In the heart of Zapatista land

Saturday Many Airplanes

Four different flights, two taxis and a bus, about 27 hours door to door. I carried my camping pad with me and slept in the LA, Houston and Mexico City airports as well as the flights in between. I arrived toa most beautiful little hotel and my compañeros, old friends Rudi Gallindo and Moshe Cohen found me immediately. San Cristobal is a beautiful, prosperous colonial city filled with art. In the ten years since I have been here vegetarian restaurants with live music and other such luxuries have appeared.

Sunday Dive in the Dark

We move our stuff out to Alejandra’s house in the morning. She, from Mexico City, and her Dutch partner have worked for various aid organizations here for many years and have now built a dream house in the forested hills where we will stay much of the time. It too is filled with art. Except for one night on the road we will be staying in luxury while performing for the poorest.

First show in Chiapas. Headed down the mountain from Alejandra’s house stuffed into the VW bug, our cases and ourselves. A warm-up and get to know each other show. I had played with both Rudi and Moshe spread over many years but they had never played with each other and we had certainly never played together as three.

Nobody knew we were coming. A handful of children were there and we sent them to look for more. There’s a bit of confusion about time as chiapas99sleevelessropesmMexico and San Cristobal keep daylight savings time, which is called tempo de gobierno, but the villages do not. Moshe and Rudi clown with the children for a long time. “Da me un dulce mondoso”, Rudi keeps begging the kids. I am nervous and waiting. By the time I start to play there’s a crowd of 50 or so on the church steps and it is beginning slowly to rain. I took my coat off and drape it around the shoulders of a kid in the middle. I went back to business with the 3 balls for a second than I decided to adjust it to cover his head and then cover his face and than back on his shoulders and head and than tying a couple knots with the sleeves and each change I’m going back and at least feigning an interest in 3 balls so it’s taking quite a while and by then it’s really raining and people are starting to run to a tiny room on the side of the main church. The kid got up last, carefully balancing the coat on his head. He was smiling and special all the time.

50 people packed together like bees in a beehive fill up half of the tiny dark room and stacked tables and a pile of dusty branches and leaves filled most of the rest. I started to perform in the dark. After much fiddling with the wires and the rattling of the fuse box they got the single bulb hanging by its wire to turn on. It left the windowless stone room still very dark. We took turns improvising with our props and doing what we could in the cramped space. Everything had to be slow and played out clearly but they would explode in squeels of laughter very easily and often. I finally decided to move the brush pile so I tripped and fell on it and than I kicked at it for a while and than I started to push on it my body stretching across the floor and my butt high in the air.. Rudi pick up on the invite right away and stepped on my butt, sending me flopping. Repeat with variations. I offered my head to him and clamped his hand on so he could toss me about by the hair. I danced my butt while I swept the pile. We did a suspender lazzi. They loved that stuff. Throughout the coming weeks shows we would always offer butt to each other and hardly ever miss a cue to kick it.


After about an hour and a half we quit a few times and than raced through the drenching downpour to stuff our cases and ourselves in the bug to the laughter of the audience who stayed trapped in the tiny dark room.

Monday: A great show in a disputed town

The first show today was in San Cristobal at the old convent of Santo Domingo, a craggy old church with the tourist handicraft market wrapped around it. Melel, the Dominican order’s human rights organization, was kind of sponsoring our visit, providing us with a pickup truck and somebody to accompany us each day as we traveled out into the mountains. They run a school for the street kids there and that was who were playing for today along with a modest crowd of sellers and tourists who wandered over. These kids are full time sellers at age 6, 8, and 10. As a tourist you deal with them daily. They are an aggressive and low-attention-span gang, the opposite of the people in the rural communities. I did my big loop around a bunch of kids and an older girl intentionally pushed me off my suitcase and knocked me down to bring the rope on to everyone. Definitely a first for me.

Than we drive into the mountains to the town of San Andreas Larrainzar. Everybody is on foot and carrying big loads. These people have some of most beautiful textiles and clothing in the world. Tiny old churches in bright colors and houses made of rubble. We go through our first military checkpoint and and illiterate guys with machine guns copy down all the information from our passports and our white visa slips with excruciating slowness and than bring it in to the literate immigration guys inside who than also have to come out and ask us questions. We’ll get used to this drill in the coming days. And into San Andreas.

San Andreas de Larrainzar is a Zapatista autonomous community. The town and neighboring towns are surrounded by large military camps and roadblocks. A week before we came down to Chiapas the military took the town and put in a PRI government. The next day the Zapatistas turned out 5000 unarmed people who took the town back. KBOO news was the only outlet to mention this little story in Portland.

The Mayan descendants of these mountains generally regard the Mexican government as an outside occupying force. Although Chiapas didn’t experience anything near the bloodshed in neighboring Guatemala where in the late 70’s and 80’s some 100,000 Indian peasants were massacred by the military and allied death squads, they still have been given plenty of reason over the years to form this view.

Moshe had played in the same town alone the day before Rudi and I arrived. As soon as we pulled into the crowded town we were the center of attention. Rudi started clowning right away and pulled the more nervous me into it too. We played with the speaker wire lying across the middle of the road. Moshe went to talk to community reps. The town was lined up outside and inside for free meal time (something that doesn’t happen in the PRI towns). They suggested we wait so we stalled by improvising and clowning for a circle of some 400 laughing enthusiastic people in the street. Rudi has great clown chops and he improvised endlessly. Moshe and I as well. Rudi played awhile with a kid who was rolling a hoop. A few town drunks entered for short bits. We did over 2 hours I and clowned a bit as we were piling into the truck. In these towns the show was never over until until we left.

As the town was so crowded and none of the people seemed the same as 3 days earlier Moshe theorized that the Zapatistas were posting people in the town and rotating them through to discourage the military from trying to take it again.

Now the plan was drive 10 miles further up the road to Oventic to ask permission to do a show there the next day.

Oventic is one of the four aguas calientes. There’s no hot water there; it means that it’s one of the four large meeting places built by the Zapatistas. There are several primitive wood structures and large tents to shelter people and a big meeting place with benches for about 2000 people.

The short road there has two more military checkpoints, one of which has a little commander is nervous and bad-tempered. We tell them we are going to a more neutral town, not Oventic. From the road Oventic just seems a high dusty nowhere. The buildings are covered with impressive murals or Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara, etc. A few men and woman with their faces covered with bandanas hear our request impassively, check our passports and make us wait while they go somewhere to discuss. We receive permission and head home back through the 3 checkpoints.


Tuesday, Much Oventic About Nothing

A long drive out the same road. New steep mountains keep appearing. with vertical fields on the side. Everywhere men, women and children in Mayan clothing hauling huge loads of firewood or water slung from their forehead. One tiny old man heading up a vertical footpath with a load of cement blocks strapped to his forehead. We occasionally pass a small commercial van, a collective taxi or a flat bed bed truck with standing campesinos jammed standing and hanging from the sides. These roads were all dirt 5 years ago but have now well paved courtesy of the Mexican military. Still they are winding. There’s nothing approaching flat ground in these hills. The same three checkpoints but with different soldiers. We know the drill now and one of us always takes the clipboard to write down the passport information ourselves and save time. Our companion today is Oscar who works for the Dominicans doing agricultural work. He is from Mexico City originally and is politically knowledgeable and informative. But he likes to give the soldiers a hard time:

Oscar: What are you doing on top of this mountain?
Soldier: Protecting the people
Oscar: Protecting us from ourselves, Huh? Are you afraid we’re going to shoot ourselves?

Later on Moshe actually warns him to cool it a bit and than he goes back more to just asking what part of Mexico they’re from, do they like being up here, do they get any vacation, etc. Supposedly they truck whores up to these isolated outposts and Oscar tries to ask about that too but doesn’t get an answer. I’m impressed just that he keeps trying to make personal contact. Past Oventic we go down to lower elevations, into coffee growing land.

We stop in a small village squeezed under the steepest mountains and fields we’ve seen yet. We are expecting to do an early show and than head back to Oventic but they had told the people from the neighboring villages to come later in the afternoon. We split the difference and decide to put off the show for a while and so are called upon, as usual, to clown and stall endlessly. Every tiny town has a government built basketball court in the center, typically surrounded by the church and the school.

So Rudi and I play basketball with the boys. We ask the kids but nobody has ever heard of Michael Jordan. Rudi is basketball coach at his kid’s chiapas99ropedkidsmschool this year and actually starts the kids on lay up drill before they run over to see Moshe and I distract them with magic and roping. The show goes well. Gorgeous mountain above the audience as a backdrop for us performers sitting in back. I clown well with my lasso volunteer. Simple clown bits like Rudi throwing an imaginary ball into a paper bag and having the bag shake when it hits cause explosive bursts of laughter and surprise from these crowds. Rudi teaches me a newspaper stealing clown routine by talking me through it as we perform it. We get about 300 men, women and children and more are still arriving as we are pulling out in the truck so Moshe gets out and does a final 10 minutes for the newcomers, than back to Oventic.

Back at Oventic the masked ones again take our passports and make us wait. Hurry up and wait. Eventually we are let in and perform for only 40 people, a big disappointment since three years ago Moshe and five others played for several hundred here. Somehow we didn’t connect properly or the community is just too occupied with San Andreas or other things. To bad that we left the first show before the full crowd arrived.

We’re sunbaked and continue to improvise even though much of it is going flat at this occasion. I am starting to develop my whip much slower and better. Playing for these crowds is a wonderful stage exercise because everything needs to be simple, universal, slow and clearly set up. Anything requiring a cultural reference, forget it.

Wednesday, Sweet descanso and sweet shows

A long hot drive out the same road we’ve been traveling, same three military checkpoints. but further out yet. Moshe is gone. Farewell tequila with Claudia last night. We’re all up and out early. He leaves us at Santo Domingo and is gone , headed for S.F. today and Japan on Friday. We arrive at a 300 year old church in Simojovel and are shown beds where we take a short nap and and than eat the best food we’ve had in Chiapas. The old Indian woman who prepared it ate with us. She giggled when we flirted with her and finally flirted back with Oscar and than laughed at herself really hard. Pollo with everything sauce, rice beans, tortillas, a feast. Carmen, the beautiful secretary to the priest, was a wonderful host and would make a good contact for future expeditions and an excellent wife if you want to live in Simojovel, midway between San Cristobal, the Lacondon jungle and nowhere. What a wonderful decanso, so hot-car-tired when we arrived, so refreshed when we left.

Ready for two great shows. The little pueblo of Mercedes San Isidro was too tiny to even have the mandatory basketball court. The heat was fading rapidly and the storm clouds coming on. I was sure that we would never get a crowd and that it would start raining as soon as we started. We set up on a bumpy yard in front of the tiny church with the people’s fields draped across the mountains as a backdrop. The rain held off and about 150 people, probably the whole village, straggled in. The men, women and the children always come in and sit separately, usually with the children in the center, the women clustered on one side and the men spread off distantly on the other. The women are always in traditional dress and always come in groups. They have inscrutable faces, laugh the least and cannot be approached as volunteers. The men are mostly in ragged western dress. They sit safely distant but laugh heartily and allow themselves to be taken in and made a bit fun of occasionally. The children love us, are in hysterics and yet every time we approach them all the kids on that side get up and sprint away from us. We obtain child volunteers through careful caution and patience.

In Mercedes I rope the village head and he laughs and squirms out of it and I end up with one scandal, dragging it away from him.

The next little village, Berlin, is just a couple of miles down the road. They must have heard because the kids mob us as we come in and the people gather more quickly. Rudi invents the bit of putting his stand-on-shoulders child in to the trunk and turning him into a rubber chicken. I disappeared a scarf and pulled it out of the soul of a kid’s boot. A rattier piece of leather still holding on to his foot could not be imagined. The tip fit easily in between the shreds of the sole.

Finally the rain comes, slowly for a few minutes and then suddenly pounds down. We race over to stuff the props inside the suitcases and than come back to perform a few more bits, everybody clumped under trees and eaves. The storm intensifies and we rush a finale and encore and sprint for the car under pouring rain and marble sized hail in the 80 degree heat.

To El Bosque for the night to eat dinner with the friendly sisters and sleep on the floor with the brothers. The Dominican order of the Sacred Heart.

Thursday, Sanctuary in Occupied Territory

We learn that the first show for Thursday in Union Progreso is a two hour hike from the road on steep mountain trails and we cancel that as unrealistic. Instead we lounge all morning with the friendly brothers, waiting for our afternoon show in El Bosque. Next to the church is a tremendous tree, much larger than any other we see in these mountain, filled with hundreds of orchids and birds. We sun on the roof of the church.

El Bosque is a larger market village that has suffered a lot. It is a Zapatista town but is currently occupied by the state army to keep a PRI government in the town hall. It’s a center in this little region. There’s about two short streets in one direction and three short streets in the other. Dozens of state police are heavily sandbagged in at their headquarters and march around the village in riot gear at all times of day, in groups of 8 or so, up one tiny street, down the other and start again. Sometimes they run in formation in the heat.

The dogs bark ridiculously loud all night long and the Padre tells us in the morning that the dogs do that when the the military moves convoys. Our show is to take place in front of the church where there is no shade. Why not in the zocalo, 50 meters away where there are plenty of trees for shade? — I ask. Because the zocalo is occupied by the army and parents won’t let their children go there — is the answer. The church is a sanctuary. OK.

Another great show, only about 250 people. We lost some great material when Moshe left and our show is down to about an hour plus pre-show clowning but it’s actually easier to improvise with only two and Rudi and I work together easily and naturally. We continue to get lots of mileage with what happens with the audience. A couple of guys in the bell tower keep forcing us to improvise by interrupting our show several times ringing the bells. Finally I toss the juggling clubs up to them (quite a long throw) and they play for the crowd. It is a pleasure to play for these innocent crowds. A pleasure to perform simple slow clowning and get those squeals of laughter. They’re not that impressed with juggling but they love slapstick so we’re always offering butt and kicking it. If there’s water we’re going to get each other wet.

The brothers and sisters in the church were so kind. They would like to organize a hiking tour doing shows in the little villages in their area in the future. It would be so beautiful. The night spent on the road there was our favorite. But pack light! It’s hotter than San Cristobal and the trails are straight up and down mountains.

Although there’s a lot of military tension now I see some improvements since I was last in Chiapas 10 years ago. There used to be only scrawny, skinny chickens but now they have robust fat healthy chickens. They’ve started beekeeping. The fincas are gone from this region and the campesinos usually own their small steep fields. Cooperatives are being started in many area to obtain decent coffee prices. The people are of course still very poor: they live off of hand cultivation of tiny mountainside plots. San Cristobal is a much richer tourist town, with a large middle class, but there are more poor Indians living on the streets than ever. The commercial people are mestizos, not Indians. The next step would be to apply the large scale riches of Chiapas, the oil, hydroelectric power, the minerals, to development and education for the native peoples but that is not going to happen without a Zapatista victory which is not in the cards for the near future.

On the drive back we end up juggling a bit for the soldiers at one of the checkpoints. I hit one of the soldiers over the helmet with my juggling club while juggling which I always do when given the opportunity. I have a mental collection of authority figures around the world that I have hit over the head while juggling. We are also caught in a fierce rain storm and then blinding mist rising off the hot pavement, never seen anything like it. We pull in long after dark.

Friday, International Children’s Day, Acteal

More logistic problems than usual. We think we run out of gas and taxi out to a petrol station because we don’t know about the second tank! Our “guide” today is an 18 year old young man. A new road, different native costumes and new military checkpoints. At the first military post they ask us where we are going and Rudy and I both say Netalanho , the next neutral town down the road but the boy answers Acteal. Mistake. We’re trotted out for long talk and filling out of papers. In Acteal, December of 1997 some 45 campesinos were massacred by right wing paramilitaries. This killing went on for many hours within a mile of a military post but the military never budged.

Finally they ask us to do a short bit for them to prove that we were really clowns and than let us go do our show. Our afternoon destination was Polho, a village that has turned into a large refugee camp for people from the Acteal area. Our noon destination was Xoyep, a half hour’s walk off the road but our “guide” did not know how to get there so we went to Polho to look for someone to take us there. We were already plenty late and never made it to Xoyep.

EZLN: Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation)
EZLN: Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation)

Polho is Zapatista controlled. They didn’t know we were coming and were suspicious at first. Rudy and I had to do all the talking. I wish I had a photo of the 4 foot tall, middle aged Mayan woman patting us down and searching our pockets. We didn’t get a very good turn-out for the size of the encampment but there was still about 600 people on the slope between the two basketball courts.  I led the kids in some games after the show while some workers strung up piñatas. There was no candy inside the piñatas because there was none to be bought in the area! They had ordered some but it didn’t arrive in time for children’s day. There was a busy red cross truck with people lined up for medical examinations and several other aid workers around. The show went well, our last show. We lingered around to watch the piñatas and finally headed back to San Cristobal.

The last day was rest and buying handicrafts. It was a great pleasure to play for these isolated and suffering communities and a joy to see these beautiful people and mountains. It was my first Payasos Sin Fronteras trip and one of the best trips of my life.

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