JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: Chiapas, Mexico to Mississippi, USA

May 29, 2008

LEAVING 28 DE JUNIO
I left some good friends at 28 de Junio, folks who'd taught me a lot, shared what little they had, and showed me faces of humanity you're not likely to see in places easier to live in. Times there had been harsh and beautiful.

Just last week I told you how dead looking the soccer field was. During my last jog there it was green, the fresh emerald green of early spring, for lately it had been raining almost every early evening. The rainy season had come exactly when it was supposed to. Because now the sky often clouded over, afternoons had grown several degrees cooler than they had been for months. Breathing in the air, there was a soft freshness that hadn't been there before. I left exactly at the moment when Nature shifted from being harsh and threatening to yielding and bounteous.

I didn't accomplish nearly as much at 28 de Junio as I'd hoped. However, one thing I finished was a kind of three-faced folder put together with Microsoft Publisher, advertising 28 de Junio as a Rural Tourism destination. My friend Andrés has big plans for making tourists happy by teaching them about cornfields and medicinal plants, and giving kids burro rides and letting them feed chickens grains of corn from a bag.

You can see the folder's outer covers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080529ff.jpg.

The inside view is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080529fb.jpg.

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THOSE INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS OBSERVERS
Several readers have asked about the International Human Rights Observers I've mentioned several times. They're stationed at 28 de Junio to dissuade aggression by people who want 28 de Junio and similar nearby indigenous communities to go away.

Last December two men in the community immediately below 28 de Junio were killed. People there assume that paramilitaries did it in order to destabilize the community and cause people to move. Last August, I think it was, the Mexican Army entered 28 de Junio with 500 soldiers and a tank, supposedly suspecting that the community might be a rebel camp.

These actions do destabilize communities and do make families move away. In 28 de Junio the common response has been for women and children to move to nearby Venustiano Carranza. In most cases even the men have left and commute to 28 each day, or come only rarely. During the last couple of weeks a rumor has been spread systematically throughout the area that the local gringos (the observers and I) had been looting the tombs atop sacred Yelem Chem, and inoculating local people with the AIDS virus. Most people didn't believe it, but some did.

During my months at 28 de Junio only a few low-grade but unmistakable intimidations were experienced. However, on the day I left the community the last group of observers also left, and no one came to replace them. Last Friday, soldiers of the Mexican Army entered 28 de Julio and surrounding settlements for what was called a routine maneuver. Of course this upset families and kept the level of tension high. Somehow these incursions always take place during rare occasions when observers are not present.

If you speak a little Spanish and would be interested in being an observer -- young and old people, and couples all have come during my stay -- drop me a line and I'll put you in contact with someone who will set you up. I'm pretty sure but not absolutely so that as an official observer you'd never be in much danger. At roadblocks, soldiers are usually very thorough with local people but hardly make eye contact with foreigners. They're obviously under orders to give us no problems. It's harder to judge what the paramilitaries might do.

Observers receive an orientation, watch things during two weeks at their assigned stations, and then give a report. They are specifically told to not participate in community projects, and to remain absolutely apolitical while at their stations. The stations are usually like 28 de Junio, however -- too hot, too cold, too flea-bitten, too hard to take a bath in, etc. Indigenous folks have been pushed into the most marginal places, so this is to be expected.

Inform yourself before considering becoming an observer. Things are happening in backcountry Chiapas that I can't report in this Newsletter without chancing possible reprisal against innocent people. Lots of information is available on the Internet, however. Do some searches on "Chiapas human rights" and "Chiapas low intensity warfare."

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SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS
On the morning of Wednesday, May 21st, I hitched a ride from 28 to San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the Chiapas highlands. At an elevation of 6,888 feet (2099 m) San Cristóbal's 68° F (20° C) felt as chilly as I remember 38° feeling in other times. I lost a bit of weight back in 28, so maybe that was part of it.

Until a traveler from California told me, I'd not realized that on the day I'd been planning to cross into the US the US would be celebrating Memorial Day weekend. Traveling Greyhound at that time would have been a horror, so I ended up spending four days and nights in San Cristóbal -- having plenty of time for long walks and writing in my little $5/night room. It wasn't a bad time at all. It was a ceremony appropriate for ending one chapter of my life and beginning another.

San Cristóbal was settled in 1528 by troops sent there by the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, Hernando Cortés. The AAA Guide says, "The city center's narrow streets were designed for carriages rather than cars. Old houses with grilled windows give it a look that is stylistically Spanish, although the atmosphere is definitely Indian."

San Cristóbal's sidewalks aren't wide enough for two people to pass on without at least one person going sideways. Also, they're so broken up that you have to pay attention to your feet or you'll trip. But sometimes you can glance to the side just long enough to see through a door or portico a view that couldn't be in greater contrast to the gaudy, dusty, decaying walls facing the street.

There are lush courtyards with statues and artful grillwork, there are hallways with shiny wooden floors on which old women in impossibly intricately-woven black shawls stand looking back at you, balconies from which cascade great tangles of exotic vines, there are caged parrots and flowering orchids, everywhere unbelievable elegance and presumption, and cafés catering to the young and cheek-pierced issuing the unmistakable odor of smoked marijuana. Of course also there were mediocre views and tawdry ones as well but somehow they just highlighted the dazzling ones.

But of course you can't just stand there and gawk, blocking traffic, and you have to study your next step or you'll fall. You keep moving and as you move your memory bank of images grows ever more kaleidoscopic, the whole experience becoming more astonishing and stunning as you go.

And look at people's faces along the streets: Young Indian mothers with babies on their backs looking absolutely stunned and hopeless, young Indian men wide-eyed and exultant, the thought on their faces clearly that since they've made it this far, as far as San Cristóbal, the sky is really the limit for them. Beggers, peddlers of amber, Brazilian gold spread on towels along the sidewalk next to heaps of mangos and peaches, and so, so many sidewalk heaps of textiles with that zigzagging and geometric black and red stitchery so emblematic of Mesoamerican indigenousness, often sold by Tzotzil-speaking women knowing only their numbers in Spanish.

I'm currently cameraless but on the Internet plenty of fine photos can be found showing San Cristóbal and its people. For instance, check out these sites:

http://ease.com/~randyj/crisfoto.htm.  

Click here for a site with a long address.

http://www.chiapaspictures.com/thumbnails.php?album=29.

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BIRDS OF DOWNTOWN SAN CRISTÓBAL
The most commonly seen birds are House Sparrows, Pigeons and Great-tailed Grackles. At the crack of dawn House Sparrows outside my pension door made a tremendous racket.

Throughout most of the day but especially in early mornings you hear high-pitched, downward-slurring TSEEEEW calls. The callers are such quick, nervous little shadows that it can take awhile to figure out who they are. They're Rufous-collared Sparrows, ZONOTRICHIA CAPENSIS, sometimes known as Andean Sparrows, high-elevation and similar-looking cousins to North America's White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows.

Mostly San Crisóbal's Rufous-collared Sparrows stay hidden inside trees or atop flat roofs, but sometimes a little flurry of them blows around a building corner and lands in the grass, or they perch for a second on a gutter or the top of a red-tiled roof, and then you can admire their richly rufous cape, white throat and bold back-striping. Some birds have learned to be park birds, hopping around like House Sparrows, apparently pecking crumbs of dropped tostados or what's left after Pigeons eat bread tossed to them by tourists.

It's interesting that though Rufous-collared Sparrows are distributed from Chiapas all the way south to Tierra del Fuego, and they're found in environments ranging from towns to very wild high elevations (up to 11,500 ft, 3500 m), in Mexico the species occurs only in Chiapas. You'd think that such a wide ranging species capable of living in so many environments would have spread across the lowland Isthmus of Tehuantepec separating Chiapas from mainland Mexico, but for some reason that just hasn't happened.

Especially in early mornings on sunny days male House Finches sing their high-pitched, varied, rich warbles from San Cristóbal's park trees. Though in other places I've seen them close to the ground, here they stay pretty high. Boxelders and ash trees in parks at this time of year are heavy with winged fruits so I expect it's a good time to be a House Finch. House Finches are common permanent residents in nearly all of upland Mexico on the mainland side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but on this side they occupy just a small, isolated population centered around Tuxtla Gutierez and San Cristóbal. Howell suggests that these birds may derive from escaped caged birds, for often they are indeed caged by people who appreciate their pretty singing and the male's red head and chest.

Soaring over large plazas fronting big churches regularly you see small flocks of Northern Rough- winged Swallows, which are permanent residents here. They're easy to recognize because of their only slightly cleft tails and dingy throats.

Sometimes mixed in with the Rough-wingeds you spot a Barn Swallow, distinct with its very deeply forked tail and dark cinnamon throat. In most of Mexico Barn Swallows are strictly migrants or winter visitors, except in the central highlands around Mexico City where they're permanent. Howell's distribution map shows them as being only winter residents in the Chiapas highlands, but last Saturday I got a good view of a Barn Swallow tending a nest stuck on an adobe wall right beneath a red-tile roof eve, so maybe something new is going on with Barn Swallows here.

I saw a hummingbird in a park but couldn't identify it.

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FRESHWATER CRABS UPDATE
About an hour before I left 28 de Junio an International Human Rights Observer brought me an orange-red crab just like the one shown last week (http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/crab.htm)

A good thousand feet from any canal, the crab had been crossing the dirt road running through town. When one of the local men heard us expressing surprise that it could wander so far from water, he laughed and said he'd found them atop the nearby hill!

In response to the last Newsletter, tropical-cave explorer Sleazel in Florida writes that "Freshwater crabs are super common in Central America, I've seen lots of them wherever there are caves, so I think calcium is the issue." Louise in Cyberspace sent links to online articles on freshwater crabs in Panama. Answering my question as to whether anyone was paying attention to our Chiapas freshwater crabs, Marc in New York referred me to an article in the Journal of Crustacean Biology, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), with the title of "Six New Species of Fresh-Water Crabs (Brachyura: Pseudothelphusidae) from Chiapas, Mexico," by: Fernando Alvarez and Jose Luis Villalobos.

Holy mackerel, but what a bunch of savvy folks read this Newsletter!

*****

IN THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Last Monday morning I crossed from Matamoros, Mexico into Brownsville, Texas. A few hours remained before my Greyhound bus headed north so I spent most of that day in the little park across from the Greyhound station, with a good view across the little Rio Grande into Mexico. That afternoon the temperature reached 95° F and the whole day the wind was stiff and gusty, blowing up clouds of dust on the dirt road paralleling the river on the US side, used by the US Border Patrol.

After being in Mexico since October of 2006, it felt funny being back in the US. For me personally the greatest change was losing my mobility by coming back to the US. In Mexico you can go just about everywhere anytime by taking minibuses or regular buses, but for the places I visit in the US I simply need a car if Greyhound doesn't go there.

I also missed small, informal stores and steetside vendors where I could buy fruit, drinks like atole, or non-junk food such as tamales or roasted ears of corn. In the US if you don't patronize places like KFC, regular restaurants, or convenience stores selling high-priced junk food, you're just out of luck. Understandably they just don't let you into regular supermarkets wearing a backpack you're not willing to part with.

At Brownsville's Greyhound station the bathroom door was jammed and the water fountain was out of service. In Mexico the bathrooms may stink, but at least you can always find a place to pee.

I'm writing this from beside my old hermit trailer parked next to a woods near Natchez, Mississippi. The magnolias are in full bloom and the odor of flowering gardenias permeates our hot, humid air. What a surprise when I saw that my friends Jacky and Karen had added a porch to my trailer twice as big as the trailer itself, with a roof, floor, and trellised walls for morning glories to climb on.

I'm still in a daze after the many bus rides.

And despite a bag of cornmeal costing double what it did when I left here in October, 2006, and there being no place around where a good atole can be bought from an Indian lady speaking Tzotzil, it's good to be back, to have nice friends, and to just sit on my new porch gazing into all the green, birdsong-rich lushness that a summery day in southwestern Mississippi can conjure up.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim