Thoughts on the Mayan Civilization

When we decided to expand our humanitarian work to South America in 2008, our first stop was in the picturesque Central American country of Guatemala. Our youngest daughter, who had just had her first child (our first grandson) was heading up her own volunteer initiative there with her husband and a few of their colleagues. During our time there, we were blessed with the wonderful opportunity to visit the touristic town of Panajachel, that is set on the banks of the peaceful Lake Atitlan in the middle of what was once the center of the rich Mayan culture.

The main event of the day for visitors to this serene setting is to watch the sun set behind the three volcanoes: San Pedro, Toliman, and Atitlan, that rim the west side of the lake. Here the pleasures of life are simple, like swimming where the volcanic hot springs rise up into the lake, creating a curious mixture of ice-cold, tepid, and very hot water.

I don’t drink coffee myself, but since this fertile region produces some of the richest coffees in the world, I was fascinated to observe how coffee beans are grown, dried, roasted, ground, and finally brewed to a delicious deep brown cup of coffee. The aroma was intoxicating, and the taste, said my husband and daughter, was divine — a truly homemade cup of coffee from beginning to end.

During our two days there it was a curious sight — tourists on temporary reprieve from their fast-paced, pressure-driven, “civilized” lives in juxtaposition with Mayan women peacefully weaving their beautiful multicolored cloth, some with an infant child, grandchild, or perhaps even great-grandchild sleeping peacefully in a sling across their backs or playing quietly nearby. What a contrast!

Although the Mayans of today must sell their wares to the foreigners in order to survive, they have not let the “world” pollute their lives. Industrious and hard-working, they work in rhythm, sunrise to sunset, producing lovely traditional garments. Not swept along by the fashion trends, they proudly wear their own wares, as do their children. Nor are they dependent on the pharmaceutical system, but find the medicines they need right in the trees and plants that grow locally. They even produce their own cosmetics from the same natural organic substances that their ancestors had used centuries before. (My hair has done better with the herbal shampoo I bought from them than it did with any commercially produced shampoo, herbal or otherwise, that I’ve ever tried!)

While sitting beneath the softly waving palm trees, listening to gentle waves lap the lakeshore and observing the sun set behind the volcanoes, I felt like I had been taken up to God’s heavenly kingdom and shown the reason that I had been created — to enjoy it all!

Jet-setters, get-aheaders, and others consider the Mayans backward country folk, but I’m not so sure. Speed and stress take the joy out of life, but slowing down and bringing our priorities into line with what God intended when He designed it all, puts it back. So many people have been talking about 2012 and the Mayan Calendar. I suppose time will tell. But one thing I know, there was definitely something special about the culture that produced these peaceful, loving people.

At Lake Atitlan with volcano in the background and grandson Adrian in my arms.

A Mayan woman patiently weaving her cloth.

With daughter Angelina, enjoying a cup of local coffee on a hotel terrasse.