I'd like to share this slightly edited version of a letter I wrote today. This should bring you up to date while new journal entries are still to come...
It is our third day here, in the busy mountain town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the highlands of Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. This area abuts the Guatemalan highlands and, along with parts of the Yucatan and southern Belize, is one of the last redoubts of the living Maya cultures. While Tuxpan is the government state capital, San Cristóbal is the original colonial capital, and the centre of the mundo maya here. (The "de las Casas" honours Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish priest who defended native rights following the Conquest; a role that would be reprised by another priest here in the 1990s.)
We were due to leave Cristóbal this morning, after a one-day layover for a business meeting, but Denise (my co-conspirator on this adventure) got hold of some bad food and she's pretty sick right now. The unscheduled down-day gives me a welcome moment to think, while I poke liquids and crackers into poor Denise.
This is the town that was made famous back in the 1990s when Maya here began the armed Zapatista uprising under "Subcommandante Marcos", a non-Maya former university professor. (Shades of Castro. Only here it's a pipe, rather than a cigar.) They successfully (but briefly) took over San Cristóbal and much of Chiapas and forced the PRI government to negotiate over the taking of Maya lands. Later, after Vicente Fox broke the PRI chokehold (a good thing)and incidentally, decided not to honour the treaty (a bad thing), there was a famous Zapatista foot-march from here to Mexico City (a very long walk). It's pretty hard to say if anything really came of it all. The Zapatistas are folk heroes. The gov't maintains armed checkpoints all around. Most Maya are dirt poor. Life goes on. That's about it.
I am here to talk to some folks at AlSol -- Alternativa Solidaria Chiapas -- a ten-year-old micro-lending institution (MLI) based on the Bangladeshi Grameen model, which works mostly with small groups of Maya women here. I discovered AlSol through Kiva.org in January and have been taking an interest in their work, along with that of Friendship Bridge in Guatemala. Unlike Friendship Bridge, AlSol is a grassroots organisation formed by two local women in 1998 (the year I first came to the Maya), more-or-less a result of the climate of change established here by the Zapatista uprising. They've been quite successful, and there is more of a feeling of "among equals" here, than is often the case with such organisations.
. . .
I've just now returned from one of my favourite things to do in an unfamiliar town. I went out and grabbed a taxi (you need only stand still a few minutes anywhere in town and one appears) and went to market in search of vegetables (travelling and eating in restaurants here, it is difficult to get enough veggies). This is a wonderful way to shop, as the driver knows where everything is and acts as a willing interpreter if I come up short a word or two or can't find something. And he carries the shopping.
Now I sit here with a bowl of mixed chopped vegetables, which were in dirt only this morning. Yum.
. . .
Back in the 1990s -- some while after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and about the time the Zapatistas were taking over San Cristóbal de las Casas -- I was involved for a year or so in an effort to assist Siberian women through the establishment of MLIs in several cities; Novosibirsk, Gorno Altai, and Irkutsk. I wrote a seminar in basic market and business planning, using dual-language materials and delivered in Russian through interpreters. We became pretty close to the women who were holding up the Russian end; women who were educated (doctors, lawyers, professors), and who had lost everything, sometimes reduced to theft and prostitution to feed their families. But now everything was getting better -- you never saw such an optimistic bunch of budding capitalists.
It broke my heart as, bit by but, the Russian Mafia took everything over. Some of our collaborators knuckled under, some gave up, some disappeared suddenly, some joined. I severed ties and turned away from Russia and from micro-lending. (By the way, the current top government leaders are essentially mafiosi, as Russia slips, once again, into totalitarian rule. It seems to be the only kind they're comfortable with.)
. . .
I have just come down from a short break on the rooftop terrace of the little posada where we are staying. The roof is the only place from which you can actually see the town for what it is. Virtually none of it is visible from the public street.
Cristóbal is an old colonial town, established by the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth century and originally administered from Antigua, Guatemala, which it somewhat resembles. Narrow masonry-walled cobbled streets originally laid-out for horse and wagon traffic, but now occupied by the brisk one-way files of vehicles which now occupy the walled courtyard stables at night. The high kerbs are so narrow that you can literally be run down while stepping out your front door. The electric and water metres are recessed into the masonry, as there is no room for them to protrude.
With the exception of the plaza mayor, public Cristóbal consists entirely in a gridwork of these hazardous alleys, while the life of Cristóbal is hidden away behind the bracketing masonry walls, visible only through doorways and from the rooftops. There are trees throughout the town, but you cannot see a single one from the streets. The streets are choked with the unregulated exhaust of the scurrying vehicles, which combines with the nearly 7000 foot altitude to burn the lungs. The cars move very quickly and most intersections lack any sign or light, but somehow everyone seems to know who has right-of-way. I've tried, and I have yet to decipher the system.
The buildings range from contemporary to several centuries old, but you can rarely tell which is which by simple inspection. Most structures here are a cacophony of recycled space and material spanning decades or centuries. Nearly anything that you can see or touch was a retrofit. Somewhere under the plaster and paint are the original stones.
. . .
It is early afternoon and Denise is sleeping. I am trying to keep quiet and stifle a cough. I am surprised to find that my lungs are still weak, two full months after a mild pneumonia which kept me mostly in bed for a month at the beginning of the year. I thought I was well healed until we reached the Mexico high country. We've spent much of the past week above 8000 feet, and I've been pretty weak and wheezy and have redeveloped a slight cough.
I spent the down-time in January listening to audio Spanish courses almost non-stop. Having been inoculated with Spanish in childhood, and with my background in French, I was able to cram a good year of Spanish coursework into my head as I convalesced. We've been in Mexico about a week now, and I've been surprised at how functional my Spanish is already. In the now, that is. If I stray too far from the present, I get lockjaw pretty quickly.
. . .
Just back from a vitamin-C hunting expedition for Denise. Apparently vitamins are rare here. I went to the farmacia around the block, and then to the one two blocks further, and...by the time I found some I had hop-scotched myself all the way back downtown and had to cab it back home.
. . .
Right now, my life is undergoing its next phase-shift, if you will. The next reshaping of values, redirecting of goals, reworking of the mind. I am subjected to another self-inflicted re-education.
After about five years of hard work in Belize, we ran out of money and credit for the Storm Engineered Structures start-up (http://StormEngineered.com
), and I finally had to mothball it at the beginning of 2006 without it bearing any substantial fruit (business-wise -- in terms of personal value and value to the community, it was huge).
Disappointed, frustrated and broke, I took a six-month contract to help out a structural engineer friend with her excess of work. That has turned into far more than was originally anticipated and, at this writing, we have two new zoo projects going into construction, and we're beginning design on another mid-rise hospital.
This has meant spending about 3/4-time in the USA these past two years (which is not good for me), but that is about to change as I resume "permanent" residence in Central America. I've managed to get it all worked around to where I can do 2/3 of what's needed of me over the phone and internet, and we're working on electronic transmittal and FedEx for the other 1/3. In other words, I've got my "office" down to a backpack, and I can earn American consulting rates from anywhere I can get a cell phone and net access.
My "job" also only averages 20 hours per week, which means I now can pretty much do what I want, where I want. For me, this is perfect. My proposal to AlSol was to come to San Cristóbal for a few months and be of whatever use they can make of me for 20 hours a week, while I improve my Spanish and learn about their business and about the Maya in this region. No charge. I get a cell phone and use their internet for my engineering work. If they accept my offer, I am quite curious to see how this all turns out. It may become a lifestyle. Through Kiva, I also now have MFI connections in Guatemala, which I just might pursue in the future...
And all this within a long day's drive of my home in Belize. Pretty cool.
. . .
I am not much of a sightseer. I am interested in the people and the feel of a place, but not so much in the must-sees and must-dos and souvenirs. I do a lot of observing and photography, but it is mostly for the purpose of capturing and illustrating my impressions, not for postcards or cool shots.
I've actually spent the greater part of the past two days here, taking San Cristóbal in through the open door and window of the room and from the balcony and roof terrace of the posada. The old man who lives across the lane is sitting on the kerb in the sunshine. Yesterday I helped his wife get the sticky front door open. The butane truck rolls up the street accompanied by musical chimes: it has different-sized slices of steel pipe threaded on a chain which drags behind, announcing the presence of cooking fuel. The lady at the tienda where we buy our juice is leaning in her doorway. Peering down into the courtyard next door, I see a man check to see if his laundry is dry on the line; he decides to wait a bit longer. There is a polyglot babel rising from the courtyard of the posada -- Mexican Spanish and several flavours of French (none from France) and Israeli Hebrew and something else I cannot identify. And English, but not native-spoken, instead used as a kind of pidgin for negotiations between the owners of the other tongues...
It is dusk now and everyone is going somewhere. The street noise is a racket. Every third car is a taxi, crowding and gassing the alleyways. The women here walk arm-in-arm, which gives me a warm feeling to see. There is a middle-aged man who looks much older, blearily debating crossing the lane; he thinks better of it and wobbles off past a girl in tight jeans talking to a mobile phone. Across the way a young woman in western dress, purse and heels carries a baby on her back in a traditional Mayan kächbeeb. Young latter-day tourists arrive in a taxi and shoulder their backpacks and front-packs on their tan frames and pile into the posada courtyard. A blonde ex-pat from who-knows-where discusses matters with the tienda lady, in flawless Spanish. The tires of the vehicles provide a constant rubber-squeaking background as they turn on the polished stones of the lane.
. . .
Denise is up and looking a little better after sleeping all the day. I'll stop now and prepare some food.
I hope you are well. I haven't written because I haven't been writing. Sometimes I have the ability to communicate; sometimes I don't. I'm hoping this next phase of my life bucks me up a bit -- I need a happy time.