Our first week of Semana Santa or Easter as it is called in most other countries was spent backpacking trip through one of the poorest states in Mexico, Chiapas. Chiapas is one of the states with the highest native Indian populations in Mexico, and here evidence of a much poorer, much simpler Mexico exists. The state is blessed with natural scenery on par with some of the most beautiful places in the world, huge waterfalls, rivers so clear and blue they make your eyes hurt and one of the country's most treasured archaeological sights, the Mayan ruins of Palenque, is situated deep in the heart of the jungle. Indian villages line the roads in the mountains, and mothers and their children stand out like colourful wildflowers with their beautiful traditional clothes as they walk from their houses into towns to sell their art and crafts.
During this week I saw too many beautiful things to write about, but it was not just the awe inspiring natural scenery that made my heart flutter, no, the people of Chiapas are even more beautiful than the amazing places they call home. To me, in Chiapas exists a different kind of Mexican to the ones found in the capital city or those living on the Coast, to the ones you see in the cliche 'western' or action packed 'war on drugs' movies, where every second Mexican is a gang member and there is more cocaine in the country than tortillas. I do not mean to undermine the problems this country has, because evidently there are many. The frequency of militia road blocks and public outcries are proof enough of this. But at the same time, it is frustrating for me as a person who has been living here now for almost 5months that the true Mexico is a beautiful secret, almost hidden from the world. The utterly amazing, different, colourful lives lead by these people is a story rarely told, Mexico is a place underestimated, underrated and undernourished of the appreciation it deserves. Its variety, its boldness, its uniqueness seems to me is something almost unknown in the outside world, except for those who take the time to see it for themselves. (This does not mean spending a two week vacation in Cabo or Cancun people). The more I see, the more I fall in love with this wonderful country, the more I understand why it is the way it is, and the more I have hope that sooner rather than later Mexicans will have a brighter future.
Here in the heart of the country I was able to see first hand how the Indigenous people live, how they sometimes have to walk hours to get to their village deep in the mountains. How many of them are so isolated that it takes a 3 or 4 day journey to reach them by horse, because no roads find there way into the treacherous heights of their homes. There families are often large, with 10 or more children, some of which are able to stay in their village, but many which are forced to find work elsewhere either in the surrounding cities, or make the treacherous journey to the U.S, leaving their language, family and friends behind. Their lives being undoubtedly changed forever by this voyage of uncertainty, often leaving them with scars of discrimination (even more than they would experience in Mexico), a loss of identity and a struggle to reassimilate their old lives when they return to their village. I spoke to many young and old people who had done this, and some who had not seen their families for 15 years or more.
But as with any country, the Indigenous people of Chiapas are as colourful and unique as the clothes that they wear. Many, although seen as the poorest people in Mexico are able to support themselves by selling their beautiful art work, embroidery, jewellery, clothes and leather wears to name a few. The market in Chiapas is any girls dream, and the Indigenous ladies and often men also host their stalls with a peaceful, welcoming attitude (unlike in Bali or Thailand where you might get hit if you don't by a product you bargained on). The people here have a certain calm about them, they are shy and reserved when it comes to strangers and will hide their face before you can even think about reaching your camera. To many of them, taking a photo of them is like capturing their soul, others I think are simply tired of being walking, unpaid models. Mind you little children won't mind asking you for some money if they think you've taken a photo of them or you would like to do so. They are quiet the entrepreneurs in this part of Mexico, and they seem to be able to obtain almost anything they please, from money to lunch or even ice-creams.
These two young lads were the perfect example of this, they stood close to this lake an would recite clever little poems for whoever was willing to pay the right price. They had a little audience and when I walked past the other Mexicans paid for them to sing a song to the "Guerra" the blonde who obviously looked so strange in the crowd. They asked me my name a few times forgetting it every 2 seconds, and proceeded to recite me some very cheeky but very cute poems. I don't remember them exactly, I was bright red from embarrassment and the audience of Mexicans were laughing so hard that I struggled to understand half of what they said.
Another beautiful pair of boys, two brothers, were playing around another lake, and the oldest gave us a complete history of the surrounding area. When I say complete, I mean as complete as it gets. He spoke perfectly like a historian stuck in the body of an 8 year old and none of our questions were too hard for him to answer in detail. He was extremely professional and knowledgeable, and would place one hand in his pocket while pointing out the sights for our group, before sighing like an old man tracing his memory for more information before continuing. His little brother would not say a world, but clung to him like a life raft, and it was adorable to watch the two of them walking hand in hand up the mountainside after his brother had done his work for the day.
SAN CRISTOBAL LAS CASAS
If you are ever in Mexico, you simply have to go. The small city of San Cristobal sits comfortably in between the mountains, in the heart of Chiapas. The buildings, the streets, the blend of people that reside here all give it its unique flavour. Their is a mixture of the foreign, the Mexican and the Indian in this town and the boiling pot surprisingly produces a refreshing mix of culture and a great atmosphere. It would have to be one of my favourite cities in Mexico, and what is even more appealing is the fact that it is a great place to base your travels from, with some of the most beautiful sights in Chiapas only a few hours away.
It was incredible to climb through the Jungle that was once home to over 30,000 Mayans, scrambling over ruins and rocks that once were part of this ancient civilisation. The archaeological sight seems to come out of nowhere, and the pyramids and buildings tower over the enormous mix of green and brown, startlingly white in the sunlight, in total contrast to their surroundings, overseers of the land below. It was incredible to see all the buildings, still maintained in great condition, enough that you can imagine what it was like when the Mayan's where there. We had a guide who first took us through the jungle, and then went on to show us the ruins, explaining how these extremely intelligent and somewhat mystical people lived, how they saw the world and was a part of it. From our accommodation, which was a few kilometres away from the ruins a small hut in the jungle, with vines drooping over our roof and spiders that had made good use of our bedroom, we could hear Monkeys at night, their powerful presence known through the jungle and a river, which also served as a swimming pool also flowed through our campsite. It was a truly magical place.