I had expected Chiapas to be somewhat remote – at least, that’s what the guides and the travel articles had said about this small state at the southern end of Mexico. When my flight began its final approach to the airport in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state’s capital, I saw no lights below. We could have been landing in the middle of nowhere. But the busy-looking travelers on the flight – some of them spiffily dressed as if attending some business meeting even though it was Christmas Eve – suggested that there was more to Tuxtla. And this turned out to be the case.
The airport was quite some distance away from the city; the taxi to town cost me twenty two dollars. We drove through a desolate, winding road (the driving – a warning of what was to come for the duration of my stay -- was casually reckless). As the city got closer, we passed a few single story car repair shops and houses. Men in vests sat outside in plastic chairs. It still seemed very rural, but suddenly, at an intersection that occurred at an elevation, Tuxtla's sprawl came into view: bright lights stretching far into the distance, along the slope of hills and in the valley they formed. The city, though provincial, was much larger than I’d thought. And perhaps it is the only city in Chiapas with visible American consumerist icons – I mention this because the state itself is poor and has been the center of an armed left wing movement.
I was staying at the Holiday Inn. The same street – Belisario Dominguez – also contained other American transplants: Wal-Mart and Sears. Attached to the sparkling red and white bus station nearby was a massive mall with the usual mix of expensive stores, eateries (Mexican-adapted), and a chic store where beautiful puppies – sorrowfully howling behind glass cases – were being sold. The mall’s swanky look owed a great deal to its many janitors who appeared out of nowhere to efface the slightest trace of a blemish on the gleaming floors.
The Holiday Inn restaurant was full that night; there was some live music, and it appeared you needed reservations to eat. I was surprised by the restaurant’s seeming prominence – was it simply because of its affiliation to an American hotel? Because the food was tasteless imitation Western fare – meat, boiled vegetables – and the waiters looked uncomfortable in their roles. The restaurant reverted, wisely, the next day to a Chiapanecan breakfast: frijoles or mashed pinto and black beans, tamales made the regional way, fresh squeezed juices and the ubiquitous assortment of Mexican salsas.
In the afternoon, I took a bus to San Cristobal de Las Casas in the state’s central highlands. We ascended slowly; the dense mountain greenery – a feature of Chiapas -- was startling. Some of the steepest of slopes had plots of corn with yellowing shoots of the crop. An hour later, we were at our destination: narrow alleys; cheek-by-jowl houses with red roofs; walls painted in contrasting colors; beautiful churches; mountains all around. San Cristobal is a quaint place.
But the quaintness disappeared when I traveled a few days later to the state’s deep south – up to the Usumacinta River, which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The eight hour ride took us to an elevation of 11,000 feet before setting us down in the humid plains close to the Lacandon Rainforest. The towns and villages became a lot more ragged and poorer the farther south we went. In the first millennium AD, the Mayans had built incredible structures in this overly fecund and difficult terrain, even as they fought brutally among themselves. Those ruins now survive, testament to their architectural and organizational skills, covered though they are in moss and shrouded by the all-consuming rainforest. The humbling twists of history have meant that the descendents of the same the same Mayans are now some of the poorest in the country.
Picture of moss-covered ruins at Yaxchilan
My fellow travelers were all from Mexico City. Chiapas was as novel and “exotic” to them as it was to me. In this sense they were like metropolitan Indians journeying through the country’s less visited parts – Orissa or Chhattisgarh, say.
The likeness does not end there. Maoist movements are strong in the forested and remote but resource-rich parts of India – along what is called the red corridor, a vast swathe that stretches along the eastern half of India, from the south, in Andhra Pradesh, all the way to Nepal (from “Pasupathy to Tirupathy” as Sudeep Chakravarti puts it in his book about India’s Maoist movements, Red Sun). Chiapas, too, is remote, forested and resource rich; and in the 1990s it was the center of a major leftist movement, the Zapatista Rebellion. In fact, the Zapatistas announced themselves the same day the neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect on Jan 1st 1994. The poor of Chiapas – indigenous Mayan Indians – still sympathize with the Zapatistas, and this is evident from the graffiti that you see on billboards and walls. Muera El Sistema Capitalista, one of them read -- Death To The Capitalist System. And just as the Indian government is trying hard to fight the Maoists, so in Chiapas military checkpoints are everywhere along the main routes in the south of the state. The hunt for rebels is still on, though the situation -- for now -- is stable.
To be continued...