Charming Chiapas

From the sandy coasts of Oaxaca we travelled East and inland to the highlands of Chiapas, famed for its dense jungle, vast array of natural water features, indigenous groups, ancient Maya ruins, and  traditional Mexican textile crafts. Mexico is, after all, officially the United Mexican States (comprised of thirty-one), so it should come as no surprise that visiting Chiapas after Oaxaca was an entirely different kettle of fish.

Our first drop-off was at the Cañón del Sumidero, a huge and impressive canyon – complete with wild crocodiles – that we explored by boat.

Cañón del Sumidero
Cañón del Sumidero
Crocodrilo!
Crocodrilo!

Then we travelled on to the city of San Cristobál de las Casas, where we visited the Jade Museum, the Museo de Kakaw (Chocolate Museum), and squeezed in a spot of shopping at the Mercado de Dulces y Artesanías: a market crammed with stalls and stands selling traditional sweets and hand-crafted products – everything from bags and clothes to jewellery and cushion covers. I absolutely loved the colourful embroidery and really wished I could have come home with my arms and suitcase loaded with delightful wares.

Dinner in San Cristobál
Dinner in San Cristobál

The next day we were off to Cascadas ‘El Chiflón’, a public park home to a series of incredible waterfalls. It was a steep climb to get the best view, but that and the soaking that we got from the viewpoint (as well as the mud-stained shorts sustained from a tumble…) were well worth it! The water was the most beautiful Maya blue, perfectly framed by a glistening rainbow.

Cascadas
Cascadas
Cascadas
A perfect pool.
But where's the pot of gold?
Not a pot of gold nor leprechaun in sight…

Next up, Lagunas de Montebello National Park, which is comprised of 59 lakes in a pine forest, famous for their differing shades of blue due to the varying mineral contents. We paddled around one of the lakes in a traditional Mexican balsa wood raft, passing the hour mostly by threatening to push each other off.

Balsa raft
Balsa raft
Juli, me and Marion chilling at the Lagunas de Montebello
Juli, me and Marion chilling at the Lagunas de Montebello

We then spent the evening in the pretty Pueblo Mágico (Magic Town) of Comitán, where I enjoyed my first glass of wine in three months, a delicious Chilean Sauvignon Blanc!

At the crack of dawn the following day we went to Yaxchilán to get our Indiana Jones on. Taking our 459th boat trip of the week, we whizzed half an hour down the half-Mexican, half-Guatemalan Usumacinta River to find the abandoned ancient Maya city deep in the Chiapan jungle. The area had been a powerful Maya state and home to a number of rulers with entertaining names like Moon Skull and Bird Jaguar from 359-808 AD. Nowadays its only residents are of the non-human variety, including bats hiding out in the ruins, spiders adorning the walls, giant lizards (not a technical name!) scuttling about in the undergrowth, and Howler monkeys ferociously guarding the buildings: exploring the ancient buildings was like a real life London Dungeon experience, just replacing the human actors with wild creatures.

When we arrived I thought they were playing out ‘jungle’ sounds to make the experience more atmospheric, something akin to a Jurassic Park ride in a theme park….not very considerate to the native wildlife, I thought. No no, the sounds were all real. The (appropriately named) monkeys HOWL like you would not believe, which was actually quite intimidating, especially when we later zoomed in on Juli’s photos to see one monkey happily dangling his testicles over the branch!

Get out of my house!
Get out of my house!
Yax
Princess of the Temple, Juli German Jaguar
Yax
Ruins in surprisingly good nick.
Yax
Got told off for this pic…DO NOT MOCK THE GODS.
Hey Guatemala
Oh hey Guatemala! Usumacinta River.

We spent that night in Palenque, where there were lizards on the hotel ceiling and enormous cockroaches patrolling the corridors. It rained like someone just tipped out the clouds. Unlike heavy rain in the UK, it didn’t ‘clear the air’ but remained ridiculously hot and humid. A simple explanation: we were in the middle of the jungle.

The following morning we went the Maya site of Palenque, which is known as one of the most outstanding sites of the Classic Maya period because of its exceptionally well preserved architectural remains.

Palenque
The ‘Palace’ at Palenque
Palenque
Endless steps and scorching heat
Palenque
Palenque

In the afternoon, we went to Agua Azul, an area of stunning ‘blue’ waterfalls. Unfortunately, due to the previous night’s rainfall it was pure Agua Chocolate, so we gave the swimming a miss and passed a couple of hours trying to soothe our monstrous hangovers with copious amounts of fresh coconut instead. We were also lamenting the end of an incredible holiday, with only a fourteen hour minibus ride home left to look forward to.

I must take this opportunity to give special thanks to my dear friend Juli for letting me share her camera and pics after my camera failed me on the second day, and more importantly for being such a wonderful friend since I arrived in Mexico and especially throughout our trip. Not only did her companionship mean that I never had to share a bed with a stranger, but having somebody to experience all of Mexico’s oddities and wonders from a similar perspective makes every eventuality here immeasurably more enjoyable. In all honestly, we are largely as clueless as each other, with the exceptions being my offering of the occasional useless fact (does anybody really care that Oaxaca is Mexico’s fifth largest state?) and her acting as my nurse-at-hand. We were labelled by one particularly polite Mexican on our travels as ‘super quiet’ and ‘super annoying’, I’ll leave it to you to guess who was who!

Wonderful Oaxaca

Arriving in Oaxaca – a 14 hour drive from Puebla – stunned my senses. Like any road travel in Mexico, looking out of the window is not for the faint-hearted, but after about nine hours of restless dozing and admiring the inside of the minibus, curiosity got the better of me. I’m familiar with a variety of beautiful European landscapes, but I’d never been anywhere truly tropical before, so weaving our windy way through the mountains was definitely an eye-opener – and a real treat. Everything was just so huge, and our mini bus so tiny in comparison, that it really gave a sense of nature at its wildest and most impressive. The vertical drop just inches from the edge of the road was hundreds of metres of sheer terror, and every spot covered in thick, lush, greenery. There were mango trees everywhere, and piles of coconuts heaped along the roadside. On stepping out of the minibus the first thing I noticed wasn’t the heat but the sound of nature’s noisy hubbub. We had arrived in paradise.

Coconuts - mind your head!
Cocos
Mangos aplenty.
Mango trees

Our first stop was Reserva Ecológica de Chacahua. We travelled for forty minutes by boat through a vast network of swampy rivers, the likes of which I’d only seen on documentaries about the Amazon. We were dropped off at a little riverside village and walked through to the idyllic beach complete with flawless sand stretching as far as the eye could see, and an abundance of palm trees and hammocks.

River cruise
River cruise
Palm-tree paradise
Palm-tree paradise
Salvavidas!
Salvavidas!
Blue sky bliss.
Blue skied bliss.

When we’d had our fill of sunshine and cerveza we headed off on the final leg of our journey to Puerto Escondido, where we were to station ourselves for the next few days. Expecting some kind of grotty hostel, we were extremely happy to find that our hotel was not only stationed right on the beachfront, but also had its own perfect little pool. VERY happy campers!

Villas Casalet, Puerto Escondido
Villas Casalet, Puerto Escondido
"Precopeo"  - Mexican pre-drinks and party games!
“Precopeo” – Mexican pre-drinks and party games!

After a long hard night of precopeo and partying, the following day was spent at the beautiful Carrizalillo beach.

Carrizalillo
Carrizalillo

Next up was a trip to hippy hot-spot Mazunte. The beach was another stunner, and we indulged in some delicious Mexican-style seaside grub. In the evening we took the twenty minute walk up to Punta Cometa to watch the sunset from the cliff top. With the waves crashing and splashing beneath us we watched in awe as the sky glowed a hundred spectacular shades of red before darkening into nightfall.

Mazunte beach
Mazunte beach
Coctel de camarónes
Coctel de camarónes
Ceviche
Ceviche
Chilli, chilli or chilli?
Salsas (sauces) – chilli, chilli or chilli?
Up to Punta Cometa
En route to Punta Cometa
Don't look down!
Mind your step!
A magical moment
Magical moments

The next day Juli and I were celebrating having been in Mexico for three months, and we did so by taking a horse ride along Puerto Escondido beach at sunset. My horse was called Calcetín, which means Sock. He was a real cutie!

BFFs!
BFFs!
Juli riding into the sunset
Juli riding into the sunset

Our next stop was Huatulco. Being the Easter holidays here, it was as busy as it could possibly have been, with all of the beach swallowed by crowded restaurants and cafés right up to about a metre from the water line. We ate classic Mexican nieve, which translates as snow and is like a creamy sorbet. The speciality flavour of Oaxaca is with grated carrot and coconut, and epitomises the taste of the tropics!

Huatulco
Huatulco beach

We went to the centre of Huatulco and planted ourselves on a café terrace overlooking the traditional dancers in the Zócalo and drank traditional Oaxacan hot chocolate, which I just couldn’t get enough of throughout the trip. It’s served in a bowl like soup and is made with either milk or water (milk is always my preference). It’s thick and creamy, and sweetly spiced with vanilla, cinnamon and almond. It’s not completely smooth because of the minimal processing and traditional stone-grounding method of breaking down the cocoa beans, but the texture just adds to its delicious rustic flavour.

As midnight approached we bade a fond farewell to Oaxaca and embarked on an overnight bus ride to Chiapas…

Itsy Bitsy Izta*

 

*I lied. It’s not itsy bitsy at all, it’s enormous. Iztaccíhuatl stands at 5286m above sea level and is Mexico’s third highest peak after Pico de Orizaba (5636m) and Popocatépetl (5452m).

Just as a guide for size, here’s a comparison with some of the world’s other Really Big Hills:

Britain’s tallest rock formation Ben Nevis (it’s a mountain, we haven’t had any volcanoes in Great Britain for the last 60 million years) is 1344m high.

Mount Etna, Europe’s tallest active volcano, was last measured as 3329m high.

Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain (a dormant volcano), reaches 5895m.

Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl (Izta’s next door neighbour) form part of the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire,’ a large series of volcanoes which encircle the Pacific Ocean to form an area notorious for dramatic eruptions and violent earthquakes. The Ring of Fire is shaped like an upside down horse shoe, stretching from New Zealand up the East coast of Asia, and down the West coast of the USA and South America.

The most active volcanoes in Mexico are found along the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt (known locally as Sierra Nevada), spreading 900km from West to East across central-southern Mexico. Popocatépetl is a particularly feisty one, last erupting on the 11th of July 2013. Iztaccíhuatl, however, is craterless and dormant, and open for exploration.

We were dropped off at 3990m and walked/crawled the La Joya route up to just below 5000m. To go any higher requires an overnight stay for acclimatisation. One day was absolutely enough for me! It was hard, really hard: the terrain was steep, rocky and unstable. The altitude wasn’t as much of a problem as I had feared and with regular breaks I managed to scrabble my way up without any major disasters. But after a 45 minute rest at the top spent admiring the incredible views, my legs decided that they’d had enough, and were rather reluctant to get back to work. The descent was a challenge. At times it was like sand-skiing without skis, and our boots required regular tipping. We were trying to go as fast as we could to get it over with, but jelly legs made me feel like a clumsy octopus and it was too treacherous to go too quickly. I’ve never felt exhaustion like it, and it’s the only time I’ve ever really felt like my body was totally at odds with my will.

After six and a half hours we were very, very happy to see the base camp. Too tired to be jubilant, only rest and relief occupied my thought stream for the next few hours; I’m not sure if it was the heat or the altitude, but I felt very nauseous for the entire three-hour journey home.

It was simultaneously a lot of fun and really awful. More fun than awful, I think, although my thighs are currently telling me otherwise. In a strangely masochistic way, it’s precisely because it was so awful that it was also so much fun?!

Am I glad I did it? Of course! Would I do it again? Give me some time to forget the pain…

 

 

Lovely Linguistics

I must first confess that I know almost nothing about linguistics, so to anybody who finds themselves here because of Linguistics in the title, please don’t be misled into thinking that I am attempting any kind of serious theoretical or technical analysis! At university I studied a module in Anthropology and Language, a broad branch of Anthropology that essentially identifies and analyses how language influences social life, but it was far from my favourite course. It did, however, make me aware that observing how language is used can offer handy indicators in helping us to understand culture, and more specifically relations between people. Of course, language is just the tip of the cultural iceberg, but for someone arriving in a country with next to no knowledge of the language who is trying to learn and adjust as quickly as possible, it’s one of the most accessible routes to assimilation. And if you want to get on, you’ve got to go with the grain.

One of the most memorable things a lecturer ever told me about fieldwork was along the lines of “people think one thing, say another, and do a third” (Glenn Bowman, probably some time in 2009). I don’t know why it struck me so much, perhaps because it applies as much to ourselves as to the anthropological ‘Other,’ but when you’re native to a place you’re much more familiar with context and the way communication works. We generally know how and when people are just being polite and when it’s okay to be honest, and more importantly how to use the correct language to do so. Anyway, the motto was at the forefront of my mind as I departed for Mexico, and I soon found it to be entirely accurate. I mean, I’m sure the Mexicans aren’t nearly as baffling amongst themselves, but it seems that I’m always trying to interpret and distinguish between what they think, say, mean, and do.

I learned very quickly that Mexicans have a real aversion to saying “no” or “I don’t know,” or basically anything negative at all. For example, when asking for directions, you could ask a dozen different people and you’d be given a dozen different answers – and not one of them would be “I don’t know”. This actually happened to me in Valle de Bravo, and I know it wasn’t just because they wanted to be nice to a helpless tourist because I was with two Mexicans at the time. It’s all part of the exaggerated politeness that I first mentioned in my early post Participant Observation, and the great emphasis placed on showing good will and helping each other (even if it is, in fact, far less helpful than admitting a lack of knowledge).

People will agree with pretty much anything you say to be polite, and then you find yourself wondering why they aren’t doing what they said they would. And you really ought to reciprocate this behaviour by saying whatever it takes to maintain pleasant and agreeable conversation, even if that means lying quite explicitly and doing the complete opposite as soon as your companion is out of sight or earshot. This is even the case when making informal plans with friends, so it’s helpful to bear in mind that ‘yes’ isn’t actually any assurance of commitment.

Consequently, when you do eventually pluck up the courage to use the ‘n’ word in the ‘yes culture,’ nobody takes you seriously. It’s just not an acceptable or polite thing to say, and people can’t believe or understand why you would refuse their request to dance/eat more/wear a hat/go to an afterparty. Even when you’re in an impersonal situation bordering on harassment, for example being accosted by very persistent vendors on the street, the word “no” is notably absent – it’s the oh-so-polite “gracias” accompanied by a gracious smile. Mexico may be notorious for crime and violence, but as far as I can tell bad attitude and quick temper just don’t list in their flaws. Or perhaps they are rude in the same way that they’re nice: impeccably courteous about it to your face, and proceeding to do the complete opposite when you’re not looking!

Evidence of their famously relaxed attitude is found in a couple of my favourite Mexicanisms that you won’t find in your standard Spanish-English dictionary. Firstly, the word domingueando, that comes from domingo (Sunday) and means enjoying a lazy Sunday. The way it is used it also typical of a very clear difference between people from Mexico City and the dawdlers of other regions: for example, a chilango (person native to the capital) might complain about slow drivers by saying “¿por qué domingueando?” – something like “why dilly dallying?!” For Poblanos (the people of Puebla), on the other hand, lingering and loitering is a treasured pastime. My other favourite is the verb pueblear, which translates roughly as ‘to potter’; to mosey around the streets, popping into shops, chatting and stopping for food. It’s no coincidence that these Mexican specialities refer to the savouring of a slow-paced lifestyle; I’m yet to find any that indicate any sense of immediacy, and really doubt that I will!

The use of diminutives is by no means restricted to Mexican Spanish, but is particularly exaggerated here, to the point where they widely acknowledge that they drive other Spanish speakers mad with it, and on occasion even each other!  The diminutive suffixes (adding ita, ito, cita or cito to the end of words) don’t only mean that something is small, but are also used to indicate the speaker’s feelings toward the person or object, making what they are saying less harsh or indicating affection. It is common to change casa into casita, meaning small house, or perro into perrito, to mean puppy or cute dog, but the Mexicans will do it with pretty much anything. It’s even more prevalent because I’m working in a primary school: words aren’t just palabras but palabritas; in the game of hangman it’s not a head, cabeza, but cabezita; and even rubbish becomes cute when you turn it from basura into basurita. It’s a significant indicator of how pleasant people are to one another and how affectionate personal relations are. My host mum Pera is often called ‘Perita,’ and cousin Fernando ‘Fercito’. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the family either: the teacher in my class at school is called Laura, but on the children’s notebooks you’ll find ‘Teacher: Miss Laurita’.

It’s a very, very adorable way of speaking to people, but in England baby talk just isn’t acceptable past the age of 4, when children start school and are encouraged to ‘speak properly’. Unless you’re quite obviously joking and making a mockery of it, it is most likely to be interpreted as insultingly patronising. I just can’t bring myself to do it without feeling like a complete buffoon. Well that’s what I thought, until last night. I arrived home and Pera asked me, “¿vas a comer algo?” –  “are you going to eat something?”

“Voy a hacer un huevito,” I replied – “I’ll make an eggy.” And there it was, it just slipped out. There’s no going back now.