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Jun 27

“GRINGO!!!”

The sign reads: This land recovered in 1995 for bases of support of EZLN and independent farmers. The land belongs to those who work it. Zapata lives on. The fight continues.

“GRINGO!!!”

I sighed and looked up to my left to see the excited and angry face of the nine year old boy.  He pointed an accusing finger at me at arm’s length and repeated his deranged mantra like only a child possessed can.

“GRINGO! GRINGO! GRINGO!”

I turned back to the road just as the rock he threw went scattering down the road in front of me, then Tony and I rounded the corner, and the kid was lost from view.

This was not the first time I had been greeted this way on the road from San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque, and unfortunately it would not be the last.  In fact, that boy was far from the exception to the rule – he was the norm.  Every village I had passed through on the road I had greeted me with the angry screams with children.

“GRINGO!!!!  GRINGO! GRINGO! GRINGO!”

The good news was that very few of the children felt compelled to throw things.  I had had two rocks thrown at me, while two other cyclists friends had been hit by banana peels and ice cubes.  Where were we?!

We were in Zapatista territory.

The short lived revolution.

On January 1st, 1994 – the same day that NAFTA was signed – lightly armed rebels took the Mexican military by surprised and occupied San Cristobal de las Casas along with huge swathes of the state of Chiapas, The called themselves the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) or Zapatista National Liberation Army.  They said the stood for  indigenous rights and stood against economic globalistion.  The next day the Mexican military responded heavily and violently and began to win back their lost territory until a ceasefire was declared on the 12th.  Then in February 1995, the Mexican army launched there own surprise attack and sent the rebels running for the hills.  Since then The EZLN has continued to attract international attention and that of popular culture, with their plight being supported by music groups such as Rage against the Machine, Manu Chao, and Blue King Brown.

Their history and their cause is all well and good.  As a typical westerner I am always happy to jump on the band wagon of an underdog cause without knowing or understanding much more than the facts in the above paragraph.  We “free” westerners are so desperate for a cause.  We want to “free Tibet” and  “Make Kony Famous” and ride the wave of popular ego-fulfilling enthusiasm to make the world a better place.  We are quick to judge and even quicker to pitch in our two cents on an issue that has little or no relevance on our lives while casting a blind eye to more pressing – but far less exciting – issues at home.  And so, whilst in San Cristobal de Las Casas, I went out and dutifully bought an EZLN sticker for my bicycle and stuck it onto the frame.  I was a revolutionary.

You are not welcome here.

Then I went and rode through Zapatista territory and was greeted with anger and disrespect around every bend.  The most prevalent sign of unfriendliness was the kids and some adults screaming “GRINGO!” around every corner and in every village.  These were villages that already seemed unwelcoming to me due to the unmarked and unsigned speed bumps around blind corners that were steep and sharp enough to kill a cyclists or at the very least break a bicycle in half.

Yan charges ahead

If that had been all, I wouldn’t have been affected too much – after all they were mostly just kids being kids – Then I caught up with the German couple Yan and Karina – who are on a cycling trip around the world – and I realised after talking to them that perhaps I have thicker skin when it comes to this kind of thing.  After all, my background has lent me a great deal of experience being “that white guy”.  So I while was dismissing the locals behaviour as “a bite rude” and a reflection of not seeing many white people roll through town, the Germans were breaking out the R-word: racism.  I thought this was a bit extreme,  perhaps they just want to be left alone?

Later that day, Yan and I were riding ahead of Karina when one of the colectivo trucks stopped next to us and the driver stuck his hand of the window to rudely demand payment.  Payment for what?  For passing through Zapatista territory.  Yan and I kindly told him he could fuck off, and eventually he gave up and drove on, but Yan and I were sufficiently worried about Karina and the man’s threatening manner that we turned around to go back to her.

The land remains beautiful

Meanwhile, Karina was being held up down the road by an old lady and a clothesline that she had pulled up across the road to stop traffic.  With the traffic stopped, she could then attempt to sell her mangoes or whatever other product she was pushing.  Sometimes, this clothesline would be tied to a child – to discourage frustrated drivers from pushing through the line.  These tripwires were a frustrating inconvenience for drivers, but for bicycles – which can not just stop on a dime – they were scary.

Mayan ruins of Palenque

All I know is that it was with relief that I rolled into Palenque and emerged from the heavy shadow of bitterness and anger that had been dragging me down for the last two days.  I was exhausted from being on-edge.  If the goal of the locals had been to make me feel unwelcome, unwanted, and slightly threatened – then they had succeeded gloriously.  I find it ironic, that a revolutionary movement which had depended so much on international solidarity – and continues to do so – could be so disrespectful to the occasional foreigner passing through their villages.  In any case, I was no longer among their empathizers, I was no longer a revolutionary.  The people had made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with me.

The feeling was mutual.

As a postscript, I feel it necessary to say though that not everyone I met on the road had been unwelcoming.  There had been the occasional calls of hola amigo and in my interactions with the shop keepers they had always been respectful and polite – if not exactly friendly.  Then, of course, there were the boys from Ocosingo working at the petrol station who had been very friendly and had let me camp there for the night.

The Mayan ruins at Palenque

Camp spot at the petrol station in Ocosingo

 

3 comments

  1. Andy Morton

    By crickey, Zach. I once met some cyclists who told me they had rocks thrown at them in Tibet (or was it Xinjiang?). So maybe it has got something to do with these cause célèbre regions. Ungrateful bastards! Don’t they know how many bake sales we hold just for them?

  2. Gregor

    Good article Mr. Skerritt. What is your cycle soundtrack?

    1. Zack

      Thanks Gregor! Soundtrack is wide ranging… everything from Pink Floyd to Phoenix to Phil Collins, and that’s just in the P’s. Theme song for this stage though: Christopher Cross – Ride like the wind! “Because I’ve got such a long way to go… To make it to border of Mexico…” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ur8ftRFb2Ac

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