When is a church not a church?

I’ve stepped inside many a church in my time. Living so close to continental Europe for so many years I was lucky enough to see many of the grandest churches going around – The Vatican, Notre Dame, Berlin Cathedral. I’ve even be known to bow my head and offer a prayer of thanks (though I’m still not entirely convinced anyone was listening).

However, I’ve never been so delighted to step inside a church as I was went I visited the Catholic Church of San Juan Chamula. It’s in a Mayan village, just outside the Mexican town of San Cristobal (which is worth a visit just to look at the ambar in the jewellery stores – amazing stuff).
On the outside, San Juan is a very very ordinary and rather run down Catholic Church. Anything but impressive. However, I now absolutely adore this church.
When you step inside however you quickly see this is no ordinary Catholic Church. Sunshine pours in through the windows, on to a concrete floors which is void of any pews or any place to sit. Instead the floor is covered in masses of pine needles and lumps of wax, from the hundreds of tiny candles that are stuck to the floor. Bunches and bunches of marigolds are placed at the feet of the icons of various saints, along with the odd shot of mezcal and packet of cigarettes. To top it off, our guide reassured me that mass hasn’t been said here in more than 30 years.
It is the most un-church like church I’ve ever been inside. Our Mayan guide tried to explain how this place came to be, and how the Mayan belief system has reconciled itself with Christianity. I really hope I don’t mangle the Mayan beliefs of the local people in my summary…. When the Spanish came to this town they razed the existing Mayan temple, a place of offering to the Mayan Gods. In its place they built the Catholic Church, and began preaching this new religion. But the Mayan attitude to the introducted religion was perhaps unexpected by the Spanish; it went something like this:
We have heard about your God. You revere your God like we revere our Gods. You pray to your God like we pray to our Gods. Your God is the source of all light and life, as are our Gods. In our minds, they are equal. They are the same. The temple you razed was a place of offering, the church you built is also a church of offering. We may use the name of your God, and kneel in your church, but it really makes no difference what we call him or where we kneel, because they are the same. We will always be worshipping our Gods.”
Like the temple that stood before it, it remains a place of offering. Along with offering prayers to Mayan and Christian Gods, the Maya people come here for traditional healing. So local shaman come here to conduct ceremonies which involve rubbing eggs on peoples’ bodies and sometimes even the sacrifice of a chickens. So here, in this tiny town, is a Catholic Church which is barely a church at all.
I love this church, I love knowing that places like this have survived, and that the descendants of this conquered race can still find ways to keep their culture alive.

An education in all things Maya

Before starting this trip I knew next to nothing about the Maya, save the fact that they a) lived a long time ago in Mexico and b) Mel Gibson made a movie about them. Given I hadn’t even seen the movie, that really left me with just point a). And even that isn’t strictly correct.


If you believe the textbook stereotypes, the Maya were a violent race who followed many bloodthirsty traditions involving human sacrifice. But once you learn about this warrior race, it’s hard not to develop an appreciation and even an admiration for them. Their feats of architecture and engineering, for example, easily rival that of the ancient Egyptians. Wandering around and climbing on the ruins of Palenque and Chichen Itza in particular, I could only marvel at the immense temples, plazas, palaces and “ball game” arenas. Though they are just ruins today, it does not take a great leap of imagination to picture what they would have looked like centuries ago. Painted in shades of red, yellow and blue, decorated by row after row of fearsome-looking stone carvings, these structures would have been nothing short of awe-inspiring.

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Not only were they impressive architects, the Maya were also amazing astronomers and mathematicians. The Mayan calendar tracks a cycle of more than 5000 years – 5126 to be exact – and within this includes a series of intricate sub-calendars that track the sun, the moon, other planets, crop cycles, and a whole host of events that have practical and cultural significance. The calendar was in turn used to design buildings – Chichen Itza, for example, is a perfect testament to this calendar. It’s complexity is astounding and I personally can’t even begin to fathom how they came up with this. But then maths was never my forte.
The Mayan calendar does in fact “run out” on December 21, 2012 which has obviously led to various wild predictions of the end of the world, and of course, several bad Hollywood movies. If any of you are a bit nervous, let me reassure you that Hollywood is wrong. I have it on good authority that the only thing that happens is the cycle starts again. So don’t worry, there’s no need to cancel Christmas.
I can’t write a blog about the Maya without mentioning their ball game. Played by elite athletes, this game involved two teams, and the aim was to get a heavy rubber ball of about 30cm in diameter through a stone ring that was about 35cm in diameter and several metres off the ground – without using your hands. Feet, knees, chest and elbows only. Today’s soccer players have nothing on these guys. At the end of each game there was a sacrifice to the Gods, and depending on which city you lived, that sacrifice might be the winners or the losers. At Chichen Itza it was the winners who were sacrificed, as it was believed their “strong blood” would please the Gods and ensure a good harvest. I was fairly convinced that such a “reward” would see lots of athletes throwing the game, but no, apparently to be sacrificed was the greatest honour you could recieve. Still, I’m a bit sceptical.
As a side note, though I am lauding their intelligence, there was one theory that our guide told us about why Chichen Itza was abandoned that did make me pause. This city was supplied with water by a series of underground streams, which were linked to the Sagrado Cenote, a massive sinkhole. Often the bodies of human sacrifices were thrown into this cenote, to please the Gods. Except at some point, the water started going bad….and the Mayans took this to mean the Gods were displeased with them…and felt the only way to remedy this was to sacrifice even more humans and throw them into the cenote. Unsurprisingly, the water eventually went so bad that they had to abandon Chichen Itza, or so the theory goes. Where is a good public health officer when you need one, eh?
It is obviously impossible for me to describe everything I have learned about the Maya. They were artists, performers, linguists, engineers, farmers, town planners, mathematicians, astronomers, and yes, warriors. They were both fearsome and beautiful, which makes their decline at the hands of the Spanish all the more tragic.

Lets go surfing now

There was an Australian sky that day. The kind of sky you see in summer, when there is no cloud in sight and it is an impossible shade of blue. It’s the kind of sky I only ever associated with home. That is until I found myself floating on my back in the waters of Carrizalillo Cove, Puerto Escondido, staring up at the 100 ft limestone cliffs as they stretched into the bluest sky I have seen since I left Australia. Taking in the beauty of this little cove made me giggle, it was so stunning.

I could have spent hours floating on my back in those emerald green waters, but decided instead to once again test my surfing abilities. I am a proud on-again-off-again-can’t-really-be-arsed not-really-a-surfer chick. I’ll pick up a surfboard once or twice a year just to see whether my total lack of practice has enhanced my surfing abilities. Usually the answer is no. Usually it takes me about half an hour to just remember where to put my feet.
But at Carrizalillo Cove, that was not the case. Maybe it was the sky, but that day I stood up on my very first wave and surfed to the shore. No one was more shocked than I, especially when I did it twice more in a row. I admit, I had plenty of help, in the form of my surf instructor who was helping me catch the waves. But after a few more waves I decided I was going to try this by myself. I struck a new deal with my instructor; he was only to call out instructions, and was not to touch my board.
And that’s when it just got hard. Really, really bloody hard. Every wave he would call out “Paddle paddle, paddle, faster, faster” and I would paddle until I thought my arms be wrenched from their sockets, and I would still miss the wave.

“You didn’t paddle hard enough,” he would say.

“But I tried! I can’t help paddle harder,” I would protest, holding up my weak girly arms as evidence. In the end we agreed I did not have the arms for surfing. I thought as much.

Elsewhere in Puerto Escondido, A was having the time of his life surfing at beaches for proper surfers. On the first day he hit Zicatela Beach, home of the Mexican pipeline, and spent a few hours catching the waves. The next day he went back, only to learn exactly why this beach is renowned among big wave surfers. With the sets rolling in at double- and triple-head high, it was only the pros out there. After spotting a few snapped leg ropes and broken boards, he made the wise decision to head to La Punta, a smaller break around the corner.
We fell into an easy routine at Puerto. Staying at a beachside apartment with Lisa and Ali , two girls we had met in Oaxaca, our day consisted of the following; wake up, eat, beach/surf/swim, afternoon nap, wake up, eat, beach/surf/swim, sleep. And of course the only place to sleep during the day is a hammock. We “got our hammock on” every day on the balcony for hours. It was in said hammock that I had the insightful epiphany that every home needs a hammock and made the resolution to ensure my next home is suitably outfitted with one.
We were only meant to stay in Puerto for four days. We ended up staying six, and even then we were debating whether or not our friends would miss us if we didn’t show up in Cuba as planned. In the end we decided they probably would, and so it was with some sadness that we said goodbye to Lisa & Ali, the hammocks and the beaches, and started a cross-Mexico dash to reach Cuba.

Music, mezcal and mole

The whole point of heading to Oaxaca was to learn Spanish. What we ended up with was a basic ability to converse, an addiction to mole, an education in the arts of making and drinking mezcal, and about half a dozen new drinking buddies. A few of them were from Perth, and of course, Perth being what it is, at least one of them knows my sister. They went to school together. Of course.

One of our most memorable excursions was to a small bar that one of the girls – Lisa – had found the previous evening. It had a sweet deal going on, for every beer you ordered, they gave you a small plate of tapas, which was actually really tasty. So more than three beers effectively gets you a meal. Four beers and you don’t really care if you eat any more or not. The live salsa band was amazing, and it was enough to just sit back and listen to music. By halfway through the night all the girls in our group were out on the floor, attempting to salsa, having been cajoled out there by the local guys. I saw some poorly disguised giggles as we stepped on our partners toes or spun in the wrong direction, or generally took out anyone within 2 metres of us. Regardless, they must have liked us because in a gorgeous display of gentlemanly behaviour, they bought all of us roses at the end of the evening. (Australian men, please take note.)
Of course mezcal being the local drink, we had to go and find out what it was all about. I had wrongly believed that mezcal was in fact a version of tequilla, but a tour of a mezcal factory in nearby Teotilan put paid to all my misgivings. We learned that like any good whiskey or scotch, good mezcal is actually put through an ageing process of anywhere up to 12 years. In the factory shop we were given samples of mezcal of different ages, ranging from straight from the still, which was  pure rocket fuel, to the 12 year old mezcal that slid down your throat without any burn. We were also introduced to the crema de mezcal which comes in numerous flavours, including pistachio, hazelnut, coffee, burned cream and strawberry. At last count I had sampled close to 10. When we walked out of that factory we were – predictably – very happy mezcal converts.

And then there was the food. Or most importantlyspecifically, the mole (pronounced moh-lay). This is a thick rich sauce that has anywhere up to 30 ingredients, including fruit, cinnamon, chillies and assorted spices. The process to make mole is a long one, it takes days in fact. There are about half a dozen or so different varieties but my favourite was mole negro – which had dark Oaxacan chocolate as one of its ingredients. You wouldn’t think chocolate sauce poured over chicken would work but it really, really does. After the first time I tasted it, I was hooked, and was regularly scanning menus for this dish – trying to sample as many varieties as possible.

My addiction to mole also left me wanting to write letters of complaint to every Mexican restaurant I have ever set foot in back home. I’ve never seen it listed among the tacos, nachos and burritos and I want to know why! At the very least I’m determined to learn how to cook this dish, even if it does take a week every time.

Kitchen is not a dirty word….

I’ve always thought Spanish was a beautiful language. Like Italian and French, the words sound musical, like they are part of a melody, a sweet song that lifts and lilts gracefully.

That doesn’t hold true, however, if you’re an Australian learning to speak Spanish for the very first time. If that’s the case you’re more likely to take the beautiful language and mangle entirely.

I’m sure our teacher, the lovely Jessica, felt quite disheartened during the first few days Alex and I spent at Oaxaca Spanish Magic. No word was too simple for us to kill. At one point we managed to turn the word for kitchen – cocina (koh-see-na) – into quite an insult. Jessica went to great pains to explain that our pronunciation – cochina (kotch-ee-na) – could get us into trouble if repeated to the wrong person.

Then there was the word for summer – verrano. Nothing too offensive there, unless of course you manage to pronounce it too slowly. Pronouncing the syllables separately – as in ver ano – then means ugly, or more literally “to see anus”. So we’ve been careful to keep our words at the right pace.

To add to the minefield of mispronunications, my highschool French decided to reappear. I had become aware early in the trip that I was pronouncing any foreign word with a French accent – which made for some interesting attempts at Russian greetings – but it was in Spanish school that it reappeared in force. Not only did I speak with a French accent, I began to unwittingly throw in random French words as well, just to keep everyone on their toes. I think most uttered phrase in that classroom was “We aren’t speaking French Shannon”.

But if we frustrated Jessica, we also made her laugh. A particular conversation about a “man chicken” had her in stitches (I didn’t know the word for rooster) and the whole class was giggling at Jean-Luc when he told everyone he had come to Oaxaca to see a friend and make her children. We thought that was quite a bold statement…but of course he meant to say he was going to meet her children.

And, though I was sceptical about how much Spanish could be learned in two weeks, at the end of the fortnight I found myself having conversations with others. Stagnated conversations, yes, but then if I can find the words to describe Australia Day and talk about how we celebrate it, I figure I can’t be doing too badly.

Most importantly, we can make ourselves understood – with some obligatory charades thrown in. Incidentally I have now worked out that, as with the universal charade for asking for the bill at a restaurant, there is a universal charade for “adaptor”. It has been confirmed on three separate ocassions.

However, I am most pleased to say there is now absolutely no confusion when ordering beers or asking where the nearest pub is. And instead of saying “Cheers” before downing said beers or – as is proving more common these days – mezcal, I can now say something far more appropriate…Arriba, Abajo, Al Centro y Adentro!

It’s all about the tacos…

Mexico City; A city whose rich history is traced back to the ancient tribes of the Aztecs. A city teeming with traditional art and culture. A city that is home to more than 20 million Mexicans.

My favourite place? The taco stand around the corner from the hostel. Not the pyramids, not the museums, not the thriving Zona Rosa. No, for me the best place in Mexico City was the tiny taco stand, which served the best tacos I have ever eaten, for 12 pesos. We went there four nights in a row, and I think even the vendors started to think we were a little strange by the last night.

The first night I made the rookie mistake of assuming that just because something looked like guacamole, it was guacamole. I ladeled that on to my taco, and despite scraping half of it off at the suggestion of the vendor, I managed to sear my entire mouth. I sat there with my mouth hanging open, eyes streaming, guzzling water, stuffing plain rice into my mouth and just waiting for the pain to stop. It took about 10 minutes before I could speak again. However it seems after that, everything else tastes a wee bit bland…so either I’ve developed a taste for hot salsa, or I’ve burned away half of my taste-buds. Not sure which it is yet.

Anyway, back to Mexico City. It is your stereotypical big city, too much traffic, too much noise and it comes complete with a dull brown haze of pollution that you notice as you’re flying into the city. Despite my fixation with the taco stand, there were a few “must-see” sites.

Teotihuacan – just outside the city – was an amazing archeological site, and I had fun punishing myself by walking up all three pyramids; Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third biggest pyramid in the world, but is the biggest climbable one so I was fairly happy to be fit enough to scale it. Sort of…I had to take a few moments halfway up to catch my breath, then another few three-quarters of the way up, and then quite a few moments at the very top. No matter – the view was astounding and there was some celebratory singing and guitar-playing by some other Latin American tourists. (I did wonder who would want to actually carry a guitar up a pyramid though…)

The other place we managed to lose about six hours was the National Museum of Anthropology. This place houses a phenomenal collection of artefacts from all of the ancient civilisations that lived in Mexico, including the very impressive Aztec Sunstone. Which I have seen before, but had no idea of its significance. It was here that I first began to realise just how much was lost when the Spanish colonised Central and South America. It made me more than a little angry, but I suspect that will become a familiar feeling on this trip.

After four days however, I have to admit that I was pleased to leave the city. A wonderful, crazy place but just a bit too much for me. I will miss those tacos though.