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The historic centre of the city is beautiful and well-maintained. We have visited a number of churches including the church of Santo Domingo (it seems this particular saint is a very popular one to name a church after). The surrounds of the church are the site of an indigenous market that sells all kinds of crafts, including Zapatista dolls complete with black ski masks. It is also possible to buy the masks from the same stalls if you fancy joining the rebels! The façade of the church has recently been renovated (completed last year) to all its former baroque glory - it is really impressive, if not really my architectural taste. The Cathedral of San Cristobal, right next to the Zócalo, is not overly impressive, but we did find the Temple of San Nicolás next door to it to be interesting in that it is believed to be the only church in Mexico to be unchanged from its original indigenous people's church architecture. It was certainly simple in construction as well as interior design.
But none of these churches sparked our interest as much as the church in Chamula, which we discovered on our Sunday trip to San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán. We had read that it was recommended to visit the indigenous villages with a guide. So we set out with the San Diego family to the Cathedral early on Sunday morning, a week into our stay, to try to get onto a tour organised by Raul - recommended in the guide books and also by other travellers we had met as being the best available with guides who speak English. They also try to take only small groups. With our 5 new friends we made up one such small group and set off with our "private" guide, Juan, for a visit to the two villages.
The church in Chamula is like no other 'catholic' church I have ever seen, because of the obvious incorporation of indigenous beliefs. There are no pews and they hold no masses. The floor is covered with pine needles so the smell is pleasant. The people sit or kneel in groups on the floor and set up rows of candles just stuck to the stone floor. The candles are all different colours, and each colour has a special significance. There were bottles of Coke or Pepsi and others containing a clear liquid - not water as I had expected, but 'posh', the locally produced alcoholic beverage - which were waved over the candles and then a little was drunk by the participating members of the group. There were also live chickens brought in a bag which were waved over the candles at appropriate times. The whole scene was fascinating and a little overwhelming. The one sacrament that is practiced in this church is baptism, and there was one happening while we were there - but not just one baby, 20 or 30 families with babies were there that day for the baptism. But the whole church wasn't focussed on that - they were sitting in their little family groups dealing with their own reasons for being there. Juan explained everything that was happening in detail, but I will not repeat all I remember here. It is enough to say that if you are ever in San Cristobal de las Casas, don't leave without taking a guided tour to these villages. And please try to respect the "No Photos" rule by the villagers! I think we would have been very confused if we had wandered into this church on our own.
Chamula also has a large market on Sundays and we wandered through a little of it and were also taken to a house for celebrations for a particular saint. It seems that one family lives in the house for one year and is responsible for organising, and paying for, the festivals involving that saint - not surprising that they only do it for one year and then it is someone else's turn.
After Chamula we went on to Zinacantán, which is a big flower growing area. We read somewhere that they are even exporting the flowers overseas. First Juan took us to a family house where we could see how they lived. They also make a variety of crafts and demonstrated weaving with a back-strap loom. They dressed the three girls in traditional blue-and-purple embroidered costumes, much to their delight. Then we were invited to the kitchen where there were women making tortillas. The process was described by Juan and then we were offered a taste. The corn tortillas were very good and a small glass of 'posh' to wash them down even better! When we left the house we were taken to the church to see the difference between it and the one in Chamula. An unexpected bonus was that it was local election day so the whole of the churchyard was crowded with men taking part. We didn't really know what was going on but they were obviously all very involved in the process. The women were present but seemed to only be observing from the sidelines. Had we not been with a guide, I think we would have driven on and skipped the church, but Juan took us past the throng and inside. While still being a relatively simple church, it was far more traditionally catholic than the one in Chamula. This day was certainly a highlight of our time in this area, and definitely made so largely by our very knowledgeable guide, Juan.
Another highlight was the amazing Na Bolom Museum and Cultural Centre. We took a guided tour, which was in English, and found it fascinating. It is in the home of Danish archaeologist Frans Blom and his Swiss photographer wife Gertrudis Duby. This couple devoted their lives to helping the Lacandon people preserve their culture and their environment. Since Trude's death in 1993 the centre has continued the work as a non-profit organisation, which seems to manage to attract the attention of major institutions like Harvard University and the Rockefeller Foundation. There is also a volunteer programme where people with particular skills can spend 6 months working for the organisation, both here in San Cristobal and out in the Lacandon Jungle - or what's left of it...
We did also visit the Amber Museum and the Museum of Indigenous Culture, but neither of them caught our attention for long. The Amber Museum had some very impressive carved pieces, and the other museum had some interesting photos of indigenous people in everyday situations, but an hour or so for both of them was more than enough.
In the past two weeks, we have also spent time catching up with diaries and sorting photos, and even learning some more Spanish. The town has more internet cafes than we've seen so far, but only a few places with WiFi. But we managed to put up an update of our time in Oaxaca and I managed to talk to some of my family members on Skype. We finally bought an external hard disc on which to store our ever increasing collection of photos, and managed to get them all transferred. The campground was pleasant enough to spend time in doing these things. They all take time, but also often take second place to moving on to the next interesting sight. Food was not really a problem either. The market for fruit and vegetables is large and has quite a variety of very fresh looking produce. There is one major supermarket, but I only went once to get some things for Juergen when he got sick. Logan was nice enough to drive me as it is right on the opposite end of town to where the campground is. We also discovered La Casa del Pan (the house of bread) in 2 locations and were not only able to buy good bread, but also have a very nice lunch and buy other organic products. One of them also has a cinema and last Friday night, when Juergen was in his sick bed, I saw Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" with Logan and Kelly and the girls - there was no one else in the small cinema. It was a fascinating movie and I'm glad I had the opportunity to see it.
The weather has been quite pleasant, although there have been the odd late afternoon thunder storm with a little rain. But yesterday it was overcast all day and raining off and on, and in the evening we had more rain than we have experienced since being on the Gulf coast.
Thursday, 31 May 2007, Palenque, Chiapas
Well, the rain we had on Monday made the little shower on Sunday pale into insignificance! We had spent the day getting organised to leave on Tuesday. Juergen was feeling much better and after more than 2 weeks in San Cristobal, it was time to move on. Later in the day we went into town to use the internet and pick up some bread from La Casa del Pan to take with us. Somewhere around 6.00 the rain came down - I was talking on Skype and couldn't hear the person on the other end for the noise of the rain. When we went out to get a taxi back to the campground, the roads of San Cristobal were like rivers. It reminded us of similar rainstorms in Byron Bay when the drainage can't keep up with the volume of water coming from the sky. It went on into the night.
Fortunately in the morning the rain had stopped and we were able to pack up to leave. Logan and Kelly were also on their way and we were sorry to see them leave - we seem to be forever making friends and saying goodbye to them, but it is just a part of this travelling that we choose to do. We were a little slower than they were and, after shopping at a Chedraui supermarket and filling up the fuel tank, we finally left San Cristobal at close to 2.00pm on our way to Agua Azul and Palenque.