Sunday, November 18, 2012

Leaving Mexico behind me

After sweating like a pig and enduring the tedious insistence of dozens of Guatemalan children offering “help” with paperwork or polishing my boots (they can drive even the most patient of travelers crossing the Mexico-Guatemala border to insanity), I am finally in Guatemala. I’m staying in a bungalow that overlooks the Atitlán Lake and at this rate I’m going to empty the bank account before reaching Panama! But what the hell, with the killer diarrhea that ails me, I’m thinking I might as well express my scatological art in a toilet made out of gold.

So, Mexico is behind me. I’ve spent the last few days in San Cristobal
de las Casas, Chiapas, and in the “Hermanos en el Camino” migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca.
I felt right at home in San Cristobal, or better. I had the great fortune of landing in the

Bela Bed&Breakfast
. Bela, a delightful ex-hippie and expatriate American who loves dogs and flowers, had to leave for the United States due to a personal emergency and left the place in the care of her friend Tanya. Tanya is brilliant, brilliant in so many ways but mainly for how bright her heart shines.

With Tanya, Bela B&B, San Cristobal de las Casas.

One of Bela’s pups.

This place took me in like another member of their family, with hummingbirds stopping everyday by the garden, and four or five dogs warmly coming out to greet me every time I came back from the street. Bela’s is so cozy that I didn’t feel like going out, but it seems it’s against the law to stay in your room when visiting San Cristobal. My first impression of San Cristobal de las Casas was that of a theme park laced with indigenous poverty. European-style coffee houses and boutiques chock-full of tourists who evade the indigenous street-vendors and dozens of kids who offer to polish their shoes for a peso to buy a “tortilla”.

Carlos: “A peso for a picture?”

The Architecture is stunning – Colonial, with majestic Churches designed by Spaniards and painfully built by indigenous slaves –, but the social dynamics are quite depressing. The cash inflow that follows Tourism may be good for the economy but it wrings the heart of a foolish romantic like me. It almost feels like a second invasion. The charms of the city are enjoyed by American or European visitors/expatriates, and not by those descending from its original owners. This is a constant theme in the American continent, but for some reason it’s more apparent in San Cristobal. Yes, I am one of those visitors, and worse, a descendant of the conquerors. And yes, that doesn’t make me feel good. And no, I’m not loosing any sleep over this. It’s this damn bacterial indigestion that’s keeping me up all night.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.

Tourist buyer, San Cristobal.

Watch for stains on those pants, Ma’am.

I was made aware of the worst repercussion of the Spanish Conquest in the town of San Juan Chamula. At the interior of its famous Church, I found the descendants of the now extinct Mayan society getting in touch with their gods by way of catholic saint statues dressed in native attire. Thousands of candles everywhere and weeds covering the floor instead of benches, a custom also practiced in houses during certain holidays (Tanya explained the reason behind this but my moldy brain can’t recall it). The interior of the San Juan Chamula Church leaves no one unaffected. I would’ve liked to post some images but picture taking is not well received by the believers as they think bits of their soul are taken away with each snapshot. They have thrown stones at a few tourists for disrespecting their beliefs. Regardless of how silly or stupid you may think these superstitions are, as a guest in someone else’s house you align to the rules dictated by the host. It’s as if I let you into my home and you decide to take a dump in the dining table instead of the restroom because that’s your custom. Well, since my house-rules state that all bodily fluids go in the toilet doing otherwise will quickly prompt me to slap you. This church is no different. If you take a picture you’ll be slapped, and that’s what you deserve.
But let me get back to what I experienced there. My first sensation was that if a temple’s function is to bring you closer to god, this felt like the most suitable way. Without the mediation of a priest, free from the servitude of a dogma and the rigid celebration you can experience in a catholic mass. The connection between human and deity seems more tangible, more real. The candlelight and murmur of prayer accentuate the mystical atmosphere. But then, after a few moments of looking around and trying to hide my obvious “dumb tourist” look, something clicked inside of me that got me really upset. The fusion between these two religions, the Catholic and the Mayan, did not happen organically. One imposed itself violently over the other, and I know I don’t have to say which. New layouts for temples were imposed, a new God. All these intrusions keep me from seeing the merging of religions as something beautiful, and more like the fruit of greed, stubbornness and wicked nature of a certain part of humanity. Or even of all humankind, without exception.

Luis Rojas Marcos said in one of his essays that, were the human race not mainly good, humans would have ceased to exist a long time ago. I remember strongly rejecting this idea when I first read it, considering it naïve and childish, mainly because I was a depressed and angry teenager, as all self-respecting teenagers tend to be. It is now, with a more rational and less demagogic view of the world that I can say that good ol’ Luis may be right, or at least his conclusion makes sense. Empathy is supposed to be exclusive to us humans, right? but I wonder if empathy isn’t actually born out of the principle “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine”. Meaning, I’ll help you now because you can help me when I need it. That’s not generosity, it’s just barter. Just like the Christian concept “Give something now, and God will give back to you in heaven”. Giving as an investment, as some kind of emotional speculation.

It is my intention to find some kind of balance, so I have decided for my own health to search for someone that shows me that it can be the nature of humans to be generous, affectionate and well intentioned with their fellow men. Or at least someone who tries, damn it. I’ve come across a few, but two specially stand out: Sergio Castro, the burn-victim’s doctor in Chiapas, and Father Alejandro Solalinde, founder of the “Hermanos del Camino” shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca.

Sergio takes care of a patient in San Cristobal de las Casas.

Sergio has been healing patients for free in the State of Chiapas for many years, mainly in San Cristobal de las Casas. He does this because he believes it’s his duty, what God has designated for his life. Sometimes he doesn’t even have enough to eat, and if it weren’t for some donations in kind from his patients he would often go to bed on an empty stomach. He will lose sleep over a patient if his condition is not improving.
 He starts his day by going to some houses in the poorest neighborhoods, visiting patients who can’t make it to his “office”. In the afternoon he takes care of those who come to his office/Museum. His clinic has a permanent exhibit of all kinds of objects, garments and handicrafts that he has received from grateful patients over the years. Sergio speaks like five languages, and after a tough and long day of treating patients he stills has the energy to guide tourists around his Museum while explaining each and every item in his collection. He asks for a small donation to help him pay the rent and buy medicine. As if this wasn’t enough, some Spanish guy in a bandana asks if it’s ok to make a video about him, and not only does he agree, but patiently repeats the shot ’Sergio leaving his house’, because it’s prettier with this light. I am not the only one to think it’s worth filming a day in his life. He’s been interviewed a few times and there was even a documentary made about him, and yet there’s no sign of vanity in his eyes.

"It’s a concern that motivates me to try and heal that person until they are 100% cured.

I feel totally responsible, when they put themselves in my hands, to help them in any way they need. Without charging them anything, right?

I have faith in… There’s a saying that goes: What you do in this life has repercussions in eternity.

That is my motivation."

 The other character I visited in my - hopefully not useless - search for people who give meaning to the existence of the often embarrassing mammals we are, was Father Alejandro Solalinde. This Priest with balls of steel decided to open a shelter a few years ago. One where he could tend to those people who migrate to the United States from all around Central America aboard “The Beast”. The Beast is a train - many freight trains - that people jump on to take them to the U.S. border. They ride in the train’s roof and risk their lives for days.

Filming in the “Hermanos en el Camino” shelter.

Some people fall and die, others fall and loose a leg or two. They can be robbed by criminal gangs, raped, or kidnapped and tortured for the little money they may have with them. If they have no money to give they could be killed.
There are a few shelters along the tracks that help these unfortunate travelers. The “Hermanos en el Camino” shelter (“Brothers and Sisters in the Road”), operated by Father Alejandro and some very motivated volunteers, is one of them. I’m not sure if it’s the first but definitely one of the oldest. The travelers can rest, eat and shower at the shelter, for free, for a period of three days before continuing their journey. Some decide to stay and help. I was told really horrific stories by different travelers.

Those who profit from abusing these travelers have made death threats to Father Alejandro, so two bodyguards follow him everywhere now. The shelter has been attacked a few times, and it was almost set on fire not too long ago. There are ungrateful travelers who rob the shelter, but this doesn’t diminish Father Alejandro’s enthusiasm, or his assistants’, to work hard everyday without a salary, taking care of these people whose lives are driven by a dream. They call it the ‘American dream’, referring to the U.S. as America, but I see it as the American dream in the sense that it belongs to all of the Americans, from Mexico to the Southernmost tip of the continent. The dream of a better life, that’s worth risking your life for.

I can’t help but laugh now when they ask me ‘how is it that you’re not afraid to travel by motorcycle?’ Riding the Beast is what would terrify me.
Father Alejandro is the most un-catholic priest I have ever met -and I’ve met a lot- because he really follows Jesus’ words. It is no surprise that he’s already had problems with the Church. Unlike the missionaries who once arrived at this country and used their Bibles to break skulls open, Alejandro uses the Bible as inspiration to continue his mission of helping people. I asked him that in the hypothetically situation that it was demonstrated that God did not exist, and the Bible was all made up, would he still help people like he does now. He couldn’t answer me, as he can’t even imagine this as a possibility. In my opinion, and from a practical point of view, it doesn’t really matter. Jesus or no Jesus, this man dedicates his life to helping others and that’s what’s important.

"There’s food!
Welcome, there’s food in the shelter!
Welcome guys! There’s food in the shelter!"

From a more philosophical angle, I would like to know what moves a man who doesn’t believe in God to devote his time to strangers. Does such a man even exist? In my search, so far, I have encountered people who do good deeds motivated by their religious beliefs. The results are not the issue, but if the reasons behind a ‘good Samaritan’ to do good are of a religious nature, then this is no evidence that generosity is a quality of the human nature. In other words, would an atheist give his life and his time selflessly to help strangers? Can we find an Alejandro Solalinde or Sergio Castro who doesn’t believe in some kind of god anywhere in the world?

With this question in mind I’ll stop writing now and retire to endure a little more digestive pain. From the Atitlán Lake in Guatemala, these were Don Solaris’ mid-morning thoughts.

Sergio Castro, the doctor from San Cristobal.

One of Sergio’s patients.
The San Cristobal that tourists don’t see.

Healing free of charge.

Those tacos did not agree with me, guey.

Volunteer’s meeting at “Hermanos en el Camino”

Lunchtime at the shelter.
That coffee was not bad.
The camera was too big to go unnoticed.
Appeasing hunger, the most important deed.

Lupita, a volunteer at “Hermanos del Camino”

“ … My son, this is your song.
I have walked through many lands
Covered in blankets of stars,
knowing I’m in the hands
of our Lady of Guadalupe”.

Listening to Tony sing “Mexico”

A dream awaiting at the end of those tracks.

“Happy traveling and a quick return”
With Tony. He arrived in a train and decided to stay.

Roro taking a little rest at the shelter.

This man has such an enormous heart.

Mass only for those who want to attend, no pressure.

Juan Carlos, a tireless worker at the shelter. And he makes amazing coffee.

I couldn’t have explained it better:

 "You are an explorer of human realities, and you’re going to encounter realities that are going to change your life.
The most important thing is going to happen when you accumulate, add, contemplate and finally assimilate all the wealth that you’d have acquired.
Do you understand what I mean? You’ll be a different person.
The Daniel in front of me now is different from the one that will arrive at Tierra del Fuego, and different too from the one that will go back to New York. It’s a different Daniel."


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