Terrestrial Visitation to the Contemporary Mayan Underworld
Words, images and general impressions by Derek White and Jessica Fanzo
(Leg 1 Guatemala)
>> Leg 2 Chiapas, Mexico
(Leg 3 Oaxaca, Mexico)
188.8.131.52.16 10 Kib 14 Tzek (July 7,
2005) — Palenque
Woke up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the bus to Palenque. The bus driver and his sidekick (the one who collects the tickets and takes care of the baggage) were complete beauts. They were yelling shit at everyone, whistling at girls, honking, and pulling immature pranks, acting like they were the shit for having their jobs. This sort of display of pride comes off as amateurish compared to Mexico. Mexican bus drivers flaunt their status with gusto, but they do it with sauvé style.
We were on the dirt road from hell for 3 or 4 hours, the driver driving like a complete maniac, fishtailing and skidding in the dirt, bottoming out on bumps and spitting gravel and rocks like a demon. We stopped at some junction with roadside tables that was akin to purgatory. Before crossing the river Styx into Mexico. Whatever you call that sort of place. Dozens of emaciated dogs sniffed the barren dirt. Pigs, chickens, people, dogs—all coalescing, in transition. Eating and shitting. Eating each other's shit. Wolfing down tamales and Nescafe.
Continued to the border. "Immigrations" was a small stand that looked like Lucy’s psychiatric help stand in Peanuts. Seriously. It had dirt floors. It's amazing that they are able to keep records. If they do in fact.
Proceeded to the shores of the river Usumacinta. Howler monkeys were howling from across the river. Mexico on the other side. Apocalypse Now came into my mind. Mosquitoes and other bugs feasting on my ankles. Treacherous brown currents were moving fast, spinning in eddies and whirlpools. Water as thick as chocolate, that would suck you down if we capsized. A distinct possibility, a dozen or so of us, mostly gringos, all silent and scared, wondering what’s to become of us. Trusting that it's safe. People have done this before, right? Otherwise it would make the news, or they would warn us about it in guide book, right? It was a beautiful boat ride if you can subtract the fear of drowning. Do you try to save your luggage or kick off all your clothes and swim naked to the shore. And which shore? And the shore of what, the middle of the jungle? Then what?
I was reading Michael Kimball’s The Way the Family Got Away when I had the chance, whose protagonist, or one of them, the older brother, was obsessed with shedding possessions as they traveled. Shedding possessions like they were some sort of travel tax. A payment to get further and further away. This is what we were doing. Leaving things behind—clothes, sweat, books, excrement. And consuming new things along the way. When in motion I tend to monitor my input and output. I try not to eat or drink to much because you never know when you will be able to stop to rid yourself of excess.
The voices of the brother and sister in Kimball's book are reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Except they are both carrying their younger brother’s ashes instead of their mother’s corpse. The brother considers the intrinsic value of the items in terms of how far (geographically) these traded items will get them. The little sister regresses even further, re-enacting, with dolls, bringing her dead brother back to life. The writing is beautiful and childlike, dispersed in discrete parcels. Action and reaction. Causes you to step back and reconsider the simple things in life we take for granted when seen through the eyes of a child.
The difference between Mexico and Guatemala was like night and day. The jungle on the Guatemalan side was burned out and dried up. People were living in extreme poverty. The roads and busses were crappy, and I hate to say it but the people for the most part were unfriendly and unhelpful, at least outside of the highland areas of Guatemala. I guess I don’t blame them under the circumstances. But Mexico—new busses, new paved roads, thick pristine jungle. Everything green. The jungle engulfing the roads. And while Mexicans are poor, they are usually in good spirits and carefree. Free to speak their minds. It's not a desperate poverty. They don’t show the scars of oppression that Guatemalans show. They are laidback, yet proud. Of course the Mexican customs official was a complete ass as you’d imagine. He tried to drag out the procedure as long as he could, to exert and revel in his control as the gatekeeper. We were probably the only people he saw all day. And he treated my Guatemalan visa which was still in my passport like a used piece of toilet paper.
Then on Mexican roads to Palenque. A continuous stream of butterflies flashing by against the flanking shoulders of jungle engulfing the road. Traveling in Mexico is unbridled and hassle-free. We caught our breath in town after the 7 hour journey. Sat down to eat while a TV showed images of the bombings in London. We could tell that other Americans and Brits weren’t aware of it. On vacation, in oblivion. We tried to be.
Jess Exploring Palenque
Got a cheap hotel, changed money and headed for the ruins. For better or worse, Palenque is more organized than Tikal. Everything is not as spread out, and was well-restored and preserved. Magnificent jungle backdrop with towering pyramids, white marbly stone. The murals are better preserved than Tikal. Palenque was built mostly under the reign of Pakal in 600-700 AD. This is my 3rd or 4th time here, though since my last visit it sure has changed. You can’t go to the top of the Temple of the Inscriptions or go down into the tomb. You can still go into the tomb of the red queen, but there was not much in there. The remains were in a museum. And the town of Palenque and surrounding area is all built up. Maybe it always was, I just didn't remember. And there were areas at the ruins I don’t think were open before, like the Grupo de Las Cruces, and I guess they’ve made some more discoveries in the past 5 years or so. Awe-inspiring stuff. We were herded out at exactly 5:45 even though there was plenty of daylight left, so we were a bit rushed to see everything. Would’ve liked to stand in the ballcourt and imagine, but not even time for that.
184.108.40.206.17 11 Kaban 15 Tzek (July 8, 2005) — San Cristóbal de las Casas
Hung out in Palenque (town) plaza last night. Marimba band and dancing. Crappy enchiladas suizas. Next morning caught a Cristóbal Colon super bus, ultra modern, fully accessorized. Unbelievably lush jungle. Pristine green. Overgrown. Never see soil. All green. Windy road. Front seat, full peripheral. The jungle slowly giving way to pine forests with grassy pastures, with grazing goats and sheep. And then into San Cristóbal. The state of Chiapas is definitely beautiful, it has everything, except good beaches.
San Cristobal Zocalo after Rain
We got a hotel in San Cristóbal right on the plaza, Hotel Santa Clara. The hotel owner is in a wheelchair, some rich guy who lives in one of the wings. Reminds me of Jorge Borges for some reason. Big red guacamaya parrots in the courtyard sqwuaked and talked and pulled their feathers out. Trying to sleep now above the bar. We joined the fun for a while, the salsa band playing Santana covers songs while Mexico lost to South Africa in the Copa de Oro.
We are in the heart of Zapatista territory now. Their presence is prevalent. Marcos is a regular pop icon here. They sell Marcos dolls and Marcos T-shirts everywhere, and other action figure dolls with black ski masks. Reminds me of the Ninja turtle fad.
Marcos Meme (view the full Mexican meme gallery)
In general, the hipness here is a bit dated—hippie drum circles in the plaza bandstands with dazed gringo recruits. Seemingly cultish. But the Zapatista influence is intriguing (http://www.ezln.org). Even though it is a dated movement, and there seems to have been little activity since Fox was elected. And whether you believe the propaganda fueled by the internet, or buy into Marcos as a household commodity, or for that matter believe in their motives and tactics, you have to admit they looked pretty fucking bad ass and revolutionary doing it. They had a face to their movement. That's more than anyone in the states can say.
And the street art is top-notch. Graffiti, stencils and glued-up flyers everywhere. All the walls in a perfect state of decay, the perfect breeding ground for memes. Everything weathers so nicely here. I found myself taking more pictures of walls and memes than anything else. I came looking for Mayan hieroglyphics and this is what I saw. I posted a gallery of the pictures here. Or more than memes, the look of the distressed walls, or residual meme adhesion.
for the Virgen
220.127.116.11.18 12 Etz'nab 16 Tzek (July 9, 2005) — San Cristóbal
I’ve been leaving read books and old worn clothes behind, acquiring new possessions as I go. I acquired a goatskin satchel. Some more T-shirts with roosters and glyphs. And taking pictures of course. Impressions. For a while I was leaving behind stubble, but they took away my razor on the plane to Tikal, so now I am growing a scruffy beard.
Today we ventured over to Went to Na Bolom, a museum and cultural center founded by the Danish/Swish power couple of Franz & Trudy Blom. He was a renowned archaeologist, and she was an excellent photographer. Some of her photographs can be seen here, though I wish we would've purchase her book as I don't find a lot of her work online. They pretty much dedicated their lives to studying and preserving the culture of the Lacandons and other indigenous populations of Chiapas that are direct descendents of Mayans. Last time I was here, she was alive and it was more of an active research center with scientists and artists coming and going, but now it seems more of a museum or shrine to the Bloms and their work.
Wandered the streets more. walked around the streets of San Cristobal. More churches. Saw a wedding. Memes and graffiti around every corner. The market. Didn’t take many pictures of people as they weren’t too open to it unless you paid them. So we took pictures of walls. Got caught in downpour. Had a great meal at Fogen de Jovel. Best meal so far, had pollo Pepian. Also sampled two local liquors, Posh—sugarcane and corn liquor made by Tzotzils in Chiapas and Comiteco—an agave alcohol made by the Tojo Latel near the Guatemalan border.
Each street vendor here has a unique sound to induce a Pavlovian response. The gas truck drags a bunch of metal rings on the road. The water truck rings a cowbell. The knife-sharpener blows a slide whistle. The ice cream truck plays a monotone version of "raindrops keep falling on my head." There are cars whose sole purpose is to drive slowly and blare crazed and distorted ads over tinny loud speakers mounted to the roof, or solicit with a megaphone out the windows. That kind of shit just wouldn't fly in the states.
come night, everyone flocks to the plaza outside our window. Music from the
bars, music from the bandstands, music from street musicians and passing cars,
all competing, and ratcheting it up a notch. The bar below us has a live band.
People screaming to be heard over all the noise. At what point we were laughing
because all the noise was so loud that our windows were rattling in the frames.
We left NY for some peace and quiet and these small towns are even louder!
On the player now as I write, Rage Against the Machine.
These are her mountains and skies and she radiates
Through history's rivers of blood she regenerates
And like the sun disappears only to reappear
she's eternally here
Her time is near
Never conquered but here
To tear away at the mask
18.104.22.168.19 13 Kawak 17 Tzek (July 10, 2005) — San Juan Chamula
Went on a tour to San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. Had this tour guide name Crazy Mario who looked like Edie Van Halen with his parachute pants and mullet and grabbed his crotch a lot. But he provided some interesting insight to what we were looking. The Chamulans call themselves pure Catholics, though many of their practices border on pagan. They adopted the cross because it fit in with their obsession with the number four. They just got rid of Jesus and replaced him with a corn sprig. The graveyard had crosses color-coded according to age at death and the people that died in car accidents had mile markers on their graves instead of a cross or tombstone. People that died in the mountains had a rock from that mountain. They are buried with all their clothes, jewelry and cherished possession, including bottles of Coca-Cola! Coke definitely adds life here.
You're not allowed to take pictures of people here. Evidently it makes it "harder" for them to go to heaven if you do, even though everyone automatically goes to heaven and there is no such thing as hell. Too bad as they had a pretty hip way of dressing. The “authorities” wore wooly black ponchos, tasseled color hats, and their body guards had white wooly ponchos and sticks on their belts and the authority to beat people with them. If you took their picture they would probably use their sticks on you. They put the macho in machismo. They were all drinking posh to purify themselves (at 10 a.m.). As Crazy Mario pointed out, it was just another good excuse to get hammered.
We fought our way into the church, right in the midst of a “collectivo baptismo,” an assembly line of parents toting their fresh crying babies with white tunics. candles everywhere. Fire hazard. Offerings of candles, incense, eggs, chickens, and, of course, Coca-Cola. Changing with the times. The coke is for health, makes you burp evil up faster than the old chicha they used to use. It was claustrophobic in the church, and hot with candle heat. People pushing, flames licking, incense burning, chickens flapping their wings as people rubbed them on their body parts that ailed. Crazy Mario chain-smoked and grabbed his crotch. Photos are forbidden, but smoking in church is okay. So is drinking. Go figure. Smoking and drinking purifies the soul, whereas pictures steal the soul. Makes sense I guess.
Distant Photo Outside of the Forbidden Zone
The funny thing is that a lot of the houses are very nice, with SUVs and Lexuses parked out front. Standing in line at the banks you'd see these women barefoot and with their traditional garb on with thick wads of 100 dollar bills, casually making a deposit. I guess sending their kids off to hawk chiclets and whine for a few pesos pays off. Mario pointed out that Chiapas is actually one of the richest states in Mexico, as far as natural resources. Lots of oil and good farmland. But then you'd see a contradicting image, kids squatting on those nice lawns and taking a watery shit. They got to do something about that here. Solid poop should be a priority on their agenda. As well as distribution of wealth.
Then we went on to San Lorenzo Zinacantan. Stopped to eat quesadillas and homemade tortillas and fresh salsa, made in a traditional Tzotzil kitchen by a traditional Tzotzil woman. Pretty cheesy, but delicious none the less.
Making Tortillas (with Crazy Mario adjusting himself in the background).
We also tried fried ants in the market at Chamula which were really tasty. I finally fulfilled one of my lifelong ambitions. The other is to eat grasshoppers, which I'll hopefully chalk off in Oaxaca.
Then Jess and I were scapegoats for modeling traditional Zinacantan clothes. I'm sure the locals got a good laugh out of that.
Headed back to San Cristobal.
Now it's pouring rain of course and we’re sitting drinking coffee waiting for it to stop. But it keeps coming.
This is the rainiest place in Mexico. It's unrelenting. On the TV, Mexico beat Guatemala
4 to 0. I must admit I am a bit disappointed in the level of soccer fanaticism
here. Anywhere else in Central or South America their would be complete
pandemonium if there was an international soccer match going on, especially
against a bordering rival. Here they are just casual observers at best. At
least this far south, bordering on Yucatan where basketball is king. We also saw a bullfight on TV (Pamplona).
Made ourselves watch as they ritualistically murdered one of the bulls that Dennis Rodman ran with, and did a botch job of it.
Trying to appreciate it for the ritual and history of it. But come on señores,
its 2005, can't you use mechanical bulls or something?
>>> On to Leg 3 : Oaxaca, Mexico
(c) 2005 by Derek White and Jessica Fanzo