When I got to San Cristobal de las Casas in the summer of 2009, after spending two weeks in Guatemala, it was a relief to be back in Mexico, a country by then deeply familiar to me. It was immediately apparent that the place, which I had never visited before, was what my Lonely Planet had promised it would be: a cosmopolitan city that attracts artsy, socially-aware Mexicans and foreigners.
Guateamala had been extremely interesting and often inspiring, and I had found the people resilient and charming. However, except for parts of the capital and some smaller cities, like Panajachel, it was also pretty rustic and quite conservative, and I was ready for something more sophisticated.
The state of Chiapas, in which San Cristobal de las Casas is located, has a significant Mayan population that has managed to preserve many of its languages and customs, but it is a population that is, unfortunately, socially marginal within the country. Chiapas is perhaps best known internationally for being the site of the Zapastista uprising that began on January 1, 1992 – in recognition of the five hundred years since Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas and the atrocities suffered by First Nations since then. The first place taken by the Zapatistas was the government buildings and central plaza in San Cristobal de las Casas.
My first evening in the city, I saw a documentary detailing the uprising from the point of view of the rebels. I saw it at a cinema cafe that served excellent coffee, pastries that looked like they could be included in a healthy diet, and a range of teas and tisanes. Before going into the theatre, I noticed that many of the people around me were Anglos speaking halting, accented Spanish with each other – obviously students at one or more of the many language schools in the city. The rest, whom I assumed were Mexicans but may not necessarily have been, were a bohemian lot who ranged in age from university students to scruffy, middle-aged men and women who spoke with the enunciation of the well-educated.
After the movie, I met a friend of mine, Sandra, who lived in San Cristobal de las Casas for what turned out to be a very decent glass of red wine at an upbeat tapas bar a block from the central plaza. There Sandra and I had a lively conversation with a Colombian teacher and his British-journalist boyfriend. When I talked about the film I had just seen, all three of them scoffed at me for being an armchair idealist. Sandra and I went for a walk afterwards and stopped for chocolate-dipped churros.
The next morning, on my way to the artisan market where I planned to shop for gifts, I came across a French bakery where I got a hot from the oven, rich, flaky croissant.
Right about then is when I fell in love with San Cristobal de las Casas. Who wouldn't want to live here? I wondered. It was a physically beautiful place, if a tad cold since it was in the highlands, that had good film, good food, good coffee, good wine and good conversation.
I went to the artisan market several times. I visited all the churches and cathedrals. I went to the amber museum, the jade museum, the coffee museum, and the museum of regional indigenous clothing. I visited Na Bolom, the house converted to a museum of Swiss anthropologist and photographer, Trudy Blom, who waged a long and intense campaign to save the lives and the way of life of the Lancandon people who lived in the nearby jungle. Her husband, Frans Blom, was an archaeologist who surveyed Mayan ruins in Chiapas.
One afternoon, I saw a young Sikh man on the street. I had read somewhere that there was a tiny Sikh community somewhere in Southern Mexico. I was obviously curious to know if he was one of its members. I'm not the kind of bold, however, that will come out and ask a person a personal question like that. Instead, I pretended to be lost and asked him for directions. His Spanish was native-speaker fluent.
Another afternoon, I walked by a store that had a cloth ornament hanging in its entrance that had the mirror work on brightly-coloured fabric that is the signature of the craft work that comes from the town of Pipli in Orissa, though the work is sold in souvenir shops and in markets across Northern India. The mother and daughter who owned the store excitedly described to me the two-week tour they'd been on that had taken them to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Their faces glowed as they told me that they were saving up to go back to India, this time to spend some time on an ashram on the Ganges, hopefully in Benares.
I began every day with a coffee and a croissant. I usually had lunch in the courtyard of a restaurant that also housed a gallery of indigenous art and artisan work and that was just off the central plaza. I ended every day with red wine and tapas and animated conversation.
After about five days of bliss, it occurred to me that I had seen little evidence of 'real life' around me. I had seen no gaggles of school children, no hospitals, no public transportation, no grocery stores. Since I ate out all the time, I hadn't had to shop for anything other than toiletries, which I had picked up at a store the size of a corner store, the only type of store I had seen.
The next afternoon, after lunch, I decided to hit the Mercado Municipal, the local market, for some fresh fruit and perhaps a dose of 'real life'. My Lonely Planet warned me to stay alert there because tourists had had their pockets picked and bags snatched from their hands. I'd had had money or jewellery stolen off me in Barcelona, Delhi and Montreal, but generally, I was a savvy enough traveller to know how to protect myself from petty thievery. Besides, this was Mexico, and never when I was alone in a public place had I been taken for a tourist. I was always assumed to be Mexican.
Not so at the Mercado Municipal.
The place was loud, vibrant, colourful, chaotic and smelly. It have been raining that day and I had to step carefully in other to not risk slipping on the pathways strewn with vegetable and fruit peelings. Rivulets of water tinted with animal blood flowed between the stalls. From the way the vendors looked at me and from the cold formality with which they talked to me, I knew I stuck out like a tourist. I really didn't like the way that felt at all, but I tried to take it in stride.
Then two women walked by, each with a live, squawking chicken under her arm. I whipped out my camera. I don't believe in taking reams of photographs when I travel, and I always ask for people's permission if I'm going to be taking one with them it.
“Can I take a photograph?” I asked politely.
The women glared at me for a second.
“Sure,” said one, her voice dripping sarcasm. “For a hundred pesos.”
There were guffaws in the crowed around me.
“What hundred pesos?” sneered the other one. “For a thousand pesos.”
It occurred to me that I should feel insulted, but I simply couldn't take it that personally. That much intensity had everything to do with what they already experienced and little to do with me. I put away my camera, bought some fruit and left the market.
When I returned to the part of the city with which I had become familiar, I felt as if I were inside a bubble of delusion. I didn't go to the tapas bar that evening; I stayed in my hotel room and watched TV.
San Cristobal de las Casas is lovely, interesting place that is definitely worth visiting, and I had a great time while I was there.
The incident at the market, however, left me feeling like a hypocrite. It was as if those of us who were outsiders had found out how to make the place delightful for ourselves, but the people to whom that place actuallly belonged felt like outsiders and were naturally upset about it.
I checked out of my hotel the next morning. I spent a few hours tracking down Sandra and people I had met there in order to say good-be to them.
That evening, I left.