by Jon Look (March 2013)
When my friends Chris and Rachel Larsen invited me to go along with them to meet someone who had a ranch deep in Zapatista country near Teopisca, Chiapas, I was intrigued. I had driven through Zapitista country; I had even been delayed by a Zapatista roadblock, but their encounters had all been just passing through on my way to somewhere. I wondered if spending a little time deep in the territory would feel different. So, off we went: the Larsens and their two girls, their friend Lynn and her three boys, and me. Ok, so it wasn’t exactly an expeditionary level force but I have to say, those kids are pretty tough.
Robin Shields, owner of Rancho la Escondida, met us in Teopisca, Chiapas with his four wheel drive Volkswagen pickup. Robin is an ebullient, animated person who seems to be comfortable in almost any situation and talking about any subject. Robin is the son of a U.S. Embassy official and had traveled around the world four times before he was 20. Several years ago he purchased the 100 acres that make up Rancho la Escondida after visiting what he considers to be one of the most beautiful places in the world because it, "spoke to him." After an extremely rocky start that included death threats, "witches" putting curses on him, and the poisoning of pets and livestock, Robin has finally been embraced by the local Zapatista community. After all, a basic tenant of Zapatista belief is that those who work the land own the land, and Robin certainly has worked the land, turning it from thorny underbrush into a mostly self-sufficient EcoPark. What were once his enemies have been turned to friends and protectors. This is certainly evident by the enthusiastic greetings he receives and the hard work put in by his employees.
Rancho la Escondida is amazing, views for hundreds of miles, creeks that run through deep, rocky ravines, green pastures and ethereal cloud forests. It is a quiet place where you can hear choirs of rare birds singing, streams flowing, and the interaction of domestic animals. There are stables, poultry coops, and there is even a milpa set in a sumidero (low spot) to take advantage of a tiny microclimate. I can understand why Robin was so attracted to Rancho la Escondida and can ALMOST understand it speaking to you. The kids rode horses and we hiked along with them along cloud-shrouded hillsides and rich earthy-smelling valleys up to a mirador (overlook) where we could just make out some mountains in Guatemala.
We all had a wonderful evening. The kids played bocce ball and threw Luna Discs while the adults discussed everything from the trivial to the philosophical. We talked of future travels, past experiences and waxed poetic about the world, relationships, politics and problems. We had a delicious meal and some wine. Later Robin made a pot of Chupa Miel (Salvia Divinorum) tea, an ancient Maya herbal medicine, which is supposed to raise energy levels and impart a feeling of calm euphoria. Frankly I didn’t feel euphoria but the tea had a tasty minty flavor that was naturally calming, like chamomile tea. It was one of those laid-back evenings that helps ground you, brings everyone closer together and reminds you that there are more important things in the world than physical possessions and the illusion of security. It also made you appreciate the land from a metaphysical standpoint and closer to those who appreciate the sacredness of it and its ability to nurture those who nurture it. I retired to my hammock early. There was a crisp breeze blowing but my sleeping bag kept me warm. The Milky Way was so vivid it was almost as if you could use your hands to scoop up the stars. I slept like an infant and had wonderfully vivid and happy dreams.
Even in paradise, time marches on. Everyone was in good spirits and no one wanted to leave. In the morning we had coffee which had been grown on site and huevos rancheros made with organic duck eggs. We hiked a bit more while the kids played. We were curious about the Zapatistas and Robin volunteered to drive us to a nearby village as we were leaving. Less than a kilometer from where we were staying, sometime in the night, Zapatista rebels had taken over a nearby ranch that had been deforested by an absentee landlord. There were huge banners declaring that the land has been reclaimed by the people and is not to be sold. They also declared land and liberty and, “Viva Emiliano Zapata.” It was hard to believe while I was comfortably sleeping outdoors, nearby a group of brave people were fighting to maintain their dignity and preserve what they see as their rights. It seems that the war, although almost wholly unreported, continues to this day.
Declared Rights Signs Outside Zapatista Village
Jonathan Look took early retirement in 2011 with a goal to see the
world, one country at a time, one year at a time. To accomplish this he
eliminated most of his possessions and packed what little he saw as
necessities into his vehicle and headed out. His goal is to spend 10
years discovering new places, meeting new people and taking the time to
learn about them, their place on this tiny planet and their values. He
embraces the philosophy that says a person is the sum of their
experiences and rejects the fraud of modern consumerism that makes
people into slaves of their consumption. He doesn't intend to be a modern-day ascetic, just more mindful of his place in the world and to make
decisions according to his new standard.