There are as many reasons to travel as there are destinations. In my case I travel in search of cultures as different from my own as possible. I’m fascinated by behavior, the why behind how people do things. I’m so used to doing things a certain way, the ‘why’ goes unquestioned until I witness a different approach. These glimpses of alternative realities help me understand my own behavior.
I discovered cultural anthropology in college and was mightily intrigued. Regardless of how strange the custom, my instructor could explain why survival in that ecosystem depended on it. This was a big eye-opener. I already knew that survival depends on water, food, shelter, the security of belonging, and genetic diversity. I now saw that how humans achieve these things depended on where they lived.
Traveling came easily to me because of my impermanent childhood. My father, chasing jobs in the early days of his teaching career moved the family eight times before I turned seventeen. I got really good at reinventing myself and learned to put aside my shyness. Each new neighborhood fertilized my intellectual curiosity with a slightly different set of rules. I was hooked.
Launching my first cultural adventure
Many years later, after marrying my soul mate Bob, we launched our own cultural expedition as managers of a remote rain forest lodge in Belize. We were very impressed by the resilience and common sense of the Mayan culture. They had the same basic needs we did, but didn’t always go about fulfilling them in the same way.
When we were invited to a real Mayan wedding in 1997, we were humbled and delighted. Carolina, our assistant manager Rolando’s little sister was to marry a smart young man who had already left our employ to study shamanism. The wedding would take place in a remote location outside Punta Gorda.
We loaded up El Diablo, the lodge’s somewhat undependable Isuzu Trooper, and traveled the greater part of a day to the end of the rutted, potholed Southern Highway. When we reached Rolando’s parents home, the first thing we noticed was a school bus parked outside. It was filled with the bride’s dowry, huge sacks of dried corn. What an odd wedding present, but one that made perfect sense. In Mayan culture, corn is the perfect medium of exchange.
According to the Mayan creation myth, corn is the very stuff of life. In god’s first attempt to create man, he used mud but when the rains came his creation dissolved. The second try involved wood and that didn’t go so well either. Finally, god used corn. It was a success.
I thought back to our own wedding when we had received gifts of kitchen ware, pretty things for our walls, and most notably a miniature electric deep fat fryer. Boy did we use the heck out of that thing. How useless it would be to this young couple who lived in a place without electricity.
Before sunrise the next morning I woke to the sound of movement in the open-aired kitchen. One of the girls (she couldn’t have been more than eleven) was making flour tortillas on a comal for the first meal of the day. Stacks of them. It was the reversal of my childhood. In my family it was my mother who made it down to the kitchen first so she could prepare breakfast for me and my little brothers.
As dawn lit the day, I noticed women walking towards the river to bathe. I wanted very much to bathe with them but held back. There were protocols for everything and I was terrified of blundering into taboo territory. By the time I got up the nerve, the men began drifting towards the river. Sighing, I realized I’d missed my window of opportunity. I dipped a wash cloth into a cup of water and dabbed at my fragrant parts. Bathing out of a mug was preferable to embarrassing Rolando.
Soon it was time to shuttle the bride and groom to the church, seated regally in the back of a Toyota truck with two of Carolina’s sisters in pink satin on white plastic chairs. I watched in suspense as the truck negotiated a small stream with no bridge, the girls grasping the sides of the bed. A limousine would surely have gotten stuck.
Inside the church, we were surprised to find a gringo priest. Like us, he stood tall as a tree among the short Mayans. It was impossible not to catch his eye across the bowed sea of black-haired heads. Nobody paid attention to the brown dog snuffling up and down the pews.
After they tied the knot everyone filed outside but the priest and the new couple. They spoke alone for what must have been an hour while we milled around outside the church, sweating in our good clothes, huddling in the shade of a few trees. “They are receiving instruction” explained Rolando. Fifteen minutes after saying “I do” we were raising our glasses in the first toast, I mused.
Finally it was time to celebrate! We piled back into the Trooper and drove to the groom’s family compound. Soon everyone was holding a cold bottle of beer and a paper plate piled high with food. Both families and their friends had spent days butchering chickens and pigs and likely all night baking and cooking the rest of this feast. I drank my beer, set down my empty, and someone immediately handed me another. I’d downed three beers before I wised up and kept a bottle in one hand.
After stuffing myself, I went looking for a trash can so I could free up at least one of my hands. None to be found and I could see others flinging their plates to the ground. Trying to hide my disapproval, I forced my fingers to let my plate fall to the lawn.
The wisdom of this method was soon revealed when the dogs moved in and took care of most of the scraps. After they lost interest, the chickens took their turn. Only then did someone pick up the plates, all pecked and licked clean. Everyone had been fed. I thought about how we would have scraped all the plates into buckets and taken it to the animals. I had to admit it made a lot more sense to let the animals deal with the plates themselves.
Naturally those three beers made their way to my bladder, so I went nosing around in search of an outhouse. When I found it, I waited my turn and closed the door behind me. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust, and another to realize I should have brought a tissue. A stack of corn cobs graced the corner of the privy. I considered them. The texture resembled a soft-bristled brush, but in the end I chose to drip dry.
When it was time to move the party to Carolina’s family; they loaded up the generator, sound system, and newlyweds. After we partied over there, we headed over to an Uncle’s. It was dark when we pulled up to the third house, and the Trooper was loaded with people, sitting on the roof and hanging out the windows.
Upon a wooden table sat a bowl with two loaves of wonder bread and another with canned Budweiser. I wondered if this was their usual fare or were they trying to please the gringos. I felt a warm can and embarrassed, pulled my hand away. I hoped no one noticed that I was too spoiled to drink warm beer.
The music was traditional Mayan and we joined the others using the moves Rolando had taught us. Problem was, the room was Mayan-sized and we kept bumping our heads on the ceiling beam. But my dance card was full and I dared not deny the laughing men elbowing each other for a dance with the big white woman. I looked over and saw that Bob was facing a similar challenge.
When it was all over, we climbed in the Trooper and Rolando drove us back to his parent’s compound. Bob and I climbed the steps to our room, lit the kerosene lamp and got ready for bed. I looked outside at the stars, music still ringing in my ears, and pondered everything I had seen, felt, and tasted. I was grateful to everyone for treating me like family and knew I would never forget this day. This, I thought, is why I travel.