with a rebel yell….

EZLN painted house

EZLN painted house

I am descended from rebels. Historically and genetically. Historically, Croatia has a long history of insurgency. It has resisted the infiltration and occupation of many invaders. The long list includes the Romans, the Venetian Republic, Hungarians, the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Ottoman Turks and the German and Italian armies during WWII. Let us, of course, not forget the communists who held Croatia in a vise-like grip for the latter part of the 20th century.

my father (left) and his friends before leaving for Italy

my father (left) and his friends before leaving for Italy

And this is how I am genetically descended from rebels. My father did not believe in communism. He wanted a free democratic Croatia. And so in 1961, he left his village in Hecergovina in the former Yugoslavia with two friends. They walked for three days straight, stopping only to sleep or to hide from the authorities. Finally, they reached Trieste, Italy where they requested asylum. My father spent a year in a refugee camp in Italy awaiting the U.S. to accept his paperwork. His friends went on to France. Finally, in April 1962, the U.S. government granted my father political refugee status. He was free to come to the United States.

my father (right side) singing with some friends

my father (right side) singing with some friends

That could have been the end of his rebellion. But it wasn’t. My father continued to believe in a free Croatia. He marched in Croatian national pride parades. He invested in the Croatian community by participating in the church, the community and the Croatian school (the one where I missed all those Saturday morning cartoons..!!). But he also invested in the Croatian people. He sent money back home, he pressed the U.S. to stop doing business with Yugoslavia, he passed out leaflets and he helped the diaspora find jobs and homes. Because of this involvement in the community and the stipulation on his asylum to not be involved in overt acts against the U.S. or Yugoslavia, we had many visits from the FBI. Hence, my abilty to spot a FBI agent…

My father (blue grey suit) outside church

My father (blue grey suit) outside church

Throughout my youth, I was inundanted with ideas of resistance, rebellion and freedom from tyranny. And so my fascination with revolutionaries around the world was born, including the U.S.’s from Britain. But also groups as farflung as the Irish revolutionary army (IRA), the Basque nationalist and separatist group ETA, even the Quebec sovereignty movement in Canada peaked my attention.! If it smacked of rebellion and unrest and the formation of a new country – it had my attention. Not that I condoned violence, it was the romantic rhetoric that made me swoon.

My mom, my rebel dad and me

My mom, my rebel dad and me

So in March 2010, when I signed up for my Chiapas study abroad class, I was pleased to discover we would be meeting with the Zapatista revolutionaries in Mexico.! In fact, I was excited.!! However, almost every single other person in my life expressed interest ranging from complete disinterest as in “Who are they?” and “Who cares” to “Omg – you are going to get yourself killed.!” But I was not nervous, I was thrilled to go. Ok maybe I was a little nervous. But I had technically grown up around ‘rebels’ my whole life. So I figured, I would be fine.

EZLN symbol

EZLN symbol

The day finally came to see the Zapatistas. We took our bus to one of their villages in the Chiapas highlands. We arrived at the village fairly early. A letter had been sent ahead of time announcing our visit. However, the Zapatista villages are considered an autonomous region of Mexico; therefore, when we arrived we had to hand over our passports for approval. It was exactly like entering a foreign country. We were allowed to enter the village, but were only escorted to an administration building. Apparently, there was some confusion with our admittance because two students were carrying passports from Colombia and one from the Ukraine. Initially, the Zapatistas seemed confused by this, but we were able to explain the discrepancy to their satisfaction.

comedor pinguino or the penguin diner

comedor pinguino or the penguin diner in the village

On a side note, while we were waiting to be admitted many of us required the use of bathroom facilities. Since we were not allowed to go into the village technically, we were led behind the small la tienda on the roadside. So remember how I waxed profusely about the amazing bathroom at Ocosingo. Yeah, this bathroom was the exact opposite..!! First, we had to walk through a maze of dirt, refuse, discarded metal and chickens..!! Yes, I said chickens..!! Have I mentioned I’m a city girl who is afraid of birds in general. Let alone chickens. Did I mention me and my classmate held hands.! Then of course, the bathroom was an outhouse on stairs..?! With chickens outside clucking.! Oh well…I digress…

zapatista village administration building

zapatista village administration building

Once our visit was approved, our passports were returned to us. We were then taken to a building that appeared to be a schoolhouse or meeting room. Three Zapatista rebels, two men and a woman, sat at the head of the room and told us their story. Basically, the Zapatistas are a revolutionary leftist group located in Chiapas. The group is made up mostly of rural indigenous Maya, though their leader and main spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, is not Maya. The Zapatistas take their name from Emiliano Zapata, the agrarian reformer and leading figure of the Mexican Revolution.

painted revolutionaries

painted revolutionaries and a classmate

The Zapatistas have led a war or rebellion against the Mexican state since 1994 when NAFTA was signed. They were concerned that NAFTA would bring about a larger gap between the rich and the poor. However, since their 1994 uprising was squashed by the Mexican army, they have refrained from using weapons. The Zapatistas, or EZLN, now have adopted a different strategy that attempts to gain both Mexican and international support. They have started an internet campaign to explain their intentions and bring about more awareness to their plight. As well as, invite outside groups such as my study abroad class to hear their history and their requests. This change in tactics has garnered greater support from a variety of NGOs and other organizations. It has also created increased attention among the media.

classmates outside a painted building

classmates outside a painted building

Among the Zapatista requests are indigenous control over their resources, especially their land. Since 1994, they have been creating autonomous municipalities in Chiapas. In fact, San Juan Chamula discussed in an earlier post is one of these autonomous municipalities. They have their own police force and the Mexican army is not allowed to enter. Also, on our drive to Agua Azul and Palenque, we had to pay fees to enter to both the Mexican government and the Zapatistas as part of this autonomous agreement. The Zapatistas also believe in a bottom-up approach to politics rather than a top-down. That is why they believe the Mexican government and NAFTA are flawed. Power should come from the people according to EZLN.

my professor outside a painted building

my professor outside a painted building

At the end of their speeches, there was a question and answer session. I even got to ask a question about women’s rights among the Zapatistas.! The Zapatistas actually have a Women’s Revolutionary Law which declares women to be equals among men.! The meeting was definitely a top ten moment in my life. After the Q and A, we were allowed to tour the village and take photos. The buildings were amazing with many painted in bright and colorful hues. There was also a small shop that sold clothes and I picked up a beautiful purple embroidered blouse or huipil.

Me, my professor, our liason and zapatista rebels

our liason, me, my professor and zapatista rebels

Upon leaving, the Zapatistas asked us to tell their story to the outside world. That was their only request of us. That visit was an amazing experience.! One I will not soon forget. The genuine struggle of the people brought to mind many revolutionary stories I have heard throughout my life and my schooling. The basic rights of a people to govern themselves and their land. Is it too much to ask for? Or is it too much not to ask for? Only the heart of a rebel knows the answer for certain. But it appears the Zapatistas and my father came to the same conclusion that it was too much not to ask for their freedom. Only time will tell whether a rebel heart beats within me….

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fungus and mushrooms – it’s whats for breakfast

coffee at "el hongo"

coffee at “el hongo”

One of the most memorable meals I had in Chiapas, Mexico was in Ocosingo, Chiapas. After my study abroad class, a few of us ventured on to Agua Azul waterfalls and the ruins at Palenque. Last week, I shared those photos and stories with you.! On our way, we stopped for breakfast at this wonderful roadside diner or comedor.

Ocosingo comedor "el hongo"

Ocosingo comedor “el hongo”

It was literally just on the side of the road in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere to me..!! The name of the comedor was El Hongo or the mushroom. Hahaha.. What a great name.! Though I have also heard it translated as fungus which is even funnier.! Usually, naming your restaurant after a mushroom or fungus is not considered inviting or appetizing.!

breakfast at "el hongo"

breakfast at “el hongo”

And I have to admit I was initally skeptical. But, I followed everyone else’s lead when ordering and was more than pleasantly surprised when my food arrived. The coffee was brought to me in an adorable mug. The fragrance itself woke me up and got me excited about the day. When the meal arrived, I couldn’t wait to dig in. I had ordered quesadillas with melted cheese and, of course, mushrooms..!! There was avocado on the side and fresh orange juice. There was also a slice of melon, but I ate it before I thought to take the photo above 🙂 It was one of the best meals I have had far from ‘civilization’.

garden at Ocosingo "el hongo"

garden at Ocosingo “el hongo”

After the delicious meal, I naturally had to go to the restroom. Trepidatiously, I made my way to the back where the restroom was located. Once again, I was surprised to find this lovely garden on the way to el baño. And the bathroom turned out to be just fine too (though I don’t have a photo to show you)..!! After so many strange and scary restrooms at rest stops in the States, I was grateful to find such well kept facilities. Eventually, we had to get our belongings together and be on our way to the waterfalls and ruins which turned out to be breathtaking.! But this little slice of breakfast on a road in Chiapas was no less spectacular.!

Palenque – the bone place

Temple of Inscriptions

El Templo de las Inscripciones or The Temple of Inscriptions

After my study abroad trip to Chiapas, a few of us continued on to Agua Azul waterfalls and Palenque. On Monday, I had posted a photo of my legs dangling over the rushing Agua Azul water.! Today, I want to show you Palenque.! Palenque is located near the Usumacinta River in the Mexican state of Chiapas. It is a little over 400 miles or 7 1/2 hours from the Riviera Maya. From the Spanish colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas, it is about a 5 hour drive.

entrance to Palenque

entrance to Palenque

Palenque is the Spanish word for arena, palisade and fortification. It was so named because the ruins are laid out in an amphitheatre style with a central pyramid. However, the Tzeltal Mayan name for Palenque is Baak which translates to bone or boney. Hence, the reason it has sometimes been called the bone place. The bone reference may be due to possible ties to death, burials, spiritual rituals and sacrificial tombs.

Temple of the Skull

El Templo de la Calavera or The Temple of the Skull

The Mayan ruins of Palenque are considerably smaller than the sites at Tikal or Copan. However, in terms of some of the best architecture, sculpture, and bas relief carvings produced by the Mayans (and the fact that you can still climb the pyramids..!!), it holds its own against those two sites plus Chichen Itza and Uxmal.! Palenque was initially inhabitated around the first century BC. Under it’s ruler Pakal in the seventh century AD, it became a prominent city. The people began to abandon the city in the ninth century and several decades later it became a ghost town. For hundreds of years, it was hidden in the mist shrouded jungles of Mexico.! Finally to be discovered in the 19th century.!

The Temple of Inscriptions long view

El Templo de las Inscripciones or The Temple of Inscriptions long view

I loved Palenque..!! Just as the Caribbean Sea location of Tulum made it truly magical, the jungle location of Palenque is what made Palenque breathtaking. There were still many buildings that had not been resurrected from the jungle. Tour guides provided a hospitable pathway through the jungle to see some of these still “sleeping” ruins; as well as, useful historical anecdotes. Walking through the jungle was singularly one of the best experiences of my life. And possibly also one of the scariest as there still are real, live, wild animals walking in the jungle as well..!! But I enjoyed it immensely because if you closed your eyes for a moment and remained very quiet, you could almost see and hear the ancient Mayans bringing the city to life.!

El Palacio or The Palace

El Palacio or The Palace

The main buiding at Palenque is The Temple of Inscriptions or El Templo de las Inscripciones. It is the largest stepped pyramid at Palenque. The pyramid also houses the tomb of Pakal who had the building of the pyramid sanctioned after his death. The Temple of Inscriptions also contains much of the city’s recorded history. It is one of the pyramids I climbed while I was there. Though I have to admit I came down the pyramid sitting on my butt.! Just a little scared of heights and narrow stairs on the way down. But well worth the climb for the view at the top.!! The photo below was taken on the steppes with my study abroad group.!

DePaul study abroad group

DePaul study abroad group on the steppes of The Temple of Inscriptions

The other major building at Palenque is The Palace or El Palacio. It is a single storey building built in the shape of an irregular quadrilateral. The throne room is located inside The Palace. There are also three subterraneous ‘apartments’ inside. These ‘apartments’ house some of the many mysteries of Palenque, such as the three great stone tables (or alters). Also, originally the signature tower on The Palace did not have a roof. Ancient Mayans exhibited sophisticated astronomical knowledge and used the roofless platform for star gazing. However, early archaeologists who reconstructed the site were unaware of this morsel of Mayan history and put a roof of their own design on the tower.

me in a straw hat

me in a straw hat on top of The Temple of Inscriptions with The Palace’s tower in the background

The Palace was not only the residence of the king. It also was used as an administrative site and to celebrate large gatherings. On the east side of The Palace is a courtyard or patio called The Patio of the Captives or El Patio de los Cautivos. It was a perfect space for public events such as receiving other nobles and leaders. The enclosed walls are decorated with humiliated and captured slaves who were once free man to showcase the military prowess of the king.

patio of the captives

El Patio de los Cautivos or The Patio of the Captives

Other buidlings include The Temple of the Skull or El Templo de la Calavera. As you enter the temple, there is only one skull still intact. It appears to be part of a larger composition, but time, weather and the jungle have eroded the full stucco decoration. The Temples of the Cross group refer to the cross-like images which depict the tree of creation which is a central component of Mayan mythology. The grouping consists of The Temple of the Cross (El Templo de la Cruz), The Temple of the Sun (El Templo del Sol) and The Temple of the Foliated Cross (El Temple de la Cruz Foliada). It is said that if three people each stand on top of the three pyramids, they will be able to speak and hear each other without yelling. How cool..!!

bas relief at the patio of the captives

Bas relief at The Patio of the Captives

I highly recommend a visit to Palenque.! I know it is a little off the beaten path, but it is so worth the experience.! As a traveler, you can use San Cristobal de las Casas or the Riviera Maya as a home base. There are many tour operators who you can book a group tour with if you don’t want to drive yourself. Remember to bring plenty of sunscreen and wear a hat. It is not only particularly humid in the jungle, but being in the highlands (and so close to the equator) brings you nearer the sun.! Oh yeah, and let us not forget those pesky mosquitos.! It’s an adventure you will remember for a long time.! I know it’s one of my personal favorites 🙂