January 23, 2019
One of the cardinal rules of travel is always to expect the unexpected, and to remain flexible no matter what. The last day of our trip to Chiapas this played out in rather dramatic fashion.
(On the left are views of the Chiapas highlands en route to Romerillo)
Our schedule called for a visit to the town of Tenejapa to observe the festivities in honor of San Ildefonso (who also happens to be patron of Mérida’s cathedral). Everyone was in high spirits after the previous days’ lively experiences with local culture. As we climbed up over the mountains Marina asked the driver to pull over to the side of the road near the town of Romerillo, a town famous for its colorful celebrations at Dia de Muertos. There was a large cemetery on the right that included many of the features of indigenous ritual practice we had been discussing.
Everyone disembarked and commenced to photograph the hillside as Marina explained the line of pine trees at the top of the hill, the same variety that provided sacred needles to cover the floors of local churches. The trees were entwined with enormous Maya crosses, symbol of the sacred ceiba tree, unifying life and death, the earthly and the divine.
The graves all appeared to be very near the surface, and mounds of dirt lay atop each one, covered by a large wooden plank, the exact purpose of which remains a mystery. The only ornamentation consisted of simple crosses and some flowers.
After a few minutes the bus driver scurries over and prods us to return to the bus. There is a sense of urgency in his voice, and we comply as quickly as possible, if with a bit of bewilderment.
The driver is now standing in front of the bus in a rather intense discussion with a man in uniform, slight of build, with short cropped hair - apparently the overseer of the cemetery.
We had seen our driver in similar mode the previous day, when the van was loading on a busy, but narrow, street in San Cristóbal de las Casas. A policeman had written a citation and removed the van’s license plates, a common practice in Mexico, but one that necessitates a visit to court and the paying of a fine in order to retrieve the plates. On that occasion, the deft negotiations of the driver accomplished the return of the plates and the writing of no more than a warning. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Today the overseer is motioning to a sign directly in front of the bus, but not quite obvious from the angle at which we sat. None of us had observed this sign initially, but it said in Spanish, “In this pantheon it is prohibited of all tourists and passengers to take videos, under pain of a 5000 peso fine.”
Five thousand pesos is more than $250 US, a serious sum in these parts, so they obviously mean business. Keep in mind that we are passing through an autonomous district, with the rights to enact and enforce its own laws.
The bus driver is pointing to the word “video”, asserting that photographs do not qualify, while the overseer obviously has a much broader definition of terms. Complicating matters, this is a Tzeltal Maya speaking area, and the overseer is not that proficient in Spanish, so communication remains strained.
At one point the overseer attempts to remove our license plates. The driver blocks his access, pressing him against the van. Several men exit the van hoping to offer at least a non-confrontational moral reinforcement by their presence. In response, the overseer walks over and extracts the keys to the van. Since the fans on the van are still in operation, there is concern among the passengers that the battery could be depleted.
As Marina assesses the situation, she requests that we delete any photos we have taken of the cemetery. Some travelers have ingeniously forwarded their photos to their personal computers before deleting them from their phones.
Marina leaves the van and steps into the fray as more townspeople arrive. Accompanied by one of the women of the town, Marina disappears over the cemetery hill as the driver and the overseer appear to be at an impasse, and the van is without keys.
Time passes and we are all wondering exactly what the story might be, though we are piecing bits together and conjecturing what might be the problem and how it might be resolved.
When Marina returns she gives an update: the overseer is intoxicated (it is not yet noon) and the other townspeople, scandalized by his actions, claim that he does not have proper jurisdiction. Marina’s departure was to seek out the sheriff’s wife, hoping to summon the proper authorities to the scene.
Three quarters of an hour have passed since we first stopped, and the sheriff and his deputies appear, all dressed in the distinctive white sheepskin coats of the region. Marina explains the purpose of our trip and the desire of everyone travelling to more fully experience and understand the local culture.
The sheriff is overtly apologetic. He assures us that tourists are welcome in his town, and that photos are indeed permissible on the hillside. He doubtless is also motivated by the tourist dollars he can easily see evaporating before his eyes!
It is impressive how kindly the diplomatic sheriff speaks to everyone involved, especially to the overseer. This sheriff is a natural leader. But feeling embarrassed and vulnerable, having lost face with his community, the overseer begins to cry. As he saw it, he was only trying to do his job and to protect his community from the gazing eyes of curious, and perhaps, dismissive, tourists.
There are now smiles and handshakes all round. Marina and the bus driver return to the van, and, turning the vehicle around, we return to San Cristóbal where we have appointments scheduled for the afternoon. Tenejapa will have to wait for another trip!