It was 9 dog day (Tz’i) on the Mayan calendar when we did the ceremony on Chutaminit at the base of the San Pedro Volcano. Dolores Ratzan had been hired to conduct a purification ceremony for a group of seventeen travelers . A local shaman performed the ceremony and I was there to film it. Underneath the spot where the ceremony was to take place were two buried Mayan temples, invisible to the eye. The shaman lit the coals and burned copal incense, lit candles for the four directions, and laid out chocolate, sugar, and rum as offerings, all the while intoning an ancient Mayan prayer which Dolores translated for the group. Towards the end of the ceremony I struck up a conversation with a woman I had been introduced to and whom I knew to be a doctor. I made asked her how the ceremony compared to western medicine. She gave a curt and dismissive response, so I dropped it. Cleary she wasn’t open to the idea of shamanic healing, which caused me wonder why she had volunteered for the experience in the first place.
Four days later, on the boat across the lake to Panajachel, I met another woman, and during the course of our conversation I discovered that she was also a doctor. She told me that a hundred physicians were being flown in from Canada the following day in order to perform free hysterectomies for Guatemalan women. The woman, whose name was Eve, was concerned about how to communicate with the indigenous women. She was aware of the cultural divide and that the difference in worldviews might prove problematic. She asked me about Maximon and the kind of shamanic healing that went on in Santiago, hoping to gain a more rounded perspective. I told her how the Mayans believe that diseases are the result of subtler kinds of energies entering into the body that eventually manifest as physical symptoms. They believe that, even if the damage caused by these foreign energies is too severe to be healed, it is still important for the energies be taken out. Removing such foreign energies—invisible to modern medical instruments—was the shaman’s job—and also Maximon’s. Unlike the first doctor I had met, Eve was open to my words; her mind was a parachute, in fact, making her the exact opposite of the other woman. It was a strange symmetry, and it brought home to me how much being in Guatemala is like walking simultaneously in two different worlds.
I believe in western medicine. I also believe in shamanic healing. There are times when a shaman cannot help you, and there are times when a professional doctor cannot heal you. Yet there is a practical, material basis for energy work (even if it’s little understood), and there is an element of faith healing (the placebo effect) to modern medicine. So the two fields overlap.
It was a relief to run into Eve, because after that first encounter, it reassured me that the two points of view (those of Mayan and western culture) could be bridged. Maybe even this was part of why I was here—to mediate between those two worlds, or weltanschauungs.
As a Westerner experiencing total immersion in Mayan culture, I get to be equally in both worlds, and enjoy the best of both.