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.