Who are the Mayans?

Mayan Woman, Flikr image.

Returning from my wonderfully harrowing experience in the jungle, I was able to reflect at length on the wider implications of what I saw. These implications of course focus on the Mayan way of life – something that I had previously and ignorantly considered extinct.

Rather than relating them to civilisations of the past like the Aztecs or Ancient Egyptians, the Mayans are in actuality more akin to groups like the First Nation peoples of North America, or the Aborigines on the continent of Australia. Their languages, cultures and way of life are alive, but not necessarily alive and well, beaten down by an ostracising European influence.

The opulent civilisations of the Mayan people might now be in ruins, but their essence is just about clinging onto life and, thanks to people like Mr. G, it is slowly but surely finding more secure handholds on the climbing wall of society. But judging by the many surprised reactions as two very pale Western strangers wondered through (mostly pleasant, sometimes two fingered – there are many things that transcend borders in this world), there is a long way to go.

People of Mayan descent are generally easy to establish, with their darker skin, thick-set faces and stocky builds – I didn’t see anyone that differed from this description as we drove through the small villages of the area. Without accusing anyone of such dastardly segregatory tactics that has plagued our species throughout our history, it is almost as though they had been purposefully relegated to the seriously remote areas of the country. But this seems to be less a conscious decision by one, more a sub conscious decision by many.

With opportunities for education and employment at a rarity in these areas, income is of course a problem. This leads to a quite fascinating but sometimes deadly trend, one that is actually well practised across the country and across different classes, but for different reasons.

I’m talking of the movement towards the ‘economic beacon’ that is the United States of America. Some go for study. The vast majority, including many Mayan descendants, go for their family’s survival.

It would be a gargantuan understatement to say that this however is not an easy undertaking.

During the few hours that we spent wandering around the plaza of Oxkutzcab, we found to our surprise that most people we spoke to could mutter some broken English, which was certainly more accomplished than our Spanish. Curious, and somewhat embarrassed, we asked how they came to learn such impressive skills. It transpired that many had actually spent a limited amount of time working in the USA, typically Los Angeles.

Upon further inquiry with both Mr. G and the organiser of our overall volunteer placement, we later learned that this is almost a rite of passage for the modern and hard-up Mexican. Income potential is perceived to be much greater across the border to the north and so, being from traditionally extremely close-knit family units, many are expected to venture up there, find work and send their spoils back to support their loved ones. They forgo all luxuries in the States and send as much as humanly possible back to their wives, husbands, mothers, fathers and kids.

We even learned that when locals express their desire to travel to the US, they are asked one question by their ‘travel agent’ – ‘will you be needing a permit?’. 99 times out of 100, the answer is ‘No’, which means the economic adventurer must hand over a fee of around 5000 US dollars. This is not a one-time offer however. It comes with a life-time guarantee. No matter how many times you have to try unsuccessfully to cross the border, you are assured of a route into the promised land, one way or another.

This guarantee comes with a quite major caveat though. Just the small matter of surviving each of those unsuccessful attempts.

Things suddenly get very dark.

It is no secret how dangerous the border crossing can be. If it’s not a bullet from trigger happy border patrollers that get you, it’s the dangerous river crossings, the marathon treks through unforgiving desert, the rickety shanty boats packed tight, locked shut and liable to capsizing, the stinking freight trucks, razor sharp barbed wire, collapsing access tunnels, or even knives in the back from corrupt cartels.

That 5000 dollars? It either buys you a ticket to a better life. Or a one way ticket to the ultimate sacrifice.

SO, it was in a reflective mood that eventually I arrived back in Mérida and our volunteer house to continue on with my 6-week placement. 5 weeks to go. Seemed like an awfully long time when I had the promise of such excitement at the end of it with a certain someone and a tantalising trip lined up down south.

But was all that volunteering all it was cracked up to be? Did I feel a warm glow of self-righteous fulfilment at the end of it? Am I ready to give everything up and go all Mother Theresa with my life? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see won’t you.

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