Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Chiapas Part 2: What to do at San Cristóbal's Zocalo?

Traditional dance by pineapple-carrying performers on a stage at San Cristóbal's Zocalo. This performance was one of many delightful (and free) activities we encountered in the area around the Zocalo during our visit. In this posting, we'll take a look at some of the many interesting performances and other encounters we had. If you visit Chiapas' former capital, San Cristóbal de las Casas, you can count on similar entertainment. According to botanists, the pineapple originated in the area of what is now the border between Brazil and Paraguay. Its cultivation spread during pre-hispanic times and eventually reached Mexico, where it was cultivated by the Aztecs and the Maya. Christopher Columbus encountered pineapples in 1493 during one of his island visits in the Caribbean. He took it back to Europe where it was an immediate hit. During the 1500s, the Spanish colonial authorities introduced the pineapple to the Philippines from which it eventually made its way to Hawaii and other locations.

Music and dancing

The dancers wore lovely, hand-made costumes. The dance was performed slowly and with great dignity, as you can see above. While folk dances existed in Mexico long before the Spanish arrived, they were considered low-class by the colonial elites and those that took power after Mexico won its independence in the early 19th Century. Enamored of everything European, the elites generally disdained or ignored the activities of the mestizos (mixed race) and indigenous people. However, following the Revolution, Mexican authorities encouraged various aspects of local culture, particularly folkloric dancing.

Another of the Zocalo's entertainment staples is marimba music. The group above is called the Marimba Orchestra of San Cristóbal de las Casas. The musicians are very talented and put on quite a show. In the evenings, they play on the top floor of the kiosco you can see in the back ground. The instrument you see above is a chromatic marimba, developed in Chiapas as a modification of the Central American diatonic marimba. The diatonic instrument itself evolved from the balafon brought over by African slaves to the Caribbean.

A marimba to beat all marimbas. Most marimbas I have seen were played by two musicians, or  occasionally three. This one had six, and the two-level instrument was so long that it had to be assembled in the shape of an "L". When these guys get going, their mellow sound floats over the entire Zocalo area. It's great to have a live sound track for one's life.

Maya dancer and his son perform in front of a pile of burning copal incense. He is dressed as a Jaguar Warrior and wears rattles on his lower legs. The rattles are made from the shells of Ayoyote seeds (also called Cabalonga seeds), and produce a sound when the dancer's feet are stamped on the ground. Seed rattles were used widely in pre-hispanic times. Along with drums, they were among the primary percussion instruments. We saw these performers at various times in different places, as you will see later in this posting.

A trio of Maya flutists filled the air with their haunting tones. Using a technology unavailable to their ancient ancestors, these fellows overcame the hubbub around them with electronic amplification. Two of them play single-tube instruments, while the middle one plays a multi-tube "pan" flute. Their ancestors used both types. While these flutes all appear to be made of wood, the pre-hispanic Maya also used reeds, bone, and ceramic materials.

The pan flutist uses an instrument that is considerably more complex than those of ancient times. His instrument is actually two connected pan flutes. While the smaller one gives higher notes, the larger provides the deeper tones. Note the Ayoyote maraca (rattle) he holds in his right hand. Pan style flutes were very widespread in the ancient worlds of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as in North, Central and South America. Pan instruments dating to 4200 BC have been found in Peru. Their use spread along ancient trade routes to the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures. Ultimately they reached as far north as the Hopewell culture of the Ohio Valley

Maya handicrafts

Watching Maya women peddle their wares was an interesting way to pass the time. This pair, loaded with goods, have spotted a likely customer. In truth, anyone with a body temperature of 98.6 F seemed to be fair game. These women come from one of the many small villages surrounding San Cristóbal. They make their textiles and other items at home and bring them by public bus to the Zocalo. There, they carry them about or sometimes spread them on the flagstones. We were always astonished by how much these tiny women can tote around, and they do it all day.

Comparing notes, or perhaps coming up with a new sales strategy? Although they can be persistent if a customer displays the slightest interest, a firm but polite "no, gracias" will cause them to move on to their next prospect. Young girls learn the trade early, as you can see from the one standing on the left. All the adult women wear the trade-mark shaggy black wool skirts of their home village. In spite of the damp, chilly morning, all their legs are bare and they wear the skimpiest of sandals.

A pair of Maya dicker with a European woman who towers over them. Her friend, carrying a baby, stands patiently as the process unfolds. In truth, although I am just under 2 m (6 ft) tall, many of the young European men and women made me feel a bit dwarf-like. Nutritious food and national heath care seem to be working for them. As I noted in my previous posting, we encountered no tourists from the US or Canada, only from Europe or other Mexican regions. I am reminded of those old explorers' maps, with the unknown areas filled in by drawings of dragons. Apparently, a lot of folks from north-of-the-border believe in dragons.

As dusk gathers, the Catedral Plaza fills up with merchants and customers. Similar scenes have been occurring in plazas like this since at least the time of the Olmecs in 1500 BC. In the 1930s, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted a stunning mural in the Palacio Nacional showing the tianguis (open market place) in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. He based it on the reports of the Conquistadors who observed it in 1520 AD. The scene above bears a striking similarity to the Rivera mural.

The Night Scene

The Zocalo at night comes alive even more so than during the day. Customers are served in the bar/restaurant on the first level of the kiosco, while the Marimba Orchestra, seen in previous photos, plays on the level above them. The whole scene is softly lit by floodlights and tall, antique lamps.

A Maya performer cavorts on the steps of the Catedral. Actually, it was darker when I took this shot that it appears here. I used my iPhoto computer magic to lighten it up so you could appreciate the performer's costume. In addition to the skull on his feathered headdress, he holds another skull in his right hand. Pre-hispanic people held very different views on death than those of modern Western societies. For example, they believed that people who committed suicide or were sacrificed, and women who died in child birth or men who died in battle, were all first in line to go immediately to heaven. For that matter, many of today's Mexicans maintain pre-modern views, as seen in their Day of the Dead fiestas. I believe the performer above may be part of the troupe that put on a spectacular performance of ancient Maya legends at a theatre down the street. Carole and I were both dazzled by it.

When darkness fell, floodlights bathed the public buildings surrounding the Zocalo Plaza. Above, the Palacio Gobierno (City Hall), glows softly in the misty evening. A light rain began to fall, and many of the vendors covered their goods with sheets of plastic, as you can see in the lower right. People hurried to the shelter of the portales lining the front of the Palacio.

Under the portales, it was business as usual. Still-dripping vendors, musicians, and other performers  continued what they had been doing in the plaza. Weather didn't seem to cause anyone to miss a beat. During the day, the left side of the arcade above opens into city government offices, and the police station. The tourist office, which has some English speakers, is located at the far end.

The Jaguar Warrior and his son pose for a photo with a couple of Mexican children. This is the same pair of Maya performers seen dancing earlier in the Catedral Plaza. No doubt they earned a nice tip from the parents. Since the last time we saw him, the Jaguar Warrior has donned fierce-looking face paint.

And for the kids...

Future driver at the Indianapolis 500 or LeMans? Parents seeking entertainment for their children could rent a small electric car. If you look closely, there is a lot going on in this photo. As the father strolls along beside his son, the young girl sitting on the pedestal looks on enviously. Meanwhile, above her, two men watch the action with obvious amusement. In the upper left of the photo, the Maya Jaguar Warrior appears yet again, this time with other members of his troupe as they prepare for another performance.

Getting the jump on life. When I saw workmen assembling this contraption, I was baffled as to its purpose. All became clear when I returned a bit later. Four kids at a time can play on this trampoline-like device. A parent or other adult can control their bouncing by pulling down on the straps attached to each child's harness. When I first moved to Mexico from the US, I was astonished at how Mexican parents often allow their children to engage in what appear, at least to me, to be dangerous activities. Tiny tots ride around on full-grown horses, unaccompanied by any adult. Whole groups of kids pile on 4-wheelers and careen about at high speed down the narrow streets of Ajijic, my home pueblo. Children often play by the highway as large trucks thunder past, only a short distance away. The device shown above contains far more safety features than I am used to seeing.

Wheee!! I'm flying! The young boy was delighted with the game and kept pleading for it to go on and on. His father was happy to oblige. Mexico is a very family-oriented society. Despite their seeming casualness about safety, Mexicans obviously love their children and show it in many ways.

The ever-entertaining practice of people watching

A Maya mother and her daughter watch the folk dancers from a Zocalo bench. They wear beautifully embroidered huipils (tunics). Made by hand, huipils display designs specific to their home pueblo. With a bit of practice, it would be possible to quickly sort out who is from where just by looking at huipil and skirt designs. The blue cross and caduceus on the van above the girl's head identify it as an emergency vehicle. The style of wrought-iron bench on which they sit can be found all over Mexico. Finding an empty one under the shade of a tree is part of the never-ending game of musical chairs practiced in Mexican plazas.

Enjoying a snack on the steps of the kiosco. When I first photographed this boy, I thought perhaps he was a young student on break from classes. Upon closer examination, it appears he may be a vendor, given the goods he holds in his lap. It often happens, when I photograph a scene, that details emerge that I didn't notice at first. Sometimes a small detail that was not the subject of the shot proves to be so interesting that I crop out the part I was shooting and keep the detail. It's a bit like throwing a net into the water and seeing what comes up.

The Zocalo Plaza bustles in the morning. Here, a hard-working young woman balances a large pan of cut fruit on her shoulder, heading to replenish her vendor stall. The child behind her, perhaps her daughter, has spilled something from her bucket onto her jeans. Behind them, a trio of teenage girls strolls along, keeping a sharp eye out for boys. Life on the hoof.

Shoe shiners take a lunch break. They appear to be about twelve years old or so. Each has a small wooden box containing his supplies. The top of the box serves as a footrest for the customer. Completing their equipment are three tiny stools on which they perch while buffing their customer's shoes. In Mexican plazas, shoe shiners are almost as ubiquitous as kioscos. The price is modest, usually around 25 pesos ($2.00 USD) but is often less in areas with few tourists. They usually do a good job.

Carole, myself, and our new friend. We struck up a conversation with Tete (pronounced "Tay-tay") while strolling around San Cristóbal. As it happened, Tete was also a tourist, visiting from Mexico City. She spoke perfect English, with a delightful Mexican lilt, having spent part of her schooling in the United States. San Cristóbal is a small city so we kept running into her and ended up becoming friends. We even encountered her at the airport outside Tuxtla Gutierrez (the Capital of Chiapas) on the day we flew out. A short time ago, she emailed me to ask if any photos of her were going to show up in my postings on San Cristóbal. As it turned out, I had already loaded up this one. Since lounging on a bench with friends is a great way to spend time in the Zocalo, I thought it would be a nice way to end Part 2 of this series. Oh, and "Hi Tete!"