Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year....Old Thoughts

Happy New Year! It’s the year 2012 and, interestingly enough, I am in Guatemala. The Mayans, the indigenous population in the region, believe that December 21, 2012 is the end of the world as we know it! Wow! How does that affect my life?  Actually, not much…
The new year is an opportunity for me to reflect. I have never been one for making resolutions. I find myself trying to be better each day of the year, and, making promises that I often don’t keep just gets depressing. So I don’t do that anymore. Instead, the secular New Year is an opportunity for reflection and a time to dream. Some of those dreams actually happen! So what are my thoughts this day, the 1st day of 2012?

About work: Kahlil Gibran says:
“You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons,
And to step out of life's procession, that marches in majesty and proud           submission towards the infinite.”

I have traditionally been driven by my work. During our child-rearing years I was immersed in my teaching. Most of my day (often 12 -15 hours a day) was occupied with work.  I love my work and find great solace in knowing the effect I have on others in the educational world. And, even those years of obsession, I remember feeling extra gratification that I was actually paid for the work I was doing! What a bonus!!! I know I have something more to offer than the ordinary practice of teaching and I feel confident in my ability to help affect change. I want to continue to do that. And, I think there is more.

As I explore new places in the world I am learning that people in other lands think differently about work. The work they do is no less valuable, nor is it any less valued. Work, for most, is a means to make life more enjoyable. But it is not life itself!

I remember my father who was so absent from my life because he was always working, trying to make ends meet. In the last days of his life, he shared with me his regrets of not knowing me enough, of being separate, and of having lost time because of his need for more money. And, that no matter how much money we had, it was never enough. Time together was what he lacked the most.

In my own life, I saw around me the business of people’s lives… the focus on work, on paying the bills, and of being able to buy more things. I too was caught up in that, and I knew it wasn’t where I wanted to be.

I remember exactly when it happened. It was 2005 in a Yoga class when, at the end of the class, I stopped to talk to a Yoga buddy of mine, Jacqueline. Jacquie is a photographer by profession and, at that time was studying to become a yoga teacher. “Do you work everyday?” I asked her one-day. “Whew”, she responded with a lift of the side of her mouth and a scrunch of her forehead. “Are you kidding?’ she said. I realized then that the unfulfilled quest for income was relentless and I also recognized the possibilities that I was missing. Perhaps it could be possible to work, to make an impact, and also to fill my life with other activities, interests and forms of creative expression.

Guatemala, City
I started to write more regularly, learn to play guitar, attend weekly drumming classes, and plan trips to the places in the world that I had never been. Our children were still at home at that point and, although they were teenagers, they still filled my minute-to-minute thoughts.  I knew they would be ‘grown up’ soon and the time for change was coming. It was a scary time for me too. Of course, we who are parents of grownup children know that the role of parent is always there. Wherever in the world I find myself, I am close to them too! And, a new dream began to grow… a world of possibilities and freedom that I am now able to live.  

My work has changed drastically over the last few years. My attitudes about money have helped shift my intentions and motivate me to change the way I work. Instead of maintaining a constant direction of ‘making money’, I want to share my gifts. That means that, often, I work for no money. I do it in different places of the world. I try to make myself available wherever in the world I am asked to go, and I get to travel at the same time. Paul and I find ‘alternative’ ways of generating income (like renting our Toronto home) and have modified the way we spend substantially.

Fort Cochin,India
Friends from the streets of
San Marcos, Guatemala
I am more and more appreciating my work and often remind myself that I am working even when I call it volunteering. How lucky am I that I get to do that?! And, I realize that in a sense I am working even more than I was before, because it is completely a part of my daily life and practice.

I am more mindful of the benefit I provide to Giovanni, for instance, in spending hours with him practicing his English so he can talk to tourists who want to buy his artwork. Or the kids hanging out on the street in San Marcos, with whom I am setting up a time to cook together so they can both learn cooking skills and eat! Or spending time in the local schools in Kerala, India where teachers benefit from direction and guidance in creating inclusive and exciting co-operative classroom communities.
Eurnakulam, India

I am excited about learning new ways of providing. I am involved with learning how to teach through technology, of bringing the concepts of co-operation and building a less competitive environment into each small community where I am. I bring new ideas to cultures that yearn for global education and haven’t yet figured out how to educate their youth in a world that is constantly changing and needs to shift paradigmatically and practically.

I don’t know what is in store for me in 2012. I only know I remain open to possibilities, seek out ways of helping, and continue to hope that my presence in this world makes a difference. If the Mayans are right in their predictions, I know I want to do everything I can to change it.  As Kahlil Gibran says:

Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”

In the meantime, I wish all of you who are reading my blog (and even those who are not) a new year full of adventure, joy, excitement and love. May we each find health, balance, strength, meaningfulness and purpose.  And may we all work less, play more and realize the joy of both.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Playing Together

It is Chanukah and it is also Shabbat. Paul and I are spending the weekend with the community of Casa Hillel. We are their guests and we feel so welcome as teachers, mentors, and friends. We are embraced completely. The gratitude never ceases.
We sing. We pray. We eat, study, read and talk together. We share ritual and are encouraged to engage further. Our hosts just want to hear more. How do we sing this prayer? What comes next in the prayer book? What tune do we use for this psalm?

Our future
As we finish singing Shalom Aleichem and welcome in Shabbat, Paul and I describe our own family ritual of angels. In our home, on Friday night, we pass around a bowl full of angel cards. On each card is a characteristic: “grace”, “creativity”, “humility”, and “integrity”. After choosing your angel each week, is a time for reflection and consideration. “What is significant about that particular angel for you this week? Why is that angel choosing to be with you?”

Our hosts are completely captivated and I promise to get them a set of angels when I return to Canada. “We want to make our own,” says one of the youth. All agree. It becomes one of our tasks for the weekend.

More goals unfold as the weekend progresses. As we get to know each other better the needs and possibilities for the community begin to become clearer.

Many of the tunes we sing are similar to those that we use in Toronto. Some are different though, and they are eager to learn new niggunim while we are here.

We make several charts for songs that are printed and taped on to the walls of the Casa for easy access. We intentionally write them out in thick black marker and in printed Hebrew. That, after all, is the print of the Torah, and they want to be able to read Torah.

During Shabbat service, their Torah (a gift from a Jewish community in Kansas City) is taken out of the ark and carried around the room for everyone to touch and/or kiss. Then the Torah is lovingly placed on the pulpit. The Torah reading occurs from a chumash. The Torah itself is never opened. There is no one comfortable reading directly from the scrolls. That becomes one of our goals for the future. We commit to teach them how to open the torah to the appropriate section and reinforce the idea that it’s still okay to read from a book while someone follows in the Torah. Next time we are here (in two weeks) we will try that together.

The reverence for Torah is evident as is their love for everything Jewish. Each person enters the Casa with a lift of their hand and a kiss for the mezuzah that hangs on the doorpost. All eyes close tightly when reciting the Shema, the most familiar Jewish prayer that sanctifies God’s presence and reinforces monotheism in a Jewish context. Chanting of prayers is audible and melodic and, as I look around, inevitably there are smiles and elation. This small group of Jews love praying!

We spend all weekend with the people of Casa Hillel, beginning with a Friday night dinner and short service and ending with a late lunch on Sunday afternoon. Throughout the weekend we light Chanukah candles, sing Chanukah songs, play dreydl games, eat chocolate gelt and drink strong Guatemalan coffee until late at night.
We share Shabbat services as well as Havdallah and make good use of their homemade Reform prayer books that are translated in to Spanish. We eat many meals together all of which are prepared together in their communal kitchen. We wait patiently for the 3 stars in the sky indicating the beginning of Havdallah.

We make Angel cards, alphabet cards, and numerous charts of Hebrew songs. We sing together regularly as Paul plays guitar and introduces them to many new tunes. Another member, Hilario, brings his guitar too and begins learning new tunes to share.

I met with Ardany and his parents in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah that takes place next November. Our goal is to help Ardany read Hebrew well enough to read directly from the Torah. It will be the first of the community.

I am also thinking of helping them with a writing model that will make it easier to learn and teach for a Dvar Torah. Susan Schwartz, a retired teacher from the Toronto District School Board, created a model called “Retell, Relate, Reflect” that works well for expository writing with a bit of soul.

During our time there, Paul and I became great friends with so many of the people.  We began our journey of learning together. We walked and talked and laughed and even cried, all in the attempt to get to know each other better. I am definitely falling love, and, it is clear, they are falling in love with us too.

Thank you Rabbi Elyse for introducing us to these wonderful people and giving us a chance to be together.  Their love for you is making them strong as community and their commitment to Judaism obviously so enhanced by your relationship with them…. and, of course, with us!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Casa Hillel, Guatemala City

On the streets of Guatemala City

They are gentle, energetic and sincere. They are eager to learn, thrilled to be together and grateful for our presence. They range in age from 2 months to somewhere in their late 50’s. They are men and women, boys and girls, families and single people who want to be accepted as Jews by other Jews.

Casa Hillel is what they are called… approximately 30 Guatemalans who joyfully and enthusiastically converted to Judaism. A Reform Rabbi, Jacques Cukierkorn, dedicated to assisting people in Latin America who wish to celebrate Jewish life, took them under his wing in about 2005. Assisting in the conversion of the first members of Casa Hillel early on he continued to represent them (and other such communities in Central America) from his home in Kansas City, Missouri.

Their material resources are few. Their greatest resource is the enthusiasm and love that they have for Judaism: the interaction amongst the members of the group, the regular hugs and kisses, the confirmations of mutual respect and support from each other, the plans for holidays, for weekly Shabbatot, the help in day to day events, the love for one another that is evident when they gather together and when they are separate, is strong. They know that their love is supported by Torah and by their commitment to Judaic practise.

They have some friends who recognize and appreciate the difficulties of their struggles and the sincerity of their intentions. But for the most part they are rejected from Jewish organizations as non-Jews, berated for not really being Jewish enough, and excluded from Jewish activities and functions throughout Guatemala and the world. And all they want is to be Jewish.

They want to be Jewish and they want to be Jewish right now in Guatemala City, amidst the Latin American people with whom they feel at home. They want to be accepted as Jews completely and be included in the worldwide community of Jews with whom they feel connected. Up until now, they haven’t been.  In the last few months things have started to change.

About 7 years ago Alvaro and Jeannette Orantes began a search for what they considered to be a way to fill emptiness in their spiritual lives. Both Guatemalans were born to Catholic families and were encouraged to practice Catholicism, which they did obediently throughout their youth. But it was not sufficient for either of them.

Jeannette- One of the founders
of Casa Hillel
Jeannette tells about how she went to school with nuns. She was very aware of the meaningless of the prayer practise. “I was forced to pray out loud.” She tells me. “And there were no prayer books. I had to pray by heart. I couldn’t find a place in my heart to remember the prayer. It wasn’t there in my heart.”

When their children were born, Alvaro and Jeannette knew that they wanted to provide a spiritual life for them. Their search began when Ishmael was 6 and Rivka was 4 years old. Years of learning about different religions followed. Google, multiple conversations (virtually and in person), books, Bibles and many religious documents, led them to their strong interest in Judaism. “It just felt so right.” explains Alvaro. “ It makes so much sense.”

Alvaros continues to relay his story. It is one of intuitive awareness and joy.  He told us that one-day he ran away from his family in church. He ran until he found himself in a cemetery. Around him were hundreds of gravestones with big crosses. He kept running and ran deeper and deeper into the cemetery. Eventually he stopped. He noticed around him a different kind of symbol on the gravestones. He felt calm. His body settled. He closed his eyes. It felt good.  Later, Alvaro discovered that the symbol that appeared to him that day was the Magen David. That began a pursuit to connect to his heart space.
The Internet provided a forum for reaching out to others who might be seeking a similar direction. Building community was critical, as Alvaro saw it. Judaism is a religion of community. There were several people seeking something similar. Alvaro and Jeannette connected with them.
Today Casa Hillel is the spiritual home to about 30 people. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, from Toronto is their revered Rabbi. She comes to be with them often (every couple of months) and she is working diligently to make a formal connection between them and the International Reform movement.  Casa Hillel feels a sense of renewed optimism with Elyse and a deep reverence for her commitment to reform Judaism and to them.

In the meantime, the community continues to gather together every Shabbat morning for prayer. At least once a month they meet for Kabbalat Shabbat and Friday night dinner. For holidays and special visits members come to Casa Hillel and stay all day, waiting for the celebration of Havdalah and Saturday night activity.

They love being together. They love each other. Most of all, though, they love being Jewish. It is evident as they walk into the Casa Hillel house and reach up to kiss the mezuzah on the doorpost, even the teenagers. It is evident as they immerse themselves in prayer. It is evident through the smiles of the youth as they sing, in Hebrew, songs and prayers that identify their Jewish soul. 
And I feel so blessed to have met them and to be able to share time with them. As we continue to meet our relationship deepens. We all have so much to share!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Santa Clause Ain't Coming to This Town

Santa Claus isn’t in Guatemala City on Christmas Eve.  It’s too crazy here for him to ride with his reindeer through the sky. Instead the sky is ablaze with the commotion of brilliant fireworks and sparklers. They light up the sky leaving smoky residue in the night air. For about an hour and forty minutes the residents of the city celebrate the birth of Christ with bursts of light and colour and noise. It is certainly a different way to bring in the holiday.

I am lying in my bed listening to the commotion outside. I would love to see the show, but it is just not available to me. Everywhere is fireworks! I look out the small window in my room and I can see the glimpses of the festive lights through the narrow cracks in the walls of the building next to me. The windows are mere slivers of space strategically built to allow air in and to keep people out. In Guatemala, it feels safer to be enclosed, protected from outside activity.

The orthodox synagogue building.
The members of Casa Hillel are generally
not welcome here
The city itself is built like a fortress. The residential area where we are staying is deserted, with people tending to remain in their houses. For many, venturing outside is only for necessity. The streets near us are all but empty of pedestrians. Automobiles are the only means of getting from one place to another. We are warned to avoid using public transportation. It is too dangerous. Aware of the possibilities on the streets, people walk only in large groups.

We are staying with a family in Zone 11. This zone happens to be one of the better zonas. And yet, as we glance down the gated street there is not a car parked anywhere. Garage spaces have been constructed for each house, enclosing the entrances and adding extra protection to each home. Sliding steel doors can be heard clanging open and shut as residents venture out for their daily activities.  Multiple locks on layers of doors reinforce protection. There is no dimension to the streets. Instead long tunnels of steel border the streets and spirals of barbed wire protect each household.

There's a beautiful building
hidden in there
Even the schools look like prisons in the capital city. Sometimes, hidden within the steel fortresses, evidence of beautiful architectural creations peek out through the protective fortress walls. I get the feeling that perhaps the city used to be more vibrant and welcoming. Now violent crime is rampant here and the value of human life seems trite. Few families have not experienced violence close to home. Our host lost one of her sons just last year to robbery and murder. No one is exempt. No one is completely safe.

Military presence is everywhere. Rifles, guns, and other weapons are evident on uniformed men in front of libraries, schools, apartment buildings and on street corners. Even Wal-Mart is enclosed and has an armed guard outside its doors.  I am constantly trying to feel safe!

Once inside, we felt safe!
We are here for the weekend and are spending time working with a small community of Jewish Guatemalans who call themselves Casa Hillel. The work we are doing is rich and we feel blessed to know these people and to be able to share our skills and time and love. We wouldn’t trade this experience for anything and we do plan on returning often while we are in Guatemala.
Guatemala City is not our favourite place in the country, but the work we are doing here is worthwhile and received with gratitude and love! And when we’re done,  we come back to thenatural beauty of the lake. Maybe Santa Claus will wait for us there!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Chanukah Y Espanol

Our classroom where
' aprendo espanol'
We began our Spanish lessons yesterday with Andrew (Andres) as our teacher. Andres is from Brooklyn, and spent some years teaching in the inner city schools of New York. He is living in Guatemala now, loving the teaching profession and escaping the bureaucracy that overwhelms the educational system in the city.  His Spanish is excellent, he has an M.Ed in ESL, and he has a good sense of how different people learn. This is Paul’s and my first experience being in a learning situation together. Paul says that he has 20% fluency of Spanish and I have 5%. That is true. He’s good, though, allowing me to answer all the questions asked first, and then, if I stumble, he gives it a try. We sit out on a dock at the local youth hostel, absorbing the warmth of the late afternoon sun that emerges from the ground and ‘play’ with Spanish in order to understand how to speak coherently.

Andrew says the hardest part of learning Spanish is understanding grammar. That makes sense to me. He says it’s worth taking the time in the beginning and struggling with the heavy content at first, so that as we acquire vocabulary, it will simply fall into place.

I think about my own learning. I worry about not being able to remember words. What tools do I need to set up success for my retention? What strategies can I use to help me reinforce what I learn? How can I practise the language without losing patience and giving up? What if I fall way behind my fellow schoolmates (Paul) and feel less successful and inferior? I know that, as a teacher, these are some of the very issues I try to help students with. In order to learn best, it is ideal to keep emotional energy positive and enthusiastic and encouraging. Both Paul and Andrew are very encouraging!

Last night was the first night of Chanukah. I am regularly amazed at the fact that, wherever we are in the world, there are people who are seeking out ritual practise similar to ours. And then there are also people who are open to participating even if they have never experienced it before.

lighting the communal menorah
Our Chanukah planning for 2011 began in Toronto. There, we gathered together Chanukah games, books, decorations, candles and toys and sent a package to the community of Casa Hillel in Guatemala. They are a small community of Guatemalans who have, in the last 10 years, adopted Judaism as their spiritual practise. Our first visit to Casa Hillel will be this coming weekend and we will have a chance to celebrate days of Chanukah with them. But we wanted them to have the package before we arrived to ensure that each family from this small Guatemalan community would have candles to light for the first night of Chanukah.

As the holiday approached Paul and I pondered how we would welcome the first night of Chanukah. We even gathered some rocks and sticks and collected beer bottle caps to make our own chanukiah.  Then we heard about Daisy, an American resident here on the lake, who organized a celebration for candle lighting to which we were invited.

Amir and I making latkes in the
communal kitchen
  After our Spanish lesson, Amir (also a resident Israeli) and I got busy in the communal kitchen to make latkes. When they were finally done (latkes always take longer than expected) we carried them over to a restaurant called Ganesh. There was live music and lots of people and Daisy organized candle lighting. It was fun and we were able to share our heritage and ritual with many people who had never experienced it before. It was also wonderful to connect with other Jewish people from all around the world gathering together to celebrate our common culture.
singing Chanukah tunes together

We continue to explore the beauty of the Lake and the many activities that are available. There is so much here to do and see!

Sunday, December 18, 2011


This is what I see when I am in my headstand
during my yoga practise
Our accommodations are a little bit of what make this experience so profound. Situated directly on Lake Atitlan, our apartment overlooks a great expanse of water and is completely surrounded by the majesty of mountains. Three volcanoes make their presence known in front of us. Though they are not active, I have seen another one in the distance spouting little puffs of smoke almost as a message of welcome and a reminder of awe.  It does so regularly.

You can see Santiago in the background
Scattered around the lake are small villages inhabited by Mayan people. I have found the Mayan population (in general) to be friendly, smiling, happy people who welcome visitors and encourage conversation. The there are two indigenous languages spoken here; Kaqchikel and Tz'utujil. I have read recently that the lake people of Atitlan are used to interacting with strangers and with people who speak different languages, and were so long before tourists began to come to this wonderland of their home.

Banana flower
The closest village to our place is San Marcos. Just opposite San Marcos across the lake is San Pedro. Today will be our first time there. Apparently, San Pedro is known for their Sunday market and Barbeque.  To get there we walk down to the dock in front of our place to wave down the shuttle boat that passes every 20 minutes or so. It is there to transport people (travellers and locals) around the lake.

Yesterday I picked a grapefruit off the ground. It had lazily fallen from the tree. This morning we ate it. There’s nothing better!

Our apartment is made of white plaster walls and framed in pine and red cedar wood with bamboo roofing. There are no pictures or other ornamentation on the walls or shelves. There’s no need. The beauty of the surroundings is all that’s needed. The windows circling the apartment invite the feeling of being outside and inside all at the same time. The sound of the wind and the gentle flow of the lake’s waters are heard constantly.
Our bed sits on a large wooden platform and is surrounded by curtains to provide enclosure from the night air and the early morning sun. The fully equipped kitchen allows us to make delicious meals and slow leisurely breakfasts. We love having the opportunity to cook together and eat while watching the beauty of the world outside.

The countertops and floors and cabinets are all made of polished cement. There is a huge bathtub in the bathroom made of the same and has provided us with some soothing, warm baths. A walk in closet with drawers and shelves has more than enough space for our backpack-sized supplies.

Ready for Yoga
Atop of our apartment is a small roof terrace where there are lounge chairs and tables. The platform is solid and I have been practising Yoga up there in the early mornings. Even then (8:00) the sun is strong. There is a lovely breeze that refreshes. The sky is always blue spattered with gentle white clouds that often circle the mountains reinforcing the connection between earth and sky.

All the furniture is handmade by the local people here. Everything is constructed from wood. A hammock hangs diagonally across the ceiling. As I hang, I am embraced by the scene in front of me.

The Mayan workers here are paid very well by local standards. There is a definite feeling of mutual respect and a shared sense of camaraderie. It is comfortable for me to know the people working here are not being exploited and I feel good helping to provide respectful work and contributing to livelihoods.

Spectacular Beauty
Pasaj-Cap is remote. There is no other place around here, and even after being here for three days, Paul and I have yet to meet any of the other inhabitants apparently living in the other bungalows and casitas or apartments. We hear there are about 20 other people living here with us. It has been strategically constructed for privacy and quiet. I feel that peacefulness within as I live here.

Usually Paul and I travel without plans for accommodation, preferring to find our place once we arrive. We chose differently this time, for two reasons: 1-our friends stay here in the winters and encouraged us to try it, and 2- there was a good chance that some of our children would come and stay with us a little. (That isn’t happening after all.) It is a bit more costly than what we usually spend for accommodation, but we thought it would be worth it. Being here so far, there is no doubt we made the right choice!



Friday, December 16, 2011

Thoughts in Motion

The sun is blasting her way out of the heavy mist as we travel south from San Cristobel towards Guatemala. It is 7:30 am and the van that is taking us is packed with travellers. Backpacks and luggage are piled on the roof. Paul and I are the only ones for whom English is the first language and, we are, by far, the oldest.
There is a young family from Germany travelling with us in the van. Two little boys, Ammon 4 years old and Noah, 5, remind me of our grandchildren, Stella and Oscar. We immediately make a tight connection. In fact, Ammon sits on my lap almost the entire 9-hour ride, and I realize he thinks of me as a grandmother. I am in heaven! It could be my Oscar!!! The family is travelling for 11 months. They started in New York in September and drove across the United States in to Mexico.  They intend to spend the next few months in Guatemala, learning Spanish and having the kids mingle with Guatemalan children in a pre school environment.

In fact, to all of the travellers in the van Paul and I could be the parents. I wonder what they are seeking as they travel. What drives them to explore like this? How long will they be wandering? What will they do when their travels are done? How will their lives unfold? They are so young.

I am loving travelling and thriving on the excitement and wonder of the unfamiliar world that is before me. I feel so deeply as I connect with others, sometimes from afar, sometimes face to face, and sometimes in more profound ways. I am loving learning through living and partaking in the life of different civilizations and cultures around the world. I realize how much there is to learn and to do as I travel through cities and villages and towns. I will never have enough time in my life to do all that I want to do. There are so many places where I have I been that I want to return to. There are so many people with whom I have connected that I want to see again. But what about Thailand, and South America, and Viet Nam and Europe? How will I fit in all the places I’ve read or heard about and never experienced?

Sometimes I think that if I were going to live again, knowingly, I might figure out some way to have everything I already have (all my children and Paul and my work) and just travel. I love the freedom and flexibility and adventure. It could be a good life for bringing up kids in this world.

And then, ultimately, I know that everything happens in the right time!

I am so grateful for how my life has unfolded. I have worked hard and developed a solid career. I have the most amazing kids in the world (forgive me for being so exclusive) I have a fairy tale marriage with the love of my life and my best friend with whom I share common dreams and hopes and family. I have worked, learned, parented, played, and even travelled while doing it all! I did it all joyfully (for the most part), responsibly (always) and I can actually say, “I’ve done a good job of it.” I’m happy I had my life the way I did! Now…. onward to Guatemala!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

San Cristobal De Las Casas

There is music playing in the courtyard. It is joyful and loud. The cathedral is packed and the crowd of young people dressed in white gowns and wearing flower corsages are lined up outside the cathedral doors.
First communion (an interesting
blend of Catholic and Mayan culture)
At first we thought it was a wedding. Somehow Paul and I seem to happen upon weddings wherever we are, but after some explanation I learn that it is actually a ceremony for first communion.

In San Cristobal, it is challenging to find people who speak English. My Spanish is very weak, but with some Spanish and some English I begin to understand what’s going on. The priest comes out to invite all the participants in to the church. As the music continues, families, extended families and friends of the 14 year olds enter the church for the ceremony.  I don’t know a lot about communion but I do know it’s for children and in order to receive communion one must be free of sin. The concept of ‘sin’ perplexes me even in the simplest idea. Of course children are free of sin! Does communion protect them forever? Or maybe it just supports them to as they learn how to prevent themselves from giving in to sin as they grow up, grounding them to the idea of being (and doing) good. It seems that becomes more challenging as we grow, and, of course, depends on where we live and the influences around us.
Carless streets of San Cristobal

Paul and I refrain from entering, choosing to experience the warmth of the sun as it moves in and out during the rest of the afternoon.  It is quite cool in San Cristobal, mostly because we are over 2000 metres above sea level. That’s pretty high up and the air is quite thin.

It is a different vibe from any other place I’ve been in Mexico. There are many artisans here and a large population of Mayan residents. The artistic contribution from the Mayan culture enhances the presence of art products that are for sale in the many vibrant and busy markets that occupy the streets in San Cristobal.

That's me and Franscico
People here are simply genuine. I spent a long time with Francisco this morning as he meticulously connected the broken chains of my Indian ankle bracelet that needed repair. As he handed it back to me I asked “Cuanto?” (How much?) Francisco waved his hand making it clear that he didn’t want anything for his labour. Instead I purchased one of his hand made silver bracelets for my little cousin in Los Angeles.

The markets in San Cristobal are what enrich the area. Handmade items can be found at almost every stall crammed into the market aisles. Colourful Mayan weaves are meticulously created into handbags, shawls, jackets, blankets and clothing. Colour is everywhere. Young children walk around selling small items of braided bracelets and woven cloths beseeching travellers to buy their goods. Anywhere I look is bursting with colour.  I am amazed at how people survive. Each merchant sells the same things. How do they maintain income?
A great way to travel!

Paul and I decide to experience horseback riding one morning. We enter the village of Chamula on horseback. Chamula is a small village centred on the San Juan church. I’ve heard that it is one of the oldest churches in all of Mexico and was reclaimed by the indigenous community in 1968.  Ritual ceremonies, involving sacrificial chickens and eggs happen daily. The mix of Christian and Mayan ideology is translated into practice with the help of shamans. Pine needles covering the grounds of the church reinforce the Mayan belief that nature is energy and energy is nature. The balance between the two determines ultimate health. With shaman support, sick people are guided towards a place of health.

The oldest church in Mexico
Paul and I didn’t enter the cathedral, but if we had, there is a possibility we would have witnessed various families in different parts of the pew-less cathedral floor, experiencing ceremonial practices for healing and creating a more balanced energy for each family member. Passing a live whole chicken and chicken eggs over the ailing person’s body is said to remove the curses and dispel bad spirits that are causing the disease. The patient is then advised to take the chicken home where it will die in time. Sometimes the shaman even suggests that the patient cook the chicken and feed it to someone who he or she does not like.
I bought a gorgeous woolen
Poncho for my friend Jill
from these women
What is interesting to me is the mix of Mayan and Christian practice and the attempt for a people to reclaim practice and theology after being indoctrinated and manipulated into other ways. I am loving learning more about indigenous practice and experiencing new ways of connecting to a spiritual world. San Cristobal is an ideal place for that!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Palenque Jungles

Palenque…here we are immersed in Mexican culture. It’s 10:30 am and we’ve just been walking the streets looking for a café con café ey wifi. Small shops line the streets displaying goods overflowing out of windows onto the street. Small tables, covered with fresh fruits, vegetables, and newly slaughtered chickens occupy corners. Residents wander purchasing their food. People, busy in the streets, carry on their daily routines.

Music blares throughout the village. It’s loud. Spanish is a loud language even when it’s spoken quietly. I’m learning to speak some. I’m hoping by the time I return to Canada I will be fluent. My formal lessons really start once I get to Guatemala. For now I am learning by trying to speak with people on the street. Ironically I am realizing how much French I know. Too often my ‘Spanish’ comes out in ‘French’. I usually rely on the universal language of communication. I can often make myself understood. But there is nothing like speaking the language of the people. I am trying hard to get there.

I am noticing how different I feel in the Mexican culture. It’s heavy. People speak loudly. There is not much subtlety here. Joyful Latin music blares everywhere. There is no attempt to try to please travellers by playing popular music from the west. There is a simple pride here. I feel it everywhere I go. Mexicans demonstrate their cultural presence just by being who they are. There is no sign of pretence, just a natural way of being. It’s comfortable for me, and yet, I don’t feel ‘home’. I am a visitor.

Military presence is evident throughout the state of Chiapis. Checkpoints occur often on the main roads and security stops are regular occurrences. There is societal unrest, due, mostly, to the oppressive attitudes towards the Native locals here. Like our Native community in Canada, there is fear of losing cultural identification and of being eradicated as a civilization. The culture is strong now, due, I suppose to the cooperative efforts of Mayan people throughout Central America.

As we travel I am very aware of the difference between being a tourist and being a traveller. As a traveller, I feel relaxed. Paul and I wake up where ever we are and say, “What do you want to do today?” Sometimes it’s just about hanging out at a café and experiencing Mexican life around us.

Our accommodation is called The Jungle Palace. It really is in the middle of the jungle. Our room is basic. Fortunately we have our own washroom, and a simple balcony with a chair for sitting. There, I find myself lost in the wild.

I have been practising Yoga daily and loving the experience of laying my mat down on the wet dirt of the jungle. As I smell the wet dirt I make friends with the palm tree that receives my touch with each sun salutation I complete. I get to listen to the sounds of the jungle mingled with the rumble of cars in the background and local builders using chain saws and other construction machinery. It is all a part of what is around here. Yoga reinforces that presence of the whole for me.

As I travel further south in Guatemala I am open to embracing more and learning about this interesting and rich people!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Exploring the Mayan Past

I am sitting cross-legged and alone on the summit of a small hill. I am overlooking the grounds of an ancient Mayan village in Palenque. Surrounding me are five distinct mounds. Atop each elevation stand remains of temples left over from Mayan civilization from over 1400 years ago! Each hill, each temple, exudes an ancient historical energy from its time.

The scene is intensified because the village is in the midst of the jungle. The growling of monkeys, heard clearly through the trees reminds me that this is their home now. The absence of human life is evident by the emptiness of the architecture. Travellers come to visit, but the activity of life that once existed here no longer dominates.

I am reminded of the book Chariots of the Gods that I read when I was a teenager. The premise is that ancient architecture is a unique example of geometric perfection without the technology or machinery available today. Who made these buildings… so perfect and strong that they are still standing today? How, after 1500 years do the solid walls remain erect and usable with even the sculptures carved into the walls surviving?

The green grass and variety of trees, some of them old and wise-looking, keep me grounded. It is hard for me to relate to a life in the sixth century. What did people do back then? What did they think about? How did they find joy? Where did they seek out meaning to their lives? How did they relate to one another?

Mayan culture is so rich in religious and political expression. It seems to be inspired by the perception of close connections between human behaviour and the Gods. It seems that so much of the Mayan activity focuses on making sense of life through death. Much of the art and jewellery concentrates on helping individuals pass comfortably into the other world. Samples of individuals’ lives are placed in the tombs of the dead as a gift to the Gods and a promise for good things in the afterlife.

In the art, there is only a slight differentiation between human and Godly characteristics. Most of the artefacts that have been found in Palenque reflect the very close relationship between the two. Grotesque faces combined with weird flying figures and wild animals come together to accentuate the possibilities of nature’s expression. Complex masks, ornate jewellery and clay representations of the gods reinforce the close relationship. The culture thrives here in Palenque as well as in other regions in the area. The strength of Mayan influence dominates primarily from countries in this part of Central America: Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Belize.

The spirituality that is the expression of the culture is unique for me. It is different from that which I find so easily in India, which is evident in the streets and in the minute to minute living of the people. I suppose that is true here too, and as I learn more about the Mayan civilization I seek a better understanding of how religion, culture and day-to-day life translate into their spiritual expression.