Apparently, Puerto Chiapas isn’t the name of the town we stopped at. Puerto Chiapas is the Port of Chiapas. Chiapas is the name of the state in which the port is located. I plead confusion, because some of the places we stopped were place names (Astoria, San Francisco, Cabo San Lucas), one is just totally confusing – Huatalco, since it’s not really the name of either the port or the town, and others aren’t named for the towns at all, like Puerto Chiapas, Puerta Caldera which is coming up, Fuerte Amador near/at Panama City (which is a fort just to really confuse everybody) and Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. They’re the names of the ports (or forts) near or in cities. So, this is a port designed to welcome cruise ship tourists to the state of Chiapas. It’s nice – it’s brand new, spotlessly clean, obsessively gardened and interestingly architectured.
So, on this stop, we had an excursion. It was advertised as a trip to a mangrove biome, to see the trees, the birds and whatever wildlife we could spot. We were warned that seeing anything other than water and trees was not guaranteed, and that the part of the excursion actually in the lagoon would be an hour and a half. It was also very clearly stated that we would have an hour and a half drive on the bus (air conditioned) to get to the lagoon/swamp. So this was just going to be a nature wildlife trip. But we got so, so, so much more than that.
There was a team of guides who took turns talking to us when the microphone worked (it cut in and out, sounded like a short, and they couldn’t quite fix it). They took us through the city of Tapachula, which is the capital of the area of Soconusco, which is a – county? district? region? in the extreme southwest of the state. The city is about ten or twenty minutes drive from the port, and we traveled through a portion of it on the way to the lagoon – on purpose, to give us an idea of what Chiapas and the area around Tapachula is like.
It was a bit confusing because there’s the city of Tapachula and the municipality of Tapachula, which isn’t exactly a municipality in the way I understood it – it’s more like a county – a large area governed by the city that is mostly rural, that is within the region of Soconusco. Chiapas is the southernmost state of Mexico, and Tapachula is right next door to Guatamela, which means there is, again, a massive police and armed forces presence.
The area is predominantly agricultural, and mangos, bananas and coffee are the main products along with papaya and other tropical fruits and vegetables. They are, if I remember right, also starting palm plantations, for palm oil. The entire area we drove through looks very poor, and most of the residential areas were like small apartment buildings, or shacks, in fairly poor repair, and looking amazingly unfinished, even though people were living in them. Rebar stuck up from the tops of most walls, walls ended abruptly and for no apparent reason. It also wasn’t unusual to see bars on windows, razor wire or broken bottles stuck into the tops of walls (wicked, wicked, looking things – not the small bits of broken glass, these were 6 inches high, with three inch spears of glass sticking up. You’d need serious medical attention if you tangled with these things). Walls were everywhere – even the poorest houses had walls and courtyards, and most of them had razor wire and/or broken bottles on the wall tops.
Most of the residences had electricity (the giveaway wasn’t the hydro lines, it was the satellite dish). Roads in the villages were unpaved, unmarked and the cars were older, and looked rattletrappy. We got a lot of information about the area that I didn’t write down and so don’t remember.
Corn grew by the side of the road. It wasn’t quite our corn – the leaves were larger and broader, with different markings – they were piebald in various shades of green and the tassels at the top were broader and shorter than the kind we grow. The plants looked like ancestors of our cultivated corn. I’m not sure if it was wild or not. There was enough growing that it could have been cultivated, but it wasn’t, generally, in rows, or looking really “planted” the way we plant crops (although the mangrove, banana and palm plantations were definitely rows and rows of trees). The “plots” of corn, if that’s what they were, also grew in varying sizes – from a few scattered plants, to what would be a good size garden plot for a family of 4 or 6.
What was also odd was the reminder that we weren’t, so to speak, in Kansas anymore. Corn at this time of year (very early October) is done – the stalks are dead, brown and skeletal, rattling like noisy ghosts in any wind or breeze, and we saw that, but we also saw corn in all stages of growth – just sprouted, half grown, ripe and ready for picking. It took a while to remember that growing season is all year round here – close to twelve hours of daytime year round and no real cold weather season, although there is a rainy season. So no reason not to have several crops of corn at varying stages all year round. Sometimes in the same plot, which was another reason I wasn’t sure if the corn had been planted or was just let to grow.
Education is apparently a big deal down here (or maybe it’s just because our guides were all teachers). School is mandatory, and it’s uniformed. It starts early – 7 am (which is a problem for some kids, about which more later), and finishes early. It’s similar to ours – elementary up to grade 6, then “secundia” which corresponds to our junior high school, and “prepetoria” which is senior high. It’s free up to citizens of Mexico through high school, but I’m not sure about university.
Lots and lots of coughing and sneezing on the bus, including me – not sure if that was the air conditioning or a cold making the rounds of the ship. We’ll see.
The police presence that we’ve seen at here and at the other Mexican ports continued inland – but more about that tomorrow.