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Dave and Jan's travels, day 196:
San Cristobal

1st December
San Cristobal is high in the hills, deep in Mayan territory. As such it is a centre for two kinds of activity: budget tourism and indigenous activism. The former is the most immediately visible, and translates into lots of cheap hotels, cafes, bakeries, Spanish language schools, and especially, internet cafes. The latter is visible in the heavy military presence and lots of political posters. The indigenous Mayan people are instantly recognisable, not least because they're all rather small, but also because they preserve their traditional costumes to this day. The tenacity of their culture is amazing: four hundred years of getting treated as second class citizens, and still they fight on. The local left wing activists - the Zapatistas - actually took over San Cristobal for a few days a few years ago, and their fight for land reform and other rights carries on.

In an attempt to see a little more of this culture, we signed up for a tour with Mercedes, a woman borne into this culture who now runs tours to a couple of villages including the place of her birth. Her pre-tour spiel was most promising, as she told us that she would explain the details of the local religion, because she liked to teach, and that she also looked forward to learning from others. This last was a whopper.

Off we set. San Juan Chamula was the first village we came to, and Mercedes provided a full and informative explanation of the local religion, which is a unique combination of Roman Catholicism and the pre-existing Shamanism. For example, if you're ill, you typically go and light candles in the church. But, if you're smart, you go with the Shaman who - for a price - tells you which colours and quantities of candles will best rebalance your aura, and whether a chicken should form part of the church-going party. We then pootled along to the church, which outwardly looks like any other Mexican Catholic church. Inside is quite strange though: no pews, thousands of candles, and several little groups of people engaged in the aforementioned healing rituals.

Back outside, and on to our next lecture with Mercedes. This turned into a slightly embarrassing rant. Mercedes started to explain her own personal philosophy, a strange hybrid of the religion described above and her own self-importance. For example, apparently everyone has a rainbow coloured aura, but very few people can see these: Mercedes is one of the lucky ones. It then transpired that some of the people in our party were sending her sceptical vibes, which was quite destabilising for her. Certainly something was destabilising her: she became visibly agitated, and fearing the worst, I waited for her to start naming names, which presumably would invole me. Much later she calmed down, but this whole exercise rather spoiled the day for me, as it became increasingly apparent that Mercedes has become more than a little Mercedes-obsessed.

Still, it did make an interesting tour. Our second village was called Zincantan, where the Tzotzil people live. Their refreshing attitude to responsible offices like judge is that these are "cargas" (burdens). People do these jobs for a year out of a sense of civic duty, not as something to enjoy, and don't get paid. The only benefit is that after you've given up yourself in this way for a year, you become respected inthe future. You can't help thinking that this is more likely to give you leaders you might want than professional politics.

Another fascinating trip in San Cristobal was a tour of an establishment called "Na Bolom". This place was the house of Francis + Trudi Blom. Francis was an archaeologist who devoted his life to the study of Mayan ruins: Trudi was an ex-journalist who devoted hers to the preservation of the living Mayan people (especially the group called "Lacandóns") and their traditional lifestyle. They're both dead now, but they willed their house and everything in it to continuing their work. Na Bolom today runs tree planting programs, funds education and health programmes, and continues to support archaeological and ecological research. It's a very low key and but also very moving organisation.

Our tour of the site was conducted by Pipin, a Lacandón with Raybans and a minor case of hyperactivity. He had previously operated as a driver for Trudi herself, and provided splendid and evocative descriptions of both his people and of the Bloms. The latter certainly weren't dull people. Francis eventually drank himself into a Tequila-filled grave, but Trudi lived to be ninety and earned the love and respect of a swathe of Mayan people. The house is stuffed with some of the 50,000+ black and white photographs with which Trudi documented a world that has changed dramatically overthe last fifty years. If anyone goes to this town, don't miss Na Bolom.

Our stay in San Cristobal ended with a meal at a restaurant called "Madre Tierra". Towns that are overrun with western tourists do sometimes feel a little unauthentic, but there are certainly compensations, and restaurants like this are one of them. Our meal included wholemeal bread, real coffee, and lasagne that tasted like lasagne.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

San Cristobal de Las Casas

San Juan Chamulah

Cathedral, San Cristobal de Las Casas