A bewildering fourteen-hour overnight bus journey takes us far from the relentless bustle of Mexico City and into the tranquillity of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, high in the mountains. Cars wait in lines to greet us, adorned with bunting and bright balloons. The sun extends their colours to dance in arcs through the clear air. Uplifted by this exquisite welcome, we stumble into a taxi and watch the sleepy streets pass.
We’re staying at the artisan’s commune Kza Libertad, the House of Liberty, on the recommendation of a volunteer on our second project, and approach it with more than a little apprehension. We find a ramshackle and not altogether structurally sound building with hammocks in the open courtyard, friendly dogs and a bleary-eyed household, whether from the morning or the smell of marijuana permeating every wall and fabric, it’s difficult to tell. We drop our bags and leave for a more appropriate moment to explore our living quarters.
San Cristóbal is just waking up. After some negotiation with the unfamiliar roads, their colourful houses, cobbles and political graffiti we find the main avenue. A thin line of people bustle in front of the many a sundry shops and cafés which spill their produce and tables out on to the street.
We pick landmarks for their prominence on the horizon and walk directly towards them, a pursuit made all the more breathless by the shallowness of the new mountain air. This takes us first to the main square with its cathedral and intricate facade, mothers and children unstirring on its steps or readying their stocks for the day’s work.
We walk a flight of steep steps to find another church and the city spread out beneath us, nestled and gleaming from the roots of the green hills. Across the rooftops we see another set of stairs, an even higher, larger church, and set off doggedly towards it, cameras itching in our hands.
From the top comes the inviting music of celebration. The steps are extensive and decorated with flags, so our progress is slow and interrupted by regular pauses to take pictures and curse the altitude.
But as we arrive at the summit, we retreat slightly and hide our cameras, unwilling to intrude on what is clearly an intimate local ceremony. The mystery of the balloon-strewn cars is explained as we find another line in front of the church, a priest making his way with water and whispered words between them. The cars are being blessed for safe passage on Mexico’s often perilous roads.
As we look out towards the centre of town, I turn to Elliott and say, “Do you think our place is okay?”
“Sure,” he says, hesitating slightly. “Why, do you not?”
I shrug. “Sure,” I say.
We leave it at that.
It’s £2.50 a night, I remind myself.
We return to the commune more exhausted than before, but content enough with our surroundings and the now empty dorm room to catch a few restless hours’ sleep. From the kitchen, a Spanish film is blaring, disrupting my sleep with its inexplicable volume and frequent sex scenes. I wake to find the sheets beneath me stained by previous occupants and marred with cigarette holes.
That first day in San Cristóbal confirmed two things: firstly, how lucky we had been in our choice of location for our second project. I knew immediately it was somewhere I would love to spend the next week and a half. And now I’ve left, it’s definitely somewhere I plan to return.
Secondly, we needed to find somewhere else to stay. We did the following day: the wonderful Junax, a hostel for volunteers, which I’ve developed a similar fondness for.
But on that Monday morning, having overheard a dog attack on a fellow guess in the middle of the night and experienced the severely compromised toilet, I wouldn’t say I felt my best as we sat down for our first meeting at project number two.