Saturday 29 August 2009

Fascinating feeling

We intended to stay a week, we stayed two. Chiapas. One of the thirty-one states of Mexico (not counting Federal District, the capital), located in the South of the country, on the boarder with Guatemala and the Pacific Ocean. A place where one can find everything: sandy beaches, a jungle and its pyramids, azure lagoons, incredible waterfalls, colonial towns, Mayan communities living according to an ancient tradition, a canyon with walls towering over 800 metres high, poisonous spiders and snakes, corn fields stretching to the horizon, coffee plantations, tropical rain and tropical heat. I fell in love.

Our trip through Chiapas started in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the state. We got there late in the evening and were immediately struck by the noise and fuss of a Mexican city. Tuxtla is like all of Mexico City squeezed into a little box. Bjarni was at first eager to leave the very next day, I - to my own surprise - discovered that I liked the atmosphere here. I liked the mess on the streets, the loud music emanating from every single occupied spot, the buildings looking as if they are about to fall apart, the poorly maintained streets, millions of colectivos blocking traffic, vendors shouting at the top of their lungs, sounds of marimba in the distance, locals bustling about, the lack of tourists. Tuxtla became our home for the next four nights. We went to a zoo, a little jungle in this town, where during our two-and-a-half hour walk we admired animals coming solely from Chiapas: venomous spiders and snakes, crocodiles, monkeys, turtles, iguanas, tigers, bats, beavers, eagles, parrots - over 800 animals representing about 250 different species that live in the jungle of the region. We visited the Regional Museum with a collection of artifacts found in local ruins of ancient cities. We admired the Museum of Paleontology and the movie about amber we saw there - "Mexican amber" is amber excavated using primitive methods right here in Chiapas; on the jewellery market it can fetch prices twice as high as Baltic amber. We watched how a park can be changed into a ballroom: during the hot evenings young and old inhabitants of Tuxtla danced to the sounds of marimba played live by a local orchestra. The atmosphere of a neverending fiesta, accompanied by the view of children running around and smiling adults was really amazing. We also managed to visit Chiapa de Corzo, from where we road a motorboat all through the Sumidero Canyon. Local dramatic legend describes how natives from a village, who hearing of approaching conquistadors, decided to sacrifice their lives by jumping from one the canyon's walls, considering the death a more honourable solution than surrendering to the foreign army. Supposedly the Spaniards watched from the opposite side of the canyon, with terror and astonishment, as human silhouettes plummeted to the bottom.

Our next destination was San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a beautiful town from the XVIth century resting in a valley 2100 meters above sea level. Everything here was different from the rest of Mexico: a cold climate, orderly and colorful layout, people in traditional clothing. The town had everything that a spoilt European girl could ask for: small Italian resturants, young, handsome French men baking rolls in their own bakery, internet connections everywhere, English-, German-, French-, Spanish-language books in many bookstores. We managed to visit a few interesting places: The Center of Traditional Mayan Medicine, The Museum of Amber, The Museum of Regional Dresses, native communities of Tzotzil and Tzeltal in the small towns of Chamula, Zinacantán and Amatenango del Valle. I was especially impressed with a church in Chamula - built by Catholics, it has been a long time since it was affiliated with the Vatican, the local Mayan community seized it for its own needs. From San Cristóbal we went on a day-trip to the Lagoons of Montebello, stopping on the way at the El Chiflón waterfall where we slid along a cable suspended over humming waters. In San Cristóbal, instead of the planned two days, we stayed eight. I would have stayed longer if it wasn't for Bjarni who complained it was high time for us to move on. So we moved to Palenque.

Freezing in an air-conditioned bus, it was difficult to feel the change of climate - heat and humidity hit us with full strength as soon as we left the vehicle. Suddenly sweaty, we were happy we didn't have to go far to find our hotel. After a bit of unpacking and a cold shower we decided to explore our surroundings, but the climate was still unbearable even though it was already evening. The weather in the town was just a harbinger of what we would encounter the next day in the jungle: my face covered with sweat, clothes sticking annoyingly to my body - and only the view of incredible Mayan buildings let me forget that in these conditions one should just sit next to the fridge. Our guide, leading us further into the jungle to show us still unexcavated pyramids, stopped for a moment and looked around. "Do you smell the smell of fish?", he asked. Of course we did - an odd smell of fish in the middle of an area completely covered with trees. "It's a snake", he said after a while, "but you don't have to worry, it's not his time, he should be sleeping now". Moments later he pointed at yellow webs stretching from plant to plant, and followed their path. "It's a banana spider. The most dangerous in the jungle. It has to be here, somewhere". We saw it a few seconds later: it was calmly sitting on one of the webs it had spun. The guide took us out of the jungle and left us alone to sightsee the neighbouring area on our own. We climbed on top of one of the pyramids surrounded by trees, and it was then when it hit me: this noise, this sound like a saw cutting wood, this anxiety, this fear, this silence before the storm - all have roots in the jungle. This forest has a life of its own, it deliberately lets humans tame it, only to return twice as strong and assert its power. Those are not the trees I know, nor is this the forest I understand - the serenity is just a facade and it does not imply security.

A fascinating feeling in fascinating Chiapas.

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