Perceptive Travel - A Journey Through the Land of the Maya in Guatemala

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A Journey Through the Land of the Maya in Guatemala
By Michael Shapiro, photos by Shapiro and Kraig Lieb



There are few places left in the world where the people are as naturally photogenic as the Maya descendents in Guatemala. Michael Shapiro shares excerpts from an up close look in words and pictures.


"Guate, Guate! " the barker shouts, announcing the destination of the vividly colored bus and imploring riders to get on board. "Alle, alle!" (Let's go!) he calls, telling passengers to hop on because the bus, an old hand–me–down from a U.S. school district painted in a swirling rainbow of colors, is about to roll from Antigua to Guatemala City. The barker, the bus driver's assistant, vaults onto the roof and pulls up big baskets of fruits and vegetables from the outstretched arms of the indigenous people below.

As the bus begins to chug towards Guatemala City, he ties down the packages to the roof rack and leaps like an acrobat down the back of the bus and in through the back door. Then he presses up the bus's crammed aisle, collecting fares from workers and families, crammed five or six people to a green bench seat. The buses here are run by private companies, so they're eager to pack in as many riders as they can. A local joke asks: "How many people can fit in a Guatemalan bus? Dos mas, dos mas! " (Two more, two more!).


Lent in Antigua
Guatemala processionDuring Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Antigua, and each Sunday during Lent, emotional processions of local inhabitants hoisting andas (wooden platforms, some as long as 40 feet, with saints on top), move slowly through Antigua's streets. The phenomenally heavy andas, some weighing well over a ton, are carried for hours by volunteers, sometimes men, often dressed in purple robes, and sometimes women, whose pain and strain is often palpable.

Ahead of the procession a man swings a vessel with burning incense, typically a metal coffee can with holes poked in it, perfuming the air with a pungent smoky–pine scent, while a small band of horn and flute players creates a mournful yet somehow uplifting soundtrack to match the earnestness and fervent passion of the moment.

Along Antigua's cobblestone streets during Semana Santa, church members create intricately designed carpets in the streets. These alfombras are made from vibrantly colored sawdust or sand, flower petals and palm needles, and may depict biblical, Mayan or national symbols, such as the quetzal, a bright green bird with yard–long tail feathers.

The Semana Santa celebrations culminate on Easter Sunday. At dawn the streets are blanketed with alfombras. The first processions hit the streets at daybreak and by midday Antigua is packed with pilgrims. Some watch the devotional parades pass by—others walk along with the berobed float–bearers. Everyone is welcome; you don't have to be Guatemalan or a practicing Christian to join the parade.

burning devil Antigua

Like Tibetan mandalas, the ephemeral nature of the alfombras makes them that much more beautiful. Some Antigueños, as Antigua's residents are called, spend the entire night before Easter creating an alfombra. A few hours—or sometimes just minutes—later, these works of art are trampled by the processions, a poignant reminder of the fleeting cycle of life, from ashes to ashes, dust to dust.


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Jesus, Mary and the saints aren't the only figures who take to Antigua's streets. On Dec. 7 each year, the Quema del Diablo (Burning of the Devil) is held in Antigua, right in front of an Esso gas station with a "No Fumar" (No Smoking) sign. It's classic Guatemala where rules seem contradictory: you can't smoke but you can douse a 12–foot–tall satanic effigy with gasoline and set it ablaze.

As a marimba–and–brass band plays, thousands of people fill the streets surrounding the devil. At precisely 6 p.m., the crowd counts down as if it's New Year's Eve: "Diez, nueve, ocho, siete, seis, cinco, quatro, tres, dos, uno! " and the devil is torched. Flames shoot 30 feet skyward as nervous firefighters stand by with hoses at the ready. Smoke fills the air and the crowd cheers as the devil's pitchfork sags and his horns burn. After the devil is reduced to simmering embers, the firefighters open their hoses and douse the ashes, watering down shrieking people standing nearby.


Calm Dawn and a Smoking Saint at Lake Atitlan

Backed by three imposing volcanoes and encircled by a necklace of tidy villages, Atitlán was called the world's most beautiful lake by author Aldous Huxley. Such glowing praise, though, can hardly prepare visitors for their first sighting of Atitlán. After a vertiginous descent towards the lake, there it is: a brilliant blue body of water flanked by the volcanoes of Atitlán, Tomilán and San Pedro.

Atitlan

Despite the pervasive influence of the modern world, the Maya of Atitlán adhere to ancient traditions and beliefs. Santiago remains the home of Maximón, a saint–like wooden figure believed to have mystical powers. The life–size idol is garlanded in silk scarves and offered a steady diet of alcohol and cigarettes. Some consider him an amalgam of Judas, Mayan deities, and Pedro de Alvarado, a 16th–century Spanish conqueror of Guatemala.

Wearing a Stetson hat and smoking a cigar, Maximón is paraded through town during Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week), but can be visited throughout the year. He's typically guarded by a caretaker or two who help Maximón consume his alcohol and cigarettes. Locals visit Maximón, ask for his blessings, light a candle, sing or chant, and leave an offering.

The revered figure is typically housed in dimly lit rooms clouded by smoke from incense and cigarettes. He moves annually depending on who is caring for him, but he's easy to find: just ask a kid in town to lead you there and give him a little change.

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Festival Time in Chichicastenango
Dozens of indigenous Maya in conquistador masks dance to a thumping beat in the colonial plaza as a marimba band plays at full tilt. Massive firecrackers detonate at ground level, shaking the cobblestones, then launch skyward where they explode a second time. A procession of wooden platforms bearing saints emerges from the Church of Santo Tomás as a salsa band starts blaring right next to the marimba ensemble. The conquistador dancers pause for a moment, seemingly confounded by the addition of the salsa beat, then continue with the steps that have been performed in this plaza for centuries.

On the steps fronting the whitewashed Church of Santo Tomás, a cofrade (an elder of a Christian brotherhood or cofradía; there are 14 cofradías in Chichicastenango, each devoted to a particular saint) shakes a small wooden horse covered with coins. The coins clink creating a chiming sound. Nearby a man swings a can of incense, perfuming the air with a sweet pine scent. Another cofrade ignites a wooden ball of firecrackers that he's holding, dancing and shaking a tambourine as they shoot off.

Chichicastenango churchIt's the morning of Dec. 21, the high point of the weeklong Fiesta de Santo Tomás. Chichicastenango's three most important saints, including the patron Santo Tomás, are carried on wildly decorated andas bedecked with big yellow, blue and red feathers, artificial fruits and flowers, sparkling mirrors, paper money and much more. The three 16–foot–high andas barely fit through the church door, filling the arch–shaped portal as they emerge.

As drums pound and flutes trill, the procession of religious floats marches down the steps of the church, built on the site of a Mayan temple destroyed during the Spanish conquest five centuries ago. As they did during the temple era, Mayan people congregate on the steps to talk, watch the proceedings in the plaza, offer devotional prayers or burn incense.

The crowd parts to let the procession pass. Cofrades wearing the traditional tzut (red head–scarf) hold silver staffs topped by an emblem of the sun and escort the andas. Middle–aged women dressed in purple–and–white huipiles (blouses) cradle candles, their faces warmly illuminated by the small flames. The conquistadors follow the Maya bearing the anda of Santo Tomás, perhaps subtle symbolism of the Maya leading and conquistadors following behind.

As the procession moves down Fifth Avenue toward El Arco (the arch, about four blocks from the church), young men set metal cylinders on the ground, light a fuse, shout "Bomba! " dispersing the crowd before another blast shatters the sky. One reason bombas are ignited is to let people in the surrounding hills know the fiesta is commencing. The smoke obscures the church; inside a Mayan priest preaches the gospel to a packed house of devoted Maya.

Both the marimba and salsa ensembles continue playing at ear–shattering volume in this Guatemalan battle of the bands. Vendors move through the crowd selling big pink tufts of cotton candy and Christmas adornments. It appears to be complete mayhem, seemingly a picture of utter disorganization. But like Guatemala's vibrantly colored tapestries, in which brilliant colors vie for the viewer's attention, somehow it all works.

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Chichicastenango means "place of the nettles"—the local Maya name is Siguan Tinamit which translates to "town surrounded by canyons." The municipality of about 50,000 people is more than 95 percent Maya and the primary language is Quiché, pronounced "kee–chay." The highland town (6660 feet above sea level), has served as a crossroads and trade center since before the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s.

To this day Chichicastenango remains a vibrant marketplace, as vendors come from miles around for the Thursday and Sunday bazaars selling brilliantly hued tapestries, frightening wooden masks, woolen blankets, woven bedspreads and finely patterned huipiles.Guatemala incense

Before dawn sellers with long poles strapped to their backs trek down Chichi's narrow alleyways and construct their stalls. Most vendors offer bargain prices early in the day, eager to make their first sale—prices also plummet at the end of the day because craftspeople would rather sell their goods than pack them up and lug them home.

Many goods are so affordable that they're a bargain any time of day. Part of the fun is bargaining, a social interaction that if done in a good–natured and caring way can help the buyer get to know the seller and forge a deal that both parties feel good about.

Though some crafts are targeted towards tourists, other parts of the market are for locals. Produce vendors enter the market bent forward with heavy crates on their backs as they bear the weight with a leather strap around the forehead. The tropical fruits and vegetables are laid out in Escher–like patterns on an indoor basketball court in the centro commercial, where you may see a man from Sololá in native dress selling potatoes, stout carrots and plump tomatoes; or a women in local traje selling plantains. From a distance, bundles of green onions look like Calla lilies in a Diego Rivera painting.

Throughout Chichi's market you'll hear the constant clapping of hands, the sound of women patting corn meal into tortillas, the Guatemalan staff of life. The Maya consider themselves the people of the corn, and visitors can watch white, yellow and blue corn meal transformed into thick rounds on a circular wood-fired grill called a comán. Just off the square are the comedores where the locals eat plates of fried chicken, salad and rice. On cool evenings, people stand by the grills and warm themselves as pans of chicken crackle.




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 Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, Tim Cahill, Isabel Allende, Simon Winchester and others. Shapiro's work appears in National Geographic Traveler, the Washington Post, New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle. His essay, "The Longest Day" appeared in The Best Travel Writing 2005.

Text by Michael Shapiro, gallery photos by Kraig Lieb, photos below in text by Shapiro. Excerpted from the book Guatemala: a Journey Through the Land of the Maya. All rights reserved.



Related stories:

Thoughts of Theroux, Back on the Train by Michael Shapiro
Guatemala's Running of the Horses by Michael Shapiro

Other Mexico and Central America stories from the archives




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