Yesterday was another long day which began at 7 AM and didn’t end until we got back from dinner at 10. The bus rides had been bumpy and I was in a lot of physical pain by the time the day was done, so I didn’t get to post last night. (Sadly, I’ve had to pop muscle relaxants and pain meds like candy all week, but tried hard to stay focused and participate as fully as possible.)
We began yesterday morning with a two-hour ride to see the Mayan ruins of Iximche. Before we got off the bus, Adina invoked the Amichai poem “Tourists” that I posted the other day, reminding us of the lens through which we should view the ruins. How can we view the Mayan ruins and the real people whose history this is? How do Mayans today relate to this ancient site? What does it mean to “look with” rather than “look at?”
Rambo, our tour guide, had a wealth of knowledge to share with us about this site and ancient Mayan culture. We learned that this site was set off by a moat and was only for the elite of Mayan culture — king, shamans, spiritual guides, healers, mathematicians, astronomers, timekeepers, and ball players. Timekeepers dealt with the calendar — a system of 13 months with 20 days each. One’s birthdate determines one’s “nawal” (animal spirit), which provides insight to one’s identity and destiny. Lest you think that ball players have all the fun, they were actually warriors whose games could go on for days until death. This Mayan site had two ball fields.
One area of the Mayan site is still used for Mayan worship and sacrifice today. We saw a family there whose altar contained musical instruments. Rambo assumed therefore that they are a family of musicians making their yearly sacrifice. All I heard as I approached was the word “gringas,” to refer to our respectful, but nonetheless obvious, intrusion as non-natives.
There are those who vacation in Guatemala unaware of its deep social and political problems. One could easily go to Lake Atitlan or to the lovely town of Antigua (our next stop after the Mayan ruins), hear a lot of English spoken, see a lot of white faces, buy a lot of beautiful crafts, and assume that Guatemala is a perfect vacation destination. And yet, we were swarmed with hawkers (indigenous peoples from villages around Antigua, each selling their specialized crafts — wooden musical instruments, bright-colored, woven and embroidered fabrics, jewelry) upon departing the bus. This had happened, too, in San Lucas to a lesser extent, when we left the bus to board the boat to cross Lake Atitlan — little kids who wanted a tip to help us schlep our luggage, so who could say no?, our tips would buy dinner for the family. White people with money, too weak to carry luggage on our heads as they could. And it is true. My privilege is something I pondered again and again all week. Lilach gave our breakfast leftovers to a girl in Antigua. These beautiful people selling their exquisitely beautiful crafts were hungry.
We therefore re-read the following piece by Jamaica Kincaid (a piece we’d studied and discussed earlier in the week) over our lunch in Antigua (a lovely place with photos of Bill Clinton on the wall because he had eaten there in 1999) to remind us of the deeper truth of these lovely tourist destinations:
“You decide to venture from the sanctity of your tropical compound. You see natives. You marvel at the things they can do with their hair. The things they fashion out of cheap twine or ordinary cloth. Squatting on the side of the road. Hanging out with all the time in the world. You might look at them and think ‘They’re so relaxed, so laid-back, they’re never in a hurry.’
“Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives — most natives in the world — cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the realities of their lives, and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go — so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.” (Jamaica Kincaid, from “A Small Place”)
When we returned to Guatemala City (coming full-circle back to the hotel where we had begun last Sunday), we had the great privilege of meeting Claudia, the head of UDEFUEGA (Human Rights Defenders). She is the epitome of moral courage, defending those who are defending human rights in this country, fighting the corruption, offering safety and security workshops, monitoring human rights violations, convening different groups who might be allies with each other to face common threats such as hydro-electric dams or mining. She was representing the last NGO we would be meeting with on this trip, and she was the appropriate voice, bringing together so many of the issues we had been addressing all week with the other NGO’s. (Better yet, she spoke English, so we didn’t need a translator.) Claudia travels and speaks widely around the world and has been especially involved in addressing problems of late in Mexico, whose human rights defenders are also under great threat. But here in Guatemala, 4600 human rights defenders have been attacked (including herself), and 196 have been killed. Her daughter, who looks like her, has also been attacked. At one point, she said to us something about “the calling we all have to be prophets” and I prayed that she was right, that I might have a prophetic voice as she does to speak truth to power and maintain my moral compass on these issues of justice and human dignity.
On the bus rides yesterday we began practicing and critiquing the stories we each plan to tell upon our return. And last night over dinner we had chevruta study on “taking stock” that made us accountable to one another for what we will commit to in the days and weeks ahead in terms of learning, leading, and taking action. We then had a ‘siyum,’ a closing ceremony in which Ruth spoke to each of us about what we brought to the group this week and her charge to us, and presented us each with a personalized plaque for our being an AJWS global justice fellow and the commitments that that entails. AJWS has invested a lot of money and resources in each of us, and each of us therefore has much work to do to be worthy of this great gift.
I am looking forward to more personal dialogue with those of you who have been following the blog, and I hope that some of you might be interested in bringing me in to speak or teach about the issues: upstream/downstream ways of addressing social problems, how to hold our Jewish particularism and work for universal causes, and how to support the amazing, awe-inspiring work of AJWS. I hope that I have inspired you to do the following: to contribute to AJWS, to take your vacations with more awareness of the underbelly of the exotic places you might visit, to think about addressing root causes of social problems and not just band-aid solutions. If you can, think about joining me in NYC on November 17 for the AJWS gala, where you can hear directly from several of their grantees from around the world (as I have had the privilege it do here in Guatemala).
Buenos Dias! It is now 7:30 AM here on Monday morning, and we are off to our finally Sacred Space and journal reading of yesterday’s day, as well as more good-byes before the first group leaves for the airport. I will post again at least once more about my trip when I got home.
Again, though I don’t know all of you who are reading unless you post a comment, I am assuming that there is an audience out there. I am grateful for your attention and look forward to speaking further.
Hasta luego! (One of my learning commitments was to learn some Spanish so that I can come back in a few years and accompany Megan on her visits to some further-flung AJWS grantees in Guatemala.)