San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico,
November 6, 2002
I do not leave San Cristobal when I thought I would.
The bus is full, so I take advantage of the day. I leave
the guide book behind and just start walking. With your
nose constantly in the guide book, you only see what
they mention. I look for less frequented, interesting
streets with an unusual architectural style or with
That afternoon I walked west and further away from
the center of town to where the traffic slows down and
it becomes more quiet. The sun bakes what little breeze
there is into a tepid breath that taunts me with expectations
of cooling off. I try to stay in the shade for as long
as possible because I am still not use to the blistering,
About 2 or 3 blocks away I can see where the street
ends at what looks like the side of a steep hill with
stairs going up. The stairs are double "switchbacks"
with steps on either side of expansive, cement landings
at each level. There are about 30 such landings in all.
At the bottom of the hill, my neck hurts to look at
the top. At the top of the hill simply stands a small,
white church with a gated courtyard.
The climb to the top is not so bad. There are pines
and cedars providing shade and false sunflowers everywhere,
growing wild on both sides. Not too far from the top
a young woman has set up a small display of her artwork
and stone jewelry on one of the landings. The pieces
are stylistically primitive but it is evident she has
fashioned them with great care. She proudly and patiently
explains the significance of each piece, half in Spanish
and half in English. I sense a strong and uncommon determination
in her eyes. In her broken English she asks many questions
about education in Canada.
A few meters away from the stairs, dug into the side
of the hill, I see the flimsy shack that she lives in
with her family. A couple of scraggly chickens strut
through the tall weeds and refuse, inspecting the ground
for seeds and bugs. I see 2 small children barely clothed
in raggedy, dirt-grey shirts watching me from the doorless
entrance of their home. I do not see any other adults.
At the top, the space behind the cathedral opens into
a large, grassy expanse where a winding road circles
a large, cement gazebo painted white with a blue roof.
All around, cedars and pines continue to provide cooling
shade beneath their thick and cleanly aromatic branches.
It feels good to be away from the congestion of people,
the narrow streets and the stench of big city odors.
Walking back down I stopped into what looked like a
hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It turned out to be a warm
and inviting place with low ceilings, tiled floors and
tan and harvest walls. The owners displays antiques
in the windows and Mayan art on the walls. A row of
tall windows lines the entire front of the restaurant
allowing a panoramic view of the city. Far below, the
city spreads out in a labyrinth of buildings and streets
that extends to the eroding sand and gravel banks of
the distant hillsides.
Mexico is a unique mixture of Latino, western and indigenous
cultures; colonial Spanish architecture, modern store
fronts and adobe huts. A vivid blending of colorful
textiles, rough hewn plaster, hand-formed bricks, cobblestone
streets and decaying churches. Storefronts display rows
of appliances, furniture, bikes and ghetto blasters.
Street stalls are packed with every small convenience
imaginable; watches, pencils, hair nets, flash lights,
knives and safety pins. Everyone uses body perfumes
with a very subtle skill; so many different fragrances
and none are offensive.
Contrast is everywhere: Mariachi music and Avril Lavigne,
snazzy new cars and horse-drawn carts. Western influence
is everywhere: the latest fashion in jeans, Internet
cafes, Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Everywhere hand painted
signs with red lettering on white or blue lettering
on white announce the bargain prices of Mexican cuisine;
red, blue, white and the ever present yellow Sol cerveza
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Las Casas, Mexico