This place is oddly difficult to capture in words. Though it has more charm than the average “Pueblo Mágico,” to write solely about that would be to overlook a major element of the place too. In fact, it would be rather crass in my view. On the surface, the town is lovely. As I drove into town, I was enchanted by the colonial street layout and charming old buildings. Unlike places such as Puebla or Mérida, the structures here are simpler, shorter, and mostly have sloping, tiled roofs. The look is a bit like a multi-colored Pátzcuaro, which unlike here, has a uniform color code for all the buildings. Here, colors run riot in a more typically Mexican fashion. There’s also more variation in building style than you’d see in Pátzcuaro. The climate too was literally a breath of fresh air. After the heat and humidity of the Yucatán and Palenque, it was nice to be at 2,200 meters of altitude, or about 6,800 feet. I quickly found a hotel, unpacked, and began strolling around the town.
It’s hard to be here without thinking about culture. The place is such a mix of them. Of course, there’s the obvious, the national Mexican culture. This place is a PRI stronghold, and as Mexican as anywhere in this country, with plenty of tacos and tequila available. But it’s also one of those places that has been molded by the fact that it relies so heavily on tourism.
Most of the tourists are Mexican, probably from Mexico City, or one of the other northern mega-cities. But there are also lots of Europeans. Strolling the streets I hear a lot of French, some German, a sprinkling of Spanish from Spain, and some Nordic-sounding languages. There’s surprisingly little English, either of the US or the British sort, though you can hear it from time to time.
And there are hippies. There are LOTS of hippies. Again, mostly European hippies, old-school (though not old) hippies, with long hair, grubby-but-kinda-cool clothes accented with indigenous textiles, sandals, and small children with untamed locks. Most of them appear to live here. They’re not snapping pictures, and they have a settled-in look. I even saw one peddling pizza by the slice in the plaza. They also appear to have created a number of cafes and restaurants. And thanks to the hippies (in all probability) there are vegetarian restaurants, even vegan ones, something this gringo greeted with gusto.
But to me, the most interesting cultures here are the indigenous ones. Of course there are a maybe a dozen or so distinct indigenous cultures in and around San Cristóbal, each with its own customs and languages, with some curious mixing along the way. For example the other day, I was in the main plaza, and bought some mints from a couple of young, teenaged boys. They were huddled around a smartphone chatting animatedly. When I bought the mints, I asked, “What language are you speaking?” as it was clear that it wasn’t Spanish. “Tzotzil,” one of them replied, as they went back to their smartphone, my transaction complete. Curious, I sat down on a bench next to them, pretending to fiddle with my own cell phone, and eavesdropped a bit. Even though I had no clue as to what they were discussing, the conversation was fascinating. The sound of Tzotzil is, not surprisingly, unlike any European tongue. Nor does it seem to be tonal like an Asian language. The boys were looking at Facebook on the phone and chatting animatedly. But they weren’t speaking pure Tzotzil. There was a smattering of Spanish dropped in every couple of sentences. “guapo,” “diez,” “amor,” (“handsome,” “ten,” “love”) were some of the words I picked up in this conversation. Which, of course, made me even more curious about what they were discussing. Does the Tzotzil language lack words to describe a “perfect ten?” The whole conversation reminded me of conversations in Joanna’s household; just use whatever word comes to mind, never mind the language.
I have to confess that I am fascinated by the indigenous people here in San Cristóbal. As I wander the plaza, in my mind I see Mayan princes and princesses, heirs to a once-amazing culture. These people’s forefathers conquered the jungle, built the pyramids, developed the calendar, invented a form of writing, astronomy, and created beautiful art. And despite the crushing imposition of the Spanish conquest, these people have clung tenaciously to their own culture in many ways. The women, at least, wear traditional clothing which identifies their village and tribe. Often this “uniform” consists of a black goat-skin skirt, which still has the goat fur on it. Then a colorful blouse, a sash, a sweater or rebozo. The women typically wear their hair either in braids or put up. The men, oddly, seem to dress like any Mexican man — levis, plaid shirts, jackets, boots. The only obviously indigenous thing about them is their sharp features and bronze skin. Once in a while you’ll see a guy in indigenous garb, but the women are more faithful. They are short folks too. The adults here seem to run about five feet tall in stature, short even by Mexican standards. Most of the time I found myself towering over the crowds.
As I stroll the plazas and watch these people pass by, I’m really challenged by mixed emotions. Despite a long-ago, glorious past many are now peddlers in the town square, scratching out a living selling tourist trinkets that they worked hard to produce by hand. The poverty of these folks is sad and disturbing. According to Wikipedia, about 75% of residents of the state of Chiapas live below the Mexican poverty line. And I can see it in the dirty five-year-olds selling boxes of Chiclets for a peso a piece. I can see it in the hardened faces of the young men, struggling to support their families of five, as they lug heavy burdens up and down stairs of the market. I can see it in the women in the plazas, weighed down like burros with kilos and kilos of blankets, rebozos, belts, bracelets and other things for sale to us tourists. The predominant vendors of cigarettes, gum, mints and candy in the squares are preadolescent boys who should be in school. Five-year-olds are trying to persuade me to let them shine my shoes. I look at them, and I see my own little nephew and shudder.
Now it’s easy for me to drive in on my ten-week vacation and breezily identify the problem. The causes, of course, are myriad and complex. Some of them date back to the conquest. Some of them are of course more recent. Land inequality is a big issue, one which the Zapatistas have been trying to address. Sadly, mostly without success. Education is also a big issue. Very young children are put to work selling stuff all day long, losing the opportunity to develop better skills. And some of the causes of the poverty are inherently cultural to the groups themselves. Who seriously should start a family in their late teens with no income, no assets, no education, and no prospects? Yet Southern Mexico isn’t the only place where this cycle feeds upon itself. Sadly, it seems to be part of the human condition. But it’s really visible here, and unless you’re traveling in a coma, it’s got to give you pause.
Wednesday was Día del Niño in Mexico, day of the child. Here, this is often celebrated with either a more relaxed, “fun” day at school—sharing food, playing games, listening to music— or a school holiday. Often there are special activities for kids in parks and sports centers, and it’s also sometimes a day where kids get gifts. In San Cristóbal, the schools closed, and the city or state put on a bit of a party in the Plaza de la Paz in front of the cathedral. There was music, entertainment, and some kinds of games. But there were also handouts — toys for the kids like blonde Barbies, and play makeup sets for the girls, and plastic cop cars and farm animals for the boys. There were also packages of food assistance for the families. These were boxes about 12” on a side, a cubic foot, which presumably contained staples such as beans, corn, aseptic milk perhaps, and a few other things. It wasn’t much, but seemed to be appreciated and was eagerly snapped up.
The kids, of course, were ecstatic at their new toys. But I watched this all with certain feeling of sadness that so many people clearly needed these gifts and this help. The lines were enormous, hundreds and hundreds of people deep. They snaked across the plaza, doubled back, and ran around the municipal palace. I’d imagine that the families probably had to wait in line for hours to get their handouts. And though I didn’t do a formal survey, I did not see a single güero face in line. Yet all the festivities were in Spanish. Now I’m not advocating linguistic isolation; it’s important that the kids learn Spanish. But it would have been nice to see some indigenous culture thrown into the mix. As for the gifts and food support, it’s terrific that the government can help out these families, but again sad that they need it so badly. And not to make this a totally depressing post, but I can only imagine that the poverty and want in the surrounding villages is much worse.
So for me, San Cristóbal has been a place of mixed emotions. Despite the obvious poverty, the town has an odd attraction. Though there are lots of restaurants and cafes, many with music, there’s really not much else. Yet the streets and the vibe are somehow compelling. It could be an interesting place to live. Without a doubt, it’d be a cheap place to live. I ran into an American couple last night from Texas. As I passed by a falafel place and paused to look at the menu, they beckoned me in. “This is good,” I could see on their faces. After I settled in, I asked if they were American, and we started chatting. It turns out that they have lived here on and off for about eighteen months, and have a one-bedroom apartment not far from the main plaza for which they pay the princely sum of $265 USD per month. They use little gas, and little heat. Food here is noticeably cheaper than other parts of Mexico, and other services also seem cheaper. I also think that’s part of the reason there are so many hippies. Where else could you live in such an interesting place for maybe as little as USD $1,000 per month if you were very careful?
I’m ready to move on, though with mixed emotions. I’d actually like to stay longer here; the place has an odd magnetism. But I am sadly starting to see the end of my journey. I need to be back in Boston by the end of May, a little less than a month from now. I’m figuring on about 2 weeks of driving days, so that leaves me about two weeks of adventure days left. I’m also eager to get back to Puebla to see Edgar, something he’s eager for too. Someday I hope I can come back here to San Cristóbal, but for now, it looks like adios.
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