Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Day 2: San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas

First stop: Na Bolom: House of the Jaguar, created by two explorers, Franz and Trudy, that bought it to keep the Indigenous cultures alive. They came many years ago to explore Chiapas, making first contact with many groups of Indigenous to find out what they needed, communicating on behalf of the government.

The house was amazing, filled with photographs, artefacts, Indigenous instruments, clothing, maps of the exploration excursions. Photos of Franz and Trudy, sculptures  of jaguars and other animals. It felt really spiritual and warm, and respectful to the Indigenous people, who can be so marginalised, and it made me feel so insignificant and lame... just another traveller that comes to take a look but doesn't contribute in any positive way. It made me feel very humble.

After that we'd worked up a (humble) hunger. On the way to Na Bolom we'd seen a sign for a restaurant so we went in and were happy to find a really tiny place for...Mexicans. (They're hard to come by). It was the front room of a house with a few tables, a few locals, and us. We were all served at the same time like in a big event, five people in this small room. Delicious soup with pasta to start, and the most delicious salsa verde ever, which we ate in tortillas (copying a local). Yum! Then we had pollo en mole. Yum, yum, yum! Cleaned the plate without looking up or talking once (oops!). And I mustn't forget the agua de fresa - also delicious. All for 35 pesos - about 2 quid.

Next on the agenda was the Museo de Medicina Maya, about Mayan belief, medicine and practice. It showed all types of plants and animals that are used for various ailments and illnesses, and we watched a video about motherhood, more specifically, giving birth. The woman is on her knees, leaning forwards against her husband who is sitting in front of her. The partera, (the midwife with no medican qualifications) pulls the sash tight across her tummy to help the baby come out, continuing to do so, each time lower and tighter. If the baby doesn't come, she gives her a raw egg and other things I can't remember. Watching it, I thought how incredibly dignified: fully dressed, on your knees when the baby pops out into the hands of the partera, who is standing behind the Mother-to-be.

Next, we searched for the Museo de trajes regionales, and when we had given up and were going, we looked through a doorway and it was the museum. When we walked through the courtyard, we passed by a group of people sitting together, one with his leg out and another man, apparently treating it. I didn't see anything apart from a bare leg and lots of bottles. I thought, someone's curing someone, and then I thought, how random - in the middle of a museum!

There was a room filled with traditional Indigenous costumes, from head to toe, maybe thirty or forty, and they were beautiful. Handmade bags, shirts, shawls, coats, with feathers. Animal skins, intricately weaved with colours. Here were more photos of men, women, groups, of Indigenous. We went from room to room (the curing group moved to a more secluded area), and then we got to a room, of which an entire wall was covered with pictures of burn injuries, and severe injuries that must have come from infections or diseases. There were newspaper articles and thank you letters. It turns out that Sergio Castro is an engineer, but has dedicated his life to treating Indigenous people for free. In one article, I read that the Indigenous don't trust whites or Mestizos (European and Latin mix), or even other Indigenous groups, but many come looking for help from Castro. It described one man who had fallen into a fire and had both legs amputated, and post-op was sent home from the hospital. Three weeks later, when Sergio visited him, his wounds were rotting.

He is something of a guardian angel to those people, with no money and little access to healthcare. He is Godfather to over 60 children - the people's way of honouring him as it is a huge honour to be Godfather in the Indigenous culture. There isn't much information on that museum, but it was so educational and touching, and, I guess, saddening. But with a silver lining. 

Day 1: San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas

What struck me as we wondered around the huge market by the church, seeing whole families behind their market stall: Father, Mother, two, three, four children of all different ages (seemingly but a year apart), running around, playing, crying, looking after each other, Mothers with babies wrapped up in blankets and tied to their waists, sewing cushions, tops, dresses that dangle infront of you, ... what struck me is how far away I am from the world of the i. iphones, ipads, ipods, wiis, the lot. I have only seen one and it belonged to a Japanese tourist that was using it to get to his hostel.

The artesania is beautiful here, and so is the family life you see everywhere, and the mountains that surround the centre, covered with mist. It rained throughout our stay there, but it only made it all the more picturesque. Which is just as well because we were told by a local that it rains eleven months of the year (rock on London!)

There was a trade fair going on while we were there, on tourism. Bizarrely, they decided to close down the market for the days it was on, to clean up the main plaza, which is such a shame. Of course for all the indigenous that come from their villages to sell, but for the tourists too. I reckon you could sign up to a different tour every day but still not get anywhere close to this beautiful rich, poor world.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Guadalajara and on to Oaxaca

I left out some bits on Guadalajara with all the storytelling of our little drama and have decided to continue from there. I lived in Guadalajara ten years ago and have been dying to go back ever since and find the family I lived with, because the fact that I never rang them when I got to London has always haunted me.

On my big return last week, I was constantly looking for signs, street corners, puestos de tacos, places I'd been, but I couldn't find any. It left me a little confused and sad, wondering where I'd spent those three months and if it really was the same place. In a teeny weeny way I could begin to empathise with people who leave their home countries and go back five, ten, twenty years later to a place they do not recognise. In some way I can understand why some choose not to go back. We went on a mission to find the house I lived in, and I was delighted that I found my way, only to get to the house, now empty with a big 'To Rent' sign. We tried calling the number to trace the owner, Uncle of the Dad of the family I stayed with, but they moved to Michoacan six years ago and there was no way of getting in touch. I can't help but feel angry at my younger self for not ringing a long, long time ago.

Another thing I wanted to say about Guadalajara was the presence of DEATH. Yes, Death. Hundreds and thousands of skeletons called Katrinas, and skull heads and faces are everywhere: in bars, markets, shops, homes, offices, for sale, for decoration, made of wood, of stone, of plastic, of sugar. Dressed up as bride and groom, with friends' names on, with family titles on, eg. Tia, Hermana, Amiga. I found it all pretty bizarre and morbid and funny, and got talking about it with Natalia. Death is something embraced, celebrated, remembered. It is part of life. El dia de los Muertos on 31st October is a day specifically to remember the dead, take out their favourite possessions, instruments, drink and food. Although I think it's beautiful, I still couldn't understand it, and Natalia found it hard to understand that I couldn't understand. I explained that death is something that I fear, that saddens me, that I try not to be so afraid of. I do love the idea of celebration of life past, in one's present. That another's life can be celebrated and brought into the today.

Moving on to Oaxaca, where we went to the MACO, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca, where we stumbled across an exhibition called Materia Oscura, by Daniel Guzman. The introduction to the exhibition left its mark on me. It lies much closer to the way I feel about death, about life, about journeys. It was as follows (yes, I took a photograph and copied it out):

Es poco mas de un ano del fallecimiento de mi madre, y el viaje a su pueblo en Oaxaca todavia duele, y todo lo que me rodea ahi: la casa de mi abuela, el paisaje, la gente, la luz, la comida, el olor del campo, me traen su imagen, su recuerdo. Con el paso del tiempo esa imagen y recuerdo se han convertido en materia oscura. Una interrogante acerca del sentido de las cosas que hago, del rumbo que ha tomado mi vida, de como me relaciono con la gente, con mis deseos y mis sentimientos, siempre me he sentido un extrano en esa tierra al igual que en la ciudad de Mexico, pero es algo dentro de mi, y no de la geografia ni de la gente con la que me ha tocado vivir lo que escinde mi ser, nada de lo que haga o diga con mi trabajo o con este texto podra evocar de una manera plena lo que siento. 

It is little more than a year since the death of my mother, and the trip to her village in Oaxaca still hurts,and everything around me there: my grandmother's house, the landscape, the people, the light, the food, the smell of the country, they bring her image, her memory. With the passage of time that image and memory have become dark matter. A question around the meaning of the things I do, the direction my life has taken, how I interact with people, with my wishes and my feelings, I have always felt stranger in that land as in the city of Mexico, but it's something inside me, not the geography or the people with whom I have lived that splits my being, nothing I say or do with my work or this text may fully evoke how I feel.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Little Poet hits Mexico

Well, after time out in London to complete the second draft of my novel, I am now in Mexico. The plan is to go from here to Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina in the next four and a half months.

We arrived in Mexico City and headed for San Luis de la Paz, where a friend of Oscars' lives. From there we went to Queretaro, then Guanajuato (saw the smallest Mommy in the world - a six month old feotus). The first things to strike me were the colours. Red and yellow and pink and blue, orange and purple and green.... Literally, it's so colourful and magical and vibrant and full of life, and reflects the culture through colours: passion, love, laughter, tears, drama, music and pain. Because it's all here and by the tonne.

After a few days we came to Guadalajara, where I lived for a few months ten years ago, and where a friend of ours, Natalia, lives. On the fourth day of our trip we went to a beautiful artesanal town outside called Tlaquepaque, accompanied by Natalia and her boyfriend, who seemed to know everyone, and who was greeted in the street with hugs and kisses by the chef of the restaurant we were headed for (El Sope). I wondered what was going on. I thought they must be old family friends: all the staff in the restaurant spent the entire meal coming to the table and telling him how to eat everything and asking if he wanted more goat's head. Now I know that he is a well known public person in the state of Jalisco, so, while I thought he knew everyone, it was everyone that knew him. If I'd known, I would have dressed up.

We ate a dish called Birria, beef with lots of salsa and spices and lime and onion and tortillas. Tortillas go with everything. It was delicious, and, I believe, a dish to try when you're in Mexico. Afterwards, we visited a beautiful little hotel called La casa de las flores, charming and authentic. If my budget was higher I would love to stay there (60 euros per night which is great value - my budget's very low).

The next morning I woke up desperate for the loo. I mean desperate. I darted for the toilet, next door to the bedroom, but realised I didn't make it when I woke up on the floor with a pounding head and Oscar leaning over me, shouting my name. I told him to take me to the loo, and he carried me the metre or two, when I fainted again. Let's say it wasn't the highest point of Week One. It was quite the 'out of body' experience; aware of everything but not able to do a thing: speak, move, or see. The only thing that was moving was my tummy: violently expelling the offender.

In the hospital, the doctor didn't seem too interested in me, but gave me saline and antibiotics through a drip none the less. He wasn't impressed when I told him I was English (having thought I was Spanish) and when he spoke, it was to tell Oscar every city he'd been to in Spain, and where the best lamb is eaten. Oscar wasn't too impressed as he wanted to hear about me, and I wasn't impressed as I wanted him to talk about England.

Now, after a day of rest we're back on it. Yesterday went to Tequila, a lovely town where, guess what, Tequila comes from. Today we went to Tonala and ate a torta ahogada - drowned sandwich... so far so good...