Mary Beth Writes

I stayed twice for several days with a Maya family in Guatemala’s altiplano. This adventure happened during my second day of my second stay with them.

Senor Jorge, the 50ish father of the family, asked if I would like to take a walk to see a Mayan antiquity. It took a minute to understand his question since my high school Spanish was a long time ago.

Yes, I would!

There was a tiny moment when all the kids looked up at their dad/grandpa. Could they come with? The bigger kids could, the 3-year-old had to stay home. The hike would take two hours and was not easy, but no child whined or asked to be carried. One doesn't receive candy or toys for mature behavior in the developing world because there’s no money for non-essentials. What one gets are privileges - such as climbing up and down a mountain with the grownups.

We walked the path that skirts the milpa (the family’s cornfield, about the size of a basketball court) behind the house. Most of rural Guatemala seems to be knit together by footpaths. In the US we have highways and sidewalks, but we don't have fascinating paths that lead who knows where.

Soon the family footpath connected into a wider path of packed earth that was about six feet across. It crossed a small creek with a handy rock right in the middle to serve as a stepping-stone. There was also, over our heads, three tree trunks bridging this small gorge; the kids skipped across them. I realized from the vegetation line that in rainy season this ravine would be many feet deep in rushing mountain water.

I started to climb the path on the other side of the creek. The incline of the ravine wasn't a big deal, maybe 20 steep feet. Yet I was panting and a little embarrassed -- what a pansy I am!  Jorge said something to me in Spanish as he chuckled at how hard I was breathing. Then I realized what he was telling me. We were in the "altiplano" - literally the "high lands." Xetonox is 5000-6000' above sea level. It was altitude that was making my heart pump so hard.

Soon the path was flat again. Jorge explained it has been a Maya path for thousands of years. That's why it was wide enough for people, wide enough for an animal pulling a cart, but not wide enough for cars or trucks. Later a truck would pass us; we walkers had to climb off the road and stand in a milpa. Do you want to know that the truck was painted turquoise, watermelon pink, yellow, and that a family was bouncing along in the back of it? Everyone called "Buenos Dias!" although the children of that family stared at me. I think they were on to me not being Maya.

We met the main road, crossed it, and started up a steep macadam road. At the top of this hill we turned off the road onto another foot path. This path shot up to trees growing at the crown of the mountain.  It was a work-out climbing at what now was approaching an altitude of 6500 feet along a skinny path of golden dust; milpas to my right, a drop-off of 10 feet to my left.

The children scrambled like little goats. They wore flimsy sandals but it sure didn't slow them down. The oldest child, Patricia, kept looking around to make sure I hadn't tumbled over the edge. Her bright smile made me smile.

It took twenty more minutes to scale that dusty height. Finally, the last little footpath veered to the left, through bushes, towards a clearing. Jorge led the kids, who led me. And there, before us, was a Mayan stele, an antiquity of at least 1000 years. 

It looked like a huge tombstone; a hunk of limestone six feet tall, 3-4 feet across, a foot thick, carved in hieroglyphics. It was positioned at the lip of one of the highest places in this long valley. I saw eyes carved in the signature Mayan style; thick, undulating, severe, and mysterious.

It was Sunday afternoon. Two evangelical churches were broadcasting hours of preaching. The acoustics were so perfect that at that promontory one could easily hear both churches. Jorge pointed to two other mountains in the distance, two other points, he told me, where there were two other steles.  He said, when one talks from these three high ceremonial spots, one can fill the entire valley.

In front of the stele was a smaller rock. Jorge said it was a place for sacrifice. I'm no archeologist, and what I know about Maya religion is minimal, but it was a goosebumps moment. Whatever or whomever they sacrificed up on those three mountains would have been heard by all the people in the long, wide valley in between. Just as that afternoon, the countryside was filled with a clarion call to Pentecostal salvation. Maya folks still know how to use their mountain’s acoustics.

I picked some flowers, laid them on the altar. I drank some of my water and then gave the rest to the kids. I found a baggie of pretzels at the bottom of my backpack, handed that to the kids, too. After that we left.

I don't think we understand this.

Not always, but often, the "poorest" people on our earth are also the most rooted. Jorge, Vicenta, and their scrambling sure-footed children are Maya.

I visited an antiquity of a culture I know little about. They took me to see what their great-great-grand-dads made.  

I marveled at the beauty of the day and place. They took me to what belongs to them.

Years ago, I visited a carved runic rock in Denmark. I'm Swedish enough to be able to claim anything a Viking did. (There’s plenty I don’t want to claim.) I was respectful and curious about that rock. In a way I barely understand, it was mine. For better and for worse, it marked a time and a place that had once been me. It said those ancient people once lived and are in me now.  





Your post has brought back such wonderful memories for me. Years ago, as an anthropology student, I spend a summer traveling through Mexico doing an archaeology course with 6 other students and a professor. We stayed in small towns looking for ruins of old Mayan settlements . I was not only a student but also had been hired as the translator for the group ( my mother is hispanic, my father from Texas, I grew up speaking both spanish and english and home). I remember the walks, talking with our guides, and the children who accompanied us. I learned so much. Thank you for the trip down memory lane. Patricia/FL
Mary Beth's picture

Wow, What a strong way to spend a part of one's adulthood - living where people are poor in money, rich in culture. It sure changes the way one's values are arranged.

It truly does. Thank you for your thought provoking posts Mary Beth. Be well and safe. Merry Christmas. Patricia

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Dark River

The photo is the Platte River in Nebraska. This post was a newspaper column for the Racine Journal Times in 2003.


Dark River

"I think us here to wonder."  (From "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker.)

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I sent her this writing I did back in 2006.


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This adventure happened during my second day with them.

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More info about how to see it here: 

Len took this photo a few nights ago. The white stripes in the foreground are lightning bugs!

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