15 November 2008

Easy answers to easy questions

Been a bit quiet for the last week, mainly due to the fact that I travelled up to Longford for a few days to catch up with a few friends. Long walks in the woods, fresh air, food picked fresh from the garden and cooked by Ms Snag Breac all contributed to the most relaxing few days I have had since a waterlogged week spent in the sleepy colonial town of San Cristobal de Las Casas in the highlands of Chiapas.

This memory was reinforced by my choice of reading material for the train up and back, Mark Thomas' new book "Belching Out the Devil", which charts his global trek in search of tales of murder, intimidation, extortion, poisoning and rural water theft by the good people of Coca Cola Inc. I had seen his live show on the subject some years ago, and the book grew out of the show as he became somewhat obsessed by Coke's international misdeeds, travelling to India, Turkey, Columbia and even Ireland, where Coke shut down their Dundalk manufacturing plant last year with the loss of 256 unionised jobs, and then announced plans to open a new non-union plant in Wexford earlier this year. Coke does not like unions, and whether it means hiring death squads to kill union leaders in Columbia, or putting 256 people out of work in Ireland, it will do whatever it takes to be rid of them.

Thomas' global tour takes him to the very same San Cristobal that I spent a happy few days in August. The title of his book comes from a healing ceremony of the local indigenous peoples around the town who use Coke to induce burping in the participant, the act of which expels the bad and negative energy inside. They used to use a fermented corn drink that took eight days to make, but as Coke is sold at a subsidised price on indigenous lands it quickly replaced the traditional ceremonial beverage. In fact Coke is cheaper than clean water in San Cristobal, its ubiquity in stark contrast to the equally omnipresent masked visage of Subcomandante Marcos, whose eyes peer down at you from every shop, although they do share the same colour scheme.

His description of San Cristobal is amazing:
"The town square has a gentle pace to its colonial colonnades, the narrow side streets in pastel shades are lined with gift shops, all seemingly packed with crystals and small animals made of wood, sold to the tune of non-stop Manu Chau. It is the only place in the world I have been comfortable enough to wear my WOMAD T-shirt in public - an act I wouldn't normally do, even at WOMAD itself...

...The place is stuffed to the gills with arts and crafts crap - or as we like to call it in our house - 'ethnotat'. There are even Zapatista dolls on sale, small woollen figures wearing balaclavas, riding donkeys and armed with rifles.

"Who buys this sort of shit?" I ask Laura, an American friend who lives here.

"Probably the same people who buy the Subcomandante Marcos pipes," she says, then pointing to a display of carved beasts and metal trinkets, warns, "Don't buy anything from that stall. All that stuff is made in China."

These days even handcrafted, locally produced indigenous produce seems to be subcontracted. Later I wander past two cooing German tourists bent over Chinese goods and I sneer in superiority, before heading home clutching my two Zapatista dolls and a pipe."
If someone asked me to name my favourite travel writers, I would sadly end up naming Mark Thomas and Naomi Klein. I need new hobbies, disaster capitalism tourism and collecting ethnotat are not healthy past-times.

Pictures of a rainy San Cristobal
Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola


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