Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Unreal Reality of Tikal

We’re on the road again! We’ve left our Paradise on Lake Atitlan and we are beginning to make our way across Guatemala towards Belize. Yesterday we landed in a small village called El Remate outside of Flores after an overnight bus ride from Guatemala City. We tend to choose the smaller, more tranquil places to stay, over bustling towns with noisy activity and touristy allure.

We’re in the heart of the jungle, on Lake Peten Itza. There are no mountains here, no volcanoes. Just flat narrow roads that span around the lake, speckled with small cabins and simple homes and accommodations for travellers. Our cabin in the woods has a private bathroom and a shower, but no hot water. We can’t have everything!

We woke early this morning (5:00!!) to get the first bus to Tikal. There is something special about entering this ancient Mayan area at sunrise. The earth in Tikal exudes a different energy. The birds are wildly singing without any sense of inhibition. Many birds…. blue jays, green jays and brown jays, oscillated turkeys, parakeets and falcons, all express themselves independently and sometimes respond to each others’ call. The cries from the howler monkeys are obvious and present from inside the depths of the jungle, and the buzz of the various insects is deafening.  Not many humans choose to be around there so early, and we walked far into the jungle before meeting up with other (crazy) people.

Tikal is different from the other Mayan ruins we’ve explored. It’s enormous, with over 10 kilometres of space featuring remnants of temples and palaces and residences of an ancient Mayan civilization. We stop periodically as we walk just to experience the energy and feel the presence of the ghosts that survive. How did they create this over 2500 years ago? How did they carry the enormous concrete bricks into the depths of the jungle? How could they ascend these hills and create such enormous pyramids and structures? Where did they learn the geometric precision to construct such solid and permanent buildings?

Paul and I stop for a brief nap on the steps of one of the 7 templos. As I drift I am aware of the density of the jungle around me and of the life that once existed here. It is so quiet, and yet, I hear the silent vigour of life. It feels good to sleep and to awaken to the sun and cool breeze that passes through this part of what once was a lively civilization.

Many of the buildings require climbing. Most of the time it is worth the effort. Atop Templo 4 is an awesome view of the expanse of jungle. I am so aware of the trees here, some of them hundreds of years old. It is hard to fathom that they are actually the great, great grandchildren of those trees that were here when Tikal was being built.  The jungle is thick, and only as I look carefully am I able to find the various ancient buildings from thousands of years ago, peeking through the treetops.

The world of Tikal is all in black and white and grey. The greens from the land and the blue in the sky accentuate the brightness of the buildings.  Steven Spielberg’s movies come to my mind as I notice the vibrancy of the simple colours of peoples’ clothing. In this world of antiquated beauty, simple primary colours become more conspicuous. Tikal seems like a dream, a fantasy world of antiquity and make-believe. Sometimes I just need to pinch myself to remember it’s all real.
The thing that strikes me the most, in all of this, is the utter authenticity of the Mayan reality. It is vibrant and rich and, oh so unique. I have learned so much about this people. I have grown to appreciate and value their traditions, and I have found common perspective in the ways that we see the world around us. In many respects we are the same…same…just different! Good-bye Guatemala, for now!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Yoga- The Practise

I began my morning today with a 3-hour Yoga class. It is the first class I’ve taken since my month in India in October. Since then, I’ve been practising every day on my own. I am happy to have established my own personal daily Yoga practise. I enjoy practising independently, and, sometimes, even sharing it with others.

I ponder the concept of Yoga being a ‘practice’.  If we practise something, what are we practising it for? Usually we practise to get better at something. What is it that I want to ‘get better’ at? Yoga is a way of life. Practising Yoga helps me improve the way I live. This is what I mean…

Pushing my limits. Sometimes, Yoga postures are challenging. I am constantly striving to push myself just a little bit harder. I reach a stage of comfort in my activities, and, when I settle into that comfort for a while, I become more ready to ‘move on’. When I become too comfortable, I’m not growing anymore. I want to push myself through to the next step. When I become too settled in a position in my life, I am ready for change. When I feel ready to grow professionally, I enrol in new courses, or attend conferences to expand my possibilities and learning. Not moving usually leads me to complacency. I want to continue to improve, to expand, and to grow. It requires patience and openness.

Balance! I recognize the relationship between my balancing postures in Yoga and creating balance in my life.  When my days are hectic and busy and rushed, I find it challenging to focus on the evenness between my right and left sides. Basic equilibrium in simple postures is difficult to maintain. I recognize the need to be quiet, to focus and to breath deeply. I have to settle, concentrate and go inside to find stability and calm. Some days it is easier to that than others. Isn’t it true?

Our Gabriola Paradise
Connecting with Nature. I am wondering if I will ever again be satisfied with practising Yoga indoors. Sometimes my motivation comes from knowing that as I practise, I will be communing with my natural surroundings. The sounds of the early birds in India still resound in my brain. The mountains of Lake Atitlan and, in particular, the volcano of San Pedro envelope me as I move or meditate or unravel into my headstand or other inversions. I welcome the opportunity to connect to the Nature that surrounds me, and to embrace it and feel her embrace in return. Gabriola also offers a warm haven for Yoga practise, the canopy of old trees protecting me and wrapping me with its living, breathing green. I am reminded of the gift that Nature offers and the desire I have to live here. It is Nature that provides me strength and joy, not material things and possessions.

Ahimsa! ”No harm”.  ‘Doing’ Yoga is an opportunity to see the wholeness of our world.  While moving through the postures I make an effort to connect my body, mind and heart with the cosmos. We are all a part of this universe… animals, plants, oceans and lakes, the planets and stars, the moon and sun, all exist harmoniously, and enhance each other’s existence. We are here together in co-existence. When I am practising Yoga, I feel an enhanced sense of love for others. When my practise is finished, I feel the desire to connect with those around me, to bow gently and share a humbling greeting of ‘Namaste’. “I acknowledge and celebrate the divine in you.” Sometimes I need to remind myself to express the respect and love that I feel for those around me, and to share that expression with sincerity and gratitude. Practising helps me to become better at that expression and more comfortable with sharing those thoughts.

Flexibility. I am learning how to stretch! Sometimes in my life, events don’t happen the way I had planned. Often, this results in feelings of disappointment, regret, or even sadness. Upon reflection and with intent, I meditate to see these things differently. I try to listen with my head and heart, and see other perspectives so that satisfaction isn’t just about the way I think. My mother taught my brothers and me how to slice a grapefruit. “You have to cut it in half this way,” she would instruct us, ”and then loosen the pieces.” I am learning that my mother wasn’t 100% right. There are many ways to slice a grapefruit! It all depends on ‘how’ you want to taste it! In Yoga, if I settle into a posture, and feel that I have reached my limit, I just stay there, and breath into it, and, inevitably, I am able to push further. It’s about listening and maintaining an open heart. It’s about avoiding judgement, withholding my own opinions, and simply listening. I just accept and celebrate the alternatives.
Trust. Before I learned my scorpion position, I had to learn how to fall gracefully.  Performing inverted postures presents challenge, and sometimes, risk. I need to feel comfortable collapsing, because, sometimes, I do. Giving myself permission to not succeed is allowing myself to be imperfect. I make mistakes, and, sometimes, I need to say "I'm sorry." and try again. I am learning to appreciate my falls backward, and love that stretch into a backbend that happens when I ‘fall’ out of my posture.

Appreciation! When my practice is over, I am grateful. My chanting and meditation is about giving thanks... to myself, to my body, to my loved ones and neighbours, and to God, my natural surroundings and the universe that provides me this space and this life! Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Wayeb Fire Ceremony or Shabbat Shalom

“Shabbat Shalom” says Paul, as he leans over to kiss my cheek. Tonight, it is not Shabbat candles we are lighting to bring in the Shabbat, but an enormous communal ceremonial sacred fire to welcome the beginning of Wayeb, an ancient Mayan ritual that honours the “five missing days” of the solar calendar.

 In the Mayan Solar Year there are 18 months of 20 days, which total 360 days. During the 5 days in between, Mayan rituals are practiced. This time is called the "nameless days" or "time out of time". They make up the ‘5 missing days’ of the calendar.

There is a renewed universal effort to promote awareness about Mayan civilization. An attempt to teach Mayan philosophy and practice is evident, as the people gather together to share ritual and ceremony. It is rich! I feel very blessed to be available for the many ceremonies and practices here in Guatemala, the home of the largest Mayan population in the world.

The fire is a sacred element that connects us to the holy being. I must say, it has been a challenge for me to understand that concept. I realize this time, my third fire ceremony experience, that I don’t need to understand. We are sharing traditions and I am learning about other peoples’ spiritual expression. I become absorbed in the practice and open up to appreciate what is happening for me.

I am recognizing similarities. Ahau (pronounce achow) is the Mayan word for the almighty God. I am startled by it’s sound as I hear it declared in the ceremonial prayer. It sounds just like our name for God, Yaheweh, which is often translated as “He/She Brings Into Existence Whatever Exists". I am again reminded of the term, Namaste, the Sanskrit word of salutation and prayer, meaning, "I salute or recognize your presence or existence in society and the universe." All of these are forms of the same; a spiritual honouring of the divine above and within each one of us.

As we enter the sacred fire space, we are individually blessed with the scented smoke. An elder, swinging a censer covers each of our bodies with smoke, welcoming each individual into the ceremony and offering support and guidance if necessary. I smile with familiarity. Each opportunity I have had to participate in learning and prayer with various Native American communities begins with the Smudging Ceremony. It is a way to separate ourselves from the world outside, and symbolically enter in to the sacred space of learning, prayer and God. It is what I do each Friday night when I light the Shabbat candles with family and friends around, and, circling my arms towards the light 3 times, I bring the warmth and glow of the flames towards my head and heart, and, cover my eyes with my hands. I welcome the end of another workweek…Shabbat evening.

The words shared during the Fire Ceremony are often intended to give thanks to our ancestral heritage and to gather knowledge. Elders, young children, and everyone in between, are welcome to participate fully. L’dor va dor…from generation to generation! Encouragement to pray in ones’ own language and in ones’ own way, reinforces the oneness of our spiritual being. We are returning to Nature. It is there for all of us, and we are invited to celebrate her, alone and together.

Wayeb is a Rosh Hashana for the Mayan people. It commemorates the completion of the 18 months. The 5 days of Wayeb is an occasion to give thanks and to ask for forgiveness for any wrong doings during the previous year. The final day is a last opportunity to find grace in God’s light and to receive blessing for the year ahead. Gmar Chatima Tova to all the Mayan people and (kol yoshvah tavail) to all those around the world!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Reflections on a Sunny Friday Morning

I’ve been thinking again! Uh oh!

Paul and I have begun to plan our trip out of Guatemala and back to North America. Life is so rich here and there are so many thoughts that come up as I begin to prepare to leave.

Cultures, peoples, civilizations are all different. They’re not good or bad. They’re not rich or poor. They just are! And they exist in their own way; different perhaps from mine, but in a way that works well for them. There are so many things that surprise me and make me question the way things are done here. Often I have to stop to remind myself that they don’t need me, or the likes of me. They exist. They’re fine. Maybe they would like colour television or multiple computers, or a big fancy car. That’s because of what they see in western civilization. Left unto themselves, most people here are happy and healthy and with the support of others in the community are able to subsist. I am reading a book right now called Solacers by Arion Golmakani. A memoir, about orphaned child in Iran, it is a beautiful story of an incredibly challenged existence that develops into an appreciation and gratitude for his world and the people who contribute to his growth and resiliency. In it, he says, ”we are all waters of the same ocean separated only by a physical bottle called the body.” I believe that, and I’m driven by that idea and the desire to understand and act on the concept of fairness.
I am completely enthralled with the contribution my surroundings have to my own strength and integrity. As I meditate I am aware of the awesome mountains and lively volcanoes that embrace me. The lake is calm and very solid and the sky changes constantly during the day.  Bright blue sky scattered with clouds that are sometimes white, sometimes grey. The sky is always present.  The change in weather is unpredictable. Although the days are often sunny with clear skies, nights sometimes offer thundershowers and very cool breezes.

The natural growth around me is beautiful, varied, strong, provisional and supportive. I have become mindful about making connections between my natural surroundings and myself and mindfully bringing the light from outside within, and my own light from inside, out.

I ponder the idea of work. I feel useful here and valued and valuable. I’m working. I’m playing. I’m sharing the skills that I have, and love the connection I have with the community. I’m also reaching out to other communities. I am blessed, no doubt. I wish for others to have the same.
At the same time, I remind myself to be aware of my own biases, and to withhold judgement. My western values are engrained in my consciousness and I am realizing that they are not always valuable to others.  For me, I am learning to expand and celebrate other ways of being. Is our model of labouring all day and being obsessed with our work and materialism and relentless economic growth really ‘the way’? I can’t help but notice the pleasant and happy family life that exists here, the focus on time together, and the co-operative efforts to survive together through life’s challenges. We think of it sometimes, as poverty. But I’m not sure! ‘Poor’ for me, is people who have no time for fun, or creative expression, and who are too pre-occupied with work to take the time to be with family and develop and strengthen ties of friendship and companionship. I am much more comfortable here than in the rat race that I sometimes find myself involved in Canada.

Nothing is perfect! In Guatemala, there is so much that needs to be addressed. Health issues, road construction and sewage issues, communication backwardness and too little emphasis on education are all areas that could be improved if there was leadership attention given.  Crime (especially in the cities), lack of public education, adequate food supply to feed the population, job creation are areas that are being addressed by outside individuals and NGOs.We are making a scratch on the surface, and there's need for more intentional infrastructure to maintain and sustain the work that the outside world is doing here.

It’s worth it! The Mayan culture thrives here. It is strong. It has a deep, rich history that adds value to our world as a universal people. There is a friendly, loving, joyful and spiritual mentality here that dominates and is worth celebrating! I just feel so comfortable living here!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Travelling in Guatemala

Our ride out
Our trek back to San Marcos this Saturday morning began with a short hike up the road to the nearest village, called Xix (pronounced Sheesh!). Supposedly there is a bus that comes three times a day. Ordinarily, we are told, the bus stops at the top of the hill, honks loudly, and waits there for about 10 minutes waiting for passengers. When hours go by without any sign of the horn, Paul and I decide to walk up into the village. No bus arrives, so when we finally see a pickup truck passing, we wave it down and ask for a ride. For a mere 50 quetzals, the driver agrees to transport us to Nebaj where we make our next connection.
and in!

Our microbus from Nebaj to Santa Cruz has capacity for 17 people, including the driver. As we wind our way through the highlands of Nebaj, we stop periodically during the trip to let passengers on or off. For most of the trip there are 25 people of all ages and sizes in the mini bus, several of them standing up and bending over, struggling to stay off the laps of those of us lucky enough to have seats. The ticket taker hangs from a ladder on the back of the van.

Bags, suitcases, baskets and knapsacks tied to the top of the bus remain surprisingly secure. The steep, switchback roads cling to our bus and, fortunately, we cling back! We wind speedily through the beautiful lush highlands of Guatemala, passing through smatterings of homes and tiendas, greens, browns, and multicoloured fields. The occasional running river reminds me of Chiapas, Mexico.

Arriving in Santa Cruz, we dismount our microbus and board the waiting chicken bus to Chichicastenango (Chichi for short). This is my first experience on a chicken bus in Guatemala. When I was in Cyprus in the 1970’s I used to ride them all the time. In Cyprus, there were not only chickens, but also cows and pigs and birds of all sorts. I have never seen a chicken on a chicken bus in Guatemala. From the outside, they are as colourful and decorated as the buses in India, adorned carefully with signs of Jesus and reminders of God. No wonder, I think, “We need extra prayers with this driving!”

I am absolutely in love with the Guatemalan people! Mayan culture, alive everywhere we go, is evident in the variety of colours as well as in the language of welcome and friendship. Questions abound, and a sincere desire to know more about us is evident. “De donde tu?” (Where are you from?), “Que te haces aqui?” (What are you doing here?),  “Te gusta Guatemala?” (Do you like Guatemala?) A generous “Buenos diaz” comes with an animated smile and a wave of a hand, and sometimes even a glance back as we pass. It’s not at all like we heard before we came. “Be really careful.” Our family and friends warn us. “People are getting killed all over the country.” “Protect your belongings.” I know several people who would not come to Guatemala out of fear! Paul wrote a song a few years ago called I Won’t Live My Life in Fear. I’m so glad we don’t!

The music in the bus is always in Spanish. There is little attempt to anglicize songs. The words are almost always about love, and even when they’re not, it sounds like they are! I’m grateful for the blast of the radio. It helps cover up the loud shriek of the brakes as we descend the mountains. I feel the pull and the rattle and the extreme vibration of the brakes beginning with my feet and travelling through my whole body. I continue to pray that the brakes will last and I begin to wonder how the bus will manuever it’s way down these switchbacks without brakes! I am so relieved when we reach the base.
Night time in Chichi before the Market

Just splendid!
We spend the night in Chichi. Here is a world famous market open only twice a week. We’re not interested in buying as much as we are in the experience. We are told that arriving the night before the market is a trip. Mayan vendors arrive from around the country to sell their wares. They set up the night before and ‘live’ in their stall waiting for morning when the market opens. If you don’t get there early enough, the market gets so crowded you can hardly walk. We got there by 7:30 the next morning, and were finished by the time (especially Paul) began to feel claustrophobic. The bustle and the intense ‘buying’ that goes on there is amazing. There is nothing you can’t get at the market in Chichi! And Guatemalan merchandise is everywhere! We purchased some amazing deals!

Great bargains!

Outside the church during Mass
The church on the outside of the market holds Catholic Mass services early Sunday morning. I loved it! The Catholic practice is obvious, and the integration of Mayan ritual is woven in to the experience.  The first part of the Mass is held in Spanish, then another person breaks into Quiche to complete the service. Individual fire ceremonies, incense, and various shaman practises can be seen both inside and outside the walls of the church.

The shuttle back to our beautiful home on the lake was packed with travellers. The ride, uneventful, was full of conversation and fun. It is perfect being back now. We have less than two weeks left here on the lake and we are revelling in the prospect of just settling and appreciating where we are for now. I have some work at local schools, completion of my massage course, and I am continuing to immerse myself in Spanish. A beautiful connection with a local school is helping to create plans for returning to Guatemala for more work! Today we start to plan our trip back to Canada.

Our new friend!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Special Place For Learning!

The sounds of drumming and howls of voices and marimba beats coming from the village wake me this morning. The roosters join the commotion only after the ceremony begins and the whippoorwills, geckos, and outrageous blackbirds come later. It is Saturday morning and a spiritual gathering; perhaps even a fire ceremony is taking place up on the hill. The audible hum of this place is exceptional. Wild pigs, chickens, roosters, goats, and a multitude of very unusual birds, along with various human chatter, make up a cacophony of sound unlike any I’ve ever experienced. Children, so many children, playing in the streams and hills around the village round out the resounance of life here.
We have spent the last few days here playing and working with kids at Nuevos Mayas School, (www.NuevosMayas.com) servicing students in kindergarten through 12th grade.  There are approximately 100 students attending, all of whom receive sponsorship from an outside source. Many of the students live too far from this remote village to trek back and forth, and so provision for room and board is necessary for the 25 students who live here. Others return to their homes each day, helping to support family farms and community businesses.
We are in the western highlands of Guatemala in a small village called Ixil (pronounced Eesheel), one of the villages in the Nebaj region. Here the people are known for their tenacity and their relentless attempts to stay close to their Mayan cultural practices. Their focus is living in complete harmony with the environment. Their resourcefulness is apparent here and the lively fiestas held in honor of patron saints and Mayan deities round out their existence. There has been history of extreme brutality here and almost everyone we meet has history of familial genocide and atrocity. They are recovering!

In this small village, families of five - ten children are common. Children taking care of children is prevalent and as I walk down the unpaved roads I see sisters and brothers, cousins, all playing together and watching out for each other. Some of the ‘sisters’ are actually mothers. Very early pregnancy is common. Children having children having children. The pattern continues.

At the Nuevos Mayas School hope prevails with an emphasis to break out of some of the old patterns.  This residential school was founded 10 years ago by a group of interested people wanting to provide an alternative to the challenging and limiting life that exists here in the western highlands of Nebaj.

Young boys and girls are encouraged to come, live here, and be schooled. The curriculum focuses on basic subject areas and also concentrates on promoting and highlighting the history and culture of the Mayan Indigenous people. It is definitely a place of hope and growth! The youth here are happy, energetic and appreciative.

Students come exclusively by sponsorship, and the school functions by donations. Needless to say, the resources are scarce and teaching practices are weak. Trained and qualified teachers who can find employment elsewhere rarely choose such a remote and depressed area.  The administration is young and generally ignorant of simple pedagogy. It is not unlike trying to find good teachers for under-privileged communities in Canada.

Volunteers are welcome. The visitors’ accommodations are basic. There is no heating and the showers offer tepid (at best) trickle with water.  And the nights are very cold!

The dormitories where the students sleep are similar, although the kitchen also has a large communal dining area. As gringos we have been warned to avoid the food they cook. The repeated use of beans and tacos and concern for the water makes it necessary for us to bring our own food supplies. There is no refrigerator, but it doesn’t really matter because it is cold enough to keep all of our perishables by leaving them next to a (closed) window. Gringos repeatedly get sick, even those that frequent the area and are used to life here.

 During our time here, we spend hours in various classes promoting language skills and encouraging story telling. Together we constructed a felt storyboard, and, with lots of felt material that we brought with us, students designed cutouts to help illustrate their stories. Then we wrote them down in Spanish and translated them into simple English. The youth love the chance to learn English. They recognize the importance of learning for their future advancement.  We had only 2 pair of scissors for everyone. The children really know how to share and the process works well even with the limited resources. Young children cut out pictures that help describe what they know about their lives here and place them on the board. The hope is that these illustrations help to make their story more permanent and alive.

Simple templates for poetry writing that we used, gave the older students an opportunity to share a deeper perspective about themselves. We translate their poems into English (with the help of Spanishdict.com), photograph each person and display the results on their classroom walls.  After walking way up the hill to the local printer, we make 2 copies of each poem, one for the previously bare classroom wall and one for each student to take home.
Whatever strategy we used in the classes allowed for communication through verbal dialogue, written word, music and drawing. Regular Yoga sessions lead by our friend, Maalaa, were enthusiastically attended and seriously practised by many.

Learning through real life experiences is the greatest way to learn. Young people in Guatemala are happy. They have what they need and somehow they know how to get what they need. Education is not even close to a priority and by the time children reach 15 years old, school attendance is no longer free. Many children are discouraged from attending school, because they are able to work and help support the family. Young girls are set up to walk the streets with wares to entice people to buy. Boys are prompted to build, farm, and hustle in order to help support the family.  

I am learning more and more the benefits of education. It is not to impress our western values on an already rich and vibrant people. Instead, providing educational opportunities is a means of providing choice. It is choice that makes knowledge worthwhile. Attending school at Nuevos Mayas gives many children availability to choices they never had before.
Xix feels a bit different today. Many of the students with whom we shared time with this week, have gone to their homes. There, they will help with family chores for the weekend, and, perhaps work to help support their families.

I know one thing…. the joy on the faces of the children, the excitement of having us here, and their absolute openness to share their daily lives is evident. I have absolutely loved being here with them (I even started to consider spending a month here) and to know how much they need and appreciate our being here!