As I type this report, a man in full blown Mayan trousers, shirt, and belt walked by in the pouring rain. I am sitting in the front room of a family's house, and I am surrounded by Mayan children googling and interwebbing away. The contrasts are mind boggling, at least to me. The village elder is carrying on a centuries old tradition, in terms of his clothing and values, and his grandchildren are spacing out on the web, just like my grandkids in Canada.
I have landed in San Juan de Laguna, a small Mayan village situated at the bottom of an ancient volcano, and surrounded by more recent volcanoes that I understad are alive and well. The setting is absolutely overwhelming, and the lake that is formed by the ancient volcano is easily 20 miles across. The ride over the lip and down the face of the volcano was incredible, and there was no way to stop and take a picture of the twisting route as it was a full hour of constant turns back upon myself as I wound my way down the face. Since I have been here the last few days, it has poured rain in the afternoon, and I have been wondering what condition the road is in, and I have been thinking about an alternative route out of the volcano, and back onto the PanAmerican highway next week, when my spanish lesson contract is finished.
I am convinced that I am meant to be here, and learn something from this gentle people. The quality of life and the overall lifestyle of this community and the people that make it up is beyond anything that I have seen in my life. There is not a minute that goes by when someone offers a "beunos dias', or a "beunos tardes" and a smile. I do not exaggerate to promote tourism or touristas, as that is the one aspect that I think makes this place truly wonderful, in that the community is somewhat isolated and protected from the ugly tourists who can ruin a culture with money and greed.
The contrasts are almost overwhelming, in that underlying the technology and the modern utilities which are as evident as any other culture, I suppose, there is the undeniable fact that these people and their ancestors have lived in this small and isolated region for thousands of years. While they were not able to withstand the Spaniards and Christianity, they certainly have sustained a sense of community and mutual support for fellow village members that is, if not unique, certainly non-typical. I think that my friends in Waglisla can understand what I am getting at, in terms of the closeness and community which evolves as a result of isolation and common needs and values. Although I live in a community a tenth the size of this village, I do not for a minute pretend that my village has a sense of community or history which even touches upon what I am experiencing here in San Juan. Perhaps it is the deep spirituality of the people, their common heritage, or a combination of all of that which evokes a unique and uplifting sense that mankind does have a hope in some parts of the world.
I am not the first outsider to have picked up on the uniqueness of this village and region, and it is clear that well-meaning folks have helped the community to overcome the isolation and inherent poverty associated with an agrarian lifestyle. The most significant example of this progress and development is with the women of the community. With the help of friends, they have utilized their incredible weaving skills into what appears to be a world class co-operative operation. I have visited over half a dozen different shops that contain the products of the womens' work with the wool and plants of the region. The quality of the garments and products which they make goes beyond my ability to describe. The blouses, dresses, scarves and belts are woven with such finesse and care that it truly is an exercise in artistic expression. A lady showed me a blouse today which was increadibly intricate, with symbols and features woven into the fabric. She told me that it took the artists two months to complete the blouse. (It was costed at $40) I am afraid that I bring that norte american value system to the table: equating time and effort to value and quality. It strikes me that the Women's groups, once they establish an awareness of the quality of their work, will be able to command much higher prices for their efforts, and they will receive true value for their work and creativity.
The second group of folks that truly stick out in San Jaun are the visual artists: the painters. I have visited a number of different artists, and the colours and depth of control of their medium is truly extraordinary. I don't know enough about painting, or art in general, to be specific about the styles, but I know what I like, as they say. I visited one Mayan artist and he invited me to his studio. It was incredible how many different paintings he had on display. Of particular interest was his interpretation of the Mayan calendar, and the Mayan association with what the English would call a horoscope. He asked my my birthday, and then consulted the particular sign which is associated with that day in the Mayan cosmos. Even though the lengthy association was in Spanish, there were, to me incredible alignments with how my life has played out. One clear example was the repetition of the phrase "maestro" in the analysis of the birthdate. We should not need to be reminded that this is the Spanish term for "teacher". Being a child of the 60's these little bits of the esoteric always remind me of the days when it was cool to ask a girl what her sign was, and create all sorts of assumptions from one's birth sign. Aside from the personal, his art was truly inspiring, the vivid colours reflected a lot about how I feel about the community.