Apr 24, 2013
Trippin’ up the Mountains
The southern highlands of the State of Chiapas have oft been recommended so we headed out to spend a week in San Cristobal de las Casas. This is about a day and a half drive each way but was worth it to see a region so different from our home here on the coast.
The area was settled by the Spanish in 1528 with the first Catholic church built that year. As San Cristobal grew and became the centre of a diocese, its main cathedral was built in 1721, one of hundreds of mostly Catholic churches in the city today. It is interesting to me as a non-Catholic, that when we these old Mexican cities, we see so many cathedrals, sometimes very near-by to each other. As an outsider, I had thought the Roman Catholics were a homogeneous bunch, all directly connected to the lineage of the one Pope in Rome. However, I have been informed, that through the centuries, religious advocates found ways to form their own interpretations, their own “brands” of what the real, right way to be a good Catholic was. This was quite evident on our tour of San Christobal and some nearby villages and their churches.
These village visits are quite a regular part of the tourist industry there, but it comes with some rules -- there is a toll booth going into the villages, and there were strict prohibitions agains taking photographs inside the churches.
We first visited the small dirt-floored factories where they produced their unique Chiapas textiles. The amazingly bright, hand-woven fabrics from this area are renowned. The native Chiapas women and many men dress in bright floral shawls. We bought a couple of small pieces.
Back to the particular uniqueness of this Catholic church -- imagine a large stone cathedral, with all the statuary, the gold gilt, the coloured windows but with no pews. Instead the whole floor is covered with a thin layer of fresh pine needles, and every day, dozens of people kneeling in prayer. Each supplicant is accompanied by a professional chanter kneeling next to them, who, upon clearing a patch on the floor, places rows of small candles, lights them, and drinking some soda-pop (usually Coke) proceed with their ritualized sing-song chant.
As our guide explained, these religious observances were amazing and bewildering. The soda drink was to encourage burping which encouraged negative spirits to leave you. All this and no pictures, please.
San Cristobal is at 2200 meters (7200 ft) so has a thin dry air, and we were lucky to have been there when the days were all sunny and warm, as it can get cool up there. We did a lot of walking around the various markets, museums and other buildings around the zocalo (city square). Everywhere we walked we were met by vendors, usually women and young girls, usually loaded down with armloads of blankets, clothing, or smaller hand-made items. A polite “no, gracias” and they kept moving on. One afternoon I got to talking with an old man on a break from driving his small tour bus. He had never been to “el Norte” but taught himself good English. He was “new” to San Cristobal, having lived there only 10 years, and thought it was the best place ever. He told me that the people of Chiapas are very self-reliant and several attempts to start factories have failed, because very few are willing to work on assembly lines. The farming around there are almost all small acreages, and the small fabric makers and vendors are happiest as small entrepeneurs.
It did not seem to me that those mountain communities were wealthy by any means, but the people seemed to be busy with purpose and lots of children in good spirits.