Tuesday, January 15th
Saturday, we loaded up and drove down to Ostuacan. In our convoy were the seven clowns from CHISPA, and some CHISPA staffers to take care of us. One of the clowns brought her husband, three children and one of her teenage son’s friends. There were about 17 in all, in four vehicles. I rode in the pickup truck with four others who spoke no English; the trip had a lot of silence! WE did manage to have one conversation about sports, drugs and the recent steroid scandals in the US. I got about one sentence out every kilometer.
I’m having to think pretty hard to say anything properly. When I just start talking, what comes out is a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese and French. Often the Portuguese version of a word is the first to come to my mouth, and I tend to glue everything together with French conjunctions and prepositions. It’s kind of funny, but frustrating. I’m discovering that my French vocabulary is starting to disappear. Scary.
We drove down past a couple of the Zapatista “Autonomous” zones–villages and valleys that the Zapatistas control and that the Mexican government allows some peace. They have built their own schools in there, and apparently there’s no such thing as property taxes in this part of the world, so they really have their own governments in there.
The landscape transitioned from the piney hills near San Cristóbal to misty cloud forests to the incredibly dense green rain forest of the flat lowlands. The flooding and road blockage was so intense that we had to drive way north of Ostuacan to get to it; the easier routes were blocked. Along the way, the road was plagued with collapsed shoulders, landslides from above, and outright faulting down the middle of the pavement! To some extent, this is pretty common on mountain roads; roads themselves tend to destabilize hillslopes and if the surrounding cuts aren’t stabilized when the road is built, there’s trouble. And it looks to me like the highway department here didn’t invest much in the hillsopes and cuts when they built the roads.
That said, the effects of deforestation, overgrazing and monocultural farming have never been clearer to me. Ostuacan is a little backwater town, a market-node for a vast region of coffee plantations, cacao farms and cattle ranches. It lies at the foot of the northernmost range of the Chiapas Highlands, along a riverbed, with a plateau of gently rolling hills to the north. Every slope nearby that is less than 35-40 degrees has been deforested for plantation or ranching. And every inch of that land is eroding away. One of the photos here shows just a green hillside; if you look closely, you’ll see linear formations in the surface of the hill that run in roughly horizontal lines; these are literally waves of topsoil that are flowing off of the mountain. The soil is deep and rich, but it depends on the root systems of forests to hold it there; the grasses and herbs that dominate after deforestation are not enough to hold it. Further, when the cattle diminish the grass and loosen the soil with their hooves, the situation is exacerbated. The torrential rains that come twice a year then just wash the whole place away. Eventually only bedrock will remain here, muddy badlands where nothing will be able to grow, and the soil will not have the years that it takes to develop. Then even ranching will be impossible. The rivers fill with mud and choke out the fish; the people will most likely leave and crowd into cites somewhere. They’ve mortgaged their future for a few years’ profits–or, more likely, corporate or governmental farming programs have.
The floods that have devastated Ostuacan and the surrounding communities are not a natural disaster: downstream from the town, the deforestation allowed an entire hillside to collapse, damming the river. The resulting lake drowned several communities and blocked roads, which is why we had to drive so far north. I don’t know how many people, if any, were killed. The lake is now being drained into another stretch of river via a cut that the authorities have made (see photos). Unfortunately, of course, the maps available of this area are rare, of too small a scale to show much detail, and probably wildly inaccurate. If I could map this for you, I would.
In the town of Ostuacan itself, the refugees who did not flee to the sports complex in Tuxtla were moved into plywood cabins built on concrete pads in the middle of town (see photos.) Kitchens are communal and there is no running water. Food stores are kept in fenced-in areas of schools and administrative buildings, and are guarded by armed security guards. A school outside of town has been taken over as a camp, where people sleep in gender-segregated “dormitorios” (classrooms) and the whole place is operated and guarded by the army.
When we drove down, we were told that we’d do four shows here–two on Saturday and two on Sunday. But the local authorities, with whom CHISPA had made the arrangements, weren’t too clear on things, apparently, and when we arrived they were surprised and had no idea where we were to perform. It was getting close to sundown, so the venue was going to have to be lit; we ended up doing only one show that night on a basketball court (that was being used as a soccer pitch) with a pavilion roof and big lights. The show went pretty well.
Our show on Sunday was at the school outside of town, because we woke up that day to torrential rain and the outdoor venue that had been proposed was unusable. We crowded into one of the classrooms, which was maybe five meters square, and the people sat tightly around the periphery or looked in the windows. The CHISPA clowns’ part of the show was cut drastically; they did one clown/folk dance and a song. Then Rudi and I started. Our show had to be cut down, too, partly because of time and space, and partly because one of our essential props is a newspaper, which can actually be very difficult to find down here.
All in all, the four shows that were planned for the weekend were cut down to two, and the show that we were supposed to do on Friday never materialized; so out of six planned gigs so far, only three have happened, and the last two we had to really fight to do at all. This is apparently par for the course in Clowns Without Borders; in these parts of the world where resources are few and everything is improvised, life has a nasty habit of coming up short.
On the drive back, the group decided to go through Tuxtla since some of the CHISPA staff live there, and because on the map, it looks like an easier drive… Ha! We ended up on several tiny dirt roads (that were actually just mud, washing away like the rest of the place) and almost lost. Traffic lanes are only taken as suggestions, here, and in the country anything goes. The driver of my vehicle, Fredy, is a great guy but he drives with an almost religious conviction that the left side of the road has fewer potholes than the right, which made for some consternation among drivers heading in the opposite direction.
Thursday, January 10th
Today was our first show, at a sports complex in Tuxla Gutierrez that is serving as a refugee camp for over 800 people from Ostuacan, Tecpatan and other communities along the Rio Grijalva in northern Chiapas, which flooded this winter. The complex is called the ” Instituto de Seguridad Social de los Trabajadores del Estado de Chiapas” (ISSTECH.) Our contact for this performance was Alejandro Alarcón Zapata, Director General of Chiapas Solidario por la Alfabetización (CHISPA), who also happens to be Rudi’s neighbor near San Cristóbal. His organization is a state office which advocates and teaches literacy; the literacy worker’s we’ve been working with are Alejandro’s employees.
Before the performance, Rudi and I were briefly interviewed for CHISPA’s television program on the local Channel 10; our performance at ISSTECH was also taped. We don’t know yet when the broadcast will be, but I will post that info as soon as possible. Supposedly the piece will also appear on YouTube. Stay tuned… Photos will be forthcoming, too.
The refugees were sleeping on the floor of a basketball gymnasium, and hanging their laundry out on ropes between the trees around the grounds. A flock of chickens and turkeys occupied the small, fenced-in playground. When we arrived, the people were mostly just hanging out in the courtyards and under the food pavilion. We chose the our performance area: a section of courtyard backed by the basketball gym, where the people could pull chairs over easily from the dining pavilion and surround us on three sides.
The literacy workers performed first. I was dressed and ready to go when they started; toward the end of their first number, I left the swimming-pool building we were given as a dressing room, and immediately pulled so much of the audience’s attention from the performers onstage that I had to go back into the pool building and hide. But this gave me a problem: Rudi was next to the stage and was expecting me to watch the first part of the show from there; but there was no way I was going to go out there and not pull focus. So I waited, and decided that when the literacy workers finished their last number and took a bow, I’d make the biggest possible entrance I could: when they left the stage, I screamed, allowing my voice to echo across the pool, ran out of the pool area and slammed the gate, and ran screaming all the way over to Rudi, who had to calm me down. I tried some quickie-pantomime to show that some kind of Loch Ness Monster had attacked me from the pool, but I don’t think it played too well. Anyway, afterward Rudi said the entrance in general was a good decision. How was I going to appear and not pull focus? There was no way. And this will be an ongoing issue on this tour.