We met the wife of a missionary of the Presbyterian Church at a hair shop where we had not previously been. She and her husband invited us to go with them on Christmas Day to a village about an hour out of San Cristóbal.
They picked up us and another young lady from California. Since the missionaries have a Nissan minivan, all of us were able to go. The road was paved most of the way, but at one place we had to take a detour of a few miles because of a washout. The detour was a gravel road with a good rock base, but with some mud because of a recent rain. From the summit of the ridge which the detour crossed onward to Tenejapa and beyond, rains are frequent. When we left the pavement beyond Tenejapa, we traveled a few miles on a narrow, wet gravel road along the side of a mountain. When we arrived at a certain spot along this road, we were met by several men. They had come to escort us on a ten-minute walk down the mountainside on a trail which led to the church. It took us about twenty minutes as the hill was at a 45°-angle on wet grass and mud. Very quickly into the descent, Pam sat down in a hurry. Fortunately her skirt did not become muddy because it had flown up into the air! A man quickly came and wrapped his arm around her waist, and she placed her arm around his neck, while a woman took her other arm. Then two people took their places on each side of all the visitors to help us down the hill. This was very much appreciated by all the visitors.
Many people shook hands with each of us in greeting, both on the hill and when we had reached the level of the church. It is the custom of women not to shake hands, however, they knew that it was our custom. The women and girls escorted us, both down and up, wearing their beautiful blouses and skirts which they wore when participating in the mixed choir. Men greet each other with a musical-type greeting within their words.
After we had finally descended, we were taken to a long dining-hall with a concrete floor. Before we entered, we were shown soap and a basin of hot water to wash our hands. The women cooked a breakfast while the men served it to the guests. The cook-house was separate from the dining-hall. We were served corn tortillas, black beans, and two hard-boiled eggs. All were very good. Also eating at the same time were the pastor, the choir women and girls, and other men.
After eating, we visited the pit toilets. We had to be helped up a short, muddy incline. While we were there, a man chopped steps into the incline so that we could descend at a slower and more graceful rate. We chatted with a few people, and then were ushered into the church. All this had taken about an hour. The four men in our group from San Cristóbal followed the civic leaders. Then came the women. We had not seen many people up till this point and thought that it was a lovely little group. When we arrived inside the church, we had to walk down the aisle to the front pews, men on one side and women on the other. We were so surprised to see close to 1,000 people there, sitting quietly, waiting for us to come. Many had walked for three to six hours to be present. It was a very humbling experience to see people dressed in their best, sitting quietly and patiently. We noted how well-behaved the children were during the service.
The first, as well as the last, part of the service consisted of numerous male groups that sang and played such instruments as guitar, accordion, violin, cello, drum, and electronic keyboard. The mixed choir was the only group that had women involved. These musicians had practised for months. When asked how they found the time and money to do this, someone said that they do what is important to them. They wrote words to traditional Christmas music that told a more personal story of the traditional event. Their music was very enjoyable to hear. The listener could tell that it was important to them. The people who walked several hours to be there also carried their instruments with them.
After the first of the two periods of music, they presented the pageant, which these people had developed in a way that their culture could understand. They had Herod’s guards dressed in military garb, checking the travel permits of the wise men. Everything was unique. The congregation carefully saves the costumes from year to year. They feel it an honor to be chosen to sing and to be a part of the pageant. The pastor was a local man very gifted in music. He had been visiting a neighboring village (several hours away) and had brought back about seventy of the people for this day.
The dignitaries of the town of Tenejapa had been invited several months before. They came; the president made a speech; and they stayed the whole day. They represent not only the town but also the surrounding municipality.
We were asked to go to the front to be introduced to the congregation, even before the civic leaders and other visitors were introduced. The people said that it was a great honor to have us, although they were a little frightened by our size. We ranged in height from five feet nine inches to six feet five inches. Many Maya are not much over five feet tall, while some, especially women, are shorter.
The service was well-organized and lasted almost four hours. The people were quiet and patient, even the children. We could not help but remember how often we had heard people in churches in the U. S. and Canada grumble because something went longer than half an hour.
After the service had been completed, we went outside to visit with the congregation – ladies with ladies, and men with men. Then we were escorted into the dining-hall for lunch. The four women of our group were the only women to eat at this time. Pam sat across the table from the president of Tenejapa. They were able to communicate through a translator. This experience is rare for women of this society. The lunch consisted of a cabbage and beef soup and ground beans rolled up with cornmeal and wrapped in a banana leaf before cooking. All were good. They told us how much they appreciated our coming so far and for eating their food and respecting their customs.
Following lunch and some picture-taking came another safari, this time uphill – each person having two escorts. They even had someone carry our bags. (We had brought water and food for the baby.) They would have carried the baby, too, but he would not let anyone but his dad carry him. His dad had a difficult time dragging himself up the hill, plus carrying a thirty-pound toddler as well. We asked why the buildings are where they are – down a steep incline – and we were that they had to build where land was available. Makes sense. The men had had to carry cement and concrete blocks down the hill from the road, while the women carried the lime. Lime was lighter – only 20 kilograms (about 45 pounds). The scenery there was nothing short of spectacular. To be on top of the mountains and see other tree-covered mountains with low-lying clouds and valleys below with hillsides sprinkled with houses and small gardens was well worth the effort.
We cannot remember having a better visit anywhere. It was an example where nothing is taken for granted, nor wasted; and even the smallest thing is appreciated – a lesson from which we could all learn.