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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