The New Year finds me back in Vero Beach. Ah it is good to be home as I have been traveling and I am weary and needing to rest. At the request of Gillian, my 23-year-old daughter, I flew to Guatemala to spend the holidays with her.
Now Guatemala was not high on my list of travel destinations but being with Gillian was the trump card. There is something really special about receiving an invitation to travel with my daughter. There is a place in my heart and soul that leaps with joy simply because she wants me to join her on this adventure. She wants me to have an understanding of what it is that she connects with and why she is filled with wanderlust and feels compelled to travel the globe when so many of her compatriots are pursuing careers, upgrading their apartments and buying new cars. She wants me to understand her passions and I am compelled to follow her for I want to understand her.
I fear that I my description will dishonor my daughter’s life but let me give you a thumbnail sketch of what brings this beautiful young woman to be traipsing around the globe. She is a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia with a degree in Human Geography. Her interests lie in developing sustainable communities within indigenous cultures. To this end she is in the hinterlands of Guatemala to learn about permaculture, a sustainable form of agriculture and to help bring a level of food security to the Mayan people who live there.
When I made my plans to join Gillian in Guatemala we discussed the many options involving travel from Guatemala City to the region of Lake Atitlan where Gillian was living and working. I was a confused, why was this such a big deal? “I’ll catch a bus just like you did when you arrived.” Without ever really speaking the words I caught the gist of her concerns, she was worried about me being taken advantage of in Guatemala City. Really? What about you? You’re the beautiful young maiden. When had I become this older woman who needed to be looked after? Okay so I don’t speak the language but it’s not as if I don’t travel. I’ve not exactly lived a sheltered life. If the city is dangerous do I really want my beloved daughter traveling in and out of there? Perhaps we should rethink this adventure all together. The problem with raising strong, smart independent children is that when they are no longer children that they do what ever they damn well please and I no longer had the authority to say, “This is not happening.” I suppose I could say it, but she no longer does what anyone says just because they say so.
So there she was waiting for me at the airport, just like she had promised. It was so good to see her as she took my overloaded backpack from me. She radiated with a glow and I basked in her presence. How I love my girl. We found our way to a row of waiting cars. Unmarked taxis and Gillian began to negotiate in Spanish with the driver. I felt like a handbag on wheels, just along for the ride. I don’t speak the language but I understood the tone and the gestures. Too much money for the distance we needed to travel. She struck the deal and the driver helped put my luggage in the trunk of the car. I couldn’t help but think about her high school Spanish teacher, who said she would never learn the language. Was she ignorant or was she brilliant? By setting up a challenge Gillian rose to meet it. Over the course of the next ten days I would watch as my daughter communicated with the people of Guatemala, she did so with ease and grace. She initiated conversations and spoke with people of all ages and from all walks of life. She showed respect and admiration for these people and they returned the kindness and as her Madre I was treated like an honored guest. I know this transition has been happening as my daughter has gone from being a girl to a woman but on this trip I saw her competencies in action. I had gone from taking care of her, and now in this Central American country where I did not speak the language, she was taking care of me.
Gillian had arranged for us to spend a few days in the City of Antigua. Antigua is an ancient city with art, architecture and artifacts from the times of Spanish colonization. We spent our time walking the streets, seeing the sites and enjoying the time in one another’s company before catching the bus to Lake Atitlan.
As I put my back pack on for the first time since we arrived in the Antigua and prepared to walk across the road to meet the bus, my leather soled sandals slipped on the smooth tile step that lead from the inner courtyard of the inn to the road. I slipped off the step and landed on my ass. My feet extended out in front of me, and with weight of my backpack adding to my density brought me down to the street with great force. I called out to Gillian who was just steps ahead of me. A family of tourists hovered over me to see if I was indeed okay as I was proclaiming to be. I am uncertain if my pride or my backside were more injured. When and how had I become this doddering old fool? With the assistance of my daughter and these kind strangers I was lifted up and was back on my feet.
There are a variety of transportation options from the city of Antigua to Lake Atitlan. The day before we had opted for the economical chicken bus ride out to a town that is known for making beautiful cowboy boots.So at my suggestion we splurged and bought the $12 tickets for the luxury shuttle. By comparison to the chicken bus it was indeed luxurious. We each had a seat and no one was sitting on our laps and there were no chickens or other animals on board. By the time the shuttle arrived, about an hour late, all the seats were filled and we were relegated to the back of the bus. The driver tried to make the time up by racing through the unpaved mountain roads. The roads were very rough complete with large potholes and small streams to cross. There was no need to slow down as we took the mountain curves on two wheels and bounced in and out of the potholes. By the time we arrived in the town of Panajachel four hours latter, my back was aching from landing on my butt earlier in the day and I was feeling a bit nauseated compliments of our driver. But alas there in front of us was the beautiful Lake Atitlan.
It is every bit as beautiful as it had been made out to be. A ring of mountainous volcanoes that were shrouded in the mist encircled the lake. It was 4:00 PM on December 20th, 2012. The next day was the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year and according to legend of mythological proportion the end of the Mayan calendar and it is rumored to be the end of the world. Looking at the locals trying to sell boat trips across the lake to St. Lucas Toliman, our destination, they did not appear concerned about the world coming to an end. They were trying to make some money to put food on the table for their families that night. All the public boats had already left for the day. Gillian and I discussed our options we could stay there in Panajachel for the night but if for whatever reason we could not get a boat tomorrow morning we would miss the traditional Mayan ceremony marking the end of this era in the community of St. Lucas Toliman. We chose to hire a private boat. Gillian again negotiated the price and we set off across the lake.
The lake levels have been rising on Lake Atitlan and Gillian pointed out the lake front homes build by foreigners that are now partially covered with water. She indicated that the native Mayan people who have lived here for generations and generations tried to warn the newcomers about the cyclical nature of the water level and how it has changed throughout the centuries based on the activity of the volcanoes but the people would not listen and now they have lost their homes. Why is it that we think we know so much and others know so little? Such arrogance, can we really afford the costs of our superiority?
The dock was partially underwater as we left the boat. Night was falling and the twinkling of the lights in town could be seen from the waterside. Gillian knew the innkeeper and we made our way to the waterside hotel. The stone inn with it’s arched windows faced the lake. We were shown to a room with three single beds and a private bath. It looked clean and perfectly adequate on the surface. So we deposited our belongings on the bed, used the facilities and then made our way to the restaurant. We were both starved and could use a cocktail, as it had been a long day of travel. It is not that I am an inexperienced traveler, as I traveled through Europe with a backpack when I was about Gillian’s age. But at night I can feel it in my body; I am not 23 years old anymore.
I am a restaurateur in my summer life. I own an upscale restaurant in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. I am an adventurous eater but I can also be a bit of a foodie (aka food snob). I try to eat local when I can and so we ordered the black bass as it is caught in Lake Atitlan. Only later would we learn that someone in their infinite wisdom during 1950’s decided it would be good for tourism to lure the sport fisherman to the area by introducing the black bass. The only problem was that this predator killed off most of the native species of fish in the lake. God save us from the limited wisdom and abundant arrogance of man. My fish was served fried and not filleted, so it was served up on the plate with its head, tail, fins and bones all still intact. Heaven only knows what else had been fried in that oil and when the last time it was changed. Gillian and I both got sick. She said she felt like she had eaten a cat that was trying to claw it’s way out of her. We both suffered from the cat claw from that point on. We redoubled our efforts to ask is things had been washed in pure, filtered water and were given every assurance that this was indeed the case. Gillian got feeling better in a few days time but I was not so fortunate.
As we climbed into bed that night we found that what looked like mattresses were really 1.5 inch foam pads that had been placed over rock platforms. My hips and my shoulders dug into the stone every time I rolled over to change position. Perhaps I am too old for this. I tried to find comfort and ease for my joints and muscles in the warmth of a hot shower, but it was not to be. As the cold water covered me and I rapidly washed may hair and my body and returned to the warmth of my sleeping bag, the cat clawed my insides and my muscles seized with the chill. As I lay in bed and waited for sleep to take me somewhere else, I thought about how I had grown so soft and how the Mayan people lived in a place where life was beautiful but certainly not easy.
The morning sun rose over Lake Atitlan and I was up to meet it. I had planned poorly. Somehow I had thought that it would be warm in Central American but I had neglected to consider the elevation. Really, I live it the mountains. I should have known better. The days were bright and sunny but the nights were cold and I had a perpetual chill.
I sat at a picnic table and tried to get warm in the morning son when a beautiful young Mayan woman and her daughter approached me. Here in this little rural village by the lake this young woman spoke English. I felt a deep sense of shame that even though I had the privilege of a university education and graduate school I could only speak my native tongue and here in this village if I wanted to speak with anyone at all they would need to accommodate me and speak my language in their country. I was ashamed of myself.
But this young woman was cheerful and accommodating. She wanted to sell me some of her handmade beaded jewelry. She told me that she needed to some money so she could buy food for her Christmas dinner. She showed me her baby’s ear. The little girl has a congenital birth defect and her right ear in deformed. It is highly unlikely that she could hear out of that ear for there does not appear to be an opening to the ear canal. I purchased two bracelets and a necklace for Gillian. I think she expected me to barter and haggle over the price, but although expected I could not bring myself to do it. She needed the money far more than I do and I would not negotiate to save a dollar when her struggles were so apparent. She was gracious as she departed with her little girl on her back and called to me best wishes for a happy and blessed Christmas.
She was dressed in native Mayan dress, made of cotton that is hand woven. Her blouse was hand embroidered with intricate stitching that tells a story of the mountains and the flora and the fauna of her homeland. This is the traditional dress for Mayan women and girls. Their skirts are worn well below their knees and their chests are fully covered. The attire is modest. Even when the girls go in the lake to swim they do not wear swimsuits, no they keep their bodies fully covered. The men wear western dress of trousers, belts and shirts. No one is seen in shorts, not even the tourists.
These people are short in stature. It is not uncommon for full-grown men and women to be less than five foot tall. Their eyes are dark as night and the women wear their dark shiny hair long. I have seen very few people with any grey in their hair. So it is difficult to determine how old the people are. Only upon my return did I learn that less than 3% of the population is over 60 years old.
Wow. I have really been blinded by my own reality. These people are living so far below the poverty line. Did it really never cross my mind the impact the harsh realities of their lives might have on their life expectancy.
There are children everywhere. It is not uncommon to see a young family with four children under the age of five. The mothers carry the babies on their back, baskets of water or produce on their heads and then there are the little ones that follow her like little stair steps all in a row. The fathers seem devoted to the needs of their families, as it appears that most of the men work as farmers. The women and the children work in the markets or approach the tourists with hand woven cotton garments and beaded jewelry to sell.
It is four days before Christmas and Guatemala is a Catholic country. Many of the people have held tightly to the native spirituality of their Mayan ancestors but have also embraced the Catholic religion. These next few days will be a time to celebrate the end of the Mayan calendar and the birth of the Christ child. I do not know how they reconcile the differences and it does not matter to me. If I spoke the language I would be curious to know but if it all works for them then who am I to question it?
I am struck by the beauty and the quiet presence of these people. They smile at me and comment on my daughter’s beauty and I am certain that there are few tall blue-eyed blonde and redheads here in the rural villages of Guatemala. Even when we are in large groups of people, the people are soft spoken and keep to themselves. The children are quiet and well behaved. There is little crying and fussing amongst the children unless someone is hurt. How different this is from the United States. The demeanor of the children is clearly something that has been taught and modeled by the parents.
It was December 21st, 2012, the end of the Mayan Calendar. Gillian and I made our way to the waterfront, as this was where the ceremony was to take place.
A large fire pit had been laid and people were gathering around it. The area had been enclosed by a fence and to gain entrance to the area we must walk through the gate. There were two people just inside the gate with bottles of soapy water. The expectation was that if you were going to attend the ceremony then first you must be cleansed. This appears to be a purification ritual as a small amount of the water was poured into our hands, which we rubbed together and then touched our faces and then the tops of our heads. I watched and did as the others did and thus we were welcomed to the ceremony.
There are two men who apparently were the Mayan priests. They were dressed in western dress with blue jeans and t-shirts but also wore shawls that looked like traditional Mayan weaving. The ceremony was spoken, chanted and sung in one of the many Mayan languages, the indigenous language of this region, as well as in Spanish. There were about two hundred people in attendance and Gillian and I were among about two dozen non-indigenous people at the ceremony. I tried to follow along as Gillian whispered the translation for me after the Spanish had been spoke.
My limited understanding is this: The end of the Mayan Calendar is not thought to signify the end of the world but rather a beginning of a new era. This calendar has been around since August 11, 3114 BCE or for 5,125 years. Many Americans and modern people of the western world think of time as linear, having a point at which time began and a point at which time will cease. The Mayan people think of time as cyclical, where the end of one time ushers in the beginning of another. This new era corresponds with the positions of the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars, and thus begins with the winter solstice. The ancient Mayan people measured time in cycles called baktuns and each baktun was 394 years. The winter solstice of 2012 marks the end of the 13th baktun. The new era that is being ushered in is predicted to bring big changes in peoples personal lives, family life and in their communities. The predictions are that this new era will be a time of increased harmony and balance between mankind and nature, a sacred time marked by greater respect and spirituality.
A question rattles around in my brain-How has this become so misrepresented as a dooms day prediction for the end of the world?
The purpose of the ceremony is to honor the Creator of the heavens and the earth, to give thanks for the gifts of the earth that sustains life, and to honor our ancestors who have given us life and traveled on.
The fire pit is carefully sectored off with different colored candles prominant in each quadrant, the red candle represents the east, white the south, yellow the west and black the north. There are blue and green candles in the center representing the sky and the mountains. Beautiful blossoms in a wide array of colors have been laid out in the various sections.Opening prayers are offered by the priests and the ceromony begins as the fire is lit. Musicians play on a marimba, wooden flutes and then the drumming begins as the priests start to chant and circle the fire. They make burnt offering into the fire, as is their tradition. With sacred respect they throw corn, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, incense, honey, and alcohol into the fire as an offering. This is what is produced in Guatemala and what sustains their lives and they give thanks.
The Mayan people who have come to celebrate are invited to dance slowly around the circle with the priests as the muscians play on and drum out the beat. Everyone: the men and the women, the elderly and the small children, even the young mothers with babies on their backs enter into the dance with reverence. First they dance in one direction and then when guided by their priest they turn and circle the fire pit in the opposite direction.
The priests begin to add hundreds of multi-colored candles to the fire. The candles are as thin as my fingers and as long as my hand. Each candle represents a prayer or intention. The white candles represent prayers for the protection of the children, the yellow are for personal protection, the green are for hopes and dreams, the blue are for work and travel, the black for the night, the brown for the earth and the red are for love.
Oh now I see. I laugh to myself as I remember the hundred red candles that hung from the headboard of my bed in the hotel in Antigua, not that it did me any good.
Thousands of candles are laid along the edges of the fire pit and again the priests invite the people to participate in offering their own prayers. The people of the community approach the fire pit and carefully select handfuls on candle in various colors for their prayers and then kneel before the fire. Some people are in tears and others kiss the candles one by one as they place the candles in the roaring fire. This is an inclusive gathering and even the non-Mayan visitors, like my daughter and I, are encouraged to participate.
I kneel before the fire with my carefully choosen candles in my hands. I have long since reconcilled my personal beliefs about God. I believe there is one God, and that the spirit of God lives in all living things including myself and there are many paths to God. These are people who believe in the sacred nature of life and all living things and we are united in our thinking. I offer my prayers for God’s blessings for my children and my parents and my sister and my brother and their families and my beloved friends. I kiss my candles and put them in the fire. I pray for those who I have loved who have gone before me. I pray for our planet, for spirtual growth, for my work and my safety and for love and companionship. I kiss the candles and put them in the fire. I offer gratitude for blessings received as I am indeed blessed and I must remember this.
More chanting and more dancing and then a drink of ground corn, water and salt is offered symbolically to their ancestors. A bowl is placed before each of the carved statutes that ring the fire circle. Once this is done all the participants are offered a bowl of the corn drink. This is a very poor community but they have spared no expense to honor this day and they are generous with the people who have come to celebrate.
The priest concludes the ceremony in his role of the Day Keeper. As he circles the fire he calls each of the 260 days of this calendar year by its name and each day is respected and blessed and honored for the gifts it will bring. The celebration has ended and the Mayan people reach out and embrace one another and they open their arms and embrace us too and thank us for joining them in the celebration. There is a feeling of inclusion and welcome and gratitude. This was not an end of the world celebration, no it was a celebration that honors the sacredness of life and exuded optimism for a new era and way of thinking and honoring life in all of its many forms.
As I sit in the comfort of my own home I think back on my trip to Guatemala. I miss my daughter but I think I have a better understanding of her. I understand her need to go out and see the world and to attempt to correct some of the injustices she sees. I am grateful for her and that she invited me to join her. My life has been enriched by my visit to Guatemala. My consciousness is shifting and I too am hopeful.