By Bill Peterson, Executive Director of Friends of San Lucas
In February, 1998, my life changed forever.
It is not a story I tell very often, in part because it is a story with pain and violence that is not mine to tell. But our stories are rarely only ours to tell.
In February, 1998 I made my first trip to Guatemala. I was leading a group from the church where I worked. We were going to be working with Habitat for Humanity, “somewhere” up in the mountains. This would be my first time leading an international trip and I was nervous and excited. We had prepared for the trip, studying the history and culture of Guatemala and we felt hopeful because the Civil War had ended in 1996… as if after two years the country could have escaped 36 years of violence.
A few weeks before we were scheduled to leave, a group of college students from the U.S. who were traveling along the Pacific coast highway were forced off the road, robbed and raped. It was a horrific event and got the attention of U.S. government officials (three men were ultimately convicted and imprisoned), but, at the time, a few weeks after the incident, we really only knew that something awful had happened.
We met as a group to decide if we would cancel our trip. Many groups had. One of the arguments in favor of moving ahead was that we would not be traveling on the Pacific coast highway where the attack occurred. We were assured that we would be on routes both well-traveled and well-protected. We knew that we could call for a police escort if needed.
We decided to go ahead.
Our week of work was exhausting and exhilarating. We worked in a very small mountain town called Sacuchum, high above the department capital of San Marcos. We were very near the border with Mexico and spent our week, at 9,000 feet, making concrete blocks for a house.
After the week was over, we headed to Antigua for a couple of days as tourists. As we left the town of Xela, we were stopped by a roadblock. There was a protest regarding a newly implemented tax (some things never change) and burning tires blocked the road, billowing black, acrid smoke. We pulled our van over to the side to consider our options.
Gregorio, our driver, went ahead to see if he could talk his way through, while a steady stream of Guatemalans walked passed our van, hoping to pick up a bus after having been dropped off on the other side of the roadblock.
As we sat there, a young man approached the driver’s side of the van and, on the rolled-up window full of dust, carefully made a dollar sign as if marking us for any prospective thief. We were obvious enough in our white van with “Turismo” painted on four sides, but now we really felt conspicuous.
Gregorio returned to tell us that there was no way to get through. We had two options: go back to Xela, stay in a hotel, and hope the road was open tomorrow; or head south and pick up the Pacific coast highway, the very road we wanted to avoid. Gregorio was “pretty sure” the coast road was open.
So, we took a vote and the consensus was to go on the Pacific coast road.
As we descended toward the coast the cool air of the mountains was replaced with the thick, heavy, coastal air and the highland coffee plants were replaced by rubber trees, pineapple and sugar cane fields.
I had never seen sugar cane before and the fields were thick with cane stalks interlaced with tiny access roads that disappeared into the heavy growth. It was the beginning of harvest and the air swirled with ash and smelled of burnt sugar as workers burned off the excess foliage in preparation for the rows of men with machetes who would cut down the stalks, piling them in rows, looking like charred pickup sticks. Huge yellow trailers filled with harvested cane snaked down the highway heading for the processing plant.
We immediately noticed a substantial police presence along the road and our tension began to ease as we drove east to Antigua. When Gregorio suggested we stop for ice cream just before turning north toward Antigua, we readily agreed.
One of my hopes on this trip had been to meet and talk to a Maya daykeeper. Daykeepers are a little like fortune tellers, only they base their work on extensive knowledge of the Maya calendar system. They are able to tell what day it is and whether it portends well for you and whatever endeavor you are considering. I had no luck finding one, as they are increasingly rare and, frankly, I wasn’t looking in the right places. Little did I know that I was about to meet one.
I stood on the sidewalk outside the ice cream shop smelling the burnt sugar in the air, feeling tired and relieved. I looked up at the ash above my head, swirling like snow when I was interrupted by a woman from our group. She said, “Do you know what day it is?” I stumbled, it is easy to lose track on trips like this. I wasn’t sure. Wednesday?
“It’s Wednesday.” She paused. “Ash Wednesday.” And I stood there, looking at her, the daykeeper I had been searching for all along.
“I want you to bless me,” she said.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought about those women in the sugar cane fields, I thought about all the violence that had ravaged this beautiful country, I felt overwhelmed by sadness and anger and helplessness.
And I also felt, as intensely as I have ever felt, the presence of God, drifting around me like those ashes. Within reach.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday are created by burning the dried palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday procession. This is, of course, intentional and full of symbolism. We are reminded that one year’s triumph can become the next year’s reminder that we are mortal. Ash Wednesday points to the fact that all life is fleeting and precious and tentative and that triumph and celebration can also be fleeting.
I looked down at my palms, sweaty with the Pacific air. I hesitantly reached above my head and the fluttering ash began to stick to my hand, like butterflies, like snowflakes. Holding my palm in front of me, I swirled the feathery ash into a paste, raised my finger to her forehead and said,
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”