Last week I escorted the Merida English Library’s fund-raising tour to Chiapas. The trip was open to women only, and 37 of them signed on. I have been repeatedly asked: Why just women?
Well to start with… women and men have different interests and this is very evident on a trip to a place like Chiapas. Women enjoy shopping for hours in the handcraft markets and they welcome opportunities for cultural exchanges with the local population. They will hunker down on long travel days and face other challenges to reach areas where they can have such experiences. Men… not so much.
On our tour, there was ample opportunity to see the way people live in Chiapas. Ours was not a luxury excursion, and at times, comfort levels did not match what most group members are used to. In addition to long hours on the bus, some of the women were hit with “Montezuma’s Revenge”, and others were not altogether thrilled with their hotel rooms. Nonetheless, most of the time, everyone kept their sense of humour and their perspective. I agree with a comment made by Linda Lindholm, a well-experienced traveler:
I feel blessed and grateful. In San Cristobal, I saw such need all around me; it certainly did not seem worth fussing about the hotel’s hard pillows and worn towels.
In Chiapas, the hillsides are peppered with hamlets, and by agro-moguls’ coffee, cocoa and cattle ranches. Men hold almost 100% of the leadership positions in the majority of the tiny towns, but the heaviest loads are carried by the women. Assisted by their daughters, they maintain the home, tend to kitchen gardens, do laundry, cook and care for the babies. They spend most of their spare time creating whimsical textiles, and selling them in artisan markets. We saw the children from well-to-do families escorted to and from their private schools… meanwhile the young sons and daughters of the poor traversed the downtown area selling clay figurines and woven bracelets to the tourists.
The enforcement of child labour laws is all but non-existent in Chiapas, and we asked ourselves if buying trinkets from these children was the right thing to do. If everyone boycotted purchasing from the children… would they be released from their hard work? Linda Shearer, a woman on the tour felt torn over this issue. We visited a street children’s shelter, and afterwards she wrote:
Are we helping or hurting when we buy from the children who try to sell us things on the street?” That was my question to Claudia Castro, the director of “Casa de las Flores”, a safe place for the child vendors who are everywhere in San Cristobal, Chiapas. Claudia paused before answering my question. “We are helping when we buy from them, because if we don’t, they don’t eat.”
A sobering response, but nonetheless, for most of the group members, the morning we spent at “Casa de las Flores” was a highlight. The participants donated toys, blankets, clothes, school supplies and personal hygiene products. We also collected money to buy a projector that Claudia needs for the presentations she makes. As a happy reminder of our visit, group member Margie Alexy designed a mobile that we all helped to make out of ribbon and origami cranes. Ana Darson read a captivating story about cranes to the 12 children who were present at the home that morning, and Joan Ileson led the children in some origami crane making of their own. Linda Shearer had more insights about our morning:
It was acknowledged that alcohol, spousal abuse and what our culture would consider a denial of the rights of children is prevalent in San Cristobal. Most of the seven and eight year-olds who we met at the centre were born at home and do not have birth certificates. Legally they do not exist. Without a birth certificate they are not eligible for education, health care or other programs provided by the government. One of the volunteers was in the kitchen preparing a meal for the children. “Generally,” he said, “the indigenous sellers in the market, mostly women and the children, eat only one meal a day and it lacks fresh vegetables or significant protein.” The center tries to make up for this with meat and vegetables from its gardens located right on the property. Since children may be working twelve hours a day, they also offer a few beds and some large pillows where the children can rest or sleep. I ponder, “Is the best tact to support the culture by buying their products while also offering help to those who fall through the cracks? What other responses would be helpful?
Tourism in Mexico offers many destinations where the 5-star hotels, restaurants, galleries, shops and other attractions rival those found in other top-selling resorts around the world. But this country has something that many others do not..
Despite the push for modernization, and regardless of social, political, economic and crime-related challenges, somehow the essence of the rural, indigenous culture thrives in Mexico. And I believe this is what sets the country apart. The people in the communities are proud of their heritage and they do not allow their customs or their languages to fade away. They prepare the laborious feast-day foods; they make intricate costumes for their dances and religious rites. Their traditions stretch back centuries and I pray they will be revered forever.
Don’t for a minute think that I dislike all-inclusive resorts, with their plentiful food & beverages and well trained staff… But Mexico is even MORE…
In this week’s posts I will highlight some of what our group saw and experienced in Chiapas, and hopefully my descriptions will encourage you to travel the country and see for yourselves the richness of the culture, the beauty of the tropical forests, secluded beaches, waterfalls and of course, the archaeological sites.
More to come…