"Land of Milk and Honey" ~ San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico (c) 2011 Skip Hunt
Climbed atop the hill to a church and the source of all the non-stop explosives being launched over the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico. At first I thought from all the carnival booths flowers and taxis decorated with balloons and streamers that someone important was getting married. So, I just hung around and made a few images here and there of the magnificent color cache before me.
There were a couple of tourists also trying to figure it all out and the women came over to ask me if I knew what was going on as her husband continued to take photos. I told here I hadn't a clue but would ask.
An older Mexican man told me that it was a celebration where they bless the drivers and their vehicles. Not just taxis but bus drivers, truck drivers, etc. and it would go on for about eight days. I asked if it was a Catholic thing and he said it was.
I told the tourist couple from Holland what I found out and we all agreed it seemed kind of strange. That would have been that, but we continued chatting for a couple hours about traveling, mystic experiences, the Amazon and so on. They are older than me and seemed like the typical package tourists. But looks were deceiving because they had just as exotic tales to tell as I and I'd say they even one-upped me on several levels.
The level of connection I think we all felt for each other seemed as if it were destined and we ended our chat with a promise to meet up again in Holland. So far, among the coolest people I've met on this trip and I'm looking forward to seeing them again in Holland one day soon.
After we parted, I saw a group of three men and a couple Chamula Indian women drinking some clear liquid out of a large glass coke bottle. I was getting tired of being seen as nothing more than a camera toting, soul stealing, alien tourist with pockets full of money to be tricked out of. As I walked over toward them the women hit their faces when they saw my camera. A larger Indian man wearing a large hairy black poncho vest thing and a cowboy hat answered my question about what they were drinking. It's called "Posh" and it's VERY strong. They poured me a small glass and I sipped it down as best I could even though I wasn't up for drinking just yet. And, because I did they all seemed to accept me instantly as just a curious fellow human being instead of a tourist. The all their eyes were glassy and they couldn't get over the fact I was drinking their "Posh" with them. That felt pretty good so afterward I saw one Chamula family standing nearby getting ready to try out a carnival shooting game. I asked if I could take some video and they paused before saying no. Then the Chamula with the shaggy black pancho said something to them, I'm guessing that he said I was ok, and then they agreed to let me shoot a bit of video of them. Score!
You can see the video HERE
The next day I was feeling more confident that I could interact with the Chamulas and after some time in the Indian mercado in San Cristobal, I caught a collective for the nearby town of San Juan Chamula. There's a church there were they used to do sacrifice and it is forbidden to take photos inside the church. Many of the indians think a photo steals their soul etc. And it's rumored that several years ago they stoned a foreign couple to death for refusing to respect the rule about no photos inside the church.
I'd been there many years ago and the town has grown into more of a small city. You now have to pay for a permit to go inside the church and since I've seen it before and wanted to save my pesos, I decided to just make a few images of the front of the church instead.
Off on the side of the church there is a courtyard with a small fountain and some public toilets you can pay to use. I wandered around the courtyard looking for something abstract or maybe an interesting angle of the church architecture.
I noticed an open door and some burning candles (velas) just inside so I took a quick photo. No one was around and there were no signs prohibiting entry so I just stepped right in to get a closer shot. The velas were all in front of case with three or four saint statues inside. I snapped just one more and then an older man came in from a side door that appeared to go into the main church's chamber. His eyes got big when he saw my camera and then he started yelling at me that photos were prohibited. I told him I only took photos of the candles. He looked extremely worried and I gathered that it was likely going to be his neck for leaving his post. He forced me into the churches main chamber where there was a large group of French tourists with a guide and some indians praying on a floor covered with pine needles and candles. Two more rougher looking Chamula elders grabbed both my arms and the three of them escorted me through the church and out the front where another Chamula gatekeeper had a police radio. They all started screaming at me and demanded to see what was on my camera. I showed them the candle photos and they commanded me to delete them. They all started looking really worried, angry and upset, but the one with the cowboy hat and a radio had that look like he'd caught a good sized fish. He called the police and they answered back that they were on their way. They demanded my passport and I told them I didn't have it on me. The one with the cowboy hat demanded money and I told him no. I told him I didn't take photos inside the church and that I just took photos of some candles by the bathrooms and that I've now deleted them.
He grabbed for my camera and yanked it back from him. I told him I'd done nothing wrong and if they didn't want people to walk up and take photos by the bathrooms they should put up a sign. He pointed to the sign above the church and I again explained I didn't go inside the main part of the church.
My heart was racing a million beats a second, but I was glad that the police were on the way and hopefully I could find one who spoke English and explain that I knew and respected their rules about no photos inside the church.
The one with the cowboy hat was now saying I also needed to pay or going inside the main part of the church. I told they dragged me through the church against my will and that I had no intention of going in otherwise. So now he was saying I took photos inside the main part of the church and changing the story. I began to wake up and realize there was no way in Hell the police were going to take the side of a filthy American gringo and I knew as soon as they got there it'd be all over. At best I would get out with only being held and some money extorted... perhaps even lose my camera. At worst... well, I didn't want to think about that and started walking. They yelled for me to stop and that police were coming. I told them great and have them come and get me.
Soon I was around a corner and had dodged into a shack where it looked like they sold tequila but no one was in there. I took out my ball cap, put on my sunglasses, and put on my over-sized rain coat and went back out onto the street. The collectivos were all down by the main plaza so I didn't want to risk being spotted by going back.
I noticed one full collectivo heading out and flagged it down. They squeezed me into the front by the driver to collect just one more fare and we were off. Whew! That was a close one!
There weren't many photos made of San Juan Chamula other than the one in this post, but it's not really that interesting a place anyway. And, I did get away without losing a peso, my camera, or worse. I'd call that a win.
"Prohibido" ~ San Juan Chamula, Mexico (c) 2011 Skip Hunt
San Cristobal has grown into a very strange mix of raw indigenous culture colliding with mega-foreign tourism and hipster clubs. The indigenous working the tourists on the streets have become more aggressive than I remember. I'm not sure how that will evolve, but I wouldn't be surprised if their revolutionary organization the "Zapotistas" raises it's head again if these people feel like they're getting pushed out by all the new progress.
I hope to return to San Cristobal de Las Casas one day and find they've struck a balance the benefits all. The people are mostly very kind there, the indigenous culture is mostly preserved, and the vistas are spectacular.
More later, and stay tuned!
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