Guatemala's Running of the Horses - Page 2
Story and photos by Michael Shapiro

New Year's Debauchery, Guatemalan Style
And then Juan gave us some unexpected good news: caballeros from all over Guatemala's upper western highlands were converging on Todos Santos to run their horses on New Year's Day. We'd had no idea we'd get to watch the horses run during our brief visit and were thrilled to see both the horse races.

But the first attraction was the Saturday market, which began with a flurry of firecrackers and rousing amplified music blared from the plaza. Straw baskets full of live chickens, fat heads of cabbage, thick orange carrots, and sacks of potatoes were handed down from the top of a blue–and–white bus. An elderly woman balanced a two–foot–square crate on her head and walked down the main street.

In the market, a tub of speckled red, purple, orange and black beans looked almost too beautiful to consume. After buying some fruit, a man wrapped his money in a banana leaf and tied it with a cord. Along the town's alleys were vendors selling Che Guevara T–shirts, used pliers and screwdrivers, green and orange balls of soap for washing laundry by hand, and the tightly woven fine knit bags made by the men of Todos Santos and renowned throughout Guatemala for their workmanship and beauty.

For our last supper of 2005, we went to a comedor for a hearty meal of grilled chicken, rice, vegetable soup and cold Gallo beers. In a dimly lit kitchen, an elderly woman stood on a dirt floor and added chopped carrots to a huge vat of soup. Later, assisted by some young helpers, she prepared tamales, a New Year's tradition. Most of the waitresses appeared to be eight or nine years old and flashed bright smiles. I'd assumed they were part of the owner's family, but the owner, Katy, told me they just needed the work to help support their own families.

Katy told us she'd recently returned to Guatemala with her daughters after several years in Michigan. Her husband remained in the States to work; she was trying to get papers to return to El Norte. Through tears she told us that her older daughter, who's seven, cries every night because she wants to go "home" to the U.S. Though Guatemalan by blood, her daughters feel more American. They don't know the indigenous ways and missed their friends. We raised our glasses in hopes that the new year will clear away old obstacles, and that Katy can bring her daughters home.

Dining on the restaurant's deck as the clock ticked towards midnight, we could hear a trio of musicians playing a marimba on the plaza. The lilting music lifted our spirits, but the reverie was shattered by bombas, booming explosives that give off a resounding charge upon ignition and then shoot hundreds of feet into the sky where they explode again before falling to the ground trailed by tendrils of smoke. Bombas and other pyrotechnics are essential components of Guatemalan festivals, and made the tranquil town feel like a war zone.

Which is odd because in the 1980s, Todos Santos actually was a war zone. The region was caught in the middle of Guatemala's devastating civil war, which nationally killed more than 100,000 people (some estimates say 200,000), mostly Mayan campesinos like those who live here. But the area has recovered quickly since the 1996 peace accords, and the village swarms with kids. In towns like this, it's easy to believe that births in Guatemala now outnumber deaths by a factor of more than five to one.

Before midnight my friends and I headed to the roof of our hotel to light some candles and sparklers. A turkey that had been tethered to a stake on the roof hunkered down and tried to sleep through our petty pyrotechnics––it had been left all day in the sun without food or water. I'd heard this would be its last night––tomorrow the family who owned the hotel would slaughter it and place it at the center of their New Year's Day feast. I wished the forlorn bird could have a bit more comfort during its final hours.

Midnight was anticlimactic: a few howls and cheers, some fireworks and incessant music emanating from the Evangelical church. That same music, accompanied by a man singing live through an amp turned up so loud it distorted his voice, began at dawn. Perhaps this is the Evangelicals' way of punishing those who'd stayed up late drinking and dancing, two pleasures the Evangelicals deny their flock.

The Teetering Run of the Horses
But I didn't mind too much; I wanted to rise early to see the horses run. I followed the drunken caballero to a creek near the starting line where other riders had led their horses to drink. He turned and began speaking to me, seeming to ask for something, but his words were so slurred I couldn't understand what he was seeking.

The straightaway track was about 100 yards of a dusty road leading out of town, cordoned off for the races. A shrill whistle shattered the morning's tranquility: three horses raced from the starting line. Brightly colored streamers flew from the caballeros' headdresses, sort of like the tail of the quetzal, Guatemala's national bird, whose lengthy feathers were prized by Mayan kings. Hundreds of spectators lined the course, the women in hand–woven huipiles, the men in their red pants and round hats.

Guatemala travel

With each run, the horses picked up speed as more riders joined the fray. One rider, who howled and waved his whip from side to side as his horse ran, looked as though he'd just ridden down from the steppes of Mongolia. His wind–chapped face and narrow eyes seemed evidence that Native Americans are descended from the people of Asia.

Though more of an exhibition than a competition, the riders ran hard along the dusty track, straining to be first to the finish line. By ten in the morning, some races had as many as eight riders. Several caballeros kept drinking; one was so drunk I couldn't imagine how he'd steer his horse. The whistle sounded and he teetered as his horse accelerated. Suddenly he slid to the side and it looked as though he'd fall, but he seemed to defy gravity for a moment as he tried desperately to right himself. And then with a sickening thud he was down on the dusty track, clutching his abdomen and moaning in pain, his horse sprinting ahead without him.

Todos Santos

Like a pit crew, two men ran from the sidelines, leaned over fallen rider and quickly lifted him off the road. He winced, but a few minutes later was laughing through a grimace and shaking the hands of his rescuers. "The majority who run horses here are borrachos (drunks)," said the man sitting next to me, a teacher named Deciderio Cruz who watched the race with his two sons. It's not uncommon for a rider or two to die; it happens every couple of years, he said. And sometimes they run their horses so hard that the horses collapse in the track and expire from exhaustion.

Despite the hazards, or perhaps because of them, it's an honor to run horses on New Year's Day in Todos Santos. To rent a horse for the day the riders pay dearly: 1,000 to 3,000 quetzales ($130 to almost $400, plenty to feed a family for a month).

As we left town in our battered 1984 Toyota van, dozens of local Maya, seeming to peer at us through the mists of time, watched. Some bid us farewell with an "adios" or a "que le vaya bien" while other asked if they could hitch a ride.

After climbing out of the valley to a ridgetop, we got out for a last look. Embraced by the peace of the high mountain pass, our time in Todos had seemed dreamlike, a visit not just to a distant place but to a bygone era. I stood listening to the barely audible hum of insects and gazing up at the soaring agave spikes, soaking in the silence. Behind me was Todos Santos Cuchumatan, ahead was the 21st century.

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Michael Shapiro is the author of "A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration," a collection of interviews with Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, Tim Cahill and many others. Shapiro writes for National Geographic Traveler, Islands, the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle. His first travel story, published in 1990, was about studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala.

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