Friday, 27 April 2012

San Cristobal: Kakaw, the Museum of Chocolate

Some people know that Chiapas is the home world of chocolate. It's also the largest coffee producer in Mexico, though coffee isn't native here. Until I went to the chocolate museum, Kakaw, I never knew there were so many varieties of cocoa trees, beans, or ways to "do" chocolate.

The God of Chocolate, from the
archeological site, Tonina
The ancient Mayans and Aztecs used chocolate in it's raw form. Roasted beans were ground and then mixed with hot water to become the drink of the Gods. Such a far cry from what we would today consider great chocolate. And such a far cry from the chocolate they whip together in the museum's kitchen. As part of the entrance fee of $30 pesos, you get a relleno, a filled piece of the smoothest most delicious chocolate you may ever taste.

The ceramic comal used to roast
the beans over an open fire.

When Derek was here, we became addicted to a little chocolate shop named Kakao Natura, that serves lovely fresh soft croissants called cuernitas, and a variety of filled and solid chocolates with spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom.  Fillings run the gamut from nougat to nuts to creamy spicy centers with dried fruits. But the real addiction was to their hot chocolate drinks. There are six possibilities, the best of which is the Mayan version with nuts, sugar, chile, ground sesame seeds (or maybe paste) and dark rich cocoa in hot frothed milk. The froth alone is worth a slow spooning, like eating candied air. Derek tried the Mayan version right off the bat. I went for the vanilla, then on another day the cardamom concoction, but after that I stuck with the incredibly delightful chile cocoa. We went there so often that one time, when it was raining hard, we left during a break in the rain, and forgot to pay. They recognized us on the next visit (probably the very next day) and we paid up muy pronto!!

The museum tells the history and importance of cocoa beans. For instance, a man's daily farm labor wage could be paid with 100 cocoa beans, but a live rabbit cost 120, and the services of a "public" woman was 20 beans! The Aztecs, in their demand for tribute, counted cocoa beans in the thousands from their many subjects. What a way to pay one's taxes.

Beans and flowers of the Cacao tree
Pottery and china used specifically for chocolate were in displays along with comals for roasting the beans over an open fire, and the many tools used for cultivation and grinding.

The museum would be well worth the trip, even if they didn't give you a chocolate at the end.

Every woman's dream:
a Chocolate dress

Detail from a mural depicting parrots,
gods, and cocoa pods

Chocolate services, with bates, the
carved wooden sticks for whipping the liquid

European chocolate services, very ornate

Mano y metate, stones for grinding the beans

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

San Cristobal: Some Artists

Forge Fire
My friend Brigitte, from Ajijic, who also has a home here, called me a few days ago. She showed up with three other women who are all interested in crafts and artists. I had taken many photos for Brigitte last April when I was here, and had of course, wanted to do more, but time ran out then for both of us.

One of her friends, Marianne Carlson, is the founder and head "honcha" of the annual Feria Maestros del Arte in Lake Chapala, an artistic exhibition that has grown to huge proportions. Their website: Feria has a lot more information. The purpose of their trip to San Cristobal (with a stop over in Puebla and Oaxaca) is to meet more local artists and find ones they want to invite. The show is unique in that artists can't apply, they must be invited, they are hosted by local families, their travel expenses are often subsidized, and being in the fair costs nothing for them. The whole idea is to provide access to a discerning public so that they might be able to make a living at their craft rather than give it up, and lose it. Brigitte has a great interest in art and knows so many of the indigenous people in San Cristobal and the surrounding countryside. She was the perfect person to show them around. So I got to tag along and take pictures!!
Guadalupe at the forge in his workshop

We went to visit Guadalupe. I met him last summer when he was in the Santa Fe Folk Arts Festival. It was truly the trip of his life. He got to meet other craftsmen from all over the world and go out drinking with them, see the United States, albiet a portion of it that bears a great resemblance to equally desert-y areas of Mexico, and his traditional crosses sold fairly well at the show. I was impressed with the variety of other items he's made; locks in the shape of animals and plants, chastity belts (I'm not kidding!), lamps, candle holders, furniture, and of course the ornate crosses.

Our little entourage also visited several women's weaving and sewing co-operatives. There are at least four shops in town where the co-ops sell their woven goods, all are beautiful and the pieces are such time-consuming works of art.

Sculpted book covers 
On a different day, we visited Los Leñateros. A leñatero is a woodcutter, but in this case, they use wood pulp and other fibers to make paper, print hand made books, sculptures and other works of art. It was a fine day and many sheets of paper were drying in the back patio in the bright sunshine. Our guide said they used to employ many more people, but sales have dropped off and they are down to only 14. In the shop, we saw some of the custom work they do for others, including an incredible sculpted book for the Japanese market, featuring the Mayan story about the birth of the sun-god.

On our tour we watched some women make paper from wood pulp, saw the bicycle driven machine used to grind up cardboard and banana leaf fibers. Another woman was making book covers from pulp and black fibers into which she embedded shiny bits from broken CDs. In a little room, the guide showed us paper, stacked floor to ceiling on shelves, of every color and size you can imagine. Most of the paper was colored naturally from plants; purple from pansies, yellow from sun flowers, reddish from dirt and clay, browns from banana leaves, and red from cochineal bugs (or the modern chemical  dye equivalent).

Capturing the wet paper fibers on a screen

Lifting the frame off the wet paper. The big
sponge was used to soak up the excess water.

Book cover with CD pieces

Every color under the rainbow

In Mexico, even a sidewalk
can be an opportunity
to make art.
Old traditional ironwork: chastity belts

Fast hammer

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

San Cristobal: The Orchid Preserve

Stairway to orchid heaven

Orchid greenhouse at Moxviquil.

Way out on the northern edge of San Cristobal, Chiapas, along the Periferico Norte (a major highway), lies a tract of forested land where a man named Cisco has built a preserve for orchids and bromeliads. It is called Orquideas Moxviquil. Moxviquil (Moshveekeel) means navel of the world according to the Chamulans (see post: Chamula and Zinacantan ) who once owned the land. They still use the trails all through this section of forest to travel on foot from San Cristobal, over the range, to their village. The network of trails is like a spider's web and it would be very easy to get lost up there, except that you can always head down hill and eventually make it to the Periferico and the city.

The center has several buildings. Some are accommodations for visiting students, a conference building for classes, and several green houses, the most beautiful of which looks like something out of a Tolkien novel. Inside are the lowland orchids, that require hotter temperatures. It has lots of glass for solar gain, a ceiba tree (the sacred tree of life in Mayan mythology), many jungle plants and tons of orchids and bromeliads. At least 20 were in bloom the day we visited. Since these are all wild plants, the blooms are quite small and not at all what one is accustomed to seeing in florist shops around the world. One set of yellow blossoms smelled like cinnamon.

Cisco is very gregarious and knowledgeable, passionate and talkative. He probably would have talked all day about the way this center was created, how he went out into the local logging operations to rescue the rare plants before the trees were dragged off, and how much effort has gone into growing people's awareness. Mostly it is the local Mayans he wants to impress with the importance of saving these species. They are lured constantly to sell off their lands, water and logging rights, and let large corporations come in and purchase (for a pitance really) their valuable commodities. Cisco is on a one-man mission to show them how much better their lives can be if they don't fall for that lifestyle and instead develop their areas in sustainable ways, including eco-tourism. He is originally from New Orleans, and speaks Spanish fluently, plus a lot of Tsotsil. Students from all over the world come to volunteer and study at the center, it is known world wide as one of the best collections of wild orchids, and Cisco knows every plant's common and scientific names and environmental needs. Some students have also collected mushrooms and tree fungus, transplanting the mycilia around the grounds. Quite a few have taken hold. It is an impressive center, and well worth the $30 peso entrance fee.

I had gone there with my friend Arnulfo, and my visiting friend Derek. Arnulfo is very concerned about another property on the perifery of San Cristobal, a bio-sphere preserve that belongs to the state, donated by Gertrudis Blom, a famous environmentalist, but has no apparent funding or protection. At this time in history, many people are moving into San Cristobal and they encroach on this property by building houses. Plus they randomly cut firewood without any knowledge or regard for the rare plants that live in the bio-sphere.  While Cisco had many "war" stories about trying unsuccessfully to save tracts of land and didn't think that this one could really be saved, he encouraged Arnulfo to do everything in his power to make it happen. Miracles happen regularly in Mexico, as we all know.

Orchids that smell of cinnamon.

More tiny orchids in bloom.
Rare bromeliads, used by the Chamulans
for their religious ceremonies

Conference center at Orquideas Moxviquil

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Chiapas: Held up on the way to Tonina

On Tuesday, Derek and I went to Tonina. Since I've been there twice before and taken a jillion photos, I won't do more here than post a few of the nicer new ones. Check these previous posts for more about the archeological site:  Tonina-The Return Trip and Tonina-Mayan City State

It promised to be an excellent day, and it was, except that we were delayed by a hold-up and extortion, which apparently is not uncommon in Mexico.

We caught a combi at one of the many little bus companies along the carretera that runs from Tuxtla to Comitan. They leave when they fill up. The little Toyota van was packed with people, we were the last two to board. That high mountain road to Ocosingo is scary to me, but Derek didn't seem to mind the aggressiveness of the driver, he drives like that too. It was the usual: zoom ahead, slow down fast, bump up over a tope (speed bump), zoom on to the next one. This driver knew the road so well that the speed at which he approached each tope was just slow enough to get over it quickly without destroying the shocks. Since they vary in size and shape each one demands a different tactic.

About half the people disembarked at a little town so we were able to spread out, stretch our legs a little, and be more comfortable. That was a good thing, we were destined to be in the combi for a long time.

 After descending to an almost tropical town and then heading back up into the mountains, suddenly we were stopped behind a long line of cars that curved around up ahead. We waited. And waited. The line moved one then maybe two car lengths every few minutes, as if there were an accident and the police were only letting a car or two go by at once. Occasionally other cars came from the opposite direction. A guy in a yellow pickup decided he'd had enough, pulled out of line and went zooming past us. Next thing we knew he was backing up as fast as he could, being chased backwards by a giant truck. The line of cars had filled in of course and there was no place for the yellow pickup to pull over.

Our pleasant captivity on a beautiful day
After an interminable wait, our driver hopped out, went down the line and apparently chatted with other combi drivers behind us. Derek figured they must have formulated a plan because shortly after that some combis zoomed past us and pulled into the line up ahead. Then we did the same since those combis left a space for us to move into. This leap frogging continued for a while and we made a bit of progress.  An hour or so into this we came around a corner and could see the hold-up. Literally, the little town was holding up traffic in both directions. They used long 2x4 pieces of wood with nails protruding up to puncture the tires of any car that tried to cross. One fellow 'manned' the wood, sliding it away from and into the paths of cars forcing them to stop or allowing them to move on, while three others talked to each driver. They wanted $30p and in return handed the driver a sheet of paper. Our driver laughed and joked with them, paid the thirty pesos and we zoomed on. I asked to see the paper and he handed it back. Apparently this was the 93rd anniversary of the assasination of Emiliano Zapata. All that he'd fought for is now being lost and this little town was pissed about it. On the other hand, it was also an occasion for some levity and celebration. The whole town had turned out for the extortion project. Dozens of men watched the proceedings while lounging on the grass, sitting on fences posts, or listening to music in their parked cars. No women or children were in evidence. We wondered what they planned to use the money for. By the end of the day they would have many thousands of pesos.

The Stairway to Heaven

Derek on top of the highest pyramid

It was a little after noon when we got to Tonina, so we still had plenty of time to explore the ruins, and maybe see a bit of the museum. The weather couldn't have been better. Clouds came and went, but mostly we were in their shade. The place wasn't exactly deserted but there certainly were no crowds and it felt like we had it all to ourselves. The climb to the top was fun, and a bit exciting. That last stairway is steep and narrow, rising about 40 feet at a sharp angle. Going up wasn't difficult, using hands and feet, but coming back down was almost terrifying, it was difficult to see where your feet might rest. But the bottom, way way down there, was all too visible!

Through a roofed in section
View from the very top

One of the finer examples of
a Mayan roof comb
Landscape, playing in the sunlight

At the end of the day, a worker took a shine to us and offered to open up a locked building to let us see murals and sculptures. Inside was a cross and it's base, lying on its side, and down a dark passageway were remnants of murals, with many colors still intact, complete with carved date figures. It was impressive!

With little time left, we headed for the museum and saw most of the front part before they closed. Afterwards we ate a snack at the open air palapa restaurant, with roaming chickens and a very friendly (and relatively clean) dog who satisfied Derek's need to pet one. We met a combi coming in just as we were ready to leave and slowly made our way back to Ocosingo where we waited for the bus to fill up sufficiently. The little 'extraction' town had shut down its roadblock, but then we waited another half hour or so for a wreck to be cleared in the darkness. It was surely a day of hurry up and wait, but fortunately, we didn't have to wait for a pizza in San Cristobal when we arrived hungry and tired.

The unusual cross on a base

"Goal posts" in the ball court

A section of the mural inside
the locked building
Final goal post, a man in the sacrificial position,
about to lose his head.

Face of the sacrificial victim.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Chiapas: Chamula and Zinacantan

While my friend Derek was here, he wanted to go out into the countryside to do a bit of sightseeing, now that we'd walked over much of the city. He came at the most crowded moment during the year, Semana Santa, Holy Week, the week before Easter. So on Holy Thursday, we went on a guided tour with Alex and Raul. Our very multi-ligual guide Cesar, and Raul (who mostly gives the tour in Spanish) took us to Chamula and Zinacantan.
Cemetery in Chamula

These two villages are Tsotsil speaking Mayan towns, related to each other but so very different in customs, religion, and dress. They are about four miles apart as the crow flies, but since there is a small mountain range between them, the road goes the long way round.

Chamula was first on the tour. We stopped at the cemetery to see an abandoned church and many old and newer graves. Cesar explained that the color of the crosses is significant, white is for babies, and green for adults, blue for the oldest people. Some graves had four or five crosses stacked one in front of the other. These signified the number of years the person had been gone. I wondered when they quit putting up a new cross every year. Would five be sufficient?

I had been to Chamula before, with Brigitte, about a year ago. She is not terribly fond of Chamulans, thinks they are dirty and rude. So my impression of the town and the people was not the best. Cesar was quite lively in his discussions about their religion which is an amalgam of Catholicism and their older Mayan beliefs. They had kicked out priests on a regular basis over the last 400 years, the last one left in the 60's. However, once a month, with an invitation, a priest from San Cristobal will come to baptize babies. The people worship the saints as each one holds the same position as a previous Mayan god. Jesus and Mary are the Sun and Moon, father and mother of the world. Other saints that protect travelers, babies, wood workers, homes, etc are worshipped with old ceremonies, rituals and sacrifices of chickens (these days) not people. Although apparently a 14 year old boy was sacrificed in a crucifiction some years ago (to the horror of the local priest) so the Chamulans could have their own Christ.

Effigy in Chamula
This Thursday before Easter, there was an effigy of a man hanging from the arch of the church's front door. He was dressed in western clothing, had a beard and very European face, with a large pink penis protruding from his zipper. Last year at a different indigenous village, I'd seen a similar effigy. I was told it was Judas, and that he would be burned in a bonfire before Easter. That man had a sign with a poem on it which probably indicated who he really was, more than likely a politician!

In side the church were at least a thousand people, slowly moving in long lines past the saints and reclining Jesus in a glass case. The air was blue with smoke from candles and incense. Young men with large white containers of water shoved through the crowd. Somewhere in the center, a holy communion of sorts was being served, water mixed with flowers and plant extracts. Off to one side, a line of flowers in vases with many candles sat in front of two rows of seated  women who were dressed in white cloth that covered them from head to toe. These were the widows and women who had never married. Sitting and praying like this is a service they provide the community for four years, after which they are not allowed to marry again. Most of the women were pretty old.  The guide said just get in line and follow the people into the bowels of the church, but after five minutes of being squeezed on all sides, and unable to breathe the gray air, Derek and I dropped out of the line and went outside.

Cesar called us back in when the group reassembled to tell us more about the rituals and people of Chamula. Here, men are allowed to have more than one wife, if they can afford to. Girls are given in arranged marriages, but the girl has the right to refuse if she's not happy with the proposed groom. She can't go pick one for herself though. People marry very young and have lots of children. I've seen young women nursing babies who look to be as young as 14. It's not uncommon to see little girls, 8 or 9 years old, carrying a baby in a sling just like their mothers, while the mother has another infant at her breast.

Since the Catholic church has nothing to do with Chamula and doesn't supply them with a priest, the spiritual leaders are volunteers, usually older men and their wives, who come to Chamula to oversee a year's worth of rituals. They rent a home, buy tons of fireworks, candles, sacred plants, and incense with their own money. Each day they must perform prayers, light candles and incense, and plan religious activities with the other leaders. They serve a population of about 80,000 people. Needless to say, they would have had to save up for a long time to perform this service. At the end, they return to their own homes where they are well respected by their neighbors.

Chamula church and huge Easter Week fair

Outside the church, which appeared to be on fire, there was so much smoke rising from every crack in the roof, Cesar pointed out the jail and the cops, men in black hairy tunics with a billy club of sorts strapped over their shoulders. The jail is open air and anyone can walk by and see the person incarcerated. This sort of humiliation tends to keep people in line. For serious crimes, capital punishment is in order, but since that is against Mexican law, the perpetrator must be turned over to the federal police. Other than those, all crime is handled internally in the village. They must be doing something right, because there is very little crime, and the jail was empty, except for a man sleeping in front of the bars on the women's side.

Smoke billowing out the church's doors

Alcohalism is a terrible problem in all the indiginous villages, and in San Cristobal too. The native people are missing an enzyme to process alcohol effectively, so many get completely plastered on one beer. To make matters worse, there is a sugar-alcohol made from locally grown cane called POX (posh) that is like white lightning. I took a sip once. My stomach burned and refused to forgive me until the next day. Pox is prominent in the rituals of the Chamulans (mixed with sacred CocaCola) and it's not uncommon to find men (mostly) lying around the plaza or slumped over walls, or on the sidewalks of San Cristobal.

On the other side of the mountain is Zinacantan, a small city of lovely homes and clean streets. Hundreds of hothouses spread over the hillsides like long white grubs nestled in a green lawn. The town provides flowers to most of southern Mexico. It is a prosperous town with a beautiful Catholic church filled with sweet smelling flowers and saints, covered this week because they are in mourning about losing Jesus. When Jesus rises on Easter morning, they will be uncovered.

Chamulan man in the hairy tunic with
his son in the market

The women wear the most beautiful embroidered black cotton skirts, as opposed to the black hairy wool skirts of the Chamulans. The skirts (of all the indigenous women) are nothing more than a large rectangle of cloth that is wrapped with specific folds around the waist, and then belted with a wide belt that is tied in the front. On top they all wear colorful blouses, but of very different styles. In Zinacantan, they also often wear a cape that is heavily embroidered over their shoulders.

We visited the church first, and saw a procession of men bringing in a huge cross. A priest in white robes presided over the ceremony. Here people are traditionally Catholic with a few symbols and rituals left over from the old Mayan religion. Outside the three Mayan crosses (painted forest green) were decorated with fresh pine bows. (One can see the three Mayan crosses carved in some of the walls at Palenque.)The floor of the church is often littered with pine needles signifying a deep association with the natural world, and there are few pews in the church as many people prefer to sit on blankets and light candles on the floor. This church had gray walls too, from so much smoke over the years.

Children in Zinacantan
We visited the home of some weavers and were treated to a demonstration of back-strap weaving. The kitchen-house has a wooden roof with a large gap above the walls covering the open fire. A woman was making tortillas and served us some with a variety of interesting salsas.

Cesar told us about the Evangelicals (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Presbyterians) who come to Mexico and try to convert people from Chamula and Zinacantan. He claims that the Evangelicals only want converts and have no idea of the destruction of people's lives that it causes. If someone decides to reject their native religion they are not allowed to be part of the community. They no longer have support or access to community resources. They don't own the means to make a living (land, a house), and most converts are relegated to a life of poverty. Some might see rejecting people as intolerance, but Cesar says those people are welcome back anytime they want to rejoin as full members, and adhere to the ideas and rules of the village. He sees the Evangelicals as intolerant because they come to the villages with the message that "Your religion is wrong, ours is right, and the only path to God is our path." He pointed out that you'll never see an indigenous person trying to convert Christians to their native religion! People who have been asked to leave are welcomed back as visitors to see their families, although this was a different story than I've heard from others in San Cristobal. The primary reason for kicking converts out is so the villages can preserve their old religion, lifestyle, and beliefs without constant interference and upheaval. Otherwise, it would disappear. It's not unlike fighting a big logging company to preserve an old forest.

Three Mayan Crosses in front of the
Zinacantan Catholic church

Friday, 6 April 2012

Chiapas: Lagunas de Montebello

View down into one of the larger lakes.
It's good to give yourself a few days to chill, get back into the routine of living somewhere after a very long trip. But after a week of renewed Spanish lessons, catching up with friends, wandering around San Cristobal, eating pizza at El Punto slathered in the Mexican version of Worchestershire sauce (called Salsa Ingles), and all the other fun stuff to do, I was ready for another little trip.

Laurie, me, and Holly about to take off. Then
the rower showed up to take us
across the lake!
Lagunas de Montebello hit the spot. Laurie, an American woman who has befriended me, organized a guide with a van and six of us proceeded to zoom south through Teopisca and Comitan to a land of sunken lakes. The Lagunas de Montebello National Park is an area of old volcanic calderas, judging from the rocks and the fact that none of the lakes have an outlet. Our guide, Alex, said the lakes hook to each other underground, and since they are high, more than likely the water flows out from springs at lower altitudes. From a satellite map, I can't see obvious evidence of the lakes having formed in a caldera, but it may have been a series of eruptions over time making small low spots within a much larger volcanic system. The lakes are incredible, surrounded by temperate rain forest that is loaded with bromiliads and orchids, and each lake is a different vivid color. The park is large and spread out. Communities "own" certain lakes in it, so the guide ended up paying small amounts for us to enter different sections. One lake had a large sign forbidding swimming, the water is the drinking water for a nearby village. Another much larger lake not only permitted swimming but had boats for rent. Holly, Laurie and I rented a row boat with the intention of rowing ourselves, but the price included a young man who expertly took us out to a small island, and then let us inexpertly attempt to row ourselves back. When Holly got us headed back to the island, he took over and we were back to shore shortly. Tom went for a swim in the quite chilly water, and the Israeli couple who were staying at Bela's B&B went for a hike. It's the kind of place you might want to spend a few days exploring. One can rent jeeps and horses for longer treks into the park, and most of the lakes can only be accessed that way, or on foot.
The cenote at Chinkultic, large and deep.

On the way back to San Cristobal, we stopped at the ruins of an old Mayan city, Chinkultic. It is the only city with a cenote in Chiapas, though cenotes (deep wells used for water and drowning-sacrifices) are common among the Mayan cities in the Yucatan. We were able to climb to the top of the ruins before getting kicked out at 5:30, closing time. It was not well excavated, though the main plaza with ball court and sacrificial altars were exposed and in good shape. Clearly it is a much larger city than it looks, as most of the buildings are still covered with vegetation.

After all that, we were starved and our guide took us to a lovely hacienda and coffee plantation. It is also a bed and breakfast, with an outdoor restaurant covered with a palapa. It rained, and then poured rain, then let up and sprinkled, then rained again over the course of our nice dinner of soup and guacamole.

The Hacienda on the coffee plantation

Surrounding the hacienda were coffee 'trees', fairly short bushes with red berries, interspersed with banana plants, some of which were heavy with green bananas. I had been told once, by a man from Hawaii, that the red coffee beans are tasty so I popped a few in my mouth. They look like small cherries. Inside the sweet outer coating are two half-round 'beans' we normally think of as coffee, and they were so pale they were almost white. It's a bit astounding that human beings over time learned to roast those beans to create a beverage that bears no resemblance at all to the taste of the red berries.

One lake was turquoise....

Another lake was sea green.....

Yet another was teal.....

And the last one we visited was the border to Guatemala.

Very odd triangular hole at Chinkultic,
about 2 meters deep.

Portal leading to the bedrooms
at the Hacienda.

Post-note: I'm less convinced now that the Montebello lakes have a volcanic origin (our guide didn't know about the geology). I think they might be limestone sinkholes. It's hard to find good information on the local geology, but treatises on the general geology of Chiapas talk of volcanic activity due to the nearby Pacific Rift, as well as  ancient Carboniferous limestone layers. We saw evidence in volcanic rocks, but the walls of the lakes would indicate some sinking activity, and certainly limestone formations are known to do that! And limestone does form underground rivers which might allow water flow from one lake to another.