Guatemala #8 Nebaj

On my way back into Guatemala I stopped in Copan to see the Mayan ruins. These ruins are known for the well preserved stelae which are enormous carved stone monuments filled with glyphs marking the passage of kings and wars. It was nice to see and town outside the ruins was quant and pleasant. I was happy to return to Guatemala though; the tortillas in Honduras are made with white wheat flour, of which I abstained.

Now, after spending almost 5 weeks in Gautemala, I finally feel like I am seeing the real authentic culture in its unadultered form. I am in the modest town of Nebaj, pronounced Nehbak, in the western mountain highlands. This region is also known as the Ixil triangle for the local dialects of Mayan languages that are spoken here. Each village in this region has its own customary clothing that the women hand weave and wear proudly. The different villages are easy to identify simply by looking at the patterns and colors of the clothing. There are three main towns and many small villages of 50 families or less that are all connected by a few roads and many footpaths that wind, climb and descend in the mountains. The landscape here is incredible; densely forested mountains shrouded in cloud with rivers and waterfalls appearing at every turn in the trail. I have been exploring the villages within a days walking distance, talking with the people, eating their customary food and enjoying the amazing scenery. People here are amazingly friendly, everyone stops me on the trail to chat a bit and share information. I field many questions about life in the U.S. and in turn ask many questions about the lifestyle here. This region was the hardest hit during the civil war in the 1980s with many civilians killed. The people were caught between the armed guerilla resistance and the Guatemalan army, with both sides indiscriminately killing civilians suspected of aiding the other side. It was a very difficult and sad time for Guatemala and while things are much better now, this region still has scars and I am being very sensitive with the types of questions I ask the people here.

It is possible to walk to these remote villages and solicit the families living there for food and lodging for the night. My plan is to spend 3 days walking to the most remote villages in the area, through the most beautiful scenery to share culture and stories with the people.

While in Nebaj proper I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with several community development organizations who are working with local communities on various issues. A major problem that local villages are facing here are European owned hydroelectric companies that are trying to buy the villagers land to build energy production facilities. The organization FundaMaya that I met with is working to fortify and organize communities against the business interests that are dangling large sums of money in front of the villagers. Cultures are not simply enterprises of human design and execution existing in a vacuum, but as humans exist within the context of their environment, a culture must necessarily incorporate a connection with Nature. This connection to the Earth through the care and utilization of a regions resources helps form the culture and its customs. Within this definition of culture it is also important to recognize that cultures are really based on day to day life and habit. The culture here is connected to the earth through the cultivation of maize and other staple crops, with the entire village life dictated by the seasons of sowing and harvesting. Therefore with this in mind, when a business interest moves a community from their land they are in a sense destroying a culture, as the people are inextricably tied to their land. The work of these courageous organizations here in Nebaj is to make sure the villagers understand the gravity of the decisions they are facing; the lure of money on the one hand or a 5 thousand year old tradition and worldview on the other. When the villagers leave their communities to seek outside employment or money in a large part they are leaving behind their culture. If enough people leave so that the traditions and languages are forgotten, a culture goes extinct. This is a consequence of globalization and “development”.

In my previous post I had mentioned that I had met many people who had spent time working in the US. I even said that Guatemalans should try to go to the US if they had the opportunity. I realize now that in making that statement I was making a value judgment that US culture had more to offer poor Guatemalans than their own culture. After meeting amazingly friendly, aware and proud indigenous people I no longer feel this way. If a Guatemalan wants to make money and have a lot of material stuff then yes, they need to leave. However over the past few days I have met countless poor villagers who had practically nothing except for their homes and communities, yet obviously someone forget to tell these people that they were supposed to be unhappy, struggling to survive and miserably hoping for economic opportunities. I realized that economic incentive and “development” is what drives OUR culture, not necessarily any other culture. While there are some people here that see the glitz and wizardry of western industrial technologies and are ready to sell out at all costs, there are many people here who see value in different aspects of life such as family, community, cultural identity and tradition. I met a young man who had worked in the US for 2 years, but returned absolutely disgusted with the American obsession for work and money and lack of traditional values or customs. He much rather preferred to be poor and culturally proud in Guatemala than rich and isolated in America.

The aspect of the Mayan culture that enchants me so much is its authenticity and originality. All the traditional aspects of the culture are hand made with such care and originality passed down from generation to generation, from the clothing, to the food and the cosmology. There are very few large corporations operating here, only family run business in the towns and farmers selling their products in the markets. Although of course many mass produced goods have reached here and western cultural intrusion is well underway, I really hope the culture can absorb aspects of this intrusion without losing its proper identity. In contrast with indigenous culture, the thing that disgusts me about American culture is for the average person the complete lack of originality, creativity, attention to detail or autonomy in their lives. We live in a consumer culture. For the most part the average person is spoon fed their likes and dislikes dictated to them by profit driven corporations. No thought or awareness is given to the origins or consequences of consumption of any product, only the instant gratification. This is further reflected in our scientific cosmology that places human beings as unimportant flecks of particles winging around in space in a Universe totally devoid of meaning or purpose. Woah that was negative wasn’t it? Perhaps I am being too cynical. There are redeeming qualities to American culture of course, and I am appreciative of a lot. It is just that to see a culture so intact and original right in front of my eyes makes me feel badly when I am asked about my own culture and the only memory of America I can conjure up is of strip malls and wal mart.

I have several days of walking in the mountains to think about this…



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