Traveling Thoughts

May 4, 2009
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“Usan sus imaginaciones,” Koki says with a sly grin, “Use your imaginations.” These simple words broke my trance-like state; up until that moment I was unaware I existed. The blurriness clouding my vision vanished and the images around me began to take shape. I identify the bulging solid formations surrounding me to be rocks. Slate gray, irritating my cracked layers of skin with sharp edges and rough surfaces. The fluttering sounds echoing in the dark crevices over head are murcielagos (bats) preparing themselves for a ritualistic nightly adventure into the outer-world. The moving shadows twisting on either side of me are none other than my Traveling School sisters.
My hair has super-glued itself to the base of my neck, streaming down in a sweaty mess, and perspiration seeps through my pores, producing stains on my once-dry, black wicking t-shirt. The group presses their flesh and sweat against one another, increasing the heat in the already tightly enclosed space as they balance and avoid toppling over the edge. It is a challenging game to gain balance while walking on the cave floor of thick, wet, slippery limestone. My rubber Vasque trekking shoes are useless to me at this point and I surrender as my feet slip in all directions. I grasp my fingers, creating a fist around the broken, rustic railing in search of support. Everyone’s attention is directed towards their muscles, focusing solely on two movements. One, the deliberate placement of each foot; and two, the curving motion of the index finger to press the shutter button of their shiny new cameras. I can only imagine what thoughts are being produced in Koki’s fourteen year old head as he looks down at this herd of stumbling gringas. In contrast to our distracting flailing bodies, Koki moves from stone to stone as if he is hovering above the ground. We soon come across a large boulder with the words “La Virgin” painted in black on the sign resting against its surface. Squinting our eyes and straining our limbs to get a better view, the group is silenced, attempting to recognize the hidden virgin. I cannot help but laugh to myself hearing the encouraging words from our guide reminding us to “use of imaginations.” Is that not what I was often told as a little girl? Now, at the age of sixteen, is my mind so far gone that I have already forgotten?
Less than four weeks ago I was standing at the threshold of my journey, engulfed in the pitch black womb of the caves in Lanquin, Guatemala. It was only the first week out of orientation and the anticipation of new experiences elevated my senses. Goosebumps spread like wild fire across my skin and my eyes looked as though a crowbar was peeling them open. I still remember the thrill of crawling on my hands and knees through the tiny cracks and rubbing my clothes against the moist mud. I remember the laughter expelled from everyone’s lips, giddy and shaking with excitement. What I remember most vividly is leaving the caves and looking back at the ticket stand blocking off the entrance. Guards in uniform, swaying rifles across their shoulders patrolled the area. Questions with no immediate answers formed in my mind. Why did this “adventure,” this “once in a life time experience” feel intrusive? Unnatural? Maybe even wrong? Who’s caves had I walked on? Before my fellow tourists and I made our declaration of visiting this land and established our authority over it, what and who was sacrificed for out benefit?
It was not until I spoke to Josue, one of the elder tour guides at the hostel El Retiro, in Lanquin, Guatemala that some of my questions were answered. After many failed attempts to meet, due to Josue's busy schedule mixed in with late nights of drinking, I finally got my conversation. The caves of Lanquin were once sacred sights of the Maya, used for rituals and the practice of their traditions. For the Maya, the caves were a representation of the underworld rooting back to their beliefs in the three worlds; the upper, the living, and the under. Traditional Mayans believe that within the limestone walls of these caves lives a “bad female spirit,” which requires prayers and offerings. Today, a handful of villagers still visit these caves at the beginning of every harvest and planting season. They burn a type of incense called copal, and sacrifice animals (mostly chickens) as a part of their rituals. They drink the sacrificial blood in order to cleanse themselves and receive benefits from the animal.
Although a few of their practices have been preserved, the land which was once theirs to use freely is now controlled for the profit of the government. During our five day stay in Lanquin we also visited Semuc Champey, another common tourist spot. We went tubing down an open river in old black tires and swam in pools at the bottom of cascading waterfalls surrounded by thick green forests. From my talk with Josue, I learned that Semuc Champey had been a sacred sight of the indigenous Mayan people, up until the year 1979 when the government declared the land as a national park. Villagers lived on the outskirts of the pools until this happened and were forced to move into farther reaches of the forest. Before this occurred, the villagers worked for many years to avoid any disturbances and changes influenced by outsiders.
Entering Chiapas, Mexico a few weeks later we visited an area known as La Condona, which is close to the border, and stayed at an eco-tourist lodge called El Campamento. The facilities themselves are run by a family of Mayan descendents, mostly Chols, who encourage tourists to come and enjoy their land in a way that preserves the natural resources of the jungle. In the areas around the lodge many farmers have moved in, stripping the land of its resources in order to produce livestock and agriculture. When you drive down the road leading to and from El Campamento, one side of the road lays naked and exposed, clear-cut, while the other is full of high trees and abundant vegetation. I immediately felt the genuine difference between El Campamento's radiant beauty and Lanquin's somewhat tasteless adventures. The people running El Campamento were generous in welcoming us onto their land. We slept in simple wood-framed cabins and ate food prepared by members of the family. We were taken on a two-day river rafting trip down into the ancient Mayan ruins of Bonampak, where we explored the Frescos inside of the stones. We were told tales of Mayan culture and history by our guide Alejandro, while taking in the warmth of a burning campfire. Still, my confusion returned, and the previous questions I contemplated in Lanquin took hold of my mind once again.
Eco-tourism seems like a reasonable, if not great, sustainable choice for allowing tourists to come and use one's land. Yet the concept of this form of eco-tourism is still based on making a profit. Money is being made at the expense of the original occupants of the jungle, the Mayan people. Even though the workers at El Campamento put their land on display, they themselves do not live there, and no longer practice the ancient traditions. Rojelio, Alejandro's brother, explained to me how only small pieces of their traditions have survived to the present day. Some people, mostly the elders, have kept to their old ways. For example, many continue to wear the traditional outfit of a long white tunic for males and a flower patterned tunic for women. As the brothers spoke of their Mayan history, it seemed as though they were speaking of something that happened far too long ago. The stories sounded like fairytales. Hanging on the walls outside of the patio dinning area were masks and murals of indigenous Mayan people. When I asked an employee what the significance of the art was, my inquiry was disappointed with the response, “It is for decoration.”
It was not until our group ventured up into San Cristobal De Las Casas, in Chiapas, Mexico, that I experienced what I had been looking for. An hour drive outside of San Cristobal lays a small indigenous community of 80,000 called San Juan Chamula. The people are Chamulans and they practice a combination of both traditional indigenous customs and Catholicism. San Juan Chamula is visited by many tourists; yet, they are considered to be visitors in someone’s true home. Therefore, authentic respect is of the highest priority. This is why tourists are recommended to visit only with an accompanying guide. We visited one of the main churches in town, which was unlike anything I had ever seen. Inside, there were no benches, just open floor covered with pine needles, where women in floral Mayan dresses crouched on their knees, sticking tiny candles into the cracks, audibly whispering their prayers and letting the wax melt onto the floor. I could feel the waxy residue on the floor as I walked, left from years of people praying and lighting candles. Village ceremonies are often held in the church, but priests are not considered to be the leaders of their communities. Shamans, referred to as Illoles, perform cleansings and rituals in the church using things such as eggs, chickens and herbs. Many tourists are able to witness these practices, depending on what day of the week they arrive. Drinking, smoking, and dancing is not forbidden in the church. Manuel, our guide, informed me that the Chamulans try hard to maintain the integrity and purity of their traditions. Anyone who converts to becoming an Evangelical or Protestant Christian is banned from their community. There are no secrets kept, even from tourists, as long as you know what is and is not appropriate. Being aware of when it is okay to snap a photo and when to keep your camera safely tucked inside of your bag is a basic rule of thumb. Manuel said simply, “Tourism is okay, as long as people are taught the right things. Then they are shown the truth.”
Central America's landscape is a treasure chest holding countless stories from ancient indigenous cultures. Some stories are kept alive through generations of cherished customs and other smaller stories are carried on only in the blood of descendants. I have come a long way, having traveled from Lanquin, through temples, streams and ruins. I realize that today, as a tourist visiting this land, I am at a disadvantage, given only snapshots of a rich history that has been picked apart. It is difficult to find an experience of authentically preserved culture, and that is why San Juan Chamula was such a pleasant surprise.
It was refreshing to visit a place purely to learn about a different way of life, instead of simply for our traveling pleasure. Instead of leaving having trashed a group of people, I felt satisfied that I had supported their livelihood by buying some traditional hand-woven wool bags and hand-crafted textiles. I was able to sit on the floor of their homes, taste a bit of their food, and visit their sacred rooms. I do not feel like an unconscious monster tromping around and destroying everything blocking my path. I am no longer stuck in the dreadful cycle of moving through a tourist’s dreamland. I have to admit; it is a liberating place to be. Let me ask you one small favor: try it, “Use your imagination.”





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