A brief encounter with the past

By Matthew Bossons
[contributor]

A Mayan woman shares her wisdom with young travelers over tea. Photo by Matthew Bossons.

“I warned you guys, it’s a steep hill,” said Al, our short El Salvadorian guide, as we made our way up what proved to be the largest and steepest hill we encountered in our travels.

A group of friends and I were in the small, picturesque town of San Jose, which is perched along the shore of Lago Petén Itzá, one of Guatemala’s largest lakes.

We weren’t climbing this monster of a hill for nothing, Al was taking us to see a woman, a woman he felt confident we would enjoy meeting.

“You guys are really going to love this, she is a real lovely woman,” said Al. “She is Mayan, and only speaks Mayan – so I will have to translate for you guys.”

For me this was enough to spark interest, enough interest to climb a enormous hill anyway. My companions seemed to agree.

And for ten minutes we ascend the steep incline, the blistering heat of the midday sun roasting any exposed skin on our pale white bodies.

When we finally got to the house, Al ushered us in through a wooden fence and down a short set of crude stairs to a small wooden homestead. The place was small, and very basic – no electricity or running water.

Al let himself in through the front door and re-emerged a minute later followed by a short, white-haired woman. Her tan skin was contrasted by her traditional white dress and the lines in her face told the story of a hard life on the rocky hillside.

She came bearing a welcoming and warming smile, with a pot of Mayan tea in hand.

She set the tea pot on a small plastic table in front of us and returned to the house to collect cups. Moments later she was back outside with an arm-full of small tea cups to accommodate the group of unexpected guests.

She set the cups on the plastic table and we set to filling each cup with the dark, murky drink.

For the next half hour Al acted as our interpreter and we questioned the woman about everything from local customs to Mayan religious practices and history. She answered questions in one of the remaining dialects of Mayan, a language that is all but extinct outside of the rural areas.

After the last question was asked, Al looked at our group and asked if our gracious hostess could in turn ask us a question. We agreed.

“She would like to know what you guys thing of Guatemala?” said Al.

The answer was an overwhelming “Yes”.

The thing that really lingered with me from this encounter was the realization that this woman survived one of the bloodiest civil wars to take place in the western hemisphere – and she still seemed so happy and positive.

People everywhere could learn a lesson or two from this woman I reckon – and to think I let a hill get under my skin.

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