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  • Day5

    San Juan Chamula, Mexico

    January 20, 2017 in Mexico ⋅ ☀️ 17 °C

    One last trip we did from San Cristobal was to visit San Juan Chamula which is an indigenous community who live in a village about 10km out. It was super interesting and the first time we had an English speaking guide, so this day trip deserved its own post.

    San Chamula has an autonomous status in Mexico so no police or military within the village. This doesn't mean to say they don't have any sense of order though. They have three different types of leaders; religious, traditional and civic.

    There are 112 religious leaders, two living together over 46 different houses. Taking up this role for a year each sounds like a pretty expensive role but also a rite of passage. Prayers are done four times a day, but if the leaders are out of the house then this can be undertaken by their wives. Prayers are not set, instead they pray whatever comes from the heart, using candles and incense - ultimately leaving the room thick with smoke.

    Local traditional dress involves black wool skirts weaved from sheeps wool for the women and almost poncho/dress like versions of similarly weaved wool for the men, except white. Belonging to this village seems somewhat elite. Basically the only newcomers can be if a man from the village finds a woman from another. If the situation is the other way around then the woman must leave the village. Members of the village are also banished/evicted with any change of religion or beliefs. Pretty cut-throat and prestigious in some ways.

    Visiting the church of San Chamula was very different to any other church we've ever been to. There were no pews and no altar as such or any cross or anything, just many saints who they pray to for different reasons. They also have pine needles all over the floor, replaced every Saturday - symbolising close proximity to Mother Nature as their Mayan cross is the tree of life.

    We witnessed some of their healing ceremonies within the church, performed by a healer with the person needing to be healed and their family. Healers are born with their powers but are trained by other healers on how to use them. Often the healers can be people born with deformities, for example cleft palette. The healing ceremony itself involved a series of candles being lit on the floor, different colours depending on what is being prayed for/needing to be healed (white for health, orange for money etc). It also involved four other elements, a chicken, an egg, Coca Cola and their local homemade spirit which is called posh (which tastes terrible by the way - similar to rice wine). The chicken is waved over the person to take all the bad energy and then is killed (neck broken) in the church and then either eaten with the family after to share the problem or buried. The egg is waved over the person and symbolises new life and new beginnings. They then drink the coke (this replaces a similar coloured drink that they used to make but because it takes so long they now just use coke) and supposedly when they burp afterwards it is supposed to be releasing the problem. Lastly, they drink the posh to burn the last of the problem out. Interesting concept to say the least!

    At the time of our visit, the village was celebrating Saint Sebastian. They were parading around the main square with some men on horses and others walking, all in their traditional dress. Every time the procession passed in front of the church, some men would let off handheld fireworks. These fireworks are different to what we're used to, they aren't coloured so all their focus goes into making them as loud as possible. It doesn't surprise me that some of these men are hard of hearing given they are literally holding them at arms length when they go off. Absolutely nuts.

    We couldn't really take any photos in the village as the locals don't permit you to do so - but rightly so as it must be strange having people take photos of you all the time as you try and go about your daily life! So the photos on this post are from another small village we also visited this day, called Zinacantàn. They follow similar values but their local dress is completely different. See the flowery purple clothes below. They too were celebrating Saint Sebastian for nine days but had huge crowds and a big party this day. There was also some strange ritual at one stage which involved three or four men dressed as leopards climbing up a tree/pole and others then throwing stuffed squirrels at them... bizarre as heck and I can't remember the significance of this but it went over my head a bit even when explained at the time.

    Zinacantàn is well known for its beautiful flowers, with tons of huge green houses on the outskirts of the town and this is the inspiration for the embroidered flowers on their traditional clothing. After witnessing the bizarre squirrel throwing, our guide took us to the house of a local lady who was making a traditional wedding dress as seen in the photos linked. They also showed us some of their local clothing but no one volunteered to try on one of the wedding dresses but somehow Mike and I ended up modelling a couple of capes!

    Afterwards they treated us to some tortillas and black beans with salsa. All homemade from homegrown organic ingredients. So simple but so tasty! The tortillas were literally made from mushed up corn and water and then flattened from a ball into the classic circle shape and then cooked on a pan covered in chalk over a log fire. It's so interesting to see how resourceful people can be with just the basics.

    Overall we both thoroughly enjoyed the insight into these two villages and the strong sense of culture they beheld. Definitely opens your eyes to how differently people can live! Time to venture further east, back to sea level and warmer temperatures - bring on Palenque.
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