Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Coffee, Caracoles, and No Cameras!

It is hard to imagine that, only one day before, the mountains were lush with thick tropical foliage. Leaving the town of Jitotol for San Cristobal Chiapas, we are well into pine forests. We can see our breath, but the sun is shining, and, remembering our horrible hypothermic ride from last year, Basil and I say a little prayer of thanks for the lack of impending rain. This absence of rain allows us to enjoy watching the local villagers picking and drying coffee beans. The smell of the coffee fruit fermenting as we pedal through the villages is even more intoxicating than the landscape.

As we pedal our way higher into Chiapas, the people become a little less friendly, and somewhat suspicious. Passing two military camps in less than 30km it's easy to imagine why. We arrive at Oventik or Caracol Cinco, which, to describe it in overly simplified terms, is one of five centres for Zapatista good government councils. Each centre is structured to represent it's surrounding Zapatista indigenous communities and the effort is to supply them with fair local autonomous government. These centres are called caracoles because historically the caracol (conch shell) represented autonomous gatherings. The shell was blown into to summon meetings. If you're interested there is a lot more info about Zapatistas and their Caracoles here .

What we see as we saunter into Oventik or Caracol 5 are colourful zapatista themed murals and a small shop selling zapatista paraphanelia, some daily foodstuffs, and coffee and light snacks. The place teems with "intellectual" European tourists out to support the rebel cause with their small wire-rimmed glasses, cargo pants, multi-pocketed vests, hiking boots, and either a laptop or obscenely large camera. Service is slow and smile-free.

Climbing to Oventik was pretty darn steep, but there is more than half the ride to San Cristobal left. The steepness eases off, but the climbing continues past Chamula ladies in thick furry skirts who are unfazed by our presence. They sit stoically, scarves piled atop their heads, watching their sheep. Occasionally one of them kneels with a small loom weaving the wool from the same sheep that graze nearby.

I wave and no one waves back. It is the only place in Mexico where we are almost invisible in our bright colours and spandex. We've warned the group that nearing San Cristobal it is strictly taboo to take pictures of the very interesting costumes and customs that we will cross paths with. The locals will take your camera. Sometimes the language barrier and the temptation prove to be too much. Fortunately these revelers were only half in the bag and were in good enough spirits to demand money in return for the camera offense of one of our fellow cyclists:

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