Last quick update before I leave. Pictures will follow soon.
I talked to a really nice northern Mexican couple when they were on holidays in Chiapas and we met on the tour to the waterfalls. They said that there are commonly considered to be three Mexicos: the north, the centre and the south. I always had thought that there are 32 Mexicos: as many as there are states. Either way, there is certainly not one Mexico - as I hope I made very clear by now. I am getting close to the end of my journey through Mexico and out of the 32 states I have still only ever visited (or passed through) 9. Meaning that I know less than half of the country even remotely.
The south of Veracruz is what I call Pemex-Land. I spent a month here working with the bird ringers in 2011. Risking that they will never ever let me enter this country again, I dare say that Pemex-Land is probably about as autocratic as the EZLN-controlled villages in Chiapas. i.e. as far removed from Mexican authorities - although in a very different way.
Mexico - as most countries - used to have most services state-owned. It won't come as a big surprise if I tell you that, following the enactment of the NAFTA, many of these were privatized: Telmex (telephone; was actually privatized before NAFTA), Banamex (banking), Ferromex (railways) Aeromexico (airlines, and some more. Pemex (petrol) is currently being privatized which means Mexico gives up one of its most important sources of foreign income. The result of this is, stupidly, that the owners of these companies are ridiculously rich (the owner of Telmex is the second richest person in the world!). Of course, these companies find ways to avoid taxes and federal regulations. They are very rich, so it is easy for them to bribe politicians. And, don't get me wrong: all of these companies spend a lot of money on social and environmental projects (Pemex, for example invests a lot of money into education, whereas Telmex is the main sponsor of the Mexican street soccer project - among others). Still, I have the feeling that it would be fairer if they just stopped bribing politicians and paid their taxes instead of hand-picking the projects that they want to pay for. But maybe that's just me.
If you are interested, Mexico seems to be seen as test case or show case by economists so there is a whole lot of articles in the web that argue how much privatization benefited Mexico and the opposite.
Anyways in Pemex-Land, pollution is everywhere. There is barely a place that is quite as badly destroyed as the south of Veracruz, I think. It seems that all the water in the region is contaminated, forest are cut down in large scale and I don't even want to know about cancer rates in the area. People who have lived there for longer told me that they notice that there are by far fewer birds now than there used to be. Of course, the cities there are also pretty rich and about two thirds of the male population have a job with Pemex. Mind you, there is also a lot of poverty in the area and it gets really bad there. A local guy who used to work with us when I was working in Minatitlán, for example, lives in a part of the village that gets flooded during the rainy season; i.e. his house has like 10 to 20 cm of water for several months a year - and don't forget, the water is polluted…
Anyways, originally the south of Veracruz was not controlled by Pemex but by the Olmecs. The Olmec culture was the first big culture in Mexico and started as early as 5000 BC (that is about the time the Neolithic started in South-Eastern Europe). The Olmecs were already cultivating corn and probably other plants and their art shows a very sophisticated social system (at a time where in Europe we were still living in tiny villages of a couple hundred people at the most). The Olmecs somehow already managed to transport huge rocks over several hundred kilometers just to make sculptures out of them - presumably for religious ceremonies. The famous colossal heads are human but have very thick lips, which raises the question if the Olmecs had had contact with African people somehow. Or if they themselves looked like that. Also their tools look very similar to tools used by Neolithic cultures in Europe.
This week was the first time I ever visited an Olmec archaeological site. La Venta was the most important Olmec city during the period 800 to 400 BC. But it had been occupied since about 1500 BC. Olmec cultures did not produce any of the pyramids that Aztecs and Mayas are so well known for. They did build pyramids but they were made of soil. They literally just built a platform to build whichever on. And of course, due to the much older age of the Olmec cultures much less is known about them. Anyways I was very impressed by two things: one are the offerings in graves that have been found. One is reconstructed in the museum on site and I took a picture of it - it is really amazing. Remember, these figures were produced using no more than different types of rocks more than 2000 years ago. And the other thing, of course, is what everybody is amazed about, which is: how they managed to transport all those huge rocks - as they don't occur in the region, they must have been transported over several hundred kilometers. The funny thing is: The ancient cultures on the American continent did know the wheel (they had found wheels on toys) but did not use it to transport things (until the Spanish arrived). So who knows how they managed to transport those huge rocks. I am pretty sure the workers did not get a fair wage in any case…
By the way, for those who are interested: we have now covered the three biggest cultures that existed in Mexico: Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs. The Olmecs were the first big culture and were then more or less taken over by the Maya in the south and the Aztecs in the north. All the cultures were constantly at war with others and the regions they controlled therefore were changing all the time. They were also trading a lot by the way, which did not stop them fighting each other, but I think the important thing to keep in mind is, as I mentioned before, that the people themselves barely viewed themselves as belonging to one or the other kingdom. The only thing that changed for them was who they paid taxes to.
Anyways, so within these three big cultures, therefore, existed and endless amount of sub-cultures. But besides that there is lots and lots of other cultures that existed during different times and never came to control big parts of the country like the Maya, the Olmecs and the Aztecs. In the south, in general most peoples had villages and left pottery or other things so quite a bit is known about them - partly also because the big cultures were fighting them - and trading with them. The whole north of Mexico, however, was inhabited almost exclusively by nomadic peoples. Due to obvious reasons (like it is hard to carry), nomadic cultures leave very few remains like pottery or buildings and since these are the things that archaeologists rely on in their work, very little is known about these nomadic cultures. But that doesn't mean they weren't important or big, it just means we don't know anything about them. If they are missing in history books it's because of the way archaeology works and not because they weren't there. Mind you, the same is true for all of the continent (i.e. today's US and Canada). But then, what we know also depends on how much we are willing to spend on research and I know one country for sure that rather spends its money on very different things…