Travelmag Banner

At the Heart of a People’s revolution

As I re-emerge from an uneasy sleep, my hollywoodesque surroundings gradually come into focus: the glowing sunrise, the acres of lush rainforest, the rough dirt track and the convoy of open-top cattle trucks would make the perfect opening scene for the next Indiana Jones. Slightly less romantic are the piles of crumpled people (myself included) who have been mercilessly packed into the back of each vehicle. I have spent the last seven and a half hours trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a comfortable dozing position amongst my twenty or so companions; but now, faced with the prospect of living and working within a Zapatista community at the heart of Chiapas’s Lacondon Jungle, my mood is impeccable. Besides which the Mayan Gods have been smiling upon us: we have been spared the torrential downpours typical of Mexico’s rainy season (it is late July), and we have entered rebel territory with relatively little hassle from the military.

Francisco Gomez, a Mayan co-operative community of eighty families, is where I am to spend the next ten days helping with the construction of the region’s second autonomous school. Although in reality there is little I can do that the locals can’t do better and faster (construction skills not being my forté), our presence alone is significant: in this low-intensity war zone, international support goes a long way to protecting the indigenous community from the all-too-frequent military interference.

We are shown to rustic sleeping quarters by our amiable host. Outside these simple wooden huts with mud floors, the morning haze gives way to another spectacular view: the tops of the surrounding hills poke out from behind wisps of white cloud, their steep surface a dense patchwork of all the shades of green; this primitive farmyard of one and a half hectares is surrounded by an incongruous mix of untamed jungle and well-kept cornfields.

It is impossible not to notice the colourful murals and slogans which give the place a distinctly revolutionary flavour: “Nunca un Mexico sin nosotros!” says one – “There will never be Mexico without us!” Until now my perception of civil war in Latin America has been somewhat of a romantic cliché, a naïve product of a lifetime of Ché Guevara posters and a few too many triumphant movie soundtracks. So, when we are greeted by a dozen men in balaclavas and bandanas, my excitement gets the better of me: “are these real guerreros?” “Do they actually kill people?” During the course of the afternoon’s talks, however, my preconceptions melt away: these are ordinary people (albeit dressed like bank robbers) who want nothing more than to enjoy the fruits of the Mexican revolution and to obtain social justice for their people. Of the three per cent of indigenous children who complete sixth grade, many walk for two days to reach the only community-run school in the region. Even then, the severe lack of resources makes teaching difficult. Books, food, accommodation and medicine are in short supply; poverty, disease and malnutrition are a fact of life for a people competing with rich landowners, a repressive military and a hostile government.

After two long days spent clearing the uneven land for construction, I am invited to accompany several of the local women to cut wood in the rainforest. Despite the previous night’s fiesta, I jump out of bed at 6am with surprising ease. At least, it’s 6am by my watch, but the notion of time here is strangely ambiguous: the national “Mexico City Time”, the locally observed “Sun Time” and the strategic “Zapatista Time” are each an hour apart, and often leave me wondering if I ‘m late for breakfast or I could have enjoyed an extra hour’s sleep. Not that it really matters; there’s an aura of timelessness in Francisco Gomez which allows natural rhythms to take over, so it soon becomes irrelevant what date, day or time it is. It ‘s not long before I adjust to a simpler and altogether more agreeable routine – eat when hungry, sleep when tired.

I watch in admiration as three heavily pregnant women lift enormous bundles of wood onto their heads and turn back towards the river, while my three male companions and I struggle with the four minuscule piles they have considerately tied together for us. Our efforts to get ourselves and our cargo across the river in one piece – the only bridge being a slippery log with a precarious handrail – provoke whispers and giggles from our agile hostesses. Once safely on the other side, I ask one of the women, Carmen, why we only have five machetes between the eight of us. “We used to have many more”, she tells me in broken Spanish (Tzeltal is still their first language), “until the army came in and confiscated our tools. The few tools we now have are thanks to international help”.

Each day our hard work is rewarded by a trip to the river, to bathe and wash our clothes with the local women and children. The tranquillity is spoilt only by the hum of low-flying military helicopters, belonging to an army with nothing better to do than to take photos of us – the troublesome internationals daring to assist in such disruptive activities as cement mixing and brick carrying. We are doing nothing illegal, but military intimidation is a tactic used by the Mexican government to inhibit international support in Chiapas.

On our last evening, my dark mood is dispelled by a late-night send-off. But as we are herded back into our trucks I am overcome by a mixture of sadness and nerves; sadness because I don’t feel ready to swap this simple community-centred lifestyle with the impersonality of the city; nerves because we have three military road blocks to get through before San Cristóbal. There is a chance that some of us will be cited (ordered to appear) by the powers that be, and perhaps even deported on the unreasonable grounds that we have violated our tourist visas. Thanks to our 1am departure, however, we avoid any unpleasant encounters. It is only when we reach San Cris that we are stopped and interrogated by half a dozen teenagers in uniform who check our passports and note down our names in a dog-eared exercise book which looks about as official as a street kid’s collection form. Although it is against Mexican law for the military to check passports, we are reluctant to argue, not so much because we are exhausted as because these bureaucrats are armed to the teeth. An hour later they let us through, although I sense they are unconvinced by our explanation that this cattle truck full of grumpy hippies is in fact a group of tourists returning from a tour of the Palenque ruins – at 6.30 in the morning…

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines