Saturday, April 18, 2015

Chiapas Part II: San Cristobal de Las Casas

After a 5.5 hour bus trip through the mountains and jungle, which was all very beautiful, we arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas, capital city of Chiapas.We checked into a hostel near the Zócalo, the town's central square, and proceeded to wander the streets and get familiar with our new surroundings. Luckily we had a good list of restaurants provided by friends who had been there before and we were soon anxious to eat after the long trip. Our first stop was at El Caldero, a place of exceptional soups. This was a perfect choice for the chilly weather with the drop of temperature in the early evening.

As we strolled the streets after eating, we enjoyed watching the people on the square. Even the locals check their cell phones. We were approached by a young mother  who couldn't have been older than sixteen. She had her small boy of about 3 with her and was burdened down with lovely handwoven shawls (we later learned they were all made with back strap looms, common here in the villages). It was getting chilly and I was happy to buy the pretty turquoise shawl from her. Perhaps it helped feed them that night.

I loved the flowers here---and the coffee. I'm wearing my new shawl. 

Following the marimba music, we wandered over to the Gazebo in the center of the Zócalo and found a delightful little coffee shop, filled with flowers and good smells of Chiapas coffee. We ordered coffee  and enjoyed listening to the band playing above our heads.  

 We witnessed a beautiful sunset and made  a wish on the first star as it glowed in the sky over the big Central National Palace, The building is no longer being used as the seat of the State Government of Chiapas, but instead is under construction to become a museum and tourist attraction. Many of the people there are very upset about this. It became obvious as we read protest notes along the barricades around the buildings.

On the way back to our hostel we stopped in an Amber Museum and shop. We enjoyed looking at the displays, talking to a nice young man and woman about Amber and its qualities, how to tell the fake from the real, etc. We later learned that the Chinese are mining much of the Amber in Chiapas, one of the many rich resources there. They are not even using local labor but bringing in Chinese labourers. This is just one of the rich resources of the region that Zapatistas are trying to protect.

Basically this is a protest of the people saying that the government should respect the rights of the people
about  the center of their pueblo. Evidently, the government is trying to increase tourism with the attractions of a
musuem, which puts certain pressures on the poor of San Cristobol and surrounding villages. The very next day all the protest signs including a tent where street people were sleeping was removed. There are tensions in Chiapas. 
During our nine wonderful days in San Cristobal de las Casas we had many new experiences. One of these was a visit to the small pueblo of  Amatenango de las Valles, the potters' village, where I spent an hour and a half watching a Mayan woman, Paolina,  shape and finish a beautiful four foot Paloma, a ceramic dove. She makes six of these a day to sell in local markets. This was quite an extraordinary opportunity, thanks to our excellent guide that the Hostel found for us. She even let me take photos of her and her family, rare here. The Mayan people often ask that no photos are taken of them since there is a belief that there soul will be taken.

Paolina with her three beautiful daughters
Watching a clay artist work was a highlight for me since I have been working in clay for the past six months, making a fountain sculpture for our garden. I was so inspired by this woman and by her generosity allowing us to watch and take photos.
Paolina had the touch of a true sculptor as she shaped the clay

With the simplest of tools and sitting on the floor Paolina fashioned her paloma (dove)She makes 6  of these a day. 

We visited other villages including San Juan Chumulo,  where the key place of interest was the old church, formerly Catholic, but now a place of worship for the Mayans practicing their own form of religion with shamans and healers, pine needles on the  church floor and coke bottles lined up with candles where there might once have been chairs. No photos were allowed but I can assure you it was a very interesting experience. Outside the small village of  Zinacantan, the flower growing part of the state, we visited a Mayan cemetery, again strewn with pine needles. I never did learn the significance of those.  We had an interesting Mayan guide who shared many stories about the traditions within the Mayan family structures.  
This is a Combie which we used for getting around when we wanted to go out
into the countryside without a guide or even to another side of town.

Here are the men of the village of Chumulo in their special dress of sheep wool. The people raise sheep and the black sheep's wool is used for the women's skirts which are wrapped around their waist and tied with handwoven belts. They wear traditional huipels on top. When we visited a well known "healer" in town, Sergio Castro and his small museum of indigenous clothing, we saw these traditional clothes close up. The people here in the village were very reluctant to be photographed.
Here's the Church of San Juan Chumulu, definitely worth visiting.  

The Mayan Cemetary outside San Juan Chumula 
A poster on a wall, entering the town, shows the two languages most spoken here Tsotil and Tsaltan. Below is a view of the Mayan cemetery. The crosses are not Christian but Mayan (note the shape of the cross and also there are decorative features painted on them.  
We visited this private home where there's a woman's weaving cooperative 

This young woman is about to be married. She shows she is ready by weaving the big blue blanket hanging on the line outside the cooking room. She made tortillas for us, which were delicious.

She's weaving with a backstrap loom 
Gary with the typical hat of the village men
Young women weaving with backstrap looms 

Back in the center of San Cristobol, we loved exploring the city on the andajares, walking streets

Peach blossoms were blooming everywhere in the countryside

The fine art of separating Chiapas grown coffee beans. 

Some of the best coffee in Mexico 

A wonderful Mayan Woman sculpted in bronze. The artist is the father of our friend, Violeta.

I'm still intrigued with doors. Guadalupe graces this one. 

Being silly---sticking my head through the wreath forms leaning against the outside wall of a church 

 I loved visiting the Textile Museam in San Cristobol. Here we are with Sergio Castro, the local doctor who treats the people in the rural village. They often suffer from severe burns and  lung problems from cooking over wood fires. Dr. Castro, as he is addressed with much respect from the community, has a wonderful museum of textiles in his home. When the people cannot pay him they give him things such as the clothing, small artefacts,etc. It is worth the visit, every minute of it. Dr. Castro speaks seven or eight languages, including the local ones as well as Spanish, English and French. He's an amazing and huge hearted man.

This nearly tops the official Textile Museum in an old convent near the central market. I visited that, too.

 NaBalom, the home of Franz Blöm, a Danish archeologist who came to Mexico over fifty years ago is another real attraction. It was not only Franz Blöm's  private house which he shared with his Swiss wife, a journalist and photographer, but also a museum of their many collections from the Lacandan Indians, and Trudi's photos.  The two met in Mexico City after WW II,  bought the  house in San Cristobol and named it  "NaBalom" which means "jaguar."  They spent the rest of their life working with the Lacandan Indians, a tribe which lived in the jungle of Chiapas and were only discovered in  the 20th century. I've included a couple of Trudi Blöm's photos of the Lacandan.
The jaguar sculpture on the patio representing the name of Trudi and Franz's house and museum
NaBalom is now a Museum of artifacts collected by Franz and Trudi. It includes small clay figures, hunting and musical instruments and many other interesting things including Fran's old upright typewriter and a vast library on archeology, history and geography. In the library are fascinating clay sculptures and pottery containers.
Lacandan mother nursing her baby
A Lacandan Indian woman 
From NaBalom, we headed over to a nearby street where we found the Taller Leñateros, a well known handmade paper, printmaking and book making workshop. It was a pleasure visiting this interesting place of creativity. I once made handmade paper and enjoyed witnessing the same processes that have been used for hundreds of years for making paper.  The people here are very creative and have produced many books, masks, and other artworks from their handmade paper. A lovely Mayan woman showed us around and admitted she and her mother both write poetry and we purchased one of her small books.

Laying out the paper to dry on the Taller Leñateros' interior patio
Buckets of scrap paper used for the paper pulp
 Plant materials are also hung dried and used in the paper pulp.

Clever use of the bicycle for grinding the paper and plants to mix the paper pulp 

flower petals impregnated into the paper; pretty colors, too.  
With our nice guide outside of Taller Leñateros 

Murals are everywhere, a Latin American tradition.  

We met our friend, Violeta, who lives in San Cristobal, at a small collectively owned Zapatista cafe for breakfast one day. "Sorbo y Aroma" (Taste and Smell) is a nice place to eat with tasty and inexpensive food.

This restaurant is on Calle Gonzales Bocanegro #1, Barrio San Antonio 

Another colourful Mural next to the restaurant 

I loved the colorful buildings and interesting rooftops in San Cristobal 

Visiting an Saturday Organic Market with Violeta and her friend

Talk about color! This lovely young woman let me photograph her in her beautiful dress at a local fiesta on the Zocolo 

Women from the surrounding small villages carry heavy loads of shawls, jewellery and the things to sell to the tourists. This lady was going to the trouble of unwinding colourful beaded necklaces so I could buy the one I selected. Very hard work. I leaned down to help her and we exchanged smiles. She was probably my age---different lives. 

Everyday in San Cristobal was different and filled with so much to take in, whether it was the music being played in our favourite restaurants, El Caldero and Cocoliche's, or the colourful textiles worn by the people in the square, or the beautiful scenery outside of town at a local site near a hanging bridge and hiking trail. The wonders of Chiapas are plentiful.

 One of the last highlights was our visit to an autonomous university of the indigenous people of Chiapas. Students come from surrounding small villages to attend, ages 12 to 20's; the education offer ed is free of charge but they must return to their villages to teach the skills they have learned. They choose the subjects they would like to develop proficiency in, such as auto mechanics, construction, animal husbandry, culinary arts, weaving, architectural design, shoe manufacturing, book printing, metal arts, horticulture, music,--- you name it, they have it! The school is off the grid and they have a large generator. They teach environmentally sound practices and respect for nature as well. We were so impressed after our 3 hour tour. Not only is the school impressive from the standpoint of what it teaches and how, but also it's one of the most colourful universities we have ever visited. The students build all the furniture and throughout each building are colourful murals, paintings and decoration. Each subject matter has it's own building and each is represented by a different colour.
Friend, Violeta took us to this amazing University 

The conference room. Every year there are international conferences at the school. The students built all
the furniture. 

The Cooking class; there were men learning to cook, too. 
Sewing class 

Organic gardening

They have their own generator

One of he many colourful benches outside the music room 

For us, Chiapas was a treasure trove and we look forward to returning there.

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