|The town of San Cristobal de las Casas. And Miguel, recently hurt.|
“Are you Mexican?” the bartender at the jungle bar in Palenque asked Miguel incredulously.
My boyfriend, who has never left Mexico and is used to being part of its homogenous culture, looked surprised at the question. Perhaps even flattered; for once he was the foreigner. I looked around. The bar was filled with people of all shapes and sizes speaking a cornucopia of languages. A fascinating mix for sure, but we were in Mexico—where were the Mexicans?
It was when we boarded the bus for San Cristobal de las Casas (as part of a two-week trip through southern Mexico) that we realized that we were on a well-worn backpacker route. The faint smell of body odor was the first indication, then the potpourri of scruffy bodies clad in various types of indigenous gear—knit ponchos, woven fedoras, brightly coloured bags, toe shoes (or even lack of shoes). The Spanish accents were Argentinian and the English accents were British. We were on the tourist trail, albeit one a little funkier than your standard eat-sleep-and-shit resort package.
Our first encounter with San Cristobal was on a rainy weekday morning. We noted the brightly painted churches, the rough streets, the mountains rising dramatically in the distance. Though we were wet and damp our spirits were intact. We thought we’d found a modest and relaxed pueblito, the perfect place to cool our heels for a few days.
Then the hippies started to emerge.
Bleary-eyed and clutching extra-strong Americanos, they began to trot out into the misty street in groups of twos and fours, guitars in tow. We sat in a French pastry shop munching on custard puffs and listening to a beanpole American regale a group of dreadlocked girls about his desire to journey on wherever his heart took him. Then they began to trade drug stories.
Exhausted by our eleven hour bus ride, Miguel and I retreated from this strange half-Mexico into our hotel room. We emerged after dark rubbing our eyes sleepily and were immediately blinded by the spectacle in front of us. The true nature of San Cristobal revealed itself to us.
The narrow streets were thronged with people and lined with a dizzying array of amber jewelry stores, embroidered smock outlets, tapas and Turkish restaurants, London-style pubs, and organic breakfast joints. The crowd, an eclectic mix of dedicated hippies and leftist yuppies, trolled the streets languorously. They stopped to take in a puppet show or a fire-eating, bowler hat-wearing, tricycle-riding performer with an obvious penchant for both sexes.
We plunged into this madness, picking up a woolly sweater from one of the traditionally-dressed women in long dark braids. Thus suited up for a frigid night in the Chiapas mountains, we indulged in a spread of Lebanese food and sickeningly sweet Mexican wine.
“This place is like Disneyland for hippies,” I said to Miguel.
The next morning the streets were quiet, though a brave pack of hippies still tapped away on their drums outside our hotel. We packed into a vegetarian restaurant for something resembling health food, if chilaquiles can be counted as such, and then rambled about the streets. More English language bookstores, upmarket jewelry shops, world food restaurants, and tour outfits presented themselves. We decided to walk north to the market for a reprieve from tourist central.
Ahhh, here was Mexico.
The market, a sprawling labyrinth of dried beans, pungent flowers, headless chickens, and piles of pine boughs pressed in insistently from all sides. Aside from the occasional shuffling hippie, the market was uniformly Mexican. Even further north was the rutted streets clogged with cars and bicycles, torta puestos, counterfeit DVD joints, grotty ice cream parlours, and other hallmarks of the Mexico that I knew and begrudgingly loved.
|The Maya village of San Juan Chamula|
My disbelief turned into discomfort as we entered the town. A veritable hovel, it still seemed well-trafficked by tour groups. A gaggle of Germans stood alongside us in the astonishing church that was dotted with hundreds of candles, lined with figures of saints, and filled with streamers and plants. A leathery old man keened and moaned; the German tourists watched him. Outside we ate corn slathered in mayo and chili and watched the procession of supposedly normal indigenous life.
Poverty tourism—this is what this was. I had visited Ward Nine a year and a half ago, the area most affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. While I thought it important to see the reality of American inequality, it didn’t feel right to snap photos of condemned houses where people still lived. Your vacation photo, their awful reality. Something about it wasn’t quite right.
From San Cristobal we headed to the jungle in Palenque. In a nearby bar we drank strawberry mojitos and enjoyed the privilege of being on vacation. And here were our fellow travelers, similarly seeking pleasure and the chance to experience another culture.
And yet, were we even in Mexico? Did it even matter? Similar bars awaited in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, and further afield. We could have easily continued on this happy trail, drinking more mojitos and meeting people from all over the world, then venturing out to experience “real culture.” It seemed like a wonderful experience and not without real merit, but if it meant that my Mexican boyfriend was a foreigner in his own country, I couldn’t help but wonder if something crucial was being lost.
Note: this article was originally published in the excellent website Mutante