Thursday, December 2, 2010

Chiapas Diaries: Day 4, Part 1 - Zapatista Agriculture and a Shower

This is the seventh diary in a series about my recent trip to Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, to meet with and learn about the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgent movement made up of several ethnic groups, and their food and agriculture. On our fourth day, we left the Zapatistas we had stayed with in the highlands of Chiapas and returned to the nearby town of San Cristobal. We had a plan - that might have turned into a bit of a disaster - to visit a very special place and stay there for the night. This diary is about the agriculture in the highlands and our drive back to San Cristobal (where my filthy body met a shower for the first time in a few days).

(I went with the group Schools for Chiapas, an organization that works with and provides aid to the Zapatistas. Check out their website if you are interested in either traveling with them to Chiapas yourself, or simply buying some artisanal goods or coffee produced by Zapatistas. Aside from the obvious politics involved in supporting Zapatistas, you are supporting human beings who live in extreme poverty and work their asses off to educate themselves and their children and provide for basic needs like water and health care.)

The morning of Day 4 included electricity – and coffee. God bless coffee. Chiapas is a major coffee-producing region, and with both the corn and coffee harvest going on right now, nearly every family has corn, beans, coffee, or all three drying on their patio. The school’s roof was entirely covered with drying coffee. Unfortunately, the only ready to brew coffee sold in the Caracol was Nescafe, so we brought a pound of roasted, ground Chiapas coffee with us from San Cristobal. Yum. (Note: If you want to buy Zapatista coffee, you can get it from Peter & Susan’s organization, Schools for Chiapas.)

Susan left early in the morning to run errands in San Cristobal. The rest of us woke up, packed the car, and made plans to have two people take a [word I assumed meant "cab" in Spanish] and meet everyone else, who would go in Raquel’s car, in San Cristobal. I took a few last pictures of the Caracol during this time.


Coffee drying on the school's roof


The Caracol's basketball court. As much as the rest of Latin America is crazy for soccer, that's how much the indigenous people in Chiapas love basketball.


A sign on a Zapatista building that says "Against the IMF, the World Bank, the European Bank, and the pillars of Neoliberalism."


A sign about a project to grow Zapatista corn


Another sign about Zapatista seeds growing corn all over the world


Places in the world that plant Zapatista corn


More places growing Zapatista corn


Cute little Zapatista dolls, armed to the teeth


Coke delivery to the Caracol.


A CD for sale in the Caracol's store... here's what the Zapatistas think about former Mexican president Vicente Fox. FMI means IMF, and Fox is saying "They have what I promised them."


Update: I mistranslated this when I first posted. The title says "I don't bring cash: Mexico Seen Below." Details below in the comments.


In the Caracol's store, you can get a copy of Supersize Me in Spanish

While we were out packing the car and looking for our ride back to the city (not too many cabs go past the Caracol, as you can imagine), Peter offered to show me some agricultural highlights from the Caracol’s neighbors.

This time of year, the corn has been drying in the field for some months and the fields - milpas - are basically fallow. Peter pointed at one and said, "There are probably 30 species of plants in there." These plants are not weeds, per se, as many are either edible or medicinal, and they also serve to improve the soil. To make the corn dry better, many farmers bend the corn stalks in half while the corn dries. This makes the dried corn harder, making it grind better for tortillas. In some fields, you could see the brilliant green of enormous squashes here and there, like little jewels amidst the dead, dried, yellow corn.


The road outside the Caracol, along which we were walking


A milpa - cornfield - within the Caracol. I stepped in a huge mud puddle while going to take this picture, submerging my entire foot, sock, and shoe in muddy water.


The same milpa, another view


The milpa again. Look at those red flowers on the bean plant.


A family drying their corn, coffee, laundry, and firewood


Another family drying their coffee


Zapatista chicken, crossing the road. It's amazing when you live in an agrarian society and realize how many of our expressions come from our own agrarian past


Beans growing.


Beans drying.


Here's what the actual beans look like. There are several colors of beans in here.

A home nearby had some seven different kinds of fruit, including peaches and various types of citrus. They also grew chayote, and beans. They cut down wood for fuel. I guess the need for firewood explains the nursery of baby pine trees Agroecology was growing. When I first saw them, I couldn’t figure out what they were for since you can’t really eat a pine tree. We also saw wild ginger growing.


Wild ginger

As we walked along the road, Peter hailed every car that went past, asking if they’d give us a lift to San Cristobal. Finally one said yes, and we hopped in (me, Peter, Rich, and an Italian girl who had also been at the Caracol). That’s not what I call a cab. That’s what I call hitchhiking. And this was officially the first time in my life I’ve ever done it. But whatever.

On the way back, Peter pointed out various sites. He showed us where a church stood on the site of an ancient Mayan temple, and told us about arnica, a yellow medicinal flower that grows among the corn. He told us about the government's counter-insurgency efforts, and pointed out a government welfare distribution, where tons of indigenous people were lined up along the street, probably to receive cash. Because the Zapatistas refuse to take anything from the government, the Mexican government has lured many people away from the Zapatista movement by giving them free floors, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, mattresses, or just plain cash.


Mountain with church and former Mayan temple. There's also a Mayan ballcourt there.


A milpa, with medicinal yellow flowers growing in it.


Me standing next to the corn. Look how tall it is!


Corn growing on a steep slope. This is pretty common in Chiapas.


A group of indigenous people walking home from a government welfare distribution site.

Peter pointed out Reserva Huitapec, a preserve of virgin cloud forest that was sponsored by major environmental organizations. The Mexican government kept selling off property within this reserve for houses, and the owners of Casa del Pan, Americans, had an enormous house up there.

Finally, the Zapatistas got pissed at the selling off of precious forest land, and they began patrolling the top of the hill, along the edge of the last line of properties to prevent further development. Now the owners of Casa del Pan had people in black masks patrolling the lines of their property. I began to regret the meal I had eaten at Casa del Pan. You’ve got to be a fucking hypocrite to own an eco-restaurant and then cut down virgin forest in a protected area to build a huge house.

The car let us out in an unfamiliar (to me) part of San Cristobal and we walked a few blocks, through the market (where we bought tamales and tortillas), to a parking lot (which was also a car repair shop) where Peter thought Raquel would park. She wasn’t there yet. Peter told me he had to run an errand or two and asked what I wanted to do. I wanted to shower, and I said so, thinking it was absolutely impossible. To my great surprise, Peter told me that the auto shop we were at had showers. What???

Turns out, a shower cost only 30 pesos plus three more for a towel. We agreed to meet in front of Casa del Pan in 20 minutes, and I took my shower. I had no soap or shampoo to use – it was packed in Raquel’s car – but the shower was wonderful all the same.

After my shower, I walked to our meeting place at Casa del Pan and sat down to wait, ordering a juice drink to justify my presence. I didn't want to leave the meeting place, and there wasn't really anywhere else nearby to sit (or to eat). I cringed as I handed over my $2 for the mix of orange, banana, guava, and ginger.

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