The moral dilemma…

December 1, 2010

10 kilometers outside of San Cristobal sits a small but bustling village.  It perches in the Chiapan highlands and is nestled amongst plots of land used for growing the usual vegetable varietals.  This town is called San Juan Chamula and it is the epicenter of the indigenous Chamulan people (Tzotzil), most well-known for their unique religious practices.  The Tzotzil have held strong to their rejection of Catholicism, exiling those in the community who chose to convert.

I had read and heard that within the church there is commonly sacrificial chicken killings, chanting and practicing medicine men and women and thousands of candles and worshippers praying to St John the Baptist, whom they revere to be higher than Christ.

Naturally, after hearing such things, I wanted to see them with my own eyes.  I wanted to feel what it was  like to be in a place with that kind of energy hanging in the air.

Herein lies the dilemma.  On any given day, we are riding through similar towns, passing through their markets, chatting with the locals, getting laughed at by the kids, etc.  Chamula, as I would come to find out, was quite similar to most towns we have ridden through.  However, what sets it apart and, quite blatantly, puts it in the guidebooks are these ritualistic practices that occur within their religion and church.  For $20M the townsfolk will let you enter the church and witness the goings on.  All photography is strictly forbidden.

Kurt and I had discussed going several times.  Our debate was whether or not it was okay to intrude on people in this way.  To walk into their religious space like that, to peer at them and see with our own eyes the things we had been described.  Granted they are charging an entrance fee with the mutual understanding of you probing into their realm.  The age-old question of “is nothing sacred anymore?” seemingly rears the answer no.

I should mention we have a thing about being “tourists.”  I think a lot of people do.  The mention of the word and immediately the image pops into my head of a person with a camera around their neck and a fanny pack around their waist  But the reality of the matter is that we ARE tourists everyday.  One can argue that maybe the more appropriate term for us, given the circumstances, is travelers.  The fact we live on our bikes, day in and day out, we have come to interact with people differently then the folks arriving by a bus or out of a van for a few minutes.  Traveling on the bike at our pace makes us more accessible.  Maybe it makes us more real in a way, or perhaps it just heightens our alien status, but the bikes do give us a bit of a twist.  Still, there is no denying we are far from indigenous or local descent and have come to have a look-see.

We went back and forth a bit about it.  Kurt had made up his mind that he was not going to go.  He believed strongly that it was intruding on something, in addition to him lacking an interest in religious devoutness anyways.  Plus, there was a coffee museum to visit in the city.  I agreed that I couldn’t get past the intrusiveness of the matter and let it slip out of my mind for a bit as we walked up the steps of another church in town, taking in the view of the whole city.  But… I just couldn’t stop thinking about it.  What would it look like in there?  What are they doing?  Will it blow my mind?  Will it change me in any ways as a person?

With all traveling and experiencing and seeing, those are the questions that get answered along the way.  Traveling in itself is a way to rhetorically raise these questions on a daily basis.  Your path answers these.  There is a whole lot of randomness to our traveling, but in general we CHOOSE our path, one way or another, with these little decisions.

I chose to ride up to Chamula.  I justified it with the $20 entrance fee, the fact it was in a guide-book.  It didn’t feel right, but I had to give myself a reason.  I also figured it would be a nice ride up into the mountains and I’d get to see a whole ton of other things along the way.  Kurt and I parted ways, I went and consulted with Joaquin on some directions and headed up.  The ride was pleasant enough, pretty much straight up for those 10 k, and it turned my brain off completely from thinking about where I was going and what I was going to do upon getting there.

Once I got into town, I made my way through the streets lined with the usual woolen wares, embroidered clothes, blaring music stalls and taxi stands.  It was Monday, the middle of the day, and I was alone on an unladen bike, a nice way to arrive in a new town I thought.  Aside for some homes scattered in the hillsides and those tiny roadside shops, the church and its zocalo drew all the attention.  Naturally the road I was on ended there, and I hopped off my bike and began to walk through the market, where I felt comfortable zig zagging through the rows of fruits and vegetable and colorful clothes.  I kept my eye on the church the whole time.  There was a line of children and adults sitting outside, definitely not of the tourist kind, and a gruff looking man with his arms crossed near the door.  Nothing felt right about me going up to that door and going in.  There was no denying the feeling.  I realized at that point that I just couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t justify locking up my bike, buying a $20M ticket and walking through the door to stand in a place that I had no business being in.  For really all I was there to do, as pleasantly and unobtrusively as I could, was to gawk at what was inside.

I left the church grounds behind and began to walk my bike through the market again, back towards the street I had entered on.  A man stopped to chat with me about my bike, asking about the trip with the usual questions.  I immediately felt more comfortable with the whole situation.

I know these situations are going to arise over and over while traveling.  The whole point of traveling is to see and experience things different from what you know.  I descended the mountain feeling good about my decision and in the realization that these things will have to be taken on a case by case basis.  And in this particular case, I left the people of Chamula and their religious practices be.


I cruised down the mountain despite the ever-present rain storm over the city of San Cristobal...

...and took shelter under the awning of a coffee union as the rain poured down...


2 Responses to “The moral dilemma…”

  1. matt said

    it is fascinating reading about the turnings and tunings of y’all’s literal and figurative gears/bearings. with the neat pictures, it is a rare, delicious blend.

    and yes, we like the pics of you and kurt doing stuff. mostly cuz of those huge smiles plastered to your grimy faces. 2 smiles are better than one.

    keep on rolling!

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