A spiritual day

Chamula Travel Blog

 › entry 8 of 10 › view all entries

We stopped briefly in San Cristobal de las Casas to check into our hotel and grab some lunch.  We would come back in the afternoon, but first, it was on to Chamula travel guide">San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan.

In Chamula, we had a hard time parking.  It was difficult to avoid accidentally running over the half-dozen children who kept trying to help us find a parking space.  Their help consisted mostly of swarming around the van, in and out of the driver's blind spots.  We finally parked, and Dr. Vick tipped the children with some pesos, even though they gave us more trouble than assistance.  It's difficult to say "no" when you realize that the few pesos we gave them would buy probably the only food they would eat that day.

We left our cameras in the van to go see the Cathedral.  The people of Chamula are very strict about photo taking, and have been known to confiscate and destroy cameras they see inside their church.

At the bottom of the long road from the parking lot to the Cathedral, we went into the tourist office for some information.  Outside, a huge group (about 1000 men) was gathered in front of the municipal building.  They were shouting up at some men on the balcony, who were shouting back over a megaphone.  Leaving the tourist office put us right in front of the crowd.  We started walking quickly to the side of the plaza, when the crowd surged forwards!  I grabbed Tara's hand and ran out of the crowd's path.  Everyone made it safely to the Cathedral, and we went inside.

I have never been in such a church before!  There were no pews.  The floor of the church was covered in pine needles.  Glass cases containing statues of elaborately dressed saints lined the wall, each with mounds of flowers and pine boughs piles in front of it.  Green and floral banners hung down from the ceiling.  Incense and candle smoke hung heavy in the air.  On the altar, the statue of Jesus was off to the side (he is considered a minor diety in the Mayan religion) while a statue of the patron saint of the town was front and center.

A congregant would enter the church, clear a small part of the floor for himself or herself, then proceed to set up several rows of dozens of candles, melted onto the floor so they wouldn't fall over.  All the while, they would be praying.  One family had a chicken with them (which we later learned was either fresh from the market and hadn't been dropped off at home yet, or would be sacrificed in a ritual to rid a family member of illness!)

I don't know whether it was the smoke or the darkness lit only by small candles, or what, but it felt like there was a palpable spiritual energy flowing around.  It was a place that demanded silence and reverence.  We walked slowly around the perimeter of the room, watching the strange practice and admiring the extravagant statues and decor.

The Maya practice a mix of Catholicism and their ancient religion.  To them, caves are sacred places, portals to the underworld.  The whole inside of the church, with the pine needles and dark banners hanging, is designed to simulate a mountain cave.  Viewed in that light, everything we saw made a little more sense, but it was still strange.

We headed back towards the van, this time walking behind the crowd outside.  We later learned that the reason for the crowd had to do with recent elections in the village.  Apparently there was some debate about changing their traditional way of voting for their village leaders to a new, more modern way.

Walking up the street, Tara and I stopped in several shops, where they were selling clothing, handmade pottery and wooden sculpture, and trinkets.  I watched a woman weaving wall hangings.  She used a type of loom with one end looped around a pole supporting the roof and the other looped around her waist.  As she worked, the tin roof shook constantly.

Back at the van and on to Zinacantan!

As we drove into the village, it started to rain again.  I loved how everyone in the group who had been to Mexico before kept saying how it "never rains this much, even during the rainy season."  Though it rained everyday so far, luckily, the rain has only lasted about 30 minutes each time.  After that, it was clear blue skies.

Because of the rain, the elders of Zinacantan were not on the podium in front of the church hearing grievances like they normally would be.  Instead, they were in an adjacent building talking amongst themselves.  We decided to go into the church and look around.

Inside, a service was being held.  About 30 people, mostly children and their parents, were listening to a robed man speak.  Dr. Vick explained that the man wasn't a priest; he was a layman who translates the ceremony and sermon into Mayan.  That makes sense, considering most of the congregation speak Mayan as their native language, and very little Spanish.

We listened for while, then went back outside.  Near the door to where the village elders were meeting, a man in a robe invited us to come inside and watch.  Seeing the elders sitting around a table talking was a unique experience, but I don't speak Mayan, so my attention was quickly drawn elsewhere.

The interesting thing to watch was the group of robed men carefully removing a statue of a saint from its glass case, undressing it, scenting the clothes with incense, then redressing the statue and placing it back in its case, all-the-while prayering and performing simple rituals.  They did this for every saint in the room (about 9) but we only stayed long enough to watch 2 or 3 statues go through this treatment.  Outside, Dr. Vick told us how rare it is for tourists to see something like that.  It was neat to think that if it hadn't rained and caused us to change our plans, we wouldn't have seen the ceremony.

As we left town, we got a good look at the sacred mountain of Zinacantan, where the old go after death.  The people of Zinacantan believe that the town is the center of the universe.  One hill in town is the "navel of the unverse."

The drive back to San Cristobal was a crazy one around winding mountain roads in the pouring rain.  Again, I have to hand it to the drivers on the trip.  They got us through some pretty rough terrain and weather.

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Chamula
photo by: Biedjee