Raindrops had fallen on our heads frequently in Mexico, normally in short sharp bursts that passed before we had really noticed
them. Little did we know that our first taste of a monsoon would catch us out at the most inconvenient of times. It was
clear to us that Niagara Falls had grown tired of sitting between Canada and the U.S.A. and decided to migrate to Mexico
before Trump builds his wall. Everything we owned including the clothes we were wearing were absolutely soaked just in time for a
13 hour overnight bus journey from Mérida to San Cristobal De Las Casas.
We were coming 'round the mountain when we came to San Cristobal, mainly because of the road blocks that had been set in
place by protesters stopping the direct route. In the UK, that might make a half an hour to an hour difference on your
journey time but in this part of Mexico, that caused a 6 hour delay increasing our time on the bus to 19 hours. As we were
in no rush, we didn't mind too much and at times, we were actually pleased because the views were magnificent.
Colonial Style Church
Life was vastly different here compared to the Yucatan where we had just come from. To start, the weather was a lot
cooler, reaching just 22 degrees Celsius during the day and dropping to 10 or 12 degrees in the evenings. It is likely that
this had a substantial effect on the environment and at least from an aesthetic viewpoint, we could see that this part of Mexico was
a lot greener. It seemed that there were a lot less indigenousness inhabitants and in fact many more immigrants from all over Europe
and the U.S.A. In practice, that meant that there were many more restaurants and hostels than somewhere like Mérida
but there were also huge Mexican style markets and small fonditas bringing together the distinctive cultures.
Passing through the avenues and alleyways of San Cristobal the next day, we bore witness to a very one sided game of uphill football
on one of the many streets decorated with beautiful architecture including some brightly coloured churches. Taking a stroll through
one of these streets at the same time was a gentleman and his pig. Of course, the pig was on a lead, anything else
would have been very uncivilised! Intrigued by this and enjoying a world of contrasts, we completely lost track of
time. We managed to walk more than 25km that day, through a small village outside of the town selling amazing sweet bread
for just 1 peso (5p) and back past a huge market selling mainly fruit and vegetables.
Roadblock in San Cristobal
Our route was interrupted by more protests and another roadblock and although we were slightly fearful of violence, our intrigue got
the better of us. We approached two locals who were standing a few metres away from the barrier and I asked them using my broken
Spanish why this was happening. We didn't get too much of an explanation at this point of the protest's origins but
the gentleman did explain that they had some sympathy for the teachers involved. That being said, they were not particularly
happy about the situation and felt that other interested parties had taken control.
The house closest to the blockade was owned by one of our informants. He explained that for him to travel just three blocks from his
home, it would take more than an hour. His friend was more concerned by a secondary obstruction on a parallel road where he
had witnessed protestors throw rocks at cars that came anywhere near it. What they both agreed upon was the most worrying
aspect. There was a hospital on their road and ambulances were unable to pass.
Closer to the centre, the drama continued. Crowds gathered to watch bonfires burn the roads beneath them while the rebel
leaders made stirring speeches. We kept our distance but stayed close enough to see the quick change in atmosphere as some of the
protestors started to loot and tear apart the chain convenience stores called OXXO giving us our cue to leave.
Bonfire in San Cristobal
Calm and tranquillity replaced chaos when we returned to our hostel just a few streets away. Still uneducated on the background to
the day's events, we decided to pose a few questions to our host Lorenzo. He had heard murmurings of changes to
teachers' working conditions for a few years but it wasn't until this year that the government imposed a law stating that
all teachers must pass a test before they could continue to teach. Logic would tell you that this was actually a good idea as it
would help to increase the standard of teaching in Mexico and therefore should improve education levels.
That may be the case in a perfect world but what really caused problems was the rushed implementation of the law and the complete disregard
for the indigenous population who had very different pedagogy to the inhabitants of Spanish origins. Adding to the educators'
worries was the plan to make teachers who only taught young children pass a test to prove they could teach older children, a test
which they did not need to prove they could do their work but that they could potentially fail causing them to lose their jobs. For
most though, the straw that broke the camel's back was the 9 month time limit they had to pass this
qualification. This was brand new material for the majority and the only way they could study sufficiently would be not to work and
instead to become full time students.
Many decided that actually, that was exactly what they would do. As a form of protest, they stopped working and started
to spend every day studying, leaving the government an ultimatum… “Give us more time to pass the exam and allow us to
teach or have no teachers until we pass the test in 9 months.” The government were not willing to budge so the teachers
changed their tactics and started to cause civil unrest by creating roadblocks.
Protests in San Cristobal
After some completely peaceful obstructions, Lorenzo believes that the blockades were hijacked by organisations with their own
distinct agendas. These organisations brought guns to the party, which in turn caused the previously unarmed police to take
their own supplies. One group of officers then allegedly shot indiscriminately into a crowd on a roadblock between Oaxaca and San
Cristobal killing 12 teachers. From that day, the protests became more intense and more frequent turning into the type of
manifestations we had seen that day. We were grateful for the explanation but still a little confused by the looting of the
OXXOs. Lorenzo explained that as a town well known for having rebellious nature, some idiots who have no cause like to create
as much trouble as possible.
As if awoken from a dream, everything was completely at peace with the break of dawn the following morning. The roads were
clear except for the usual market stands and everybody was walking around merrily as if nothing had happened the day before. The
only indication that what had occurred was real was the shattered glass surrounding a space where a window used to be outside of the town
hall. Still, we didn't spend too much time outdoors as rain fell for most of the day. Instead, we made
our way to a museum documenting Mayan history, their life in “La Selva” (The Forest) and their religious
Mayan Museum in San Cristobal
Every year, sadly just once a year, the 22nd of July arrives. It is the most important date of any year and
this year it landed on a Friday. It is the anniversary of the birth of my incredible girlfriend Sian. Being away from home in
an exotic country, there were many ways we could have passed the time but strangely, the one that stood out the most to Sian
was to go to church. Unlike many a church we have been to, this one in San Juan Chamula just outside of San Cristobal had
managed to embrace the native religion and culture alongside the religion and culture of the Spanish conquistadors.
On numerous occasions, we were warned that photos were strictly forbidden within the church's walls so I'm am going to
try and create a picture as you walk with me through one of the strangest places I have ever been. As you pass through the typical
arched doorway, the shape of the church will remind you of any other. It is deep and high with an altar at the far end.
To your left and to your right are many idols inside of glass cases seemingly depicting Christian saints. They are in fact
symbolising Mayan Gods and each family that worships there will look to their God for council. As you walk towards the left hand
side, you will not have to pass any pews as the floor is empty of furniture and instead covered in grass. You will still need
to be careful of where you place your feet in case you step on one of the many rows of candles that are dripping wax onto the floor as
they burn while a local offers a prayer. Making your way to the front, you will notice a statue of Jesus but he is not the
main focus. Instead, he is on the left hand side just before the altar. The altar is in fact topped with the saint
that gives a name to the town, San Juan.
Traditional looking Church
Jesus is once again present if you look up to the roof. An artist's depiction shows Jesus surrounded by jaguars, lions
and other wildlife once again representing the mix of cultures and beliefs. As you turn back to face the main door,
take your time to exit the building. Watch as a family prays. Listen as they chant and make music using a wind instrument
similar to a flute. As the family takes a break from chanting, they will drink coca cola or some other kind of fizzy drink
very quickly in order to make themselves burp and ward off evil spirits. Closer to the door, you will notice that one family
has brought along a chicken. As you would probably expect, the leader of the family rubs the chicken on the other members who
are then gracious enough to return the favour. Once the chicken has made friends with each member, the head of the family
will break its neck as a sacrifice to their God. Some people with a weaker disposition may want to turn away at this point.
Walking past the staff permanently on hand to clean the wax from the floor, leave the church through the same portal that you
entered and arrive to a square like any other, full of people and chatter.
Spanish Guitar San Cristobal
Returning to San Cristobal full of bemusement and wonder, Sian wanted to spend the evening doing something slightly more typical of a
birthday. Luckily, there was an Italian trattoria around the corner from our hostel that served incredible food so we
indulged in some fine bruschetta and glorious pasta before making our way into the centre. Here, we spent the night in a
small cafe ⁄ bistro listening to the sounds of a musical genius playing his Spanish guitar.