Haight Ashbury memories

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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:


Spoils of St. Anthony


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!)

Two roads diverged in a jungle


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?”


Zapatista Strongholds


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.