The old woman’s eyes meet mine as our distance nears and she comes into focus as I walk down the street, unknowingly approaching her vegetable “stand.” Avocados three times bigger than any I have ever seen are spread around her, spilling onto the street and sidewalk. A broad smile reveals gaps where teeth once were. Interspersed with the gaps are shiny crowns of gold, which glint in the morning sun and make me blink. Cataracts only slightly dim the sparkle in her eyes. As she shifts her position, bare feet emerge from underneath her multi-colored, hand-woven skirt. Cracked heels and calloused toes tell me she’s probably never owned a pair of shoes.
On the shores of this sacred lake, stark contrasts continually appear. Fertile volcanic soil bathes the surrounding landscape, offering up exotic fruits and vegetables of every shape and size and color imaginable. That same rich soil is home to some of the most extreme poverty in the world. People live without running water, without healthcare, without a reliable education system, without much, if any, help from their government. Residents eke out a living on this lush land, because not much Earth has been left to them. It’s been sieged and ravaged by war, by conflict, by colonialism and sometimes, by Mother Nature. Yet, they are smiling. And they seem genuinely happy.
As I travel around the lake, the disparities continue. Young children, no more than three or four years old, are clad in artistically-woven skirts, tops, and pants. These hand-made garments divulge where they are from, where their ancestors originated, and what status in life they enjoy. Barefoot but always smiling, they hawk their wares to the tourists. Exquisite belts, blouses, jewelry, scarves, bedspreads…. all woven or pieced together with intricate detail and seemingly effortless aptitude. The fullness of their culture is reflected in their joyful faces, their beautiful clothing, and their enduring traditions.
I find a little church in one of the villages, and duck inside. There I discover a few women lighting candles, chatting, and praying. The heady scent of copal fills the space, smoky and thick. Two sides of the church are lined with deities that are at once Catholic and Indigenous. Little dolls and other figures resemble Christian characters, but on closer examination, they betell their true identity. Clad in the same gorgeous weaves, with brown skin and brown eyes, and names that are not European. The women seem to have entire conversations with these figures, making gestures and offering up candles and herbs. They are solemn, yet they look very comfortable in this space, and appear to be in no hurry to leave. They are protected by these walls, blackened over time from the constant smoke of candles and incense. This tiny sanctuary offers up a quiet refuge to rest and reflect. I close my eyes. The waves of the
Shapes and hues and colors undulating and rippling their way through and across the
Lake suddenly make me
feel dizzy. Sunlight and shadows mingle,
like an elaborate, yet intricate mosaic.
Deep greens and translucent blues interlace, like the patterns on the
clothes worn by these courageous people. I am deep within Mother Earth in this tranquil
cave, yet I feel the relentless ebb and flow of the waves pushing and pulling me
until I feel restricted, then stretched, like a rubberband being shaped and
reshaped. It is exhausting, and
exhilarating. I am a dancer, moving and
swaying to an ever-changing rhythm.
I take a deep breath. Suddenly my own life’s problems seem so minute, so irrelevant. Witnessing these people, strong in who they are, alive in their beings, with the inherent knowledge that they will not be oppressed beyond repair, gives me much hope for humanity. If these beautiful people can find a way to be happy and accept their lives, despite all odds, certainly I can do the same. Our self-worth can always overcome cruel and unimaginable treatment by others.
I touch my neck, and wrap my fingers around the strand of beads I bought from the abuelita outside the church. I have been spiritually cleansed, not just from the shaman who performed the ritual on me, but through my inner eye, which has allowed me to see my world in a new way. Realizing I’m hungry, I step outside into the brightness, and delve into a plump avocado. Rich and creamy, it nourishes my body and soul.
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