Land of Amber blog (days 5-12)
Day five: the trip to Simojovel
The different cameras, mics, lights. laptops, hardrives… they all make it into the car and we head off in the late morning for the three-hour trip. Alicia tells us that she doesn’t plan anything else the days she travels to Simojovel. I think I might be a bit much but, anyhow, she’s been there plenty of times before so I agree.
It takes us far too long to cross small San Cristobal due to the bumper to bumper situation; on the outskirts we do a pitstop to fill on fuel and some food for our stay. Shortly after that, we start going up and up and around a bend every hundred metres, and now I understand what she’s talking about. I’m at the back, taking photos, chatting, being all jumpy but, less than an hour into the trip I’m concentrating hard on not getting sick.
The first part of the trip is a familiar route, up past the village of Chamula, which is one of the two stops included in ventures out of San Cristobal for visitors: “the indigenous villages of Chamula and Zinacantán”. The first time I visited back in the moody teenage years my dad had to do a lot of sweet talking with the authorities of the town to avoid being put in a cell because we had stopped the car in front of the town hall. The Chamulas are closed off, proud and hard; if you want to visit, you follow their rules, and fair enough too. Another way you can get yourself into their cells is by taking pictures inside their famous church, which is one of the most colourful representations of Mayan-Catholicism, a symbiosis of Catholic and their own old and modern religious practices. The church is lined by the familiar painted and sculpted representations of the Virgin, Christ and different saints, but adorned in Chamula clothes and ornaments and their significance radically reinterpreted: I remember a sculpture of Christ tied to a low column and leaning over it slightly; we happened to ask what it represented, “Jesus drunk” came the prompt reply. Well, the conquest introduced alcohol to the Mayans and now is intricately linked to Catholic celebrations; when men here drink, they’ll do it for days in a row and are unable to do anything else. No wonder their women are much happier when they all convert to one of the many pentecostal churches that abound through Chiapas. On the ground of the Chamula church, there are no benches, the floor is covered in fresh grass and small candles that each faithful sticks to the ground and lights when they come to pray, which they do using a combination of fresh eggs, live chickens and soda -it used to be liquor- and bundles of herbs that they hit whoever is getting blessed with, after spitting soda on them and passing a chicken around their heads.
We continue up the Altos, the Highlands of Chiapas, past the Zapatista stronghold of Oventic and right through to San Andres Larrainzar, places that we had got to know in the previous projects. Ah, the Altos, mist and green mountains, cool air, the smell of fires and plenty of indigenous dressed in traditional clothes. I love it, can we stay here and make a documentary about the non-mining indigenous of the Altos? No? ok then, we’ll go to the heat.
The thing about this trip is that we have to do a huge loop to get to Simojovel, we have to go up and around the whole of the Altos region to come back down again; it’s much closer to Palenque but there’s no road from there… this reminds me of the bus routes in Dublin.
Bend after bend after bend, we start to see the vegetation change, banana trees pop up on the side of the road and the road is no more in lots of places, unpaved or broken old asphalt that Alicia masterly and quickly manoeuvres, while I concentrate on not throwing up everything up to my first baby puree. I will certainly not be up for much when we get there.
Day five to six: a night in the best hotel in Simojovel
Simojovel is like a mini San Francisco carved out of the jungle and much simpler in its buildings, of course. Out of the main square, with the church on one side and the town hall in the other, steep streets come out from all corners going up to hills with more churches on top, or they end in a wall of vegetation; on the other side, they go down and up with the jungle and the mountains at the end. I really like this place. It’s chaotic and busy and all the cars and trucks in the town seem to be out at the same time blocking each street.
There’s a fair on the main square which we’re told is here until Christmas eve. Our hotel, which is a no frills old box of a two story building with airy rooms, faces the square and the fair and our three bed room looks directly at it and at the three competing rides and taco stands. It’s proper hot here, must be over the 30 degree mark so we’re happy that our room has “climate”, as they call it here, or air conditioning. The rides and their competing ear busting pop and dance tunes and frequent bangers perk up an hour after we come back from having something to eat. We’re so ready for bed, thank God for the slightly muffling ear plugs.
I take a shower after Alicia, in the rain water shower as Paul calls it, since it falls softly and randomly, and I notice the plug hole isn’t working too well, in fact when I come out, there’s a centimetre of water in the bathroom and a puddle in the bedroom. We go to ask for a mop but they come up to clean it from reception. At 9:30 in the evening the music stops and the fair starts winding down, it’s only Tuesday, after all, we’re so grateful. In the middle of the night a strong drain pipe smell wakes me up and I can hardly breath.I think of the shower straight away, but I’m so tired that I ignore it. A while later, getting up to go to the bathroom, my feet land in water off the bed -oh, oh!- I try to find a dry spot but it’s difficult, Alicia notices me dancing around the room and I tell her; when I turn on the light, we see the real scope, almost half of the room is flooded. Alicia and I venture down to the lobby to see if there’s anyone on night shift. Ha, silly Europeans! The lobby is in complete darkness, we switch on the light, walk to the front entrance and see it firmly locked and padlocked, Alicia mentions emergencies and I think of another film with creepy lonely halls, The Shining. We even try to find a mop ourselves, opening whichever doors we can on the ground floor, but to no avail, so we just go to sleep in our puddle room. The end of this story is that there’s a major drainage problem and they spend the entire next day fixing it, while they move us to the room above, which is the same, minus the climate, but let’s get to the mines.
Day 6: Pauchil Los Cocos and the mines
The unpaved road to Pauchil is in the process of being flattened and widened, which, Alicia tells us, makes the journey very fast now and in 10 minutes we arrive at the bottom of the hill that’s the centre of the village or “community” -as they call small rural indigenous communities- of Pauchil (land of amber) Los Cocos, to distinguish from the many Pauchils around the area, although there are no coconuts here. We leave the car on the road by the school and the amber centre they’ve built in a wooden building to attract tourists to the village and the mines, although foreign tourists hardly make it to Simojovel because of the long difficult road, but they have the “build it and they’ll come” way of thinking, which isn’t bad and improves access and resources for the community anyway. We make our way up the steep hill to Dionisio and Esperanza’s house, carrying all our equipment and some food for them, passing other modest houses, some in the traditional Mayan way, a hut here, a hut there, one is the fire kitchen, one the bedroom, made of wood the poorest and concrete the better ones. Dionisio and Esperanza have joined theirs, though the kitchen is still a wood hut attached at the back, so there’s a way for the smoke from the fire to escape and the toilet come wash room is also attached to the kitchen. They have plenty of chickens and cockerels and four dogs that lounge around. Alicia introduces us and we’re invited inside where we discuss what we’re here to do now, while a small telly plays cartoons in the background, that we all get distracted by in turns.
We spend a while at first explaining what release forms are and why we need them to sign them if they’re are going to be in the film. Alicia tells us afterwards that they have been taken advantage of before, by agreeing to things and signing documents without fully knowing what they were, by trusting more “developed” people to help them as they said they would and been taken for a ride, so they’re naturally cautious and suspicious. It’s not just them, all indigenous in Mexico, because of lack of education, lack of cunning and illiteracy, have been continuously conned, so they’re guarded, particularly of Paul and I, who, to them, have just landed and look as “gringo” as can be. Once they understand that we’re here to tell their story and that we’re not going to make a profit on this, we’re not even fully funded and are financing most of it ourselves, they relax. For them, we’re all “gringos”, we’re all from the US, have money and come to make more off them, so again, we need to explain it’s not like that and Alicia, in the four years that she has been coming here, has been doing lots of work for them too and is offering to do more, from making a CD for Dionisio’s choir singing nieces to offering to design stickers for his new honey.
Paul and I do a couple of establishing shots of their area while Alicia explains each clause before Dionisio signs the form. After we film the whole family, polishing and perforating the amber, we set off for the mines, though the heat is already taking its toll on “the Irish”. As well as Dionisio leading the way, his two pre teen sons and a neighbour’s kid also join our single-line procession through the mountain path to arrive at Dionisio’s two mines. We carry out an interview with him at the mine’s entrance and then get ready to walk inside, all the way to the end, filming the process with two cameras and LED lights and, although I felt claustrophobic at the thought initially, this mine feels positively roomy compared to most of the ones we’ve passed on the way. This one is old and has been widened gradually so that we only need to bend down or crouch in places, in most of the others, it’s a crawl only job, not just to get in, but to work inside, truly inhuman and extreme, I think, but needs must and if they can fit in, why make it any wider; needles to say, all the miners we see are fairly slim, partly because they sweat half their body weight inside. As we get further inside, maybe 80 metres, my worry is more the size of our entourage and whether there’s oxygen for all of us in here. We see a wheelbarrow lying on a wall, a light in the distance and finally get to the end of the mine and meet Polo, another of our contributors, who pays Dionisio rent to work in his mine and try his luck at finding some amber. They all take turns hammering and chiseling, Dionisio’s eldest son too, but the rock is too hard for him here. Polo spots something shiny and takes over to arduously uncover a sliver of amber on the rock, which he extracts and hands to us as a memento. Paul’s camera is seriously overheating, we’ve been here about half and hour so we leave Polo until the next day, which we’ll be mainly on him, and we walk back out, sweating and with a nice patina of grey dust all over; and these guys do this 6 days a week, crikey!
Esperanza, Dionisio’s wife asked us before wether we would join them for lunch and that she’d kill the biggest cat for us; of course, she was joking, she’s going to kill one of the big hens instead, I’d like to see it and film it even, and Alicia says she’ll wait around the corner. In the end, we decide it’s not crucial to the story, so we leave her to it, not without having the kids tease Alicia by holding the lucky hen’s neck and pulling it as if to kill it. When we left their house for the mines before, after closing the chicken wire “gate” to their front lawn of yellow earth, I notice we’re stepping over a little stream, now running bright red… Esperanza is a fast worker, she’s already killed the chicken and is bleeding it. I’m looking forward to that hen stew.
When we return from the the mines, we film Esperanza finishing the meal and share a much welcomed lunch with them. They ask us about our land and how things are there, they’ve heard there’s a lot of money in Europe and we laugh and say that maybe that was true before for some people, but that we’ll be lucky if we can actually own our house in 30 years-time and they call their house theirs straight away, no banks, no mortgages or debt; they have land, animals and two mines and now Dionisio has started keeping bees and making hone. This is certainly an entrepreneurial family.
In the evening Alicia gets an intriguing text from one of her Zapatista friends that she works with, telling her to be prepared, that something is going to happen on the 21st; he can’t tell her more and he shouldn’t have told her that much, but now she gets worried and I do too. She texts back asking whether we should stay here or go back to San Cristobal but they can’t tell her that much either, only that it’s going to be like “May a few years back”. She concludes it’s probably a march en masse into San Cristobal as it’s happened before, she doesn’t think they’re going to block any entrances and exists into the town this time. That could be problematic indeed. We’ll have to wait for the 21st and the end of the world. Incidentally, the Mayan calendar is circular and cyclical, which means that there’re ins’t a linear end, and the 21st of December 2012 is just the start of new solar cycle according to the Mayans. So there, for anyone who was wondering.
Day 7: back to the mines
We have arranged to pick Polo up at his house at 8am to film him on the way to Pauchil, which, when there’s no transport and not enough money, he walks. We do a few takes, which as Paul says, look so Mexican, in particular the one of him as he leaves the town behind, walking on the unpaved road, a wide take that shows the dusty yellowy road, people walking, street dogs, some cars, people selling food to the last houses in the town… Once in Pauchil, we negotiate where to leave the car, chat to some of the other locals and make our way up to Dionisio’s to film some scenes between them. On the way, Polo wants to stop at his friend’s house and say hello, and we get to film him talking passionately to his friend and family, riling them up for development and change for their communities. He tells them they need to get their work better appreciated and remunerated; that they need to protect their health and get a fan, as some of them do, to protect their eyesight from the amber dust when they polish it. Polo is a great character, he’s articulate, funny and full of energy; he wants to empower his friends, he wants them to see that it’s thanks to all of their hard work that they’re improving the infrastructure of their community with the new paths and “cultural centre” building. He asks “Why is your community getting better when others aren’t?” We all thinking the answer will be something like “because we work harder” or “we want to better ourselves”, but the friend, who’s been fairly quiet and has been enjoying Polo’s enthusiastic speech, comes out with “because we’re better friends with the governor”. It doesn’t take away from these miners having a hard life, worse than anyone else in the amber industry, but it’s funny and true of most human conditions, they’re not going to say “no” to something that benefits them, independently of morals and ideology. The governor is probably trying to make himself look good by throwing a bit of money at the biggest pink elephant in the region, where most people live off amber, but sure, they got a better path and a centre to present their amber when they get it finished.
After some more filming at Dionisio’s house we go to look for Polo who headed on to the mine to advance his work. Paul sets himself with a GoPro on the head and the DSLR on the hand and I follow with a light, Alicia filming us both. We advance into the pure completely black space, looking for signs of reaching the end of the mine, we finally spot the wheelbarrow for taking out the debris and a few metres ahead, a single light shines towards us and Polo shouts out “the heat!”, and, without another word he carries on working with the light on his head and we settle around him, giving him some extra light with the ones we carry. We film silently, half hypnotised by the sound of the hammer on the chisel and Polo’s rhythmic sighs and movement, the air getting thinner and hotter until Paul announces that his camera is telling him it’s got as much heat as it will take today.
Days 8: Filming with the small amber artisans and sellers in Simojovel
Last night we were blessed, with rain, which stopped the fair and the music and cooled the air, but it hasn’t stopped and it doesn’t look like it’s going to. It is the 21st after all, and it rains heavily in the middle of the dry season, is it a sign? We hear from San Cristobal about it being worse over there, with flooding and blackouts, and we hear about the Zapatistas. They made a silent march through San Cristobal and two other municipal heads in the region: Margaritas and Ocosingo. About 20,000 of them went into San Cristobal, silently and perfectly organised, they just flooded the town and walked through the centre, the main square and out the opposite end: only a short communique from the famous Sub commander Marcos makes it to the news, something about our end of the world being their beginning, a sort of poetic short message, because he did have to say something, but people are more impressed by the numbers of balaclava-clad indigenous men and women, most in their traditional clothing, walking in complete silence and order through the town. I would have liked to see it, we just catch a glimpse of it in the news as we have breakfast. I do wonder what the point is, though, I suppose it says “we’re still here”, “we’ve been working and progressing independently from the government, educating our children and leading our lives and justice completely separated from everyone else’s, whether we’re international news anymore or not”.
The rain has slowed everything down our end. We make it to Polo’s who very vaguely agreed to meet us at his house in the morning, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to film him anymore this time round. Alicia knew that his “yes” yesterday wasn’t quite a yes. She reminds me that Mexicans never say no; they have several ways of saying “yes” that she’s learnt to interpret as “no at chance it’s going to happen” carrying various degrees of conviction -if only it was as clear in Ireland! It makes me think of one of Jesus Christ’s famous lines in the New Testament, which my mum likes saying to my dad jokingly when he says one thing but acts the opposite a few minutes later “let your “yes” be a “yes” and your “no” a “no” my translation. Most of the miners belong to the 7th Day Adventists church and is rubbing off, they like to quote the bible.
After we’re gently let down by Polo we go to our next location, a small amber shop near the main square that we had previously arranged to film at. We spend there most of the day, shooting with two and sometimes three cameras, we film the life of the shop and the craftwork they do with amber. They’re both amber artisans and merchants. We leave one camera on and the radio mic on the main character -letting them know, of course- while the three of us disappear for an hour, to see what happens, who comes in to buy or sell, while we’re away. We’re the only non Mexican foreigners in this small town and anywhere we go we seem to be the attraction, so we want to leave them to it and see what happens when they’re freer. In the main square and the amber fair that’s happening in the middle under a big marquee, the smallest, probably poorest of small merchants, approaching holding plastic bags and whispering “do you want amber?” almost inaudibly and suspiciously as if they were selling drugs.
It’s been a full, wet and productive day. We have a light tacos dinner next to the hotel and count our lucky stars that it’s still drizzling and the fair rides will not go on for another night. Happy end of the world, everybody, at least for a night.
Day 9: Last day in Simojovel and return to San Cristóbal
We have decided to leave this afternoon; we’ll film all morning and once back in san Cristobal we can start putting it loosely together and arranging filming the big amber shops and merchants on the opposite end of the scale, as well another possible couple of visits to an ex-amber shop assistant and a return to Simojovel in January for further scenes in January.
We start work at 7am doing a couple of establishing shots of the town from the roof of our hotel and street shots trying to capture what first jumped out to Paul and I about this town as complete outsiders: the steep streets that go up and down like a roller coaster, the surrounding jungle, the mixture of urban and rural. By 9am we’re tired and hungry and regale ourselves with the last breakfast in what has become our most frequented eating joint here. For me it’s “huevos rancheros”, fried beans, and tomato sauce and chilli and slightly watery coffee. “When in Rome…” absolutely; each forkful both brings me back and plants me more firmly in the present of being back here in this land. Mexican breakfasts, yes indeed, we might suffer the consequences later, but now I’m diving in head first.
Later we film inside the amber fair, organised by an indigenous amber artisan cooperative and manned by the “encargado” or “presidente”, the man in charge, a decisive and active fellow who signs my release form and organises a few others to put the fair’s big banner up, so it’ll look proper for the cameras. Himself and another guy climb up the sides of the marquee quickly and expertly, making it look easy, while there are about 4 or 5 others shouting opinions from below and finding the gringo’s filming the process quite amusing. Instinctively, both Alicia and Paul include in their frame a guy teaching another from the bible as they sit on a bench between us and the banner action.
Our last contributor is someone recommended -as some of the others- by Alicia’s friend and “insider” in this project, Jorge Balcazar, the director of the regional amber museum who first brought the subject to her attention. This contributor’s nickname is Diablo, the devil, and nobody calls him by his real name of Carlos. I have plenty of images running through my head when I first hear about this character, when, in fact, him and his wife Amber are some of the most relaxed and unassuming people we’ve met. A young indigenous but fairly westernised couple, he makes amber and silver jewellery and she’s the sales person. We film her at the fair and join him at his house and workshop, a simple adobe room where light pours in from the outside. He’s a sound guy; talented, he makes some fine pieces, but works at his pace, being clever and organised to find and maintain his clients in San Cristobal, where he perfected his craft for 5 years, but decided to return to his home town where he’s his own boss and can be with his friends and family. He makes what he needs and lives a simple life with his wife and child; he seems to understand everyone’s position in the amber business, from the miners to the big shop owners in San Cristobal, and has no beef with anyone, no resentment, no complaints, no envy. For me, people like them are the real “winners”, if you want to put it in US terminology, happy with their lot, enjoying their work and improving it continuously, but not to make more than they need.
He put us all in a good mood and we head back to “Sancris” feeling a sense of accomplishment and of having met some interested people -we’re ready for the bend fest ahead on the road.
Days 10 &11: Settling back in San Cristóbal
On the Sunday after we return, the 23rd of December, we back up all our footage, go through it, clean some clothes and in general settle back in for the rest of the work, but we’re also going to take the next two days off, even though it doesn’t feel like it here, weather wise and being quite far from our families, it’s Christmas. Ilhui and Alicia never make a fuss and just stay in or invite some friends over. It sounds nice, I’m not up for another big gathering with confused Basque activists, well, there was only one back at that party the first day but as they say in Dublin, I’m only messin.
On the morning of the 24th Paul gets up with a badly upset stomach, sooner or later it always happens to visitors here: Moctezuma’s vengeance, whether we use mineral water even to rinse our tooth brushes; everything is different, the bacteria in the cooking and washing water in the food, in the air even, it’s foreign to us. Alicia tells me it now happens to her when she goes to Spain. I’ve escaped it so far in this trip. Paul wakes up looking yellow and gets slightly better with some coffee and toast, although he stays in bed while Alicia and I go to do some shopping for a few days, choosing probably the worse day to it, as everywhere is packed.
Our Christmas afternoon/eve is spent making and sharing a nice meal with a neighbour, who’s been leaving here for years but is now returning to Spain, or rather Catalunya. I’m still getting confused with times here, maybe because we eat at odd hours for us; I think we sit down to eat around 3:30 and we’re still chatting and having coffee close to 6. I have a chance to have a quick video chat with my Spanish-Mexican family who are altogether in Seville; it’s past mid-night for them and they’re wrapping up. I do miss not being with them this year, particularly and ironically because my brother lives in Mexico city and we get to see him, his Mexican wife and child, once a year if we’re lucky. We’ll cross paths in the capital at our return for a couple of days which will be a gift.
Day 12: Merry Christmas
So it’s the 25th and as I write this, now back in “real time”, it’s mid-day for me, 6pm in Ireland, and I have been finishing and tidying up my posts before uploading them; I’m anxious to do it soon and share our experience with whoever is reading. As a write, more bangers and music are going off around me. Paul is slightly better today and going through lenses and camera tests with Alicia. I’m going to start editing in a short while; I’ve never been able to start so quickly for a documentary before, but we need to start putting it together, even if loosely, to see if we need material that we hadn’t planned for. We have to film everything we want before we go, there will be no, popping in for extra takes and material for a year, like we were able to do with City Wild
It’s an unusual Christmas, it’s quiet -at least in the house- relaxed and unceremonious, we’ll make something simple to eat -we don’t want to torture Paul either!- and carry on working slowly, as I think of what might be happening in Spain or Ireland at this time, which are the ones I can picture, but wherever you are and whether you’re celebrating or not, we wish you the best from here, with trumpets and percussion in the distance, singing cockerels and icky bellies; have a very merry one.