Hola a todos mi querida familia y mis queridos amigos también. It’s been a while; a whirlwind of a time, these past six weeks — but here I am going to attempt a recap. Something to catch you all up on where I’m at and where I’ve been, what I’ve done and what I’m doing. But even more so, this is something for myself. A dwelling in the memories and the experiences. Here goes.
Yesterday (18/02/18), I left Mexico City (La Ciudad de México, CDMX, México) and I realised something. Over the past 6 weeks, fragments of my soul have embedded themselves into the Colonias of Roma and Coyoacán, the zócalo of Puebla City and it’s colourful streets, the vegetarian Indigenous cooperative in Chamula that sat right opposite a Mayan pyramid, the community garden of Huerta Roma Verde (where we made salad out of vegetables grown by the community in CDMX and picked by my peers and I and where I am sure I will return to volunteer), and Chiapas. It’s a far healthier, less destructive, and less egotistical formation of horcruxes, but I hope it means that parts of me will live on through and in these memories.
The places and experiences I mentioned were all part of the 6 weeks course I did on Social Realities in Mexico, at the Universidad Iberoamericana. While not every adventure was a direct element of the course, staying with a Mexican host family took me to Puebla with my lovely roommate, our mamita mexicana and our tia mexicana (her sister) for a gorgeous long weekend. Our weekly excursions opened my eyes up to the realities of living in a city such as CDMX and a countries such as Mexico. From refugee houses to the Museo del Arte Popular (MAP) to a community garden and a community centre, we were privy to an amazing array of insights and experiences. Enhanced by the knowledge we were coming into each week — Human Rights / Poverty & Social Inequality / Indigenous Studies / Migration / Environment & Sustainability — I feel as though I have expanded my realm of understanding. I feel deeply connected to parts of Mexico that I never expected… its markets and its uneven roads, its wild traffic and its street food, but most of all the depth, complexity, and spirit of all its peoples — and their inherent connection to the land they inhabit.
Monday the 12th February, 2018. We woke at 5:30am to leave the house at 6am to be at the airport at 8:50am (just in case you hadn’t been quite able to envision the nightmare of traffic that is CDMX’s roads). Our destination? Textla Gutierrez airport, in the southern-Mexican state of Chiapas. Chiapas is the Mexican state with the second highest Indigenous population, and the second highest number of diverse ethno-cultural Indigenous groups (the first in each category is Oaxaca). We were heading there for a week; the sixth of our course; the final week. Landing in Chiapas to a balmy 30 degree day (a lovely change from the max. 18 degrees days we’d been seeing in Santa Fe, CDMX), we were ushered into a coach by our driver Juan (who came to save our lives on many an occasion). We drove for two hours into the highlands and arrived at San Cristóbal de las Casas, the birthplace of the Zapatista movement and a hub for hippies, hipsters, retired US travellers, and Indigenous peoples alike. It was incredible.
Our first afternoon there, after lunch at the collective Tierradentro, we walked along the cobbled, gridded streets dotted with colourful houses, tiendas, hotels, and coffee shops (the coffee scene in San Cristóbal could definitely rival both Sydney’s and Melbourne’s) up to the main church. There were a lot of stairs to climb and a lot of group pictures to be taken (by our resident Dad, Florian (the German living in Mexico with his Mexican wife and children who was the head of our department at the uni)) but it was worth the wait: We stepped into the arch of the entrance and were met with singing and choreographed dance numbers. We had arrived at a Mexican mass. Looking around, there were only women: grandmothers and mothers with their daughters, cousins, and aunts; nieces and great-grandchildren, and in the midst of all these women pure, tangible joy. Almost unintentionally, I found myself joining in; singing words as I slowly but surely picked them up, and finding myself a dance teacher to walk me through the steps — a young woman and her mother. I danced and sang and laughed and prayed and overflowed with joy and familiarity for the duration of 3 songs — or about 30 minutes. As the sermon began, we slipped back out of the arch and I had tears wetting my eyelashes. I felt so moved and so connected in a way I never had before. Finally, after learning and observing much of the realities of Mexico, I felt as though I was living them.
After this brief detour, we made our way to social enterprise Kiptik via the handcraft markets — an NGO partnering local Indigenous artisans with big clients, ensuring fair pay and safe work environments. With a stop off at one of our teacher’s favourite coffee spots in San Cristóbal, Carajillo, which soon became my favourite as well (PSA: all cafes should offer horchata con espresso), I headed back to the gloriously rustic hotel for an early night. We were in San Cristóbal until Thursday morning and had some big days up ahead: the Tuesday bought an excursion to a canyon, where we boated down the river, saw crocodiles and monkeys, had lunch at a fancy restaurant (famous for an amazing soup, flavoured by garden herb chipilín and floating balls of masa), and spent the afternoon at Melel X — an NGO working with Indigenous children in the region.
Wednesday we visited two Indigenous communities. The first, San Juan Chamula, is insular and private despite it being quite a tourist attraction. This particular community is famed for its fusion of Catholic practices and Indigenous Xaman (Shaman) ritual. The church, the main attraction, is heady and thick. Candles burn in every corner, along every table, and in front of all the 82 saints that adorn the walls. There are no pews, only palm branches, and the floor is scattered with bottles of Coca Cola (to encourage the expulsion of demons and bad spirits through burping) and glasses of pox (a local alcohol made from distilled corn). Inside, we saw families praying for the healing of their child, men praying for prosperity, and I felt dizzy with the mythology, faith, and belief that was tangible in the heavy air of this sacred place.
The second community was more open to the non-Indigenous public, with tourism being its main form of income. We visited Centro Textiles del Mundo Maya, a collective run by Indigenous women of the community that shows tourists traditional Mayan textiles techniques, dresses groups up in the daily outfits of the community, cooks corn tortillas hecho del mano over a traditional stove based on the four Mayan cardinal points (the same as ours today) and serves them to you with an array of salsas, frijoles, queso, crema, and most importantly, café de olla.
The next morning, we all woke at 4am to leave by 4:45am: we were heading to Palenque (a seven hour drive). Leaving so early was not just to arrive with some daylight to spend, but the earlier you leave, the less blockages you face along the way. Despite this, we still found ourselves paying tariffs to local communities that blockade the streets in civil protest, situations expertly navigated in the local language Tzetzal by our hero, Juan. Along the way (the very windy, bumpy, full-of-travel-sickness way), we stopped at the Cascadas de Agua Azul, where we swam in paradisiacal oases, ate mangos sliced into flowers and perched on a stick, we climbed behind waterfalls and I marvelled at just how gorgeous the tropical, jungle terrain of Southern Mexico is. I think I could live in it almost forever. We also stopped at Misol-Há, another waterfall named in the Indigenous language Ch’ol that literally means “water fall”. Finally, we arrive in steamy Palenque, to our luscious hotel Chan-Kah — a Mayan spa and resort.
Friday, our last full day, was spent wandering around the Palenque ruins: Mayan pyramids surrounded by lush jungle; ruins that have the best-preserved examples of Mayan hieroglyphs we have to date. The main organiser of our course, the most gorgeous young woman named Tahtiali, had studied history in university, and had minored in Indigenous studies and Mayan glyphs and so we had our own personal tour guide. That afternoon, we wound our way through the thick jungle to an Indigenous cooperative that runs a permaculture farm. We were treated to lunch that was made only with ingredients from their land and then shown around: the beehives, the dry toilets, the ovens and the stoves, the milpa, the crops, the greenhouse, and taught about their connections with local farmers to help improve agricultural sustainability across the region.
That night, I swam in the hotel pool feeling sticky and flushed and full of life. Surrounded by my friends, these few girls I had gotten to know in only 6 weeks, and the steamy jungle rising up around us, I felt at peace as I floated on the viscous surface of the water.
That feeling has not left. Not during the flight back as I was scribbling letters to everyone I had spent the past 6 weeks with. Not during the ‘last supper’ where there were only four of us left. Not when I returned later that night to Santa Fe, to see my Mexican family for the last time. Not when I had brunch on my last morning in CDMX with a lovely Guatemalan student I wanted to be friends with but never had the time. Not when I went to spend my last afternoon in Coyoacán, walking around the markets and sitting in the park. Not even on my red-eye flight to San José, Costa Rica, where I am right now.
I still feel so desperately, and so vividly, alive and connected to all things.