Study abroad diaries: Merida, Mexico (part eight)

(It’s early Feb. 22. Sleep deprived, we start our ascent from Palenque to Tonina, and then to San Cristobal de las Casas through the Sierra Madre Mountains.)

Imagine the first breath after a coma. The things and people you’re surrounded by are all new and don’t yet make any sense while you’re frantically trying to suck in all the air you can to make everything come clear. Nothing feels real, at least not yet, but with each breath, another piece of the puzzle is added and the understanding of what you’ve just been immersed into starts to appear.

Lavish green hills stretched up into the sky as the Sierra Madre spanned for miles in every direction that I could see. Trees tipped with greens, pinks and yellows covered the hills and almost appeared as a perfectly painted picture, gently swaying with the breeze. The road we traveled was tight and winding, almost carving a strip out of the heart of this dense forest.

Originally, you think that this terrain is uninhabitable and that nobody could possibly survive within the confines of this setting. Until you open your eyes, leave your prejudices behind and realize that this is reality; this is everyday life for a vast majority of indigenous people. Small houses of thatch and wood are tucked into the sides of the mountains, coupled with many others to form the tight knit communities that the Mayan people had started centuries ago. For an outsider, the only feasible way to envision these houses being created was that they must have been dropped from the sky to be placed the way they are: for an outsider.

This was Ej’ÛΩrcito Zapatista de Liberaci’ÛÎ_n Nacional (EZLN) territory, and you could feel it all around you in the air and the breeze. Strategically placed signs and propaganda lined the streets, not in excess, but just enough to make their presence felt. For these people, the land they lived on was the very blood that coursed through their veins; it keeps them alive and wakes them up every day. As one of the signs that will forever be etched in my memory said so bluntly, “The people rule, the government obeys,” it was clear that this was a place where outsiders were not welcome.

As we raced against sunlight and time, the snaking roads of rock and gravel did nothing to help us in our fight to beat the sunset. The roads we were driving on were federal roads, and in the recent weeks, many of the locals in the small villages that we were passing through had staged protests after nightfall and closed the roads throughout the night until the next morning. With this fear present in the back of everyone’s minds, the last leg of the ride was silenced as the mountains that started off looking so beautifully swallowed our only safety net, the sun.

Foreigner, outsider, alien; this was the first time throughout my stay in Mexico where those words actually felt like they applied. You could see it in the eyes of the locals. They stared with a curiosity that pierced through your body, ripping you open and reminding you that this was their land that they had worked so tirelessly to protect and maintain. A whole new implication of the word “respect” quickly surfaced.

Once in San Cristobal de las Casas, it felt as if a weight had been lifted. We had arrived safely and unharmed. Despite the initial feelings of warmth, the walls spray painted with “EZLN” in big, bold letters of black and red abruptly put us back in our place and put our guard back up. The next day we visited two indigenous Mayan villages, San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantan, which were tucked into the mountains at an even higher elevation than the 2,260 meters above sea level that we were already at.

Although the Spaniards tried desperately to destroy the Mayan way of life by burning down their temples and rebuilding them as Catholic churches, they only encouraged these people to continue with their traditions. In each town, we visited two separate churches and were able to witness the irony first hand. Within the confines of an identified Catholic church on the outside, the local people flourished on the inside as their ancient Mayan religion was still being practiced and carried on in the present day. Words can’t describe the feeling that stirred within me while witnessing these practices still living strongly today.

The sheer beauty of being placed in the heart of the Sierra Madre mountain range is hard to describe specifically. Waking up to mountains in every direction in the presence of such cultural magnificence turned into something I never wanted to leave. Almost strategically, the Cahuare River pierced right through the mountains and was an incredible sight to see that we all got to experience up close and personal on a boat tour. In awe, not much was said throughout the course of the tour was we tried to take in the skyscraper like mountains, crocodiles and overall impressiveness of the route.

After a long six days that covered the entire southeast corner of Mexico in the states of Yucatan, Campeche, Quintanaroo, Tabasco and Chiapas, a lot was learned and even more was put into perspective. Effects of things such as NAFTA, globalization, injustice and poverty were visible and experienced every single day. More than anything, the realization that these people were no different from myself came into focus. Sure, their way of life was different, their language was different, but more important than any of those differences was the fact that we both had specific things that we needed to help get us through the day.

I understand that it’s hard to create laws and regulations that benefit everyone positively, but any collective decision shouldn’t blatantly exploit and jeopardize the way of life for any group of people. The Mayan people aren’t doing anything different than any other group, they’re simply continuing with the way of life that they were brought up with; that they learned and grew to believe was the proper way to lead a fulfilling life. It’s time that the differences become discarded and the similarities take charge.

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