After my parents left Mexico I headed inland to explore Mérida, San Cristóbal de las Casa and Oaxaca. All three cities are gorgeous and quite different. First stop, the absolutely beautiful and oppressively hot Mérida. I had been really excited to visit Mérida because I had heard about it for years. A popular “traditional Mexican” place to study abroad. By the time I arrived I was pretty beat. I had such a good and fairly busy time with my parents I just needed to relax. Also it was HOT. Like cook an egg on the sidewalk hot. I thankfully found a great hostel with an even better pool! I was totally the lazy traveler. I slept in and spent the majority my first days floating in/reading a book next to the pool.
I mean, when that’s the pool who can blame me? By day 3 I was feeling kind of guilty so I did a self-guided walking tour of the town. Lovely as expected. Not expected? These LIVE bejeweled bugs. WTF? I didn’t fully understand but it had something to do with a legend of young lovers and someone getting jealous and turning them into a bug.
Weird, right? The second half of the week I met Eileen, a super fun German girl. We decided to stop being lazy and go exploring. We quickly met some more cool people and had a few great nights out. If you’re ever in Mérida I highly recommend La Negrita – looks like nothing from the outside but an awesome bar/restaurant with live music inside. We made some local friends mentioned that we wanted to go salsa dancing. From there we walked approximately forever and then ended up at a Mezcaleria (Mezcal bar) for the night. The bar was PACKED and there was an amazing band playing and absolutely everyone was dancing. Two obvious gringas got a lot of attention, welcomed with open – sweaty arms by everyone in the club. Literally everyone – guys, girls, members of the band all wanted to teach us how to salsa. The only time we were allowed to stop dancing for the next 4+ hours was when we were being given another shot. At this place when you ordered a drink you also got a shot of Mezcal – think tequila’s older, cooler brother. There was lots of laughing all around. Most laughing at the gringas attempt to dance. Good times.
Here is a somewhat terribly filmed cell phone video for a night out dancing:
I can’t say I did a whole of cultural activities in Mérida. It was a recharge week for sure. Several people asked me why I would stay for a whole week but it was my plan and I wasn’t willing to change it. A week of pool time and early happy hours? Not complaining. I did take one cooking class which was really cool. We made plantain empanadas and cactus salad. It was delicious and a good way to meet a few more people at the hostel. All in all Mérida felt fairly short lived. Or not really but since I didn’t do much but swim, read, dance and drink there isn’t a ton to report. I was bummed to say bye to Eileen, she was a super fun!
Next stop – leaving crazy hot Merida for extremely cold San Cristóbal de las Casas. I liked Merida but it was just so hot that I can’t say I loved it. San Cristóbal on the other hand I LOVED. Maybe my favorite of the three cities I visited.
SC just felt a bit more local. I stayed at my favorite hostel in Mexico there, Puerta Vieja. There was just a great vibe to the place. SC is in Chiapas and Chiapas has the highest rate of the indigenous Mayan population in Mexico. The food is a bit different, language is often not Spanish and poverty is very evident. I wandered all over the city. There are HUGE markets with incredible, inexpensive things. Things that were so cheap I just had to yes. I had been so good about shopping up until that point. Carrying all your belongings on your back is a great reason not to shop. Way better then something silly like running out of money. But.. SC got me. I knew I was nearing the end and I just went kinda crazy. A lot of my Mexican Christmas presents came from there. In addition to shopping there are a few beautiful churches including a famous Cathedral, lots of pedestrian only streets to wander down, tons of tiny restaurants and lots to look at.
From San Cristóbal I made my favorite side trip. I met an nice Swedish girl in the hostel (whose name was confusing and I’m the worst, I know) and we both mentioned wanting to visit a nearby town of Chamula. Chamula is famous for a church where the people blend the indigenous Tzotzil Mayan traditions with Catholicism. For example, chicken sacrifices on the alter under a cruxifix is a common practice. Randomly there was a priest on some sort of sabbatical staying at the hostel. We talked about it later and said that it’s not terribly uncommon, the Catholic faith adapted many traditional practices of the communities that they converted. If that’s what it took to win them over/force them into converting then so be it. Weird! Interesting!
This is a video of a folk group playing in a bar one night:
So anyway, we decided to go to this church. There are some small travel agencies in town that will take you but a local guy at our hostel suggested that we just go in the local collectivos – you speak Spanish, don’t be waste your money like the other gringos. Um, fair enough? So the adventure begins. We walk about a mile and half out to the collectivo stand. The collectivos in SC are basically really old 15 passenger vans that are group taxis that leave once they are full. You can wait 1 minute or hours depending on the demand. We get waved over by a driver, great this one is leaving soon! He opens the door and a small child almost falls out. This is a 15 passenger van with at least 23+ people in it. Um, I don’t think we can fit. We’ll wait. Thanks. Nope, not an option. Dale, dale, dale! Ok.. I guess we are some how getting in? I was then handed a very small, child sized, almost doll size folding wooden chair. I had to close the door and put my little chair in half into the well that step down into to get in and out of the van. I leaned forward and the driver shut the door, we were off. I legit prayed the entire way that I wouldn’t break the tiny chair. Turns out this was about an hour or so long over some seriously curvy, bumpy dirt roads. The poor Swedish girl wasn’t even given a chair and basically ended up in a squatting-fetal position, also at everyone’s feet. No one in the collectivo blinked an eye as they were also packed in like sardines. The gringa price was about $10 but included a seat. The local price was about .25 cents but was somewhat traumatizing. Don’t worry, I made sure to spend the other $9.75 on handicrafts.
Ok, so we make it to Chemula. The very small local Mayan man opens the door and I tumble out. He catches half of me, the Swedish girl grabbed my arm and what felt like 20 other hands grabbed all sort of other parts of me. Forget raising a child, it takes a village to “safely”exit a collectivo. Mhmm, dust myself off and.. it’s time to explore. We were both surprised at how packed the town was. There were people everywhere! Most of the men were in costume – either white fur ponchos or black fur ponchos. The women were dressed in their traditional but normal clothing – very bright colors. We head towards the center of town and realize that there is a huge crowd of people in front of the church. That is when I got introduced to the crazy game of torrito. So, in this game there is one child wearing a medal cage somewhat shaped like a bull. There cage has all sorts of fireworks attached – some that shoot off into the crowd and some that just flame like big sparklers. The “torrito” (little bull) runs as fast as he can around a statue while he is chased by about 20 or so littler boys from the community. These littler boys are all in costume too. It’s quite a range – we have Winnie the Pooh, Jason from Halloween, the devil, Spongebob Squarepants… a true collection. These little boys are carrying pillow cases and trying to hit the torrito in order to knock off the fireworks, the fireworks that are intermitenly shooting off into the crowd watching and little boys chasing. Thankfully no one was lit on fire and after I got over my shock I was thoroughly entertained.
The main attraction in this town is the actual church. The rules are very clear, you pay $2 to enter and absolutely no photos are allowed. The church is really big considering the size of the town. There are no pews to sit on and along the walls are saints that look like this google photo:
I found out later that each family is tied to a different saint. The entire family – grandparents, parents, kids, babies were at the church lighting long, thin taper candles (like the other google photo above) and praying to their saint. The floor was marble or some sort of smooth stone. They would melt the bottom of the candle and stick it to the floor. Each saint had 20-100 light candles in front of it. The floor of the church was also covered in a fairly thick layer of pine needles. Pine needles + smooth stone = ice rink, very hard to not slip and fall. It was fascinating. I so wished I could have taken out my camera but I respected the rules and worship that was happening.
We want to look around so we start to make our way to the front. The church is PACKED. The people in this region of Mexico are very small so me and my tall Swedish friend are a good foot taller then everyone in the church. That made it easier to see but didn’t help us as we tried to push through the crowds (remembering the slippery floor.) Slowly but surely we made our way to the front. There was no chicken sacrificing which I would have felt kinda weird about but to be honest also was interested in seeing. Along with the sacrificing another thing that this group of people do as part of their religious worship is drink a corn liquor. This day there was no chickens but lots of liquor. You see these people with all sort of jugs just handing out dixie cups of this homemade liquor. A young woman came up to us, very excited to hand us each a dixie cup. She took a shot herself and then encouraged us through gestures to follow suit. My friend and I looked at each other, shrugged and went for it. Let me tell you.. this ain’t no church wine. We downed the shot and immediately our eyes started watering and our throats started burning. The young woman just very excitedly nodded at us and poured more shots. That time we said thanks but no thanks. I couldn’t do another one.
Then I got the closest to having a panic attack that I’ve ever been. I’m not normally claustrophobic but I looked around realized we packed in the on the alter like sardines an there was candles everywhere. There was so much smoke in the air from candles and incense that we couldn’t see the doors of the church. I realized that if the dry pine needles or anything else were to go up in flames we wouldn’t be able to get out. In the snap of my fingers I went from having a bizarrely fascinating cultural experience to being in a bit of a panic. I told my friend we HAVE TO GET OUT and I could tell she agreed. Again, slowly but surely we made it to the front. When we got to the doors the crowd really thinned out. At that moment, no longer packed together, essentially holding each other up I slipped on some pine needles basically did a split in the middle of the entrance way. Yup, just one of the giant gringas doing gymnastics in the church. Mmhmm, real respectful. Also, kind of painful.
Alright, so we get out of the church and just are taking gulping breaths of fresh air. Appreciate air people! There is now some sort of military style marching parade of men in white and black furs around the town square. Also fascinating. We find some good seats where people stared, confused why were there and the kids would look at us and giggle, giggle, giggle. A cultural experience for everyone! We spent the rest of the day wandering around desperately trying to find a bathroom and taking photos. At the very end of the day a man came up to me yelling NO FOTO! NO FOTO! I felt awful. I knew not to take pictures in the church but hadn’t really thought about taking photos of the celebration. My bad, sorry dude.
We were both pretty beat but had had a great day. We shopped in the handicraft stores intended for the tourists all the way back to the collectivo stands. We had a plan, we would get in early – even if it meant we had to wait. Silly girls, no plans allowed. We were shuffled into the first available collectivo. Thankfully it was only about 3/4 of the way full and we were able to slide onto an actual seat. The bench seat that was intended for 3 people already had 4 people on it when we sat down but in comparison to the ride out 6 people sharing a bench seat seemed golden. Or so we thought. Then an entire family showed up. Mom, Dad, two babies, several little ones and grandpa. Mom and the littles pile in. Dad helps grandpa in and I am thinking – where is this old man going to sit? There’s nowhere. Maybe someone will offer him a seat? Nope. Grandpa just smiles his old man smile at me and proceeds to sit on my lap. Out of nowhere a few more littles show up. Dad picks them up and just starts handing them to people. A toddler is stuck between me and the Swed. Oh my god. This collectivo is fuller then the one we took to get out here! I am so tired and ready to go. We must be done, right? Nope, not done. A tiny baby is thrust at me. I got grandpa on half my lap, a toddler sharing mine and Swed’s lap and now I am holding a tiny, sleeping baby. At this point I am just waiting for something even crazier to happen but finally the driver gets in, puts another kid on his lap and we’re off. We make it back to town and I’ve got the toddler in giggles with the tickle monster game, baby still sleeping and grandpa in his own little smilely world. Everyone is safe and the ride back only cost .10!
I think it was my most random day of the entire time I was away. I went in thinking I knew what to expect was just mindblown again and again. The Tzotzil Maya are a proud people. Proud of their culture, their language, their religion and their families. As they should be. As a (privileged) outsider looking in it was hard to see how extreme the poverty was. Leaving a middle class city to enter a rural community was pretty shocking at times. The Tzotzil Mayas are known for not wanting to integrate with the larger community, Mexican or even Mayan. Tourism is essential to their economy but not without it’s negative impact. Whether its people taking pictures, being watched during their religious ceremonies or just the influence of outside culture there are cons to opening their community to non-members. There were moments though- accepting shots in the church, giggles over the tall white girls, playing tickle monster with a little kid – moments that regardless of our backgrounds the human connection was just so evident. We didn’t need to speak the same language, look the same or even have the same value system to enjoy each other for those few passing moments. It was something that I couldn’t have planned but just seemed to come together so well.
I was reluctant to leave SC. I really liked the city, loved the hostel, had made friends but such is the of a backpacker, after a little over a week it was time to move on. I heard great things about Oaxaca so I was excited to explore another part of Mexico! Next blog, one last SC sidetrip and Oxacan adventuring.