Learning the Machete

by Lyssa Morris (United States of America)

Making a local connection Guatemala


There was no witness to my first swing of the ubiquitous Guatemalan tool. My eyes jumped away on impact and the coconut sprung from the chopping block. That day I resolved to sharpen my machete skills. My tent was perched a thirty minute hike up the West side of the valley. From there I could watch the south wind, Xocomil as the Mayan call him, ripple across the lake. Three volcanos lined the shore where ancient sites stood one hundred feet below the surface. The water is still rising. Half submerged restaurants, villas, farms and docks remind the indigenous and expatriated alike of one rule under the same wild law. The sun rose over pointed silhouettes as I studied the gardener’s dance. He was pruning the overgrown path above the banana leaves, below the pines. The machete traced fluid arcs as he whistled. Swift discernment spared the amaranth stalks. My wet suit was a cool relief on the hike. When the forest opened to a field of dry brush it was clear that I had never taken this path home before. I remembered one of the locals mentioning a throughway across the valley near here, so I went on to find it. A new view opened and I turned to take it in. Now there was a man below, his face wrapped in black. I turned up the path and felt his body closer, a hand around my wrist. A machete lifted above our heads. My heart sank as I peered into his young eyes. “What are you doing?” spilled out. “Why are you doing this?” He gestured to the sack in my hand and reflex pulled it behind me. He jerked the blade and his eyes jumped from side to side. “Callate!” “Callate!” he barked in a hush. A protective rage boiled up from some deep place. The sound roared through the high trees waking friends from their naps and the troubled boy ran down the mountain. I spent the next months machete-in-hand honing agility and discernment, pruning the paths. I discovered many trails holding stories dark with political violence, raw with the friction of colonization. The heart of the village is alive with ancient language and evolving art. A dozen temples from around the world call this valley home, most share a reverence for the rich cultural wisdom in the symbols of Mayan spirituality. A fresh mural catches my eye. Tucked in a psychedelic mandala I recognize the Mayan calendar sign of Ajmaj; a single stroke hinting of a staff, a serpent, and a stylized question mark. “The day Ajmaj,” a young shaman told me outside his seed house, “is a day for forgiveness.”