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Guatemala Day 5 and 6: Maya Itza

This is the route we traveled on Monday.

I’m sitting in the bus, thankful for paved roads. We spent several hours yesterday, and several hours today, riding on terribly rocky dirt roads, pocked with deep holes filled with rain water. I marveled as we traveled from the nice mountain resort of Bombil Pek (that means Painted Rock in K’iche’) along well maintained highways, to a wide smooth dirt road, to an increasingly narrower road, to finally a road that was little more than a bus-width path. The village of Maya Itza is literally at the end of the road.

this village is literally at the end of the road

The transition of roads was like a time machine, catapulting us back a hundred years. The village of Maya Itza is only 23 years old, but it’s isolation and poverty keep the people following ancient farming practices. They do have electricity, but no running water or plumbing. Mario, our host, did have an ingenious setup in which he placed rain basins, provided by ILAG, on top of a mound and created a spicket and showers. That was good.

Here’s how our day went yesterday (Monday). We arrived a few hours later than expected, at around 5:30pm. The sun sets between 6 and 6:30, so dusk was quickly approaching. We placed our bags in the dorm rooms in Mario’s house and discovered that our beds were wooden planks. The people prefer to sleep on the flat wood for two reasons: 1) it is cooler than a mattress, and 2) mattresses collect bugs!

Victor, the 22-year old leader of the group, welcomed us and invited us to follow through Mario’s back yard, past the banos (yes, no plumbing, remember), through a gate, past the free-roaming pigs and chickens, through slick mud, across the neighbors yard, around a muddy trail and to a pole building. Victor beamed with pride when he displayed the building. I must confess that, at first, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. It is amazing how a new context, with little information, makes it difficult to decipher something that is standing directly in front of you.

What I saw was a very simple structure made of wooden posts that held up a tin roof. The structure was encased in freshly cut, green palm branches. My interpreter wasn’t with me, so I was lost in both visual information confusion and the language barrier. Victor grabbed my arm, pulled me toward a tree, said, “Pastor Esteban,” and pointed to a hand-written sign nailed to the tree.

The sign was in Spanish, but I read it out loud, trying not to butcher the pronunciation. Then a wonderful thing happened. I understood the sign, mostly. It was a note of welcome and appreciation and enthusiasm for our much awaited visit. “Comprende,” I said, “Muchas Gracias.”

Victor beamed with delight.

It was then that I noticed that two palm branches had been specially formed into an archway and the whole building was decorated with balloons. The village had decked that place out for our arrival.

The sun was quickly setting, so before they served the meal, they led us up to the land where they plan to construct a church building. The structure they use now is connected to someone’s home. The church property is up on a bluff overlooking the whole village. It is a wonderful view. However, it was not flat when they purchased it. They have worked for months to simply level the ground. They had to rent a machine for six hours to do some of the leveling. That doesn’t sound like a big deal to US contractors, but for this village it was huge. First of all, it was expensive. Second, I can’t even imagine how they got a big machine down the one road you have to take to get to the village. The leveling process has taken longer and is more expensive that they had hoped, but they know that have to get this part right if the building will be functional. They hope to start construction next summer, during the dry season.

It was dark when the land showing was finished. We each needed a hand-holder to help us navigate the slippery, rocky hillside that led to the church structure and dinner.

We ate well in the village. The food was excellent. They served us chicken and rice with tortillas for dinner. That was the lunch they had planned for us, actually. So, after a church business meeting, they served us dinner. Victor asked how many sandwiches we each wanted. I asked how many he ate. He said Cinco. So, I ordered two. Oh, they were good. We had eggs and rice and tortillas for breakfast. Then Chicken and rice and tortillas for lunch. When I say tortillas, imagine a huge grin on my face showing you a giant stack of hot, fresh, hand made corn tortillas. I couldn’t stop eating them!
I must confess that I did not sleep much last night. Laying on a board, under a mosquito net, in the same room with two snoring men, did not welcome sleep. This, coupled with the knowledge that if I need to get up and go to the bathroom (which I always do in the middle of the night) I will have to put on shoes, walk across a slippery, rocky, muddy yard, and climb four stairs into an out house, made for a restlessness night. The roosters crowing all night long did not help.

Somewhere around 3:00am my screaming bladder won the battle. I should probably mention that my phone was charging in the girls room, because there was no outlet on our side. Therefore, I had no flashlight. I found my shoes and shirt in the dark, managed my way through the tangle of mosquito net ropes that crisscrossed the room, got to the door, figured out how to open it (not as easy as it sounds), and made my way out.

Then I stepped into the magic. The benefit of being at the end of the road is that there are no city lights for miles and miles. The stars hung so low you could touch them. The crescent moon provided enough light that I could navigate the yard, but not so much that it blotted out the stars around it. The Big Dipper pointed me toward home and oriented me in this strange land. My old friend Orion hovered high above me, reminding me of the times we used to hang out together when I was kid in Michigan. The same stars, even this far away.

I went into the bano, which was very dark. Fortunately, I had been in there before and knew where the two holes (yes, it’s a two-seater) were situated and aimed well. A light approached the bano. Someone was coming. “Occupado,” I answered the knock. It was Denise.

It turns out that Denise was waiting for this event to happen. She knew I didn’t have my phone. She remembered that I had told her that getting older is a bummer because you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. And, she heard me close the door behind me when I left the building. I had locked myself out. In other words, Denise saved me!

Speaking of saviors and divine intervention, let me back up and tell a story from earlier in the day. We were about half way to the village and we stopped at a gas station for a potty break. I was heading for the store and checked to see if I had my phone/wallet. Yep. Then a voice said, “Do you have your passport?” I checked my other pocket. Panic ran up my spine. Various scenarios of being detained at the border or being thrown into a Guatemalan prison ran through my mind. What should I do? My first instinct was to not alarm anyone and wait until we got to the village to check my luggage. Then the voice spoke again, “You need to tell someone, now.”

So, I did. I told Denise and she told me to tell Pastor Karen so she could get a plan in action. I dug my bags out from the back of the bus, pulled out the pants I had been wearing the day before, and “Muchos Gracias el Senor.” I found my passport.

Not ten minutes later, guess what happened. We got flagged down for a random inspection. The police officer wanted to see all of our passports. Imagine if I had ignored the voice. If that is not a Holy Spirit intervention, I don’t know what is.

The restless night paid off this morning. I was up and dressed early enough to be able to tag along with Pastor Karen while she visited a sick woman in another part of the village. Daniel, a 21-year old man, led us to the house. We entered the one sleeping room in the house. It was filled with three generations. We prayed for the woman and served communion to the family. I marveled as I sat and watched Pastor Karen sit among this family, listen, offer medical advice, and allow the healing presence of the Holy Spirit to fill the room. She is a true picture of a pastor. It was amazing.

Later this morning we led a worship service in three languages: K’iche’, English, and Spanish. It was a full service. We did the whole liturgy (that was just Spanish), had all four readings from the Lectionary in all three languages, a baptism, a first communion, and the communion service. Pastor Karen invited me to preach, so this was the first time that I’ve ever preached with an interpreter…in two languages. If you’ve ever spoken at a large, outdoor auditorium, you know how off-centering it is to hear a delay in your own voice. You have to think very deliberately about each word. Imagine how strange it is to communicate a coherent message when you have to stop after each sentence and wait for two people to repeat what you said in another language. I’m not sure if I was making any sense by the end of the sermon, but only a couple people fell asleep. So, that’s good.

Seriously, it was a very cool experience to lead this congregation in worship. This worship service couldn’t be more different than our worship context at Easter. And yet, it felt connected. This is our partner church. These people were refugees from the Civil War who fled to Mexico and were forced to live in internment camps for years. Twenty-three years ago the peace treaty was signed and they were allowed to renter their homeland. The government gave them this land. It is located within a National Forest and it was nothing but raw jungle when the arrived. The 1600 people of Maya Itza have literally carved a place for themselves out of the jungle. They cut back the forest and scraped in horribly rocky soil to barely produce enough crops to survive. The men get up before dawn every day and walk to the fields. They work the fields by hand, alone. Then they walk home at sundown, eat a simple meal and go to bed. This is their life, and they are proud of what they have accomplished.

The eight families of this Lutheran Congregation not only face the challenges they share with all Maya Itza, but they also face discrimination from the Roman Catholic Church. They are not considered a “real” church, and struggle for their identity.

So, as I stood there with these precious families, placing the body and blood of Christ in their mouths, I was moved to realize the mystical connection that we have. The Sprit of Christ spans the boundaries of culture, time, and space and unites us as one.

Our time ended too quickly and, after another wonderful meal, we said our farewells and headed out for another long day of driving.

Before I close this very long blog post, allow me to share a personal highlight of our visit to Maya Itza. When we were unloading the bus and preparing to head up to the church for the first time, Pastor Karen said to me, “Get the guitar. They are going to want you to play with them.”

I happily grabbed it, and when I entered the palm branch enclosure there was band of young men with guitars who motioned for me to sit down and play with them. They opened the hymn book and we started playing. It was so much fun. Then, today, after worship, the women and children did a craft activity. This allowed me time to hang out with the guys and play guitar for a couple hours. They taught me songs. I taught them songs. We had a wonderful time. Music is a fantastic way to cross cultural boundaries.

Well, we are just about to our hotel for tonight. A hot shower sounds good. On to Tical tomorrow for some sight seeing.

The path to the church

Mario’s back yard

Marios front to the north

Mario’s front to the south

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