Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Splendid Death

Playa Mermejita, where Mexico’s southernmost expanse of land rests on the shores of the Pacific, is as spacious and open as a seeker would have hoped. 

At the beginning of the beach, where a sand path brings arrivals from the nearby village of Mazunte, a dozen local families have brought their numerous children to fly kites on this Sunday afternoon, and the sky is full of color, shouts, and laughter. But only ten minutes of walking on the wild beach, towards the setting sun, and I am immersed in the profound sense of solitude I have come to seek. From here, the kites look like small, restless birds who have lost their sense of direction in the bright sky. The fine sand now only holds the marks of my own feet, and within moments the memory of my path is surrendered to the amnesia of crushing waves. 

Not far from the shore, two grand rocks rise out of the water, two ancient bodies petrified eternally in each other’s company. Their faces are carved like human profiles gazing at each other, one’s protruded nose playfully extended into the other´s cheek. An ageless kiss. 

The sun is already getting larger and is turning a blood orange as it nears the line where it will die a splendid death. I watch it without blinking, as it slides invisibly, with the mastery of a dancer, toward the finest line in existence: the ephemeral stroke between sky and ocean, where earth and heavens touch so tangibly yet so elusively that one can’t help but rest on the balancing line of paradox. 

Only the sun knows about crossing that line…

This perfect and timeless geometry, of the sun kissing the ocean and the sky at once– a perfect circle sitting on a perfect line– will last but a moment, and its transient epicness sends electricity through my body, takes me over, I fall breathless on my back. The sky is a mirror reflecting nothing. 

I no longer see the sun, but I know in this moment it is surrendering to the deep waters of the Pacific, or to a mystery yet deeper, beyond the ocean, beneath the depths. Its fleeting death and the anticipation of twilight brings over me the profound sadness of loss, of lostness, of not belonging. Not here, not anywhere, not if I can’t follow the sun…

Why am alive? What am I here for, why am I staying? Why, if I too will die? Why, why….Quiet tears disappear in the hot sand.

For some long moments, my heart is sunken to the bottom of the ocean's sadness, the grieving heart of the universe beats in my own, acknowledging another death, another completion. 

And then my eyes, wide open to the sky’s mirror, detect a glow, just over the tip of my forehead, behind me. The moon’s face, fully round tonight, is emerging slowly, shyly. I move to stand and face this stunning beauty. In her face I recognize my face. It seems to me that she is whispering, but I can’t tell if it’s her or the ocean giggling in splashes. 

I fall to my knees. This is why. This is why! I am here to see off the dying sun. To meet the birth of it’s gentle counterpart. To witness another circle come full and begin again, the metamorphosis, the small death inside me, the rebirth. 

One day, I know, the sun and the moon will witness my own departure, and become deeply moved as the ocean washes me into its depths and raises me into the sky, on the fingertips of waves.

Here, in this knowing, in this moving circle I belong. Here, I am part of the great wheel.

A passion surges in my body; something strong and great begins to move inside. My hips sway, my arms reach, and a dance possesses me. Uncontrollably, I dance. I dance. 

Wild, naked, and eternal, I dance in the phantom temple of the Moon. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ecotourism, The Modern Nomad, and the Art of Staying

   Crammed in the back of a colectivo minibus with native women and their children, we bounce heavily in our seats on the road to Lacanjá Chansayab, a small Lacandon Indian village in the remote jungle of Southern Mexico.
   I have hoped to find the inspiration of solitude in which my stories will flow easier, yet as soon as I arrive, my gut tightens with the overpowering sensation that I am too alone, too foreign– alien even–- to feel at peace.
    Wooden arrow signs point into different directions to eco lodges, eco cabins, eco tours, eco everything, but if there are any takers, they are invisible, and for a long while I seem to be the only estranjera, a stranger, in this community.
     Lush rainforest envelops the village; the many nuances of green layer into the distance for as far as the eye can see. Cicadas begin to shriek as evening falls, and in their shrill cries there comes solace. I find my way to a complex of wooden cabins belonging to a Lacandon family, the grass is trimmed low and the landscape is well managed; the wild jungle has been tamed here. A smileless hostess gives me a decent price, and a reserved welcome into a small bungalow.
     Between the four walls of another temporary shelter, a deep sadness of no particular origin overtakes me, the desparation that follows in the lonely tracks of the traveler on occasion, the longing for home, for what is known, for the arms of the beloved, the illusion of stability or permanence. But the morning is wiser than the night. It brings the relief of light. It brings the promise of the river tumbling at my feet, the encouragement of birds calling from the thick bush. I am everything but alone.
     This day I make my first friends in Lacanjá, a family of Lacandon Indians: a blind man, Chambor, his wife, and their young daughter. They have come to the communal area outside my bungalow at sundown, seemingly looking for company, a conversation. The three of them wear the traditional simple cotton tunics, the man’s is white, the women’s flowered. Chambor’s hair, pitch-black and straight like a horsetail, falls freely down to his waist–– in Lacandon tradition men and boys keep their hair long.
    Where am I from? How long will I stay? Will I go for a walk in the jungle? And, inevitably, where is my husband?
     In between, they exchange quickly in the Maya Lacandon language, a throaty flow of near-whispers broken by abrupt raise of intonation and sharp exclamations. This language is still taught at the Lacanjá school; all speak it.
  When I come back with questions of my own, one startles them–– how old are they? Eight, the girl yells, but her father shrugs: “I have been told I was born in ’75. What would that make me?” It would make him 35, but he looks well in his late 40s, fifty perhaps.
“Twenty, I think,” his wife Angelina says for herself, but fails to remember a date. “When Chambor was born they weren’t keeping record. Only now do the children know their birthdays, and some celebrate.”
   Calendar time hasn’t had much importance in the lives of the Lacandon. A mere two decades ago, there were no roads coming here, nor electricity. They hunted tapir, caught fish in the fast rivers, grew corn. Then the state built roads, brought cables and light to their houses, and with that came something these people never had to deal with in their past: bills. And the idea of helping them to better their lives, to “progress.”
    Nothing in the millennia of history of these Indians changed their lifestyles more than tourism. Ecotourism. It was perhaps the village’s strategic location––a bouncing point for a couple of notable Mayan ruins and for crossing into Guatemala––that decided Lacanja’s new destiny. Realizing the enormous tourist potential of this unique system of people and nature, the Chiapas state government has pushed hard in recent years to develop the village into something it has never been––and to advertise it relentlessly for all it used to be.

     Most of the families native to Lacanja received governmental money to build cabins and eateries on their properties, to welcome the “eco” tourists. And in this rapid makeover, there are those, a good number, who shy away from the tradition. Some men have replaced their long hair with short, spiky hairstyles  petrified in brilliantine, and the tunics have given way to jeans with low bottoms. In front of some of the family homes are parked sleek new cars, a strange fit for the simplicity and the remoteness of the surrounding jungle. And all seem suitably aware of the value of a dollar.
     By the following day the picture comes into full focus: Lacanjá is a one–night place on the way to the next Maya ruin or pricey rainforest tour with an “eco” seduction. The minibuses bring a handful of tourists each afternoon and in the morning I find myself alone again, at peace.
    The urge to go to the next place is always present in a nomad, but it has subsided now, and thankfully so, for to truly understand a place– or herself– one needs to stay.
    I sit at the river, walk into the forest and find waterfalls to bathe in, and in the afternoons I go to visit my friends at their home. Their two rooms,  a kitchen and a sleeping room, are crude wooden structures with a bare earth floor, without windows, but I often find them sitting outside, in a pure, unhurried appreciation of being. Chambor’s is one of a few families not involved in ecotourism. They grow a bit of corn and eat simply, (“There is always enough in the forest if one doesn’t need much.”)
   “What did you do today?” I ask each time I visit their home, and the answer doesn't change: “Aquí, no más.” Here, no more.
    On this journey, I have been listening diligently to Eckhart Tolle's recorded teachings about the power of now, “nothing more than here and now, ever”, yet I learn more about being in the present moment from Chambor’s family on those afternoons I return for a visit. Chambor’s eyesight was lost to cataracts when he was already an adult, yet his highs spirits and vitality are sealed with an unchangeable smile. “It is a beautiful day,” he says looking up into the sky, as if he could see it.
  I sit with Angelina at the table where she makes necklaces and bracelets from seeds she collected in the jungle, varied colors and shapes. It is a tedious job to pierce them on both ends with a needle; a necklace she makes in five hours she sells to the occasional tourist for 50 pesos, less then $5.
   “Do you get tired of it?”
   “No. It is my work,” she says simply.
I have detected a quality in her that baffles me. Her serenity, her calm conduct seem to be unaffected by any of the day’s proceedings.
   “Do you ever get bored?”
She shakes her head.
She ponders.
   “No. There is nothing to get angry about.”
She sinks back into silence, focused on her slow needle, and in the almost audible stillness by her side, I practice staying. Staying in this chair, in this village, with this restlessness. In this moment.
   In the life of a traveler the next place is often more alluring than the one now. The nomadic soul keeps seeking– what is around the next corner? What more is there to see, learn and experience? In San Francisco I dreamt of Antigua. In Antigua, I dreamt of Atitlan. In Atitlan, of Mexico. Yet, regardless of where I go, I bring myself, and the issues “packed” within upon leaving still demand my attention. There is no escape from the lessons to be learned in the now.
   In the communities I visit after Lacanja, highland villages of old tradition and slow change, I learn more about the art of staying from those who were born in the motherland of their parents and grandparents, in the same house they will likely never leave. In Capulalpam, a village in the tall peaks of the Sierra Norte mountains of Oaxaca, I befriend another woman of impressive strength and demeanor, Rosa Maria, and soon I am in her kitchen learning to make chiles rellenos, the notoriously scrumptious bell peppers stuffed with fresh cheese. “This house has been here since 1639,” Rosa Maria says, and her old mother nods: “My parents too lived here.” It is a full home, children and grandchildren and great grandchildren under the same roof.
    They are puzzled by my desire to travel; I am struck by their ability to stay in one place. And while Rosa Maria shoves round slabs of newly made dough in a brick oven to bake bread, I wonder  about the many situations in her life through which she has stayed, not left. In this house, in the relationship with the man she chose decades ago, in this village of slow pace and little exposure.
    In our hilltop cabin in Capulalpam, my partner and I, reunited at the last stretch of my trip, have the luxury of nightly fire in a brick fireplace. Cooking on the coals and sitting by the popping flames, I realize that at the end of a three-month journey I long for home. The practicality of it, a house or a room with a bed that is mine, have long ceased to mean what home entails. For a while upon my return, home will be the place where life is easy and predictable: the smell of fresh coffee beans down Valencia, the corner bakery where a midmorning croissant awaits, the bike route that will spit me out at the ocean’s shore, the numbers I will call and the voices that will shout back in exhilaration.
    But then  again I will become concerned with the lightness of my backpack, with the trails yet untaken. And my home again will become the now, the only shelter a nomadic soul knows to be true: the sun rising over the stillness of a new horizon, the call of a rooster from a valley at the skirts of mountains, the eye of a cow locked with mine in the onlyness of this moment. 
 And home will be there, in the making of a slow necklace, in the kneading of bread by skilled hands, in standing by a fast river that is never the same twice.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Inconvenient Truth in the Land of the Maya

A Pyramid at Tikal National Park
Amidst the low, vast planes of the Guatemalan rainforest, on the outskirts of Santa Elena, the name of a sleek, unfittingly high-rising complex glows in neon: International Mall Maya World. Inside, a Burger King, a Pollo Campero, and a few movie theatres can be entered through doors shaped like Mayan pyramids. In cities and villages alike, countless travel agencies thrive on the seduction of “extreme Maya adventures”, Maya bike tours, or trekking into less explored Maya ruins. The Guatemala government, which has proclaimed tourism for its unambiguous priority, is pitching the country as “The Heart of the Maya World”. It announced recently–– through a well-positioned PR agency in New York–– a series of new events and tourism routes that celebrate Mayan culture, as the country “gets ready to commemorate the dawn of a new era.”

But in all of this the real Maya–– the Maya of today––are somehow strangely overlooked.

Some two thousand of them live in San Marcos de Laguna, one of the smallest villages on the shores of mythical lake Atitlan. Lost in lush coffee forests and hills blooming in wild sunflowers, it is among the most ancient continuously populated settlements on the American continent. The contemporary Maya and their children still speak their native Tz'utujil and Kaqchikel tongues, and wear traditional handmade clothes–– not to please the tourists but to be themselves.

And that too has become a sales pitch.

Lake Atitlan
The ads for San Marcos call the traveler to a rare opportunity to experience an authentic Maya pueblo and engage in the Maya culture. But the waterfront lands along with the central fragments of the village, once cultivating fields that sustained the villagers, long belong to American and European expats. Tienda 2012 is a little shop along one of the village’s jungley dirt paths. Above it, a tattooed, burly 40-something from L.A. has opened Ganesh, an artsy bar and restaurant, attracting an international new-age crowd. Their neighbors are small holistic centers offering Mayan calendar study, Indian head massage courses, crystal and deep tissue healing, to name a few. Stylish outdoor eateries lapped in tropical foliage offer menus in English and prices often in dollars. You get your veggie burrito or a tofu scramble, California style.

Where are the Maya?
A Maya Tz'utujil Woman
Having sold their front lands to the newcomers and long spent the money, they have retreated to the hilly barrios of the village where the foreign visitors rarely set foot. Hidden in the steep, verdant bush, their shanty homes are crammed one next to another, large families sharing very little space. There is no room left to grow crops, an older villager told me, so they buy– if they can– the overpriced produce that gets transported from larger villages nearby. From early morning, women in flowered lace blouses and colorful cotton skirts begin arriving in boats, balancing large pots full of bananas, vegetables and sweet bread on top of their heads. Whole families survive by reselling fruits and veggies to the tourists, pocketing an extra buck when posing for their photos. But with the falling of the evening, the villagers disappear into the hills, retreating to their faraway houses whose floor is the bare earth, and the separation of the two worlds is clear.

Day or evening, silence is in deficit here, with dogs and children so numerous that there is hardly a moment of peace. But the tranquility is intruded much more violently by the megaphone speakers mounted on the roof of the Catholic church. Starting at dawn, a monotone voice loudly and unavoidably delivers the daily discourse; an evangelical church brings the sound up shortly after. Hallelujah, indeed. The indigenous descendants of the Maya who worshiped everything but Jesus have embraced today the religion of the Spanish conquistadores with a peculiar consistency, and much more fervently so after American missionaries began throwing the bait here some forty years ago.

On one afternoon when the megaphone preaching became intolerable, I walked to the main church, a large barn-like place in the center of the village. Inside, the person with the megaphone sat in  complete solitude, with a wooden Jesus looking down on him from a lavish decoration of paper drapes and fake flowers.

In the churches of Petén, Guatemala’s jungle state in the north, Jesus comes in a fake gold polish that peels off to reveal his cheap plastic body. He also hangs on heavy necklaces dipping into women’s deep cleavages, or is crucified on a bumper sticker that declares, “Jesus is my King”. The Maya sacred sites in this state draw a huge number of tourists, the remains of the ancient city of Tikal making the greatest attraction. This region, once the true heart of the Maya civilization, is today a Mundo Perdido, a lost world. The Maya ways here have been forgotten, the colorful traditional attire long replaced with the mass produced clothing of the developed world, Nike caps and Quicksilver sweatshirts, tightly fitting jeans for the women, their artificial nails festooned with little pearls. Only the guides taking tourists on pricey tours to the pyramids keep telling the stories of the Maya in broken English, and that pays off.

Maya Kaqchikel women at their workplace in a  hotel kitchen
“In our roots we’re all Maya, but these days the Maya thing is mostly an advertisement,” told me in a honest talk one nigh the owner of a small family hotel in the quiet village of El Remate, mere kilometers from Tikal National Park. The unpretentious hotel Amilkar built behind his house is empty, although a bed there goes for as low as $8 per night. "The Maya advertisement doesn’t help us, the people of the jungle," he added with with a touch of bitterness: “The government has turned Tikal into a big sensation, but what do the tourists really get to know about our culture, about the ways we live? They fly in, get shuttled to the five star hotels, turn their air conditioning on, the next day- a visit to Tikal, back to the five stars, and then on the plane home. At home they say, we learned about the Maya, we saw the heart of Maya land.”

In reality, the astounding cultural heritage of the Maya that has driven big money into the region has brought little or no benefit to the Mayan descendants. Not much has changed in their lives or social status, except now they are selling themselves as construction workers, housekeepers, and toilet cleaners, serving the foreigners.

Passing by a small travel agency one day, a young native woman stopped me. Don’t I want this or that, a Maya tour or a guide for a volcano hike? But then she pulled me nearer, looked me in the eye, and whispered, “I have to tell you something. My little daughter, you see, she is very smart,  she  really wants to be in school, but––”  glimpsing over her shoulder to make sure no one’s listening–– “there is no money to continue. My husband wouldn’t give any. Do you know of anyone who could help?”

Friday, November 12, 2010

Happy to Talk to the Dead

El Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Death, is a two day celebration in San Marcos de Laguna, a small village on  Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. The natives, the Mayan Kaqchikel  people whose ancestors  populated these lands since prehistoric times, believe today in Jesus Christ and the church preachers speak over megaphones that can be heard all over the village soon after dawn.

Early in the morning on El Dia de Los Muertos, the villagers put on their holiday clothes– usually made by the women of the village– and climb the steep walk to the cemetery on top of the hill. Kids fly kites high in the sky, "to make a path between the earth and those who have gone up." 

"It is a very happy day for us," told me one one of the village women. And then, in a whisper: "You can ask the locals anything on this day. They are in great spirits, so happy to be talking to the dead."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Fifth Element: Money in Guatemala

      Three volcanoes strike Antigua’s skyline with their pointy tips, grand bodies set starkly against the blue. Tall green peaks envelope the town, but in the streets the colors are red and yellow, taking turns. If a house is yellow, its neighbor is red, and they go down the block like that, a bright white or a thick blue coming into the mix on occasion. A vibrant settlement with paved streets, ghostly church ruins, and preserved colonial style, Antigua is the country’s most visited destination, equipped to accommodate the daily infusion of tourists.
Antigua, Guatemala
    My room in a tiny, low-cost hotel has access to a roof terrace and a breathtaking view of the volcanoes. Without too many others guests, for most of the day I’m alone, only the housekeeper Elena doing her quiet bouts of scrubbing and hand-washing. She, like most guatemaltecas, is very petite, no taller than five feet, a round woman with a dark, youthful face. Quiet and shy at first, she quickly makes friends when I offer her a cup of coffee from the freshly ground beans bought at the market. Coffee is the country’s top export, but seems to be a delicatessen for Elena. Too expensive, she says.
     By the end of the first cup, I learn that she has 5 children waiting for her at home, and a sixth growing in her belly. Her oldest daughter, born when Elena was fifteen, watches over the rest of the children, including her own babies. The fathers aren’t in the family portrait. “When the new baby comes, la dueña will give me two weeks off,” Elena says. Otherwise, the only keeper at the hotel, she works twelve-hour days, six days a week. The monthly reward is 800 quetzales–a hundred dollars– a striking mismatch in a town where the price of living is determined by those who make living in dollars.
Antigua, Guatemala
    This brings back a feeling– and it comes with a clenching of the heart– that I have already felt in places like Cuzco and Lima, in towns on the Costa Rican Pacific, or on the islands of lake Titicaca. It is all so irreversibly predictable. The Latin America’s continent most special places have been claimed by travelers and owners from well-to-do countries, predominantly the English speaking. In Antigua too, the first-class parts, those of architectural or historical value, have been sold out to the more affluent Guatemalans mestizos with a paler skin color, or, more often, to foreigners who have turned them into hostels, retreat centers, and private lodges. The native people with chocolate-colored skin are pushed to the outskirts of town, and are otherwise busy with small jobs serving the gringos– driving shuttle buses, cleaning rooms, guiding volcano tours, selling tostadas. The young travelers who come to study Spanish, do yoga, surf, and most of all– party, seemingly make very little attempt to engage in the culture, or spend time with the locals.
Lake Atitlan
    It is not too different even in small, remote villages like San Marcos on the shores of beautiful lake Atitlan. The villagers here still speak Kaqchikel, a Mayan language, and make their own clothes. Umberto, a man of about 50 who I meet in the village, points towards the shoreline occupied by guesthouses and wellness centers. “Not too long ago, all of these lands were ours." These were the terrains that we planted with tomato, avocado, and cucumber. Then the foreigners started wanting to buy and we thought it would be a good thing to sell them the land, so our children can go to school.” And after a pause: “We didn’t know what would happen.”
    Not to say that there aren’t spiritually aware and generous proprietors in the village. They organize responsible travel, green volunteering, and programs with the kids, only some of great activities  in San Marcos. But up in the hilly, tall parts where the villagers have been slowly entirely pushed to, there is no more room to grow crops; only the coffee bush grows everywhere and a few streaks of corn. The villagers have to buy most of their food, something they had never had to do in the past. And once again, the native peoples of peaceful and pristine lands have been hired by newcomers– building their houses and hotels, selling them bananas, taking them across the lakes in boats an canoes, a disturbing replica of the colonial times.
    The dynamics of buyer-and-seller, of entitled ones and those who serve them, has permeated the social life, the conversations between guests and locals; it sets the tone. Money is like one of the elements: it shows up in everything. Both grandmothers and kids offer themselves as guides, pose for pictures, and they know their price well.
In the hills of the village of San Marcos
    On a late afternoon walk in the steep parts of San Marcos where a foreigner stands out like an alien, I make friends with a flock of village kids. We chat in Spanish, play and talk, they follow me up the hill and back, I show them my hula-hoop, they are exuberant. Before we part, I ask to take them a picture. “But you’ll pay us!” they yell, and something in their eyes, their postures, immediately shifts.
“I thought we’re friends,” I offer with a touch of offense, “What’s with you all? Everyone asking money. Isn’t there friendship?”
    They look embarrassed for a moment, consult each other in Kaqchikel, the oldest one insists on something, then she turns to me: “What is your name?” I tell her. “It's fine, you can take a picture,” she says, and they assemble quietly for a priceless shot.
    As the night falls over the peaceful lake, I stand on the porch of my spacious private cabin on the water, with windows opening to magical vistas of the volcanoes rising out of the lake. I have rented it for a mere $15 per night, but no local would ever be able to afford it. I think of my new “friends” up in the hills, and I realize that the friendship story I got them to agree on isn’t true. I may be spending most of my time with locals, learning about their ways with genuine respect, and even entertain the idea of renting a small local house up in the hills to live nearer them. But at the end we don’t eat on the same table, my bed is not like theirs, and we don’t worry over the same kind of life. I have come from a privilege not to be undermined. I will take my pictures, do my observations, write my stories, and one day I will sail away in one of the motorboats, leaving my village friends behind. They will wave me off-– two worlds departing from one another– and then disappear into the land that has always been theirs, but where so little is up to them.