Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Land of Chac Mool, the Rain God

         We have friends who travel the world looking for people who still follow the old ways, play ancient instruments, and dress in something handmaid, bright colored, patterned, beaded or embroidered. They have visited the Omo of Ethiopia who decorate their faces and bodies with minerals and plants and flowers every day, and the Tuareg of the Sahara, swathed in dyed blue cloth the color of parrots.                                       

Omo of Ethiopia
     You could call it voyeurism if they didn’t care so much about endangered cultures - which they all are. We’ve done some of that travel ourselves. I was able to go to Rajasthan because I promised my husband we would find the Rajput gypsies, whose music and dance he had fallen in love with in the film Lacho Drom. And we did.

      But after Christmas we will travel in our own hemisphere, to the places I first explored in 1963 as a student and volunteer - places where temples and pyramids, costumes, languages, song and dance are as unique, and “exotic” as anywhere I’ve been: the states of Yucatan and Chiapas in Mexico.
      In the fall of 1963, a friend and I traveled on third class buses, bush planes, and the “camioneta” - a  specially outfitted vehicle used by the planning dept of the museum of anthropology. We purchased embroidered ‘huipiles’ from Chamula women for their full value. We bounced down the dirt roads of Chiapas in ancient jeeps and pick-ups, and watched the Chamula men in their ribboned hats go off to town,
Chamula of Chiapa
while the women carried great loads of firewood back to the village.  We traveled with monks who had studied the Mayan codices in the Vatican library,  and were warned by Gertud Blom, the aging European “empress” of San Cristobal de las Casas, not to seduce them - her way of insulting our American youthfulness.
We saw the ruins of temples adjacent to waterfalls, and realized that acres of surrounding hills were unexcavated ruins. We were volunteers, and tried, unsuccessfully, to get the forest people to stop getting their water from the rivers infested with onchocerca volvulus, a nematode that causes blindness. We were unsuccessful because they laughed at our “scientific method”, which was  culturally inappropriate - and I still feel guilty about it.

     I couldn’t learn enough about the Yucatec Maya - their hieroglyphics, now deciphered, their architecture, art, religion - and their calendar, whose wrongful interpretation by Westerners has led to the belief in a 2012 apocalypse. The Mayans were one of the subjects of my graduate oral exams    - though a great deal of what I learned has been refuted, but I’ve managed to keep up.

Maya of Yucatan

      I so look forward to introducing Bill to “my” Mayan world  - and to explore with him. I hope to take the boat trip on the Usamacinta river to the ruins of Yaxchilan, which I did not see in 1963, and has been calling to me since. I don’t know what it is about that river and those ruins that I have to go to, but I will find out.

     Meanwhile, let me introduce you to a poem by a Quiché Mayan poet from Guatemala, Humberto Ak'abal.

The Grandmother

The night begins,

when the moon
—Grandmother of the villages—

comes out with her lime-white candle

to light up the silence.

The darkness

hides in the canyons,
the small birds

roll up their songs
and the trees

lie on their own shadows.
The grandmother

who hasn’t slept for centuries


into the eyes of the night.

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