Please enjoy an extract form the forthcoming book, ‘A Journal from the End of Times.’ This book is a contemporary discourse exploring our western lifestyles and examining the current relationship we have with our host planet. Through hope and inspiration gained from time spent with indigenous Maya people in Central America an alternative world view is on offer here.
Any feedback/ comments would be most welcome.
8th October 2010
It is another very early rise for us and another permaculture centre, we arrive soon after dawn. I love these oases of life, abundant with birds, butterflies and today…..people. We can immediately see it is a very busy morning, today is graduation day for those young people that have attended the centre during the last year for a permaculture course. Everyone is excitedly chatting, drinking coffee and eating pastries, the entire community is animated.
Our motive for being here on this clear, bright morning is to film a traditional Mayan fire ceremony. Two spiritual guides are to give blessings to the land for the coming seasons, and to close a year’s cycle for the participating graduation students.
We all make our way up a hill through the abundant land of the permaculture centre and take seats in a previously prepared circle. The chairs are in a clearing amongst fruit trees, flowers and crops, we are quite elevated and look out on the surrounding undulations of the Salvadorian countryside.
We all sit patiently….. we have to wait for some time as the anticipated spiritual guides are stuck in traffic. Thoughts of ancient practices and modern living blend. Eventually the guides, Jose and Vicente arrive and promptly begin the ceremony in the centre of the circle. Both men are dressed entirely in white except for red belts about their waists, one has his head covered in a blue striped scarf, the other’s is red. The scarves are worn in the style best described as a long bandanna. Jose is in his forties, his eyes sharp and blue….quite uncharacteristic of the ethnicity of this region, they portray an intelligence, a seriousness but also love. Vicente must be in his sixties, a rounder and softer man who seeps experience and wisdom. A colourful, woven blanket is unfurled and the provisions for the ritual are placed upon it. A mixture of coloured candles, incenses, bottles of perfumes, bottles of alcohol, breads and fruits are all ceremoniously laid out by Jose with intent, whilst Vicente proceeds to prepare the fire.
The spiritual guides splash their hands and faces in scented oils, or even possibly cheap aftershave, as this is how it smelt from a distance. Vicente marks out the central fire-place by drawing a cross with white sugar (I presume), which is then encircled and dotted. Prayers and mutterings accompany each action, It is all a bit mysterious and intriguing to me, and I am sure each and every action has deeper significance than was apparent to me at this time. (I will attempt to explain what I have learned since about fire ceremonies later.) A few feet away from the fire-pit four wooden stakes are hammered into the ground at the four points of the compass, then at each of these points a pair of half coconut shells are placed, each one of the shells are filled with water and the others with alcohol, it looked and smelt like cheap vodka. Around the coconut shells flower petals are used to adorn the space, as more flowers are tied to the top of the stakes. Upon the sugar circled cross, now drawn in the fire-pit, many coloured candles are placed in a circular pattern each one being individually blessed, kissed and placed carefully in the assemblage.
The audience is attentive as the ceremony continues, although the guides are very much focused, the atmosphere is also light and humorous, Jose often stopping to quietly explain each action to the people. The fire building continues, though not yet lit. Bread and cakes are added, as well as maize and then salt, more sugar, cacao beans, cigars and incense are added. A multicolour of flower petals are laid on the outer edges of the fire-pit. After much ceremonial muttering, blessing, kissing and low chanting the fire is eventually lit. The earth is kissed, the fire is kissed.
This appears to me to be a very natural approach to spirituality, outdoors, in an open setting, the space beautified and fire at its centre. I remember the church services of my childhood and contemplate the historical efforts to remove people from their pagan roots. I ponder where are the green spaces or earth recognition in Christianity? We are born from the earth and when we die we return, but in the mean time we are confined to the bricks and mortars of the Church, so it appears to me. The only connection I can think of that the Church has with the earth is the graveyard.
The group is now being encouraged to kneel towards one of the four compass points, as the guides offer incantations. Collectively our arms and hands are gently raised to embrace the morning. First we all turn to the tall flowers and ruderal plants that are now attracting a vast rabble of butterflies in the post-dawn air. Unified, we turn a quarter again to watch the maize rustling in the breeze. Next we turn to face the fruit bearing trees, their produce ripening in the morning sun. Finally we all turn to face south, to the vast landscape that opens out below us from up here, high on this hilltop. It is truly Beautiful.
Combined minds focusing on the well being of their harvest, the flora and the fauna……Madre Tierra.
As a child attending church I always found focusing on a tortured being disturbing, worshipping death and not appearing to be celebrating life, I am sure many Christians would like to correct me on this matter, but this is how I felt at a very young age.
The lengthy ceremony eventually begins to conclude. Each individual encircles the fire, blesses a candle and a cacao bean and throws them onto the fire, with intent. I am not a particularly outwardly spiritual sort of person, I have my private moments, but here with this collective elemental worship at a permaculture centre, all was very……clear. Loving the hand that feeds you, focusing on the symbiosis of the natural system, it all made a lot more sense to me than having imaginary friends.
I contemplate how many lives have been lost over the years in their desire to worship this Earth?
After the ceremony we share lunch with the spiritual guides and the elder tells a tale dating back to 1996. The story involved spirit guides from Copan, Honduras, who at this times were suffering severe repression of their spiritual practices amidst the backdrop of civil war.
From the 1960’s onwards civil wars raged throughout Central America. In the 1980’s Honduras had become a major base for Ronald Regan’s administration, there were many large US military bases in Honduras at this time. It is estimated that in the Guatemalan civil war alone 40 to 50,000 indigenous Maya are thought to have ‘disappeared’ with an estimated 200,000 being killed. There was a coup d’état in 2009 in Honduras.
I continue to listen to the tale, and hear how the spirit guides left Honduras for their safety and came here to El Salvador to seek shelter and advice. They asked the Salvadorian spiritual guides if they should take up arms to defend themselves. The Salvadorian guide replied, “don’t ask me, ask the ancestors.” So this is what they did, and a fire ceremony was initiated, the smoke of the fire interpreted as a message from their ancestors. The ancients told them not to take up arms and the spiritual guide reflects that this was probably best, as at that time they would have returned home to Honduras and undoubtedly have been massacred.
It is time to leave and we give an elderly campesino a lift east to Santa Rosa de Lima, he lives very close to our next interview and I am happy to help the old farmer out. The next destination is nearly on the border of Nicaragua and Honduras. It is a long, hot journey, but personally I love this glorious weather of clear days and nights, a respite from the persistent rains of the previous few months. However, my new farming friend does not feel the same. This weather is most unusual for the time of year he states. Despite the copious amount of rain that Hurricane Matthew had delivered previously, the old farmer said that his crops at this stage of their season still need rain every 2-3 days, which they had not received and now there were serious problems. Another day to day tale of how the changing climate was affecting the guardians of the land in these parts.
Some hours later we arrive in the hot and dusty town of San Miguel. We are slowed in the town’s traffic. We come to a halt behind an open truck full of relaxing soldiers. Their posture immediately changes when they see us. I can almost read their lips, as one of the soldiers points to our truck, “look a campesino in an American truck with a white man and look… the plates are Mexican.” I am not as sure as to the significance of their alarm, but we must look quite out of the ordinary in this nervous country. They all suddenly and soberly rise to attention. I watch nervously as they quickly lift their rifles and put their fingers to the triggers. They intently stare down at us. I smile back, politely. The micro-incident passes as we are separated in the traffic. I breathe again and proceed.
We arrive in the town of Santa Rosa de Lima at night fall and secure a motel room. Another high security compound where we park the pick-up right outside our bedroom door. All protection and no aesthetic here. We head off into the shabby town in search of dinner, but at seven o’clock in the evening everywhere appears to be shut down. The streets are completely clear of people. All buildings are shuttered. It has the atmosphere of a ghost town. Eventually we come across a small row of street food vendors, they tell us a beauty pageant is about to commence. Slightly bewildered we sit down, order food and wait for the show.
As I am chomping on some leathery beef people slowly start to emerge, followed by soldiers, then more soldiers. The military set up a machine gun post opposite our table and the rest quickly line the streets, dragging their excessively large rifles with them. I feel quite removed from the situation, almost out of body. Nervous.
Music suddenly comes blaring down the hill as balloon adorned pick-ups appear with the town’s beauties atop. One of the first contenders to appear is the military’s favourite. Arriving on a camouflaged truck she dances to some poppy reggaeton in her army uniform, her shirt and skirt way shorter than regulation would normally allow. Emplaced in the back of her truck is an enormous stand-mounted heavy machine gun.
The procession continues with a selection of the chosen ‘beauties’ shortly followed by prancing horses, fireworks and more and more twitchy soldiers. I am taking photos, I try to appear to be simply shooting the parade, but the appearance of so much military with these girls as backdrops is irresistible to film. This socially unacceptable un-pc spectacle of a beauty pageant is one thing outside of my British comfort zone…..this combined with the sheer might and overwhelming presence of El Salvador’s military is a contrasting photographic opportunity I felt irresistible. I thought I was taking photos subtly by shooting from the hip, but apparently not subtle enough…. as our dining table gets surrounded by our own unwelcome private security. Towering soldiers surround me. Mel assertively whispers, “Stop filming”. I am being severely scrutinized from soldiers behind and to my sides, rifles across their chests, fingers on triggers. I smile pleasantly and slowly put my camera away. The moment passes and we soon head back to the security of our motel for the evening. Another twitchy night in El Salvador passes.
N.B. Place and peoples’ names have been changed to protect identities.
About the author
Grant Riley is a free-lance ecologist, environmentalist, photographer and world traveler. He has recently completed a Masters degree in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. Earlier this year his essay on intuitive perception was published in the ‘Holistic Science Journal’.
In the 1980’s Grant traveled with the Peace Convoy around British and European free festivals. In the 1990’s much of his time was spent living high up in the tree-tops during anti-roads protests in the UK. In more recent years Grant has worked in the UK as a woodland manager and ecologist and spent many winters working on environmental projects worldwide.