And here’s an abridged version of sweet Kiki’s essay of her experience (thanks Cynthia!)
MY INITIATION IN CHIAPAS 1977 – Michaela and I arrived in San Cristobal after suffering 14 hours on a third class bus from Oaxaca. I had a sore throat, and worse debilitating diarrhea. Leaving the bus and entering the terminal full, we were greeted by many vendors calling for their hostels. We went with the first one—a bed for three US dollars a night! The room was dark and cold and looked as old as the city, but it had two beds. We fall over them. The next morning, we went to the only coffee shop, right in the town square, Cafe Central. During breakfast, my friend fell in love with a young Mexican who invited us to his home during our stay, and we immediately happily accepted. This man was an artist who worked with hardwood, turning them into pots and bowls. Her house was filled with these wooden treasures and all Holy Day people knocked on her door to see the latest job of the day. They also came to drink tequila and smoke marijuana.
This artist had promised to take us to an indigenous people. “Wow” we thought. “ a real indigenous people. Incredibly exciting! “
The daily share of tequila and marijuana, however, led us to postpone our excursions many times. It was always tomorrow. Finally, the morning has come. The three set sail accompanied by Gabriel, the artist’s friend and neighbor – the man who would become my husband. We are driving to chamula promised land. —an indigenous Mayan town, just six kilometers from San Cristobal.
Today, Chamula is unrecognisable from that town I first visited in 1977. Now there are concrete houses and photocopy shops, but thirty years ago, it was still a straw-roofed adobe shack town. It looked exactly like I had imagined an indigenous people. In its center was a large market place in front of a small white church. This church has maintained so much of what it was back then. It was and still is decorated around the entrance and with windows in every Mexican color possible. With the bright morning sun, it shone like a precious jewel—one I wish I had hidden in my pocket.
From the bright light of day, we entered the darkness of the church vessel, lit alone by hundreds of candles all over the floor. Imagining purgatory for the first time in my life, I thought, “If that exists, this is what it looks like.”
There is no altar but a priest that celebrates the holy mass. The last priest of the church was run decades ago, by the chamulas. Since then, they have organized their own rituals and parties in the way they like themselves.
There aren’t even benches. Instead, one has to stand or sit on the floor. The Chamulas consider it an audacity that one sits on comfortable benches in front of God.
Beautifully crafted wooden boxes are seen all over the walls, with glass fronts and sides. Each of them protects a saint who is carefully and colorfully dressed in Mayan weaves and decorated with an enormous number of silk ribbons. I am told that every Catholic saint is considered parallel to an ancestral Mayan God.. There’s a little mirror hanging from the neck of every saint. An anthropologist once explained to me that the mirror is to remember the supplication it is actually taking for itself.
Behind the rows of many different colored candles, the faithful recital of the speakers that sounds a lot like the chanting of Tibetan monks—monotonous and enchanting. On both sides of the ship, witches perform their healing ceremonies with basil crumbs, coca-cola, raw eggs and, sometimes, a live chicken. The church smells intensely of copal (a common resin burned like blessed incense)
The Chamulas tolerate tourists because they want to sell them their folk art, but it’s not that they like it. This is especially true when men have been drinking pox (a strong, home-made liquor). In fact, they can become downright hostile. Many of the men who pray in churches are drunk; it is a local belief that one must be drunk to communicate with God. A tourist wearing a camera can trigger an assault. I once had to rescue an elderly French tourist from Chamula prison. Ignoring the procedures Chamulas, he had committed the mortal sin of photographing the interior of the church. Thankfully, money usually and quickly cleanses these kinds of sins. The French man paid a fine and was allowed out—without his camera, though.
Few months later I got married and pregnant with my first child.
Since that first visit, I have been to Chamula countless times. Seems to me like no place like they do parties like the ones they do over there.