I moved with my partner to live in San Cristobal de Las Casas, in the state of Chiapas, in February of 1997. Although we had never visited this area of Mexico, we chose San Cristobal, after much research. It fit the list of things we were looking for in a place to spend our two year sabbatical. It had a somewhat intact indigenous culture, moderate highland climate and possibilities for volunteering that would provide meaningful work. Although reports of political unrest (due to the Zapatista uprising in January 1994) still lingered in the air, we hoped that the city of San Cristobal would provide us with a safe atmosphere in which to live.
Very quickly upon our arrival we found this place to be tranquil enough to walk alone at night. Once we actually forgot our bag in the market and came back 4 hours later and it was still there. In addition, we have e-mail, so we are able to continue close communication with our family and friends in Northern California. Within 2 weeks we found an ideal house on the outskirts of town, in a 200-year-old ranch that was once the home of the Harvard University Mayan research project.
Daily, I continue to find San Cristobal and the highlands of Chiapas an amazing place to be. An interesting blend of the old and new world, of political struggle and people doing their lives the way their ancestors have for centuries. I continue to carve out a life for myself here, stumbling along the way. Some days wondering What am I doing here? other days wanting to stay forever.
I began to find a way to relate more closely to the people who live here by teaching English daily in the market with Julio, a teenager who is avid to come to the U.S., and whatever friends of his happenned to stop by each day.
After an hour with Julio, I went and worked with Marta. She is 29 with 5 children ages 8 to 14 She is a very serious student. Like many people in the market she is bilingual -- Spanish and Tzotzil. I can tell that between our daily classes she is studying. What a pleasure it is to work with her!
We are usually surrounded by children. One of her daughters has started coming to our classes. She is 10. Then the two girls from the tomato stand next to Martas lime stand join us. One calls me her gringa. They play with my hair, caress my skin, lean against me, check out what clothes and shoes I have on. I am definitely a curiosity!
After a while the 12-year-old girl from the flower stand across the way started coming over. She is very quiet and only will whisper her name to me. But daily she stands and listens very attentively. She is always carrying her 1-year-old brother strapped to her back . She is from the town of Zinacantan (where the flowers are raised in Chiapas). Her quiet presence tugs at my heart. She has never been to school. In 3 years it will probably be her own baby on her back. Marta had her first child at 15.
As time moved on during my stay here I became involved with an alternative school. Pequeño Sol, which provides a rich eductional experience for Mexican, international and indigenous children (who come through a schlarship program funded by some supporter in Switzerland). It is preschool through 9th grade. I mostly work training teachers to develop and implement pro-social curriculum in their classrooms. These dedicated educators, living in an area of deep-seated racism towards indigenous people, see the potential for change coming for the next generation. So they understand the need to create and teach tolerance in the classroom as a priority.
An alternative school for children, two bakeries that sell whole wheat bread, vegetarian restaurants, an inexpensive langauge school, great opportunites for volunteer (political and non-political) work, a moderate climate and fabulous scenery. What more could one ask for?
If you want to know more about the many opportunities for visiting or living in San Cristobal, I suggest you contact Helga at a wonderful language school here in San Cristobal via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lorenas note: As I was preparing the travel letter, I asked Sage if she still felt San Cristobal is safe, considering the recent events in Chiapas.
"Yes, I think San Cristobal is every bit as safe to live in as I thought when I wrote you. This past year has brought some hassles to people doing humanitarian aide work in communities that support the Zapatistas. There have even a few rather highly publicized deportations of well known US political activists.
However, a couple of things are changing the governments stand on this. One being that Tom Hansons deportation (and therefore what could have been the government keeping him out of Mexico forever) was overruled in the courts and he has been allowed to return. Also word is that the recent hurricane disasters here mean that tourist money will be needed more then ever. So the goverment may have to let up on its harrasment of tourists who want to be more involved in indigenous struggles. We will see."