Archive for June, 2009

Technical Issues

Due to the unfortunate loss/theft of my camera at Puerto Arista, all posts until further notice (i.e. at the discretion of my insurance provider) will now be accompanied by images appropriated from the internet. Hurrah for the information revolution and social media.

The Management
Chiapa de Corzo
24th June 2009


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Bad News for Democracy

I’ve just indulged in my first surfing excursion for two months, escaping in the twilight weeks of the teaching semester to the coastal town of Puerto Arista. Now, you would think that the experience of thrashing around in the turbulent, hurricane fueled waters of the pacific under steely grey skies would be a fine subject for discourse. One would assume that conveying the experience of swimming in warm ocean water whilst the seasonal rains pound the coastline and strong storm winds bend the palm trees would be a priority, and under any other circumstances I would happily oblige this focus, but for the unfortunate incidents of Saturday afternoon.

Having climbed out of the sea with a powerful hunger, I advanced with the two teachers with whom I was traveling, Willow and Lewis, to the nearest restaurant in sight. Within seconds of arriving we were purchased beers by a stringy grey haired chap in a standard issue Mexican vest sitting amongst a group of men. Despite the amiability of the gesture, alarm bells were ringing in Teacher Willow’s head, warning of impending sleaze. This, unfortunately, turned out to be a perception of painful accuracy.

Swaggering over, our new (and fairly sozzled) acquaintance introduced himself as a figure of Great Importance in Local Government, sat down with us and proceeded to pester Willow with comments about how beautiful she looked, requests for her phone number and eventually (in sotto voce so neither Lewis nor I could hear on the other side of the table) complimenting her on the size of various parts of her anatomy. Willow, at this point shell shocked and disgusted, told The Towering Pillar of Sleaze with incredible restraint that his company was no longer required, sentiments that I echoed to him as soon as I realized that some fundamental boundaries had been crossed. The Excuse For a Human Being unapologetically apologized and wandered back to his group, leaving a trail of slime in his wake.

The whole incident passed time no greater than 5 minutes, but it cast an unpleasant air over the rest of the weekend trip. Up until that point all of us had been treated for the most part with respect by the people that we had encountered and such a disrespectful violation of said respect (by a figure of authority in government, no less) left us all raw and distrusting of how others might treat us for the remainder of our trip. It is unfortunate that the kindness which is received and trust which is bestowed following the actions of so many others can be shaken by the inconsiderate ramblings of a single pendejo drunk on alcohol and their own position of power.

In advance of the national elections on the 5th July, not a vote swinger for the resident political party methinks…

Puerto Arista
22nd Julio 2009

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Come and See the Brown People

Two weekends ago, I teamed up in San Cristobal with a couple of friends from Semana Santa with the intention of indulging in a spot of meandering about town and participating in some good tourist activities to try and curb the loathing that was developing inside me, fuelled by my Canyon Sumidero experiences.

One such jaunt that we signed up to following the recommendation of a very sweet and diminutive elderly lady was a horseback ride to a local indigenous village, San Juan Chamula, that was purported to have a good local market and an impressive church that was worth visiting. Nervously mounting our unashamedly flatulent horses, we swayed throught the outskirts of the town and proceeded for the most part along a winding concrete road, apparently recently installed and greatly diminishing the intended adventurous feel of the trip despite the guide’s best efforts to diverge from the road at all available opportunities. Despite this setback, positive experience prevailed as the outfit was run by very sweet, well meaning Mexicans who made every effort to provide us with a good time.

The rub came when we dismounted our horses and wandered, stiff legged, down the hill to investigate San Juan Chamula. The concrete road wound its way down into a settlement of concrete block houses that didn’t do much to differentiate the village from the suburbs of San Cristobal (those areas that were suitably distanced from the tourist quarter to incite any coherence to the finely crafted aesthetic evident in the town centre). The market, sitting raggedly in the midst of the town square, was a sad looking collection of stalls vending almost identical wares, a limited display of plastic goods, handicrafts and fruit and vegetables; this, in all fairness may have been due to us missing the morning action having failed categorically to rise early to head out on the earlier trip. The wonderful church of which I had heard so much sat looming on one side of the market square, which after purchasing a huge entrance ticket, we entered.

It’s plain colonial exterior matched the architecture of the high, curved ceilings inside, but the difference lay in the huge amount of candles that lined tables fronting row upon row of glass cases butted up against the walls of the church that contained the effigies of white faced saints and martyrs. The multitude of opportunistic local children that had been pursuing us relentlessly for change began dispensing facts about the habits and rituals of the scattering of indigenous people that moved sedately about the interior, as our heads rotated every which way trying to take in the draped decorations, twinkling chandeliers that reflected the candle light, and the thousand dancing and flickering points of light that studded the church.

It was at some point that I learned that the the church, far from being an ancient building of worship, was actually a construction of recent times, and the realization of things began to swim into focus. These dignified, distanced and very, very closed people were being showcased. It seemed like some sort of degrading anthropological zoo; tourists were being shuttled to and from buildings financed and fabricated by supporting local authorities which provided a platform to allow easy viewing access to the religious practices, trading and living environments of the indigenous community. It was no wonder that any words I exchanged between the people there were either as the basis of an attempted transaction or the abrupt finalization of one. The people there no doubt were aware of their role, acting as unwilling portrait photograph models and required to represent an insight to authentic village life, and the weariness with which they conducted themselves served to illustrate it.

It is a sad thing indeed when the effects of tourism not only define an experience, but the livelihood and way of life of those that it seeks to provide experience of. I have begun to feel the same way about native communities tourism that I do when they bring animals into the ring at a circus. Livelihood for entertainments sake should surely be left in the domain of those who proactively choose it, and I am not sure the people of San Juan Chamula have had much choice in their fate.

Needless to say, my impression of tourism has not evolved favorably of late.

San Cristobal De Las Casas
14th Junio 2009

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Professional Plummeters

Last weekend the Great State of Chiapas put on a free high diving event in the mouth of the Canyon Sumidero.  After following numerous directional red herrings, I found myself crouching in the bushes alongside my companions and a sizeable representation of the rest of the town opposite a giant orange structure that allowed an international selection of high divers to drop 25 metres into the water and be duly fished out by a selection of jet skis.  After an extended wait in which we were peppered with propaganda about the Great State of Chiapas whilst the mosquitos had their fill or our exposed arms and legs, the competition commenced, an incredible display of skill, grace and balls-out stupidity.  

Out of the field of international competitors, I’m delighted to say that the gloriously pasty Brit gave everyone else a jolly good kicking and walked away with first place.  How did we ever get to be so good at throwing ourselves off high things?

Chiapa de Corzo
3rd Junio 2009 

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Por Fin, el Canyon Sumidero

So, after some five months spent at the foot of the majestic Canyon Sumidero in my sweaty little pueblo, a visit from some of my aquaintances from Semana Santa finally prompted me to take an eco-tourist eco-boat ride down the eco-canyon.

Sumidero was an incredible spectacle, sheer rock faces rising up out of the muddy, sluggish river and bursting through the covering of trees that lined its edges.  However, it wasn’t long before I started to feel somewhat jaded by the process of experience, shoehorned onto a fibreglass motorboat with a selection of Mexican and foreign tourists, all armed with cameras and camera phones who took every opportunity to point and shoot whenever our tour guide, acting with the token weariness of a seasoned driver, would point out the “features of interest”, which regrettably paled into insignificance in relation to the Canyon itself.  We cheerfully drove up to members of the local crocodile population to sate the lust of the tourists for wildlife shots, bringing the boat within feet of them to prompt a grumpy shuffle back into the water or submergence out of sight to prove that they were more than inanimate models placed for the benefit of photo hungry tourists looking for a genuine experience (oh, the irony).
It got me thinking about the nature of tourism; why would I seek to experience things in such a manufactured and predestined way?  What personal significance and sense of development does it instill in me?  Aside from the memory of impressive vistas, the only tangible product that I take from the experience is photographs, and what is their purpose; to be shown to other people?  

So with this in mind, I hope you enjoy the photos for this entry.  They are probably much more impressive than wherever you are.
Chiapa de Corzo
3rd Junio 2009

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A Rather Unpleasant Business

Now, I’m generally thought of as a mild mannered sort of chap, but a blog article from the folks at Equal Exchange that popped up in my RSS inbox recently got me a bit cross.

It seems that the looming multinational banana corporate Dole Food Company has been caught in no uncertain terms funding right wing paramilitary groups in Colombia to, among other things, murder union leaders and organizers, use terror tactics to discourage workers from joining unions or negotiating collective bargaining agreements with Dole and driving small farmers from their land to allow Dole to plant bananas. All pretty shoddy stuff, and my fingers are crossed for positive progress with a lawsuit that has just been filed against Dole.

Some very strong reasons cited on Equal Exchange’s “Small Farmers, Big Change” blog that have caused me to cite this recent legal development in an effort to increase awareness in what small way I can, are as follows:

1) An international human rights organization, the
International Rights Advocates, is asking people to take action. Labor rights activists feel that pressure is needed to bring justice to the plaintiffs in this case.

2) These lawsuits are occurring at a time when President Obama is attempting to craft his direction on free trade agreements in Panama, Colombia and elsewhere. Although Obama was clear during the campaign that the existing free trade agreements, such as NAFTA and CAFTA, should be renegotiated, he has reportedly not maintained the same level of commitment since coming to office. Human rights abuses and labor union assassinations remain high in Colombia; and it is hard to imagine that a trade agreement which truly respected and protected the rights of small farmers, labor and the environment, could actually be negotiated and implemented in this kind of climate.

3) Transfair USA has just given Fair Trade certification to Dole bananas. Several years ago, Fair Trade activists were outraged when Transfair USA tried to bring Chiquita Brands into the system. Could small farmer bananas ever successfully gain market access and compete in a market with Fair Trade plantation bananas sourced from a multi-national company as large and sophisticated as Chiquita Brands? Did a company with the kind of history that Chiquita has had “belong” in an ethical Fair Trade system? Could Transfair have the capability to ensure that plantations were respecting worker rights and Fair Trade agreements such as the use of social premiums? Many labor organizations were in favor of giving Fair Trade certification to unionized plantations, as a way of further promoting workers rights and they were at odds with the Fair Trade activists. Chiquita itself appeared uncomfortable giving a stronger voice to labor unions and vetoed the idea of Fair Trade premiums being decided by union members. In the end, amidst much controversy (and some secrecy), the deal collapsed.

Now, without much fanfare, Dole Fruit Company bananas will soon “appear” in the Fair Trade system and on the shelves. Those working on the Dole lawsuit have made it known that if we think Chiquita was a dubious company and were concerned about its entrance into the Fair Trade system, we should be even more upset about the certification of Dole bananas. While Chiquita has allowed many of its plantations to be unionized, apparently Dole has a much less tolerant view of unions and worker rights issues.

Aside from reflecting about how terrible this all is, you can actually do something about this situation; using the link below, you can send a request to the US Justice Department to instigate an investigation into the business dealings of the Dole Food Company, which one can only hope would extend to wider investigations of the behaviour of other such multinationals overseas that have been conducting their affairs in a very unethical way.

At a time when the winds of change are blowing for the USA, please take the opportunity to make a positive impact on the situation for the thousands of workers in Colombia.

Chiapa de Corzo
2nd Junio 2009

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Welcome To June, We Hope You Enjoy Your Sunset

Chiapa de Corzo

2nd Junio 2009

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