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?”


  1. wonderful insights here. your brave honesty of your experiences and observations there serve us all. thank you for sharing, and staying true.

  2. In with Jessica above - thanks for sharing this with us. Again, your vividness and trueness of writing shines!

  3. fascinating, heartbreaking, so glad you are telling this story. i agree, your writing shines! can't wait for more...