The spirit of the Mountains, Chiapas


The spirit of the Mountains

During my stay in San Cristóbal de las Casas I realized how little I know about the local townspeople. The town is a wonderful mix of rich indigenous culture together with a colourful array of travellers and volunteers from around the world. When you visit, you want to return, simple as that. However, it was my stay with Natate as a volunteer which made me realize that Chiapas is not just San Cristóbal but much more: the indigenous culture preserved in the communities is the true and pervasive spirit of this Mexican state.

First, some background. To be honest, I needed a bit of help from Nico, my boss, to get out of my “warm and soft chair” in our office to get involved with our next project. I was a bit worried about “not having access” to my mail everyday, a possible sign of habit turned to addiction? However, I decided to go for it, and in cooperating with Habitat para la Humanidad, we prepared a project where people from all over the world had a chance to come and build houses in rural areas. The project took place in a community called Candelaria. This place was very unique because it was virtually “untouched” by anyone outside the community. As the campamento drew closer things started to become interesting. For some of the participants, distressing information like no places to buy food and rather simple hygienic conditions was cause for second thoughts. For me, having spent the last few years on the road, a luxury is a day when it doesn’t rain and you can sleep outside — things started to sound really intriguing.

The first visit happened just a few days before when I loaded our truck with Manuel chief of Habitat para la Humanidad and drove to Candelaria. During the drive I got first hand info on how handy it is to speak Spanish however Tzotzil would be more appropriate. Well, I’ve mastered good morning and thank you. Good start. When we arrived we met the head of the family, (I believe Don Francisco) and were introduced to the rest of the family members who ranged from around 15 to 4 years of age. The encounter was very pleasant and I loved the community immediately. The nature was just awesome: mountains with small fields on the slopes, pastures with small brooks flowing through them, winding paths between the houses. Just amazing.

We came back to the town for the weekend, waiting for the beginning of the next week to come back to Candelaria again. The team for the start was: me and Isabel, French girl with a very good eye for photography. Another French girl Bessi and American guy Brendan joined us later on. We arrived just in time to help get the furniture out of the old house, and we started to tear the building down. Within two days the house was completely levelled. I’ve managed to stay for two nights on the spot sleeping in a house near the main family house. The ground was simple pressed earth, walls adobe, sounds of cricket during the night, just beautiful. It is hard to say what was the best part of my stay. I’ve loved the evenings when I shared food around the fire with the family. It was amazing and I’ll never forget them. Also memorable were the challenges of unloading (with the help of three other native guys) a car full of concrete blocks, and of carrying 50 kg bags of concrete on my head or shoulders. I survived in a one piece and even” put on some muscle”.

Our first week was met with success. The old house was torn down and we managed to salvage all the materials. From then on the family and their friends took over.

Our next project was to give a hand to the local carpenter, Don Theodolfo, who lived just over the hill in the center of the village. This part was, maybe, even more fun than the first. We had four people right from the start. The core group was Inna and Florian from Germany, myself from the Czech Republic, and Eric, a really cool gentlemen from Belgium. We clicked from the beginning, as we did as well with the Don Theodolfo and his crowed. They helped us really experience how it is to live life in this community. We worked as we liked, and I can say that it was truly gratifying to work together when building a better place and a better life for them. We did all the cleaning of the spot again, we dug the foundations for concrete, we put up beams to hold up everything, and we made it earthquake safe. We then put up the walls and made the roof, and best of all, we made the concrete floors. If you haven’t tried to mix concrete for a medium size house by hand and without a mixer, you do not know what real fun is. The local drink called “posh”, sugar cane distillate, kept our spirits high all day long. Later, the ultimate sacrifice of the black hen for sanctification of the new house, and the big feast of local food with the whole family and everyone made the experience complete. When I was walking afterwards towards San Cristóbal, zig zagging down the road and wondering if posh is just pure alcohol or if I’m just getting soft, life seemed just right.

But all that work was just a part of the trip. It was the evenings that were especially memorable in a very personal way. While I was cooking food in the black kitchen, the whole family watched on as “the top show of the evening”. Later we shared food together around the fire, talking, drinking the native drink atole de agrio and having a beautiful time. And then the hours spent walking around the nearby mountains were amazing: vistas walking barefoot on small earth paths, a horizon without any telephone or electric cables, just mountains, nature and you.

I have to say that this campamento in the heart of Chiapas was one of the most profound experiences of my life. If you really would like to feel how it is to be out of the western style of life at least for a bit, come and just do it. Take a baths in family temascals, eat soup from dried fish and home made tortillas, add brick upon brick to build something worthwhile. No credit cards, no online (add word), just leave it behind and find yourself and others, at least for a while.

Have a great time, and big applause for international volunteerism and for everyone who is helping to make this happen, to Nataté especially.


Frantisek alias Pancho Algoldor Apfelbeck


~ by algoldor on April 22, 2011.

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