San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chaluma, and Palenque

The last time I went to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas was about ten years ago. I went there for the Christmas holidays.

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The first time I visited San Cristóbal was also at Christmas, and my husband and I also went to see the nearby town of San Juan Chamula with a guide. This is an extremely poor indigenous community that still speaks it’s own language. It is not recommended to go there alone, as “gringos” are not really welcome.

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However, the description from visitmexico.com sounds rather friendly. Perhaps things have changed.

Get ready to connect with the mysticism of San Juan Chamula, a Tzotzil community that grew independent from the Catholic Church and performs its own rituals in a unique religious syncretism.


The atrium will welcome you to the novohispanic style temple. Begin your immersion in the community as you carry offerings, wishes, pleas and gratitude to the temple.


Feel the pine twigs that blanket the floor under your feet. You will see that there are no benches to sit on. The inhabitants pray on their knees and perform rituals that mix the sixteenth-century evangelical customs with pre-Columbian religious beliefs.

Discover that the church is decorated with candles of many different colors, sizes and significance. You will notice that the saints’ images have mirrors hanging from them. According to local beliefs, they reflect the souls of the faithful.

My husband and I were able to visit the inside of the church, a truly unique experience but somewhat unsettling. I felt like an intruder, so did not take my own pictures once inside. This one is from abakab.com. If you’re wondering about the soft drink bottles, it’s an indication of how much these two corporations have succeeded in colonizing indigenous cultures.

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We also visited the Casa Na Bolom or House of the Jaguar. This is a museum, hotel and restaurant located outside San Cristóbal’s historic center. According to Wikipedia,

The structure was built as part of a seminary in 1891, but it became the home of Frans Blom and Gertrude Duby Blom in the 20th century. Franz was an explorer and archeologist and Gertrude was a journalist and photographer. The couple spent over fifty years in Chiapas collecting tools, crafts, archeological pieces and clothing, especially related to the Lacandon Jungle and people. The museum is dedicated to this collection along with keeping some of the old household rooms intact, such as Franz’s study. It also contains a library with more than 10,000 volumes dedicated to the history, culture and anthropology of the region. There are magazine and sound libraries as well as the old chapel which contains colonial era religious art. The back of the structure contains a botanical garden.

Here is a photo of the sign on the Casa Na Bolom taken by AlejandroLinaresGarcia.

While there, I purchased a small jaguar pin made of silver. The jaguar is a symbol of the spiritual quest, so I enjoy wearing it to remind myself of my purpose in life.

Although I’d been there before, the last time I visited San Cristóbal, I decided to go on a tour to Palenque, which can be a truly magical place.

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This photograph shows the main palace, which is unusual for a Mayan site, as they usually have a temple as their central focus.

My tour left very early in the morning, so I hoped there would not be too many visitors, as a crowd tends to destroy the ambiance of the site. agua azul, waterfalls, chiapas, mexicoWhile Aqua Azul is beautiful and certainly worth visiting, we stopped there for an extended lunch break and a swim, so by the time we got to Palenque, it was teaming with tourists, most of whom were Mexicans enjoying their spectacular heritage. Nonetheless, I did manage to find a few peaceful spots so I could absorb the magic.

According to Wikipedia, “it is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city is explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle.” The mind boggles.

The Temple of Inscriptions

The online Ancient History Enclyclopedia is particularly helpful. The following is an excerpt on the temple taken from the article on Palenque written by Mark Cartwright:

Set into a hillside and completed c. 682 CE, the pyramid has nine different levels, corresponding, no doubt, to the nine levels of the Maya Underworld. Carrying out an archaeological survey at the top of the pyramid in 1952 CE, the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz famously discovered that a single curiously holed slab in the flooring of one chamber could be removed, and beneath it he revealed a staircase which descended into the heart of the building. At the base of the twisting 65-step staircase, after clearing away the deliberately left rubble and now deep inside the pyramid, Ruz reached a single corbel-roofed chamber, outside of which were five or six human skeletons, almost certainly sacrificial victims. Clearly someone important had been buried here. Inside the richly decorated crypt were nine stucco attendants on the sloping walls and two more in jade standing by the room’s most remarkable artefact. This was a sarcophagus topped with a magnificently carved 3.8 metre long slab depicting a Maya ruler falling into the jaws of the Maya underworld Xibalba. On finally opening the sarcophagus, Ruz discovered the jade and cinnabar-covered remains of that greatest of all Palenque rulers, King Pakal the Great. The king had been given a life-like jade mosaic death mask and a great deal of matching jewellery to accompany him into the next life. It was one of the greatest discoveries in Mesoamerican archaeology, and it finally proved that the great Maya pyramids had not simply been built as temples but also as tombs for great rulers, just as in ancient Egypt.

Jade Death Mask of Kinich Janaab Pacal

The death mask can be seen in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, which is one of the top anthropological museum’s in the world, in other words, a must see.

When I visited the Temple of Inscriptions, a plaque inside stated that the other jewels were in the Harvard Peabody Museum in Cambridge, MA.

Later that year, I attended a conference in Boston, so I used the opportunity to visit the Peabody Museum. They had a special section which displayed the Mesoamerican plaster casts that had been made in the 19th century. While these were fascinating and worthy of another blog, the jewels were not on display. I wonder what has become of them.

 

 

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Gaspésie Revisited

Last August, after leaving New Brunswick, my husband and I followed the south side of the route 138 loop along la baie des Chaleurs until we reached Percé, Québec. While the countryside is undeniably beautiful, it is not as spectacular as the rugged north shore.

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We stayed at the same hotel as last year, Les Trois Soeurs, but on the second floor, so our view of the famous rock was even better. The delicate pastel shades of the sunset were just lovely.

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Unfortunately, our friends were not able to join us, so we spent more time wandering around Percé. One thing I hadn’t noticed before was the plaque on a rock in front of a large yellow house across the road.

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During WWII, the French poet André Breton spent the summer of 1944 in this house with his female companion, Elisa.

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It was here that Breton was inspired to write one of his surrealist masterpieces, Arcane 17.

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Goodreads describes the book as follows:

Using the huge Percé Rock—its impermanence, its slow-motion crumbling, its singular beauty—as his central metaphor, Breton considers issues of love and loss, aggression and war, pacifism, feminism and the occult, in a book that is part prose and part poetry, part reality and part dream.

Breton was not the only artist inspired by the Gaspé peninsula. Earlier, in the summer of 1932, Georgia O’Keefe drove there and painted several barns that prefigured her later work in New Mexico.

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I also came across an exhibit about a prominent group of radical Québec artists and musicians, including the Quebec superstar Robert Charlebois, who gathered in Percé in the late 1960s at a bar known as La Maison du Pêcheur.

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By 1969, Percé had become a Quebecois hippy haven. Ironically, the original house is now a prosperous restaurant; pictured above is a reconstruction for a 2013 film of the same name.

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 This was not the Quiet Revolution of the early 60s, which modernized Québec and made it a secular society.

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Perhaps the surrealist poet Breton best captured the essence of Gaspé. The forces of change are being felt once again, but in the form of climate change. In the fall of 2015, two violent storms hit Percé and caused considerable damage, destroying part of the boardwalk and beach. La Ville de Percé built a new green walkway and decided to leave the damaged section for tourists to view as part of an exhibit on climate change and the coastal environment.DSC02534.JPG

The Québec government acknowledges that climate change is being caused by greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activities.

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Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton: A Novel

While the subtitle of this book announces itself as a novel, in terms of length, it more closely resembles a novella or short story, as it can be read in one sitting. But in terms of the depth of emotional involvement it manages to draw out, it reads more like a novel.

My Name Is Lucy Barton begins with the narrator Lucy recalling the time she spent nine weeks in a hospital room in New York City facing the Chrysler building. She had had an appendectomy but developed a fever. Although she was subjected to all kinds of tests, the doctors were unable to figure out what was wrong with her, so her husband asked Lucy’s mother to visit, which she immediately does. She has not seen her daughter in years. The story hinges on their relationship, bringing us back to Lucy’s childhood in a small town in Illinois, where her family suffered extreme poverty.

Suffered is the right verb here. Strout briefly lets us know what it was like for a child to be tormented at school by her classmates and teachers for being so poor. The family, which includes three children, actually lived in a unheated garage. The deprivations the children experience reminded me of Tilly Olsen’s short story, “I Stand Here Ironing.” Like Elena Ferrante, Strout shows how poverty can be stultifying and scaring. Lucy is not even allowed to cry. What saves her is that she is able to escape into books. Lucy says,

the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point.

We also learn that Lucy’s father was essentially destroyed by the trauma of his experience in WWII. He cannot forget the atrocities her committed on German soldiers. What Strout seems to be getting at is how the humanity of both the torturer and the victim is violated, with lasting results. Following the war, many suffering from such trauma received little or no help. The situation has not improved all that much, as we continue to hear of the PTSD of those who went to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fortunately for Lucy, she is bright and eventually wins a college scholarship. She leaves home, graduates, and marries a man who is completing his postdoctoral studies at the university. Because he is of German origin, her father wants nothing to do with him, thus creating a serious breach between Lucy and her family.

After Lucy and her husband settle in New York and have two daughters, the emotion picks up again. Lucy has two stories published and meets the writer Sarah Payne, who has been faulted by a male critic for being “compassionate.” Lucy goes to hear Payne speak on a panel at the New York Public Library and notices the man “sitting alone in the back row.” I do like Strout’s sense of humour, her ironic use of understatement. Before long, Lucy becomes a student in Payne’s writing class. It is essentially through writing and following Payne’s advice — not to protect anyone as she writes –that Lucy is able to construct a viable and whole self.

It seems too that Lucy’s mysterious illness was caused by her need to have her mother’s love affirmed. Of course, readers understand that Lucy’s mother loves her. She has after all taken a plane on her own for the very first time in her life in order to visit her sick daughter. Since Lucy’s mother has no money for a hotel, she actually sleeps in a chair in Lucy’s hospital room. But because her mother has been so hardened by poverty and what must have been a brutal marriage, not to mention her own impoverished upbringing, she cannot bring herself to tell her daughter she loves her.

It may very well be that Lucy’s mysterious ailment was a manifestation of her need for parental love. We learn that her doctor has taken an interest in her and comes to check in on her even on the weekends, when he doesn’t work. We are told that members of his family died in the camps during the war, yet this man is still able to express love and kindness — in a word, compassion. In a sense, he becomes the positive father figure Lucy lacked.

By the end of the novel, Lucy reflects on the pain she has caused her own children and adds,

I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is  mine, this is mine, this is mine.

What is unique, is that Strout writes, “we children.” This is no ordinary heart to heart. Strout is speaking directly from her wounded child to the reader’s. This is a beautiful and touching ending, a novel narrated with the simplicity and honesty of a child.

Photo © Leonard-Cendamo.