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Ciutat de Mčxic, D.f. (see on map)
We arrived to Mexico City, taking care not to cross any drug dealer or corrupt police and mindful of not falling into any traps and dangers that we had been warned from the United States. However, the landing was very quiet and we only had to face an unexpected inconvenience: the height of the city (2240m). In the early days we were puffing to a minimum effort and we suffered occasionally of headaches of more or less intensity. As for the drugs and the daily shootings in different parts of the country, different friends reassured us that the drug traffickers laundered drug money to build hotels and do not want to scare tourists because they are another good source of income.
What it seems sure from other friends, including a Spanish man who worked with refugees, is that the following countries of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador ,...) are much more dangerous than Mexico, with the existence of the Zetas and other criminal gangs. Inevitably I remembered that in Greece we were told that Turkey was dangerous, Turkey felt the same for the Iranians, while Iran warned us of the dangers of Pakistan. Our experience shows that many countries are afraid of their neighbors, but this suspicion can have a real cause, so far we have always been assuming this risk increased smoothly and we had not had any traumatic shock, as if we were a frog who gradually increased the water temperature. If we would have landed in Pakistan directly from Greece surely we would have wanted to leave immediately and would probably do the same in the following countries of Central America. In any case, we avoid this increase in risk and we are taking into account the possibility of being mugged and robbed of computers and cameras, so we are currently doing more backups than ever.
Fast we become confident and we move around the city, but definitely the City of Mexico is very different from any U.S. city. As we arrived we were surprised by the appearance of people, very different from the previous country, where most had a direct descent to the former European colonists and African slaves, unlike Mexico, where almost everyone seems to have some percentage of consanguinity of indigenous or native. I thought about the causes of these differences and imagined two possibilities, that the lands of North America were much more sparsely populated than Central American or English settlers have killed many more native and isolated more in the reserves than the Spanish. Traveling by subway (one ticket costs only 20 euro cents) also gave the opportunity to discover the dynamism of a society that encouraged everyone to work, even doing a miserable job. Every now and then, it appeared a street vendor or a musician, occasionally screaming their chants and going from car to car, keeping us well entertained.
Possibly we would not have adapted so well if not for the hospitality offered to us by our new Couchsurfing host, Jan (the same name as me), an Austrian who was living in Mexico city already for a year, working for the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the UN, investigating cases of torture, enforced disappearances and other crimes allegedly committed by state establishments as part of the narco-war. Jan introduced us to many of his friends, including Eider, a Basque woman who worked for the Spanish Embassy and invited us to participate in a Basque tambourine party at the Basque community center, a curious and fun tradition of San Sebastian. Jan also took us to other parts of the city, and the last day we drove to the Desert of Lions, a mountain near Mexico City, where we had a barbecue and then we visited an interesting monastery built in the sixteenth-century by the Spanish.
On our own we have visited on different days the area of the Zocalo, the center of the city, where there was a beautiful cathedral, several museums and the National Palace, which boasts with murals by Diego Rivera, which is widely recognized in Mexico, unlike the rest of the world, which gives the highest artistic quality to his wife Frida Kahlo. We also met another girl from Couchsurfing in the Merced market, so extensive, that reminded us of the Asian markets. There, as I was taking photos of the market, an old woman approached me and asked me:
Returning to the National Palace, some of Diego“s murals are depicting the life of the Aztecs or Mexico in Mexico City and the religious center of Teotihuacan. To Teotihuacan we went on another day, by bus, being rewarded with two huge pyramids of rectangular base, built by piling up earth and rocks of medium sized and dedicated to the Sun God and the Moon. I was surprised that the pyramids were similar to some of the ones built in Ankor Wat, Southeast Asia and began to imagine that Asians crossed the Bering Strait about 10,000 or 15,000 years ago and began to populate the Americas, and they must have brought some kind of architectural knowledge that later evolved similarly in both regions. But after observing the museum and recalling the paintings of Diego, I concluded that these populations had to have a much more comprehensive connection. For example, as in Asia and in much of the world, the natives used clothes and were decorated with earrings and nose piercings, painted their houses and temples, used bows and arrows and other weapons, although they were made of stone; they knew how to create ornaments and ceramic vessels, invented about 24.000 BC, knew how to cultivate a variety of cereals, using the same tools although farming was invented before 7000 BC in India and knew grinding grain using calendars, needed to have a notion of passage stations and useful for agriculture, had religions with a similar approach to Mesopotamian or Egyptian, worshiping the sun or the moon, had a burial of the dead, had a highly organized social system; ... Actually, it is much more knowledge that the first American settlers, and the fact that they did not use the wheel (invented towards the 4000aC) and horses, domesticated the same period, perhaps confirms that. But then I realized they used a cuneiform script, similar to that invented by the Sumerians in 3500 BC and working several metals, started working towards the 5000 BC and this is inconsistent with the theory that the Bering Strait was passable by 10,000 BC. So, after reading more I am convinced of the reality of a theory that the American and Asian cultures had some type of maritime contact that had forwarded some of this knowledge.
Puebla is a city of 3 million people southeast of Mexico City. However, despite the high number of inhabitants, the center of Puebla just seems to belong to a medium sized town, with a beautiful arcaded square, cobblestone streets, clean and well arranged, and beautiful churches (according to tradition there are 360, one for every day of the year). Puebla is a rich and snobbish city ( its called strawberry here) that has a good private college where, according to our host, study children of drug traffickers, so that drug dealers keep their war against the authority away from the city . It is said that even someone bought a Ferrari to get around the city, but these vehicles are too low and are not specific to Mexico, and he got stuck on top of a speed limiting bump which he ran.
In Puebla we stayed with Mario, a Mexican boy very hospitable and open who offered to take us by car and guided by s to different sites in the region, inviting also to various parties with friends. During a conversation one of them said that Mexico has a somewhat socialist system, such as a public university that costs only 20 cents a year. On the contrary, many of the services in Mexico are very expensive, such as telephony or highways, because they are in the hands of monopolies and the government will not be released. Regarding the economy, they also commented that the main source of wealth in Mexico is remittances or money sent home by the 15 million Mexicans living in the United States. On the other hand, Mario said that in his experience, in Europe people live to work, while in Mexico they work to live.
Mario, his friend Manolo and Javier Stalin, a young Ecuadorian who was also staying for a few days, accompanied us to visit various tourist attractions around town, as the world“s smallest volcano (13 meters high), the beautiful churches Tonantzintla and Acatepec, Chiautla, a former ranch where we had a picnic, a nearby mountain where several gliders were launched at dusk, and the lovely town of Cholula, which stands out for having the largest pyramid or largest monument ever built by humans . Anyway, the pyramid of Cholula is almost entirely covered with earth and draws the beautiful church on top, which was built as a sign of conquest and domination of the pagan gods.
The second day we visited Cholula we had the chance to see two of the fliers of Papantla, dropping head down from a tall stick of 20 m, with ropes tied down the waist. It was impressive but still it was much more in the weekend, when we drove 3 hours to the town of Cuetzalan. Shortly after arriving we started to look at the 5 Papantla fliers who were preparing with a dance, to climb up on top of a pine log of 35 meters in height. As they should have done in the pre-Hispanic cultures, the five flying men climbed on top of the trunk and after a dizzying new ceremony on a log that kept swinging, the five were dropped down in circular movement and were deposited safely to the ground. Papantla Flyers fascinated us but the main reason for our visit to Cuetzalan was the cute and colorful Sunday market, frequented by many indigenous and peasant dressed in traditional clothes, as well as the nearby waterfalls of St. Andrew.
In Oaxaca there was no one who could host us in Couchsurfing so we had made up our minds to start sleeping in hostels in the following destinations. But a couple of days before departure, we were invited to eat in Oaxaca by Zoe, an American woman who for some years lived in Thailand and Mexico, who last minute decided to host us, and again enjoyed another good example of hospitality . The difficulty of finding accommodation through Couchsurfing in Oaxaca is due to the large number of tourists arriving in the city because of its beautiful downtown or Zocalo and interesting attractions in the area, including the Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.
The ancient temples and city of Monte Alban was built on top of a mountain that was previously paved, so we could enjoy a good view of old buildings and the surrounding valleys. During the visit I came to the conclusion that the knowledge needed to build such wonders could not have been transported by the first settlers of America across the Bering Strait about 10,000 years ago. And further reaffirmed my belief after seeing a model of how a pre-Hispanic house was build of stone walls and mud bricks covered with a coating of lime and sand, rectangular door, beams supporting the thatched roof covered with a layer of mud, and an open courtyard in the center. I thought again that architecture was too similar to both sides of the Pacific Ocean and was too coincidental to have had developed at the same time, no transmission of information from one continent to another. So I went searching the Internet and was surprised to find lots of information about theories, and even evidence of trips made by different Asian cultures, including Polynesian, Chinese, Japanese, Indian ... that could have transmitted the knowledge necessary to build those temples and houses or for working metal.
Apart from a visit to the Zocalo of Oaxaca, to Tlacolula market and Monte Alban, Zoe introduced us to several interesting friends, including Charlie, another American whom in the seventies had travelled to Mexico without money and had fallen in love with a girl who lived in a remote Indian village. With the intention to marry the girl, he worked for a year for her family without charge and later returned to America to earn some money to pay for the wedding, but the girl“s family did not seem willing to change traditions or to allow the wedding, and an aunt took care to burn all the letters he had sent from the United States. With no response from his beloved, Charlie thought she had forgotten him and a couple of years later he married a Canadian. However, Charlie had made good friends in Mexico and years later he returned, passing through the village, where a family member told him that the girl had been waiting for many years because her aunt had burned their letters.
In the same conversation Charlie explained that visiting another friend in a remote Indian village, the mother of a friend was shot in the stomach and died. The villagers thought that Charlie had been the shooter and they were many hours discussing whether to kill him by shooting or hanging him. But finally, a witness said Charlie was away from the area during the crime. Then the villagers explained that historically had many discussions with a neighbouring town and occasionally commit crimes from one village to another to satisfy revenge that always generate new desire for retaliation. Charlie also said that in these remote villages, where it can take more than a day to arrive, also used to grow a lot of drugs (marijuana, opium and coca leaves), which only enriches a minority of people. At first I thought it was strange that the police could not find where they grew the drug, but a couple of days later, when I went to visit a petrified waterfall at Yerbe l“agua, with a bus travelling on an endless road, I understood the isolation of many villages in Mexico and the possibility of cultivating drugs without getting caught.
Zoe also presented Genevieve, a Mexican anthropologist, who spoke of the problems of indigenous communities, which, as she should adapt to Western culture if they wanted to proceed, following the law of Darwin, without losing the culture but changing it. We also explained that the communities in Mexico are governed by “custom“, some local laws require that such building a house is due to give work to people who at age 18 children have to do social service the people who must collaborate with the church ... Later I took the pulse of the world with Genevieve, who felt that the lack of jobs and disease in developing countries were the main problems of the world that could be solved with less population, education and more honest governments. In Mexico, the main problems are the Catholic Church that controls the country, drug consumption caused by neighbours in the north and corruption, the latter two problems which could be solved with stiffness similar to punitive dictator Porfilio Dķaz. Genevieve on a personal level is happy because her basic needs meet and has education. The secret of happiness is to bring happiness within and not expect others to make you happy. Finally, she expressed a common sentiment in the country: “In Mexico we are screwed but we“re happy.“
Fidel and Sibilina*, Mexican and european respectively, were our next hosts in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the Chiapas state capital, a city without much commercial interest. Very soon, Fidel and Sibilina made us share their revolutionary ideology, expressing their opposition to the multinationals, especially American as Coca Cola, a company that, they hated, had been chaired by President Fox, who had boosted consumption between indigenous communities by causing new diseases such as diabetes. Focusing attention on indigenous communities, Sibilina said that she had seen much human misery, rather than economic, with many Indians getting drunk and acting violently. She described the pressures on the control of their land, from drug traffickers to growing foods companies like GM multinationals. Although Indians are still innocent and maintain their shy smile, communities are losing their culture, families are unstructured, many women are battered, many suicides among young people ...
Tuxtla Gutierrez does not have much interest, but near the city there is a heavily visited natural attraction, the Sumidero Canyon, partly covered by water from a dam that still has vertical drop of over a kilometer high. There, while waiting for a boat that took us to see the canyon, I began to converse with a tour guide, who confirmed to me a personal theory that the national tourism tends to spend more than foreigners. He then explained that Spanish and North American tourism has plummeted due to news published about Mexico to their media, unlike other Western countries that still retain the share of tourists. Actually, here in Mexico we would not mind the daily deaths due to drug trafficking but for the reading we do on the Internet on the Spanish and Catalan newspaper well there is a lot on Mexico. Finally, the guide said that bird flu had also greatly influenced the flow of tourism, because Mexico was placed in the centre of the epidemic.
The last day in the afternoon, when we were about to visit the Plaza de la Marimba to hear live music, I had one of the most fascinating conversations of the trip. Sibilina and I were facing amicably our views on alternative medicine, expressing her faith in homeopathy and my view that this “cured“ thanks to the placebo effect. But suddenly Sibilina left me speechless with her new view: that the AIDS virus did not exist, that the disease is not transmitted sexually and it is only developed because of human misery. At this point I confessed that we could not keep talking because our convictions were too far away, mine based on science and hers on superstition, and did not have common ground on which to build and present our ideas. However, after I researched the internet and went to amaze me that there were more people who felt the same way that Sibilina, including former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who with his denial of AIDS caused an increase in those infected in their country. It“s something important I“m learning on this trip: people in general are easily fooled and they tend to have very little discretion to contrast the information they receive. Interestingly, Sibilina also likely would agree with my last view, because later on we talked about the damage that the Christian religions was doing among the Indians, who were easily convinced of all the superstitions that the missionaries preached.
*Fidel and Sibilina are not the real names of our hosts. Despite having spent nice days with them, after reading my diary, our hosts were upset a lot, accusing me of recording our conversations and having misrepresented their views (the first paragraph, not the ones referring to AIDS). What I'm writing here, and throughout the diary, it is my interpretation of the facts that surprised me and were record in my brain or my notebook. I try not presume to judge people, but sometimes I like to ponder their opinions to contrast them with mine. Our hosts asked me to erase everything I wrote about them, but I do not want to let go the memories that are important for my existence and my opinions. Although I have been threatened with negative vibrations (lucky I do not believe in these superstitions) with respect for them I decided to change their names.
San Cristobal de las Casas is a very touristy city where we were lucky to be hosted by one of the only people that hosts free and everyone through Couchsurfing. José Luis is a man of about 55 who was hosting a half-dozen other travelers, keeping us entertained with various parties and interesting conversations. He told us that in the 70“s, just after the Franco dictatorship, he spent a year in Barcelona, and explained that the products at that time were 3 times cheaper than in Mexico. From this review, I asked José Luķs why after 40 years the Spanish economy had improved so much and Mexico not even reversed the situation. José Luis said that Spain had adapted and evolved in order to enter the European Union, unlike Mexico, which could not open the doors of the United States because of the corruption that rotted all the state establishments.
In one of the parties organized by José Luis, we had met a couple who had come with their one year old son, charming, and asked if it was true what I heard in another part of Mexico, that if one stares at a child you can give him the evil eye. The father then said it was true and he began to argue that if a child is looked fixedly he receives the negative vibes of the observer and is likely to get sick. I was surprised at the superstition, mostly because the guy looked very European, unlike his wife, who was indigenous and looked rather incredulous during exposure, perhaps because he had gone to college and was a veterinary.
Apart from several days to visit the center of San Cristobal de las Casas, I also visited the nearby communities of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan, where people seemed very superstitious, with some churches filled with candles which were developed in bizarre rituals. To Zinacantan I went with a French girl, part of a couple and they were making an itinerary similar to ours. During the trip she told me a story that left me amazed. Two days earlier had been a bus accident at night, colliding with a vehicle whose driver died on impact. According to the marks on the asphalt, the French deduced that the small car was at fault, by invading the wrong lane. But the two bus drivers should not rely heavily on the authorities to consider them innocent, and within minutes they disappeared from the scene, presumably to start a new life outside the law. It would not have given importance to the story were it not that these days the media published the French government denounced the Mexican government who had detained a French citizen accused of kidnapping someone all evidence being false. There were also other friends who had similar stories, causing a total lack of confidence in the Mexican justice, a pity in a country where crime is so real and often.
On the way to the coast, we stayed a few nights in a hostel in Palenque, where there are Mayan ruins in the rain forest at the foot of the mountains of Chiapas, bordering on the plain of the Yucatan. Perhaps it was the pre-Hispanic ruins most captivating by the lush natural environment where they were located, but also for its sophisticated architecture, with several Hall in the inside of the pyramids or the palace, covered with primitive triangular arches. By visiting the museum it greatly surprised me a copy of the coffin of the ruler Pakal, found inside one of the pyramids of Palenque. The stone coffin was decorated beautifully, with some similarity to Egyptian sarcophagi. Inspecting this sarcophagus slightly modified my views on cultural contacts between Asian and pre-Hispanic and I started thinking that many technologies had to be developed independently, without cultural contact, as if such were coded in our genes the need for building richly decorated sarcophagi to bury loved ones.
Campeche, Cm (see on map)
Campeche is a coastal city very beautiful and peaceful, with nice houses painted in different warm colors, friendly zocalo and walls that surround much of the villa, which were built by the Spanish in 1686 to protect the port of previous pirate attacks who longed for the riches of ships laden with gold and silver marching to Spain. We had only planned to stay a night, but ultimately we decided to stay another day, relaxing in the hostel and visiting many of the alleys of the city.
Merida (see on map)
We weighed the possibility of celebrating our first year of marriage in Campeche, which it would have deserved it, but finally we decided to go to Merida and the fortune smiled on us, because we arrived on Sunday, the day of the week that the citizens meet under the shade of trees and arcades of the zocalo to watch traditional dances, listen to concerts or dance Latin music. We spent much of the afternoon absorbing the colourful culture of Merida and in the evening we had a dinner at a nice restaurant where they had a guitarist singing beautiful serenades. It was a good way to celebrate this first year shared as a married couple, something not too different from past years shared as a couple, but it was also true that as the times has passed we were more united, perhaps because long ago, from the Middle East, Alexandra nervous didn“t had any other breakdown before the trip stressful situations.
During our stay in Merida we had planned to visit Chichen Itza, the major Mayan ruins on the Yucatan peninsula, but these were quite expensive and several friends had warned us that they were not as impressive as the ruins of Palenque. So, I discarded this visit and instead I decided to accept a recommendation from Jan from Mexico City and visit a beautiful cenote, a type of cave with underground lake quite common in Yucatan. Early in the morning, I went to the street 67, between streets 52 and 50, in Merida (near the second class bus terminal) and I took a minibus (called collectivos) direct to Homun for 18 pesos. After an hour ride, the bus entered into Homun and I asked the driver to let me in front of the store from Doroteo Kuuk Hau (towards the end of the village), the owner of BAL-MIL cenote, to be sure man was not in his house. From his shop I took a motorbike tricycle taxi to the cenote BAL-MIL, about 2 or 3 km (20 pesos roundtrip plus a tip to wait), where I met Dorothy Hau, a very nice man who for 10 pesos gave me permit to go down to the bottom of the cenote, descending a ladder parallel to the roots of a tree that reached the bottom of the darkness to fetch water. Dorothy gave me a tour on the cenote showing me mayan hands painted on the walls, bats, swallows, a skeleton of a snake in the water, three maya skulls, stalactites and stalagmites and a completely natural environment. Finally, he let me swim in the crystal, clear and warm water, even though I couldn“t took off of my head the possibility that at some moment there would appear some prehistoric creature from the deep to devour me.
For the third time in Merida, we again were forced to stay in a hostel, which a minimum price of 5euros, where we found it more difficult to communicate with the locals and other travellers, something that we were missing. However, Rafa“s hostel in Merida had a good atmosphere, but I did not interact much with its guests because I was concerned with a discussion I had held over the Internet with the couple that had hosted us in Tuxla. The Mexican and the French had read my diary, were I described some of their opinions, and they wrongly accused me of being racist, of having recorded the conversations with them and of distorting some of their comments. In a way I understood their reaction because I had described them as superstitious when I wrote about my surprise when they told me that the AIDS virus did not exist and that the disease was caused by human misery. But at the same time I wanted to continue capturing views of the people I met and analyze some comments on my perspective to also express my opinion to the readers of my blog. It was only momentary feeling of frustration, because a girl from Playa del Carmen we had written us that she would be delighted to host and I was happy again to be able to interact in the near future with Mexicans and travellers, and thus learn more about the world in which we live.