Jun 09

Exploring the culture of Chiapas

Food: In addition to the traditional Mexican fare of tacos, beans and tortillas, Chiapas offers several wonderful specialties including stewed lamb or baked chicken with “mole,” a spicy sauce made with chilies and usually chocolate. Street vendors sell delicious food, especially hot buttered corn. There are vegetarian restaurants and menus in the cities. You can take it easy on your North American stomach by avoiding or cutting down on very spicy condiments and salsa (“sin picante, por favor”). For breakfast, some restaurants offer “Americano”style scrambled eggs with ham or bacon, toast and delicious local coffee.

If you really have a Big Mac attack, Tuxtla Gutierrez has McDonalds as well as Burger King, KFC and Dominos Pizza. Outside the city, there are some amusing American fast food chain knock-offs with “hamburguesas” covered in jalapeños. Part of the total Chiapas experience, however, is enjoying their savory local dishes that are especially good at family owned roadside restaurants along the way.

Tipping: Again, a matter of personal choice, 15% tips are customary for good service. Drivers and tour guides work mostly for tips so please don’t be stingy with them. You may need some two Peso coins handy to tip an occasional restroom attendant.

Shopping: Chiapas is shopper’s delight from artisans offering pre-hispanic fabrics, pottery, amber, carved wood, baskets, metal works, jewelry and toys; to the large modern mall in Tuxtla Gutierrez. There is a Sam’s Club (a Walmart affiliate) in Tuxtla Gutierrez with prices comparable to those in the US. Specialty items can be found in other American chain stores like Office Depot. Remember that, other than in pharmacies, markets, chain stores or the malls, prices may be negotiable. Don’t be afraid to make a lower counter offer and eventually reach a compromise in the middle somewhere. Unfortunately, many of the locals believe that all North Americans are wealthy and, in the entrepreneurial spirit, may try to charge you more for merchandise, lodging and transportation than the locals pay. The money you invest in local assistance during your trip will be more than recovered in dealing with this colorful cultural quirk

Photography: It is important that you respect the customs and ceremonies of indigenous people and not offend or interrupt them by taking pictures. When in doubt, always try to ask for permission before taking photos. There are plenty of photo opportunities and people willing to be in photos so don’t pay for this privilege.

Waiting In Line: Please wait your turn in lines and be patient at service windows. Please don’t be the ugly American by cutting ahead of the people waiting. Less common than in Germany, for example, a few less educated and more self important local people or tourists may go around lines and cut in at the front. How you handle this is a matter of personal preference but when it happens, people usually don’t make a scene. You could wait patiently and graciously and not let your temporarily bruised ego spoil your whole day. If you are already at the front of the line when this happens, you can tactically position yourself between the intruders and the service window.

Beggars: Much less often than in Tijuana, for example, you may encounter beggars on the street and in front of churches. How you deal with this is, again, a personal preference. It is common in the Muslim religion, for example, to always give something to beggars and Jesus gave money to the poor on the streets of Jerusalem. Two pesos (about 20 cents) may mean a lot to a beggar in a poorer economy.Like in big American cities, there will be beggars at intersections trying to sell you gum, flowers or other items. A firm “no gracias” usually discourages them to cease but not in all cases. You may have to lock your doors, shake your head no and wave a finger (not the middle one) at them to get them to go away. Also like in big American cities, there will be those at intersections who will wash your car windows without being asked. It’s handy to keep some two peso coins available for such occasions. .

Polite Phrases: Knowledge of a few polite phrases will go a long way to help overcome language barriers. “Hola” works for hello or, if you can remember, there is different greeting for different parts of the day (“buenos dias” in the morning, “buenas tardes” in the afternoon and “buenas noches” at night). “Por favor” and “gracias” are always appropriate and “con permiso por favor” is a polite way of asking someone to get out of your way on the street or in stores. Adding “Señor” for a man, “Señorita” for a young lady and “Señora” for an older lady adds additional respect (be careful with the latter two and err on the side of the younger). Spanish phrase books are a must if you don’t speak the language well.

Festivals and Parades: Mexicans love festivals and parades and enjoy them often. When I was in Palenque, the children and young people put on a huge parade celebrating Mexico’s independence. In Tuxtla Gutierrez, we saw a free traditional dance festival and show in a city park. In Marimba park in the city, large crowds gather in the cooling night air for live music

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