“Why is she trying to give me money?” Virginia said, as the old woman kept offering coins from a leather pouch.
“A little hard to understand, I’m afraid,” he apologized. “Her accent.”
The old woman kept eyeing me as she continued to push coins on Virginia .
“She wants to buy your husband,” said Pascual, finally, with a tortured look half-way between a smile and a grimace.
“I can’t be sure. The word she’s using is either for ‘boyfriend’ or ‘blood sacrifice.’ ”
“Whichever one’s the case,” Virginia held up the money, “she’s giving me way too many coins.” We had traveled three hours from our cozy cliff-side retreat on Lake Atitlan to Chichicastenango, the largest and longest running market in Central America. I approached Pascual as we got off the bus and secured him as our guide. Why? Because that’s what you do in a country where you don’t speak the language. Plus, he was wearing an official-looking guide vest with his name on it and he looked honest. Oh, you mean that’s not how you’re supposed to do it? I understand it’s possible, with technology and travel forums, to do a reference check. Even here. But sometimes you just have to go with your gut.
“Hungry?” he asked.
He walked us through the thrall of the market as peddlers called, cajoled, waved and whistled after us to buy their wares. Pascual led us up a set of stairs to a second-story restaurant overlooking the marketplace. I was sold on Pascual. The breakfast was great (fresh brewed Guatemalan coffee? Sí, I will have another cup, gracias!) and it was a wonderful first move. From our table on the long veranda above the busy market, we got our bearings; the two controversial cathedrals that faced each other in the square, and in the distance the sacred hill still used daily for Mayan ceremonies. The Medicine Man (squatting, and not a Mayan priest as I mistakenly blurt out in the video) working the crowd. He is making a pitch for the healing powers of the of the plants and herbs he has collected and laid out from the jungle. In the video you can see a venomous snake wrapped around his neck as proof of his power over nature. (Retraction: Okay,Virginia says I have to take it back. I admit it; the snake is probably not poisonous. But, really, wouldn’t that be the coolest?)
Yes, there is poverty. Yes, there is (some) malnutrition. Yes, they are sending children to our borders so they can find and be with their parents again and escape the crushing conditions the poor are exposed to – don’t get me started. This is not the forum. The situation is too complex to make simplistic judgments from media reports – of any flavor, be it mainstream or fair and balanced. If you think you know or have heard the ‘real’ story, you simply don’t. As is the case with every major event or condition, social or political, very few people on the planet actually know what is going on. And it is not me or you. That’s the only ‘fact’ you can count on and that’s all I’ll say about it. For now. In an indoor portion of the marketplace, fruit and vegetable sellers display the full bounty of Guatemala’s verdant land.
http://youtu.be/VnDtNtbz8Z8 http://youtu.be/OI64uProG14 After we barely escaped me being sold, Pascual wanted to know if we would like to see a Mayan ceremony. We were on our way, walking out of town and up the side of a mountain faster than you can say, “human sacrifice.”
See, yet another reason you need a skilled guide. To get you to the places many tourists haven’t bothered to tread, and to give you the inside scoop. For example, there hasn’t been a human sacrifice in about four hundred years. They switched to poultry in the late 15th century and, apparently, it works for them. Still, we were not disappointed, human sacrifice notwithstanding. We climbed Turcaj hill (the Sacred Place) through a corn field (the god of corn: very important). Everybody carries a machete in Guatemala. But this gentleman had two. I did not ask why. We reached the hilltop and looked down on the…Mayan cemetery. We looked around. We were in an open space. There was a cement gazebo with several fire pits within. But the focal point was the outdoor altar. The entire area around it was charred and blackened from hundreds of years of fires for ritual and prayer. The altar itself was a carved block of stone called the Cofradia of Pascual Abaj.
Pascual our guide (the most popular male name in the region) told us the story of how this altar came to be. You can read the official version here. And yes I know the stone looks rather, um, phallic. And yes, of course I have my own theory, thanks for asking! Because the Spanish, who had already dug in and ravaged the country by the mid-16th century, were such incredible dicks on every conceivable level, I see the Pascual Abaj as a kind of subversive salute from the Maya to those who would try to own them body and soul. We saw this kind of not-so-subtle message everywhere at this important Maya city. The Maya may have long ago submitted to their Spanish overlords, but they never surrendered who they are at heart. Mayan priest burning candles and the traditional incense, copal, while performing prayers.
As we were the only people at the site, obviously tourists, I kept noticing the priest casting agitated glances our way. So did Pascual. So did Virginia.
“You should stop filming,” Pascual said. I did, but the agitated priest picked up the pace and volume of his prayers to the fire, but with direct hand gestures toward us.
“That doesn’t seem like a good thing he’s doing,” said Virginia.
I suddenly felt a force take hold and hurl me to the ground. Gasping for breath, I could feel the power from the words of the priest as they –
“Stop it,” said Virginia, standing over me. “Get up. Stop fooling around and let’s go.”
We moved quickly but in an orderly fashion away from the ceremonial site and onto the trail leading back to the marketplace.
Apparently, Virginia informs me, it was not a spell or whatever from the priest. I had slipped on the waxy ground from all the burnt candles and simply tripped and fell. Though I would have preferred a more, shall we say, dramatic telling of the incident.
“No incident,” she would later say . “You fell down, period.”
On the way back down the hill I asked Pascual point blank if he was Maya or Catholic. I had a bit of a clue since he sported a small and tasteful tattoo on his hand of a Mayan deity, between his thumb and index finger. But his answer surprised me. Catholic (he pronounced it: cat-TALL-ick). Married with two daughters of his own, he said his mother and father and grandparents are all Maya, but that it is too tough a religion for many younger people to practice. Too strict in its tenets. For example, they make Catholics look like liberal atheists when it comes to birth control. Don’t even think about it. It was made for a people who could withstand anything thrown at it. And needed all the followers they could get to help them survive whatever came at them. The one mask we bought.
17th century replica of a mask featuring the corn god on the headdress.
We also bought two stone images that ‘looked’ ancient. Then we said good-bye to Pascual, tipped him generously, as that was his only pay, and got back on the bus to Lake Atitlan. When you’re traveling, despite all the precautions and research, in the end you need a guide and you have to trust your gut in picking one. We had a great time with Pascual. Can’t tell you all the other people on the bus with us who didn’t and fumbled and floundered with guide books and were constantly hassled by aggressive vendors. They were miserable and complained all the way back.
On the bus ride back to Lake Atitlan, I caught Virginia looking wistfully at the leather bag she’d purchased from the old woman who tried to purchase me. She held up the pouch, jingled the coins inside.
“You owe me one,” she smiled.
Back at Lake Atitlan we geared up for the third and final leg of our trip. One we were not going to do. I cut it out of our original plan. It was just too hard, too reckless, too dangerous and expensive. All of the criteria you use to determine whether something is worth your time and money and safety was laid against it. But we were told time and time again while we were in Guatemala, you must do this. It didn’t seem feasible, it was hundreds of miles out of the way. We decided we just couldn’t let this opportunity go by. What if we were never able to return? We would kick ourselves if we passed up this one chance.
So this chance we took. And I ask you to take this chance with me. Come with us. Come to one of the most important — forget important. One of the most amazing places we have ever visited. Come with us as we go back in time. Come with us to a civilization that rose, flourished as one of the most enlightened, intellectual and spiritual civilizations ever to exist…and then vanished, almost over night, more than a millennia ago. To this day no one knows why. Come with us to the ancient city of Tikal. Where written language, astronomy, and mathematics were developed to an astonishingly complex degree. Experts are still trying to work out their systems. It’s where the search for the ultimate meaning in the universe came within in striking distance…before simply disappearing off the face of the earth. Gone without a note as to why. Ah, but what they left behind for us…
Shall we, then?
Oh. Bring water. And insect repellent. You won’t survive without either one.