Segregation in Zapatismo’s place of birth: La Realidad

Os agradecemos con grande corazón de habernos aportado vuestro granito de arena.

It was time to say goodbye. Our Zapatista supervisor thanked us for the last time, for the peace that me and my colleagues from Argentina had been able to preserve. How? Just by being there.

We had just finished our week as human rights observers in the heart of the Zapatista movement. In the middle of the Selva Lacondona was where insurgente comandante Marcos started EZLN, Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), and we were in the very same place 20 years later.

Read about the Zapatista uprising here

Structure of Zapatista communities

We came to a Reality so different fom ours in many ways. I spell it with a big letter R, as we came to the reality in a literal sense as well: we were in community La Realidad, part of the first “caracol” of the 5 caracoles zapatistas, and therefore called “Madre de los caracoles del mar de nuestros sueños.

The bumpy road to San Cristóbal de las Casas

A known saying goes: “The road is more important than the destination.” Nothing is more true than that.
I was on my way to Mexico but the historias mexicanas found me before I even arrived.

Amsterdam to Mexico

On the plane that would take me straight to Mexico City, a woman took the seat next to mine. She was a gorgeous Mexican woman of around 50, and turned out the be a source of a million stories. Suddenly, all that I had read about Mexico became real. The facts gained colors, the people got faces, and every event became closer, as the lady continued telling about her family’s history. Great grandparents surviving hunger during the Mexican revolution, stories of pueblos, ranches, priests: through her words I was transported to a colorful Mexico of the past, as the plane was transporting me to Mexico of today. 

Eleven hours later, I arrived in Mexico City. Having slept there just one night with my second flight scheduled the next morning, I can be very brief about my experience: nice people, and lots of sirens at nights.

Making friends with Mexican rhythm of life

The next day, I had my flight to Tuxtla, capital of Chiapas. This time I was introduced to an odd way of organizing flight informations: the gate number on the screen was incorrect, and to know the correct number one had to inform at a special passenger information desk. Everybody stood in line asking their gate number. I must have gone six times to ask mine. The lady kept answering: “Todavía no…”, “Not yet”. “Come back in 20 minutes!” Alright, I said, even though my flight would be in 30 minutes. Instead of being a control freak, I relaxed. I figured out that this Mexican rhythm could actually be very healthy and I saw how I enjoyed letting go. As if it was meant to be, I was carrying a book someone dear to me had given me before leaving for Mexico. The book was an introduction to Chinese philosophy and Tao, and it was very suited to what I had to learn in Mexico: letting go of control, and let the flow of life take you wherever.

Eventually, the flow brought me to gate number 9. And 1,5 hours later, in Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport. In Tuxtla, however, a greater ordeal awaited me. I went to buy a bus ticket and I was told there were no buses. “Today traveling to San Cristóbal de las Casas is impossible! They blocked the road!” They?


Chiapas, an introduction to indigenous struggles in Mexico

In a few days, I will be traveling to Chiapas, in the south of Mexico. There, I will be working as a human rights observer. The following months, I am going to dive deep into the story of this state, where the voices of its original people have been silenced for too long.

Chiapas. Google it, and you will find images of breathtaking landscapes and praising articles about the impressive ruins the Mayan people left behind. With archeological sites such as Palenque and Bonampak, Chiapas is rich of culture, reminding of the advanced civilizations of the indigenous of the past. And Chiapas still is: with 12 of the 62 officially recognized indigenous peoples in Mexico, it is the most indigenous state of the country. In contrast with its cultural richness and natural resources, Chiapas makes one of the poorest states of Mexico. (source)

Chiapas 500 years ago

Chiapas is soaked in history. The indigenous inhabitants living today, direct descendants of the Maya, are the survivors of a fervent struggle starting already 500 years ago. The first oppressors were the conquistadores españoles, who confused the indigenous hospitality with weakness: Aztec king Montezuma’s gifts of gold only triggered the conquistadores to conquer the Aztec city-state Tenochtitlán, which succeeded in 1521. In 1528 the land of the Maya was conquered too, by Diego Mazariegos.

What followed was an oppression that never ceased to be. Dehumanized from the start, they were put to forced labor in the mines and they were treated and seen as animals, even by humanists and preachers. Father Bartolomé de las Casas, bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas, soon became the protector of the indigenous. As a repented former slaveholder, he later dedicated his life to the cause. The main wake up call was the realization that the indigenous people “would rather go to hell than to meet with the christians.”


Ko Lipe, jewel of the Andaman Sea, but for how long?

Of all places in Thailand, I lost my heart to this island. Ko Lipe, I did not even want to mention you. Writing about Ko Lipe feels a little bit like revealing a secret. It probably awaits the same destiny of all other Thai islands, although I hope it won’t!Welcome sign Walking street

Here, the blue plankton still lights up the ocean at night, the coral reef is still in great state, but the jungle is getting smaller and smaller and what used to be a sandy road has now been baptized to “Walking street”.

The Urak Lawoi people, also known as sea gypsies (Chao Ley), were the first to inhabit this island and they are the ones directly facing the consequences of tourism. While we can not talk about overdevelopment yet, the changes that already have taken place in Ko Lipe are challenging the Urak Lawoi original lifestyle. Apart from “Walking Street”, I was so happy to find a somewhat “untouched” island after visiting Ko Phi Phi and Ko Samui, but someone who had seen Ko Lipe 3 years ago would already shake his/her head of disapproval.

The picture beneath gives an image of Ko Lipe as quite an undiscovered island. This part of the island was in fact more residential, but a couple of years ago this probably would have been a jungle as dense as what is covering the mountains. The roads would have been sandy if they even existed and there probably would not have been any road signs.

And this is when we talk about a part tourists don’t actually come. The reality of Ko Lipe is the following:


Ayutthaya, ancient capital of Siam

“What is Thailand? I am not from Thailand, I am from Siam!” These words were shouted aloud amidst of a conversation about Thailand’s history by a dear friend of mine. A really eye-opening conversation.

We sat in the shades of the trees in a local coffee house in Ko Lipe, sipping our home made Chrysanthemum drinks. As I tasted all the juices lady Nu made in her coffee house, I received a lesson of Thai history.Home made juices: chrysanthemum and lychee

“You see,” he continued, “Thailand has changed its name only in the 40’s. Thailand means land of the free, we were never colonised.” True story, Thailand has always been able to resist the western and Japanese colonists, unlike other Southeast Asian countries. Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939 under fascist leader Phibun out of pride and nationalism to underline its colonial resistance, after which the country was named Siam again after World War II. In 1949, Siam was renamed Thailand for the second time.

Could it be because of this that the “Land of the Free” is so open to tourism? In fact, the Thai have never been as suspicious about tourists as other Asian countries have been. All I hope is that this will not work against them: could the absence of a colonisation trauma lead to a faster loss of traditions? Paradoxically, it seems as if other Asian countries are more careful in preserving their essence because of the past invasions they went through.

Siam, my dear friend likes to say he comes from Siam instead of Thailand. Well, what about Siam? Siam was born under the Chakri dynasty (still ruling today) in 1782 together with the capital of Bangkok. It didn’t came out of nowhere. Before Siam, the Thai people had known various kingdoms: there was the Sukhotai Kingdom in the 13th century, a century later incorporated in the Ayutthaya Kingdom lasting more than 400 years. Eventually, the Birmese succeeded in burning down Ayutthaya in 1767 and Thonburi became the new capital. The Thonburi Kingdom lasted until King Rama I of the Chakri dynasty became the ruler and moved the capital to a little village of the other side of the Chao Phraya river: Bangkok.

I travelled through time, imagining battles and victories and picturing colourful scenes of the rise and fall of various kingdoms as my friend spoke on and on. A question drew me back to reality. “Ayutthaya, have you been there? Have you seen it?” No, I did not see it. “When you go back to Bangkok, go see Ayutthaya.” He added: “Ayutthaya for Thai people is what Rome is for the West!”

Visiting Ayutthaya Buddha at Wat Phra Maha That

And so I did. I came back to Bangkok and took a day to visit the old capital of the Thai people. At the Wat Phra Maha That, or “Monastery of the Great Relic”, I stood eye in eye with the ruins left behind by the Birmese. It used to be one of the most important monasteries of the Ayutthaya kingdom (source), but the Birmese had no mercy. Those battle stories I was told, finally took shape in my mind: the ruins speak more than eloquently about the impact of this tragedy. Especially the headless Buddhas are impressive.


Ko Phi Phi, destruction of a paradise

I took a boat from Ao Nang to Ko Phi Phi. The ferry trip was a beautiful journey on its own: those sheer rocks of the Andaman Sea, standing in the ocean like fierce soldiers who proudly endured hard times.

These typically Asian rock formations actually overcome time itself. It makes me wonder what they were before, what they were part of. Could they be the last bricks of what was once an island? Could that be the ground on which old civilisations built their lives? What people had set foot on those grounds, and what would they feel about its transience?

I like to daydream about old cultures, but these limestone rock formations were probably not inhabited. They are actually the result of a turbulent geological history, where earthquakes, erosion, tectonic movements and volcanic activity played the main role. (Source)

Transience. It probably saved this landscape. It turned them into beautiful solid rocks that are impossible for mankind to access. And so they remain unreachable beauties to witness only from a distance. What happens when such beauty becomes accesible? Easy: just watch the case of the Phi Phi islands.

From far away they look like jewels: sea water like blue curaçao liquor, beaches of mesmerizing beauty, stretched out jungles rich of wildlife. Still, I was afraid of what I would find when coming closer to famous Ko Phi Phi.


1237 Steps to spirituality in Krabi

I can proudly say I reached one of the heights of Buddhism in Krabi. No, I did not achieve Buddha’s illumination yet, but I literally climbed my way up to a Buddhist climax: 1237 steps up to the Buddhist temple in the Wat Tham Sua, meaning the Tiger Cave Temple, one of the must visits of Krabi.

Religion in Thailand

Buddhism is the main religion of Thailand, but the further you travel towards the South, the more you sense the iOne of the Buddha statue's on topnfluences of Islam, Thailand’s second largest religion. The Thai Government’s National Statistics Office’s data shows that 94,6% of the Thai population is Buddhist, 4,6% Muslim, 0,7% Christian and less than 0,1% adhere to other religions. In Krabi province there are almost as many Muslims as Buddhists: roughly 60% is Buddhist and 40% Muslim. This makes Krabi the perfect place to take a dive into Thailand’s religious cultures and history: the Tiger Cave Temple representing Buddhism, while the Central Mosque of Krabi is one of the largest and most important ones in Thailand. (more about religion in Thailand here)

I stayed in Ao Nang, a little city near Krabi town, and it took some time before I got used to the Mosque’s call to prayers. The atmosphere was very different from the rest of Buddhist Thailand where I stayed, but the people were the same: friendly, warm and helpful.

Just before going to my hotel, I took a look at a map hanging in Krabi Airport’s arrival hall. It was a colourful, graphic map, and an inviting image of a temple on top of a mountain caught my eye.  “Wat Tham Sua”, there is where I should go! I got into a taxi that took me straight to the hill. I could see the temple from the car, crowning the mountain top like a shimmering jewel. I was rather surprised when the car suddenly stopped. We did not do any particularly steep road, so how could I have reached the mountain top already? I was soon to find out.


Ko Samui, a tourist’s Disneyland

After Bangkok, I took a flight to the first island available: I decided to take a chance on Ko Samui.

Most first impressions of countries happen at the airports and Ko Samui’s airport seems well prepared: the first thought this private airport sells you is “Wow, I’m in tropical paradise!” The second thought that comes to mind is that it might actually be too well constructed, too good to be true. Also, considering Bangkok, it is to be expected that the island has had the same treatment of modernisation.

Ko Samui BeachThis process is far worse within the islands, though. In Bangkok you sense a modernisation that is really desired by the Thai themselves. Although, from outside, it may look like a cultural destruction, those new skycrapers really exist because of this old Thai desire of “progress” (already started back in the 19th century!).

But the Thai islands, many of them are not being revolutionised for their people. Not for the original locals. I’d say they are being revolutionised in spite of the local people, against them. Once a very calm fishermen island with a vast production of coconuts, now Ko Samui looks like a big Disneyland for foreigners. Tourists are welcomed in the numerous resorts that are built all over the island. Fishermen don’t have access to the sea where they used to, and as the original island citizens never kept track of who was owning which ground, the many trials running against the resort owners do not do any justice to the locals.

Where is the island’s real spirit?

From this point of view, the island spirit of once upon a time is long lost. The visitors of this island are either very disappointed in not finding the traditional Thai culture, or very satisfied in hiding away in some tropical paradise resort. Forget Ko Samui if you are looking for the real thing.

However, it is way too easy to call mass tourism a negative thing. The situation is obviously much more complicated:

Bangkok, The City of Angels

Traditional TuktukBangkok caught me. This place has someting unexplainable, an interesting energy. Bangkok isn’t quite a beautiful city. It reminds me of an adolescent still looking for an identity to fit in. Her big buildings stick out awkwardly between the older, lower ones. Bangkok seems to have a tremendous envy to grow up, and in its enthusiasm Bangkok is wiping out a lot of itself in order to adapt to its new adulthood. The word “adulthood”, however, is misplaced: Bangkok is coming from a tremendously rich background of history and cultures, even though it only became the capital city in 1782. The Old City area (Rattanakosin), with the temples (Wats) and the Grand Palace, is where the old Thai culture has been preserved best in Bangkok.

Bangkok’s desire of modernity

I understand Bangkok’s desire to evolve, but the question is really if “westernising” is the right way (rather rethorical, I’d say). Bangkok feels a great pressure to do justice to its original name, the longest cityname in the world. Called Bangkok by foreigners and “Krung Thep” by the Thai people, the real name is actually Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit, meaning:

“The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated God, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.”