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Published: July 23rd 2008
Before we go anywhere, I want you to cast your minds back to a distant tiime in Venus Bay, Australia, when Richard was practising baby care on a joey wombat in readiness for the arrival of our brand new niece or nephew. Well, we´re pleased to say that little Iona Jade is now safely with us. We were in the land of the Mayans when we heard the news and, as jade was the Mayan´s most precious material, her name seems most propitious. But now let us continue our journey onwards from Palenque...
The jungle slipped away behind us and we cruised through lush, open ranchland watered by glittering wetlands. From the saddle we saw a kingfisher taking breakfast, harriers coursing the waterways and a cormorant flying beside us with a still-wriggling eel in its bill. We had just entered Tabasco state, and it was looking very promising; I had passed some ranchers in a field and heard one of them call me back. He wanted to tell me about the beautiful sights ahead of us; wetlands teaming with birdlife and home to manatees. We were heading to Jonuta, a sizeable place, and I was already beginning to envisage a
couple of days there in a little-known wildlife haven. As we rolled into town, we were met by a young man, Fransisco, in his tri taxi. He wanted to help us, and so we followed in his taxi tracks as he led us around the town´s four hotels. They were grim. Air conditioning was essential in the sticky heat of this region, and cable TV would give us our daily fix of the Tour de France, and all four places were blessed in this respect. However, only two had the pre-requisite electricity, and the remainder were in the zero star rating category. We managed a shower and a half before the water, and then the electricity, failed. Then, with Richard still foaming slightly, we took ourselves out to devour our customary roast chicken and mountain of tortillas with thermo-nuclear salsa. Conditions in our temporary home improved with the return of power and the installation of our own bedding and mosquito net, but it would have been a depressing evening had we not met up with Francisco for a couple of beers. He wanted to practise his english, and we wanted to learn about life and aspirations in small-town Mexico.
We fled Jonuta early next morning and over the following few days we crept towards San Cristobal de Las Casas, high in the mountains. As we started to climb in earnest, the air became discernably fresher. The road wound upwards, lined with vertical walls of stone covered with trailing vines and branches, which provided shade and coolness. The scenery was stunning - deep valleys and peaks clad in deep, lush greenery. But the fine views and cool atmosphere came at a price; the riding was tough, and the hills the steepest we had tackled for a very long time. We continued with our dawn-to-noon riding routine and spent the afternoons refuelling in kitchens and restaurants, eating meat with rice, beans and spicy chilli sauces, accompanied by a tower of steaming tortillas. Then, we would tour the markets, squeezing the mangos, melons and pineapples to select our supper and breakfast fruit. We tried new, mystery fruits, some with more success than others.
The hill towns on the approach to San Cristobal are home to an indigenous people. The women dress in full woollen skirts of deep blue or green, with white blouses beautifully embroided with flowers at the collar. They
respond to us in spanish as we pass, but their mother language is Tsotsil. We pass several army camps, and signs telling us that we are in Zapatista rebel territory. There is a Zapatista co-operative and craft shop and, in San Cristobal, postcards are for sale, showing Sub-commandant Marcos, only his eyes visible from behind his balaclava, speaking on his field radio. The balaclava is thick and woolly, and I wonder if any one can tell what he is saying.
San Cristobal is a beautiful city, with a colonial centre of streets lined with low, painted houses, topped with red roof tiles. There are lovely churches, founded by the spanish, but with the character and style of the native people, bustling markets of everyday goods, of craftwork and of gooey sweet treats. We stock up on the latter for the hard days ahead; peanuts in sugary toffee, balls of sticky coconut pieces, rich, fudgy squares and grains and seeds in sweet, chewy bars. We eat most of it before a single pedal is turned.
Close to San Cristobal is the town of Chamula. Here the indigenous people are doggedly trying to maintain their tradional way of life in
the face of tourism and encroaching western values. The women are wrapped in skirts of shaggy, black woollen cloth and plain shawls. Many of them carry young children craddled on their backs. The men wear shirts of the same shaggy weave, either in black or ivory, with white, broad-brimmed hats. The church is the centre of their community, and people go there every day, at any hour. Though ostensibly Catholic, in every real sense the church belongs to the Chamula people. Saint John has pride of place at the altar and Christ has been slightly deposed to the side. The outer walls of the church are lined with other saintly figures, surrounded by flowers and before them are set dozens of flickering candles. There are no seats in the building; the tiled floor is strewn with soft, long pine needles and the walls adorned with palm leaves. In small areas, swept clear of pine needles, people squat to pray and chant in Tsotsil, before row upon rown of lighted candles placed on the floor. A baptism was taking place and, at one end of the church, a throng of parents and white-gowned babies were gathered. The Priest gathered together a
dozen families at a time for the baptism, while the remainder waited their turn. Fractious babies added to the murmour of chanting, praying and talking.
Photography of the Chamula people is strictly forbidden by their beliefs. This is no bad thing, as no photograph could capture the intimate and personal atmosphere of this place of worship; the warmth and golden glow of the hundreds of candles, the scent of burning aromatic wood or the murmour of prayer. For once, the shutter-snapping tourist has to put his camera aside and capture the memory through his own senses; watching, listening and feeling.
We left San Cristobal at daybreak with the welcome advice that the route to Chiapa De Corzo was more down than up. And how true. After an initial hour´s climb, we were up above the clouds, skirting a hilltop, with glorious views across a snowy layer of cloud with the dark green peaks of mountain tops poking through. Then we plunged downwards for 50 km. Our feet were frozen blocks and our hands yellow-numb with cold yet, as we sped downwards the air rushing past our faces was warm and moist.
We were drawn to Chiapa by
the prospect of a boat ride along the Sumidero Canyon, but the town is lovely in its own right. In the main square is a small fountain, housed in a very stylish archway, and a clock tower where a band was playing to the strolling population. There are craft stalls with embroidered dresses and blouses, with leatherware, and ladies sell the cakes and sweets typical of this region. Of course, we had to buy some, strictly in the interests of pedal power. We took an early morning boat ride through the canyon; about 40 km, past vertical cliffs up to 1000m high, draped with vegetation and with water tumbling down rock faces. Crocodiles basked at the water´s edge, pelicans and egrets perched in the overhanging branches and spider monkeys could be seen feeding high above.
It was a restful interlude, but now it´s time to take to the saddle again and ride the 500 kilometres to Oaxaca, where snow-capped volcanoes, over 5000m high await us.
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