Good Morning Mexico
Mexico holds a fascination for me, a grand romance. The country is brimming with nature in all its diversity and the relics of a fabulous, tragic history. Fiestas, fine food and friendly people all add up to a pretty awesome travel destination. And yet, ask an average American and they would be perplexed. What could possibly drive you to go to such a dangerous and grimy place? However, it is neither, even in these difficult days. There are many problems, but even more negative propaganda. I flew into Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city, hoping for a soft landing after three months in comfortable but relatively lifeless California. It was sufficiently soft. My Spanish was enough to reveal that the people were being genuinely helpful and I soon felt settled.
Guadalajara is a big city packed with amazing colonial architecture, broad plazas and lots of activity. Tuesday afternoon shopping seemed like Saturday anywhere else. At night the bar scene was also animated with grunge rock and low-brow techno blasting into the street. My first dinner was in one of the central plazas adjacent to the golden spires and domes of the enormous main cathedral. It’s an imposing and beautiful 17th-century structure, all gilded, melodramatic iconography and towering ribbed arches reminiscent of the inside of a whale. Mexico is full of such jewels. The sheer beauty and sanctity inside makes even me want to kneel and pay homage. You can pick your idol, but Mary always seems to be front and centre. Seated outside at restaurant La Antigua I was presented with a sizzling meat stew in a pumice pot that appeared to have been freshly cooked in one of the nearby volcanoes. The plaza was full at 9pm but I was expecting a bit of old-time ambience. I was therefore perturbed when a classic rock cover band started up at the adjacent eatery. They were pretty good, but tastelessly scheduled. Such clashes of eras are common. In another antique plaza we were assailed by tympanum-perforating techno-pop beamed directly at families waiting in line. Later in the small city of Colima, I was pleased to find a festival of traditional music and dance underway in the plaza but bars on the periphery continued blasting Abba covers during the performances. But then that is Mexico; a jumbled volcanic mélange of contradictions: ancient and modern, sweet, religious and respectful, oppressed and lawless, virgin and whore (as Mexican women are proverbially and prejudicially seen).
Perhaps it is the Mexican identity itself that has to contain such contradictions. The contradictions of a colonial land where the majority are mixed blood mestizos. Young people in Guadalajara look like they just hopped in from Barcelona but move out of the fashionable centre and people rapidly get darker, poorer and rounder, evidently enjoying a less than healthy diet, but not so for want of calories. Semi-officially, however, modern Mexico has come out in favour of los indios – in favour of itself, essentially. Cortez the Conquistador is viewed as a scoundrel and the heroes are Mayan chiefs and fomenters of revolution like Hidalgo and Pancho Villa. Nonetheless, most Indian descended folks you see in the city are sitting around trying to sell luridly coloured candy and corn puffs, which is itself also a rather poignant and demeaning fate for the great Indian maize. The indigenous people of the south in fact are known as “people of the maize”. Nobody really understands where maize came from. It was created by the natives somewhere around here but scientists remain baffled as to what miraculous feats of bio-engineering could have produced it.
Despite the bad graffiti, Guadalajara felt modern, clean and safe, however clearly all is not well in the heart of Mexico. The well-known American inspired drug wars have been causing great stress in the society. As the main shipping route to supply America’s unquenchable appetite for cocaine, Mexican drug gangs became so powerful as to operate with impunity while murdering huge numbers and corrupting the social fabric. Drugs are a 13-billion dollar-a-year business here. President Calderon launched an all-out war on the gangs and deaths went up 500% while guns, flowed south from the US market, supplying the gangs with their armoury. Of course, the US government had to sell lots more guns to their Mexican counterparts in order to counter this. Nowadays, there are an amazing number of police on the street. They drive around with their lights flashing like some outdoor discotheque while beat cops patrol the plazas. Many are atypical – middle aged or female –and not to speak disparagingly of their ability it appears almost anyone can get hired since they need so many new recruits. Even at the quaint festival in Colima, the plaza contained a dozen cops with sub-automatic weapons. Army trucks roll around country roads and at the little beach resort of Barra de Navidad, they were busying themselves searching peoples vehicles. According to my taxi driver informants, the soldiers are far more trustworthy, being new to the game and less crooked. It certainly doesn’t look good for civil liberties south of the border but then they never have been very well respected. The party of the revolution “institutionalized” itself 70 years ago, remaining in power until 2000. This led to predictable and intractable corruption. In ’68, just before the Olympic Games, the government response to peaceful student protest was to massacre them by the hundred in the square. A glance at one day’s front page of the English language paper in Guadalajara provides a snap shot of the problems facing the country. 1: Drug gangs posted notices around the city stating that they were going to kidnap school children to hold ransom against one of their number who was residing in the slammer, causing parental hysteria and massive school absenteeism. 2: A bus on the freeway “spontaneously” burst into flame. The driver drove off the road then ran away and was still missing. 3: A sick puppy found in the suburbs had been confirmed as rabid. All the vampire bats by the lake were marked for extermination.
Despite such challenges, Mexicans really know how to enjoy life. While much solace appears to be taken from junk TV shows which are ubiquitous and loud, family life and partying make for abundant enjoyment. There is definitely no shortage of cheese, meat or beer. You could die from the cheese alone but then it is a good way to go. It is very hard to find an American style veggie burrito. If snogging in the plaza was an Olympic sport, Mexico would be world champions. Whilst so engaged both of the pair sneak glances to see who is watching while the guy shields his less than faithful seňorita from the world using his body. Carousing starts young and despite successful family planning programs, there are still plenty children around and the whole extended family comes out to delight in them, gathering together in the plazas. Half the time there is some ridiculous clown performance. It all seems quite wholesome.
Music is everywhere though not always, to my mind, the best of most genres. I wouldn’t put Mexican traditional music at the top of the world music rating, though certainly that’s a pretty suspect scale. While some of the sounds at the festival in Colima were entrancing, typically the arrangements of traditional tunes are reminiscent of Bavarian “oom-pah” music except that the band is even more drunk. In place of lederhosen we have wide-brimmed sombreros and frilly cravats. Later, however, I was really impressed by the live rock bands I saw in bars and the street. The best thing I saw in Colima was a group of a dozen teenagers playing traditional forms combined with a tap dance which incorporated bullfighting as courting metaphor – with the boy as the bull, the girl used her skirts as a matador’s red muletta. Instruments included guitars in various sizes, a drum, cow-jaws used to produce both a rattle sound and washboard effect on the teeth and a something like a gigantic African thumb piano for bass. After the stage show, they did an informal gig in front of the highly ornate bandstand typical of plazas in this region. The plazas I have seen were all lovely places, often filled with tropical foliage. Not so for the beach where the wreckage of over-development was evident, providing a backdrop of broken concrete and twisted rebar like the bones and ligaments of some great, stupid beast. Mexicans love their visual arts too taking the mural to its apogee. Public art fills the street which is very impressive for a poor country.
Just up the road from Colima, I visited Comala, and old whitewashed village almost in the shadow of the suitably named, 3,800m, Volcan de Fuego. Here working in a beautiful old hacienda that provided a taster of the magical Mexican countryside, the Spanish descended painter Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo worked to produce his immaculate and charming gouaches that seemed to me to capture something very Mexican. With a peculiar magical realist vision his works often depict little Indian child-angels, naïve but authentically detailed. Around the same village, a great stash of 1,500 year old antiquities was discovered in shaft tombs apparently belonging to a peaceful agrarian culture quite unrelated to its more famous and warlike neighbours. The artist collected the finds and created a small museum. Judging from the collection, the culture had a great penchant for making all kinds of ceramic chihuahuas.
Driving mountain roads in Mexico the verge is decorated with so many white crosses and floral memorials marking the sites of fatal accidents. Machismo kills. The luxury coach I had previously ridden was exceedingly comfortable with headsets provided for those foolhardy enough to watch “Fast and Furious” as we zoomed along. I had already seen this movie on a bus in Indonesia where the driving is truly insane. It must be some kind of in joke played on the passengers. Now headed to Puerto Vallarta the bus was a grade down, still comfortable, with a continuous soundtrack of accordion music at a sensible volume. The western highlands of the Sierra Madre were forested, greyed by partial winter leaf-fall (winter is the dry season) but also brightened by occasional, huge, subtropical blossoms. Lower down, the range of cactus species like organ-pipe and giant prickly pear extends down from the north and intermingles exotically with the woodland. Up in the higher reaches, the forest had that incredible tropical mountain diversity with everything from palms to pines, stately hardwoods and bouganvillas. Vallarta itself has a lovely natural setting, backed by jungle clad mountains, with an island-split river passing through shady reaches downtown and emerging at the rather spectacular, art-adorned waterfront. It’s a fun party place. Luckily for my liver I was only staying two days.
I had to return to Guadalajara for my second dental appointment with a friendly, almost-retired dentista, recommended and very well-qualified, who had already drilled a big hole into the corner of my mouth. She was so sorry about that but didn’t give a discount, just some calendula to help the healing which worked. Saturday night saw a big, high quality craft fare on the main drag, packed to the gills until 11pm and featuring street musicians that included a sizzling electric blues band, so hot that my face involuntarily warped in response to the guitar licks, hurting my lip. Next day I was ready to head east, further into history and the lovely volcanic landscape of Michoacan, where I would begin to see the rather shabby indian villages that demonstrate why Mexico is still a “Third World” country.
The great tradition of public art in Mexico goes back a long way, but then culture goes back millennia. Most of the pre-Hispanic peoples were prolific painters of frescos, though few of these works on plaster are still reasonably intact. Some of the best can be seen at Calaxtla, a fortified, hilltop town east of Mexico City which thrived for 200 years until they were defeated by the Aztecs . One wall displays a great battle scene in faded red-ochre and cerulean blue where the elaborately stylized warriors are somberly offing each other. Inside the royal and priestly residences there remain some surrealistic scenes with chameleons climbing along stairwells, maize with cobs of human heads (god made people out of maize)and clerics bedecked in jaguar-skin standing on monstrous serpents. A young man associated with Venus looks like one of the Simpsons in blue. But Venus was associated with sacrifice and, soberingly, hundreds of skeletons of mutilated children were found at Calaxtla. Much more durable though rather less intimate are the stone sculpture and reliefs created as civic art in public plazas and on the edifices of temples. Nearly always depicting bizarrely formalized gods, they are also thoroughly strange to the modern eye, possibly on account of all the magic mushrooms that are known to have been ritualistically consumed throughout the region. The meso-American cultures also created incredibly ornate sculptures in clay ranging from minute to larger than life, from the adorable cartoon animals I saw in Comala and the laughing people created by the early Olmecs to the deeply disturbing representations of death dreamed up by the Aztecs. Tragically, the Spanish were very efficient in their mission to smash these ceramics to smithereens. Judging from the styles of art, there was a huge range of culture throughout the region. The Aztecs were late-stage, hyper-militarist, feudalistic interlopers, to my way of thinking, and it is unfortunate, despite the magnificence of their urban culture, that they have become default representatives of ancient Meso-America.
The Spanish did bring some lavish artistic inclinations of their own. Churches in Mexico, which regularly date back to the 16th century, are extraordinary. Gilded wood-carving pours off the altars, elaborate stucco decorates the interiors and huge baroque canvases cover the walls. Massive domes suggest celestial volume and beams of light pour down through beautiful stained glass. They rival any cathedrals I have seen in Europe. There is a particular devotion to the agony of Christ and his brutalized, bloody form contrasts splendidly with the delicate decoration. The larger cathedrals usually house pipe-organs of such extravagant proportions that I shudder to think what they would actually sound like reverberating throughout the vaulted space. Mexican religious authorities are kind enough to consistently allow flash-free photography of all this.
In modern times, Mexican art is best known for its muralists. Working on a huge scale, artists such as Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco presented the public with a technicolour panoply of scenes combing social realism with satire, symbolism and general weirdness. Rivera’s works adorn the interior courtyard of the 16th century National Palace in the centre of Mexico City. The building, constructed under Cortez using stones from the deconstructed palace of Moctezuma II, is still home to important offices of the federal government. The interior is certainly palatial. The regal furnishings led me to imagine how the post-revolutionary government drifted into corrupt elitism. Adding to the vibe was an extensive exhibit borrowed from Madrid highlighting the treasures of Spain in its imperial heyday; puffed up Rococco allegories of cherubs and idealized femininity and effete, hemophiliac royalty painted by arse-kissing artists, along with lots of imparactical furniture. Nothing could be more surprising than the presence of Rivera’s works outside. The murals uncompromisingly and beautifully portray the history of the country and pull no punches regarding the depredations of the Spanish who were and are the ruling elite. He can pack an extraordinary amount of figuration and narrative into a space without losing form and perspective. There are literally hundreds of individual characters. Rivera was a committed Marxist as was his wife Frieda Khalo. Indeed, Frieda had an affair with Trotsky for a while, amongst many others, before the poor guy took Stalin’s ice-pick between his ears. She even had pictures of Lenin and Stalin around her bed, as seen at the Blue House Museum, which seems quite blinkered given that she died in 1954. Rivera’s political affiliations are overt in his work, sometimes polemical with much allusion to American fascism. The Rockafellers destroyed a major piece, “Man at the Crossroads”, which they commissioned from him in New York because of its’ clear communist sympathies. Luckily he reproduced it at the Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts. The situation there is also incongruous. The building is an indulgent Art Nouveau extravaganza originally commissioned by Portforio, the 30-year, turn of the century, pro-industrialist dictator. It houses a snooty faux-French terrace café. Yet it is filled with radical imagery emblazoned across the walls of the second and third floors. In addition to Riveras work is an in-your-face anti-militarist, anti-bourgeoise piece by Orozco and one by Siqueiros that couldn’t be more partisan on behalf of the indigenous people if Moctezuma had rolled it out himself. The whole interior is an extraordinary spectacle. Orozco’s works at an old Jesuit college in the capital reek of anti-catholic sentiment with black serpents coiling around crucifixes. His murals in Guadalajara are no less stridently opposed to repressive industrialism, religion and colonization. Whilst in is understandable the Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party would sanction glorification of revolutionary activities, I think they let things get a little out of hand! It all once more exemplifies Mexico as a land of contradictions.
Mexican government must be pretty hard-pressed for cash judging by social indicators such as the number of people who come on buses to solicit money for life-saving operations, but somehow they always find space in the budget for art. Mexican budgets also leave ample room for police, who will soon outnumber the general public, so it’s hard to see how they do it. Ranging from the quirky to the sublime and from traditional to modernist, installations pepper the townscape like they do the playa at Burning Man. There seems to be a lot of fairly random patronage in one place. You never know what you will see next. Weird metal forms, coffee mugs, sea urchins, eclectic statuary and light sculpture, not to mention murals; plazas and waterfronts are filled with imaginative projects. There clearly is a lot of opportunity for people to express themselves artistically in Mexico. And on the musical side, probably about a million people in Mexico City alone are professional organ grinders. It’s a land of creative opportunity.
Monarchs and silver cities
The central highlands of Mexico weren’t looking their best in the fallow, dry winter but luckily the land was studded with silver cities. Not actually silver, but built with the wealth from mining the stuff. My trail led first through Uruapan, a city blessed with one of the finest urban parks ever, actually a national park. The Rio Cupatitzio arises from nowhere at the head of a canyon around 2km from downtown. It gushes straight from the limestone in torrents. The park follows the river down a series of cascades passing under a dense subtropical canopy. It was quite beautiful. Patzcuaro was next; a fabulously atmospheric old town of cobbled lanes largely populated by Purepecha people. The public library was graced with an outstanding 10m high mural covering the whole back wall; a semi-surrealist frieze depicting the entire history of Michoacan State. The Purepecha once maintained a large state of their own known as Tarasco. Unfortunately, the Spanish put them under the administration of Nuno de Guzman, a conquistador of such heinous disposition that he was recalled by the crown and jailed for life. He must have been really bad for that to happen. His crimes were gruesomely depicted in the library mural. Probably he was punished because he was destroying the local economy. The cleric who took over tutelage of the Purepecha was outstandingly nice, establishing crafts co-operatives, the fruits of which still continue on. It is a pretty common thread in Mexico, that decent, god-fearing types did what they could to stop the depredations of the colonial military. That didn’t happen much north of the border. I don’t know if it’s also a local tradition, but the street tacos in Patzacuaro were peerless, in my limited experience. Next I arrived in Morelia, a town full of more gorgeous old edifices. Many hip restaurants and bars occupy the interiors decorated in tastefully ethnic and weird styles. My home town of Edinburgh boasts similar situations but Mexicans do so much more with them, as a matter of course. All these towns were charming. It is unfortunate that conditions in most of the little rural places between them were much less salubrious.
I went north to the finest silver city of all: Guanajuato. Totally over the top, set astride a high, dry mountain valley, ordinary local housing is prismatically painted and the split level centro historico is jammed with intricate, period piece architecture, plastered with sculpture. The streets are full of students any time, but a festival was in full swing. In Mexico that means street theatre, especially comedy. Not too far away lies San Miguel de Allende, another very cute place. Before I left California I primed myself by reading ‘Mexican Days’ by Tony Cohan; a philosophical travelogue covering much of my intended route. His other well-known book was ‘On Mexican Time’ about his move to San Miguel in the nineties. Unfortunately for Tony, whether or not due to the success of his book I don’t know, the town has, in the interim, become a haven for other Americans retirees – and lots of them. They swarm the streets patronizing over-priced eateries and laze in the sunny plaza watching musical performances by generic “indian” musical ensembles – those that play flute and shell rattles over synthesised atmospheres while chanting “hey-wah-hey”. Since I had had my fill of colonial architecture in any case, I hussled along.
It was a hard days’ travel, under the influence of a fresh, virulent cold, to get to Zitacuaro; base for visiting the monarch butterfly reserve. There was a fiesta in town the next day with a big parade. Unfortunately this meant I couldn’t find a hotel room. I padded the streets wearily in an increasing state of anxiety being turned away by a half dozen establishments. It was a sketchier town that I was used to in Mexico, with sweaty residents slurring directions and brats shouting “rico, rico” at me (rich, rich). I didn’t want to be on the street. One off-centre hotel was being used as a base by a huge squadron of flack-jacketed, helmeted Federal Police, bristling with weaponry as they mingled amongst seven or eight armoured vehicles. I assumed they were there to oversee the parade. While Michoacan has seen its’ share of “narco” problems, this miniature army seemed utterly ludicrous. One of their number gave me a tip for another hotel in a friendly, American-tinged voice, which actually panned out. I found the place far up the same street and, surprisingly, it wasn’t too bad. Due to a forecast of inclement weather on subsequent days, I had to go straight up the mountain in the morning, despite my illness, so I took a taxi, and then a horse. The steep pine forest was lovely but my little horse Oscar just wasn’t into it, tossing his head around, stubbornly stopping, and then trying to kick me when I remounted after giving him a break on the severe inclines. My thirteen your old guide kept impressing on me that I had to give Oscar a good whacking to make him go and after a while I got over my initial qualms. It took about ninety minutes to reach the monarchs. They winter in these mountains at the end of their famous migration from the northern USA, arriving in such numbers as to weigh down the fur tree branches in huge clumps and blankets, thousands taking off into the sky at a hint of sunlight with the sound of forest wind emanating from their wings. It was a lovely sight, although park services rope off the roosting area so you can’t get very close. Upon returning, I rode with one of the staff (on a new horse, thankfully) to the other park entrance, at a much prettier village, where I was fed excellent local trout in his mothers’ rustic restaurant, shaded beneath a large plant-bedecked porch. During my meal Vicente told me of his four or five attempts to cross the border to the states with a “coyote” guide. Finally he succeeded, after great expense. He hid in a car under the wide skirts of a lady who posed as pregnant to explain the presence of his head under her blouse. According to local tradition, Vicente continued, the butterflies are spirits of the dead. They start arriving shortly before Mexican Halloween, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on November second. As Vicente had it, the butterflies flit around in a disorganized fashion until precisely on Dia de los Muertos when, en masse, every year without fail, they alight on the trees for the first time. Back in town the post-fiesta come down involved some pranksters setting of great quantities off enormous, solitary firecrackers (M-80 explosives?) that kept shaking the hotel room while I was trying to rest and watch the movie “Vantage Point” (with also involves innumerable explosions). Perhaps it was intended to tease the Federales. It certainly got me going.
From the mountains it was only two hours by bus to Mexico City. I was surprised that the urban sprawl was not as vast, nor as dilapidated, as I had been led to believe, at least not approaching from the west, and that the air quality was not that awful. For 75c I jumped on the metro which was quite full of groggy looking capitalinos this Monday afternoon and rode about ten stops to near the centro historico where I checked into the cheap yet stately Hotel Isabela. I got a third floor room overlooking some heraldically emblazoned cupola. Everything appeared to function and the toilet paper was all concertina-folded on the end. For the first time in weeks I had a good bowel movement – chopped a log as my friend says -and headed straight out. The street leading to the Zocalo, the vast central plaza, seemed something like Edinburgh during the festival. It was mobbed with shoppers and families engrossed in their ice-cream, organ grinders (that’s music), comedians, religious nuts, Barcelona style human sculpture. The plaza is surrounded by great historic buildings including the enormous and eclectic cathedral (it took hundreds of years to complete and incorporates styles from all the colonial periods) and the Palacio National with the offices of the President and the treasury. Cortez famously destroyed the Aztec (more correctly Mexicana) Plaza Mayor and had the cathedral built on top. Excavations of the Aztec site, heart of the pre-Hispanic Mexican world, lie off to one corner. Inside the plaza which was also, of course, thronging with humanity, there was a massive stage where dancers were leading about a hundred of the crowd in an aerobics work out, tents giving out free trees to help improve air quality, a wrestling ring full of feisty children, a free-for-all volley ball court, medical services and multiple groups of “Aztec” dancers trying to evoke something of the spirit of the past but looking more like package holiday makers giving it a go, despite the impressive feathered head dresses. Step outside the confines of the plaza and enter a world of extreme street vending with every conceivable type of junk being hawked at top volume, and yet more Aztec dancers. If this was an overcast Monday afternoon, I couldn’t wait for the weekend.
Carnaval, Vera Cruz
I never thought I would hate marimbas. I always loved the rich timbre and trance-inducing repetition. But familiarity breeds contempt. Sit in the zocalo square of Veracruz for more than an hour, and by the tenth rendition of La Paloma (the peanut song) you will be headed for a breakdown. Especially when the old guy comes around and puts his guiro (a notched gourd played like a washboard) to your ear to leverage open your change purse. Even worse is the possibility of a trumpet band gathered around your table. Mexico is unique in the extent of unrequested performances. Clowns, jugglers, comedians, singers, flamenco guitarists and marimba players compete for space with a seemingly limitless army of hawkers. And it’s not only for the tourists. On the Mexico City subway, every stop sees another someone get onboard to loudly try to sell you chewing gum, books or CDs. The CD sellers have back-mounted speaker systems which pack massive, train-rattling subwoofers. The trade is facilitated by the fact that 4 pesos (35c) gets you one unlimited trip on the subway. On restaurant terraces and sometimes inside for that matter, as on local buses, the management avails similar access to the sitting-duck public. In the Veracruz zocalo you have to turn down offers of peanuts, pens, sunglasses, model ships, marimbas and therapeutic electrocution approximately once a minute while you are trying eat breakfast. Maybe I am being curmudgeonly, but it is hard to understand how everyone tolerates it. Of course, the phenomenon is driven by economic need. There is not that much pure begging in Mexico, except by old Indian ladies. These people scrape by on what little margin they can derive (CDs are sold for a dollar) and sometimes the musicians are good. Actually I often give a few pesos. Young people in circus garb offer amazing juggling performances in front of cars stopped at red lights. Quite taken the first time I saw this, I tossed the guy a couple of pesos, which he promptly dropped. We both thought that was pretty funny.
The streets of Veracruz are also packed with soldiers, especially, I guess, during Carnaval. Here they take the level of armaments to a new level. They have the usual automatic rifles but also wear full-face balaclavas to prevent off-duty pay back from the dreaded narcos, I presume, and have rounds of 20 millimetre shells strapped around their torsos. If they actually fired those things, it would put a hole right through a building. They seem far too explosive to possibly use in a public space, and obviously are meant to impress. Apparently, Veracruz is much less dangerous than it was a year ago, so it must be working. The soldiers are all young guys, with pretty, innocent looking eyes peering through the black headgear. If you give them a smile and a wave, they sometimes wave back. I felt empathy for them. What a ridiculous situation.
Then came the Carnaval parade on Sunday morning. We waited for an hour on the bleachers while the security guys did their thing and did it again. In front of me was a troop of grey and black paramilitaries. They had so much gear on they looked like Transformers, and I don’t mean Lou Reed. They goofed around waiting for clearance, smoking and playfully beating each other with their night sticks. Elsewhere, riot police and under-dressed Naval MPs wearing only loose white navy duds and a matching helmet milled around. Eventually the crowd started jeering but at last some kind of clearance was given and the paramilitaries formed a V-shaped phalanx. They proceeded down the road ready to beat down any wayward spectators who strayed into the parade route. I was happy they had it covered. We wouldn’t suffer any further security related delays. Then it occurred to me – maybe, somewhere along the way here, the line between anti-narcoterrorist security measures and policing the general public has got just a little blurry. The parade itself started well with some exciting floats – marine themes, castles, the Carnaval Queen looking dazzling in her crown and sequins and booty shaking handmaids in attendance. Then came troops of salsa dancers. And then more. The costumes were various, a few outlandish. Flamenco frills. Some majorettes. Some non-descript advertising floats. More salsa. I don’t like salsa. I was getting bored. The most amusing events were the late arrivals racing to catch their troop dressed as Captain America or riding an ostrich. I left a little early but got a view of the remaining floats anyway. Some of these were the best but only because they were corporate sponsored – massive starbursts of orange Fanta exploding skyward.
In the evening there was a concert “massive” down near the bland waterfront with its plastic strewn little beach. There were about a million people there but hardly any music. Quite a lot of shouting by a couple of guys sporadically trying to get a call and response going while talking crap in a vaguely rhythmic way. Most of the Carnavalistas couldn’t see even the on-stage big screen they were so far away and were not very engaged by the call and response. A lot of them, the short ones, did have periscopes though, the manufacture of which was clearly a major cottage industry, and through which they could see some palm trees or the vaguely luminescent dark square of the stage blocking the usual view of an oil rig or two. The only alternative was the The zocalo plaza, fringed by the cathedral and my hotel amongst others, and now centred upon a another very big stage all professionally lit and with raucous rappers grabbing their crotches and swinging around followed by, of course, salsa. The locals dance fabulously well, pulling some magic moves. I suck, pretty much. Some guys came running through beating on some other guy in revenge, apparently, and within a minute a dozen lads were being frisked down on the cathedral wall by the same battalion as led the parade. The best thing I saw all night was the Carnaval from Rio on the terrace-bar TV. It was un-bloody-believable. Visual sumptuousity on an epic scale. Floats of heavenly proportions, led by the angelic host, actually in the air, and squadrons of nymphette samba dancers with more feathers than Qetzalcoatl. Hope to catch that party later.
To the south of the Caribbean coast at Veracruz extends a flat and humid land, early colonized by the Spanish and now given over to sugar cane and cows. Blue streams braid the bunch grass and herons wait in number by the convoluted waters. There are small and picturesque colonial period towns and in some of these brujos (witches) still hold much sway in the lives of the local people. The mountains rise after a few hours’ drive and you enter Oaxaca state. I didn’t meet any of the coastal brujos but I was taking a detour into the Sierra Mazateca where there was more folk magic afoot. The northern most ranges in Oaxaca are grand and rounded and thickly wooded (still, substantially) and well-watered even in February. Ravines in the cloud forest provide unique habitat for rare species including the formerly endemic Salvia Divinorum, an unusual psychoactive plant that has recently been a huge hit in the west, and psilocybin mushrooms and morning glories which were huge hits in the 1960s’s. All of these flora have been locally used for healing and divination since time immemorial. I had to wait around a while at the end of the regular bus service route to catch a ride for the last couple of hours to Huautla de Jimenez in the back of an open top “collectivo” pickup truck. Green mountain walls towered behind the village. It was a fun way to travel, passing along the base of massive bare bluffs and thickly forested slopes rising exponentially from the valley floor. We wound around and up and threaded a way through the fastness into the high, rolling country, breaching luminous clouds that billowed from below and into the bright, wide sky. Huautla was a clean town of 50,000 Mazatec souls which, from a distance, gave the impression of a whole bunch of colourful garbage that had rolled down the steep folds of the valley. My hotel had awesome views but the centre was noisy without being interesting. Next day I took a taxi to find some waterfalls and caves in the adjacent valley. We met with success but not without much cajoling for information from kids and others along the spectacular dirt road and a quixotic scramble up a near cliff to the hidden cave. The land is all limestone and maw-like openings in the crust of the earth lend a certain underworld prestige to the region.
Back in town things were mundane despite the mushroom painted taxis and churches. One church, Virgen de los Remedios, had an enormous bowl of mushrooms on one side of the entrance and a cornucopia of maize and fruit on the other. While the local people were obviously still proud of their heritage, things were lot different from the hippie heyday. It was in 1955 that J.P. Morgan vice-president and ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson visited the curandera María Sabina’s home in Huatla and became the first known outsider to witness an Indian mushroom ceremony for 450 years. Aztec ceremonies (such as that at the coronation of Moctezuma II) were described by early Spanish friars as demonic communion and stamped out. Three years later Life magazine published Wasson’s article about his adventure and indulgences, effusing about the wondrous visions, wondering about the origin of religion and unleashing the modern magic mushroom upon the world. It also unleashed a torrent of visitors upon the Mazatecs. Albert Hoffman arrived with some new synthetic psilocybin for Maria Sabina (she thought there was little difference) and soon Timothy Leary came. He took the mushrooms and ran with them. As the 60’s wore on the trip became increasingly popular and dozens of hippies were camped out by the river. Bob Dylan visited, John Lennon, Donovan, Pete Townsend and even Mick and Keith. Maria Sabina became a star. She was a visionary poet. The traditional curandera role, however, is curing – the mushrooms show the curandero what is wrong with the patient and how to cure them. I saw one quote in which she said hedonistic use of the mushrooms had ruined their power to heal. Obviously the influx created problems for the other traditional Mazatecs too. Someone set fire to Maria Sabinas house and she had to move to the outskirts of town as a punishment for revealing the ancient secret. The police tried to ban the shrooms and she was repeatedly arrested. Despite this, she remained philosophical, seeing it all as foretold. She died in 1985, aged 91, and remains an underground legend in Mexico. There’s not much to see at her house except the view. Her grandchildren live there and try to sell you a lily from her little alter. Nowadays it’s hard to find a genuine curandero so I didn’t try. Anyway it was the dry season. Despite this, I did have a very strange conversation in the shower with somebody speaking to me through my coughing bathroom pipes. Personally I don’t see what all the fuss was about. Trudge through any boggy, Scottish cow field on a dank, autumnal day and there are more magic mushrooms than you can shake an elf at.
Coming down out of the Sierra Mazateca things get dry and twisted pretty quickly. Much of Oaxaca has that gnarly, rocky landscape of cactus and scrub that evokes reptiles and banditos. Oaxaca City is yet another lovely, colonial Mexican town centred on a somewhat touristy square full of families and vast quantities of balloons. Innocent mayhem ensues in front of a flood lit cathedral. It’s an artsy town, with many galleries, of which I saw only a few, and great restaurants specialising in various, delicious, mole sauces. It is also home to Oaxaca’s largest ethnic group, the Zapotecs, who have lived there for millennia. Back in the day (first millennium AD) they constructed a wee place on the hill outside of town called Monte Alban. They chose quite a spot looking along three separate valleys that coalesce there. All that’s left now are massive, multi-level terraces, a vast, low central plaza lined with ziggurats, a pyramid, a ball court, accommodation buildings and a celestial observatory carved with effigies of the castrated leaders of conquered tribes. In typical Meso-American fashion, the blood spurting from the sorry loins forms pretty floral patterns. OK, so that’s quite a lot that’s still up there. So much in fact that some claim that the over-engineered terraces must logically be UFO landing sites. This has been proposed for a number ancient American cities and, in the case of the Incas, provides explanation for how they (brown people) could possibly have constructed and fitted those laser-cut 10-ton blocks. Personally I think they might just have been very, very clever. On the other hand, they might have thought they were constructing UFO landing pads because they were so high on magic mushrooms. I left Oaxaca on the night bus as Venus, Jupiter and a Cheshire Cat moon lined up in the dusk, feeling a shift in the air. I was headed to Chiapas, home of the Zapatista rebellion and the first state I would reach in the land of the mysterious Maya.
San Cristobal de las Casas is a cool, mountain town set on a grid of low stone buildings. It is not nearly as grand as other colonial towns further west but it has its’ own distinct charm. Recently, there is a strong bohemian culture derived in part from its’ placement in the midst of troubled region and the city has also developed some of the boutique tourism common throughout Mexico, but these changes cease at the edge of town; the surrounding hills contain numerous very traditional Mayan villages. The state of Chiapas is one of the poorest in Mexico and customarily one of the most unequal. From the pine clad mountains to the steaming Lacondon jungle bordering Guatemala, the Mayan campesinos were kept on a tight leash of deprivation and disenfranchisement since the Spanish first arrived here. Things changed rather suddenly on January 1st, 1994, the inaugural day of the North American Free Trade agreement. In an unforeseen attack, around 3,000 local Zapatista militia, named for the most radical protagonist of the Mexican revolution (suggesting a libertarian socialist perspective) took over five municipalities in the state. They were poorly armed, sometimes with just wooden replica rifles, but only one municipality saw heavy resistance. Though the Mexican army quickly took back the towns, things had shifted irrevocably, and the government entered into negotiations to address the ongoing maladies of hundreds of years of racial prejudice. The Zapatistas launched a web-centred media campaign fronted by their eloquent, balaclava-shrouded spokesman Sub-Commandante Marcos. That outreach soon saw sympathetic supporters arriving from Mexico and all over the world. Whilst Marcos became a modern icon of rebellion actual progress remains inconclusive. Things are very slow to change on the ground in Chiapas. Right wing paramilitaries exacted vengeance of many villages in the late ‘90s and 32 locales in Chiapas remain so-called “rebel autonomous Zapatista municipalities” where “the people commands and the government obeys”; this despite government money pouring into the communities in an attempt to placate local militancy.
Visiting today, one of the first things that are apparent is the paucity of police and military. Compared to other Mexican cities, gripped by the war against some of the drug cartels, San Cristobal is a haven of safety and tranquility. In the villages the “police” are all locals and patrol clad in sheepskin and cowboy hats. Apart from tourism, the economy is mostly local too. The basic Mayan diet of maize, beans and squash (just like New England) is quite healthy but mass produced, NAFTA-imported tortillas are robbing them of nutrition. Village living conditions are simple and until very recently houses were traditional thatch and earthen-floored but there has been a wave of concrete block construction with the influx of government money. Despite this poverty is still an obvious feature of daily life and one that is almost exclusively burdens the indigenous people. Shoeless old ladies beg in the streets of San Cristobal and an endless parade children hawk candy to latte-sipping tourists and expats. Clad in pink and indigo blouse-like huipiles, local ladies resolutely ply the town centre with their beautiful textiles, dolls and accessories. It’s a buyers market. The children don’t attend school and nobody can really get ahead. I heard it said that some of the kids work for syndicates, rather than their families, and are prevented from sleeping if they don’t get the sales. They certainly seem a little desperate on occasion. It’s hard to enjoy your latte under the circumstances, as it should be.
The villages near San Cristobal are exclusively Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayan. Life is centred around farming and religion. The religion is syncretic, by coercion. The Chamula were one of the least co-operative groups in the region. The Spanish had to jump through endless hoops to “convert” them, even though the people had been reduced to slavery. So many hoops, in fact, that worship in Chamula essentially continues to venerate nature, the ancestors and the old Mayan gods. St. John the Baptist was brought in to supplant the god of rains and summer fertility, with his watery initiations and convenient mid-summer commemoration. He takes centre place above the altar at the fascinating village church but there is a painting of a Jaguar on the ceiling above him. The main hall is smoky from hundreds of candles set on alters and all over the floor which is thick with pine-needles. Old ladies drone prayers. Triangular floral drapes angle down from the blackened beams and the walls are lined with saints in carved cases. Sometimes the statues contain Mayan effigies right inside. Everything is covered with enormous bouquets. It was evocative of a Tibetan monastery full of pilgrims doing their devotions. Such is Chamulan Catholicism. This obdurate, stealth paganism can be seen throughout the Mayan region, most picturesquely in Guatemala. Recently, some individuals have converted to evangelical Protestantism, largely as a protest against the Catholic church, which is so deeply implicated in centuries of oligarchic oppression. Unfortunately this presents a crisis for the community as with the Catholicism goes the vestiges of the old ways. Many people have been ejected from the community as a result.
The campesinos were indentured to the landowners right through the 1960’s; virtual slaves. It was an improvement from the first fifty years when, prior to the Papal Bull that announced the Indians had souls, they had been literally treated as animals, being shackled, branded and killed with impunity. The result of years of such trauma is a complete lack of trust on the part of the Maya. They don’t want their children to attend school in Spanish and it is very hard for well-meaning outsiders to make headway. The village looks to itself for authority. With all the pressures of globalization coming down, and the pressures of poverty pushing people out (so many of the men are absent, laboring as migrant workers on American farms) it is hard to see what the future will hold, but the fact that the people are still here and recognizable speaks to their incredible tenacity. Perhaps the shift of the magnetic poles, tentatively prophesied by their fore-fathers in the great cities like Palenque and Chichen-Itza, will knock everyone else sideways and leave them standing.
We don’t want to impose our solutions by force, we want to create a democratic space. We don’t see armed struggle in the classic sense of previous guerrilla wars: that is as the only way and the only all-powerful truth around which everything is organized. In a war, the decisive thing is not the military confrontation but the politics at stake in the confrontation. We didn’t go to war to kill or be killed. We went to war in order to be heard.