Monday, November 1, 2010

A memorable Halloween

9:26 p.m. Monday, Nov. 1, 2010 – San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico


The night we arrived, Oct. 30th, we walked past several groups of kids dressed up and trick-or-treating as we walked from the bus station to our hostel. Tonight, the first of a two day celebration for Dia de los Muertos, we saw many more children passing from store to store, dressed up with hands out for candy.

But yesterday, on October 31st, none. Zilch. Nada. Somehow, we seemed to be the only ones celebrating Halloween. This would not have been a surprise, being in a different country and all, except for the fact people seemed to be dressed up every night BUT Halloween. We found out later that since it fell on a Sunday, many chose to celebrated Halloween a day early, or to just wait and lump it in with the Dia de los Muertos festivities.

And yet there we were, four gringas in ridiculously bright and shiny togas, with leaves, flowers, hearts and moons in our hair. Of course, we were going for the ridiculous factor, why else would have have gone all out in such a fabulously tacky way? So in that sense, it was a success. But it took us a while to go from deer in headlights with everyone staring at us, to turning the attention into a positive thing and making new friends. While on our way to a place Chiara had recommended, we met a group of four guys who ended up tagging along. Our varying levels of Spanish and English abilities made for interesting table conversation, but we got along just fine.

Next they showed us a really great salsa club and we spent the rest of the night dancing until our safety pinned garments could no longer handle the pressure (we were armed with plenty of clothing underneath, luckily—for both warmth and modesty's sake). We said goodnight to our new friends, politely declining their offer to escort us back to our hostel, and turned towards our temporary home. At this point my toga was acting more as a shawl—completely unpinned and wrapped around my shoulders to ward off the cold, night air.

This morning we forced ourselves out of bed early to take a tour of the Cañón del Sumidero, an hour away from San Cristobal and on the Grijalva River. We piled onto a large motor boat and maneuvered throught the deep canyon, which I decided was Yosemite meets Milford Sound. The canyon walls were impressively high, and at the base of the cliffs there were several narrow beaches where crocodiles could be seen sunning (we saw eleven total). Cutting through the wind and water on the speedy boat reminded me of family summer vacations on Moosehead Lake, Maine throughout my childhood.

Shrine built into the canyon walls

The canyon was dramatic, but one point was particularly shocking. As we rounded one of the bends, it appeared there was something thick covering the surfaced of the water. Reeds, perhaps? Refuse, rather. Lots of it. The disturbing scene that caused me to tip my camera lens a bit higher than normal, also prompted me to ponder the source of all the waste below the horizon line, and how it came to inhabit this otherwise glorious vista.

The scene that's omitted from the travel magazines

After the boat ride, we returned to the van and were taken to a nearby town, Chiapa de Corzo. After eating lunch there, we opted to go to the zoo in Tuxtla rather than to continue back to San Cristobal with the tour.

We caught a taxi to Tuxtla, only to find that the zoo was closed (on a Monday) because of Dia del los Muertos. So the cab driver took us back to Chiapa de Corzo (about 20 minutes away) and charged us double. We were hoping to still catch the tour van home, but they had just left. Since we were already there, we explored the town a little bit more , visiting a church and climbing up the tower to get a view of the city.

Though I wanted to climb over the railing and onto the church roof to get a better photographic angle, Evelyn, along with the others, forbid me to do so

Then we started looking for colectivos to San Cristobal, however everyone we stopped was going to Tuxtla. After speaking with several people, it seemed we needed to take a bus to Tuxtla in order to find a colectivo going to San Cristobal. So, of course, we paid to go BACK to the city we had just left, and finally caught a colectivo to San Cristobol. Three unnecessary rides and we didn’t even get to go to the zoo.

By the time we got home this afternoon we were pretty tired and a little frustrated (though as Liz pointed out, “If this is the worst thing that happens to us on this trip then I’d say we’re doing pretty well”), so we opted for a relaxing night. We went to a pizza place and ordered a whole pizza each, so we’d have lunch for the next day. We have got only one more day here, probably full of shopping, and then back to reality. But I have to admit, I miss the monkeys!


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mountain getaway

5:47 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31, 2010 – San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico


I’m already very much in love with the city of San Cristobal de las Casas after just one day spent walking around. We bussed in last night and arrived at 8 p.m., with the temperature in the mid-40s. We had been warned about the cold, mountain nights, and were somewhat prepared. Yet it was still shocking to think of actually being cold when all we’ve experienced thus far has been the heat and humidity of Palenque.

Today we woke up and had a delicious breakfast courtesy of our hostel, and set out to explore the city. The weather was perfect—mid-70s and sunny but with a crisp, mountain breeze. The city itself is colorful and intimate, with narrow streets spilling over with handmade crafts and goods for sale. We strolled through several markets, Christmas shopping and admiring the artisans’ work.

Day of the Dead figurines

The town is full of a diversity of people, and much less homogeneous than Palenque. We could hear a variety of languages and accents as we shopped around, and for once didn’t feel like we stuck out like a sore thumb. Late in the afternoon we climbed an enormous hill up to a church which overlooked the city and provided a worthwhile view of the surrounding hills.

Feeling satisfied with our shopping and exploring for the day, we went back to our hostel and cooked up a makeshift dinner using the ingredients we rummaged up in the corner shop (garlic, tomato, penne, cheese). Our hostel is excellent—close to downtown, has a kitchen and internet, and is run by a super nice Mexican/French-Canadian couple. But while the temperature is pleasant during the day, it drops to the mid-40s at night and our room is neither heated nor insulated, with windows and doors open to the outside and a concrete floor. So we’ve been bundling up as much as our light layers have afforded us at night. After dinner I took my first hot shower since I left the States. While I haven’t minded the cold showers in Palenque, the frigid mountain water would provide a completely different experience and one I’m not sure I could physically handle.

Now we are about to commence the long and complicated process of transforming us into Greek goddesses (Artemis - Liz, Aphrodite - Brittany, Demeter – Evelyn, Gaia - me) for our Halloween night out. Hair, makeup, nails...I’m not sure I will survive the ordeal!

Our dress rehearsal in Palenque after buying the fabric


Friday, October 29, 2010

Introducing Pegrito

5:42 p.m. Friday, Oct. 29, 2010 – La Casa, Palenque, Mexico


Yesterday we got to finally do what we’ve been begging Sarie and Dr. Estrada to let us do for the past month—pay a visit to Pegrito, the little baby black howler monkey they’ve been caring for ever since he was brought to the animal rehabilitation clinic six weeks ago. Dr. Estrada brought him by our house once before when he was only a few days old, but we weren’t able to get too close. Since then he’s been battling a series of colds, so visits were out of the question. But yesterday we finally got to go over to see the little rascal—hold, cuddle and let him climb in our hair. And oh yeah, take a gazillion photos!

Pegrito learning how to howl! Or yawn, rather.

Lunch time!

He’s still really small but already an excellent climber/clinger. As he’s instinctively driven to hang onto hair, we “hairless” humans are not the ideal perch. So Pegrito wasn’t comfortable unless he was on top and nestled in our locks. He was incredibly curious, examining our cameras and watches, and climbing everywhere.

After the extended monkey visit, last night we went for pizza at Don Muchos in El Panchan with Katie and her newly arrived assistant Sarah. Tonight I will pack and then we’re on a bus to San Cristobal tomorrow at 2 p.m.! Can’t wait for the Halloween and Dia Del Los Muertos celebrations to commence!


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The newest Pakal member

6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010 – La Casa, Palenque, Mexico


After spending a lot of time in the field, you tend to adopt certain traits from the monkeys. Reciprocal grooming, for instance.

After two good days with Balam, we were scheduled to observe Pakal—the group that has given us so much trouble lately. While we were following Balam they actually had an encounter with Pakal and got quite aggressive—we all thought a full fledged fight might break out. It didn’t luckily, and besides the excitement of the meeting we didn’t otherwise notice anything unusual with any of the Pakal members (specifically the females).

Day before yesterday however, Chiara and Evelyn returned from the field with some exciting news. Esma of the Pakal group has a newborn! He had to have been born early that morning or the night before, because we hadn’t seen a tiny fuzz ball hanging on Esma during the inter-group encounter.

So needless to say, we were all pretty excited to begin our cycle with the Pakals. While they hardly gave us any decent views at first, remaining high in the canopy for the majority of yesterday, we got our chance today. It was still tough to spot the little pink and gray newborn, but we could occasionally see him peeking out under Esma’s arm or hanging on her belly as she jumped from limb to limb.

You can just barely make out the infant clutching onto Esma's stomach on the left, and its face is visible in the photo on the right
(click to enlarge).

Since the Pakal group underwent infanticide last February (the coup was led by now-central male Pakal), the other two females (Parcha and Pura) are also most likely pregnant. Pakal killed the infants sired by the previous central male so he could copulate and bear offspring with the three females. So despite the dismal circumstances, it will be amusing to have several infants playing with the already existing juveniles Kanika and Emma.

A hidden tunnel under a Mayan structure by the river where we were observing the Pakals


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Scoville scale of pain

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010 – La Casa, Palenque, Mexico


Monday, the last day of our break, I debated over whether or not to take any action to diagnose and fix my ailing toe. Toe injuries are hard to take seriously, but also difficult to ignore. I’m generally under the impression that you can’t do anything about a broken toe except suck it up and walk it off. But with me having to stay on my feet hiking and climbing ten hours a day, I felt a more proactive solution might benefit me and the job.

I was finally convinced to go to the hospital clinic in town as my toe was looking worse than ever—extremely swollen and purple and painful to walk on. Sarie and Brittany accompanied me, Sarie to help translate and Brittany for moral support. They took an X-ray (which I got to keep!) and determined that my toe was not broken but severely infected and sprained. I was impressed/horrified that a mere infection was responsible for the enormous size and coloration of my digit. My toenail had been pulled completely back and my foot smashed against the rock, so dirt and bacteria had been trapped underneath all day while I continued to explore the Mayan ruins.

The nurse informed me she would have to remove the rest of the toenail to prevent further infection. She also said the anesthesia injection would be extremely painful, and likened it to hundreds of chili peppers being injected into my foot. I’m not sure how much I appreciated this colorful imagery, it certainly didn’t comfort me. Having a large needle jabbed into my tender foot was painful in itself, but the liquid fire which was released indeed felt like the essence of habaneros. All I could do to distract myself was mutter "Chili, chili, chili,” under my breath. From now on that shall be my mantra while under stress.

I went to the field Tuesday and Wednesday to track the Motiepas, but climbing up and down hills and waterfalls was miserable on my foot. We’re working on an abbreviated schedule through the rest of October in order to get three complete cycles in, so we’re doing just two days with each group.

Turtle rescue!

Who says you can't find clean drinking water in Mexico? You've just got to know where to look.
"Because I love that dirty water, Oh oh, Mexico you're my home!"

Today we went to town to finally pick up the material for our Halloween costumes we’ve been planning for weeks. On the 30we’ll take a bus to San Cristobal, a cute little mountain town six hours away that has been constantly recommended to us. We all want to experience an all-out Dia del los Muertos celebration, and San Cristobal will have a lot more going on than Palenque. Plus, it will be nice to get some fresh, mountain air. Of course, dressing up isn’t exactly the tradition here, but we thought we’d have fun with it anyway. I don’t want to give away too much about the costumes yet though—it’s a surprise! Stay tuned.

Refreshments and Halloween
costume sketches