Fruit of the Loom

The one thing I can’t seem to stop feasting on here in Guatemala (besides tacos), that my eyes drink in by the bolt-ful, my fingers absentmindedly brush in every market stall, trying, like reading braille, to divine a story from each thread, a history from each stitch dyed with tradition is the woven cloth that colors every facet of the Guatemalan kaleidoscope.  Threads of fushia, peacock blue, lemon yellow, tangerine, emerald and royal purple are painstakenly woven by hand into huge swaths of fabric which is infused into every aspect of Mayan life.

The markets are a bustling hub of kinetic energy.  A Jackson Pollack painting of activity.  Bloody red meats hang in the heat from iron hooks, the smell metallic and cloying.  Flies buzzing.  Handwoven baskets are filled with sacs of sliced fruit: perfectly ripe mangoes, watermelon and papaya await a sprinkling of salt, ginger and curry powder followed by a squeeze of lime.  Mayan women are adorned in the traditional dress.  Skirts made from this handwoven fabric are wrapped around their sturdy hips.  Blouses are embellished with lace and embroidery and then tucked in with elaborate belts.  And headwraps, which I previously thought were for decoration, provide padding for the huge, heavy baskets they carry balanced upon their heads, supported only by their brown, sinewy necks.

The men walk bow-legged through the villages in Wrangler jeans and sturdy, Stetson cowboy hats, as if the watering trough and the saloon are just around the corner.  The children, always well behaved, even as toddlers, play patiently next to their mothers in their market stalls, their huge, brown eyes pools of curiosity for foreigners.

Almost all suck on lollipops and drink Coke through toothless smiles, deep lines crease their faces and even the young seem leathered with age.  Their lives seem hard and reminiscent of a fallen era, once a mysterious dynasty resplendant with lavish temples encrusted in jade and obsidian, dating back at least 2, 000 years, now fallen into poverty, back-breaking agricultural labor and near-constant civil war.

I helped a man lift his potato sack out of a boat onto the dock and it was quite possibly the heaviest thing I have every lifted.  It took four of us to raise one onto the dock.  And as the boat motored away, I watched him remove his cowboy hat, place a leather strap across his forehead and single-handedly lift that potato sack onto this back.  We passed rock quarries where men, young and old, covered in dust in the hot sun, lifted and moved bags of rocks by hand…all day long.  And after seeing the tedious plucking and stripping of coffee beans from their leaves, I will never NOT buy fair trade coffee again.

A two-hour guided uphill hike took us to a mirador, or view point, overlooking Laguna Chicobal, the second most sacred Mayan religious site in Guatemala.  601 steps took us down to the shore.  It was a damp and grey day and the mists descended upon the water-filled volcanic crater like an eerie scepter whispering ancient secrets to the vine-draped trees.  Bouquets of flowers formed altars along the shore, piles of ashes left scars in the sand, and it seems a bird gave its life as a sacrifice, lovingly draped upon a stick.

Gestavo, our guide, drew pictograms in the earth, showing us the history of the Mayan calendar and its evolution from its eighteen month accurate form based on the sun and the moon and the stars, to the current one we know today, fraught with day-light savings conveniences, errors and discrepancies.  He mentioned the year 2012 is the end of that calendar and that, to the Mayans, signals a time in civilization when we, collectively, will become more spiritually conscious…awake.

As we hiked back down to the rendevous point we passed through fields of frosty green cabbage, onions, thick carrots and potatoes carved into tiered terraces in a volcano-studded landscape.  Finally, we made it to the village of Chicobal, where an inauguration of an eco-hotel was cause for a ceremony, although I don’t expect to see any write-ups in the next edition of the Lonely Planet.  Suddenly, we were invited to join in on the ceremony and as we filed into the back wall of a church-like building (which is to say it was a room full of chairs all facing the same direction), all eyes were craning back-wards to gawk at the gringas.  Men rose and graciously offered their chairs, their handshakes and their smiles to welcome us into the fold.  Prayers of blessings and gratitude were spoken in an almost lost Mayan dialect; Spanish words were audible, but mostly dominated by tongue clicks and exotic syllables.

We passed through tiny villages, delapidated houses, stray dogs, colorful, flaccid laundry futilely hanging out to dry in the misty damp, errant chickens crossing cobblestone roads, sludgy littered streams and as I watched a boy exit his school-yard bathroom, I reminded myself not to complain about moldy hostels and luke-warm showers.

But every single person we passed said “hola” or “buenes tardes” with a wave and a smile.  In a land where poverty is undeniable, the landscape volatile and unpredictable and the government wrought with corruption and division, it is always beautiful to see that, even still, simplicity, passion, creativity and generosity prevail.

Before I left for this trip I got into a heated argument, debate, (or rather) I drunkenly preached from my weaving soap-box to a very sweet and undeserving man about the irresponsibility of traveling, its carbon foot-print and the gratuitous-misuse-of-others’-misfortune-to-make-us-feel-better-about-our-lives (or some-such ridiculous boozy blabber), and to Christian, I do humbly apologize.

I see now how badly I am needed here.  And not in any self-righteous or overly important way, but my money helps.  These women don’t weave for their own sake anymore, they weave to sell to tourists like me who will buy a handwoven blanket for $30.00 and feel like its the bargain of a life-time, where for her, its almost a weeks’ wages.  Happily, I will fill that role ’cause I think its time to redecorate the bedroom anyways.

I see now how their lack of money helps me, teaching me the ever-important lesson that less really is more, and that, as a “developed” nation, we’re missing some pretty big essentials:  kindness, community, selflessness.  We live with so much and we still manage to complain about stress, cavaties, clogged arteries, health insurance, slow internet connections, a chipped pedicure, traffic jams, a its-not-hot-enough-and-you-didn’t-use-half-soy-milk-latte, non-organic, non-grain-fed, free-range, pro-biotic, sufate-free, the key pads on our flip-phones, TiVo forgot to record the last episode of America’s-I-don’t-have-an-acting-career-so-I-think-I-can-dance-Idol.  (I’m guessing you’ve caught the drift)

I see now how only ignorance and misunderstanding can come from a road untraveled.  There is no book or lesson or magazine that can teach us how vast and beautiful the world is.  How small and different we all really are, and yet, like the Guatemalan textile, how totally interwoven and connected we are.  And I only hope that I can weave as much simple, vibrant color into my life as they weave into theirs.

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