Mexico | Shaman

After the insane waterfall day in Palenque, I had a last supper with Luuk, Bas and Nienke, and then it was time to head on. Luuk and Bas were heading south from Palenque, taking a bus the next morning to Guatemala where they planned to visit an active volcano – you hike up an adjacent mountain, from where you can watch it erupt every thirty minutes. I added it to my to-do list.

I said a sweet farewell to the boys, whose jolly adventurous duo had made my trip up to that point so joyous. They might be heading to Mexico City for the Day of the Dead on the 1st of November – we agreed to meet up if they make it. We hugged as we parted ways; I miss them.

Nienke is travelling the same direction as me, so we took the ADO night bus together to our next stop: San Cristobal. But first we had to get there, and well – fuck me.

Night buses in Mexico are generally pretty comfortable. The seats are big and recline and they have AC – that’s not the issue. The issue is that so much inevitable weird shit happens on the journey. The direct route from Palenque to San Cristobal – a city in the mountains – is short, maybe a hundred miles. The reason the journey takes ten hours is because the mountain pass is too dangerous, populated by bandits. The buses take the long way round, going hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid it.

I was fearful ahead of the journey; backpackers love to swap tales of their misadventures, like ghost stories told around a campfire. Olatz, arrived safely in San Cristobal, told us how her bus had been pulled over by soldiers at 3am who had demanded passports and searched everyone’s luggage. When Olatz told them her passport was stored in her luggage beneath the bus, rather than hand luggage, they got angry with her and yelled at her, despite the fact she speaks Spanish as her native language. When she arrived at San Cristobal, she found her bank card was missing. So yeah – while violence may not be a threat on the long route, theft certainly is.

Nienke didn’t seem bothered. “It would be an adventure,” she shrugged, when I expressed concerns over the journey ahead. She’s 22, and doesn’t seem to believe anything bad can happen to her. We took the bus and I kept all my valuables on my person rather than beneath the bus. Sure enough, we were stopped half a dozen times over the evening. Odd shit kept happening that made no sense: at midnight we pulled up at a bus station and everyone was made to get off. I asked a Uruguayan guy what was going on (he spoke some English) and he said something about the bus needing cleaning. I sat in the bus station and watched the bus drive away – with all our rucksacks still underneath. It came back half an hour later, and we got back on and continued. No idea.

We had several passport checks, seemingly once every hour or so, which meant we couldn’t sleep properly and the night became a trippy fever dream of bumps in the road and men in khakis shining torches in my sleepy eyes asking to see my documents. There’s nothing you can really do besides sigh and hand over your passport for the umpteenth time. At one point we were ordered off the bus in the rain in the middle of nowhere and asked which luggage belong to whom. Again, no clue why.

We arrived in San Cristobal, grateful to be off the bus. That route is the sketchiest one on my journey, so the worst is now done. When I took my backpack from underneath the bus, I found the straps open: someone had been through it. I was glad to have taken my valuables out; all anybody would have found inside is my dirty underwear and some pungent t-shirts.

*****

San Cristobal is very pretty, comprised almost entirely of single-storey buildings on streets lined with red flagstones. The homes are painted all the colours of the rainbow, and every few blocks there’s a large square with a church or market. Olatz came to meet Nienke and I for a hearty breakfast, and we swapped stories about our bus journeys. San Cristobal is at an altitude of around 2000 metres, and everybody warned us it’s cold. I didn’t realise quite how cold, however. While in Palenque I’d been fantasising about this cool mountain town, but within an hour of being there I was wrapped up in my Harrington, shivering and dreaming of the beaming sun of Yucatan.

We didn’t waste any time on our first day: our trio took a collectivo to a town called Chamula, as Olatz wanted to see a ‘shaman’ she’d heard about. I hadn’t a clue what it was all about, but as usual I had nothing else to do, so tagged along. I was expected some voodoo witchdoctor in a straw house, but on our arrival in Chamula I was surprised to see a large Spanish church squatting before an expansive square.

“So what does this shaman actually… do?” I asked, as we drew up to the large wooden doors.

Olatz wasn’t sure; she said something about him/her diagnosing illnesses. As far as I’m aware (touch wood) I don’t have any illnesses, so I was curious to find out what was ailing me. Maybe the shaman would place his hands on me and boom out ‘male pattern baldness’ to the congregation.

We paid a small entry fee and employed a guide to show us around the church, because we had the feeling we’d have no clue what we were looking at otherwise. A man sitting in the shade in a cowboy hat took us inside.

I’ve never seen a church like it. The shape of the building is a church, but everything inside was wildly different – pagan, almost. Around the periphery were dozens of glass cases containing life-size freaky plastic models of Catholic saints, each adorned with a mirror hung around their neck. The floor was covered in pine needles and the air was thick with the smell, as well as the smell of the thousands of candles which burned on every surface in clusters. Bunting was strung to and fro up on high, and in little groups on the floor, people knelt together, doing complicated rituals involving candles and bottles of Coca Cola. And people were holding chickens, for some reason.

Our guide explained. This strange offshoot of Catholicism – not recognised by the Catholic church – is where people come for healing from illnesses. They go to the shaman, who senses their illness and tells them what’s wrong with them. If it’s something minor, he gives them an egg. If it’s more serious, he gives them a live chicken. The afflicted person then takes this chicken and places it on the floor, and lights some candles. They say a prayer, and then they drink from their plastic Coca Cola bottle. With the gas from the drink, they soon burp – and they do this on the chicken. In doing this, their affliction is passed to the chicken. They then kill the chicken, thereby doing away with whatever evil was affecting them.

With the three of us suitably baffled – and Olatz exhausted from translating for almost thirty minutes straight – we explored the church, and found at the far end an altar, which was playing polyphonic Christmas songs from a little speaker. Not just hymns, either: Jingle Bells. Around this time we heard a squawk which ended abruptly, and I realised that they don’t take the chickens away to be killed – they wring their necks right there on the church floor. On the way out, I passed a family kneeling beside a couple of dead chickens.

A curious tradition.

*****

That night was Olatz’s last night before she left us to head back to Yucatan to finish her trip in Holbox. Because her bank card was missing, she transferred me a few hundred euros which I withdrew for her to see her safely home. The three of us went to a salsa bar called Revolucion, and we ate nachos with guacamole and drank cold beers and practiced the basic salsa steps we’d learned in Merida while the locals danced beautifully around us. Olatz left at 6am for her bus, after only a few hours sleep, and we hugged and I wished her well on her journey. She was a ball of sunshine.

With our gang shrunk to two, I felt melancholy, and I didn’t feel like socialising with new people right away – it feels cheap to replace friends so quickly. Instead, I booked a private room for about £12, and I spent the next 24 hours lazing in my dorm and enjoying the solitude, while Nienke checked into a different hostel. I cooked tuna pasta – comfort food – and watched Coco on my laptop. I felt I had to; dozens of backpackers had been astounded that I hadn’t seen it. It was a very good film and I cried at the end, and it made me look at the town in a very wistful and romantic light when I went for a walk later that evening.

*****

Next day I changed hostel yet again and went on a canyon tour with a bunch of hostel people. The minivan drove us lower down the mountain, and the autumn chill of San Cristobal subsided for lovely warmth and sunshine. We took a boat along the river at the bottom of the canyon – a river that, according to our guide, is two hundred metres deep in parts. The canyon itself, from the very top to the river, is almost a thousand metres high. Chugging down the jungle ravine on our little boat, I watched giant birds fly high and tiny up against the mountainside, great wings flapping like pterodactyls. I suddenly got the Jurassic Park theme stuck in my head.

We passed beneath misty waterfalls – soaking us all – and sailed slowly beneath the watching eyes of prehistoric pelicans sitting high up on leafy palms. After an hour, several sandy islands appeared in the middle of the canyon, and as our guide killed the engine, we floated by in silence and watched huge crocodiles resting by the water’s edge. I saw five of them – low and fat and spiny, lying perfectly still, saving their energy for hunting later in the day.

We passed through a section of canyon where our guide stopped the boat and let us float, the afternoon heat ratcheting up the second the breeze ceased. He told us that from this point, you could here an enormous echo, and encouraged us to holler. Apparently if you’re in love you’re supposed to shout it out, and the echo is your love’s voice returning the call. As nobody on the boat really knew each other, we were all reluctant to begin shrieking the names of people we fancy, but one old Mexican man cupped his hands and bellowed:

“Te amo!”

Then he shouted a word in Spanish I didn’t understand. His wife turned to us with a smile.

“That’s my name,” she beamed.

They were a brilliant couple, happily chatting in English to the people around them, translating the tour guide’s speeches (all in Spanish – I couldn’t grasp much at all). Whenever the boat went fast, the old man put two hands in the aired and whooped with joy, and his wife laughed and patted him on the shoulder. I watched them with a smile on my face, and as the boat took us back to civilisation, I watched the forest and the lazy crocodiles zipping by, and I thought about love.

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