Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tourist, Open Your Eyes.

This will be the most difficult piece of work I've ever had to write. The story shared here happened to me over two years ago. I have never told this to anyone outside my family and I have never been able to tell it to anyone in my family without choking back tears many times. What happened to me here truly "rocked my world." By definition, I would call it the most traumatic - "psychologically painful" - thing that has happened to me, but that word is usually linked to some type of death or physical injury, which did not happen here. Outside of all things spiritual, nothing has altered my psyche more than this day did. It happened in Mexico. I remember him as "The Man from Chichén Itzá."

In March of 2010, Abby and I were in Mexico, serving as missionaries. Abby's parents came to visit for a week and we had a wonderful time catching up with them. As part of their trip, we decided to take them to Chichén Itzá. Many tourists come through the Yucatan Peninsula and visit this ancient Mayan ruins, famous for its unique architecture indicating the spring and fall equinox. For anyone who has toured Mexico, it is commonly known that local artisans, musicians, and craftsmen set up small shops or tables lining every area that the tourists will walk. To most tourists, this merely adds to the charming atmosphere and cultural beauty of tourist destinations. I felt the same way up until this day.

As the visitors stroll through the sites, each area brings many new Mexicans trying their best to speak English and sell their products to the foreigners. "T-shirt, amigo? I make you good deal. Cheaper than Walmart!" No price they quote you is written on the objects and "haggling" or "bartering" is the common practice. Initially, they will give you some ridiculously high price and then expect you to counter their offer. If you lose interest in their product and walk away, they will lower their price with each step you take. If you return later, still interested, they will likely lower their price again or include another product for free. This makes shopping much more fun to the typical tourist.

As I walked around that day, I was taken in by the sights, of course. The endless calls from salesmen were interesting at first, but began to get annoying after a while. I did see a chess set, though, that I thought my father would love to have. So I looked at the set and thought, "I'd be willing to pay $20 or so for that." As the marketer approached me, he would ask which set I liked, explain to me what stones the pieces were made of and then offered it to me for $45 or something. It wasn't a ridiculous price and was better than what I would pay in the States, but I didn't have that much and we had to pay for gas on the way home, so I said no thank you and walked on. He stopped me and said that he would give me the smaller set for $20. I wasn't really interested in that set, because it would be more difficult to play on, so I thanked him and left. After taking in some more of the ruins, we had to return the same way and the man waved me over. He had asked his shop owners (his family) about my offer and agreed to give me the set I'd wanted for $20. I was very grateful and the set made a great Christmas gift for my dad. But the event got me thinking.

We had only been at the site for an hour or so, and I was left with several more hours to observe and learn. God, I felt, was opening my eyes. I began to watch the locals barter and sell to other tourists. Without my chess incident, I wouldn't have noticed the humble Mayan ladies selling beautiful bracelets and hand-woven purses for "One dollar, sir, one dollar?" I wouldn't have seen the poor man desperately following after a group of Americans in Oakley sunglasses, pleading, "Anything, sir, anything you want. Very cheap," or the woman I heard muttering carefully, "Teeee-chirt. Tee-chirt," then approaching a visitor, "Tee-chirt, mam?" The better English the locals spoke, the more attention they received from the Americans, while the Spanish speakers were passed by in confusion.

It was then that I saw the Man from Chichén Itzá. He looked about my age, maybe slightly older. He didn't have a shop or stand like everyone else, but was walking around carrying a big wooden carving. It was beautiful. It was a large rectangle piece, probably 3' x 2', that obviously started as a large single block of wood. It was carved into an elaborate design of animals and plants in a mural format. I only slightly noticed him at first, before a visitor came up to him and was interested in his carving. The man carefully showed his masterpiece to the guest and with his few English words said, "Fifty dollar." I tried to think what a piece like that would cost in the States. I couldn't see it going for less than $100 and more likely $175-$200. The tourist obviously thought it was too much and began to walk away. "No? Tirty dollar?" By now I couldn't look away. There was no way this should happen. I looked carefully over the carving from a short distance away. It was so intricate. I couldn't guess how many days it must have taken to create. And what if one mistake were made? The whole work would be destroyed and need to be restarted. The skill this man must have had and the time he must have put into his work should have earned him a month's salary. The visitor kept shaking his head and walking. "Twenty, sir... Ten dollar." Finally, the man left the tourist. As he turned away, he said something that would forever change my life. Several other Mexicans were standing nearby at their booths. The man passed by them and said, "No sé que más puedo hacer. Tenemos que comer." "I don't know what else I can do. We have to eat."

I was stopped in my tracks. His words sank in. For a moment, I wasn't even sure if I'd heard him correctly, but I watched the faces of the other men as they gave him sympathetic looks, a grimace, and slight nods of agreement. I did hear correctly, and he wasn't the only one in his spot. They all felt his pain; they were all in his shoes. These people, whom I had seen as kind villagers giving the tourists a neat experience and some cute souvenirs, were poor families doing everything they could to scrape out a living - to put food on the table for their children. They were desperate husbands, fathers, wives, mothers, even children, hoping to earn just a small part of the extravagant wealth that passed by them in the pockets of foreigners.

Fortunately, the day was almost over when this happened. We were on our way out. I couldn't stand to be around it anymore. I felt hurt and wounded. It was the truest sense of compassion, of sympathy, I think I've ever felt. When I think of Jesus looking out over the multitudes and being moved with compassion by their estate, my feelings that day are how I imagine He felt. Furthermore, I felt ashamed. I felt embarrassed. I felt disgraced by the money in my wallet and the amounts left in our bank accounts. I found myself asking the Lord, "Why me? Why was I born in such a prosperous land and he into such poverty?" I didn't feel "blessed" as we Americans so often say. I felt as if I'd received a position I didn't deserve and he was worthy of a position much higher than what he was given.

In retrospect, I'm glad the carving wasn't sold for such a pittance. I pray that that dear man was able to find someone with much more of an appreciation for its beauty and his hard work and a much looser grip on his own wallet. But the fact remains that all of the work and toil came down to food on the table, even at the loss of such an effort. I told the scene to the rest of our family who was there, but the event played over and over in my head on the drive home. We drove for probably three hours and I spent at least half of those lost in my thoughts and crying.

Now, a balanced perspective is needed. These were only the thoughts going through my head that day. We in America are indeed blessed by God with material goods more than any others in the world, but God has not given us those blessings to hoard for ourselves. As time has passed, I have not forgotten that day or that man, and I have asked the Lord to shape my thinking on how I live with this new perspective.

In a mercado like this, not everything is genuine. Every shopkeeper claims his work is "hand-painted," "unbreakable," or "almost free." In fact, the chess set that I bought I saw again later that day and the man offered it to me for twelve or fifteen dollars. That wasn't the point. I was glad for what I paid for it. The bartering is not the problem either; that is merely a cultural difference. The problem is when the tourists are so stingy that they basically rob the vendor of the reward of his hard work. However, we need not feel indebted to every single vendor for the diligent effort they "personally" put into their products. They may have purchased it just as you will. Yet others can be seen doing their own work and ought to be compensated fairly for their efforts.

The fresh viewpoint began to affect me immediately. As we left the ruins, we passed by the last few locals and I noticed a man sitting near the entrance with a tool in his hand. He was carving a mask just like the hundreds of others I'd seen there. I glanced over at him just as he sat down in the shade, set the mask and the tool down, and wiped the sweat off of his drenched forehead with a sigh. Crying again, I walked out of the gates. Abby wondered what was going on and I told her. The Lord laid something on my heart then. I tried to get back into the park and a guard stopped me. I asked him, "Please, sir, may I go back in for just a moment? I just need to give something to that man right there." He hesitated a bit, but did allow me back through. I went up to the man and handed him some money. "Sir," I said, "I want to give you this. It's for nothing. I just really appreciate the hard work you do. Your mask is beautiful. I also want you to have this," handing him a gospel tract. "This is the Word of God. It can change your life forever." I don't know how the tract may have affected him; we never really do. I didn't give him the money just so that he would read the tract either. I just wanted him to connect the two. He had probably never been paid in exchange for nothing before, so I wanted him to remember that the person who gave to him with words of appreciation was a Christian.

I don't want to make this story melodramatic. I have tried to describe it with the level of seriousness with which it affected me. To say this incident was traumatic is not to diminish other people who have gone through more devastating experiences - divorce in the family, the loss of a child, or the tragic death of a loved one. The description is really a testimony to what an exceptional life the Lord has given me. I haven't experienced many traumatic events. The only deaths I've experienced closely were of my father's mother and my mother's father, both of whom were believers and were happy to leave this life for the next. But this was a painful incident that has changed my perspective forever. I know it is permanent because just last week I was in a similar market in Mexico and was reminded of the Man from Chichén Itzá. It is very hard for me to be in a place like that now.

I also don't expect that this story will affect my readers to the degree it did me. Yet I write it in the hope that God will use it. It truly and permanently changed me. I pray that many will read this. I pray that this message will reach people I will never meet. I would pray that this post receives 10,000 hits, so that I may know that there are now 10,000 people who may travel to another country, remember the Man from Chichén Itzá and give generously of their resources to help those less fortunate. I pray that this outside perspective will affect us wealthy Americans (and that is all of us) so that we will live our lives in moderation and give of our resources to help those in need around us and around our world. Here I leave my story and its results to God.


  1. Jonathan, thanks for your post. I'm not sure if you'll get 10,000 hits or not, but perhaps these words will indirectly affect that many people through the years. At least you know you've got one!

    ~ Bennett S.

  2. Read it. Liked it. I have been in the army for last 8 years. Been to Iraq and Afghanistan. Both places are very poor but I had an instance that stuck with me all these years. A woman went to the hospital we had on our f.o.b. she wasn't sick but she just wanted to have anything in their stomach. We couldn't give her anything though without having to give to the other 100 women in line. We did heart and mind missions where we gave food and supplies to locals but it was never enough. It's always stuck w me also all these years later.

  3. Thanks for sharing son. My heart still aches as I think of the truth shared in this blog. And, yes, it is true that compared to MOST of the rest of the world, we as Americans are "rich in human terms" when it comes to "stuff" ... but perhaps much more poor in our spiritual understanding than are many of these dear people, such as you describe here. I think of Kenya & Hyderabad & Zambia as well when we think of unbelievably skilled people using hand made tools to carve & shape souvenirs for visitors. Such skilled, humble people. Always keep your tender, teachable heart son! I love you! Dad