August 13, 2010
Today in Merida, the temperature climbed high and the humidity index follwed suit… Paddling in the pool in an effort to stay cool, I thought about one of my favorite fresher, drier places: Chiapas. I’ve visited the state at least thirty times and I never tire of it.
In fact, sometimes Chiapas is the inspiration for my writing. The following is an excerpt from my novel in progress, “If You Only Knew”
“Traveling on my own in the Sierra Madre was viewed as extremely unusual… definitely not an appropriate place for an unaccompanied woman. I should have been scared senseless as the ancient bus careened wildly around hairpin curves and climbed painfully up what was wistfully called a road.. But it didn’t occur to me to feel afraid. No way – I felt completely in awe of all I was experiencing.
During that ride, I developed a clarity of vision I’d never known before. My eyes took in the high altitude green eucalyptus, the lanky canary-yellow flowers bending in the breeze and hundreds of thousands of plump, red coffee beans laid out to dry on hard-packed earth. We passed minuscule settlements where time seemed to have stopped. Through the bus window, I caught glimpses of shy Tzotzil and Ch’ol Mayan women with their children. I smelled wood smoke on the wind and didn’t give a thought to the groaning sounds of several huge bundles shifting in the roof racks
On the edge of the road, pine trees and bananas were growing side by side. The apples and oranges were doing likewise. I asked my seatmate, a young, thin government engineer named Efren, how this could be? He said, “The mountain ascent is so steep and fast that both the lowland and highland plant species have adapted to these less-than-ideal growing conditions. And so have the people.”
Efren knew the area well. In the indigenous market of tiny San Juan Chamula, he introduced me to a group of women, bent over from years of weaving on back-strap looms. I felt immediately drawn to Carmen, an ageless mother of nine. She did incredible work, superior to all the others’. She invited me to her home to see more of her pieces and I accepted at once.
On the way, we passed the town’s church. I sensed an otherworld presence and felt compelled to stop. I gazed at the building and hesitantly asked if we could go inside. Carmen gave me an odd look but agreed. The heavy wooden door inched open and as my eyes adjusted to the glowing interior, I knew my companion was observing my reaction to the scene arrayed before us. I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep myself from crying out.
This was like no sacred place I’d ever seen. No pews. No conventional main altar. Fragrant pine needles were spread on the floor, and hundreds of multi-colored candles burned. Vases of flowers were everywhere. All around the perimeter, family groups knelt before a plethora of elaborately adorned statues. But I heard no sedate murmuring and no reverent crossing of oneself. These people were yelling, stomping their feet and shaking their fists at the effigies. Men chanted and women keened. Little ones observed the elders, learning their ways.
They prayed in several Mayan languages I couldn’t understand, but obviously, they were begging for the saints’ intervention. They set out food and posh, the traditional liquor – it struck me that this was like “The Offertory” during Holy Mass. I heard a rooster loudly protest as he was pulled from a sack. His neck was quickly wrung and the twitching bird was laid down with the other gifts – “The Consecration”. They took bites of food and even the children were sipping the posh. There it was – “The Communion.” I was overwhelmed with emotion. Discretely, Carmen took my arm and led me outside into the daylight. How long had we been in there?
I wanted to ask her about what I’d witnessed but the words wouldn’t come. I couldn’t describe the confusion I felt. It would be many years until I gleaned an understanding of this syncretistic faith that is so fundamental to the contemporary Mayan way of life. “