San Cristobal de las Casas was described by the many guidebooks I had consulted as a colonial fairyland. The city is indeed a colourful mosaic of colonial architecture but I have to admit that I found it a disappointment. To me, San Cristobal de las Casas is the Mexican equivalent of Siem Reap. It felt like a fake city, one that exists purely to cater to tourists. Some parallels: there are more restaurants of international cuisine than local ones, there is a mix of tourists (backpackers, flashpackers and everything in between) and the local population’s livelihood is highly dependent on tourism. Just like in Siem Reap, women and children were found scattered throughout the city selling handicrafts.
One evening, a little boy dressed in denim, holding a woven giraffe approached me. I was sure that he was going to try to sell me the giraffe, but he pointed to my water and said with the faintest of voices, “agua”. I felt sad because I knew he was thirsty so I decided to buy him some water. I asked him to walk me to a store and when we met a road filled with cars and their bright headlights, he grabbed my hand out of fear. This frail little boy did not say a word to me the entire time but he grabbed my hand! I bought him some drinks and snacks and when we crossed back, he held my hand again. I saw him run, holding the plastic bag that was bigger than half his body, to his gaunt mother cradling his baby sister.
Poverty is an absolute denial of a human right. It is wrong that San Cristobal is filled with carefree tourists to which the locals must cater. It is wrong that I can buy juice and snacks without a second of a thought whereas this little boy has to point to a stranger’s water bottle to quench his thirst. It is wrong that this little boy has to walk around selling a woven giraffe to live below the poverty line.
There is a certain guilt associated with travelling through a developing country or in Mexico’s case, a country with a huge disparity between rich and poor. Perhaps that is the main reason why I didn’t like San Cristobal de las Casas. Maybe I just wanted to travel blissfully unaware of the great injustices in the world. Instead, I got a reminder that we live in an imperfect world and that just by living in a privileged country like Canada, I have an obligation to not forget these people, to not forget that little boy, and to push to make poverty history.