Thursday, June 29, 2006

What is Beautiful?

One last set of photos from Guatemala… these are from Antigua, the old Spanish colonial capital of Guatemala about an hour outside of Guatemala City. Antigua has all the charm you expect from such a city. Narrow, cobblestone streets.

Single story stucco buildings painted in bright colors with red tile roofs. A central square with a cathedral at one end, a large fountain in the middle, and arched walkways on the three remaining sides. Trees, benches, and people everywhere… locals in traditional Mayan clothing, shopkeepers in western wear, tourists loaded with cameras, and the scores of language students that flock to Antigua each year.

In addition, a few hundred years ago an earthquake nearly destroyed the city. Rather than rebuilding or tearing down the remnants, they left the ruins of churches, convents, and monasteries throughout the city.

La Merced was located at one end of the city, down a cobblestone street spanned by a yellow archway. We got caught on this street in a torrential downpour our last night in Antigua. A crack of lightning nearly overhead sent us running for cover into Pollo Campero, Jim’s favorite fast food joint in Guatemala.

Our first ruin was San Francisco. The large cathedral was still standing and used for worship. Out back, though, were the ruins of a monastery. Little was left standing.

The remnants of a pool, some partial walls and doorways. A group of young boys had all paid the 5 quetzals entrance fee in order to play hide and seek among the stones.

Later we visited Las Capuchinas, a convent at the other end of the city. A central courtyard was surrounded by a series of small cells that served as home for the nuns. No contact with the outside world. Just a five by five cell.

Our final visit was the Cathedral of San Jose, located on the main square. The whole cathedral complex spanned an entire city block. Dome after dome leading up to the main spire. All that is left are the soaring archways with their beautiful carvings of angels and saints.

We stayed in a wonderful, colonial style hotel called Posada Lazos Fuertas, owned by a non-profit organization that supports the children who live in the dumps of Guatemala City. There was a rooftop terrace with magnificent views of the city and the volcanoes.

We spent one afternoon sitting in the town square. Jim chatted with a New Zealand tourist who was traveling from Tierra del Fuego across South and Central America to the United States. Cathy and I were befriended by three little kids… one young girl and her 3 year old brother were selling trinkets to tourists. The other girl just came and stood next to me until I started talking to her. She didn’t want anything. Just someone to talk to. She was fascinated by our cameras. Asked us to take pictures of everything. I wish I could have brought her home.

I’m not sure what it means that Cathy and I knew little about the buildings we took pictures of. I had done some reading before hand to get a sense of the history of the city, but once we arrived, we were more captivated by the architectural beauty, the lines and angles, the possible photographs. We saw most of them through the lenses of our respective cameras. Someone asked me if it was possible to be present in the moment while taking pictures. What does it mean to be absorbed by the outward form detached from the context… the history and the people? On the one hand, I think aesthetic beauty is a tremendous gift from God, a work of grace, an added blessing to a world already richly blessed with life and love. A beautiful flower, an amazing sunset, a stunning cathedral. I often think these are all unnecessary in our world, yet God chose to give such beauty as a gift because of God’s great love for us. On the other hand, I have to remind myself that aesthetic beauty can often hide great evil and ugliness. These churches and convents, while places of worship, were also signs of conquest, signs of Spanish culture being forced upon the people of Guatemala. While outwardly beautiful, they probably evoke other emotions from those who lost their lives and culture at the hands of their colonizers. Can I admire and glorify the aesthetic beauty of these buildings without glorifying the colonial past of the country? I suppose this blog is an attempt at just that. May you enjoy the beauty, but may you value the people of Guatemala even more.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Jungle Trek to the Grand Jaguar

We woke up at 4:30 am to catch the plane to Tikal in the northern part of Guatemala. Though we were traveling to one of the most ancient sites in the country, I was first struck by the commercial nature of the area. Special fees to get into the park, extra fees to stay for the sunset or get up for the sunrise, maps available at a steep price, guides with a monopoly on special treks, tours that included meals but no beverages in the sweltering jungle heat. Amidst all this, though, was a grand adventure.

As we drove into the park, we passed several yellow caution signs. Rather than pictures of children crossing the street, they bore black outlines of jaguars, wild turkeys, snakes, and other wild animals. The shuttle drivers were timed, not for speed, but rather to insure that they were sufficiently cautious on the road to the hotel. At the gate, all buildings are left behind and for the next 20 minutes you are surrounded by jungle and, if you are lucky, you catch your first glimpses of the animals. You then come upon the few hotels, restaurants, and stores located within the park, including ours, the Jungle Lodge.

The Jungle Lodge is made up of renovated bungalows once used by the archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania who first uncovered the site. Inside are queen size beds draped in mosquito netting, a beautiful large bathroom, and ceiling fans which only work for the few hours in the morning and evening when the electricity is on. The bungalows are situated around a jungle courtyard. One of my favorite memories of our time in Tikal is sitting on the porch after a long day’s hike listening to the rain and watching the monkeys, toucans, and other birds climbing through the trees.

After dropping our bags in the room (we were only allowed to bring 20 lbs., which is a lot more than we realized!), we met up with Carlos, our guide, and a retired couple from Northern California for our hike to the ruins. I have to admit, I was really nervous at first. All the talk of jaguars and monkeys, the sweltering heat, the dense growth of jungle all around. It was about 15 minutes before we came across the first stellae, a piece of stone about 5 feet high with the image of a Mayan king (or queen) carved on the front. To be honest, we were more interested in the spider monkeys overhead, our first sighting! A few minutes later, though, off on the right, was the first pyramid. Still partially covered by foliage, the pyramid faced a small plaza with stellae lined up along the front. And a little farther on, around a corner, the spire of temple stood in the distance.

This was the Grand Plaza. Everything you imagined Mayan ruins to be. On one side, three partially visible pyramids and buried within these the remains of a great stone mask carved into the rock.

On the other, the ruins of the living quarters, partial walls, steps, rooms, just a small portion of the vast city that once encompassed this region. And at each end, giant temples overlooking it all.
The temple of the mask was the smaller of the two. Along one edge were wooden staircases that led to platform near the top.

From there, you looked across to the Grand Jaguar, the most famous of the temples in Tikal. They are stunning works of art and science that served as the center piece of a great civilization. The Mayan rulers would climb to the top of the great temple to offer blood sacrifices on behalf of their people. And then one day, they vanished. No one seems to really know why. There are many theories, but the archeological evidence seems to suggest that one day they all just walked away. Something that by all earthly standards was permanent, powerful, the pinnacle of human success… and poof… gone. One is left with a sense of the transitory nature of this world and a gratefulness for faith in an eternal and unchanging God.

From the Grand Plaza we continued on to Temple IV, about 20 minutes further into the jungle. At about 5:00 am the next morning we would join a group of college students from the United States and another tour guide for a silent hike in the dark back to this temple to watch the sky lighten in the mist and to hear the jungle come alive. It turned out to be much more exciting in theory than reality. We had been hoping for a sunrise and an army of howler monkeys screeching in the morning light. Instead, we got a few birds, a monkey or two, and a fantastic view.
From Temple IV you can see the tops of three other temples peaking out from the jungle. It is a scene made famous at the end of Return of the Jedi, just before Hans and Luke receive their medals of valor from Princess Leia.

One other adventure from the jungle before I close. We were only in Tikal for a day and a half. After lunch the first day, we all needed a rest (well, maybe not Jim…). We were dripping with sweat, gasping for water, and in desperate need of showers. We knew, though, that we needed to make one more trek into Tikal before it closed at 6:00 pm. So, despite the looming clouds, we headed out for Temple VI, the Temple of the Inscriptions. It had rained every afternoon in Guatemala, including an evening thunderstorm that sent us running for cover in Antigua, but we thought the shower would quickly pass. So, we pushed on. The three of us, alone in the jungle, on a dirt path, through the rain, searching for a temple hidden in the far reaches of Tikal. We were sure it would be just around the next corner… or the next… The light rain got stronger. A flash of lightning.
But we must be close! And finally, through the mist, there it was, the Temple of the Inscriptions. Different than all the others with three archways and the carvings on the lentil still in tact. To be honest, we didn’t stay long. A moment under the canopy to take pictures and adjust our backpacks. Then we started running for the lodge.

A grand adventure. I don’t feel like an adventurer. I remember thinking, “Who is this person hiking through the jungle?” We’re just normal people. Two pastors and school administrator. Okay, Cathy grew up all over the world as a missionary kid, but I didn’t. I am not that exotic. I am scared all the time. I love being at home. But here I am, hiking through Mayan ruins in the jungles of Guatemala. Crazy.

Lake Atitlan

I've been back from Guatemala for about a week now... from there straight to the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Definitely a culture shock! Actually, I had about four days in between. The most shocking part of returning... Two weeks getting up early and hiking around Guatemala for hours each day and my body feels great. Two days back in the office and I am a wreck! My back hurts. Headaches. Eyes strained from sitting in front of a computer. And this is called progress. I am not sure our bodies are meant for this world we've created.

There was no access to the internet for the last few days in Guatemala, so I'll be catching up in the next few blogs.
After Santa Apolonia, we made our way to Panajachel... the incredibly tacky little tourist town on the shores of Lake Atitlan. The drive was a bit of an adventure. Julio was gracious enough to take us in his minivan. Only one stop by the local police and one flat tire, but we made it safely. After winding over mountain ridges for two hours, we descended down through the town of Solola and on to Pana. A few miles outside of the city, the road opened up onto breathtaking views of Lake Atitlan and its three breathtaking volcanoes.

We made our way to the main street lined with restaurants and shops, including many stalls stocked with local crafts and staffed by the locals in their traditional Mayan clothing. We stayed just off the main strip at the Bungalows El Aguacatal (the Avocado). They were not bad, once Jim cleared the spiders out of my bedroom. To be honest, it was awfully nice to allow someone else to do that for me! I am so used to taking care of myself.

We spent one day on a private boat tour of the lake. I realize the irony of going from a small town in mountains of Guatemala to a private boat tour on Lake Atitlan. I am not sure how to resolve it in my own mind. In high school, I probably would have wanted to cancel the remainder of my trip, giving all my money to those in need in Santa Apolonia. Now I know enough to see that my small gift would do little to change the great inequities in our world, the systems that continue to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. But is that any reason not to live sacrificially? Have I succombed to the greed of my culture? Have I chosen an easy path of discipleship rather than the road less traveled? I work hard for my money and shouldn't I be able to enjoy the material benefits God has given me? But can I really say that I work harder than any of the people of Santa Apolonia? Do I even work a fraction of the hours they do?

With all those thoughts swirling around in my mind, we boarded our small barco with David, a local college student and amateur photographer, who captained his father's boat. The water was smooth and glassy. The views were amazing. Over each of the volcanoes hung a billow of clouds that looked like they were pouring out of the crater.

David took us on a tour of three of the smaller towns nestled in the hillsides around the edge of the lake. There were few tourists in the villages. And most of the women and men wore traditional Mayan clothing.

In the first town, Santa Catarina, we watched a parade of school children carrying posters about ecological issues in Guatemala. Children greeted us at the boat and escorted us back to the lake selling small trinkets and offering to pose for pictures for a quetzal. Cathy spoke to each and everyone of them. She was amazing with the children.

In San Antonio Palopo, we hiked to the small Catholic church on the hillside with a fantastic view of the lake. Along the way we found a small outlet store for local pottery and a building where they demonstrated various weaving techniques.

The main street was bustling with the Monday morning market. This time Cathy befriended an older Mayan woman who insisted on showing her how to tie up her hair according to the local fashion. Cathy, of course, eventually bought the brightly woven fabric tie for her hair.

The final town, Santiago Atitlan, was the main tourist destination on the other side of the lake. Nestled at the back of an inlet at the base of the San Pedro volcano. As we floated into the town, we saw several men fishing along the shoreline and a group of women doing laundry. As we pulled up to the dock, several boys ran up to us offering to show us Maximon, the local party saint. Known for his smoking and drinking and hidden in a small, dark room in the back of a small home, we passed on this opportunity. Instead, we made our way to the church in the local square. In the church was a monument to the people of Santiago Atitlan who were killed during the civil war. Santiago Atitlan is known for being the first village in the country to expel the armed forces. For years it was caught between the guerillas based on the hillsides and government forces. Hundreds disappeared accused of siding with the guerilla army. In 1990, drunken soldiers shot a villager. The townspeople had finally had enough. They marched in mass to the army base. In fear, the soldiers opened fire killing 13 and wounding 20. The incident drew international attention and the army finally withdrew from the town.

1990... just 16 years ago this town was occupied by armed forces. Today, in the center square, villagers are gathered with bushels of avocadoes, loading them on brightly painted chicken buses to send to market. And Cathy, Jim, and I are wandering peacefully through the streets with little sense of the willpower and strength of these people.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Guatemala, Part IV

Things had been going too well on this trip to continue! Yesterday we hired "un barco privado" (a private boat) to take us around Lake Atitlan, said to be the most beautiful lake in the world. Though not entirely clear, the day was beautiful. I think on a clear day the lake would be amazing, surrounded by three volcanoes and steep shorelines lined with villages. In the midst and haze it was beautiful. The boat took us to several villages along the shoreline. Given the early hour, a weekday, and the rainy season, we were generally one of only five or six tourists in each of the villages. We were greeted at the shoreline by children and women in traditional dress selling us handcrafts or pictures for a quetzal or two. From there we would hike up the main street to the small catholic churches overlooking the lake. In San Antonio Palopo, we climbed a cobblestone path through houses, tiendas, a weaving center, and a small outlet for local ceramics. Along the street parallel to the church the local market was in full swing and we spent a few minutes just watching life in this little village. In Santa Catarina Palopo, we watched a parade of the local school children, most of the girls in bright blue traditional dress, some with red head coverings.

It was a different experience to observe these villages as a total outsider after spending a few days with a family in Santa Apolonia. I always feel a bit awkward taking pictures and watching as people go about their normal lives. It feels like I have somehow turned them into objects rather than living human beings to relate with as fellow children of God. Feminist and other theories of research challenge whether one should consider those being researched as objects of study to consider objectively as a supposedly neutral outsider or wheter they should be considered fellow subjects in the process, defining their own truths and particpating in the analysis of their own lives and situations. In the past, much damage has been done to those considered less than the researcher... women, children, those of different races, those of lower classes, those of different cultures.

Having said all of that, I am grateful that Cathy has little fear and takes wonderful pictures of the people in these villages. I will post some later. She has a natural love for people that I am lacking and it shows in her photographs. Rather than treating these people as objects, her pictures are expressions of her love for people all over the world and her honoring of their beauty.
After our day on the lake, we returned to the city of Antigua, former colonial capital of Guatemala. Much of the city was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1700's and the ruins of the old churches and monasteries are visible on almost every cobblestone street. The adobe and plaster houses are a mirade of pastels and other bright colors with rich wood doors and accents. Our hotel, Posada Lazos Fuertas, is just beautiful! The service has been fantastic and all the proceeds benefit a local children's organization.

When we returned last night, we hit the first snags of the trip. A traffic jam in Chimeltenango. A downpour in Antigua that left us soaking wet and ducking for cover at the sound of the thunder and lightning. We were up and waiting at 6:00 am for our tour of the Pacaya vocano, but they never arrived. Once we are over our disappointment, we'll enjoy a relaxing day in Antigua and dinner in Guatemala City with Dan and Libby Englehorn, alumni from North Park. Tomorrow, Tikal!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Guatemala, Part III

On Thursday, a shuttle dropped Cathy, Jim, and I off on the side of the PanAmerican Highway. Waiting to greet us was Julio Ordonez, a friend of Cathy and Jim's, from the little town of Santa Apolonia about fifteen minutes up into the mountains outside of Tecpan, Guatemala. The town is set on a mountain side and the fields extend throughout the mountain valleys surrounding the town. There is so much to tell about our trip there! But for the moment, here are a few highlights... We woke up at 6.00 am the first morning for a walk through the misty mountain passes around the village. We were greeted by the local farmers on their way to work in their fields and by women on the way to the mill to grind corn for the day.

The women wear traditional Mayan clothing... a richly embroidered top called a huipile and a long skirt woven by hand on local looms. We were able to spend a few minutes at the local tailor's home, across the street from Julio, to see how the weaving is done. On this loom, a young woman is working on the center part of one of the huipiles. It will take her at least a month to complete this particular piece. In the shop behind her was the huge wooden loom used to create the skirts.
Julio also took us to visit with Pasquala. We entered her small home through a bright blue metal door walking into a courtyard full of pottery. She took us through the courtyard, past the kitchen, to the back of the house where she makes her pots. The clay comes from the hillside outside of Santa Apolonia. She grinds it into powder, mixes it with water, and then proceeds to shape the pot.
There is no pottery wheel. Instead, she places the clay on the ground and shapes it with her hands, spinning round and round until it takes the shape she desires. Later on it is painted and fired in an earthen kiln. The final product is a rich, red, terra cotta pot colored with black shadings from the kiln.

I have not even touched on the evening prayer meeting, conversations with a modern Mayan family, seeing the resemblences between the Mayan girls and my own nieces, or the afternoon at Iximche, a local Mayan ruin. Those will have to wait for later blogs. For the moment, I leave you with images of traditions that are quickly fading away. Pasquala and her 83 year old aunt are the only ones left in the village who still use the ancient technique for making pots. While many Guatemalans, especially the women, still wear traditional clothing, the family we stayed with, including the grandparents, have all opted for more modern, Western dress.

Julio is hoping to be the next mayor of Santa Apolonia. We spent much time talking of improvements he wants to make to the town. We talked of how to preserve the tradition and bring tourists into the city, how to clean up the streets, and bring education to all. As we talked, I was struck by the tension between tradition and resources. Somehow it seems that in our world in order to bring resources to a community, you have to give in to the wider modern culture. In order to improve the quality of living in one area, you have to lose something in another. There doesn't seem to be any way to preserve the sense of community, the love of culture, the connection with the land, and to provide health care, education, and financial resources. I realize that many are trying to walk this fine line in Guatemala and in the United States. But I wonder why the tension itself exists?

Tomorrow we take a boat around Lake Atitlan and the next day hike Mount Pacaya, an active volcano outside of Antigua. Still to come is Tikal, the great Mayan ruin in the north of the country.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Guatemala, Part II

Well, we arrived safely in Guatemala Tuesday evening. My first impression is being funneled out of the airport down a long hallway and then onto a red carpet lined walkway out into the parking lot. The walkway was lined with people... a set of white plastic chairs lined the right side. I am assuming they were waiting for family members, but it felt like a gallery of people watching these strangers arrive in their country. Then all the people with signs renting cars, offering taxis, names of tourists, names of hotels. It took me a while to find Victor, the driver from Dos Lunas, our hotel. I was grateful to see the sign and then to see my name and flight number on his clipboard.
Dos Lunas was a nice little hotel with a very friendly owner who greets you by name at the door. Our room barely fit the three beds for Jim, Cathy, and I. The trucks rumbled outside and the planes seemed to fly awfully low overhead, but it was a safe place to spend the first night in Guatemala City. The next morning we took a shuttle through the mountains to Antigua, the old colonial capital. We spent the day wandering amidst ruins of churches and convents, down cobblestone streets, into stores full of local crafts, taking lots of pictures, and observing. Women in traditional Mayan dress. Lots of language students from the US and Europe. Other Guatemalans in contemporary clothing riding scooters. A strange mixture of old and new, layered one upon another. We stayed in Posada Lazos Fuertas, this amazing little colonial hotel in the city. Three levels surrounding a small courtyard lined with stone. Old wood pillars and beams lining the hallways. A rooftop terrace with a view of the city.
Today we head on to Santa Apolonia. We are hitching a ride on a shuttle and getting off somewhere along the PanAmerican Highway were Jim and Cathys friend Julio will pick us up. Should be an adventure!