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The Travels and Adventures of
Stefano Capacchione

The Travels And Adventures Of Stefano Capacchione San Pedro Guatemala

San Cristobal De Las Casas

Maestros, Manifestaciones y Mercados

19th July 2016

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
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.

San Cristobal Roadblock
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.

San Cristobal Bonfire
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.

San Cristobal Protests
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 beliefs.

San Cristobal Museum
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.

San Juan Chemula Church
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.