A Visit to Pakaman
Today was our day to visit a high mountain Mayan village. The sixteen of us Carroll folks, along with Sheila and our amazing drivers, Cerillo and Chico, piled into two four-wheel drive vehicles at 7:40 a.m. and headed up-up-up into the mountains to attend mass with the people in the village of Pacaman.
First, let me tell you about getting there: When I say Cerillo and Chico are amazing drivers, I mean it. They wrestled the wheel for two hours as we bumped over incredibly rocky, washed out, and winding switchbacks to deliver us to this remote village perched on a hillside way up, literally, in the clouds. Half of us rode standing in the back of a truck—the usual mode of transportation here. The other half rode inside a jeep. We all pitched and rocked as the vehicles crawled the 40km from Santo Tomas to our destination. We climbed out about half a mile away from the village.
As we walked the last part of the road, we could look up hill or down hill onto tidy corn fields, divided into sections by fences made from poles which, stuck into the ground right next to each other, sprout leaves from the tops. The distant backdrop to these patchwork fields is the vegetation-covered volcanic mountain, where fog hovers pretty much all the time. We passed by goats with tiny kids, garden patches of blossoming peas, and an assortment of small dwellings, also set into the hillside. Some had wood and thatched roofs, some were made of corrugated tin sheets attached to poles, and a very few were bright-colored stucco. Smoke from cooking fires comes out of the space between walls and roof. They are separated by the same kind of dense fences. Most have packed dirt yards, with maybe a flowering bush. We also passed by a number of Packman’s residents—men or boys carrying wood or a machete, girls and women dressed in their traditional cortex—a mid-calf “cut” of dark cloth that they wrap around as a skirt and secure with a bright belt—and bright embroidered blouses. As we passed by, they stopped to look. Sheila told us groups like ours rarely came up this far to visit (the long bumpy ride is not an incentive!). Father Kevin only gets up there every several months to say Mass—the last time was in February of this year.
Soon, the number of people increased, and we were pointed to the church. Outside the small stucco building, a crowd of people had gathered. The colors are what strike me first. Black hair, eyes and brown skin are set off by the heavy pink, red, orange, and green embroidery on their shirts and shawls. And so many children! So there are always big eyes, big or shy smiles, and fidgeting. The area outside the church was packed with people. As we approached, they opened up a path for us. Fr. Kevin told us a spot had been saved at the front of the sanctuary. We moved inside and headed for the front. As we passed all those people, I got a lump in my throat—their chance to attend mass with Fr. Kevin is, as I said, rare. Besides, he was doing a number of baptisms at today’s Mass. And probably a third of those who wanted to attend were left peering in from the outside. I felt pretty sure that they should have the front row seats at their mass. Still, I imagine that giving them to us was their way of honoring the Mission by extending hospitality to us.
My favorite part of mass was the constant hum of kid sounds—lots of tiny babies there for the baptism, plus the many other children attending. They also moved in and out from the front area of the Church throughout the service, watching this bunch of big, pale people who were apparently special guests today. Nobody made them sit still. And many people were standing, so the kids wound their way through the crowded aisles—intrigued for a bit with us, and then onto something else. I also loved the music—sung in K’iche and accompanied by an accordion (played by Mission musician Pedro) and a bass guitar. I also loved sharing the sign of peace, and the varied responses to our handshakes. Some of the men came across the whole room to shake hands with all of us. A few of the women responded warmly, others more gingerly to our extended hands.
As soon as Mass was over, the people at the back set up a long table with chairs and set out lunch for us all. Rice, beans, chicken, and big baskets filled with hot tortillas. We sat down to eat, while many of the residents stood in groups a few yards away and watched. The food was delicious. After we finished, we moved out of the church—there was another high mountain mass to attend in another hour, at another village. I asked a few people if they would like me to take their picture. Some retreat, others engage happily. After I take a shot, I show them the picture, and they often giggle at their images. But then, some Pakaman residents own their own cell phones with cameras, so for them this is old news.
Really, I don’t know how to process the mix of thoughts and feelings that arise during our encounters with these Mayan people, in their home place, high up in these volcanic mountains. We stare at each other—the basic desire to do so makes simple sense to me. They are visually beautiful people—that’s one reason I want to look. And we are different, in so many ways—in our appearance, in what we do in our daily lives—that’s another reason to look. Differences intrigue us. If we were all kids, it might be just as simple as that.
But there are other dynamics that make this more complex, and that make this exchange somewhat uncomfortable for me—especially when they displace themselves for us and honor us by giving us space and food from limited resources. They appear so generous—we could learn from how much they give of resources that are scarce. But to conclude there, as valid as it might be, seems too simple. Perhaps our status as U.S. citizens courts a particular kind of favor that we should consider more critically; as we also see where our influence here is less than positive. After discussing this with several other students, we concluded that our encounters with other people should begin by acknowledging their complexity. We want to meet these people and interact with and learn from them, but this only touches the surface of knowing who they are. We need to resist over-simplifying our understanding of them in any way. It’s too easy to let our own “ideas” about them replace the complexity of their individual and their collective lives in ways.