Sunday, March 26, 2017

Missing the Zapatistas


There are huge parts of my life that are hidden, not intentionally, but because there are no obvious markers they exist. There is no way to work them in to casual conversation without some sort of unwieldy and forced segue. Even here, on my own blog, I have a story I want to tell, a story I've been asked to tell, and yet can find no sly, smooth introduction, no discernible connection to my current life, no way to ease you in to it. So I am going to plop it artlessly here:


I had been working illegally in Mexico. Both bosses promised to help me get papers, but neither did, the first one held it over my head, a perpetual carrot, "You want me to get you those papers, right? Then go clean this thing that keeps electrocuting people!"

After two jobs and 5 months, I was finally ready to return to the US but wanted to visit my friend's family in Belize first. From my emails: 

“8/13/99 ...And, just when I was thinking it was time to go, some official
guy came in to my work and took some photos of me, and then later that
night a man approached me in the plaza and said he knew that i was
working illegally and that i was about to be deported.  So, that just
seemed like the cue to leave."

(You can read an abridged account of Belize here, if this extensive post some how leaves you begging for more.)

I left for Guatemala from there, got a hotel in Flores and spent my days exploring the adorable Island of Flores in a huge lake, a place I wouldn't mind returning to. The steep stone streets were picture perfect and the bar on the beach with the rainbow of boats made my heart thrill.
Boats on Lago Peten Itza

From there, I booked passage back to Mexico (Palenque, Chiapas to be exact) via a tourist shop in town. There were several modes of transportation required for this complex journey: vans, buses, canoes, etc. It was a bit expensive, but I was assured that my package included arrangements for every single leg of the journey. 

In a small van, with a motley crew of tourists from across the globe, we cruised through a variety of farms: banana, coffee, cocoa, as well as pre-farm clear cuts. In order to repay predatory IMF loans, subsistence communities were forced to transition from growing a variety of food that they use to growing mono-crops for export and sale because the IMF takes their repayments in cash, not local foods.

Eventually the farms turned to jungle and then suddenly we were in Bethel, a tiny Lancondan village with grass-roofed mud houses and a few canoes on the shore of the Usumacinta River. From there, I boarded a sharp, knife-like canoe outfitted with a little grass roof and an outboard motor. There were maybe five of us ferried several hours up the soil run-off, silt-opaque river. I was super high on adventure. I had a passenger snap a photo of me glowing in my new Mayan tattoo (given to me by a Mayan friend using a tape recorder motor, a guitar string and homemade ink. 17 years on, it's not wearing well, but I'm still awfully fond of it.) 

Glowing with joy on the Usumacinta River (that's someone else's pack. I traveled much lighter)
That evening, we arrived in a tiny village and much to our surprise the people in that village were angry to see us. There were more than a few tourists piled up in an extremely chaotic scene. No one had been able to leave the town. It was not immediately clear if we were being held hostage or if something had happened to the van that was supposed to pick us up. People were panicked and crying. I remember a plump woman in white running shoes and billowy shorts, her face red and shaking.  The residents were appalled that more of us kept coming, five at a time, a steady trickle in to a town with no way out. They could not simply take us back because the boats were only powerful enough to go up stream with the weight of one person, the helmsman.

At first I felt a shock of fear, my nerves on fire with panic. Then, as it became clear that I could not understand any thing that was happening, I settled into a state of surrender. Whatever is going to happen here, is going to happen here, I reasoned. I was traveling alone, among tourists whose languages I did not speak. I knew some Mayan, but mostly just cuss words my Mayan room mates had taught me. Although certainly used in this situation, they were not particularly useful for getting out of it. Plus, I was pretty sure there would be different dialects. I had no idea what language my fate was being decided in. And in that situation, my mind shrugged "Oh well." I cannot remember how long I was there. Hours? A night and a day? I had no internet access so my e-mail/journal is silent on this.

The next adrenaline rush came when I realized that the other tourists had left without me. In my "Oh well," state, I'd stopped trying to follow every conversation and apparently missed the one about the bus coming. Someone in the village spoke a little Spanish and I was told this: things with the Zapatistas were heating up. (Goody Goody!) Bus drivers weren't able to make it through the myriad of federal check points in the jungle. They were setting up a system to bus the tourists out, as none of the villages along the way had the resources to feed us for long. Runners were sent, phones were accessed, the villagers wanted us out and a patchwork transit system had been set up. However, there wasn't room for all of us on the taxi that had come. But no worries, I'd be the first one on the next taxi, if there was a next taxi. I guess my lack of panic was translated as, "She doesn't care how long she stays here." And I didn't. I could have stayed there the rest of my life. I probably wouldn't have even minded if I'd been a hostage. I'd included Chiapas in my itinerary hoping to find, and perhaps join, the Zapatistas. Yes, I was happy at the edge of rebellion.  

They were still working on sending word back to Bethel to stop canoes, so there was one more load, a group of Dutch college boys. We shared the next taxi. They were obnoxious and one would have guessed them to be American frat boys. After maybe an hour in the taxi we were dropped off in the middle of the road in the middle of the jungle. It was indicated that we were to walk from here. So we walked, without a clue where we were. And soon we came to a couple of Federalis (a domestic soldier) in the middle of the road. They asked us questions about our affiliations and we were easily allowed through the check point.  We kept walking. I remember an issue of not enough drinking water.  Out of sight of the Federalis, we came upon another taxi. This taxi brought us to a beautiful lodge in the middle of the jungle. It was a restaurant/hotel made of large logs and stones, with an unusual, tall ceiling. It looked like a Norweigan long house mixed with a medieval castle, but with bright Mexican tapestries on the walls.

We ate here. The Dutch boys decided to stay the night, but I pressed on, eager to ditch those rowdy rude boys. There were a few more check points which involved me walking alone through the jungle. At one point, I heard "psssts" coming from the woods. When I looked, there were two little girls in giant men's undershirts. I followed them in to the woods where they showed me bead necklaces they wanted to sell. The beads were large gray seeds with a chunk of sandalwood incorporated like a charm. I happily bought the wonky jewels and we giggled and talked, or rather gestured, for a while and then I returned to the road and on to the next check point.

I was finally dropped off at the ex-pat hotel in the city of Palenque.  It was a small hotel full of chronic world travelers and that might sound hypocritical, but the thing is that some people travel like consumers. They avoid locals and when they must interact with them, they treat them like crap. They hunt out American food. They hang out only with other foreigners. I could not understand why one would travel to a foreign country and ignore or disrespect the residents, except to be able to brag about it later? They name drop places, saying things like "This is SOOO like when I was in Nepa-a-al." I too was a tourist, and there is nothing wrong with being a tourist, with admitting you are here to tour, to see, to marvel, to gawk, to photograph. I was also there to learn, to open my mind, to experience a different way of viewing the world, to try on how other humans, obviously my equals, live. Really, they just seemed scared of life, like they wanted the reputation of traveling, but actually hated and feared it, which is simply another variation on the human experience, just not mine. I suppose we're all entitled to travel as we like, but there was an essence-ial gap between me and those in that hotel.

I feared being sucked in to the tiny ex-pat world. And in an attempt to not become one of them, I rarely talk of my adventures, lest I come off as bragging, or a consumer of other cultures. In a classic case of judging-others-and-then-fearing-similar-judgment, I don't want to be judged as "one of them." But I DID have those adventures and I DO get to speak of them from time to time. And I'm not doing it to tell how cool I am, how rich (I wasn't), but rather they are a core part of who I am, who I've been. Sometimes people don't believe me or think I've exaggerated. But my stories are plenty wild without any additions and if I were to exaggerate, people really wouldn't believe me. And I hate not being believed, hearing "Then what did you imagine happened next?" (literally was someone's response). I got sick of dealing with other people's fuckery, so I stopped talking about it. But, not today dear mother-fuckers. This story is by request. Apparently I now have friends who respond with, "Why the hell are you keeping these stories to yourself!?"

Anyway, this hotel was crawling with consumer/travelers, collectors of countries in the service of ego, little notches carved into their passports. (God, I was a judgy about this. Apparently only MY travels are real!) And I left as soon as I could. I took a bus out to a camp site by the ruins of Palenque. The Mirabel campground was a collection of grass roofs under which one strung one's hammock. The grounds were so large, one hardly noticed the giant Jurassic Park fence around the property that kept out the howler monkeys and panthers.  Before the fence, there'd been a few lost campers, I was told. It was an international crowd here too, full of travelers more oriented to fully experiencing a place and its people (see, I'm not super judgy about EVERYONE!) My palapa-mates were a Mexican priest-turned-jewelry-maker and his Canadian girlfriend. This guy gave me the creeps so I worked to keep on his good side. One day he joined me at Mirabel's cafe and brought out his shitty jewelry. He complained that other jewelers made fun of his jewelry, said it was fake.  He said some people, NOT him, take glass beads and paint them up like they're Chiapas amber, but he would never do that. Looking at his beads, he clearly was doing that. And so I bought a bunch of shit-jewelry from him. I hoped I was buying security so I could sleep at night. But I also used to have a knack for knowing people were lying yet happily enabling it.

The palapa I shared with Edwardo and Julia
There had been thefts from the ruins recently, so the entrance, just a few yards from the camp, was heavily guarded at night by well-armed local volunteers.  One night a drunk group of us wandered out to the road, there was a brief, terrifying confrontation with the guards, but the old man among us soothed it all over. Then we laid down in the middle of the road and sang local folk songs up at the stars.

One morning, early, on a hot tip, I walked down the empty road. From the bushes I heard it: "Hongos. Hongos," they whispered. I whispered "Hongos" back and followed the echo into the jungle.  A few preteen boys were there with a bag of fresh mushrooms. I gave them $10 and ate the bag for breakfast.

Many of the petroglyphs I'd studied were carved in to the large temple stones and I loved using them as flash-cards to help me memorize their meanings. That day at the ruins, I could no longer tell which stones were carved with petroglyphs and which were not. After a while, each stone seemed to be inscribed and they all seemed to be talking to me, telling me all manner of amazing truths.

At the "peak" of Temple of the Cross that day.
Previously, in Cozumel, I'd ridden my bike to the San Gervasio ruins, the only known temple devoted to the Goddess Ix Chel. I loved those ruins, the spiral altar, the white stone paths. During a full moon, pilgrims would boat over from the mainland and the moon would make the white path "glow", lighting the way to the entrance altar. Couoh, a grounds keeper, noted my enthusiasm for every nook and cranny of the place and approached me. I immediately had a good feeling about him and agreed to join him when he offered to show me more. We climbed to the top of a temple and he moved stones to reveal hidden paintings, hieroglyphs. In the jungle, he moved some branches to reveal a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Behind the branches was a path and he took me down that path to a tall hill. That tall hill was actually a temple that was slated for excavation soon. We became good friends after that and eventually he introduced me to the Mayan underground...a system of cultural self preservation and I'll never say more.

The entrance altar at San Gervasio ruins on Cozumel
At Palenque that day, I met a man who had the same story. He knew of un-excavated temples and he would show them to me. I happily agreed. but when I arrived at the huge ceiba tree that was our meeting place, it was suspiciously too far in to the jungle. Luckily, the mushrooms were still active and the ceiba tree was able to tell me, very clearly, that although everything had been fine with Couoh, this was an entirely different situation and I needed to leave immediately. I didn't believe her until the ants climbing up her trunk started to agree, chanting at me to leave. And then the river said, "What the fuck are you still doing here? This is really pissing me off. Dammit, Sarajoy, listen to us!" Well, okay then. I can see where I'm not wanted. I left with a little bit of a broken heart which is probably better than a broken back.

Later, there were waterfalls to swim in. I felt lonely then, at the local swimming hole, alone. I loved traveling solo, each decision, left or right, was mine alone and I was free to follow my instincts. But here, the kids splashed with their friends, the women murmured among themselves. It was sometimes lonely, traveling like that, so I made friends as often as possible. The local Mayan women did not talk to foreigners, so that meant I was talking with men, and not knowing the language, I found it actually easier to read them for safety... paying more attention to body language than to pretty words. Other than one violent boyfriend and that incident in Belize, I was safe with every man I met.

The one native woman I spoke with in Chiapas was very old. Some days I took a bus to other ruins and we picked her up in the morning with a cooler full of tortas which she sold to workers (and me) during the day. I helped her load her stuff on the bus that evening. When she disembarked, she stood in the door way. She took my hand and said, "Ix chel va contigo." Which meant, "Ix Chel (the goddess whose hieroglyphs are tattooed across my arm) goes with you." It was the mostest benediction ever. I almost exploded with the thrill of it.

I eventually tired of playing tourist at all of the ruins, some quite remote like Bonampak with more canoe trips, partially excavated ones, climbing up the tallest pre-Columbian building in the Western Hemisphere, and life threatening interactions with Yaxchilan's howler monkeys that I swear were trying to steal my soul. I think my 23 year old self was hoping for a sort of Jane Goodall moment, where I'd meet an archeologist and they'd take me on right there. But it kept not happening. So I decided to take a break from the ruins and go for a hike at Aguas Azul. On the bus there, I collected a few others to hike with me. The "village" at the trail head was a simple, random-seeming collection of plywood stands selling trinkets, tortas, and water, nothing interesting.

Painting at Bonampak that I wasn't supposed to photo due to the flash. I didn't know at the time. So sorry!
We stopped at a hanging bridge (about two feet high over a tiny creek, not too Hollywood) to chat with an American girl and her aunts who I'd kept unfortunately running in to. The girl was the only one to speak Spanish in her entourage and she drove me nuts. She'd studied Spanish in school for 4 years and was obsessed with perfect execution. She spoke slowly, using the formal conjugations that no one outside of court uses. She was constantly referring to her translation book. Judgy-me felt that she was abusing the language, dissecting a living creature, forcefully applying a spread sheet to a song. I could have appreciated her willingness to leave her hotel and talk to the local residents, or her attempts to communicate, but instead I was hung up on her stiff approach to speech. Maybe I wanted to be the only American girl out there, maybe I was jealous. I'm a pretty good girl, but there are dark corners in here too.

Beginning at the bridge
This is how I learned Spanish (aka: The Proper Way):
1) flail in high school for a few semesters,
2) move to Mexico,
3) flee your violent alcoholic boss so your life depends on learning the language fast,
4) move in with girls who don't know English,
5) go out clubbing with them,
6) get drunk and start trying to speak Spanish with abandon,
7) make a shit ton of mistakes,
8) get laughingly corrected,
9) say "sorry!" a lot,
10) repeat every night for a week and then
11) wake up speaking Spanish with such a thick Yucatacan accent that anyone who didn't watch this messy process thinks you were born there.
12) Start translating books for your new employer and arguing with coworkers in Spanish
(Secret step #13, move back to the US, never use Spanish again and forget nearly everything)

Really, I just wanted to get that girl drunk and see what she could do, Spanish-wise, but she was so heavily guarded by chaperones (I could have maybe used one of those) that it was never going to happen. We parted ways and my small group proceeded through the first bit of corn fields until a tall, thin European couple came screaming from the field just in front of us. They were running so fast I almost didn't catch the content of their screams; they'd just been dragged in to the fields and robbed at gun point. My new friends were all: "Run! Zapatistas!" And I was all: Why couldn't it have been ME! Dammit! Just a few minutes too late! And also, "I didn't think the Zapatistas were like that." I'm still not sure it was them.


I'd never found much success or joy in capitalist-extremism. I'm bewilderingly unable to make it work for me (even just in the past few months the "Sarajoy vs. the Machine" score is Sarajoy: 1?, machine: 2-3). Without enjoying its benefits, I'd grown to hate it. And I was horrified to see how fast and forcefully it was being exported and imposed on the world, the whole variety of human cultures being funneled into one behemoth of a single culture, a single, destructive "culture" that places profit over every form of life, with shareholder dividends valued over drinking water and life-saving medicines. I hated that I was born in to such destruction and I could find no way to not be a participant in it. I longed to escape this trap and the Zapatistas seemed like a step in the right direction. And here I was, missing my chance by a minute. Realistically, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have let me tag along. I would have been an unwelcome international incident with no real skills to contribute.

(To contribute to the Zapatistas while fueling up for your long days in the Machine, you can maybe get yourself some Zapatista "Fuck Trump" coffee starting here.)

My new friends dragged me along, running, while I gazed back longingly like Lot's wife. Back at the village, shit was going down. Clearly this had happened before and there was routine to it. Every stand had been tipped over to create a shield. Every shop keeper now had several automatic rifles slung over their shoulders and was hunkered down behind the upturned stands. This random little village was actually a battlefield-in-waiting. As we ran towards them, every gun was aimed at us. There was yelling and screaming and my compadres all put their hands up in the air and I followed suit, although I had little idea why. The robbed couple (the man, not the hysterical still-screaming woman) confirmed to the authorities and crowd that we were not the robbers. We were then grabbed and bruised and thrown on to buses. I yelled, "This isn't the bus I came in on!!" But the door slammed in my face and we peeled out down the steep dirt mountain road, almost flying off of it as trucks full of armed and alert Federalis barreled towards the scene which was all over the news by the time we got back to the city.

Things were pretty boring after that. I wandered around Campeche, a gorgeous, peaceful town. I stayed in a mansion at Merida that my boss/boyfriend had insisted I stop at, although he did not join me there. And then I returned to Cozumel to pick up my stuff, party one last time, and return to Washington. I worked at a Mexican Cantina on Orcas Island for a few weeks, making margaritas ALL day, which took a bit of the sting out of my Mexico-missing... in several ways. And then I moved to Seattle and immediately joined the WTO-protest planning were I met Huck. If you can't find the rebels in a foreign jungle, become a rebel in your own concrete one.

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