Our, alas short, interval in Guatemala ended with an adventurous trip back to Mexico to say the least: first a bus from Xela, with a forced change in Huehuetenango, to La Mesilla (the real border town: in fact the border is bigger than the town!), 4-5 km of nobody's land by taxi, collectivo to Comitán and then another one to San Cristóbal, Chiapas, going through 3-4 roadblocks. At one of these, they ask us to get out of the car, and the young officer plays, like the proverbial cat with the mouse, teasing the three gringos (one authentically from the States, and the two of us, Europeans): Entonces, que van a hacer en Chiapas, tienen sellos en el paseporte, trahen drogas, …??? (So what are you going to do in Chiapas, do you have stamps on your passport, are you carrying drugs …????)When we are finally nearly at the finishing line, the access road to the town is blocked by a popular protest. No big deal, we are not in a rush!
But here we are, eventually, in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a beautiful town that takes its name from a Spanish friar, Fray Bertolomé de Las Casas, one of the first (and few, at the time) to defend the rights of the American indigenous populations against the Conquistadores. Bartolomé took part in the infamous debate which was fashionable in Spain back then: do Indios possess a soul or not?
San Cristóbal is the cultural and moral capital of Chiapas, and it is the fulcrum of the zapatistarevolution. For the benefit of those, who are living on a different planet, the Zapatista Army for the National Liberation (EZLN) is a movement born a number of years ago on the Chiapas mountains, with the aim to fight the latifondismo still present in Mexico, reassign the land to the campesinos, and therefore improve their living conditions. The EZLN can count on the support of the local people, especially in the villages around the mountains, but also in San Cristóbal (the protest we encountered at the entrance of the town was in favour of the liberation of some political prisoners, captured within the government fight against the zapatistas).
The charismatic leader of this revolutionary army is sub-comandante insurgente Marcos, who is not really a campesino, there are actually rumours that he is a philosopher from Ciudad de México University. He smokes a pipe, wears a balaclava, and rides a donkey. Well, with all this background, we were almost hoping to meet one or two of these fighters up and down the steep roads in San Cristóbal, but the sub-comandante and his revolutionary soldiers stayed hiding in the jungle, pondering their next move against the government of Presidente Vincente Fox, who for his part during those days was quite busy with his (controversial) wedding, as well as strengthening his friendship with George W. Bush. Unfortunately, the only Zapatistas we saw were little stuffed dolls, with balaclava and wooden rifle, some riding a horse, others, more sadly, hanging from a key ring …!!!
From San Cristóbal you can reach the village of San Juan Chamula, whose church is famous for the lack of benches and vestments and for the thousands candles and pine needles that cover its floor. Unfortunately, the day we visited, they were doing their spring cleaning: a team of men kneeling down were scraping the wax off the floor, while they had already brushed the pine needles away. I must say that after the Indios churches in Guatemala, this one was not a big surprise. At the sides of the nave there are the classic statues of the saints, this time caged in glass cabins like public telephone boxes, wearing bright coloured overalls, 1970s hairdresser style, with a mirror hanging from their neck. When I asked the door man the reason behind the mirror, he replied that the saints, aware of being pretty, want to admire their own image – I agree with you that he was taking the piss, but because our guide book reported of cheeky tourists beaten up with canes by the 'bouncers', we didn't dare make further comments!
We leave San Cristóbal and its 2100m to spend a few relaxing days in Puerto Angel, in the State of Oaxaca. Sea, sun, fresh seafood, and few tourists: heaven! The Pacific waves make our Mediterranean rollers look like a tiny ruffling, and there is a relaxed atmosphere, that of a fisherman's village. Puerto Angel is not as famous, at least in Italy, as its older cousin, Puerto Escondido, of Salvatores fame, or its hippy little brother, Zipolite beach, where a couple of wasters sunbathe naked on a slice of beach dirty and polluted with syringes.
Oaxaca, unpronounceable capital of the homonymous State, is a colonial town, lively and refined. The food is excellent: at the stalls on the way to the market they cook and sell tlayuda, a sort of piadina (Translator’s note: flat unleavened bread from Romagna, Italy) with a big sausage, instead of the ubiquitous tortillas, 1000 points! Another delicacy is mezcal, a spirit distilled from agaves like tequila, which, in the original version, contains the gusano, a worm, elegantly lying on the bottom of the bottle, and which the machos fight for, to demonstrate their respectability. Thank to a misunderstanding, instead of fried chicken and a taste of mezcal, we order a version that is chicken breast-flavoured: I have no words to describe the aftertaste of this killer drink!!
From Oaxaca, we visit Mitla (Zapotec remains mixed with houses and churches built from the Conquista onward) and Monte Albán (Zapotecs again, but this time up a mountain at the confluence of three valleys; huge platforms with ample staircases were the basis for the temples and the houses of the powerful people – no pyramids to climb, 1000 more points!!!)