A day reserved for exploring San Cristobal and getting the feel of the place. We left our colorful room and stepped out in the fresh chilly air of this mountain town (altitude 2100m). We trotted joyfully through the white and blue colonnades of the courtyard and approached the exit. Then we noticed it: to the right of the door there was a big altar, decorated with green and purple cloth and lace (the cheap kitschy type). Reigning on top of the altar were three skeletons, one big two slightly smaller. Offerings of flowers and fruits were carefully arranged in front of the three objects of worship, and a clay pot was holding some beads and a crystal pendant. We looked at the altar, then looked at each other. Our hosts did not seem so nice anymore. They were worshiping Santa Muerte, a cult condemned by the Catholic Church , still very clandestine in Mexico. It basically works like this: you pray to Santa Muerte (aka the devil) and ask the adorned skeletons for favors, usually money. Then you promise something in exchange, usually your soul. This small detailed kind of freaked us out.
Saying “well, it’s Mexico”, we stepped on the cobblestone alleys of San Cristobal and made a right towards the Zocalo. Had a delicious breakfast in a small restaurant – an all inclusive breakfast of fruits, eggs (with tortillas, meat, salsa verde or roja, beans, rice, quesadillas), bread, butter, marmalade, coffee and juice… all for only 3 dollars.
A nice surprise came when we asked for the bill and the usual conversation started – where are you from, how long are you staying here. The man at the table next to us had us repeat our countries of origin and then he started telling me lots of very accurate facts about Romanian history. He was obsessed with Eastern European modern history and civilization. We had a nice chat, each of us giving an update on the present economical and political situation of their country. Turns out the man was the owner of the restaurant. We wanted to go back there but we could never find the place again.
From the Zocalo we walked to the market where the indigenous Maya sold their textiles and hippies (tourists-gone-local) sell their handcrafted jewelry. Those women selling their handcrafts and speaking Tzotzil, a Mayan dialect, dressed in their traditional costumes (each village having their own colors and patterns) are the living Mayas of today. Those were the direct descendants of the great Maya civilization that excelled in math and astronomy, built temples and cities which stunned the Spaniards. Sadly and heartbreakingly they were now part of a forsaken and impoverished class, and they were just struggling to get by.
I stepped in the first church I saw and, to my surprise, I came right in the middle of a cleansing ritual. A Maya shamanic cleansing ritual. This was one of the things I really wanted to witness. So I sat down quietly and watched.
The Mayas have their own medicine and it included herbs and rituals, which is a mix of praying and being prayed for by the medicine man. The patient was a pregnant woman who was standing next to the medicine man, in front of the altar guarded by catholic statues of saints. A support with many burning candles spread a warm light on the scene, like a soft flickering spotlight. The dozen of people in the church were all Mayas and they were whispering among themselves in Tzotzil, sending shivers down my spine with the Apocalypto-like resonances which echoed eerily in the church. The medicine man was praying continuously, chanting while standing up then sitting down. The ritual, long and repetitive, involved holding the woman’s hand (later on I learned he was doing a pulse diagnosis), brushing her over with a bunch of basil leaves to absorb the bad spirits and passing a living black hen over her entire body, wiping her arms, head back and especially belly with the astounded hen. I started a conversation with the two women sitting in front of me – one of them was waiting her turn to be cleansed of her illness. With the little Spanish that she know, she told me her head hurts a lot, and only the medicine man can make it go away, and that modern pills do her no good. She was awaiting instructions from the medicine man to see what candles and soda to bring for the cleansing (candles are color coded depending on the patient’s need) and whether she needs a hen, eggs, or basil. I could not make myself leave, I had to stay there and witness this indigenous (pagan) ritual performed with so much ease and comfort in a 500 years old catholic church. The contrast between the two beliefs was so stark, but at the same time the Mayas and the petrified saints did not seem to reject each other. A fascinating synchretism so present in Latin America.
One stunning scene took place in the church: while the cleansing ritual was taking place, a Mexican guide with a group of 15 tourists entered the church. The guide was explaining the architecture of the place. The group of tourists walked by the ritual site barely interested in what was going on, as if the Mayas did not exist. They spoke pretty loud, their voices echoing in every corner of the establishment. The medicine man went on praying even though the intruders were pretty disturbing. The two groups – the Mayas and the tourists behaved as if the other did not exist. Two parallel worlds, not touching, not mixing. The guide gave no explanation on what the Mayas were doing, he kept going on about columns and shape of arches and age of the darkened paintings. Neither the tourists asked. Two worlds, so close and yet so far away from each other.