Saturday, June 30, 2012
For the aforementioned reasons, last week was one of the best weeks out of the ten we have spent in Mexico. If you have not visited Chiapas, I highly recommend moving it to a higher position on your travel list. I had visited Chiapas ten years ago as a student at the Tecnologico de Monterrey campus in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. Revisiting mostly the same sites, now with Harold, was not only a lot of fun and adventure, but highlighted some changes in those places, as well as in my perspective as a traveler.
A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that an extremely generous couple we met at a funeral in Juchitan, Oaxaca, had given us a ride to the capital of Chiapas: the steamy, busy Tuxtla Gutierrez. They fed us several meals, took us to another funeral, for someone they knew (a nice way to celebrate our first wedding anniversary….?), and offered us a room in their house for the night. We were overwhelmed by their hospitality. Yet, having seen most of what Tuxtla had to offer (which included a terrifying drunk girl who repeatedly accused us of being vampires and stole our tequila), early the next morning we headed to Chiapa de Corzo, a picturesque world heritage site of a town about a half hour away. Once there, we signed up for a boat ride down the stunning Canon del Sumidero, which I had not previously visited. Rumor has it that some of the locals, preferring death over submission to the Spanish Conquistadors, threw themselves into the canyon during the Conquest.
On the boat ride, we met some friendly, fun Finnish guys and ended up traveling with them to San Cristobal de las Casas, about an hour southeast of Tuxtla. We took the colectivo, which cost less than a dollar, but we had failed to protect our backpacks (strapped to the top of the crowded van) from the afternoon rain, and fresh our things were not when we arrived in San Cristobal. For some reason, we decided to walk in the pouring rain to the hostel, rather than take a taxi. I think our travel austerity measures just kicked into high gear for a moment.
As we had risen to about 6000 feet above sea level (1900 meters), it was only about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and I immediately broke out my fleece and rain jacket, and promptly developed a stuffy nose. What a change from the previously balmy weather! We were lucky enough to get a room at the beautiful hostel (with excellent feng-shui!) that the Finnish guys had reserved, and promptly tossed our moist clothing all over the room in an attempt to dry it out.
We hung out in San Cristobal de las Casas for a couple of days, strolling the streets and eating and drinking in the hostel kitchen and having some seriously fun and stimulating conversations with other travelers. The young Spaniards who were working in Mexico in order to gain experience to help them obtain a job in the brutally tight Spanish economy. The Spanish guy who lost his job, sold his house, and started traveling, as it was cheaper than living unemployed in Spain. The professional Irish couple going through the Australian immigration process. The young Welsch woman with a history degree who was considering studying nursing. The Finnish animator for the Angry Birds app. The Japanese guy who was taking a year off from his MBA at a top Japanese university to study photography in Seattle. The spirited South African couple who were traveling by land to Brazil.
From San Cristobal, we hopped on a bus to Palenque, an eight-hour ride away, to visit the jungle and the large Mayan ruins site. It was a fascinating journey through the highlands of Chiapas, where many signs were in Mayan languages, and daily life could be observed while passing on the road, as children dressed in traditional clothing walked home from school, women returned from the market, carrying babies and purchases in rebozos, or large scarves worn in sash-like fashion, and men plowed the steep cornfields with horses. After arriving at the jungle cabin recommended by the hostel manager in San Cristobal, we met up with our friend, Hiroki, who had come in on an earlier bus.
We had little time to soak in the sights and sounds of the jungle before hearing from our friends at the Canadian embassy, necessitating a trip back to Oaxaca City, and then on to Mexico City. Oh, well, we shall return, and next time venture on to the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan, as well as the countries of Belize and Guatemala, all short bus rides from Palenque. Or better yet, plan a trip to southern Mexico and come and explore with us!
There are so many pictures of Chiapas that I will just provide you with the link to our online album. Click through them one by one in order to read the captions. Enjoy!
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Elections are coming up on July 1. There are three main political parties in Mexico: the PRI, PAN, and PRD, with the Nueva Alianza slowly gaining influence as well. The PRI ruled the country for 71 years until 2000 when Vicente Fox (of the PAN) was elected for a six-year term, followed by the current president, Felipe Calderon in 2006, also of the PAN. Mexican presidents serve only one term, after which they receive a lifetime monthly pension of roughly US $19,000 per month. Hot election topics include the six-year-long war against the drug cartels along the northern border with the US, and the states of Guerrero and Michoacan, and Veracruz, as well as the widespread poverty and lack of infrastructure throughout much of the country, despite Mexico's high per-capita domestic product. Environmental degradation and systemic problems in health care and education also concern the populace as it enters the voting booths in a few days. There have been many efforts to combat pervasive political corruption in recent years, and as the candidates close their campaigns and the "ley seca" (no alcohol sold within three days of the election) approaches, locals worry about election fraud and possible political unrest as the results are made public. We shall see...
Monday, June 18, 2012
Celebrating our one-year anniversary at Burger King in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico.... How romantic!
We were unable to find a wifi connection elsewhere in the city, hence our unglamorous location.
Demonstrating the general hospitality and helpfulness typical of those we have encountered on our trip so far, a 60-something couple offered us a ride to their hometown (which happened to be our next destination), a home-cooked meal, and a place to spend the night. No, we didn't hitchhike: we're not that crazy;-) We were just in the right place (if a sad one...) at the right time.
We attended a traditional Zapotec all-weekend mourning ceremony for a family friend in Juchitan, Oaxaca, and struck up a conversation with one of the deceased's brothers and his wife, which brought us to our current location.
The emotions of the weekend are somewhat soothed by the fresh, pine-scented mountain air, brilliant greenery, and the sighting of a jaguar by the side of the road! Walking around downtown, we hear more indigenous Maya languages than Spanish, admire the jewelry vendors' amber and jade wares, and observe a relatively thriving tourism industry, with Chiapas still welcoming plentiful Canadian and European tourists.
More photos and observations coming soon!
Friday, June 15, 2012
Traveling around Mexico as a 30-year-old, rather than a 20-year-old, is indeed different, although less so than I had expected. First of all, there are the economic changes a developing country usually experiences in a ten-year span, such as much-increased cell-phone and internet use, and profoundly uneven distribution of wealth between regions, families, and individuals, resulting in significant cultural differences. Oaxaca and Veracruz, geographic neighbors, illustrate the extremes of the Mexican wealth spectrum. In short, Veracruz is uber-industrialized, the culture more consumption-based, and the population's purchasing power collectively higher. Oaxaca, on the other hand, is an agriculture and tourism-based state that generates far less income for the country and seeks to maintain its cultural roots. Thus, many other Mexicans perceive it to be overly traditional, and even backward, as they say Oaxacans are not a progressive people.
From a foreigners' perspective, it is simply a different kind of economic development that is happening in Oaxaca. It is slow, careful, and small-scale. Repressed by the government, and placing little faith in the 90s concept of heading north to find work, intellectual youth are forming cooperatives to support each other, learning to grow their own food and establish local sustainable businesses, all the while running their own radio stations, news websites, workshops and national conventions to stay informed in the face of extreme political corruption on many fronts.
As a 30-year-old woman traveling in Mexico, I expected folks would constantly ask me when I wanted to have kids, and all the details about our family planning. I expected to be perceived as a borderline senior citizen! I was profoundly mistaken. There has been a huge cultural shift here in the last decade, resulting in many educated or professional people our age having fewer or no kids, or just beginning to think about expanding their families. Not only have we been referred to as "muchachos" or "jovenes" on a regular basis, people aren't that surprised that we don't have kids yet. Many are surprised we bothered to get married! (Also a cultural practice on the decline.) There are the usual American stereotypes for me to fight against, but being perceived as "old" has been happily erased from my list of concerns here in Mexico.
I should note that we are approaching our one-year anniversary on Monday, June 18. Yay for us! We will celebrate in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, a place I visited ten years ago and have been dying to re-experience. At this point, I feel well on my way to developing the relationships, experience and knowledge I will draw upon in future years as I become more and more connected to this incredible country and people. I will now share some of my favorite unpublished photos from our two-month stay in Mexico.
Monday, June 11, 2012
Wow, are we worn out! Thanks a lot, Justin Bieber.... The Biebs threw a kink in our plans today as our bus pulled in to Mexico City today at 8 a.m. On the radio was essentially a pep rally for his concert this evening at 8:30, consisting of only six songs! Contributing to the world-class Mexico City traffic were all of the Beliebers pulling into town to get ready for the short, but oh-so-sweet (???) show.
We caught the 2a.m. bus from Veracruz after Saturday night's twelve straight hours of partying at a quinceanos (15 th b-day), and Sunday's follow up afternoon party with loads of family friends. What a great group of folks to celebrate life with! (Even met my first fellow nurse in Mexico!) But oh, Lordy, they wore us out! One guy who had recently returned from a 15- year stay in the U.S. complained that the Veracruzanos "partied too much" and he just felt like getting up early and going to work. All the partying must energize people, though, because there they are, up and at 'em at 6 a.m., heading to work at a variety of companies in the relatively healthy Veracruz economy.
We pulled into the bus station in Mexico City, in which we had been warned to "be very careful", advice which we have heeded, judging by past experiences. But seriously, Mexico City these days seems like a Pleasantville of 20 million people, with quite a few denizens more than willing to provide directions, create space on the bus or metro, or wish us a "buen viaje" upon viewing our large backpacks. A far cry from the 90s, indeed.
So what were we doing here? Making an urgent visit to the Canadian embassy, of course! Having stressed out all weekend about a cryptic email we had received on Thursday requesting additional translations of documents we had already submitted, we hopped on the bus, eager to arrive and beg for the documents to be returned so they could be translated.
We arrived at the bus station an hour late, only to find one of our metro lines apparently closed, yet we weren't sure which stops were affected. It took a combination of two metro lines, three shuttles and about an hour of walking with our packs to arrive at the embassy after the three hour journey from the bus station. It was 1 pm, and we hadn't eaten since 7 the night before. Tummy not happy.
Now seriously, could Canadians ( or Canadian embassy employees) be any nicer? Last time we were there, a guy who was completely disorganized with his application received a lot more assistance than he probably deserved, and an unaccompanied 90-something woman received several patient reminders about how the number-taking system worked. Today, although the coffee machine was broken (noooooo!!!), we enjoyed a lovely chat with a fellow Skilled Workers Program applicant before we were called to the desk by one of the many friendly trilingual employees.
After a mini conference among several of them, it was decided that the cryptic email was incorrect, and that we did not need the dreaded translations (which are a major run-around). They even put the email in our file with a note that we had been told we didn't need to submit them. Relief! Time to chow down on a torta gigante and a Squirt.
With no immediate need to stay in this delightful city, we await our bus to our home base of Oaxaca, leaving.... right about when our source of today's positive Canadian energy, J. Biebs, wraps up his mini concert. On second thought, thanks for the good vibes, Justin, from a future fellow Canadian (hopefully).
Saturday, June 9, 2012
We headed straight for the Parque Ecologico Macuiltepetl, or "the hill", a forested nature park housing a lookout tower with a bunch of trails leading up to it. At a mile high, walking the steep terrain was a workout, but in the cool breeze and shade, our neurons began to wake up from their heat-induced slumber, and we both felt more alert than we have in weeks. Today I was even able to come up with a new way to combine my limited travel garments, for the first time breaking that "leggings as pants" barrier, as women are wont to do here.....
Anyway, the dirt was a brilliant rusty red color and I realized how much I had missed the tall trees and shade of my homeland. There was a really (unintentionally) disturbing fauna museum at the top of the hill, which we marveled at and then headed up to the lookout tower. We were unfortunately unable to see Mexico's highest mountain, Pico de Orizaba, due to the haze. The 40-something guy that operated the tower cafe had sung in a blues band in none other than our (hopefully) future hometown of Vancouver, B.C., Canada! He was super cute and trapped us there for half an hour practicing his English and playing the harmonica for us. Might as well have been in Louisiana!
On the way down, we were disappointed to find that the anthropology museum (Mexico's second largest) was closed for the day, so after grabbing lunch, we headed downtown past numerous truckloads of the ubiquitous Mexican Marines (looking for drug trafficking activity) to stumble across yet another mini-political rally for the upcoming July 1 elections (for my least favorite of the three leading candidates).
The downtown's tasteful, manicured cathedral was decked out with 12 flat screen TVs to enhance the Mass experience. Overlooking much of the city was the most beautiful zocalo, or town square, I have ever seen. Light filtered through the clouds into rays that struck the distant hills and volcanoes. The official Veracruz government band provided the soundtrack to a flag-salute ceremony, where a hundred state police were lined up. Teenagers in sophisticated school uniforms made out on the benches and a guy was selling balloons. A company was offering free internet in a little kiosk, where people sat peacefully awaiting their turn to check El Face, as Facebook is referred to in Mexico.
Descending the steps toward a nearby cafe to sample some of the local coffee in this zona cafetalera, a sense of well-being came over me. So much so that not even the terrible taste of the coffee we were served, or our discovery that we forgot to do two pieces of Canada paperwork, could completely defeat my blissful state. The day having passed like lightning, we hopped on the "ordinario" bus back to Veracruz, grinding to a halt every few minutes as people flagged down the vehicle by the side of the road. Arriving at uncle Victor's house at 11pm, the engineers busted out the brewskies and one of those late-night philosophical discussions ensued.
Friday, June 8, 2012
coffee to go
big pickup trucks (not for work!) that get like ten miles per gallon
payment plans (for everything from polo shirts to laptops)
choosing between paper and plastic grocery bags
gift registration for weddings, 15th birthdays, etc
DVD rental kiosks (but you have to provide two character references, a deposit, and two forms of ID to join!!)
child safety tethers (aka kids on a leash)
wedge heels (ubiquitous in a heels-wearing culture such as this: they qualify as heels but are easier to walk in!)
Chinese buffets that look run-down
brownies (for sale for 12 pesos at uncle Victor's neighbor's house)
So we Americans are not to despair! We shall not be homesick here in Veracruz....
The three random photos show a KFC "Chickylandia" playground, a child on a leash at the mall in front of Sears, and a laptop in a coffee shop in the air-conditioned mall.