Two Weeks Among the Maya


My recent trips to two indigenous villages in Central America were unlike any I’ve ever taken in the region. Listening to the unique rhythms of the Yucatec and Achi tongues, I learned a little about the ancient Maya calendar, visited sacred churches and graves, and worked side by side with several proud groups of modern Maya, one of the most historically marginalized peoples in this hemisphere. Before this trip, I’d visited the Maya archaeological sites of Tikal, Caracol, Xunantunich, Copan, Lamanai, and a dozen others. But the real-life, modern-day experience of these past few weeks was infinitely more engaging than puttering about the forested ruins of fallen cities.


In Muchucuxcah, a Mexican village of some 80 families in the forest between Mérida and Cancun, I participated in the raising of a traditional palapa as part of a new community tourism endeavor — and as the leader of an AJWS Service Delegation from Seattle. We cleared and leveled a foundation, then beat and peeled the bark off half a dozen species of trees, each with its own structural function and unpronounceable Yucatec name. We ate in the homes of our hosts, laughing and chatting with groups of squat, round women as they prepared fire-toasted tortillas, squash stew, plantain, and beans. We asked their elders to tell us about their lives which they did, through a string of translators. Here are more images from Muchucuxcah, taken by Peter Schnurman (yes, the same Peter who I encountered last summer in Ghana), including a shot of yours truly dancing the jarana.


Then I flew to Guatemala, arriving hours before the US President and swooping through the city where my new group (University of Georgia AJWS Alternative Break) admired the fresh graffiti: “Out Bush!” “Bush Murderer, Genocide!”, the letters of his name adorned with dollar signs and even a swastika. At first I thought it was about the killing of Iraqi civilians, then realized it also had to do with decades of US support for Guatemala’s genocidal Indian-slaughtering dictators. Later, I learned that after Bush’s demonstration-plagued visit to the sacred Maya site of Iximché, shaman priests declared that it was “necessary to cleanse the sacred site of ‘bad spirits’ after Bush’s visit so that their ancestors could rest in peace” [Link].


Five hours of curvy highways and political-painted rocks later, in the dusty northern pueblo of Rabinal (pictured above, at the top of this post, in the bottom of a mile-high valley), the past met the present met the future, as we arrived for the 25th anniversary of the army-sponsored massacre of 177 indigenous women and children; we were there to join in solidarity and work with a local human rights organization (Fundacion Nueva Esperanza) whose mission, in addition to seeking justice for local murderers, is the preservation and teaching of Maya Achi culture. Mornings we shoveled, carried rocks, and hand-mixed cement with Guatemalan students wearing half-traditional, half-Western garb; we helped build a bicycle bridge for them to reach their school, a unique and daring bilingual institute (Achi and Spanish) on the outskirts of town. The road to the school floods during the rainy season, so we took advantage of the hot, dry weather to work in the dusty river bed.


Further reading:

Journalist Xeni Jardin’s fascinating Guatemala blog posts.

A Volunteering Honeymoon: Traveling With The American Jewish World Service Teaches Tolerance,” by Joshua Berman

Time Among the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, by Ronald Wright (the book I read during this trip, a fun history-heavy travelogue)

The Tranquilo Traveler: Volunteering Abroad articles

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