February 15 2009
Ismael Bekhayat Reports on his Trip to Mexico
Adventure number 2: The discovery of new animals.
During this trip, we learnt a lot about the local fauna. The second day, we went to visit ZooMAT and the Institute of Natural History and Ecology, located in the Zapotal reserve. This superb zoo exhibits autochthonous fauna only. Even though our group of 26 people was considered by some visitors as the most exotic spectacle to behold, I saw myself many weird animals - parrots, jaguars, monkeys, and crocodiles. Even the squirrel-like rodents scrounging the picnic area were new and different.
Among many lessons, Professors from CIESAS gave us a field seminar on the Melipona stingless bees. Amid a large amount of interesting information, I was particularly amused by the fact that a nest of these bees may have until five queens. When one is pregnant, the other queens keep being available for the males. As a Moroccan, I had been under the impression that only the Arabs could have several wives… but I was apparently misinformed.
Adventure number 3: The amazing landscapes.
Up to now, I have visited 34 countries in 4 continents, including China, Russia and the USA (These three countries alone represent roughly the quarter of the world land surface), and honestly I have never been quite so impressed by the natural beauty of a country. I have been particularly dazzled by four spots that, in my humble opinion, one has to visit before he dies.
When it comes to the geographical attributes, Chiapas is one of, if not the single most beautiful state of Mexico. However, due to preconceptions based on misinformation about security in Chiapas, this state unfortunately attracts proportionally fewer international tourists than other states. This is corroborated by the fact that among all the tourists that visit Chiapas, more than 75% are domestic . Indeed, conversely to foreign tourists, Mexican people from other states are well informed, they know that they have nothing to fear in Chiapas, and don’t miss the fabulous opportunity they have to visit Chiapas.
Here is a link to find beautiful pictures and more information about the landscapes we have visited in Chiapas: http://enlacesdelsur.com/galerias.html
Adventure number 4: The Zapatistas Camp.
At the center of the misconceptions with regards to the potential dangers of travelling in Chiapas lie the Zapatistas. For those who don’t know who the Zapatistas¬¬ are¬, here is the first paragraph of the first entry that appears when you Google the word Zapatistas:
“The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) is an armed revolutionary group based in Chiapas, one of the poorest states of Mexico. Since 1994, they have been in a declared war "against the Mexican state." Their social base is mostly indigenous but they have some supporters in urban areas as well as an international web of support. Their main spokesperson is Subcomandante Marcos”.
Indeed, when one reads this paragraph, he may be dissuaded from venturing to Chiapas. Worlds like army, liberation, armed, revolutionary, poorest, war, subcomandante… leave a perhaps unconscious but nevertheless shocking impression of both the group and the state. Before going to visit Zapatistas areas, even our professor Robert, a wise man with copious connections in Chiapas, wrote a letter and had it delivered to the Zapatista Junta de Buen Gobierno in the Caracol (literally ‘snail’, used to identify an autonomously governed community) of Oventic, to let them know that a group of 26 Cornell Community Members would be seeking entry. On the eve of our departure to Oventic, we composed a ‘Plan B’ for use in the case that we were denied entry. Everybody was simultaneously exited and anxious. We sat with bated breath and fingers crossed as Professor Blake was negotiated our entry with the current community leaders , all decked out in the Zapatistas’ trademark black ski masks.
Once inside, we discovered that, despite appearances, the Zapatistas are actually quite hospitable and peaceful, playing host to visitors from every corner of the world without hurting a fly. Our entire group was received by the leaders and we understood that among the Zapatistas’ objectives is to garner international attention for their movement to protest the signing of NAFTA, and globalization more generally, which according to them only serve to broaden the gulf between the rich and poor, the haves and have-nots worldwide and in Chiapas.
It is imperative to note that the EZLN does not demand independence from Mexico, but rather autonomy in managing their affairs, asking among other things that the natural resources that are extracted from Chiapas more directly benefit the people of Chiapas. Not only do their claims have merit, but the way in which they make their claims have been, after the initial uprising in San Cristobal de las Casas in 1994, quite peaceful, even in the face of government and paramilitary violence. Rather than being the bogeymen I had been prepared to encounter, the Zapatistas only further added to my already favorable impression of Chiapas.
Adventure number 5: At the discovery of the Mayan Civilization.
Even though I have watched many documentaries about the Maya world on TV, I never fully realized just how developed they were. When one studies in Europe, declarations of the greatness of European civilization are inescapable. The philosophical, scientific, mathematic, and architectural prowess of the Greeks; the hegemony of the Roman Empire; the age of exploration, “discovery” of the “New World,” and the subsequent colonization of vast swaths of the globe by the Spaniards, the Portuguese, the French, the British, and the Dutch... all of this considered, it becomes quite difficult to resist the myth that Europe, the “Old World,” is the cradle of civilizations, that the Europeans invented culture and the world itself. That is, of course, until you visit China, Egypt or Mexico, wherein this myth is swiftly debunked, revealed for what it is: a hoax, naught but an ethnocentric myth. Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, which is considered to be the opening chapter of the Greek civilization, a full five centuries after the vibrant Maya civilization entered its formative period, before 1OOO BC. And the Greek civilization is considered to be the first advanced European civilization…
We were lucky to have in our group Lili, a Mexican archeologist of the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan (UADY), who helped us to become acquainted with, in intimate detail, the Mayan sites of Tonina and Palenque. Her narrative was so lively and informative that we acquired groupies, as passersby gravitated toward our guide.
Pablo Neruda, the great poet Chileno, once wrote:
Piedra en la piedra, el hombre, dónde estuvo? (Stone over Stone, but man, where was he?)
His words were in reference to Macchu Picchu, but may just as easily apply here. Whilst walking through the ruins, partially obscured by the mist’s embrace, one had the impression of walking through a graveyard, a museum, a relic of the past. When historians speak of the Mayans, their conclusions are inevitably affixed to allusions of the ‘fall’ of this once mighty civilization, as if one day everyone packed up, abandoning their posts at the magnificent palaces and temples at Tonina and Palenque, leaving in their wake only stones. While this ambience was peaceful, mysterious, and enigmatic, like a brief encounter with the ancient past, it also made me think. All throughout our trip we had had constant interaction with indigenous Mayan people. But their situation was often a far cry from the exalted grandeur of centuries past. The most relevant question of the trip- el hombre, donde estuvo?- reverberated most here, surrounded by the testament to long ago glory, now largely empty of those who had constructed it.
Adventure number 6: The local culture.
When I wrote that this trip was very eclectic / multidisciplinary, I measured my words. As early as day five of our 15 day trip, we went to visit the museum dedicated to Rosario Castellanos , a prodigious writer and Chiapaneca. Here in Comitan we were also treated to a photo exhibition, Comitan en el tiempo , which fleshed out the history of the place for us. To celebrate the occasion, the mayor himself was in attendance, and we were treated to a fabulous marimba performance, a lecture on Castellanos’ oeuvre, and some quite delectable local confections.
This trip made us open our eyes to the phenomena of cultural hybridization, which has so fascinated our own Professor Sanchez-Blake. Local culture and globalization leads to a funny mix- at turns intriguing, comical, and enigmatic to the eye of an outsider. On the one hand, we visited churches with very particular traditions like the one in San Juan Chamula where pine leaves were scattered about the floor in a ceremony that cannot be properly described as entirely Catholic or Mayan. We visited the community of el Pinar where everyone speak tzotzil and where male community members dreams of one day attaining the position of Passion- a path that can be decades long, and entails the responsibility for a community-wide celebrations.
In addition, we visited a rural family living on impossibly pitched hillside next to Huitepec. They don’t have a TV but they don’t need it to be happy. The wife spends her day making tortillas- a treat she shared with our entire group- for the family while the husband cultivates the land. They have wonderful children who have to walk more than one hour a day to go to school. We also visited a village of fishermen in Zacapulco where basic, rustic fishing materiel is used and where the fish is phenomenal. The fishermen may live in basic conditions but they live in a paradisiacal spot. We discussed with them and were able to see their pride in their work.
In spite of this seeming isolation, this perception of “other-worldness,” modernity and, if you will, globalization, was unavoidable. Not far from the church where we had witnessed the most solemn of rituals, one could buy the latest Hollywood movies on DVD for less than 1 dollar apiece, guided by prime advice from the seller who had already seen all of the films he had on sale. Jean Claude Van Damme flicks, Rocky (all parts!), as well as more recent releases were on offer.
Behind the modest home of the rural family we visited up in the mountains, was a basketball hoop where members of the family played. Moreover, members of this community were engaged in a pitched battle with the Coca-Cola Corporation, which had managed to obtain the rights to the community’s water source.
As someone who lives in the country of Gringos, I had been corrupted by some American preconceived beliefs, and I started basically to believe that if you are Mexican, then your dream must be to hop the border and come to the Promised Land: El Norte, the USA. Thankfully, I went on this trip and discovered that this is the silliest idea ever. The great majority of Mexicans are very happy in their homeland. For those who do think of immigrating to the USA, many continue to keep Mexico close to their heart, hoping one day to return home.
Finally, I was struck by the hospitality of the Mexican people. Every time we went to visit a place, we were royally welcomed. Not only were we absolutely spoiled, our every whim indulged, but also asked to come back whenever we wanted to. Our gracious hostess, Conchita, epitomized this attitude, telling us: Mi casa es tu casa . Tienes ahora otra mama en Chiapas .
Adventure number 7: The local educational institutions
Thanks to our professor Bob, the Padrino of Chiapas, we had the opportunity to be received by numerous local educational institutions where we were impressed by the level of thoroughness of the research they were undertaking. Among these institutions were the Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales Agicolas y Pecuarias (INIFAP ), the Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR ), and the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social (CIESAS ). We visited their facilities, met their masters and PhD students (among who many where foreigners) and got lectures on various field. We met, in the flesh, the famous Belgian Doctor Jan De Vos, who is a great researcher and was a permanent guest-advisor to the EZLN during the on going peace talks between the EZLN and the Mexican Government. We also encountered Krista, a Cornell PhD student who is collaborating with ECOSUR on her doctoral research (on the effects of an invasive species of fish (armoured catfish)). All the local educational institutions aforementioned, informed us of opportunities of paid internships and research activities, within their facilities. It truly opened our eyes to the existence of several top-notch research institutions.
Adventure number 8: The Migration
Chiapas is a veritable petri dish of migratory flows. And indeed, we encountered a number of scientists- social scientists, that is- who were examining this developing phenomenon- at both ECOSUR and CIESAS.
At the former, half of our group took the opportunity to witness a presentation by one of the aforementioned researchers with regards to this theme. What those present learned was that while it is well known that much of Mexico has become a giant sending community, a source for out-migration to the United States, Chiapas in particular highlights the greater degree of complexity.
There are, of course, a considerable number of individuals who have indeed gone north to seek greater opportunities. In fact, I had conversations with people who had friends or relatives who had left. On the first day, Don Rene, at the first Ejido we visited, despaired that the youth were abandoning the fields and the community in favor of emigration. On the final day, bringing the trip full circle and emphasizing the prevalence of migration in the lives of Mexicans today, I interviewed a young man, Sergio, at the hotel Los Angeles in San Cristobal de Las Casas, who told me of friends in California and New York, and his desire to perhaps follow them someday soon to study in an American university.
But migration in Chiapas is not so simple, not unidirectional, of one character or kind. As a state sharing a border with Guatemala, there is a significant cross-border relationship- an identity that is not cleanly bifurcated by the demarcation of political boundaries. As such, there is a considerable degree of movement across the border, including those who live in the immediate border region and have permits to cross on a daily basis, as well as a growing number of Guatemalans and other Central Americans who come to Chiapas in search of work. These individuals may obtain employment in Chiapas, as was the case with the crew at the organic coffee operation we visited, or they may move on to other areas in Mexico, often with the eventual goal of reaching the United States. There is also a sizable refugee community in Chiapas, Guatemalans who freed the convulsion of state and guerrilla violence that ravaged the country for some three decades.
Migration, both in and out, adds a significant amount of complexity to the social situation, and is a phenomenon that constantly makes itself evident in Chiapas.
Adventure number 9: The night life in San Cristobal.
Chiapanecos know how to party. The streets of San Cristobal de Las Casas are full of pubs, bars and clubs. Like Ithaca college town, but in a larger scale and with hours of operation that largely exceed to very early CT 1am. The chiapanecos in clubs are very friendly.
Adventure number 10: The food and beverage.
Before going to Chiapas, I had been told by my girlfriend that the Mexican food is delicious everywhere else except in Mexico. I did believe her because it really is the case with Chinese food. Anyway, I told myself that I would benefit from the situation by starting a diet once in Chiapas. Two weeks after my arrival, I had gained 3 pounds. The food there is simply magical. Here are the traditional dishes to look for:
-Pictes: tamales made with fresh sweetcorn
-Estofado de Pollo en Frutas: a chicken and fruit stew
-Chispola: a beef and vegetable stew
And for those who can eat pork
-Cochinito Horneado: roasted suckling pig flavored with a paste of ground seeds and herbs
- Ningüijute (mostly Tuxtla Gutierrez) -- a seed-based pork mole
Otherwise, all the dishes come with tortillas and black beans. If it happens you go to the Hotel Maya Tulipanes in Palenque, please ask for a Sopa Azteca, a delicious soup made with tortillas and cheese. The best soup ever. Hand to God. If you go to San Cristobal, look for an empanada place. Nirmal, an Indian friend who was in our group, discovered the Chicken Curry Empanada, and since then he has been dreaming about it. When it comes to the beverage, try the local agua fresco de jamaica and the pox, but go easy on the latter. It packs a punch that could leave you with a pounding headache the following morning.
I doubt you are still reading, but for the more courageous of you who went through all the adventures, I would like to conclude with the point I cannot possibly hope to reiterate with enough frequency or enthusiasm: GO VISIT CHIAPAS. NOW!
I would like to thank ESCP-EAP European School of Management, thanks to which I ended up pursuing a master at Cornell.
I would like to thank the Agriculture Department and the ILR international programs for having given me this wonderful opportunity to visit this amazing region.
Thanks to my professors, Robert, Terry, Elvira and Debbie who helped us to understand the stakes of our trip, and give context to our experiences and surroundings.
Thanks to my fellow students who came with me and without whom this trip would have never been so much fun.
Thanks to my housemate Maddy, who found me after I got lost in the market of San Cristobal.
To view Ismael's photos click here