at all in lots of words. There’s usually a Spanish bit, an English bit and a local language bit, and they give us such insight as: ‘it appears that mound Q formed a central part in pre-hispanic ritual’ or ‘archaeologists have uncovered significant evidence that people lived here’. There’s a sense of real remove from these places, of a loss of knowledge.
But they still inspire. The hilltop city of Monte Albán, a Zapotec site perched high above the sprawl of Oaxaca, was founded over 2,000 years ago. Its mountain was levelled off by a people without metal tools. They built temples and palaces, observatories and an I-shaped ‘pelota’ field for playing ‘the ball game’. Today, the remains of these structures are scattered around a huge, grassy square where the clouds float enourmously overhead. It’s a world away from the buzz of the city, a majestic site to contemplate the brown hills to the south and the sky overhead. It feels like an in-between place on the ladder to another world. As can be seen at the site of Teotihuacan near Mexico City, here we have bases of wide stairways, with parts sloping and a parts straight, decorated with the recurring pattern of half-squares forming a snake-like motif around the edifice. These high steps, which call for a bit of a puff in each ascension often reach to empty bases, with weeds, where temples would have been. On some bases there are lines of huge half-pillars, which the European mind is apt to reconstruct in a classical pediment, though you doubt that was the case. One of the hardest thing to get your head round, especially in the atmosphere of peace, is that a lot of these places were covered top to bottom in red stucco. Some of this survives.
Monte Albán‘s symetery is interrupted quite dramatically by a tower of stone at the southern end of the square whose bow-like front points off at 45 degrees to the cloud forests. Positioned to watch the constellation of Orion in the night sky, apparently. Around the base of this observatory are deftly carved images of decorated warrior heads, upside-down: a shout of triumph for conquered cities.
It’s a magic place, and I reckon it’d be superb to do a stealth camp here and see the sun rise beside the South Platform.
Yesterday I went to see another Zapotec-Mixtec site from a lot later, about 200-300 years before the Spanish conquest (1519). Mitla is on the valley floor, built of lighter, sandier stone. It features some high-priests’ palaces and ceremonial plazas, decorated in beautiful bands of carved pattern representing the sky, the earth and the worshipped feathered serpent. These sharp walls of design sort of took me back to Southern Spain and the Islamic tiles of Al-Andaluz in their mystery. Well, Mitla would have been concurrent with the Alhambra and Al-Zahira but I don’t think any exchange took place!
Some of these sunken plazas are in a pretty sorry state and have been heavily ransacked. It’s amazing to see the domes of the towns’ Church of St Paul rising from in and around the palace rubble, above the crumbling mosiac and the almost-gone codex pictures in red, built of destruction. I went inside the church and felt a bit angry at the hanging Christ and the vast, empty white ceiling. A couple of boys were doing some work in a back corner. When I went over, they mumbled something about 20 pesos for children against drugs and one pulled a grubby ID card out of his sweater. I gave them the money and they gave me a packet of biscuits, before stalking away round the back of the church. Outside, other boys were smoking among the cacti. More like the drug-fund, I thought.
On the front side of one of the best-preserved parts, the Patio of Mosiacs, is a carved stone warning against looting and graffiti, crimes against the nation, dating from 1902. It’s a message from a guy called Leopoldo Bartres who was the big archeological cheese of his time. I imagine him as a kind of French Indiana Jones though it appears he was actually Mexican (have to verify that). Either way, his name has a habit of popping up at these ruins. He seems to have been on pretty good terms with Porfirio Diaz, the ruthless moderniser who brought Mexico kicking and screaming (literally) into the 20th Century. This was the tyrant who brought the railway to Oaxaca and with it a new idea of time, a closeness to central government. It seems he was bit of a Francophile, introudcing Napoleonic-style military uniform. He actually died in exile in Paris in 1915. The Franco-Mexican links don’t end there: for some reason there’s a disproportionate amount of French travellers here; this week I have met some lovely people from Carcasonne, Reims, Bordeaux, Lyon. Aside from the above historical links and an ailing economy, I can’t quite work out what’s bringing them all here … Answers on a postcard please.
And some other sights from Oxaca last week:
I’m off eastwards to the Chiapas region, and San Cristóbal de las Casas on the 1st-class bus tonight (there wasn’t a 2nd-class option, otherwise I’d have been straight in there). I believe it’s a up in the mountains, on the edge of where the jungle starts. So expect some deep green pictures soon. And more stones.
* have added a couple of pics to the Central Valleys bit below.
November 25, 2011
Just got back to the hostel in Oaxaca after my trek through the Pueblos Mancommunados and their vast reaches of high-altitude forest. With dense groves of pine, oak, aile (eagle-wood?) and madroño almost seeming to froth over the nebulous hills, it’s about as far from a sterotypical Mexican landscape of pronged cacti and scrub as you might get. In fact, as I camped out at a remote little pine-fringed clearing on my first night, it felt like being back by the American Pacific – perhaps in some little misty wood cabin town of fisherman and pick-up trucks. For the afternoon, I had the company of a couple of local trout-farmers who busied around a wooden shack and a few fenced-off ponds as I dozed. Jesus brought me a barbecued fish, enchipotlada, with lime and tomatoes as an early dinner. A delicious meal out there in the crisp air – though he then tried to charge me 80 pesos for said fish! As a gringo going about my crazy walking around the hills for the fun of it, and as part of a pretty steady stream of visitors to the area through the Expediciones de Sierra Norte ecotourism project, I was definitely fair game for a con or two. Jesus giggled, then slung his bag over his shoulder and set off for the village, leaving me alone with a scraggly dog with a bleeding neck and the last of the afternoon’s sun, there in that woodcutter’s idyll. Soon enough a total dark came on, and imaginary pumas lurking on the edges of the field. Good old Lonely Planet had informed me that all seven of Mexico’s recognised wildcats called the Sierra Norte home. Great! I managed to get a fire going after a bit of effort, by heaping huge amounts of pine needles onto some half-dry twigs.
Walking from the town of Cuajimoloyas via Benito Juarez and La Neveria to the lower, northerly villages of Latuvi and Amatlan I was able to see the enormous harvest of the area. Everywhere there were maize fields cut out of the woodlands, in the valley depths and sliding around the hills in squares and triangles. Most were just flocks of brown stalks, drooping like burnt paper, the husks having recently been picked to make tortillas, tamales, elote. At least for the first day, the trail was framed by maguey plants, whose spiky fins are used in the making of tequila and its sister, mezcal. The strange sillhouettes of quiote trees with their curved branches and bright-red bulbs of fruit waited next to the more familiar shapes of pine. At La Neveria, there were large beds of watercress (berro) sitting in flooded paddies; that night I had some for dinner in my tortitas. At the lower and warmer reaches, more fruit. Huge watermelon-like spheres called chilacoyota hung from tree branches. Oranges, apples, peaches and avocados were growing around Latuvi and Amatlan. Beans, too, I established – talking to my succession of local guides. Black beans certainly featured heavily at the village comedores where I got some meals.
I was required to have a guide for each stage of the walk, something carefully enforced by the office in Oxaca and each of the prim-looking tourism offices in the villages. Their faux-log facades and newly tiled terraces certainly stood out from most of the other buildings of breeze block and corrigated iron – as did the tourist cabañas. Ferried from one enclave to the next with a succession of different people and their walkie-talkies, I did come to feel a strange sensation of being a kind of prisoner to ecotourism. That, or jealously-guarded gringo gold. My second guide, Giovanni, said he was twenty years old, which I doubted. He skipped up and down the trail occasionaly taking a sip of Coke from a bottle in his backpack, telling me about the Benito Juarez basketball team. Basket and bandas, I made out, were the hobbies of the Sierra Norte mountain youth.
Other guides recited little bits about the trees, the birds or the stone walls we passed. Alfredo was the oldest and my favourite. He was a mine of information about all the forest flowers and the tangle of shrubbery. He pointed out the madroño with it’s shedding, deep-red bark like the outer layer of a peanut. He showed me some of the distinctive features of these pine-oak forests, like the bromelias hanging in the trees and the musgo, a kind of lichen which dangled and swayed all over the place, like angel hair on christmas trees, ghostly curtains reaching almost to the ground which spoke of some tropical passage.
Alvino huffed and puffed, he’d certainly had his fair share of tortillas. He told me about other mountains – seeing the snow-capped Rockies in ’92, when he was working in a Chinese restaurant in Montana. Getting into the USA used to be much easier, twenty years ago. Now you have to pay a coyote thousands of dollars just to arrange a very tricky hike across the desert. More money to cross at a more populous point. Why would anyone want to leave these peaceful, plentiful hills, I thought.
The town of Santa Martha Latuvi was perched high above a lush river valley where buzzards sailed noiselessly, turning left and right with little flicks, showing the black and white diagonals on their bellys. Small, hand-painted boards stood at the edges of the gravel tracks, informing things in scrawled imperatives. Plan a family. A smaller family works better. Recycle- divide your rubbish into organic and non-organic. Make sure you’re up to date with your vaccinations . go to a health centre. Don’t tolerate violence against women.
I had a great breakfast at a little comedor in Cuajimoloyas on my first morning – servings of black beans, a soft local cheese in tomato sauce, chopped green beans with egg, and some meaty paste called picadillo. Served with a big, warm maize tortilla and a helping of bread – an offering for the tourists, I think. Washed down with bowls of watery, sugary coffee which was just great after a night in a cold tent. Walking around town, I saw numerous rounds of that local cheese strung up in the tiendas (shops, but really more like houses with a Pepsi poster on an outside wall). I asked Alvino, “what is the name of this cheese?”. “Cheese” he replied, with a blank look.
November 19, 2011
I’ve been in he southern city of Oaxaca for a couple of days soaking up a new vibe. Lots of Mexican artists hail from here, and the place is chock full of craft markets and shops (and gringos). Hippies of the world, place your orders for zig-zag print shirts and stripey beach trousers now. It’s a lovely colourful place with views down cobbled streets and over colonial spires to lush, cloud-hung hills. Quite beckoning those hills, so I’ve decided to do a little tour of the ‘Pueblos Mancommunados’, seven co-operatively managed Zapotec villages up there in the high forests. The whole idea rang a bit too much of that wonderful walk in the Alpujarran villages of Southern Spain earlier this year to pass up, I think. Although I’ll miss my hiking friends. Off tomorrow if I can get myself up for the 7am bus, and I’ve a list of a succession of guides who are going to lead me along the trails between the pueblos. Hopefully have the opportunity to see some interesting birdlife and perhaps a wildcat? Watch this space for a trip report.
The two central markets here are amazing. Like I’ve seen in Mazatlan, Guadalajara and Guanajuato here is the marketplace as the focus of a community, a maze of alleyways and lean-tos quite incomprehensible to the outsider. Shouts of ¿que le damos, joven? and ¿que va a comprar? follow me as I weave between crouched campesinos and their heaps of produce. Here in Oaxaca we have local chocolate, which is used in the making of the famous local mole sauce, which in turn has its part in tamales, mashed corn dough with various fillings and sauces wrapped in a leaf – usually from corn or a banana plant. There are also a lot of people hawking huge tortillas the size of pizza bases which are folded over with fillings to make a kind of local calzone pizza known as tlayudas. Stumbling around on my first night here somewhere near the central plaza (the Zocalo) I came upon a great street scene of everyone standing around a barbecue sliding these huge things into their mouths, filled with what I made out in the dark to be mashed beans, cheese and pieces of steak. It’s often a bit intimidating working your way into these gatherings, but I’ve managed to work out a little of the etiquette. Order from ‘mum’ over the heads of the priveledged seated, who’s chucking freshly-wrapped tlayudas across to the coals. This is often quite a blunt exchange. Well, coming from Madrid we’re used to those. Wait until your order is shouted down the street, then pick yourself a drink out of the huge cooling tub on the floor, somewhere amongst the crates. Payment at the end to some hovering accountant who is often a bit difficult to locate, and then we’ll put our bottle back in the crate, plate in the washing up bowl.
By the way, for anyone interested to get a bit of a flavour of that Mexican market place I’d recommend checking out a German-made film called ‘El Elefante Blanco’ which is a kind of documentary surrounding the lives of some people at the huge covered market in Cuernavaca, Morelos province. It’s a very independent effort and often has a bit of a confusing flow, but it just full of some really memorable characters.
PS. Mezcal + barefoot Canadian blues-busker friend = good fun.