Uspantan welcomed us with a late afternoon Mayan ceremony. We hiked up a hillside, stopping to peek into several caves along the way. In a clearing, a circle of narrow candles were carefully arranged, wicks facing toward center. White for the direction the wind is coming from, yellow for where the wind ends and for planting and harvest, red for sunrise, black for night, darkness and death. Flowers were placed around the circle, echoing the colors. Spices and sugar were sprinkled over the top. A Mayan glyph or symbol drawn in white adorned one side of the circle representing mountains and water - we were asking for strength and courage. On the other side of the circle were the symbols for the number 13, the number of people in our group (including our Uspantan hosts). The Mayans kneeled around the circle and prayed in Quiche, the local language. After prayers, they lit the candles, burning the circle from the center out.
We woke early the next morning and visited the market before piling into the back of a pickup truck for the hour or so ride to Laj Chimel. One wheel lodged in a ditch at one point, so we all got out to push it back onto the dirt road. Along the way, we paid our respects at the monument in El Caracol. The marker lists 62 citizens from their community who were "kidnapped, violated, tortured, assassinated and burned." We were met in Laj Chimel by nephew and cousins of Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Nobel Peace Prize winner for her efforts leading the indigenous people during the war in the 1980s and 90s, who was born and lived in the village as a child. Climbing a steep and muddy trail into the cloud forest above the town, we had a cloudy view of the Ixil triangle, a group of three towns nestled in the green hills. At the top, our guides told of their experiences hiding in the mountains during the war for a year and a half, scrounging for food and hunted by the military.
In Laj Chimel, a community of 17 families in all, many people opened their homes to us, coming to meet us with their children. A humble feast of tortillas, beans, and a corn drink was prepared and served in the school, built by the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation. After lunch, a lovely courageous woman told her heart wrenching story of survival, hiding, imprisonment, rape, starvation, loss of family members. This small but strong remote community is now reaching out to invite people of the world to hear their story.
Sunday morning, we set out on a 5 hour hike to explore Old Uspantan. A road out of town turned into a mountain trail. In a land where men wear machetes hanging from their belts, not for fighting but as a survival tool, our guide cut through corn fields, identifying stone remnants of structures (not enough to really call ruins), glazeless pottery shards scattered in the earth. He had worked with archaeologists years ago that explored the stone ruins and pointed out building sites here, an overgrown Pelota (ball) field there. We followed the ridge where the Uspantecos lived and pictured them rolling rocks down to defend their homes. The attack was foretold by soothsayers. The Spanish conquistadors came three times, the third with conscripted Aztecs and Quiche. The surviving Uspantecos fled to another site further into the mountains. Our female guide (her first tour) told of the fear of these inhabitants hundreds of years ago. I was deeply moved by the similarity of the stories we heard in Laj Chimel and Old Uspantan, although centuries apart. The unimaginable fear of a people awaiting and fleeing from the destruction of their world, their culture, and their very lives.
Further on, we scrambled down a steep hillside. A guide tied a rope around a tree for one particularly slippery downhill stretch, and gave me a helping hand. He told a chilling story about his young son's fall on this mountain, and how he, crying, climbed down, created a makeshift stretcher and carried him up the mountain and out - the boy miraculously survived. And then before us was a rocky wall covered with thick green moss, a gently dripping waterfall shimmering over the rocks in the sun - we had reached Pena Flor. Some in our group walked through the falls over river rocks rounding the promontory point and appeared a few minutes later behind us. We rendezvoused with our minibus for the drive back to Uspantan, and another 7 hour trek to the capital.