Cultural Crossroads

Trip Start Mar 11, 2011
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Where I stayed
Posada Ganesha, San Cristobal de las Casas

Flag of Mexico  , Chiapas,
Monday, October 3, 2011

San Juan Chamulin is one of the highlights of our travels thusfar, and is most definitely the biggest culture shock to date. This Mayan village lies deep in the heart of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. Only about 50,000 colourfully-clad Tzotzil Mayans live there. A ten peso VW combi ride from San Cristobal de las Casas gets you there in just 20 minutes.

Time seemed to stand still as we sat and stared, taking in all that was going on. Perhaps time has stood still for everyone here because it feels like you've stepped back in time. Or perhaps we had wandered onto on a movie set? This place is great for people watching! I felt like a giant stomping through the market amongst the tiny people. They look very much alike - square faces with dark brown skin tones, long and dark hair and deep-set eyes. They all seem very wary of tourists, or is it just us?

Locals are only allowed to marry within the village. Playing away could mean expulsion from the community, as does converting from the only accepted religion. Our timing was impeccable (albeit unplanned) to visit on a Sunday when everyone gathers in the plaza to trade, shop and visit Iglesia de San Juan (Church of St John) dedicated to the village's patron, St John the Baptist. Once you pay 40 pesos to the tourism guy sat outside, you're allowed in. Apparently the money is used for church maintenance. From the outside it looks like most other churches in Latin America. 

But this is no ordinary church! A complex mix of Catholicism and pre-Hispanic ceremonial (dare I say, pagan?) traditions are practised here. Everyone is sternly warned that no photography is allowed inside. Depending on who you ask, that's because they believe that you're sapping their energy (especially children and older people) or simply that it's disrespectful. Just our presence is disturbing their sacred space. Whatever the reason, not being able to capture the moment on film made it all the more special. It means you really have to see it for yourself. It's hard to describe but I'll try my best... 

Only natural light streams in and only from the one side of the building. Hundreds of candles are lit everywhere. Together with the burning of incense this creates a smoky, eerie atmosphere. At first glance you notice that pews are conspicuously missing from this church. Catholic priests were ran out of town decades ago to eliminate the middle man and a traditional mass hasn't been held since. Instead pine needles are strewn on the tile floors where families gather in small groups and chant prayers aloud in Tzotzil (one of 27 Mayan languages). 

They light long, thin candles of different colours that they stick to the tiled floor with molten wax. The perimeter of the church is decorated with wooden sculptures of the saints, each in their own box and bearing a mirror to deflect evil spirits. Apparently the saints are turned towards the wall if they didn't answer prayers. In front of each saint is a small table that has more candles and on which offerings are left. Food stuffs are common but it's the Coca Cola bottles that stand out. Once the drink has been blessed, the person drinks it. They apparently believe that the resultant burp expels their sins and/or evil spirits. I enjoy a good Coca Cola burp as much as the next guy, so I can relate to that!

We didn't get to witness it ourselves but apparently shaman often accompany families to the church to help deal with any afflictions they might be facing. After a consultation they give them a list of different coloured candles and offerings to bring. If their problem is big enough, that list might include a live chicken that is rubbed on the individual's body by the shaman while they chant. They might be instructed to snap the chicken's neck, cook a meal and give it to someone they dislike. Now that's an idea!
 
This village enjoys unique autonomous status in Mexico. Apparently they were among the last Mayan societies to succumb to Spanish rule, and fought fiercely during the War of Castes and again during the Mexican Revolution. Their rebellious spirit still prevails as they fight to retain their independence from the Mexican state. They identify with and support ideologies of the Zapatista Army and local women make and sell Zapatista dolls. The half-covered face represents the symbolic rebellion against global commodification of native cultures. Their plight has gained pop culture status thanks to bands like Rage Against The Machine. Been there, done that, and Dee got the t-shirt!

They have their own police force who patrol the plaza dressed in raw woollen vests, big brown leather belts, comfy leather sandals and leather cowboy hats. They use walkie talkies to communicate with each other while monitoring the goings-on. Meanwhile the town council (elected by the elders) sit in a long row on a slightly elevated corner of the plaza - chatting, smoking and nodding off at times - ready to deliver instant justice by addressing any dispute or petty criminal that might arise

We spotted a couple of rogues being escorted through the crowds by police to the town council, hanging their heads and crying. Who knows what punishment they face? Apparently shame (fuelled by gossip) in the community goes a long way as a deterrent here. Failing that, there's always jail. Serious crimes like rape and murder are adjudicated by state authorities outside of town.

Chamula is unusual and different in so many ways. I am glad we got to experience it firsthand and highly recommend it to anyone interested in different cultures. What I know and what I shared here is what we experienced, but also gathered from online resources, guidebooks and word-of-mouth, so we cannot vouch for the validity of every detail (hence all the "apparently's"!). With the veil of secrecy, complexity and isolation of this society I'm not sure we will ever know the whole truth of what really goes on. But I hope this provided a little taste!
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