As I stepped out last night for the midnight ceremony I followed the chanting and beating of the drum. The people had taken over the town square, building a fire pit that sustained the dozens in the highland cold wind. The Elders were not of their age, and grander than men even, they were the spirits that they knew, connecting with those before them and bringing them here for everyone.
I am currently in Nahualá in the western highlands of Mayan Guatemala filming a documentary on the region, Unrecorded Spirits: Life in Mayan Guatemala. I have spent substantial time in this region, including periods of habitation as well as the attendance of various religious ceremonies, nevertheless these past days cannot compare to any other experience. As I walked in to the Town Hall yesterday to observe the daytime festivities, I was overcome with elation at the site of the majority of the Mayan Elder contingent of the community. At an average age around 75 they represent a lifeline to the former time, a breadth of experience that spans different worlds, with hearts and minds that continue to beat and pulsate and live. Most of their lives have had them treated as less than human by everyone, told they were wrong in their beliefs and that they had to follow proper men. These Elders are in this day the victors, having lived to see an ancient vision fulfilled, connecting back thousands of years. They, together, seated in their traditional traje clothing with pride at this celebration.
I am in the wholly unique position of personally knowing these men and having had meaningful shared experience of their culture and ceremony. I began coming to this place years ago, principally to research health areas of alcohol abuse and domestic violence, but living amongst such substantial culture, one cannot resist interest. I connected with them, always feeling awe and ecstasy in their conduct. However, I reject false dichotomies, they like many people in this region and the rest of the world were interested in my Western background. This is a human universal a curiosity and interest in the other, as such our interests played off of one another. There was one fundamental point of interest on my part - my 'western' culture dominates the world like an abusive spouse, whereas this culture that survived centuries of colonialism, class oppression and the recent civil war, may face extinction at the hands of Coca Cola and Hollywood. I like sugar water and movie rides as much as the next child, but they are just flimsy escapes that rot the teeth and make one fat and stupid.
This culture, as with the collection of the diverse culturosphere, has substance to offer, to nourish minds and souls. I thought this upon my first contact with these old men who lived through so much that could enlighten, entertain and excite more than all those movies and sodas put together. It continued to these momentous days now, finally given an opportunity to be who they are. The world has an opportunity will it forget and lose this like all else in the unrecorded history, or will people pursue understanding and connection to our past and beyond.
At the climax of the ceremony, with the sun rising over the crest of the surrounding mountains, an Elder whom I have known for years took my hand and lead me to delightfully dance around the fire to the rhythm of the Marimbas and beat of the drum. It was the pinnacle of our experience and expression of pure ecstasy, this is life, to have lived and to laugh and dance.
As we walked down from the mount, the rainbow that appeared was appropriate.
Watch a preview of Unrecorded Spirits: Life in the Mayan Guatemala:
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To see more of Fotis' photography, visit photography.fotiskanteres.com.