Posts Tagged ‘guatemala’

Geotourism: lessons from Guatemala

Written by admin on January 3rd, 2009. Posted in Geotourism

For me, culture and heritage are important components of the package that is geotourism. While it’s critical to preserve the planet and our fellow creatures, it sometimes feels to me as if not much emphasis is placed on preserving cultures. All over the world cultures are becoming extinct. Tibet is the most obvious example, but joining Tibetans are hundreds of indigenous cultures that are in danger of extinction. My favorite part of traveling is interacting with indigenous cultures. I contend they are the keepers of the world’s magic. Not magic like slight of hand, but that magic comes alive when people are still deeply connected to the natural world and all its wonders through their cultural mythology and spiritual beliefs.

The following story illustrates what I mean about magic as well as helps answer the question about “basics” of gaining acceptance in a new culture. Passing through the indigenous highland village San Andreas Xecul in Guatemala in 2001, I met TS Harvey (still a grad student then) who was studying language use and attempting to catalogue and cross-tab the different ways the Quiche Maya communicated their medical problems which varied dramatically depending on whether they were taking to a local curandero (traditional healer), sacerdote (mayan priest), or a traditional western trained doctor. To do so, Tenny had to earn the trust of the priests in particular who still carry heavy sway in villages in this area. In fact, Tenny was unable to visit the local San Simon effigy (a entirely different story but a fascinating and important Mayan deity, aka Maximon) until he was moved to a new host home or Tenny could risk eroding the trust he’d built up with the priest and associated cofradia with whom he was working closely.

Tenny said his approach to gaining the trust he needed to do his research was to let the Maya be Maya and he be true to who he was. Because of the nature of his work and trust gained, Tenny had been offered to become a priest. Doing so would have opened more doors for him and his research but he didn’t feel such a course was an honest approach. “It’s a slower road but one with more respect and one where you can sleep at night,” he told me.

Tenny told me the village was experiencing “soul loss” and that about 15 people had died mysteriously in the past two months including some young children and teens who had gone rapidly from playful, healthy kids to dead. The villagers believed shades (spirits) were wandering through the town and they couldn’t get rid of them. If you saw a shade and didn’t get treatment right away you would die. Tenny said there were no obvious clues to what had been killing the people. He said the local Mayan priests (very few Catholic priests there) were really busy either trying to eradicate the shades or tending to funerals.

Elsewhere, while “visiting” San Simon in Xecul, I noticed a villager assembling the items for his “burn.” They included the usual assortment of copal and candles as well as two cans of green chile. I hadn’t seen green chili used as an offering before and was told that chili smoke is supposed to repel evil spirits (and Conquistadors a long, long time ago). Fireworks thrown into the fire ended this prayer offering. It was explained to me that the ashes are saved and resold for those who would sprinkle them on someone whose love they hoped to attract.

In my journal I wrote that my experience during that month in Guatemala reminded me of a poster I’d seen in the States that sagely proclaimed “Some things have to be believed to be seen.”

If Tenny didn’t believe in the possibility of spirits causing illness, could he have “seen” what he was studying? Could the Mayans fall sick, cure broken hearts, be healed by their Mayan priests and gods if they didn’t believe in them?

Especially when traveling among indigenous cultures I have found it’s important to suspend my Western beliefs about nature and especially God at least long enough to really see people and their daily lives and belief systems in refreshing, sometimes startling, but always interesting and enlightening ways.