Iowans in a Mayan Land

Last fall, in the small jungle village of Tinum in Yucatan, Mexico, a refrigerator stopped working. Jim Schulze and Lisa Rock ’87 were worried, since dozens of American college students were about to descend on their home.

At the last minute, they found a local handyman who fixed the problem quickly and efficiently, but he refused payment several times. Just as he was walking out of their nah (built in the Mayan style with thatch roof and stone walls), the students arrived. With a smile and a wave, he said, “Please accept my part toward supporting this kind of tourism.”

Schulze, professor emeritus of psychology, and Rock have each been involved in Central’s study abroad program in Merida, Yucatan, for decades. Since 2000, they have been organizing homestays with host families in Tinum for students from Central and other colleges, as well as tourists of all varieties. They spend part of the year in Iowa, part in Idaho and part in Yucatan, where they split their time between the growing city of Merida and Tinum.

Home Away from Home

Their work can be described as ecotourism, though Schulze prefers the term “cultural explorer” over tourist. Their goal is for visitors to experience an authentic form of traditional Mayan life—picking beans and corn in the milpa (or field), crafting baskets, making tortillas, sleeping in hammocks—and build personal connections with a people who at first seem a world apart.

Central College faculty work in a milpa in Tinum over winter break.

Ecotourism is never exploitative, so Schulze and Rock ensure that the hosts gain financial stability, as well as a renewed sense of their culture’s value. “We hope to create an interchange between our host families and visitors that is mutually beneficial,” says Schulze. “The host families are pleased, perhaps proud, to share their stories, lives and meals. And the visitors experience a way of living that is much different from their own.”

Schulze believes that learning about different ways of being, doing and viewing the world not only fosters tolerance but can also spark revelations about yourself and your culture.  But the homestays in Tinum are as much about commonalities as differences. Visitors from Iowa learn that the same core values are present in Mayan culture—family, corn, education, hard work and religion.

Not Just Witnesses

But the realization that the Tinum villagers live simple, rich and happy lives—which is true—is only the first step. Lives can have value and still be mired in poverty, injustice and discrimination, as the Mayan people are. Schulze and Rock hope that visitors—seeing the lack of rights, power and wealth among indigenous people—will begin to work toward reducing imbalance and injustice in Mexico and all over the world.

“The best part of what we do is working for the good—on the behalf of the other—for no other reason than the satisfaction of doing it,” say Schulze.

One example is the work the couple has done to both assist and research Guatemalan refugees. Rock first got involved about 20 years ago, when she accompanied a Witness for Peace delegation of Central College students and staff to Guatemala and created a multimedia presentation based on that experience. In 1994, she went again, this time as an international accompanier traveling with the refugees—who had been living in the Mexican state of Chiapas—as they returned to Guatemala at the end of the civil war. Their role was to act as witnesses whose very presence could prevent violence and retribution from the government. Since then, both Rock and Schulze have maintained connections with the refugees, who settled the village Nueva Esperanza (New Hope). The couple has created several research-based presentations on the refugees’ lives and experiences.

“When you accompany people who risk their lives to fight for justice—to vote, to challenge impunity— you realize that however futile it may feel, we cannot take our rights, privileges and responsibilities for granted,” says Rock.

The Stunning and the Sacred

In addition to ecotourism, research is the couple’s main focus in Yucatan. They both have backgrounds in the field of psychology and an interest in its cultural aspects. Over the years, they have often collaborated with students to build multimedia presentations on traditional Mayan ceremonies and contemporary art forms, Mayan genealogy, Guatemalan refugees, a shelter home in Merida for street boys and the cenotes and caves sacred to the Maya.

Cenotes are holes in the limestone crust of the Yucatan peninsula that open into the vast system of fresh water underneath. Sometimes opening on majestic, sunlit caverns and sometimes narrowing to a boundless network of underwater caves that stretch to the ocean, cenotes are considered by the Maya to be entryways to the underworld, a sacred level of existence essential to their view of the universe. Through scuba diving, Schulze has often explored these windows into a dazzling, submerged realm.

Another sacred aspect of Mayan culture is the ceiba tree—a tropical species with a spreading canopy that represents the tree of life. A friend of Schulze’s and Rock’s, Wilber Vasquez, recently compared the tree to the current cycle of the universe, prophesized by the Maya to end in 2012. “The cycle closes because the tree has become complete, or perfect. We must give thanks by acknowledging everything it has given us…A new tree of time is beginning. It is up to each of us to keep it alive by nurturing Mother Earth in the manner our ancestors, the ancient Maya, have taught us.”

The interpretation of the prophecy got Schulze and Rock thinking about how their own season in Yucatan this year could be represented by the cycle of the tree.

“Seeing new faculty and the children and grandchildren of alums and faculty discover the lessons Yucatan has to teach gives us hope. It indeed feels like a new beginning and a new cycle—a renaissance—for Central’s relationship with Yucatan and the path toward global stewardship.”


Read more about Schulze’s and Rock’s life in Yucatan—as well as other alumni who have gone to the extreme in their lives.

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