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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Sunday, 28 August 2011

August 28th: San Cristobal de las Casas

On August 28th 1975 I was in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas in southern Mexico.

Chamula Procession, 2008:  Picture by Wolfgang Sauber,  CC
On this day I took a truck to the Tzoltzil Mayan town of Chamula, a few miles from San Cristobal.  The town was spread around an open sloping area of grass.  I sat for a while in the outskirts eating a papaya, pleasing the kids, smiling at the women, greeting the men; one man offered me some of his moonshine, others were playing music for the fiesta, of which this was the first day.  Almost everyone in town that day was Indian.  A crowd of people was standing outside the church, playing music, eating, drinking and sitting, occasionally going in, some people in very ceremonial costumes.  I looked in at the central square market, and walked up the hill where women were weaving.  Then I returned to the covered market, ate frijoles and cabbage soup before leaving.  It was a good walk back to town, sheltering twice from rain.  There were parties of women returning from town to Chamula, celebrating with high ululations.

The market in San Cristobal was a place of endless fascination.   One area of interest was the fruit, much of which I had not seen before, and it took many visits to try everything.  The market here was also one of the first markets I came across in Latin America which had prepared food to eat.  I tried tamales here for the first time and would come to depend on them as I travelled in Central America.  I found tamales and fried beans much more to my taste than the heavier dishes of more mainstream Mexican restaurants.

The market was always full of Mayan Indians from the nearby towns and villages.  I tried to record what they wore and were doing in my notebook:
Mayan Street Vendors, 2008:  Picture by Wolfgang Sauber, CC
In a stall in the market:  mainly an Indian scene, with people from different villages wearing different costumes.  The women most commonly with a black thick woven skirt, loosely wrapped around their hips and a white blouse with fairly simple decoration, a rebozo for carrying goods or babies, a black strip of woven material folded on their head, often with tassels, and a string bag for produce strung from their forehead.  A common variety is a white or gold/yellow/brown pinstripe in the skirt, and a rough brown blouse.  Some women near me are selling home-made bags and a little woollen doll of vaguely religious persuasion; they have bright coloured cummerbunds and ribboned plaits in their long black hair and a baby hangs on to the plaits as it sways around in the rebozo.  A little girl, in black serape with cummerbund, walks quite independently around beneath the tables, glancing at me.  The men with white trousers, often with white serape of fluffy wool and sombrero; sometimes without the trousers, just shirt and serape;  flat wide hats with dangling ribbons often darker in colour; black serapes, sometimes fluffy with long sleeves, pink cotton serapes with pom-poms and tassels, colourful decoration.  Double gourds highly polished.  Leather bags.  A woman with a huge dried fish.  A herbal medicine stand with a dead parrot or toucan.  Girls wearing a kind of shawl or cape covering shoulders and arms, thin pink white stripes, clasped by coloured strips, over the white, colourful blouses and plain black or blue skirts.  Women wearing light blue blouse with reddish decoration.
There was plenty to do in town.  The churches were interesting.  I noted at the church of San Martin "the Mayans worshipping, sitting in front of the candles, kneeling, and chanting and bowing, a man coming and chanting, standing, with his arms folded across his chest; the woman who looked after the place."  The churches very often had pine branches strewn around the open area in front of the altar and the images of the saints were often given a very Mayan look and Mayan clothes.  I visited the house of Na Bolom, where there was a museum and an institute studying the Indian customs and protecting the Lacandon Indians who survived with a distinctive culture in the jungle areas near the border with Belize.  There were even some young Lacandons to be seen there.  I went to a lecture on the weaving of Mayan huipiles (blouses) there, but I found the scene rather patronising.

Before I left, I walked with friends to the house of a friend of theirs from the USA.   We stopped to have a fruit juice at the barrio of San Ramon where there was a fiesta in full swing and crowds of people, and girls in white clothes.  Then it was through the fields to the restored farmhouse, with recording studio and 25 acres of farm, cows, vegetables and a beautiful milpa (corn field.)  With our meal of bread, fresh cheese and salad, I had two ears of the sweetest corn I've ever had, which I had just picked.  

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