Live in the Maya Jungle for 120 Pesos a Day (Yo Dude, that’s 11 U.S. Bucks):

Every once in a while, I come across a personal travelogue that I feel motivated to share with you. This one, written by Alan Goodin, who lives in Oaxaca and writes under the nom de plume “Les Barba”, is such a tale. Alan is also a photographer of some stature, and has graciously agreed to share some of his photos with us, starting with the masthead photo.

Here’s how: In August I returned from a month long trip to Chiapas , Mexico . I stayed in a jungle hut with two twin beds, a small table, concrete floor and a 40 watt light bulb. The total price with a meal was $120 Pesos per day for two persons. My cost, $5.50 U.S.

Where: 15 minutes from the world famous Mayan murals and ruins at Bonampak. Southeast of Palenque is the Reserva Intergral de la Biosfera Montes Azules, the Lacandón Jungle, the last remaining rainforest in Mexico and home to the southern Lacandón Indians, jaguars, snakes, ferns, orchids and incredible mushrooms. The Lacandón Maya are one of the last intact groups of indigenous people in the Americas . Their history predates Cortes and can more recently be traced to the time when the Conquistadors invaded their homelands in the Yucatan . They were forced to flee for their lives and disappeared into the jungle where they were hid from the world until they were “discovered” by Dr. Frans in the mid-early 1900s.

Their more recent fame came when Bonampak was “discovered” and a story with pictures was published in Life magazine. That article put the Lacandones on the global map. The tourist trade and the Mexican army chasing the Zapatistas and Guatemalan rebels around the jungle resulted in a paved highway. Now, with a tour group and a prepared time schedule to eat, ride, walk and view Bonampak you can take these prepared and pampered trips – or go it alone.

Here’s how To Get There: In Palenque, hop on the early colectivo from Palenque and take it for a couple of hours to either San Javier or a few kilometers further and get out at the fork in the road that goes south to Bonampak or west to Chansayab on the Rio Lacanjá. There, at Chansayab, the road literally ends as you have arrived in the jungle locally known as La Selva Lacandóna.

Stepping from the taxi or colectivo you will think you are on an abandoned airstrip. You are. Looking northeast you will see the home of Señor Chan Bor (family of the bee). Señor Bor rents rooms. Behind Chan Bor’s house is the home of Señor Yuk Martín. Sr. Martín also rents rooms, but he also rents palapas for $100 pesos a night. The word Spartan overly describes the room, which sits only feet from a fishpond and river. Those of you who have been lulled to sleep by a river or spent a stormy night in a palm-thatched palapa know how romantic and spiritual those moments are. On clear nights you see the Maya Cosmos as you have never seen it from any city, as your world is one of complete darkness. Looking up into the Maya sky will leave you speechless. Thank God.

Food and Meals: I brought a pan, Buck knife, utensils and was prepared to make my meals over a little backpacking gas stove. In Palenque I bought pasta, cans of tuna and (chicken, shrimp or beef) bouillon cubes and whatever herbs and veggies I could carry in my pack. I did this to avoid paying for meals at Señora Martíns communal eatery some 50 feet from the palapa. It’s not that she over charges but the year before I learned that they had one menu: chicken, rice and beans for dinner or eggs, rice and beans for breakfast or one could alternate and have breakfast for dinner. I proposed that she take the food I’d brought and cook it for me for $20 pesos a day and she said, “Sí.” But wait, it gets better. On the second day I meet a Shaman, K’ayum Yuk Ma ax (God of Song and Dance, family of the deer and the Spider Monkey). K’ayum asked if I wanted to see his wife’s (Carmela) milpa. “Of course,” I replied and while there he said, “Try a couple of squash.” I thanked K’ayum. When I returned to Los Martín I gave them to Señora Martín who added them to my rice, beans, onions and whatever and had my “meal of the day.” She furnished maize tortillas and lemonade.

Having food and lodging accomplished I asked, “How can I take a tour of the jungle? Señor Yuk Martín replied, “Do you want to go to the water falls or the archeological site?” I settled on the waterfalls for the first day. The price, $100 pesos for 2 people for a 2-3 hour trip in some of the most isolated and beautiful places I have seen in my life. If you’ve been to Agua Azul then you know what water falls in la selva can look like. If you haven’t, prepare yourself for seeing a color of water that you didn’t know existed. We Gringos might called it a blend of Aquamarine-turquoise flowing through golden river beds reflecting the emerald mists from the mahogany and cedar trees and the blue sky, where the sky can penetrate the emerald canopy that surrounds you.

[While I was gone to Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago, Diana and a friend visited the Tlacolula market, one of the best of the regional markets in the Oaxaca valley. Just now she’s off on a much longer venture – Croatia, Slovenia and Sicily. I bet she’ll bring back pictures to share…]

Touring Bonampak and Yaxchilan: Every morning and afternoon a colectivo will arrive where you did when you came to Chansayab. On your way from Palenque inquire as to what time they arrive and depart as well as rates to drive you to Bonampak and Frontera Corozal, the launching place to visit the remarkable ruins at Yaxchilan. Rates to visit Yaxchilan vary and are based on how many people are in the boat. Be sure and bring your passport because Frontera Corozal is also the departure site for Guatemala . The Army (on both sides) will ask you for some form of identification so have your passport. The Army deals with the public and is always kind and courteous but also suspicious.

Costs to see the Ruins: In August 2005, $38 pesos per person. At Frontera Corozal there is a great restaurant, the Escudo Jaguar. No alcoholic beverages are allowed in town.

Hygiene: You will sweat. This is the real jungle, not Disneyland . There is a communal bathroom with private stalls for toilets and showers. Bring toilet paper, soap and shampoo. They will furnish towels. I add that I live in Mexico and I don’t drink the water but I did at Chansayab. It was from a well and for the first time in my life I did not suffer Moctezuma’s Revenge. Nonetheless, purchase water from Los Martin’s tienda. Be safe.

Hints: Bring a pen flashlight, candle, a small padlock, and a screw in light bulb extension so you can plug in camera or cell phone battery chargers. Bring a hat, raingear, plastic bags for your camera and phone. There’s a reason they call it the rainforest. Plan on it!

For info, email or phone: Rosa Bacelis Lacroix, palenqueturismo@hotmail.com or cell: 916-341-1572. Email me: Les Barba at morknme6@yahoo.com\

A Political potpourri:

The PAN just had its first of three regional primaries, and the winner – by a small margin – was Felipe Calderón, ex energy secretary under president Vicente Fox. He defeated Fox’s personally hand-picked candidate, Santiago Creel, whose candidacy had been recently damaged by a huge scandal that had him issuing dozens of new casino licenses to TV giant Televisa in exchange for millions of dollars worth of free and reduced commercial slots. Creel issued the permits while he was still secretary of the interior, and Fox backed his play, so this is clearly a kick in the pants for Fox. However, the real loser is the electoral process: only 28% of eligible voters bothered going to the polls…

The PRD, the Labor Party, and the Convergencia (Convergence) party, are coming ever closer to a national deal to coalesce around the candidacy of front-runner Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), but here in Oaxaca , things are moving a bit faster. AMLO showed up for a rally last week and the banner hanging from the municipal building, in front of which he spoke, had an orange background: the color of Convergence; and Convergence leader Gabino Cué, who was cheated out of his victory by the skullduggery of the PRI in the 2004 governor’s race gave an impassioned introduction speech that inspired as much applause as AMLO got. AMLO speaks very slowly. He chooses his words very carefully. He aims his speeches at an audience often composed primarily of people who speak Spanish as a second, or a secondary, language. He promised to reopen NAFTA in 2008 if elected, and to renegotiate the whole area involving farm subsidies for Mexican crops sold in the national market.

[This picture was taken at the AMLO ralley. That’s Soledad church in the background. Notice the orange background on the banner]

“Noticias”, whose premises on avenida Libres are still blockaded by the CROC (a PRI company union), pulled out of a voluntary arbitration session last week, citing clear prejudice by the arbitrator, an appointee of arch-enemy and current governor Ulises Ruiz.

The Zócalo continues to be reconstructed, with occasional steps backward while a piece of renovated territory is torn up for one adjustment or another. Judging from the now-completed south side promenade, it will be a clean well-lighted place with wide walkways and pleasant vistas. Expect it to be completed by Muertos, hopefully much sooner.

Mexico may be on the way to having a tax refund for travelers similar to that offered in France and some other countries. While it sounds good, it requires a lot of extra paperwork, applies only to things removed from the country, only in certain categories, and only up to a certain amount. When we were in France we contemplated taking advantage of the tax refund, but discovered that it just wasn’t worth the trouble. Too bad: nice idea, poorly executed.

My view on Memín Penguin:

This is part of an article I wrote for “SouthSide Pride”, a monthly newspaper that has (my banker thanks them) been printing my stuff for over 10 years. I thought you might like to share it.

President Vicente Fox, a “lame duck” executive with five years into his one and only six year term – Mexican laws do not allow for re-election – has been a lackluster and ineffective voice for internal change. Hampered by a strong opposition bloc in the legislature, his plans for further globalizing Mexico have not fared well, nor has the welfare of his people. Only when raising his voice to defend the Mexican culture against “Yankee Cultural Imperialism” does he resonate with the electorate, and nothing illustrates this better than the recent flap over Memín Pinguin.

Memín is a cartoon character. He has very exaggerated facial features many of which are associated in our minds with stereotypical racist perceptions of “blackness”: large lips, very wide and flat nose, etc. He is long-suffering and much put upon. Through it all, he maintains his sunny disposition, and in the end he comes out – if not on top – at least “o.k.”

Mexican children read his books with great glee. They keep reading them when they grow up. Memín represents all the not-bright, not-handsome (in Mestizo terms), not-well-off citizenry (about 90%), all of whom suffer some degree of victimization at the hands of those with just a little more (or a lot more) power than they have. Except Memín never becomes a victim, at least not in his own head. He perseveres. He takes what he is given, and transforms it into a happy life.

[Another shot of the Tlacolula market. It only happens on Sundays, by the way…]

Coming as it did after an unfortunate remark (revealing more about his upper class outlook than about his racism) about Mexicans being willing to take jobs “even Blacks would not take”, the issuing by Fox’s government of a stamp to celebrate Memín, part of a series of cartoon-honoring stamps, brought down a firestorm of criticism by virtually all African American civil rights leaders. Memín was equated with Sambo, the main character in a clearly racist series of U.S. childrens books. Tensions ratcheted up another notch between U.S. Afro-Americans and Latinos. Meanwhile, the Memín stamp issue sold out in hours to crowds that lined up all night waiting for post offices to open. How does one explain the alleged racism of the Mexican people?

First, let’s get one thing straight: Mexico , like the U.S. , is a fundamentally racist country. Color of one’s skin is still a major issue, and “white” facial features and straight non-black hair are prized. “Guero” (whitey) is a term of approval, and even of jealousy. “White” children are more prized than dark ones. This is the heritage of 500 years of colonization and terroristic cultural warfare by the Spanish conquistadors and their descendants, who saw clearly that if the “heathen savages” were to become a useful tool of capitalism they would first have to be stripped of their pride, their Gods, and their co-operative way of life.

There are “black people” in Mexico , and they are largely invisible. Escaped – and, later, freed – slaves settled on both coasts, mostly in the Gulf state of Veracrúz, and the pacific coast of eastern Guerrero and western Oaxaca . They have intermarried with local indigenous folks. They mostly make their living as fisher-folk, and their villages – like those of their Mestizo and indigenous neighbors – tend to be small, rather simple, and not much noticed by the rest of the country. There is a movement among them for more recognition, and more bicoastal interchange between their communities. In this, they are not unlike the hundreds of thousands of isolated mountain villages throughout Mexico , struggling to maintain their cultural identity for over 500 years.

For eleven years, I have been observing the behavior of my Mexican neighbors when confronted with foreign people of clear African descent, and when in the presence of Afro-Mexicans. The reaction appears to me to range between curiosity and pleasure. There doesn’t appear to be the same up-tight defensiveness that white folks often emit on our own streets. If anything, Afro-Americans appear to get better treatment from Mexicans than do our own guero co-citizens, who are more likely to be associated with oppression and an undeserved attitude of superiority. Certainly, I have never seen a Mexican cross the street to avoid an approaching group of black youth.

[In the midst of renovation, the Sunday band concerts have returned, complete with – when the music is appropriate – the Són dancers.]

In the context of Mexican life, Memín is, because he is “Black”, less threatening culturally than if he were indigenous. A character like Memin with “ Indio ” features would be much more controversial, since the treatment (or, more accurately, the lack of treatment / recognition / opportunity; the “oblivion” that the Zapatistas talk about) afforded to Memín, if he were more indigenous, would be a matter for all kinds of “politically correct” controversy.

This is not to say that there is no racial / cultural bias toward Afro-Americans on the part of Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants in the U.S. , or vice-versa. A few years ago, I wrote about a conflict between American Indian neighborhood folks and Ecuadorian immigrants in Minneapolis , over use of the volleyball courts in Powderhorn Park , and noted the clash of cultures that I had observed. I think it fair to say that a lot of the enmity between “brown” and “black” people can be explained as the results of equal-opportunity exploitation by the (generally lighter skinned) folks in power.

Still, I think that the power of the Memín issue to further divide people who should be working together (and are, in many cases) can be diffused by a slightly refocused point of view.

We’re cutting back:

There won’t be 20 newsletters this year. Time, other commitments, and ten years of production have combined to limit our ability to maintain quality while meeting so many deadlines. To keep on at this pace would be to invite burnout, which wouldn’t do any of us any good.

Starting next year, we will go to a monthly publication interval, with at least three “extra” editions, for a package of at least 15 per year. Hopefully, the monthly format will allow us to produce more long pieces, as well as our usual mix of politics, local happenings, travel, and photos.

Meanwhile, this year you will see more than 15 issues, but less than 20. We hope you’ll stay with us. If you decide to drop, we’ll understand.