NURIO, Mexico — Seeking the energy they can't find in politics in their own countries, hundreds of young Americans and Europeans have crowded aboard aging buses for a grueling, 17-day tour by Mexico's Zapatista rebels.
They catch four or five hours of sleep a night on the floors of schools, offices or stadiums and eat whatever food supporters scrape together. During this weekend's National Indigenous Congress in the pine-covered mountains of Michoacan state, some slept in tents amid heavy rain and gale-force winds.
And they love it. Every time they pull into a new town, the convoy carrying rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos gets waves, shouts, kisses, screams and chants of support. And the foreigners join in.
"Without the emotion, it would be hard. I don't know if we could do it," said Mike Saltz, a young political activist from Oregon. Like most of the other foreigners, he refused to give his hometown.
For the Zapatistas, the tour through much of southern Mexico, ending March 11 in Mexico City, is part of a plan to extend their movement beyond Chiapas and build support for a law on Indian rights and autonomy. They have long viewed foreign sympathizers as a wellspring of support, media attention and protection against attack by the government.
But with security for the rebels' bus caravan now being provided by President Vicente Fox — who since taking office Dec. 2, has practically smothered the Zapatistas in unrequited goodwill — the foreign supporters have largely seen their role reduced to serving as a cheering section.
Roughly 200 foreign supporters have followed the caravan from its start in southern Chiapas state, but about 800 more have joined in for the congress.
"Overwhelming," is how Dan Lichtenstein, a young union organizer from Virginia, described the shows of support the rebels have received in a dozen cities so far.
"People in these cities will start chanting slogans when the caravan stops, and those of us on the bus start chanting, too," he said.
Like an earlier generation of activists who traveled to Central America in the 1980s to support leftist movements, these supporters are drawn by the atmosphere of political foment.
"It's different than anything you would see in the United States," Jill Repogle, a university student from Arizona, said of the debate that has grown up here around the rebels, who staged an 1994 uprising in Chiapas.
The rebels are trying to win support for a law granting local autonomy for Mexico's 62 indigenous groups and protection for Indian cultures. However, some critics say the law could allow some Indian communities to continue traditions like domination by a council of male elders, or treating women as second-class citizens.
Along the way, the foreigners are learning about the complexities of ethnic politics here. "In Mexico, things are a lot more complicated than people think," Lichtenstein said. "There are racial divisions here."
Largely, the outsiders are bored — or disgusted — by politics in their home countries.
Lichtenstein thinks last year's U.S. presidential election was stolen. Saltz looks forward to someday seeing a Zapatista-style reform movement in the United States.
But surveying the crowd of sometimes tattered, mud-splattered rebel supporters at the Indian congress, Saltz also said that — for the time being, at least — such radical emotion may be confined to poorer countries like Mexico.
"Fortunately, or unfortunately, it's only going to happen in the United States when people start to feel the direct impact of poverty," Saltz said.