We packed our gear in the van and left Valladolid around 8:30. We headed to San Jose, a Mayan village about 90km away from the city. We drove on narrow roads, surrounded on each side by wild jungle. Passing from one tiny village to another, we were transported back in time. Just a moment ago, we were in Valladolid, an industrialized city, the living conditions not too different from that of the United States’. Now we were driving along dirt roads, with houses made of sticks and thatched roofs, where water was drawn from wells, where people stood in awe as a blonde American, with pale skin, curiously strode among them, taking pictures with a strange device they’d never used before…
In each of the Mayan villages, we set up a pop-up health clinic at the local church. We had a table for checking vital signs, another for handing out reading and sunglasses; one for medication, and another where our volunteer doctors met with each of the villagers.
I was in charge of handing out the reading and sunglasses. With a translator I manned a table of reading glasses of varying magnitudes, sunglasses and glasses cases. Because most of the villagers spoke only Mayan, the translator, the villager, and myself were engaged in a three-way dialogue: from Mayan, to Spanish, to English and back. Although quite tedious, in the end, when the villagers tried on a pair of glasses that fit correctly, and they could see for the first time, when an appreciative smile of surprise shone across their face, a contagious smile that shone across everyone’s faces in the proximity as well, any impatience of my own evaporated in the light of their smile’s warmth. And so, in short, I found great satisfaction in being a fill-in optometrist for the few days of our travels to the Mayan villages. So much satisfaction to the extent that fitting people for eye glasses became surprisingly fun: I was helping others, empowering them to see, feeling a visceral sense of purpose and satisfaction in making a difference in someone else’s life.
While out in the Mayan villages many thoughts ran through my head. I was amazed how happy the people were. Even though they materially lagged behind what we in the United States have grown accustomed to, they genuinely seemed to be content with their way of life. This made me question the notion of progress, or what a society deems valuable. Before I went on this trip, I felt sad for the Mayan villagers. I felt sad because they lacked all the things that I have grown used to living with. But seeing their contentment for the way they live their life made me realize that the reason I felt sad for them was because I was imposing my own standards of what Western society deemed valuable and judged them accordingly, which of course their culture didn’t measure up to.
I found out too while visiting the Mayan villages, that it is not just my own will that imposed Western standards upon Mayan culture: we as a collective Western society have done so, almost unknowingly. It is not uncommon for a Mayan village to have zero resident working-age males. When I first observed this, I was caught by surprise: how could this be? It turns out that the working-age men travel from the villages into the cities to find work. Having no car, they take the bus, which because of the cost, they come home infrequently, sending money back in the meantime. Eventually, the men develop a life of their own in the city, wishing no longer to go back to the villages, leaving their families behind. The women, now in charge of raising a family on their own, seek work; in many cases, this work takes the form of prostitution.
And so, as far as I observed the Mayan villages, they are at a significant transition point economically: on the one hand, they live very much according to Mayan tradition, according to the ways their fathers and mothers taught them, from generation onward; on the other hand, the economic market has become increasingly globalized, and soon, it will even extend its hand (if it has not done so already) into these small Mayan villages, forcing the villagers to adapt to this market, by finding wage labor. Because, empirically, it seems to be the case that this economic transition is inevitable, it is important that this transition be smooth, so that the men do not leave their families; and so that the women are not forced out of desperation into prostitution.
But for every sad story, there is also a happy one, and this happy story gives me hope that the transition can be made smoothly. There is a project based in Valladolid called Mayan Villagers for Christ. Organized around the local church, the purpose of this project is to give wage labor to the villagers, in a way that reflects their native culture. In Mayan villages, the residents typically sleep in hammocks. Hammocks have become such an important part of their culture that the knowledge and skill required to make a hammock is passed down from generation to generation. What the project does is buy the hammocks from the women at a fair price, and then (because the women do not have cars or do not have the money to take buses into the city) sell them at the city market. Whatever money is made is given back to the women villagers. This project started only recently, but even still, it gives me hope that the Mayan villagers’ way of life can be preserved, while at the same time, providing a means for families to survive economically.
And it’s not just the case that only the Mayans can provide valuable goods to the world, by sharing with us their native culture. As members of western society, we too can share with them the valuable goods our society has created. The most relevant good is the healthcare we shared with them on our mission trip.
While manning the glasses table in San Jose, I looked across the other side of the table and I felt