Head for the Hills
It can at times seem like there are two very distinct sides to Guatemala – and Guatemalans, for that matter. Simply put, altitude affects attitude; the higher one travels into the mountains, the more they will find a traditional way of life. Head down the slopes and those old ways lose sway. As one makes their way about this country, this distinction will be quite obvious.
This post will focus a bit on that traditional way of life in the highlands, with the hopes that it will pique your interest in going deeper into the hills in search of old ways that still manage to hang tough somehow. The name of the game up here is mostly a cultural one, represented by the Mayans and bolstered by the 20-plus separate languages spoken in Guatemala .
Identities are further revealed based on how one dresses from area to area; the colorful and intricately woven skirts and headdresses say a lot about who you are and where you are from. To have the time to delve into this mystical heartland is a true pleasure, for it delivers a strong dose of all the things that make travel such a compelling pursuit.
It was in these highlands in 2009 that forever changed us as we made our way from town to town. We found that we had to return again a year later for another brief visit just to see if this place was for real. Never before had we witnessed such a culture holding onto such archaic ways. Women – and even some men dress uniformly according to where thy live, with the pattern of the textile tying people together, similar to language.
To see and hear so much diversity in such a small area of the country leads one to believe that at its base this is still quite a tribal way, and is worth acknowledging this in order to appreciate how this way exists in relation to, and as a result of, our own way. All this is testament to the way Mayans have adapted and have endured through some mighty atrocities, even very recently through the civil war in Guatemala.
Remnants of the Past
Adaptation can come naturally or not. Sadly, that colorful dress the women in the highlands wear has more to do with Spanish rule than anything else. Mayans were forced to dress according to geographical ties in order to have better tabs kept upon them by the invading Spanish forces. Over the years the patterns and the bright hues of the fabrics evolved and today are celebrated for their aesthetics and are, of course, a sense of pride for any traditional Mayan woman or girl.
The Spanish also had a lot to say about religion in those days, and again the Mayans were told what to do. What remains today is something that the these people have completely made their own. Catholic ways are mixed with ancient beliefs in a way that seems quite a bit more pagan than Christian.
Through chants and unique customs, such as throwing an egg into a fire after prayer, Mayans will wish for bountiful crops and protection from curses in the same breath. Modern day gods are a mixture of ancient deities; characters from the Bible, and Spanish Conquistadors all rolled up into one mighty force. For better or worse, much of Mayan identity has been shaped as a result of forceful hands.