Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bad dentistry and daykeepers

By most people´s standards today was a ¨wasted¨ day. Not that I didn´t do anything, but I didn´t do anything I could have only done while I´m in Guatemala. In the morning I was writing -- rewriting actually, the scene where the Hero Twins kill the demon Seven Macaw with bad dentistry. This is one my favorite scenes in the Popul Vuh, and one of the scenes that inspired me to write this trilogy. So naturally I want it to be really good in my book as well.

As an utter bonus, I have discovered that fancy artificial teeth are quite popular in Guatemala, especially among the Highlands Mayans. I assume this is partially because of the dreadful state of dentistry (along with any other modern medical care) for the people in small towns in the Highlands. I have seen a number of pairs of gold front teeth with golden crosses or other symbols in the middle of the white enamel. It is not much of a stretch to imagine someone replacing the enamel of the teeth with brite green jade, as Seven Macaw did in the PV. Since this is in the PV this was presumably a normal part of dental care even in pre-Columbian times. I wonder to what degree they still use the same methods?

I might have gone out, but I stopped into ¨Bus Stop Books,¨ and English-language bookshop and coffee shop here. I was just going to buy a couple of scifi paperbacks as I always do when I find an independent bookshop I want to support. But then in the ¨library¨ section I saw a book called ¨Breath on the Mirror¨ by Dennis Tedlock. Tedlock wrote the most authoritative translation of the Popul Vuh, and he is the only non-Mayan I know of who has learned enough of the language and culture of a Mayan tribe (the Quiche, in this case) to earn the title of daykeeper.

The Mayan ceremonial system is centered around the counting of days. This is not on the 360+5 day calender that´s part of the ¨long count¨ system that has everyone freaking out unreasonably about 2012. (If anyone asks you, tell them that not even the Maya believe that year represents the end of the world.)

But the daykeepers focus on the ceremonial 260 day calendar. There´s disagreements about where the 260 days come from: it could be connected to the growing cycle of corn, or the orbit of Venus, or the gestation period of a human pregnancy, or some combination of all of them. But mathematically it´s pretty clear: 260 is the product of two important numbers, the 13 ¨day numbers¨ and the 20 ¨day names.¨ The day names are things like Deer and Marksman and Cane, and they confusingly move backwards while the day numbers move forwards, giving each day a name like Seven Wind or One Yellow. Each day has a meaning which can also change depending on how far along in the numbers it is. For example Yellow means ¨ripeness¨ but while One Yellow represents something just coming into its ripeness, 13 Yellow, being at the end of the number cycle, means something that´s going rotten. Daykeepers can count the day numbers and names together and know what each combination means. This means they can say something about you based on the day you were born, sort of like a horoscope (I was born on the day ¨E¨ or ¨Ey,¨ which can mean ¨tooth¨ but also means ¨path¨). But more importantly they make predictions by a system of tossing and counting ceremonial beans.

And the predictions of the daykeepers, called aj´chun (at least in the language of the Chuj that live in San Mateo), are still central to the lives of the Maya. Angela´s Mayan husband Alberto uses their services routinely. Among other things, he told us, he told us he talked to an aj´chun to see if she was being truthful to him. She was sitting right there when he said that, so maybe he was being playful.

One important role of an aj´chun is when you get sick. Not that an aj´chun can cure you, since their only job is to see fortunes. But if you get a swelling in your leg or a mysterious sickness in your stomach, the most likely explanation is that you have been curse by a bruja, or witch. Specifically this kind of witch is known as an aj´lep, someone who puts sicknesses on the body. Since the only one who can really cure the curse is the person who cast it, the aj´chun can tell you who the aj´lep who cursed you is. From there, presumably, it´s up to you.

Then there are the men that kill the snakes. If you get a snakebite, it will continue to hurt if you are still alive. The ¨snake-killer¨ (Alberto didn´t give a Chuj name for this profession) will give you a treatment that involves drinking tobacco juice and massaging and blowing on the place where the the snakebite happened. If the treatment works, it will kill the snake and cure the bite.

The nearest hospital to San Mateo is a bumpy 5-hour dirt road bus ride away. There is a small pharmacy that sells some prescription medicines, and some medicines are sold randomly out of boxes on market days. But even if there is a doctor there that can prescribe what you need, most Chuj couldn´t afford an appointment. And if they could, the pharmacy might not have the right prescription anyway. So for many people finding the witch that cursed you is as effective a treatment as modern medicine.

Alberto´s an intelligent and sophisticated guy, who also knows a lot about his people´s traditions. He also enjoys talking about them, and is a natural storyteller. A person like me is tempted to want to press such a person, to find out exactly how much of what they´re saying they really believe.

But I don´t think questions like that can ever have a simple answer. Mayans have been forced for a very long time to live in two (or more) worlds, balancing their old faith with Christianity and traditional practices with modernity. And really, don´t the rest of us do the same thing? Nearly everyone I know mixes some ¨alternative medicine¨ practice with modern medicine.

Mostly I am just thankful to Alberto for opening up and sharing as much as he did, which helped me connect the beliefs in the books I was reading with what I was seeing around me. It´s amazing how many connections I have found.

That´s why I had to read the Tedlock book right then. Tedlock has an incredibly useful section describing the exact day name and number connected to the various events in the Hero Twins´ battle with the Lords of Xibalba, or Death, and what each of those days mean. That´s perfect for me, as I will be writing that book in about 6 months, which is exactly as long as a piece of research needs to sink in before you can really use it in your fiction.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

¨Do you want to see where we lived when the soldiers came?¨ -- Parque de la Paz

Alex was a fantastic guide, but he only spoke Spanish. I did my best to listen to what he said, but my weak Spanish interfered. Mostly this didn´t matter much, because most of what he showed me was routine tourist things I understood well enough.

Then he took me to Parque de la Paz. The story of the park is clear enough. During the Civil War Santiago de Atitlan suffered as all the Mayan villages did from the near-genocidal efforts of the Guatemalan military. A Catholic priest, Father Stanley Rother, was killed in 1981, and all through the 80s people from here ¨disappeared.¨ In 1990 an angry crowd gathered and threw stones at a Guatemalan military base, and the military massacred 13 people. But because Santiago de Atitlan is a tourist facility the military was forced to withdraw to avoid further embarassment.

In memory of those massacred the village has erected ¨El Parque de La Paz,¨ a beautiful stone park with small marble memorial stones to those killed in the massacre. The story that I didn´t understand from Alex I could read in the marble plaque on the side.

I didn´t understand exactly what Alex said next, but he asked me if I wanted to see the houses.

¨What houses?¨ I asked.

¨The houses where we lived when the soldiers came,¨ he said.

So I followed him. We passed a residential part of the village. Some women were weaving on traditional looms. Then we passed a school, but it was empty even though it was a school day.

Then we passed a hospital, also abandoned. Alex pointed to a field across from the hospital. Many people lived there, he said, though I didn´t understand the rest of the sentence.

Then we walked a little further. We came upon the wrecks of a number of stone houses. They looked burned out, and there was ash in the dirt. Alex walked to one of the houses. I understood what he said next.

¨I lived here. The river used to pass this way. I was five years old. They killed my father and my mother right over there.¨

A couple of times I have had people ask me what the Popul Vuh ¨means.¨ I have found this a difficult question to answer, and not just because I am still an outsider studying it. What does the Bible mean? What does the Odyssey or the Gilgamesh mean? It is the story of the people, and it would be ridiculous to try and sum it up.

But I´ve still put some thought into one strong message that comes from the book. The PV is ridiculously violent. Through the course of the book the heroes lose limbs, have heads cut off, are killed and chopped up and burned and thrown in the river. And yet they always come back. In a sense there is something almost cartoonish about it, and Hunahpu and Xbalanque aren´t supposed to be normal people. ¨They were just gods,¨ says the book.

But I can´t help but think there is a theme that is connected to this: no matter how you try to destroy the Hero Twins, they always bounce back. They always survive. And in the face of terrible violence and evil they always find a way to win through a combination of trickery and courage.

As I said, these are the stories of a people. Though the PV was specifically Quiche, I am pretty sure that the part of it that is the story of the Hero Twins is pretty universal to the Maya. And if one was forced to sum up a ¨message¨ from the book, it would be this: you can conquer us, you can massacre us, you can try to take our land and destroy our culture, but we will survive. We will come back.

The Mayans suffered under oppression from the Aztecs even before the Spanish came, then they suffered the horrors of colonial oppression. Their literature was burned by the Spanish monks in a crime against human knowledge equal to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. For the next few centuries they rose up repeatedly against Spanish and Ladino oppression, and were suppressed violently. Their land was taken to make coffee and sugar plantations, and they were forced to work under conditions little better than slavery. And in the civil war, villages like San Mateo de Ixtalan suffered much worse than better known villages like Santiago de Atitlan. Fernando said that during the 80s more than 3000 people were shot on the picturesque bridge that overlooks the valley below the house where we were staying.

But, in the words of Faulkner, the Mayan people endured. Just like the Hero Twins, they survived through a combination of courage and necessary deception. When the Spanish tried to destroy their beliefs and culture they hid them away while pretending they were doing what they were told. But when the Spanish and later Guatemalan military pushed them too far they would get together and stand for their rights, knowing that many of them would pay the price of their lives.

And now they are still here, with a culture that is as strong as it ever was. The culture they have now isn´t the culture they had 500 years ago; like everyone else they have developed new skills and ideas while adapting ideas from the outside as they were useful. But the culture they have now is distinctly their own.

Maximon, el Rey de Muerte and el Rey de Sol

I took the boat today across Lake Atitlan to the village of Santiago de Atitlan in search of the figure of Maximon, the cigar-chomping hard drinking wooden doll that is the subject of Nathaniel Tarn´s book A Scandal in the House of Birds. Maximon is a purely syncretist figure. He represents Judas, but he is also associated with the traditional Mayan Lords of Death. The Church made many efforts to eradicate him from Mayan worship, but obviously without success. In Tarn´s book the Mayans were rarely openly defiant about keeping Maximon. Rather, they would tell the Church not to worry, they were rid of him. Then Maximon would be leading the next parade.

The ride across Lago de Atitlan is stunning. There are enormous volcanoes stretching into the clouds all around, and little villages stuck to the side of the green hills that surround the lake. The vegetation is still mostly evergreen but mixed with some tropical plants like banana trees.

I thought Maximon would be hard to find, but he was not at all. I was trying to decide who to ask while I was busy shooing away the tuk-tuk drivers surrounding me trying to give me a ride. Then it occurred to me that one of the drivers might know. I was afraid I'd be taken for an expensive wild goose chase, but the driver I asked just gestured up the road. I wasn´t sure where he was pointing, but I started walking that way, and a man came and asked if I was looking for Maximon. His name was Alex, he was a cakchiquel man who looked about my age but was actually younger, as I found out later.

He walked me down a small street, then led me up a small alley. I already knew that Maximon moves around from house to house, so I followed him.

Maximon was up this alley.

Admittance was two quetzales. Maximon was in a dark room hung with colorful paper and illuminated only by candles. He is mostly a decorated mask with a cigar clothed in nothing but a bunch of silk ties. I wasn´t sure if I could get a picture, but Maximon is an entrepreneurial fellow, and you can take pictures of him for ten quetzales more. His hands hold trays where you put the money. In fact you´re supposed to also leave him cigarettes and liquor, but I wasn´t prepared that way.


Off to the right of Maximon is a casket that represents Jesus. To the left is a statue of Jesus carrying the cross. That is the only two figures that they went out of their way to show me. But there is another figure on the left.

Casket of Jesus

The statue on the left was recessed into the darkness. He had a metal mask and was dressed in a robe. There was a cigarette sticking between his toes. I asked who he was, and Alex said in a somewhat embarassed tone, ¨Ah, ese es El Rey de Muerte,¨ or the King of Death.

¨De Xibalba?¨ I asked, but no one answered.

El Rey de Muerte

Then Alex offered to give me a tour of the Church and the rest of the town for Q100. I agreed, because I was grateful to him for showing me Maximon and because he seemed to know his way around. I´m sure I could have haggled him down to Q50, but I am glad I didn´t, because of what I saw later.

The church, much like the one in San Mateo, is about 500 years old, and has a peaked roof instead of an arch in the Mayan style, but is much bigger. The walls are lined with statues of different saints. Alex insisted it was okay to take pictures in the church as well.

Some of the Milagros on the walls of the church

In the back of the church were several large triangular altars illustrated with statues of Jesus, Mary and more saints. In the lower-right hand corner was a seated figure with a brightly decorated face. Alex informed me that that was El Rey de Sol, the King of the Sun. On the side of the altar a man was climbing. Alex told me that he was going up to talk to the man at the top, El Rey de Ciel, or King of the Sky. I suppose if I´d pressed Alex he´d have told me El Rey de Ciel was the same as God, and maybe El Rey de Sol is as well. But the real answer probably isn´t so simple. Anyway, I didn´t press.

I wasn´t sure what else Alex would show me, but I was willing at this point to see whatever he had to show me. So he offered to take me to ¨El Parque de Paz,¨ or Peace Park.

What I saw at Parque de Paz was much deeper than anything I saw at El Maximon´s or the church. Enough that it needs another post.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

As a matter of fact this is a tour guide, asshole.

I'm in tourist haven Panajachel, which is nice. But there are some real assholes here. I'm not talking about the Guatemalans, who are friendly everywhere I go. I'm talking about the foreigners, or as they prefer not to be called, the tourists.

I moved on for several reasons. Part was that I didn't want to wear out my welcome in San Mateo. Part was that I want to check out Lake Atitlan, and see if I can find the Maximon, a tobacco smoking, hard-drinking wooden icon who's half Judas and half dark Mayan diety. But honestly a big part is also I was ready for things to get a little easier.

And they did, eventually. Getting to Pana was the usual madhouse of jumping from brightly colored bus to minivan & back for hours on end & praying you don't go the wrong way or miss your stop. But as soon as I was here I had a motel room with laundry, private bath & shower and wifi for Q100/night. It's not even close to the top of the line, but after a week in San Mateo it feels like the Ritz.

After I came out of the shower I went by the kitchen and said "hi" to an American-looking couple in the kitchen. They responded with a cold "hola", and at first I was embarassed for assuming they were English-speakers. But then I heard them speaking English to each other with an American accent.

Then I went looking for a place to eat. I had out my guide book, glad to finally have a use for it.

I saw a man on a bicycle who looked friendly at first and waved to him, this time greeting him in Spanish instead.

"You got your little tour guide?" he said in English. "Which one is it?"

Sensing he was being contemptuous but not sure I told him it was a Lonely Planet.

"Oh, is it lonely?" he said with an eye roll, and pedaled off.

This is one of those situations where you think of what to say too late. Fortunately that's what blogs were invented for. So here's the correct answer to the question:

Yes, you self-righteous prick, I need my little tour guide to get around Pana because instead of spending my time in Guatemala hanging around here I've spent the last week nine hours into the Highlands over unpaved roads in a place that isn't even in most guidebooks, which you probably wouldn't go to if they paid you. And now I'm ready to just chill the fuck out and be a goddamned tourist for a couple days if you don't mind, like every other foreigner in Pana whether they have a little tour guide or not. And that includes you, even if you've been here since you fell off the Magic Bus on an acid trip in the 70s.

Monday, March 28, 2011

More pictures

Pictures below accompany previous posts

Tara with kids on the field trip

Measured this slope as a grade of 20 degrees

I don´t think this would be a NYCDOE-approved form of field trip transportation for 20+ kids.

Tierra negra

Diego has spent some time in the US

Angie really knows the town well

Looking up the stream

Fernando climbing the stream

Me climbing the stream

The milpa from the waterfall

The milpa from the top

We slid down this cornfield to the path home

More pictures

Up the waterfall, down the cornfield

Yesterday Fernando and I did a hike up the waterfall. It was a steep fall littered with rocks, but I am from the mountains myself and I grew up climbing rocks like this. It was fun and challenging, but as we climbed we recognized it would be much more dangerous going back down, and we were a hell of a long way from an emergency room.

So we decided it would be safer going down the milpa beside the fall. A milpa is a cornfield, so how dangerous could that be?

Well, that´s what we were thinking.

The milpa we came out on was on a slope that was well more than 45 degrees. The corn had been burned away in the traditional slash-and-burn agricultural style. Every step I took sent loose black earth tumbling far down to a cliff to the waterfall below.

Fernando went around a corner, and I couldn´t see him. I called, but he didn´t answer. For all I knew he´d gone over a cliff on the other side.

Finally I came around; the milpa on the other side was just as steep but had more tree branches to catch yourself on. Fernando was a couple hundred feet below. So I slid down as carefully as I could on my ass, getting a load of tierra negra down my pants.

So if I ever do it again, I´ll take the rocks. I can´t think of anything crazier of climbing a slope that steep.

Okay, one thing: planting a farm on it.

A San Mateo field trip

So much has happened that I forgot to write about the trip I took with the students from the INHAT Seeds of Change school on Friday. It was a trip to get ¨tierra negra¨ or rich black earth, to replant a forest area near the farm. If you´re a teacher or school administrator used to high trip safety standards and you have a weak heart, I suggest you stop reading now.

I met Cara at the INHAT cyber-cafe with her students in the afternoon. We walked up the road toward the school and stopped where we were supposed to meet our ride. There were about 20 kids, so I thought there would be a bus, or at least a large truck with a cage. What arrived instead, after we´d waited about 20-30 minutes, was a mini-pickup with a cage around the bed.

The kids quickly jumped onto the cage. There was room in the middle of the bed, but the boys all preferred to hang off the side, while the girls sat on the wall around the bed, leaving the middle empty. I wanted to take a picture of this terrifying sight, but the truck was about to pull out without me. So I hung off the side as well.

I didn´t have a good grip or foothold, and the girl on the bed inside kept leaning against me as if to push me off the truck. Then the truck started climbing up the narrow, steep roads towards the bosque where we were going to get the tierra negra.

I will never be frightened of a roller coaster again. Most of the roads are just wide enough for the wheels of the truck to fit, and several times I found myself hanging over a drop of several hundred feet, which the children hanging off the truck didn´t even notice. The grade of the road in several places exceeded twenty degrees. Those who know something about road grades will assume I am being hyperbolic or making an uneducated guess. But on the way back when I was in a more secure position I measured with the level on my phone. For those who don´t know anything about road grades, in the United States a grade of six degrees will generate terrifying warnings about steep roads and runaway trucks. If you´ve ever seen those steep blocks in San Francisco where you have to put bricks under the wheels of your car to keep it from rolling away, those are about fifteen degrees. Twenty degree grades are normal around here.

Finally I chickened out and asked one of the girls to move aside so I could sit in the middle of the truck. There I talked to a boy who had spent several years in Tennessee, which has a community of Chuj Maya. I asked if he liked it better there or here, and he said he preferred the US.

We got there and started digging. The earth here is volcanic clay, rich, wet and black. I helped dig for awhile, and then I started carrying full feedbags of tierra negra to the truck bed. Cara said the plan was to get 48 feedbags of tierra negra; the bags were each between 25 and 50 pounds, depending how full they were. As I watched the bed fill with the bags I started doing the math in my head, and I started to worry about the suspension of the truck.

Fortunately the driver was also conscious about how much the truck could carry, and at some point said he couldn´t carry any more. Unfortunately, when he said he couldn´t carry any more that included the kids.

It occurred to me that this was the kind of thing you might plan ahead for if you´re making a trip to carry black earth and children from one place to another, but they hadn´t. So they left the kids in the middle of the forest; apparently they knew their way home. I was prepared to walk with the kids, but Cara said I could ride along if I was willing to unload the black earth by the farm. So that´s what I did.

After we´d unloaded the earth and walked back into town we ran into the kids who had walked back from the forest; they didn´t seem bothered or surprised by the walk. Nothing about this trip was outside the normal bounds of safety here. Among other things I´ve seen recently are children playing blind-man´s bluff with one kid stumbling around blindfolded next to a drop of more than 100 feet, and a 3-4 year old child running down a mountain road with a homemade kite in one hand and a 2-foot machete in the other. I´ve also seen the results: there are kids who are missing fingers, arms and hands. Child mortality due to accidents is no doubt very high.

I don´t want to give the impression that the Maya don´t care about their kids. But I think the people here just accept they live in a much more dangerous place. The men who work the milpas have to harvest corn on slopes that are so steep that if you slip you´ll just slide all the way down and go over a cliff. Kids need to learn to use machetes, because they´re used here for everything from harvesting to cutting wood for the stove to keeping away the hungry wild dogs that occasionally gang up and attack people at night.

It´s easy for us to judge someone else´s lifestyle. But I have also thought that I wish American kids (including my own) would get half as much exercise as the kids do here. Childhood obesity -- or adult obesity, for that matter -- is pretty much unheard of. I have not seen an overweight Chuj Mayan. I imagine diabetes would be equally rare.

I won´t say that one way or the other is better. But I do know that the next time I have to fill out fifteen different safety forms for a field trip and some administrator freaks out because a kid stands up in the bus I´m going to laugh inside.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The church and the altar

The Catholic church in San Mateo is about 5 centuries old by a conservative estimate. It is two stories high, painted a bright white and orange with a steepled facade featuring images of various saints and holy figures in recesses along the walls. The figures of the saints barely resemble whatever shape they must have originally had, because every year the church is plastered over with a new layer of limestone, rounding and blurring off any sharp edges. Inside it is like most Catholic churches I´ve ever been in, with two rows of pews and a stand of candles to light, with an A-shaped ceiling rather than an arch. Right now the beams in the ceiling are hung with purple cloth in preparation for Semana Santa, or Easter week.

The church has a Catholic school attached on one side, and in front of the Catholic school was a basketball court. Basketball is fairly popular here, almost as much as football, which is good news for me since basketball is going to be central to the next two books in my Popul Vuh trilogy.

Directly in front of the church, however, is a structure that I have never seen connected to a Catholic church before. ¨The altar¨ is a simple open limestone structure with metal roof above it. There is a fire constantly burning in it, and it is solid black from the smoke. Sitting around the altar are many older women in traditional Mayan dress, burning hundreds of long candles connected in bundles by the wicks. There are simple crosses about six feet high made of wood 4x4s nailed together stacked around the altar.

Angie showed me the church and the altar. The tradition of the monks that came through Latin America was to build their church near to where people already prayed. Always practical, the evangelizers didn't want to make it any more difficult than possible for their charges to come over to Christianity. With the Mayans they had plenty to work with; even before the first Christian came the Mayans already considered the cross a holy symbol, the shape of the world-tree, with each of the four points representing a different sacred direction.

If what Angie says is true, and I have every reason to believe it is, then the altar is something much older than the church. Which doesn´t mean the women around it aren´t good Christians. They light their candles in the church first.

But the altar might represent something more, as well. More than I can understand right now, if ever. I´ll have pictures tomorrow.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Pictures from the farm

The farm from a distance:

The path to the farm -- a typical Highlands commute:

The ¨milpa¨ or field at the farm:

The fishpond at the farm:

I helped dig this ditch!

More image from Las Ruinas

Ceremonial stones at Las Ruinas:

Some piglets having a snack at Las Ruinas:

A ceremonial window or recess in Las Ruinas. Notice the prayer candles in the lower left corner. Most candles were by crosses, but there were no crosses here.

Pictures of Las Ruinas

The upper temple in Las Ruinas:

The lower temple in Las Ruinas:

El Calvario sign in Las Ruinas:

Kids doing recess in the ballfield at Las Ruinas:

What am I doing here, anyway?

I´m writing this post for my friend Pamela, who said that she felt reading the blog she came in in the middle of the story. So here is some backstory. What the hell am I doing in a litte Chuj Mayan village in the middle of Guatemala?

For those that don´t know, I am writing a book based on the story of the Quiche Mayan creation epic the Popul Vuh, but set in New York. The characters are Guatemalan Mayan immigrants to New York City, and the monsters of the Popul Vuh are coming to New York: the crocodile demon Zipacna, his father Vucub Caquix the evil macaw who pretends to be the son, his brother the giant Cabracan who makes earthquakes, and worst of all the Lords of Xibalba, the land of the dead. I am actually writing it as a trilogy, with the first part being the defeat of Zipacna, Vucub Caquix and Cabracan, and the second two books being the defeat of the Lords of Death, first in a ballgame and then in battle.

I began writing the book because it´s such an engaging and fascinating epic. The heroes are the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque (in Mayan the ´x´ is pronounced as a ´sh´ sound). My goal was something not too different from the Percy Jackson books, just with a more unique mythology. But I researched as I wrote, and the more I learned the more I realized that this wasn´t the same as basing a story on the Greek gods.

The Greek gods are history to everyone, and at this point they are pretty much universal intellectual property, no longer attached to any particular culture. As far as I know, not a single Greek person still worships Zeus or Poseidon even in a syncretic indirect form. The Greek gods today have more in common with Superman and Spiderman than they do with any religious tradition. Kids like me grow up reading D´Aulaire´s and other mythological books much like comic books and see the gods and heroes of the myths as something like superheroes. The Norse and Egyptian myths would fall into the same category. Essentially, they are just pages out of D&D´s Dieties & Demigods book, another book I grew up reading.

But the Mayan myths are different, in that to some degree some people still believe in them. Don´t get me wrong: almost all Mayans today are either Catholic or some Evangelical faith, such as Pentecostal, Mormon or 7th day Adventist. But as best as I can understand, many of the ones that are Catholic practice a form of syncretist faith that combines belief in Jesus and the Christian god with belief in the older dieties and spirits.

There is nothing unusual about this, as it is what has happened in every single ¨polytheistic¨(1) culture that´s been converted to Christianity, from Rome to Ireland to Northern Europe and no doubt Asian and African cultures as well. But in some places it´s further along than others, and here the ¨old ways¨ are a lot closer to the surface than they are in others.

Not that it´s obvious. I´d be a fool to expect anyone to talk about it much. Angela knew a little, but even she didn´t know much, and she´s married to a Mayan man. There are lots of good reasons for being secretive about it. For one thing, I understand the Evangelicals are quite hostile to the old beliefs. For another it´s simply none of an outsider´s business what a family or a person believes.

But the old ruins are filled with crosses that people pray to, and as I said I have evidence that people pray at the old ruins in places where there are no crosses.

What all this means is that you just can´t treat traditional Mayan beliefs as you would ancient Greek legends. But I still think it´s a great story, and something worth telling. So what I want to do, most of all, is to do it in a way that honors a culture rather than appropriates it. I hope I succeed.

In order to do it, the first thing I realized was that the characters needed to be Mayans. That´s not a stretch, there are immigrants to New York from everywhere, including here. But in order to do that I needed to represent their culture and beliefs as authentically as an outsider could. And what I needed to write about was not ancient Mayans, which I can learn as much as anyone else could from a book. I needed to write about Mayans as they live now.

I would be afraid to do this, and would almost back down. But I am taking my inspiration from Nisi Shawl who wrote Writing the Other, a book about how to respectfully include characters, cultures and traditions from a background not your own. Nisi gave some great workshops at Clarion West about this topic, and I learned a lot. But one thing I know more than anything else is there is no substitute for research.

And so that´s what I am doing here. I am trying to write about a people and a place I knew only from books. Now, at least, I have a bit of firsthand experience. I don´t expect to come out of this an expert on Mayan culture. At best I hope to know enough to write about the story of their people respectfully. And I can only hope that my book will get people interested enough to go and learn more about the true stories Mayans, both in mythological history and today.

I use the term cautiously as I´m suspicious of the clarity of the poly/mono breakdown people so casually fall back on.

Life insurance, San Mateo style

Last night and this morning on the way to the house I passed a crowd of people gathered around a table with a man holding an account book. There was music playing, except when a man with a microphone announced people´s names. The crowd was mostly adults, especially older people, and they were solemn in spite of the music.

I tried unsuccessfully to figure out what this was. Some kind of payday for something? Or a kind of off-track betting? Those were my two best guesses, but they couldn´t have been more wrong.

This morning I asked Luciano who works at at La Fonda de INHAT (INHAT´s restaurant) what was going on. Luciano speaks English pretty well, and explained to me it was a funeral.

What happens is this: when a person dies, everyone gets together and puts in some money into a fund. The man with the account book keeps track of what you put in.

Then, when you or someone in your family dies, your family gets a payout from the fund, presumably based on how much you have put in. Also, people make you food and give other gifts.

What this is is precisely a life insurance system organized entirely at the village level.

But what I can´t help but thinking is how valuable those account books are. Of course, they have the technology here to put everything into Excel, and maybe they have. But I bet it would be a serious data entry job to fill in all the contributions back to when the books begin, maybe more than anyone would take the time to type in. The records must go back at least 3 generations, perhaps 50-75 years, and maybe much, much more. And even if the data is in digital form somewhere, the books are almost certainly still the primary source.

What is in those books, really, is so much more than financial data. It´s a record of the generations of San Mateo for every family for as far as they go back. Presumably the better off a person is doing the more they will put in. Which means that the books would be a record of the rise and fall of every family in the village, which is the heart of the Chuj Mayans.

So in the red-lined pages of a leather-bound account book is a story of a people. How beautiful is that?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Working on the farm

This morning, I went with Cara to help out on the organic farm outside of town. The farm is down in the valley, meaning a descent of between 500 and 1000 feet. On the way we met Andres and his adorable 6-year old son Muyan, whose name I am almost certainly misspelling.

Luckily I grew up around mountains; the descent was steep and there was barely a path. The farm is new, but will grow maize, squash, beans, potatoes, buckwheat, cilantro, and tomatoes among other things. There is also a small circular pond that will have edible fish.

There was a problem, because the pond was leaking and the water was going to the wrong place. So Cara needed a ditch dug so that the water went where they wanted it to.

Like an idiot I came to a Central American country with no sunblock. So I knew I was getting burned. At least I had a hat, so my face isn´t so bad.

But we got the ditch dug, and it worked! Then, when I was already exhausted and burned a bright red, I had to climb back up to the village. By the time I got back I was nearly dead. But I am feeling better now. I got some eggs and vegetables, and I´m going home to make an omelette, if I can get the fire going.

I am just too tired to put up the pictures now, but I hope to tomorrow.

Dinner with new friends

I had some people from the school over for dinner last night. It was a lot of fun. I had over Angie, who teaches English and Math here, Alberto, her husband, Alejandra, who is starting a cosmetolegy program for the kids, and Cara, who runs the organic farm near the school.

I got some stuff from the market: chile, tomatoes, potates, rice, beans, onions, a chicken and some chicharrones (pork fat) for extra flavor. I am fairly proud of the outcome; not a Mayan feast but not a bad interpretation of New Mexican style stew.

The conversation was difficult, because Alberto doesn´t speak English and I barely speak Spanish. But the ladies were kind enough to switch back and forth and keep us up to date.

¨Las Ruinas¨

When I heard that there were unexcavated ruins near San Mateo, I was under the impression that you had to go out in the forest and walk for awhile, and stumble over them like some classical explorer.

Nothing could be further from the truth. ¨Las Ruinas¨ are literally on the edge of town. Part of the ruins were bulldozed over in the 50s and the elementary school built on top of them.

There are three temples and a ball court. They are totally overgrown, but the temples might have been 50 feet high when they were new. The ball court is perhaps another 50 feet deep from the village.

I was fortunate enough to get a brief tour from Angie, who works at INHAT. Her husband, Alberto, is Mayan, and so she was able to tell me a lot. The ruins are called ¨eighteen¨ by the locals, but no one knows why, or what happened to 1-17. It is also called El Calvario, because at Easter they do a crucifixion scene there. There are crosses all over Las Ruinas, and people go there to pray. Angie and Alberto got married there. There are candles by the crosses where people pray. But I also saw candles in place where there is a recession into the temple but no cross. This implies that at least someone was praying to someone besides Jesus. But it´s hard to get a clear understanding of this, for many reasons.

But ¨las ruinas¨ are also part of everyday life. The kids from the elementary school do their recess in the ancient ball court, and it is also used for band competitions. Guys bring their girlfriends to the ruins and sneak off to make out.

In other words these ruins are still completely a part of people´s life here. To me that is so much more interesting than the grand ruins of Palenque or Chichen Itza, as beautiful as they are.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Some pictures below: the place I´m staying, the valley, night in the fog.

Life in San Mateo de Ixtatan

Things start really early here, and they shut down early too. Even before the sun´s fully up the town square is full of the sound of backfiring buses and trucks that have been driving in the foggy mountains through the night. There are roosters crowing everywhere, and the loose dogs area awake and barking.

The sun comes in in the morning and burns of the clouds at night, but it´s cold, especially if you´re inside. The house I´m staying in has a fireplace, but I couldn´t get it lit. I broke the lighter I borrowed. But I´m going to buy some matches.
As a result, last night was a cold one.

At 5:00 the clouds move over the whole town, with the smell of burning pine logs, and everything just shuts down. There just isn´t anything to do at night, so people just settle in.

I went to the Seeds of Change school this morning, and taught a class! Angela, who teaches at the school, was showing me around, and some kids were just standing aroud because their teacher hadn´t shown up. So I asked them if they wanted to do some math. They wanted to learn about algebra, so I gave them an algebra class with the help of some ¨como se dice¨s from Angie. The kids were so brilliant and enthusiastic and eager to learn that the language hardly seemed a barrier at all. They are learning English to, so it was a good chance for them to practice as well.

Everything is so steep, and my sea-level acclimated lungs have to take two breaths for every one. The whole valley is spread out hundreds of feet below, green and patched with milpas of corn and cabbage and carrots. There are pigs and dogs and chickens everywhere; I saw a bunch of piglets suckling this morning.

This afternoon I´m going to some local unexcavated ruins with Angie. I can´t wait.

Now I´m going to try to do some pictures below.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In San Mateo de Ixtatan

I made it to San Mateo in one day from Antigua, but if I had planned better it would have taken two. The bus rides I took from Antigua couldn´t have been a better illustration of getting further and further off the beaten path.

First I got a minibus to Panajachel with a group of other tourists: two American college kids on spring break, and a Polish couple with a baby who live in Baltimore. Took lots of pictures on the drive, which I still can´t post. The vegetation for most of the drive was different than what I expected, and yet strangely familiar. It was mostly pines, cedars, and other mountain vegetation, and for parts of the drive I could have believed I was going through Northern New Mexico. Even the adobe Mayan houses and roadside stands that lined the road weren´t that different from the dwellings of the Navajo and Pueblo.

One of the differences was the campaign posters that were stenciled on every available rock blasted out of the mountainside. There is an election coming up, and the two parties are Victoria (whose stencils are red) and Patriota (orange).

At Pana, I got a minibus to take me to Los Encuentros, an appropriately named place where you can get a bus to pretty much anywhere in the Highlands. There is no bus station, just a snack stand by the side of the road where the buses slow down enough to grab your bag and jump on. The man that drove me to Encuentros was a helpful Kakchiquel named Santos Juracan, and he stayed around to make sure I got on the right bus (for which I gave him a Q50 tip). You have to be careful, because the bus drivers will promise that you can take their bus and transfer to where you´re going, even if you they are going completely the opposite directon.

The Pullman that took me to Huehuetenango was filled with Maya and quiet except for pop Latin music playing loudly, and later a dubbed American bank robber movie. I even got a few minutes sleep, which I know you shouldn't do but sometimes you have to take it where you can. It was still thrilling, really, I was feeling very off the beaten path.

At Huehue it got more interesting, and less fun. I got off at the wrong stop, at the edge of Huehue rather than the terminal. So I found myself dragging my bag down the highway, with psychedelically colored buses roaring around me. I asked someone how far to the highway, and he said two kilometers.

Fortunately, a kind middle-class Ladino family in their car picked me up and drove me the rest of the way. I told them where I was going and they asked me if I had had the black salt of San Mateo. I said no, but that I had heard of it.

When they got me to the station, they found a bus to Barillas, which is the way you need to go to get to San Mateo. While I waited people walked around selling water, food and dulces. I bought a box with a drumstick from Pollo Campero, which is the KFC of Guatemala, some agua pura and some cookies.

It was just when it was too late that I did the math in my head. The bus was leaving at 4:00 and I knew the ride to San Mateo was almost 5 hours. I hadn´t gotten in touch with the people I was to meet in San Mateo. I was going to get into an isolated Mayan village at 9PM with no way to get in touch with anyone and nowhere to sleep.

...if I got in at all. The bus climbed higher and higher on a tiny twisty road with country spread thousands of feet below. Soon there were not many trees left, just dry grass and yucca. The rocks are a gray volcanic rock that look like theyjust broke apart yesterday.

Then it got foggy, and you couldn´t see ten feet in front of the van. Then the road ran out, and it was just bumpy dirt road that barely looked like a road at all. The van bounced so high a couple of times I hit my head on the roof. Then it got dark.

We stopped in a few towns, and I didn´t know whether I was getting off in the right place. I asked some of the passengers. Most were nice, but one angrily asked me what the hell I was doing up here instead of down in Guatemala City or Antigua. I might have told him I was wondering the same thing. Luckily he got off at the next stop.

We passed through two stops that I established were not San Mateo. Then we were completely in the wild for over an hour, with nothing around except a few trees, broken rocks and the occasional light of a bus going the other way. Once we passed a truck that was just broken down; they slowed and tried to see if there was someone in there, but there wasn´t. I knew the next stop was San Mateo, but I didn´t know what happened then.

San Mateo is bigger than I expected. I was worried it would just be a few houses by the side of the road, but there is a town square. I asked a couple of men standing there which way to the hotel, since I didn't see any way to get in touch with my contacts that night. They pointed up a dark alley.

Fortunately, at the end of the alley I found not one hotel but two. But there was no one in the office. A couple of amused men hanging around helped me find someone running the hotels. A man named Diego finally showed up, but both hotels were fully occupied. Clearly they´re being used as permanent residences. But Diego kindly put me in a storeroom where they were keeping mattresses, and even put some sheets on one of them. The storeroom must also be at least a part-time room, since it has a toilet and a cold-water shower.

This morning I awoke and came down to see the Internet cafe. After this I´m going to try to get ahold of Elias, my contact here. Hopefully things will get easier then. I even have a promise of a place to stay, but it all needs to be worked out.

More soon.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


The "Prosecion" from the last post was amazing. Again, I can't put up the video & pics yet, so my words will have to do it justice.

It took awhile to find it, but I just followed the crowds & the young men dressed in satin purple imitation monks' robes who had been part of the procession. Finally I found a crowd gathered along the street. Then I saw the "carpets" that people had mentioned. They were made of flower petals & pine needles laid out meticulously in the street in the path of the parade.

At first it didn't look like much; I heard a band and a few of the men in the monks' costumes came down the street carrying flags. Then there was a small phalanx of boys dressed as Roman centurions.

Then the first of the floats came around the corner.

Not sure if "floats" is the right word. It was shaped like a coffin about 20 feet long, with a statue of Jesus carrying the cross on top. Instead of wheels it was supported on the shoulders of a large group of the "monks", carrying it like pallbearers. They were being escorted by more "centurions." The float read "Jesus a hoy, Jesus a siempre."

Behind the float was a marching band in tuxedos, led by a coductor. It was mostly brass, but there was a rolling drum. No marimbas, which surprised me, since they're Guatemala's national instrument.

After the marching band there was a second float similar to the first but featuring the Virgin Mary and carried by young women in black dresses. Their knees were bent to match the height of the smallest of the women, which was pretty small since they were Maya & Ladino. A couple of men alongside carried elevated statues of other saints, though I don't know which ones.

Last came several trucks labeled "Tren de Limpieza" (cleanup crew). They swept up the formerly beautiful carpets now trampled by the feet of the parade.

I don't know what the parade was called or what it was
for, though it's presumably connected to Easter. But it was a spectacular sample of Ladino culture. I'll post pictures & video when I can.

One more night in Antigua

Leaving Antigua didn't work out as planned. The bus I was going to take never came. So I'm staying another night at Antigua.

It's okay, I'm not on a schedule, really. I'm on Guatemala time now.

Also, I am told there is a procession tonight in Antigua where they make a carpet in the street. That's how it was explained; I don't really understand how it works. I guess I'll see.

I got a double room at the travel agency that has the bus for Q75. With the bus ride it's Q195 total. (Q8 ~ $1). Last night I paid Q80 for a single on the other side of town from the market; obviously that was a rip-off.

I can't decide if I need a nap or coffee. Maybe a little nap, then some coffee, then pics of the carpet in the street.

Antigua de Guatemala

Things are looking up. Made it to Antigua de Guatemala, the old Spanish Colonial capital. Antigua feels familiar, as it´s laid out in the traditional Spanish style, around a central square and a market. Walked around the market & found the artisan´s stalls. I bought Jennifer a traditional Mayan dress & some hand-carved wooden toys for Jeff, including a crocodile, which I am naturally naming Zipacna.

Antigua is kind of claustrophobic, because the streets are barely wide enough for one car and the sidewalks are barely wide enough for one person, where there is a sidewalk at all. The houses are right up on the street and there all joined together. The buildings are stucco brick and adobe, with lots of tile roofs.

There are mountains all around and trees blooming with purple flowers. The streets are full of motorcycles, American and European tourists, and Mayan women in traditional dress walking with loads bundled on their heads. Unleashed dogs lay around everywhere in the street with their eyes half open. Soldiers ride around in small pickup trucks carrying automatic rifles.

It would be very tempting just to hang around in Antigua. It´s set up for tourists, with lots of nice cafes and restaurants with English names that play American music. You can get a hostel room for ten bucks a night.

But that´s not what I´m here for. It´s time to head on toward Huehuetenango. The buses leave out of the southwest corner of the market square. They are rolling works of art decorated in airbrush paint and hot-rod chrome: Furthur, eat your heart out.

I need to get the bus to Chimaltenango. From Chimal I will supposedly be able to get a bus that goes to Huehue, then up to San Mateo. It´s safe to say things are about to get interesting.

I have some great pictures but no way to post them now. I´ll get them up as soon as I can.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Inauspucious beginning

Guatemala trip didn't start out well. Missed my perfect 9:00 flight & an instead going thru Houston. I'll get into Guatemala City at 8:00, and the best choice is a 10:30 bus to Huehuetenango. I'll get to San Mateo Ixtlan about the same time, minus the sleep. Well, plane boarding, here goes.