A Nighttime Escape from the Zapatista War Zone
Getting caught up in the Zapatista struggle in Chiapas was an accident, and an adventure too risky for even me. There I was, leader of a group of 23 women who had come together in the weeks after Christmas in December of 1993 for what they named the Mystical Mayan Rainbow Tour of the Mayan World. It was a ragtag group of spiritualists, touchy-feely mystics and middle age females looking to get in touch with their inner Mayan, through meditation and healing at the hands of native shamans, on-site jungle trekking, in the company of an adored half-Apache psychic, a woman who went by the name of Oshana. We also traveled with a group member named Nicki Scully, whose status seemed to come from the fact that her husband was the manager of the rock group, “The Grateful Dead”. She was also a teacher of healing and shamanic arts.
We all knew that there were rumblings within the indigenous population in Mexico’s southern State of Chiapas and that a war of words had already begun with populist demands of land and rights. But it didn’t deter the planners, leaders, or participants of the Rainbow Mayan Tour.
On the morning of January 1, 1994, an estimated 3,000 armed Zapatista insurgents seized towns and cities in Chiapas, including Ocosingo, Las Margaritas, Huixtan, Oxchuc, Rancho Nuevo, Altamirano, and Chanal. They freed the prisoners in the jail of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and set fire to several police buildings and military barracks in the area. The guerrillas enjoyed brief success, but the next day Mexican army forces counter-attacked and fierce fighting broke out in and around the market of Ocosingo. The Zapatista forces took heavy casualties, and retreated from the city into the surrounding jungle.
After an uncomfortable rainy day climbing over the ruins at Palenque, we sat that night huddled and damp in the thatch-roofed dining palapa of our hotel. It was tense and the food service was noticeably lacking, causing some of our group to complain. We noticed a bit of disorder, along with whispering and an abundance of nervous energy. I got edgy, went into the kitchen, interviewed the skeleton staff and found out, to my great surprise that the owners and managers had abandoned the hotel. We (the hotel’s guests) were basically left that night in the hands of the waiters and cooks. About that time, our bus driver, returning from eating his dinner in the village came with the news of the explosive conflict in Ocosingo, only a few miles away.
And it continued to rain. The whispers changed to tears as the group fell into two groups – women who were the true psychics and those who began to whimper and cry for their “husbands”. The question was: shall we get out of this war zone now, or believe in Oshana ? After all, hadn’t she made a cornmeal pathway around the bus each morning, and chanted some prayers, before taking to the road.
The group gathered for the pow-wow, some already trudging through the tropical rain with their luggage and belongings, and they quickly voted on getting out now. But – to where ? Few of the women psychics knew the geography of the area. It was jungle forest, foothills of the Chiapas Mountains, and lazy brown rivers filled with aquatic grasses and water hyacinths. We were in an area inhabited by indigenous peoples and cattle ranchers.
The driver and I put our heads together, considered that it was now night, and raining, and we needed a hotel with at least 13 free rooms for our cargo of desperate travelers, somewhere reachable, but outside the zone of conflict. It was the pre-internet, pre-cel phone, era . . . and finding a phone booth in the jungle was a laughable idea.
Our route away from the conflicted area and into the neighboring state of Tabasco was the only road, and when we reached the junction of the main Federal Highway, we’d be forced to turn left toward the capital city of Villahermosa – or turn right in the same direction we had come. And staring into the black night and the on-coming headlights, and remembering a delightful two days which I had spent in a town perched on a bluff overlooking the Rio Usumacinta, named, ironically, Emiliano Zapata ! I chose to chance the prospect of available hospitality for my group, we pressed on toward the river town of Zapata. It was located 18 kilometers from the main highway, not far from the bridge across the wide brown river. Once on the other side of the bridge we would certainly be safer, and indeed within a day’s travel to my own home.
(to be continued . . . )