Saturday, March 21, 2009

Chiapas - Part II

This is a continuation from Guatemala.

We arrived at San Cristobal at about 8:30 in the night by AEXA bus (much cheaper and on-par with ADO busses), we walked all the way to hostal Las Palomas on Calle Guadalupe Victoria, passing through the centro. We then set out to have dinner at the famous Doña Ame Tamales on Calle Diego de Mazariego, I must confess that those were one of the most delicious Tamales I've ever eaten in Mexico. That was the only place where I had seen Tamales de Camarones (Shrimp tamales). We retired to hostel soon after that, we were exhausted by the day trip from Guatemala to Palenque to San Cristobal.

San Cristobal de las Casas, shortened to San Cristobal is one of the finest colonial cities of Mexico. It's located close to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the toung twisting capital of the state. It's one of the Pueblo Magicos, the magical village of Mexico which is crowded by Tzotzil indigenous people from the neighbouring villages, selling hand-made belts, wristbands, shawls, T-shirts, jackets and other souvenirs. The city attracts more of European travellers than American tourists, which keeps everything affordable and Mexican. The city is named in the honour of Bartolomé de las Casas, one of the Spaniard priest who found the town of San Cristobal.

Hostel Las Palomas, is one of the most gorgeous hostels I've ever visited. It's grand, colourful, colonial building has a large courtyard in the center where people catch up over a bonfire or a drink or a dinner. The rooms are located on the periphery of the courtyard and are maintained very clean, toilets are lavish and spotless. The owners are very friendly, and most times very busy for the kind of people traffic they have. We had bonfire on a couple of nights in the courtyard to beat the mild chill, there were tequila glasses in hand and there were people from Guatemala, Mexico, Italy, Korea, Canada, China and India (that's us). It's got free internet, wireless, breakfast, cable TV, hammock and what not! I highly recommend this hostel to all the travellers hitting San Cristobal.

San Juan Chamula, is a village about 20 minutes away from San Cristobal. The easiest and cheapest (costs 9 pesos) means to reach this place is to take a collectivo near Artist's market in San Cristobal. Chamula is the native land for most of the Tzotzil tribes of Mexico, which makes the whole village, vivid and vivacious. They are primarily artists making various handicrafts - wristbands, clothes, bags, belts, jackets and other sundries. Though, the singularity of the village is not the Tzotzil tribe, but the catholic church of Chamula. PHOTOGRAPHY IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED INSIDE THE CHURCH. There are reports of bashing the people and pounding their cameras, who've tried to disobey this allow your cameras to rest in peace inside the church.

The entrance to La Iglesia Catolica costs 20 pesos per person, the tickets have to be bought at the town's municpal office which is on the left side of the church. It's not one of the most lavish churches one would have seen, but it's definitely one of the most mystique churches I've ever seen. The church is a simple white edifice, with a blue arched balcony and ornate blue arched entrance. When we entered, the floor of the church was covered with grass and the vista was dark and a little hazy due to smoke from the burnt candles. There were groups of Tzotzil tribes busy in doing their Shaman rituals, totally oblivious of the tourists. They places thin, long and sometimes colourful candles in 3 rows of 12 candles and lit them all. Then they sang their melancholic prayers in unknown tongues, some of them cried their heart out loudly during praying. There were wooden statues of all the imaginable saints in glass case, placed along the walls of the church. They offered coke, sodas or alcohol to their Gods, turning the bottles in a circular motion along the lit candles. Some offered beef meat and some got alive poultry for sacrificing. It was funny to see this small kid playing with the rooster, while his mother and grandparents were performing their prayers with extreme sadness and seriousness.

In the courtyard of the church, there are kids peddling to sell small artistic sundries like belts, wristbands, bags and pens. You can haggle with them, but the price quoted is normally the lowest for Chamula is the home of all such art. Outside the courtyard is a colourful market selling artworks, fireworks, flowers, food, fruits and vegetables. The whole town appears to be a market with handicrafts everywhere. We did a bit of shopping, bit of photography and a bit of gastronomy before we took taxi to Zinacantan (costs 50 pesos).

Zinacantan, is a neighbouring village 10 minutes away from Chamula. It's less touristic and does not have much to see except for the town church and art market. Zinacantan is located in the valley surrounded by mountains. One can see lots of greenhouses while entering the village, where the flowers are grown. Zinacantans love flowers, floriculture is their prime occupation. It's well reflected in their attire, women wear black skirt and Huipil blouse, with either a shawl or a poncho decorated with bright floral patterns of calla lily and other flowers. Men wear normal shirts and pants, with a blue poncho embellished with floral patterns. We spent not more than 30 minutes, before we took collectivo back to San Cristobal.

After having a delicious coffee at Cafe San Cristobal on Calle Cuauhtemoc, we head out to explore centro. San Cristobal centro has the magnificent Catedral y Templo de San Nicoloas. It's the most famous yellow coloured signature building of San Cristobal, found in most photographs of the city. The courtyard of the church, Plaza Catedral is where most indigenous tribes tout their artwork. They crowd the tourists, haggling and pushing them to buy stuff from them. Unfortunately, the poverty of the indigenous tribes has resulted in kids of very young age hawking stuff on the roads, they should be studying in the schools instead. Right next to the cathedral is Plaza 31 de Marzo (Zocalo), with a nice garden in the courtyard. It was dinner time, we went to this very small restaurant, Restaurante Caremelita on Calle Guadalupe Victoria, very close to our hostel. The pozole and chilaquiles were delicious and light on pocket.

The next day our plan was to hit Cañon del Sumidero, we had taken a tour at our hostel. The tour cost us 200 pesos per person which included transportation upto canyon, the boat ride, an hour long stay in Chiapa de Corzo and return. We were picked at 9 in front of the hostel and it was a 45 minutes drive from San Cristobal to the canyon, formed by Rio Grijalva. The canyon is closer to the state capital Tuxtla Gutiérrez than the city of San Cristobal. The canyon could be explored both by land (from the top) and by water, we chose the latter one.

We boarded the launch that drove us down this river for about an hour long. The highest point on the ravine cut by this river is about 1000 meters high from the surface of water! The canyon is an adobe for many species of fauna, we saw crocodiles, herons, cranes, black vultures, spider monkeys and other various birds. Thankfully the day was sunny, which made the landscape artistically beautiful with blue skies and patterned clouds. The coat of arms of Chiapas is infact derived from this canyon. The ravine walls are made of shale rocks and at some places are densely covered by vegetation.

There is a small opening in the rock, inside of which they've installed a small statue of Virgin Mary to honour Dr. Miguel Alvarez del Toro, the creator of Parque Nacional Cañon del Sumidero. Nearer to the end of canyon there is Arbol de Navidad, the Christmas Tree. It's a unique natural outgrowth from the rock, covered with rock lichens and grass. It seems during the wet days, there will be a stream of water running down the Christmas tree, but when we went there were few water droplets trickling down. The launch continued till La presa de Manuel Moreno Torres, Manuel Moreno Torres dam that belongs to CFE, before we returned. The whole journey is about 70Km and lasts for 2 hours. Something I didn't like about this canyon was the plastic dirt that was accumulated at certain palces. The guide told that they couldn't do much for all the plastic dirt flows into the river from the top of the canyon. I don't know why they don't clean it frequently.

After the canyon tour we were dropped at centro of Chiapa de Corzo, a small little town on the banks of Rio Grijalva. The zocalo has a gorgeously constructed hexagonal edifice, with arched openings and a central fountain and the surrounding central plaza is an artisanal market. Behind the market is Ex Convento de Santo Domingo and the Mercado principal. At the entrance of the Ex-convent, I savoured a delicous drink called Pozol Chiapaneco, a cold cocoa bean drink made along with malted maize. It was served in unique coconut shell shaped recipients. There were some exhibits of local artists inside the ex-convent, I liked the architecture of the ex-convent more than the exhibiton. The arched alleyways of the colonial era, the faint colours, red coloured cupolas against blue sky reminded me of Ex-convent of Cuilapam de Guerrero in Oaxaca.

Once we reached San Cristobal, we went to a restaurant called "Emiliano's Moustache" on avenida Crescencio Rosas. I had never tasted such a delicious Chile Rellenos (poblano chillies stuffed with vegetables and topped with sauce) before. We relaxed for a while in the hostel before we head out to Templo de Guadalupe, we were told that this place, at the end of calle Real de Guadalupe, has a nice panoramic view of the town. We started walking towards it and we realized that it's too far to make it before sunset by walk, we grabbed a taxi that took us to the church. The view of the town is pretty good at sunset time. The church as such is an ordinary one which is located on the top of the mountain. Post sunset, we started walking back on calle Real de Guadalupe, entering few of the art shops. Real de Guadalupe street is usually crowded by the tourists for it's nice cafes and restaurants.

We reached centro and there was a pipe music concert going on at zocalo, we spent some time there before heading out for dinner at Doña Ame Tamales. We couldn't resist our temptaiton of going to this place for the second time. We were exhausted, we reached the hostel and retired early.

We started our final day in San Cristobal from Museo de las Culturales Populares. We wanted to start from the Amber museum, but we were too early. The museum of popular cultures has many mannequins dressed in attires of various Chiapan tribes - Lacandons, Chols, Tzotzils, Tzeltals, Zinacantans and many more. It is a very small museum with free entrance. We observed countless graffities on the walls through out the city, sending out very strong messages against the government containing guns and bombs and armies and guerrilla warriors.

From there, we head to Museo Na-Bolom, on calle Vicente Guerrero. Once upon a time it was the house of the Danish archeologist Frans Blom and his Swiss wife and photographer Gertrude Duby Blom, who have worked extensively in the selvas of Chiapas. Now it's a museum that houses some of their archeological findings and photographs, a hotel and a restaurant. The entrance costs 35 pesos per person and definitely worth visiting. Na Bolom translates to "House of Jaguar". We walked back to art market on 20 de Noviembre and shopped for a while, before having an OK kinda lunch in the restaurant "La Salsa Verde".

We rushed back to the hostel, packed-off to ADO bus station. San Cristobal is one of my most favorite colonial cities of Mexico (though Guanajuato still tops the list). The city is very colourful and colonial; it's blessed with the pleasant weather and clear blue skies. The presence of indigenous tribes make the place all the more interesting, though they shun away from photographers like us. Both food and coffee are delicious and affordable. This is the city which I would love to go back and stay longer.

Mexico city story to be continued.

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ffmpegX simply rocks!!!

If you're a windows user and looking for a free tool to convert videos, stop reading this post and do something better, for this post deals with Mac OS X.

I googled quite a lot for a free and simple tool which can convert my existing AVIs to iPod compatible H264 format. I found lots of them, some were free but had problems with audio tracks, some worked well but they proudly put a bold watermark on the video for not having paid them, some needed to be compiled and there were compilation errors. I even tried with Quicktime Pro, but somehow QTPro plays all my AVIs quietly, without any sound. I tried installing QT components, but everything was in vain. I tried VLC, but to my dismay, iTunes did not accept those files. Finally I thought, I should boot my XP through Fusion and search something there.

But like they, there is light at the end of tunnel; the light for me came in the form of ffmpegX. Most of the geek communties know that ffmpeg is the most versatile and most widely used converter on Linux (though it's platform independent). I tried downloading the source and compiling it, but again these efforts were futile, for there were some header files missing and I was in no geeky mood to solve all such issues. Finally I thought there should be some pre-built binaries for Mac OS X and googled with the keyword "FFMpeg for Mac OS X" and there I got the official website of the ffmpegX:

FFMpeg binary (32MB) could be downloaded from here: Download ffmpegX
It uses three components, which could be downloaded by clicking each of them:
Mplayer, Mencoder and Mpeg2enc binary (On Mpeg2enc binary, right click and save).

Put the required components in a particular location and specify them in ffmpegX window, key in your admin password and you'll see this easy this most intuitive, simple and not-so-geeky window:

Just drop the input files, select the output format and hit Encode. It brings up this window:

If you're an expert then you can tweak around with the settings on video, audio, filters and options tab in the main window, before you hit encode. Don't forget to check out the How-to pages, it's got some very useful information for better quality encoding.

For me this tool worked just too perfectly and am glad I found this. Hope it works for you likewise.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Reversal Theory in Practice

As most of you know, that my stint in Mexico is almost over...9 more days to go. So this friend of mine, nicknamed Nacho, knew my wanderlust and he invited me for one last trip to his home town of Cuernavaca with a sojourn in the "Nevado de Toluca", volcano. I couldn't resist such a tempting invitation and said yes to him. He said that he was gonna take care of everything- from booking flight tickets to planning and accommodation, which was all the more welcoming.

Now I don't know if Nacho was into too much psychology and stuff and was trying to put the Reversal theory in practice, but he did something very unique that we had to calloff the trip. Let me try to make you understand what he did, in the easiest way possible, for it's a little difficult to comprehend the whole scenario.

Let's say you're currently in the city A and you want to go to city B for four days on vacation and come back to city A.
You book a flight from city A to city B, say for example on 19th March.
You also book a return flight from city B back to city A on say, 23rd March.

Now what my good friend Nacho had done, in his attempt to try out the Reversal Theory is:
He booked from city B to A on 19th March and from A to B on 23rd March, while we were living in city A!!!

Now that's something cool, isn't it? Booking tickets in a usual way is very ordinary to be appreciated. But booking return tickets before the onward tickets, isn't it like a special thing? Kudos to Nacho!!!

P.S. In our case city A was Monterrey and city B was Toluca

Monday, March 09, 2009

Duendes 5k & 10K, reportage.

Duendes del Valle, a non-profit sports event-organizing company had organized 5K and 10K events on Sunday, the 8th of March 2009 at Calz. del Valle, San Pedro. The event was a very special one and it was nothing like I had seen before, read on for more.

The event was scheduled to start at 7:15AM and we were at the venue at 7, stretching our muscles and jumping to the beats of loud heart-pounding music. The sea of people were following the aerobic steps of few pretty-looking athetic- shaped ladies on the stage. At 7:10, the Mexican national anthem, "El Grito de Guerra" was sang by a certain well dressed gentelman. When the start time was nearing, the MC started counting ...5...4...3...2...1...Dhummmmmm!!!

Previous 10K, I had finished in 49'35" and I was hoping to improve on that. My target was 45 min and naturally, I followed the pacer holding 45 min board. For the uninitiated, pacers are the expert runners who helps the runners to maintain the timings. So if you wanna finish the race in 50 min, follow the pacer with 50min board and stop worrying about timings. I followed the pacer for probably first 4KM and then I couldn't hold my pace, I slowed down. I just hoped that the 50 min pacer should not overtake me, he never did.

There were loads of entertainment for the runners. There were samba drummers dressed in colourful attire dishing out some popular numbers like "Un, dos, tres...ole, ole, ole", there were 2 other Mexican bands at each end of the circuit playing Ranchera-Norteña genre music. There were gorgeous cheer girls of Banamex shouting "Animo!!! Animo!!!" for us. There was a large screen at Calz. San Pedro circle, with a live feed or the event where each runner could see himself running. There were Gatorade counters suppling the runners with energizing lemon flavoured Gatorade and water packets were given every half kilometer. Above all, there was a huge crowd which kept applauding and cheering, which greatly raised our spirits.

I touched the finish line, panting and gasping when the clock showed 49' 10". I had mixed feelings, happy for 25" improvement than last time, sad for not having done in 45 min which was my target. Our chips were stripped-off from our shoes, by volunteers and we walked towards the relaxing area. We were given medal, fruits, Gatorade and water. Medal was very disappointing, first of all it was made of rubber, which was more of a key-chain than a medal. Secondly, they didn't distinguish between 5K and 10K events.

After relaxing, I head to the car and got the camera. The 5K event had started by then and it was very unique. At the first gun shot, the fast runners started the race, at the second gun shot which was delayed by 5 minutes, an ocean of people with families started the race. There were 5 year olds, 8 year olds, middle aged ones, old aged ones - all pacing the circuit by walking, jogging and few of them running. There were fathers and mothers running with their baby-strollers and babies were rapturously smiling. Some were stopping by for getting balloons for the kids, some were carrying their kids on shoulders, some walked with dogs, some walked with baby-backpacks.

The ambience was warm, friendly and pleasing, the weather was perfect with mild morning sunlight, people were smiling and cheering and happy with their families. I had never seen a marathon like this, which was so family oriented and it was a great feeling to be there. Thanks Liyan for lending her Canon SD1100IS, for shooting the event.

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