Holding the Gods to Account

A Rare (and Forbidden) Interior Shot of the Chamula Religious Observances

My brother and I visited the Tzotzil village of San Juan Chamula in 1979. We stood in the back of a stake truck from San Cristóbal de las Casas along with dozens of Chamulas. In the village, we requested permission to visit the church, which was at one time Catholic until the Tzotzil threw the priests out and took over the churches for their own syncretic observances. In the alcalde’s office, we had to sign a promise that we would not take any photographs inside under pain of the severest punishment. (During the 1980s, at least European tourist was killed by an angry mob for just such a transgression).

I found the following description in Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, which I have just finished reading:

On the way to Oventic I stopped at the town of Chamula, famous for its weird church observances, where the interior of the basilica of San Juan Bautista was ablaze with flames. Worshipers crouched on the floor arranging candles, fifty or a hundred in symmetrical patterns, then lighting them and, in the candlelight, drinking Coca-Cola and ritually burping—eructation believed to be salutary—and splashing libations of Coke on the church floor, which was covered with sand.

The Church at San Juan Chamula

There were no pews, there were no priests, there was no Mass or formal service. It was a gathering of curanderos—medicine men—and those wishing to be cured. Other solemn groups were chanting, passing hens’ eggs around the the faces and bodies of prayerful pilgrims in a limpia—a purification—or holding a squawking chicken near a kneeling devotee, and a moment later the chicken’s neck was wrung, and the softened, drooping carcase placed near the candles.

As I watched, a man approached me holding a bottle and a glass. He said, “Mezcal,” and poured me a slug and offered it. I drank it, blinked away the dazzle in my eyes, thanked him, and kept looking.

It was a fusion of pre-Hispanic traditions and Christian dogma, the result an observance involving a mass of candles, throttled chickens, and soda pop. (But sheep are sacred, never harmed or eaten: the town of Chamula is full of grazing sheep.) Added to these rituals was a chance for retribution, because if the chosen saint did not grant the supplicant’s wish, the deity could be punished, just as the Zapotecs and mayans punished their gods and saints, lashing their images with whips. In this church, the statues of saints, which had been ceremonially draped, with an uttered prayer, could be stripped of their robe if the prayer was not answered.

Check out the above YouTube video, which gives a you a feeling of life in this Tzotzil village.

Getting Ready for Yucatán

A Mérida Taxi Receipt from a November 1982 Trip

I finally settled on my date of departure for Mexico to take place around the middle of next month, though Volaris still has not confirmed my reservation. I will be flying to Mérida via Guadalajara both ways. I could have elected to transfer in Mexico City, but I have memories of a flight some thirty years ago while the passengers waited for hours for a well-connected wife of a politician to be boarded ever so fashionably late.

But then, when one travels in Mexico, one travels by Mexican rules. This involves an expectation of the unexpected, and a sharp attention paid to current circumstances, despite conflicting information from supposedly authoritative sources.

In preparation, I have been reading Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). Ever since running into his book of a series of railroad journeys from Boston to Argentina entitled The Old Patagonian Express, I have been deeply influenced by his writings on travel. Theroux is profoundly cynical, though perhaps not so much as Tobias Smollett, whose journey of a trip to France and Italy earned him the nickname of Smelfungus by no less than Laurence Sterne.

Theroux provides a nice summary in his book about the land I am about to visit:

I have not found a traveler or commentator, foreign or Mexican, who has been able to sum up Mexico, and maybe such an ambition is a futile and dated enterprise. The country eludes the generalizer and summarizer; it is too big, too complex, too diverse in its geography and culture, too messy and multilingual—the Mexican government recognizes 68 different languages and 350 dialects.

When my best and oldest friend talks about Mexico—usually disparagingly—he really means the border regions, where the drug cartels, police, and army are the major players.  I myself have visited several Mexicos:

  • Border Mexico (Tijuana, Ensenada, Mexicali, and Cabo San Lucas)
  • Pacific Beach Resort Mexico (Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta)
  • Colonial Mexico (Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Miguel Allende, Querétaro)
  • Canyon Mexico (Copper Canyon)
  • Capital Mexico (Mexico City—a world in itself)
  • Gulf Mexico (Puebla, Papantla, Veracruz, Jalápa, Villahermosa)
  • Zapotec and Mixtec Mexico (Oaxaca)
  • Caribbean Mexico (Cozumel)
  • Mayan Mexico

My favorite is the last category, which can be further subdivided into Highland Maya (San Cristóbal de las Casas), Jungle Maya (Palenque), and Yucatec Maya (Mérida, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Campeche).

Family Interlude

Palm Trees and Snowcapped Mountains

I will be taking a few days off to go to Palm Desert in the Coachella Valley for a family get-together. In addition to my brother Dan and sister-in-law Lori, my niece Hilary with husband and sons; step-niece Jennifer; and step-nephew Danny will be present. Martine won’t be coming with me because she hates the Coachella Valley, having lived and worked in nearby Twentynine Palms back in the 1990s.

As I am quite sterile and prefer not to adopt, my brother’s side of the family has become increasingly important to me. In the same way, I have always maintained close relations with the children of my best friends. It’s either that or spend my declining years shouting at kids to get off my lawn.

When I get back to Los Angeles on Monday, I hope to have some good stories to tell you and pictures of my family to show you.

Indian Country

The Area Covered by the Auto Club Indian Country Map (in Orange)

This posting is about a map that I love. Ever since 1985 when I drove with my friends Peter and Gayle to the area around Flagstaff, Arizona, I have fallen in love with the Southern California Auto Club map that covers the main tourist areas of the American Southwest. It is called, simply, the Indian Country map. It covers southern Utah, Northern Arizona, southwest Colorado, and northwest New Mexico. Within its coverage area lie Acoma Sky City, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Chaco Canyon, Durango, Grand Canyon, the Hopi and Navajo Indian reservations, Lake Powell, Mesa Verde, the Petrified Forest, most of the Pueblo Indian reservations, Sandia Peak, Santa Fe, and Zion—all of which I have visited on various trips.

It is probably the most useful tourist map produced in the United States. Especially for someone like myself, who loves this part of the country above all others.

The AAA Indian Country Map

There are times when I wish I had a camper van that I could use to visit the many hundreds of tourist sights covered by this map. What with my age, I can no longer kneel on the ground to put up a tent, but I could sleep—most comfortably—in a good camper van.

If you are interested, there is an interesting article about the cartographer who produced and updates this map. You can find it by clicking here.

A Little Bit of Wales

A Welsh Tea House in the State of Chubut, Argentina

Today’s post is the result of finding a business card in Spanish for one of our 2011 Argentina destinations. It was part of the best day on that particular trip. In the morning, Martine and I went to the giant Magellanic penguin rookery at Punta Tombo where we saw baby penguin eggs hatching under the watchful eyes of hungry shore birds. Then we drove to the Welsh settlement at Gaiman where we had high tea at the Ty Gwyn.

Although we were many thousands of miles from Wales, it was as if we were in the Old Country. The tea, sandwiches, and cakes were absolutely delicious. In fact, we had such a good time that we took a bus from Puerto Madryn back to Gaiman and had another high tea.

High Tea at Ty Gwyn

The State of Chubut was originally settled by the Welsh who settled in a number of communities, including Gaiman, Puerto Madryn, Trelew, and Dolavon. At the souvenir shops at the Trelew airport, a conspicuous presence were the packages of Torta Negra Galesa, the dark Welsh Cake that is the highlight of a Welsh tea.

The only other places where Martine and I had high tea were at Blenheim Palace in England—the birthplace of Winston Churchill—and Butchart Gardens near Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. It is interesting that the Welsh in Argentina were easily on a par with the other two.

 

Uxmal

The Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal in Yucatán

I may have to delay my trip to Mexico until I know what’s happening with the pain in my knee. To refresh your memory, there is some sort of muscular pain in the crook of my left knee, initially diagnosed to be a Baker’s Cyst or some sort of tendonitis. With luck, I will be able to go at some point in January, unless the condition requires surgery.

In all, I have been to Uxmal twice, in 1975 and 1992. Both times, I have been impressed that it is the most beautiful of Maya ruins. It is built in the classical Puuc (named after the range of hills where it is located), with smooth rectangular limestone blocks interspersed with images of various Maya deities. It looks even better today, after archeologists have cleared away much of the foliage. Below is an image of the same structure around 1840 when Frederick Catherwood drew it:

Frederick Catherwood’s Illustration of the Pyramid

The city of Uxmal was occupied only up to some point in the 9th century AD, when it is speculated that drought made the ruins in the Puuc Hills uninhabitable. There are no above ground rivers in the limestone peninsula that is Yucatán, and the underground rivers would have required digging through hundreds of feet of rock. Instead, rain water was collected in chultunes, underground storage chambers that circled the ruins.

I was sold on Uxmal from the very start. The van that took me there stopped close by the Pyramid of the Magician. The driver bowed his head and did the sign of the cross upon setting eyes on the pyramid. It is still considered a sacred site by the Maya, even though they have not inhabited it for over a thousand years.

 

La Merced

Basilica and Convent of Nuestra Señora de la Merced in Lima, Peru

In the historic center of Lima, Peru, on the Jirón de la Union, sits one of the oldest churches in South America. When I visited Peru five years ago, I would have the taxi driver let me off at the south end of the Jirón so that I could pass by the elaborate Churrigueresque façade of La Merced and wander in. When I dropped in at these old churches I frequently found myself attending Holy Mass as I was gaping at the gorgeous decorations. I always stayed to the end, out of respect for the religious orders which built such splendid edifices to worship God.

I do believe that the Spanish kings only got a fraction of the gold that was mined in the New World, and that the lion’s share went to the Church and is visibly on display.

Interior of La Merced

As I have said on other occasions, I visited Peru because of the Incas, but what really caught my eye were the old Catholic churches, some dating back almost 500 years. La Merced was built around 1535 by the Mercedarians, short for the Royal, Celestial, and Military Order of Our Lady of Mercy and the Redemption of Captives. In fact, if I were to visit Peru again—as I hope to—I would skip Machu Picchu and spend more time viewing the Catholic churches and their related ecclesiastical art.