A Quick (and Easy!) Way to End Up In A Mexican Prison

Although being a drug mule surely falls under the freelance umbrella and is rumored to produce some serious cash, I haven’t gone down that road–yet. I also don’t carry a weapon and don’t really do violence…okay, so maybe there was that one incident with Shon and a hanger…but whatever.

I will engage in revolutionary discourse, especially when it comes to the atrocities coffee-drinkers face in countless Central American restaurants (I say Basta Ya! with the watery, boiled cardboard crap you’re serving! And STOP adding sugar when I don’t ask for it!), but the whole Zapatista movement in the Mexican countryside… yeah. Give me a second. I’m going to have to Google that.

Essentially, I’m pretty boring as far as travelers go. So, on my recent trip to San Cristóbal de las Casas, it was a pleasant surprise to discover a super simple way to become a headline on Yahoo! News. It turns out, you don’t need drugs, guns, or to start a revolution to stir things up. All you need to do is…

Take a picture in this church. That’s it. Really. Try it, and you’ll be tossed in a Mexican jail in no time.

So, maybe I didn’t test this out (alas, still dull), but guides and guidebooks will tell you it’s true. Before entering San Juan Chamula, a Catholic church located in an indigenous community of the same name just outside of San Cristóbal, you’re to hide your camera from view; once inside, you’re forbidden to take photos. Ignore these rules, and the scariest thing is that it’s not the Mexican government that will do the arresting. As Frommer’s explains,

These communities have their own laws and customs–visitors’ ignorance is no excuse. Entering these communities is tantamount to leaving Mexico, and if something happens, the state and federal authorities will not intervene except in case of a serious crime.”

Essentially, you can’t play the dumb tourist card in San Juan Chamula, and that’s a card I rely on heavily. And so it seemed wise to visit the town and church with someone smarter than I. I found a travel company in San Cristóbal and signed up for a guided tour.

The following morning, I was picked up by a bus packed with Belgian, French, Mexican, Italian, American, and Taiwanese tourists. We were a huge group, but I didn’t mind. After having traveled solo for a few days, the company was welcome. We were led by a friendly, annoyingly multilingual guide (really, tour guide? Four?), and our itinerary was to include two churches: San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantán.

I know what you’re thinking. “Church tour. Greeaat…” But believe me. These are no ordinary churches. Although they’re both technically Catholic, they incorporate Mayan beliefs and practices in some pretty fascinating ways.

Take San Lorenzo Zinacantán. Dating back to the 16th century, the church (above) is located in the town of (surprise!) Zinacantán, not far from San Juan Chamula. It looks and functions like a typical Catholic church. There’s a traditional altar, as well as long lines of pews, and mass is held here regularly. But on the church floor, you’ll notice something else:

Dozens and dozens of small animal sculptures.

According to Mayan belief, each one of us has an animal spirit that acts like a guardian angel. It’s not an animal of your choosing, rather it’s an animal that supposedly reveals itself to you in a dream. The problem with animal spirits (which can be anything from a bull to a deer to a dog) is that they represent your sinful side, too, and can encourage you to go off and do naughty things. That regrettable tattoo you got on your 18th birthday? Blame your goat. The night you drank too many caipirinhas and ran naked through Brooklyn? It was all the deer.

This bad behavior isn’t simply uncouth, though. According to the Mayans, it’s also believed to cause sickness, epidemics, and your garden variety misfortune. As such, it’s important to keep your animal spirit in check. The best way to do that? Bring it to church and hope that under heaven’s watchful eye, your four-legged friend remains on its best behavior.

After our visit to San Lorenzo Zinacantán, we piled back into our bus and made our way to the town of San Juan Chamula. While “San Juan” is a reference to the town’s patron saint, “chamula” means “dead mule” and is a reference to an epidemic that once killed all of the mules in the area. Like Pilot Inspektor and Moxie Crimefighter, it’s a rather unfortunate name.

As we stood in front of San Juan Chamula church (originally constructed in 1522, it was rebuilt after a fire less than a century ago), our guide reiterated its “no photos” photo policy. He explained that the rule was implemented back when people believed in the evil eye and thought that a camera could capture part of your soul. Today, the policy is in effect mostly to keep those inside from feeling like zoo animals. “If you take pictures, you will be put in jail,” he said. “I won’t be able to do anything.” I sighed as I said a sad goodbye to my hope of making headlines, hid my camera away, and silently wondered if all the warnings were overkill.

I suspect they’re not. Despite its innocent-looking facade, San Juan Chamula church is intense; the people inside are, too, and for good reason. See, San Juan Chamula is not really a Catholic church at all. It’s more of a Mayan spiritual hospital where sick and ailing locals come to pray for help. There are no pews, because there’s no mass (the only sacrament you can receive is baptism); there’s really not even much in the way of an altar.

What you see in the dimly lit space, instead, are walls lined with tall wood-and-glass boxes that contain the figures of saints; these saints are one of but a few reminders that this place has any sort of Catholic bent. In front of these saints are huge tables, large enough to seat twelve, covered in hundreds and hundreds of flickering white candles. Our guide explained that these candles were left by the lucky ones: The people who came, asked the saints and spirits for help, and received it. White is the color of thanks.

The less fortunate, the people who are still sick, sit on the floor in the middle of the church. Señoras, old men, and families, some with babies, kneel or squat in prayer before the dozens of candles arranged before them. Instead of white, the majority of these candles are green, red, blue, or gold; the bold hues are bold calls for help. The more candles there are, the more the help is needed.

Some people sit with an ilol, a medicine man who can identify what ails you and help you to pray accordingly. As our guide explained, ilols often use Coca-Cola, chickens, or eggs to help rid a person’s body of illness. While praying, the ilol drinks the soda and burps; each burp does away with a bit more of the sick spirit. Alternatively, a chicken or egg is waved around the person to absorb whatever ailment there might be. The egg is then cracked or the chicken’s neck broken, and the evil and illness are cast away.

The incense-heavy air in the church feels melancholy and somewhat desperate. The thousands of candles and the low murmur of prayers are mesmerizing. People cycle in and out, and it’s impossible not to wonder what stories they would share if you asked them why they came.

While in San Juan Chamula, I felt like an intruder; like someone who had come to gawk at the suffering of others. It didn’t feel right to stand over someone kneeling on the floor in prayer. It didn’t feel right to eavesdrop on the quietly murmured calls for help. It didn’t feel right to show up with a giant group of tourists.

I imagined being in a hospital room in the States, either sick or with a sick loved one. And then imagined having to share that space, that room, with a bunch of tourists. People getting too close, staring, talking too loudly. With that in mind, it’s pretty easy to understand why the “no photos” policy in San Juan Chamula is taken so seriously. You’d have to be the biggest ass in Mexico to break out a camera and start clicking away. And yet, people have gone to jail, which means people have taken photos. It’s a wonder the church allows tourists at all.

Our group was well-behaved, though we were still plenty touristy. There’s something about traveling in a large group that just encourages, well, touristy behavior. Upon visiting a cooperative of weavers, I inexplicably bought more scarves and place mats than I have in my entire four months in Guatemala. Later, I stood in line with others and paid to take pictures of children who look exactly like the children I see Every. Single. Day. in Guatemala.

And I missed my guide’s entire spiel on Mexican embroidery to eat Taiwanese caramel with fellow group members and learn how to write my name in Mandarin.

But alas, I didn’t take the picture, the one that would make for that truly colorful travel tale. In the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to be an ass. Well, actually, that’s not true. The whole drug smuggling thing is still on the table. Looking for a mule? Hit me up.

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