I first met the Mayans back in high school. I think I ran into them in my freshman-year world history course, though truth be told I remember nothing of whatever I learned. In my consciousness, they just became part of a jumble of Olmecs and Toltecs and other people who once rocked in Mesoamerica.
After Steve and I moved to San Diego and started traveling in Mexico (mid- to late-70s), we visited some Aztec archeological sites and one Mayan area (the Yucatán peninsula), and I became more aware that Mayans and Aztecs differed significantly. I must have learned some of the details of their differences. But all that detailed knowledge also evaporated.
We started meeting Mayans from Day One of this trip. And the startling thing has been: they appear to be living, breathing people speaking Mayan languages, dressing as their ancestors did (at least the women), and seeing themselves as part of a contemporary culture whose roots go back to about a thousand years before Christ. Who knew?
Visiting Tikal last Tuesday kick-started my education (or re-education) on just how amazing the golden age of Mayan civilization was. At its peak 1300 years ago (when Europe was slogging unimpressively through its Dark Ages), Tikal was home to at least 250,000 people, maybe more. Much of the area they inhabited is still buried under thick jungle. Throughout the centuries, the Mayans did some warring and practiced some human sacrifice (though that was basically what Americans today would call capital punishment; a matter of killing captives.) Compared to the blood-thirsty Aztecs and Incas, they look like Quakers.
Instead of plundering, they concentrated on things like architecture and astronomy, fields in which they achieved astonishing sophistication. It’s a jaw-dropping experience to be strolling through the jungle and come to a clearing containing some massive structure as tall as a 20-story building. Tikal contains several of these. Some are astronomical observatories, some temples, some palaces.The Mayans developed an advanced (base 20) mathematical system, and a hieroglyphic writing system that compared to that of the Egyptians.Some of the writing has been deciphered from stone markers such as this one. But our guide said that sadly, only three of their books have survived. The Spaniards burned all the rest — reportedly 1200 in just one morning.
The next day (after our harrowing flight in the thunderstorm), we had a driver transport us to the small town of Chichicastenango in the highlands. Every Thursday and Sunday, surrounding villagers stream into the center of town and set up their wares for sale. But although Chichi’s market has long been famous as one of Guatemala’s largest, we’d heard that the pandemic lockdown had cast a pall over it. Guatemala was closed to all air traffic for months, and although it’s welcoming visitors now, we’d heard that the market action was much reduced.
When we ventured out in brilliant sunshine early Thursday morning, that was hard to believe. If Chichi’s market is busier on Sundays (as we were told) and busier still in normal times, we were happy to be visiting in the midst of a plague. A large section of the center of town was crammed with mostly mask-wearing vendors in stalls, hawking everything from vegetables to hand-woven fabrics to flowers to pills for diabetics.
The place crackled with energy and color. Although Steve and I could not have been more conspicuous, we never felt hassled. Particularly mesmerizing were the skirts and tops and belts worn by almost every female. We asked ourselves: when’s the last time we’ve been in a place where virtually all the women weave cloth and turn it into outfits as striking as these?
The next day, we heard an explanation of why Mayan men no longer wear their traditional outfits (they almost universally dress in second-hand shirts and pants imported from the US.) After spending the morning at the Chichi market, we were driven to Lake Atitlan, about 90 minutes away from the market town.At the foot of the public pier in the town of Panajachel, we caught a launch to our hotel, La Casa del Mundo. Built starting in 1980 by a Guatemalan woman, Rosy Valenzuela, and her American husband (Bill Fogarty), it’s one of the most remarkable places I’ve stayed anywhere. Every cottage built on the vertiginous stone cliff commands heart-stopping views.
Stepping onto the balcony of ours, Steve exclaimed, “It’s like Lake Tahoe — with volcanoes!
Friday, Steve and I visited three of the villages situated on the lakeshore not far from La Casa. Our guide was Alex, 29 (whose Mayan name I forgot to write down.) He and his three siblings first learned Tzutujil, one of the 23 Mayan languages. But all his classes in school were taught in Spanish, by government mandate, so the Mayans are also fluent in that. About 5 years ago, when Alex decided to become a tour guide, he learned to speak English (well) in an intensive program in Guatemala City to which he got a scholarship. These days he’s studying Hebrew because so many Israelis come to Guatemala on vacation (and to start businesses, like this one).￼
We spent six hours with Alex talking virtually non-stop. He told us how the village had built a public clothes-washing facility, but the women preferred doing their laundry in the lake.
It was in the village of Santiago Atitlan that the subject of Guatemala’s civil war came up. Steve had read that even today, a quarter century after that bloody conflict ended, this topic should be broached with caution. But Alex was eager to explain it to us.
He said it ignited when Guatemala’s wealthy Spanish-descended oligarchs tried to grab yet more land from already impoverished Mayans in the highlands. Alex led us to the Catholic Church and school in Santiago where government soldiers assassinated the Oklahoma priest, Stanley Rother, in 1981 because of his work in giving refuge to Mayan political targets.
Alex said back then the soldiers had orders to target even ordinary Guatemalan campesinos, who were easily identifiable by their striped pants and colorful shirts. That’s why the men shifted to wearing Western-style garb, a habit that continues today.
My favorite part of the tour was our stop in the village of San Juan, where we took a tuk-tuk from the waterfront to a women’s weaving cooperative. In the garden there, cotton plants taller than our heads bore balls of white, brown, and tan…￼
One of the women showed us the steps involved in turning the fuzzy balls into the gorgeous fabrics:Pulling off a chunk and removing the seeds from it…
Beating the seedless chunk to make it smooth…
Then using a hand-held spindle to twist the fiber into thread.
She showed us the natural products (bark, charcoal, avocado leaves and seeds, insects, etc.) that she and her comrades use to dye the white cotton.
After setting up the patterns on a complex wooden frame, they strap on looms to weave the threads into the beautiful fabrics.This is what is looked like, in action:
Every girl starts to learn these steps when she’s somewhere between 8 and 11, we were told. It’s not necessarily a career path (as a weaver), but just a mundane life skill in these parts, like cooking.
After leaving the Mayan heartland Saturday afternoon, we took a collective shuttle bus to the town of Antigua. It was the Spaniard’s capital in Guatemala for more than 200 years, and their administrative center for much of Central America. Then a fearsome earthquake all but destroyed the town in 1773, and the ruling elite built a new capital about 20 miles to the north. (It grew into the urban monster that’s Guatemala City today). But over the last two and a half centuries Antigua was repaired and rehabilitated. Today it exudes a hip charm and draws tourists from all over Guatemala and beyond.
Steve and I had a delightful time walking around it for several hours Sunday morning. We were struck by how many more European-looking faces we saw. I can’t exactly say that bothers me. But for the first time in my life I found myself missing all the Mayans.