Friday, March 24, 2017

San Cristobal de las Casas and Na Balom - Day 4

 Day 4 was an "open day".  Yes, there was a city tour with Patricio, but I had done that eight years before so I was up and out, heading about four long blocks from our hotel to the primary zocalo in San Cristobal.  To  me, it is a treasure to just observe the people.  To quietly sit and watch.To see the little things.  One thing I noticed is that the city has become more westernized in the last eight years.  In the past, very few people dressed in regular clothes.  This day it was much different.  These two women and the child were the closest I came to seeing the women of Chamula and they were really only half dressed indigenously in their wooly skirts.  The child, not at all.
There is always an ice cream man in every town in Mexico.  The favorite food, I believe, of Mexico.  I saw this man a few days later over near the church and he pulled his cart up to the front door. He bowed, made the Sign of the Cross several times and then moved on. It was very touching.
 Watching these two boys scamper in front of me playing and laughing, I was surprised to see them later quietly sitting there.  One giving a shoe shine and the other selling all kinds of items. 
 Chiapas is a protest state.  There are many things painted on the sides of buildings - not in a grafitti way, but in a serious way.  Even in this shoe shine booth, while the man was gone, his sign was still up there!  Even though the major uprising was twenty-three years ago, they do not forget!
 Also on my agenda was to get to Na Balom that day.  The House of the Jaguars.  It is a former home, a museum and research facility set up by Frans Blom and his wife Gertrude Duby.  The house exists
to provide sanctuary for the Lacandon peoples of the rainforest who Frans discovered (or they allowed themselves to be discovered by Frans) in the late 1940's.  These people had hidden and lived in the rainforest away from civilization since before the Spaniards arrived.  They were never captured by the Spaniards.  I remember reading in National Geographic as a child about these people.  My fascination with the nomadic peoples of Mexico began then........

Frans discovered Palenque in the late 1920's, returned to the USA to Harvard to get a degree in Archaeology at Harvard and an advanced degree at Tulane where he got funding for further work at Palenque.

Gertrude was a famous documentary photographer from Switzerland and was on her way to the rainforest to photograph the peoples of the Lacandon area when she met Frans.  Initially they both lived in Mexico City where they met the Golden Circle of peoples such as Rivera, Kahlo, Mondotti, Weston and Lechuga, to name a few. Soon, they decided they could not continue their research from Mexico City, found this abandoned hacienda on the outskirts of town in San Cristobal and lived in it while using pack mules or a Cessna from Ocosingo to go into the rainforest.
 It is a lovely place now.  I can just imagine what shape it was in in the 1940's.  Na Balom has accommodations for overnight guests.  This long table serves dinner nightly for researchers, travelers and the Lacandon peoples to share a meal, ideas and conversation.

 A large Jaguar, the symbol of Na Balom, is now in the courtyard.  These jaguars are made in a village called Amantengo de Valle about an hour or so outside of San Cristobal.  I visited there eight years ago, but not on this trip. 
 The research library is a dream.  It is important to me because I have met many times with a woman named Elizabeth who lives in San Miguel who initially set up this library and lived at Na Balom with Trudy and Frans.   Ahh, the stories she has told me.  Amazing. Elizabeth is now in her late 90's and it is difficult to meet with her.  However, I have a DVD to take to her with video taken during her time at Na Balom.  I think she will be happily surprised.  Hopefully it will bring back wonderful memories.
 This was previously Trudy's bedroom.  It now displays her jewelry, her photography and her clothing along with this photo of her.
 This photo of Frans hangs outside in the courtyard.  According to my friend Elizabeth, he was quite a rogue who loved his mescal.  Especially while flying a Cessna!
 The above poster was from an exhibit of Trudy's photography at some point.  It is of Trudy and a Lacandon woman.  Trudy was honored many times, all over the world, for her photography and programs that were set up to preserve the culture of the peoples of the Lacandon jungle.
This last photo was taken in 1948 by a woman who I met in Mexico City in 2003.  She had traveled to the rain forest to visit other archaeological sites and to meet the Lacandon peoples with Frans as the guide along with his wife Trudy.  The woman who took this photograph was Ruth Lechuga.  The photo is from a book
published by the Museo Franz Mayer and Artes de Mexico called Ruth D. Lechuga - Una Memoria Mexicana.

Ruth began photographing the peoples of Mexico in the 1940's.  One year after she arrived from Europe escaping the war atrocities.  Her photography, her knowledge of the indigenous peoples and her collections of masks and textiles can now be seen at the Frans Mayer Museum in Mexico City.  Her collection of photographs is well over 14,000.  It was such an honor to sit and talk with her for almost three hours one day at her home and museum prior to her death. Her life's work wasdocumented and  turned over to the museum.

In the first post about this trip, there is a photo of one of these skiffs or pirogues (which was the name of them when I was growing up in Louisiana).  It is on display at Na Balom.

As I quietly sat for a while at the end of my visit to NaBalom, I was overwhelmed by the idea that two people could save a whole culture from extinction.  That is exactly what Frans and Trudy did, thankfully.

Today, I'm told, there are about six hundred Lacandons living their lives nomadically in the rainforest of Chiapas.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chiapas - Heading to San Cristobal de las Casas via Misol-Ha and Cascadas de Aqua Azul - Day 3

 We headed out of Palenque Wednesday morning about 9AM with the admonition it was going to be a LONG day.  No truer words were ever spoken.  It was nightfall when we finally arrived in San Cristobal.

I would not take anything for the trip however, as the way to see Mexico is on the ground.  IF we had flown to Tuxtla Guitterez and then taken an hour bus ride to San Cristobal, we would have missed so much! 

We would have missed Misol-Ha, a waterfall in the middle of nowhere.  We would also have missed Cascadas de Aqua Azul which was about an hour or so from Misol-Ha.  Both spectacular sights.  But, to me, the best is seeing the people on the sides of the road going about their lives.  To see how they live, what they do for a living and to experience it in a flash, is better then not experiencing it at all.

To see the Palm Oil farms that are causing more deforestation is a sad thing to see, but makes one  realize that coconut oil and palm oil are destroying farm lands and forests, not to mention the rain forest as well.

Raising cattle is another addition to the lifestyle of Chiapas that has caused more deforestation.  It is a double edged sword.
The beauty at Misol-Ha did not show any of the deforestation as it is a protected area where helanconias and ginger plants flourish in the warm, humid, rainy area.  So beautiful
 There were little cabins on the property that can be rented.  To me it would be a perfect spot for a writer.  No distractions other then the sound of the howler monkeys, the beauty of the surroundings and the sounds of the birds.  We were told we might see toucans, but alas, not.  Big disappointment for me.
 Bamboo and banana trees were plentiful everywhere.  I was surprised that more things were not built out of bamboo.  Maybe some day.

 There actually was a little restaurant on the grounds as well, but we were on a mission and did not take time to stop as we were on to Cascada Aqua Azul, another exquisitely beautiful place.
 The same hummingbird that I had in my first post is poised on the edge of the branch in the lower left hand
corner of this photo.  Isn't its camouflaging extraordinary?
A breathtakingingly beautiful sight.  The water was pristinely clean and such a unique color.  Surrounded
by forests, the colors were all striking.
This is a view of the area on the edge of the Lancondon jungle.  Ocosingo is near Tonina, another archaeological site that we did not have time to visit, unfortunately.  It also is the area where we
began to climb to San Cristobal which is 7100 ft. above sea level.

San Cristobal is a gem.  Seven times the population of San Miguel, it still has a small town vibe.
No skyscrapers and no rushing.  Lots of walking and beauty everywhere.  Very indigenous in
its people and architecture.  Good food.  Largest number of expats are Italian first and French
second.    Onward.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Chiapas - The Journey to Villahermosa and Palenque - Day 1 and 2

 Our first day started by leaving the bus station in San Miguel much earlier then planned.  The reason?  Our intrepid and organized tour leader had read and checked and rechecked the newspaper articles about a HUGE group of holding tanks traveling from Veracruz to Tula to be installed at a Pemex plant.  Guess what - it was reported that they were "somewhere" in the vicinity of Queretaro and would be traveling on Hwy 57!  Our path.  These storage tanks, made in Europe, are so large that bridges have to be lifted on the roads to get it through....I kid you not.....Can you imagine?  No, I could not until I saw photos of just that happening.  So, we left early, heading for Mexico City International Airport to fly to Villahermosa.  We lucked out.  No tanks were seen anywhere.  We arrived quite a bit earlier then originally anticipated, but being the troopers we all were, we just vegged out and waited for the flight.  Across the waiting area, sitting on the floor with trusty phone and computer was David, the owner of Los Vagabundos.  He is always busy checking and rechecking every detail to make OUR trip seamless.

To tell you the truth, I've traveled with him over the years so many times since Los Vagabundos was formed that I could not even tell you how many times I've done so, but, each has been an adventure of pleasure.

We finally arrived at our hotel some time around 7:30PM or thereabouts.  It had been a long day.  I forgot to even take a photo of Villahermosa, which we only saw on the outskirts.  At least now I can say that I have been to the State of Tabasco, or better still that I spent the night in Tabasco.  We departed at 8AM
the next morning for Palenque.  8AM!

 As we got off the bus, we were assailed by tropical heat and humidity.  To me it felt like Houston. I thought I was back in my former home.  To many others it was not a pleasant experience.  Any hotel whose reception area is out of doors makes me happy!
Above is ONE of the many forms of transportation we had on this trip.  Others were boats, tuk tuks in Chamula,  and a combi van in Palenque.  All were adventures and fun ways to travel.
If I had just photographed flowers, I do believe my camera would have died of exhaustion.  These were on the grounds of the museum at Palenque.  Lovely, aren't they?
 My room mate, Nora, a former Delta employee, has moved to San Miguel.  We met back in 2002 through a mutual friend, but since she did not live in SMA, we would meet once in a while for a meal or two when she was in town.  However, I knew she is a world traveler and would be great to room with.  What fun.  It would be difficult to name a place that Nora has NOT been or spent a month or so getting to know a culture.  She was a great friend to share the trip with.  We both look forward to future adventures. 
 And, then, there is the guide, Supremo, Patricio Murphy Ruiz.  I wrote about Patrick about eight years ago when we first met in Chiapas.  He is without a doubt, the most knowledgeable and personable guide that I
have ever traveled with.  His degree from Berkley in Anthropology and his life in Chiapas, where he was
born, gives him a unique mixture of two cultures that blend well.  Patricio traveled with us from Palenque to Chiapa de Corzo.  A great addition.  If you are ever traveling anywhere in Chiapas and want an amazing guide ask me for Patricio's contact information. 
 Again, I'm besieged by plants that grow tiny in my gardens in San Miguel but are nearly a tree in Palenque.
This croton was about two stories high!
We were so lucky that it was an overcast day on that Tuesday.  There were very, very few others in the whole area of Palenque except for our group.  How marvelous!  Many years ago when at other archaeological sites, the people were swarming around.  Not here.  It lent itself to a peak experience. 
When I arrive at places like this, one of the things I like to do is stop, sit down and absorb the place rather then to keep moving around and miss things.  It is so interesting to sit and stare at the buildings and try to imagine them being built, what the conditions were like and the purpose of each building.
 This ceiba tree is something I might have missed if I had not been sitting nearby, looked up and realized
that this great wonder was here.
Ahh, and then the boy with the tump line on his head carrying goods somewhere.  The first time I ever saw someone carrying things like this was at a cantera quarry near Guadalajara about thirty years ago.  A short man was carrying a slab of cantera down the mountainside. The cantera probably weighed over 500 pounds. It was a remarkable sight, to put it mildly.  It is unusual today to see someone with a tump line as a means of carrying items.  IF you look at old artwork and drawings, it was a common form centuries ago.
 This photo says so much.  David, our leader, made it to the top. As I sat watching all that was going on, all of a sudden, I saw David literally sprinting up the steps of the pyramid!  His speed was amazing.  What I did not realize was he was trying to get behind one of our most elderly travelers who was slowly but surely climbing the stairs.  He did not let the man know he was behind him, but it was soon apparent that he was
there, just in case.  And, at the top most step, which was very high, it was a good thing David was there as
he had to help the man up that last step.  THAT is the kind of man he is......always watching and helping.  A real gem!  I called to him and he turned around, did this, and I got this GREAT photo.....
 On the ground, sitting on stone slabs were two little girls who were selling little necklaces to tourists.  But, in that black bag, the one little girl had her school work that she was showing to her friend.  Finally, they came over to me and we talked for quite a while about their families, where I live, what was my name, and many other pleasantries.  Those are the experiences that stay close to me, forever.

Then I decided, with another participant to catch a combi van back to the village of Palenque.  When climbing into the van, there was only one person but by the time we stopped and picked up others, there were a total of 17! of us in the van.  What fun. We were the only gringoes. We exited near our hotel after paying twenty pesos each and walked the rest of the way to our hotel.

That evening we all relaxed out on the patio of our hotel for drinks and snacks.  The couple with Nora and I are from Canada and are heading back the end of March.  It is a great Canadian exodus from San Miguel on the first of April each year.

It was interesting to me that most of the people on the bus this trip were not known to me.  In the past, most of us knew each other.  After a while it was apparent that most travelers, not all, were from Canada.  They come the first of November and leave usually the first of April.

Initially, I knew about 4-6 people, but it was delightful to get to know many more by the end of the trip.  The former Canadian Ambassador to Mexico was sitting across the aisle from me on the bus.  We had some delightful conversations as his knowledge of the history of Mexico and its politics was deep.  We also talked about Mexico City in the 70's and 80's - a golden time, in my humble opinion.

As you can see, day two into the trip and we were all already getting to know each other.  Onward tomorrow to more adventures!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chiapas - A Place Like No Other

Chiapas is a unique place to visit.  It is the most indigenously occupied state in Mexico.  More like Guatemala to me then Mexico.  If I'm not mistaken our guide said over 60% of the inhabitants are
indigenous peoples - Mayan in great numbers.  They are a proud, fierce and beautiful people.

For me, being among the indigenous was the purpose of my moving to Mexico.  That is probably
why Michoacan, Chiapas, Oaxaca and the area around Creel where the Tarahumara live are my
favorite places.

Chiapas is pristinely beautiful.  Posted today are eight photos out of 223. These are my favorites.
My first trip eight years ago, we flew into Tuxtla Guiterrez and headed directly for San Cristobal de las Casas thereby using that as the spoke for side trips.  This trip began by flying into Villahermosa, Tabasco and then driving to Palenque the next day for the spectacular beginning of a very different trip then previously.
Above is one photo of Palenque.  Humid and hot and at an altitude of 60 meters, we were lucky that
it was a slightly overcast day and our group was just about the only people at the site!

I'll write a post, just on Palenque next, but wanted to share the above photo as one of my favorites.
The next morning we headed off for a LONG day of driving to San Cristobal de las Casas.  It was a ten hour traveling day.  But, we did stop along the way to see exquisite sites such as above which is Misol-Ha waterfall.  
 Then on to Casacadas de Aqua Azul to wander the area and to enjoy the most spectacularly colored waters which are caused, they say, by the limestone that the falls wash over.  If you look closely at this photo, camouflaged, is a green hummingbird!  It let me get this close without fear.  Amazing.
 And, here are the falls.  The sound, the color, the surroundings elicited sighs from all.  A few even
swam for a while before we had lunch in one of the many palapa restaurants on the grounds.
 The drive was winding and slow.  At many points, as I was sitting next to the window, it was possible for me to look down at the edge of the road and the canyon or whatever was at the edge of the road.  It was a good thing that we had a trusty driver who our tour guide knew and praised.  Whew.

The above photo was taken at an overlook just outside Ocosingo.  We were climbing by this time out of the jungles of the Lancondon peoples and had passed Tonina, another archaeological site.  We were leaving behind the humidity and heat. 
 San Cristobal is in the highlands.  It is 2,140 meters or about 7100 ft above sea level.  I mentioned above that we had passed through part of the Lacondon jungle.  This pirogue or boat was used by the Lancondon
and is on display at NaBalom which I will write about in another post.  The people who lived at Na Balom, Trudy and Frans, are responsible for the discovery of the Lacondon peoples and saving them from extinction.  Their story and lives are very intertwined with Palenque and the peoples of the jungle. 
 We spent several days in San Cristobal along with visiting the villages of Chamula and Zinacantan along with some going to the village of Amantenango del Valle, which I visited many years ago.  The photo above
was taken in Chiapa de Corzo, altitude 420 meters, which was our last stop before heading home.  This was the view outside the room.  The gardens at the hotel were extraordinary.  A post about our adventures there will be forthcoming.
The final photo is of the  Sumidero Canyon.  It is hard to explain to someone that they are going to get in a boat and eventually come to this spectacular canyon.  Some did not go.  It was sad that they missed one
of the most spectacular sights of nature in Mexico.  When I tell you about our adventure on this river, you
will have a chuckle.

For me it was an arduous trip this time.  The various elevations along with lots of walking caused me to
realize that my days of being an intrepid traveler may be slowing down.  It certainly was a beautiful way
to end this chapter of travel, to put it mildly.

IF you ever get a chance to go to Chiapas, GO!  As I tell you some of the intimate details of our adventures, you'll get more of the flavor of this area.  A place like no other.


Saturday, March 11, 2017


It's funny and sad that when I mention to people that I'm going to or am in Chiapas, the first question is "What about the Zapatistas?"  That episode in their history was over twenty years ago. On the positive side it did give a face to Chiapas and there are young backpackers galore from all over the world here!

I've been traveling this past week in this magnificently, gloriously beautiful and pristine state.
If you have never been here then you have missed one the great treats of life.

From Palenque to Aqua Azul waterfalls, Misol-Ha waterfall and now in San Cristobal de las Casas.

Yesterday, quite by accident, I witnessed two ancient ceremonies in two different villages that were, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my life.  It was hard to sleep last night as the memories of
the day kept running through my mind.

Only one more day in San Cristobal and then off to Chiapa de Corzo and the Sumidero Canyon which is beyond spectacular.

I have not downloaded any of the photos as yet but suffice to say, there is much to share. 

By this time next week, if not sooner, I'll be able to share this awesome state with you, that has more indigenous living in it then any other state in Mexico.

See you back on the hill in SMA, or down the road in Mexico.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

An Orchid Secret Garden

Last Tuesday, down the hill and around the corner to a piece of paradise was my destination.  I had heard
that the owner's orchids were in bloom.  However, until I stepped through the opening to the area where the
orchids were in huge pots surrounding a small, round swimming pool, I would never have imagined such a
 Luckily, since I live so close, I arrived a little early for the garden club meeting.  I wandered through all the various gardens and ended up where we were going to hear a talk by the man who started the Orchid Club
in San Miguel, Jim Roberts.
 Stunning does not begin to describe the beauty of this secret garden.  Surrounding the pool were
very large pots full to brimming with orchids.  The orchids were about four to five feet high! Incredible.
The gardener was introduced prior to the program and was asked about growing the orchids.  He started with one small plant and divided that plant and subsequent plants for several years.  When asked what he
uses for fertilizer, he says he uses bananas that are so old their skin is black.  The bananas are stuffed down onto the orchid bulb in the pot.  All I can surmise is that the bananas are providing some chemical or potassium that makes the orchids grow like this.

We asked the owner of the house if they move all these pots when it is winter.  No, nothing.  We do get nights in the high 20's often in December and January!  My thought is that the humidity and warmth of the water in the pool protects and enhances the orchids.

As I sat listening to the speaker and the meeting, seriously, I felt this wonderful serenity.  Could it have
been from the orchids or the setting that was exquisitely beautiful?  Probably so.

Don't forget you can click on the photos to enlarge them!  Enjoy.