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The Troubled Town of San Cristobal, Chiapas

Chiapas would be so peaceful, if it wasn’t for all the hardship…

San Cristobal de las Casas is just a few hours up from the jungle but the air cools dramatically, crisp breezes from the hills replacing the moist breath of the lowlands. The forests are just as dense to either side of the city but the trees here are of the temperate variety and there are no snakes waiting to drop out of the branches.

Walking through the city itself is something like taking a stroll through an artist’s paint box. Every house is coloured either a mauve, sky blue or turquoise; white facades bordering onto scarlet or green. These pastel colours are decked with slate roofs of a smoky red.

What i can’t understand is how a poor town in a poor country can afford to make their streets so beautiful when the moneyed capitals of the world rarely vary from an industrial grey. Or imagining for a moment that there exists some obscure charity that gives out paint for free, how have the people here had the good taste to make such an exquisite job of it?

Exploring the streets of San Cristobal with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders I feel like I’m walking through a movie set for a western. Winds glide in off the hills and curl up dust around my heels and tangle up my hair. The barbers watch me pass wistfully.

You could walk every street of the city in a day if it wasn’t for the shady plazas that you find on the way. There are about fifty of these, usually hosting old churches and the ambiance is such that you have to take a seat for a while. Some of the churches are painted white and blue, to match they sky, while others look like they’ve been left out in the rain for too long.

But even if they are faded, the statues built into the the walls still retain a peculiar cartoon likeness. The faces hold expressions far more cheeky or moody than you’d ever expect the old saints to have been. and on the walls of some of these old trophies of the past, someone has added a footnote of their own. In paint is scrawled ‘Vive la Revolucion’ and other such rebel slogans.

But before you can wonder why, there’s a tribal girl puling at your arm, hoping that you’ll buy one of her brightly-coloured pouches. they’re beautiful and only half a dollar but if you bought one every time you were asked then your wallet would be empty in a day. I try to chat with these kids about other things or maybe play a game – it’s not as though they chose to be doing this, after all and their parents wouldn’t send them out unless there was real need.

There are tens of distinct indigenous tribes living in Chiapas. Their homes are in outlying villages that have none of the luxurious commodities they see on their trips to San Cristobal to make a buck. Luxuries like clean drinking water and electricity, cars and medicine. The rich indigenous culture here makes San Cristobal a beacon for tourists. Ironic that they never really see any of it.

But it’s better to forget about that kind of thing, it could really spoil one’s holiday. I walk down a different street instead. One of the high sidewalks is always in shadow it seems and the sun is strong in the daytime. The stone walkway is so narrow that I’m regularly obliged to step down into the road each time someone approaches from the other direction. The stone slabs become so slippery when it rains that then it’s safer to walk in the road anyhow.

Just when the bohemian atmosphere of the city is beginning to charm me again, the mood is polluted by a megaphone mounted on top of a pick up truck that sells purified water. Random, obnoxious noise is something that people in poor countries have learnt to take for granted but it puts me in the mood to let down the air from their tyres.

And why must everyone drink purified water anyway? Well, it’s something to do with the systematic rape of the country side. Like when big companies pour vast amounts of mercury down slopes, a process that miraculously brings any hidden gold to the surface. Yes, the hillsides are where the indigenous people live… but really we’re spoiling the mood with such thoughts.

I turn a corner and arrive at the main plaza in the centre of town. A company of shoe shine men and sweetcorn vendors look my way as though a dollar bill just arrived on the breeze. Well, most tourists can’t speak Spanish so what other merit can these rich visitors hold?

In any case, I’m ‘protected’ by plenty of army and police who lurk around in pairs on the corners, shouldering semi-automatic rifles. No, I don’t really feel much safer. I try not to think about how much training these kids have been given and smile when I pass them. Bad attitude just drips off their scowls and I’m thankful that i belong to the untouchable class of the white tourist.

And why is there such a need for all these young thugs with guns? Well’ it’s only 8 years since a rebel group called the Zapatistas came in from the hills and occupied the town’s offices. Zapatistas… yes, it rings a bell, all those T-shirts in the shops of, a masked man named sub-commandante Marcos. What was it he wanted? Something about ‘Justice with Dignity’ Some people really ask too much, no? Just about everyone else in the world has settled for the billions of poor to serve the consumer needs of the rich. That’s us, by the way.

Still, San Cristobal is beautiful and after all, internal politics are hardly any of my business. I’m just a visitor here, just passing through. The sun now mingles with the clouds and it promises to be a lovely sunset. The churches shine in the evening light and it seems a shame that far away friend can’t be here to see it. I’ll send them a postcard – But no, there he is again! Marcos in his balaclava, photographed in the jungle where he’s reputed to be hiding out with his guerrilla forces.

There’s just no getting away from some things. I stroll down a road aimlessly, lost in thought and arrive at the end of the cobbled streets. From here it’s just a dusty trail that climbs up to a large neighbourhood of the poor on a slope. Poor is a relative word, of course – these people do at least have roofs over their heads.

So do many of the Zapatista rebels of course, that is, a prison roof. Thousands of the indigenous are locked away from the sight of the tourists for the crime of asking for their share of the pie. Tortured. Disappeared.

Ah, there we go again. There’s just no getting away from some things. Still, it’s a beautiful sunset.