Yesterday was an extraordinary day, for so many reasons. And who better to tell you about it than my brother Joel? Therefore, I am yielding my podium, for a short time only, so he can share his (our) story with all of you. The Maya villages visited high-up in the mountains of Chiapas (in chronological order) were: Tenejapa, San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. Take it away Joel—
One day, the right day, can transform you deep into the bone.
That should be considered a good day. A very good day.
At the beginning of my good day, our exuberantly animated guide spoke with deep familiar knowledge, almost reverence, about the Maya people he loves.
Especially praising their unflagging, communal pride.
My experience is sullen Maya vendors haunting the streets of Merida and San Cristobal, begging and selling their wares.
Never a smile from them.
Perhaps, perspective transformation begins with a smile.
I mean, maybe it always does.
I cannot share all that Alex told us while driving those curving mountain roads – up into the lush forests, and down into the valleys – but he held me with his words. A man with little time to teach, he powered his words with passion and conviction. I listened, and he made me eager to meet, really for the first time, this people of historical mystery. Most important to me: an indigenous people.
A proud, fiercely proud, people.
Our first stop was a town having its market day.
Nothing too unusual. We have seen several ‘mercados’ since coming to Mexico. Except.
Except, something was different. Immediately different.
As we wandered tiny pathways defining imaginary stalls, I began to watch the Maya faces. They looked at us with wonder, but more evident was their amusement. We became victims of their amusement, leaving behind a series of giggles and laughter. We became their source of entertainment.
And I felt good for it.
It feels good to be laughed at in just this way.
We walked on, until a small procession approached from the local church.
This day, I would come to feel how much the church pervades Maya life, but not at first. Mine was a gradual awakening. But ultimately, a revelation worthy of the day. The kind that transforms perspective.
One must first understand the role of Catholicism in Maya life, and only a simple metaphor can suffice: Catholicism is but a cast of characters with which to revisit Maya beliefs. A new story to tell old truths. And man, do they tell a great story, one that I might – finally, at this old age – actually believe.
But for this, we moved to the second town. And there, it was all about the church itself. The most incredible sanctuary I have ever seen; the most remarkable display of living spirituality I have ever experienced.
No photographs please.
Seriously. I could tell you a gruesome story about this, but I won’t.
At last, my skills are needed. Only a writer can tell you about this place.
But be prepared. The local Maya ousted the role of the priest, they burned the confessional, and their altar is devoted to their most revered saint: Big John. Big John is John the Baptist, a shepherd like themselves, and, after all, bigger than Jesus because Big John baptized Jesus. And third, after Big John and Jesus, is little John … because the Spaniards arrived with two differently sized statues.
Does this make you uncomfortable? It certainly enraged the Spaniards.
I love it.
So, what you must realize before entering: this church belongs to the people.
The pews are also gone, since: no priest, no mass.
Seriously, there is only communing with the Saints.
Pine needles carpet the floor. It is like sitting in the forest to pray.
Candles light the sanctuary like a scene from Camelot.
And the people. My god, so many people. This is not a special day. This is not the Sabbath. This is an ordinary Saturday, around mid-day, but the church is filled with Maya sitting in small groups, facing and communing with a preferred or necessary Saint (each installed like a Coney Island fortune teller in his own private, glass-enclosed booth.)
They drink ‘pox’ (pronounced ‘posh’,) a rum made for religious purposes, but the point is to confess and commune and then burp up the badness. Coca-cola is a better alternative, in some respects, especially for the kids.
If you are inclined to cynicism or ridicule, don’t.
I swear to you, this was the most sacred place I have ever been.
And, people were smiling. Still smiling at us. Still giggling. And offering us pox.
How can I tell you about the live chicken, smudged over the candles and meant to absorb the animal spirit that is causing a spiritual sickness? How can I tell you the fate, right there in church, of that chicken? I cannot. Because, unless you were there, you would not understand the reverence involved.
But know this. I came out of that church a believer in the sacred once more.
So much more happened. So much laughter and smiling. So much community.
But there was a third stop.
The best of all.
At the end of the road, just before the dense forest, we stopped and entered a small adobe hut. Smokey and dark, confined and cool, occupied by two Maya women, old and young, tending a coal-burning fire, atop which a large round platter was baking bluish-black tortillas. We were invited to sit at a munchkin table with munchkin chairs, close to the cooking. In the coals, a small ceramic pot of beans was heating. On the table, a small packet of ground pumpkin seeds and a block of rock salt awaited. Dangling from a roof beam, a caged parrot expostulated his irritation. The women methodically pressed and cooked ground corn meal into perfect tortilla circles, placed several in a basket, and passed them on to us. We filled them with beans and pumpkin seed meal, but winced at how hot they remained. We were given roasted plantains, straight from the coals, and corn, also straight from the coals. We drank tiny cups of hibiscus wine, and felt satiated by their generosity.
I kept hearing that biblical injunction to entertain strangers, for they may be angels. I looked at this pure simplicity of life and witnessed religion as a living force. And I thought: Big John is pleased.
There is still magic to be found in Mexico—we found a big dose of it yesterday. Photographer’s note: The Maya are a proud, and sometimes fierce, people. They are not open to having their pictures taken, or having the interiors of their churches (or religious ceremonies) photographed. Those tourists that have succumbed to temptation have been dealt with harshly in these remote and traditional villages. I asked for, and was granted permission to take all of the images presented here. My special thanks to our guide Alex, and his longtime friend Maria (and her family), for their acceptance, knowledge and generosity in sharing Maya del Mundo (The World of the Maya) – SFD
Alex – Owner/Operator and Tour Guide Extraordinaire
for 23 years at
Cielo y Tierra Tours (Heaven & Earth Tours)
http://firstname.lastname@example.org (safe to ignore warning of possible phising site)