San Pascual Bailon and the Animal Market- Olintepeque, Guatemala

“Want to take a little trip on thursday?”

Thursday, by no coincidence, was the day our school’s director would be away on personal business.  I had chosen to remain with Juliza as my final Spanish teacher after filtering through a sort of foster care within the school.  As a student, I am the sort of frustrating person who can’t be told what to do, and has to be tricked into a lesson.  My first day with Juliza, I was too busy extending my vacation at Lake Atitlan to show up at class.  Our second day, just after meeting, Juliza checked a text message, turned on a charmful smile and asked, “Want to take a little trip?”  We spent the rest of the lesson gossiping while running errands at her son’s school.  I like to think of our relationship as soul mates of indolence.  We loved learning, we loved language, but we didn’t have patience for all the formality.

Our Thursday trip turned out to be our most excellently squandered lesson of all.  Olintepeque, a village just outside the city of Xela, holds an exhaustive livestock market which was one of my most outlandish observances in Guatemala.  As our chicken bus pulled up to Olintepeque–our companionable teacher-student truant pair in tow–I heard what sounded like children screaming just outside the window.  We deboarded amidst a parade of marketeers taking their bounty home.  An old woman walked near, her arm immobile with the weight of a bundle of feathers.  At closer glance, I saw the bundle blink, and then cluck.  She had about four live chickens by the talons, as calmly as if she were pulling along a bundle of carrots.  Even more disturbing, the chickens were also as casual as carrots.  The four of us entered the market, passing a few stalls of attractive fabrics, and readying our wallets.  However, past the inviting display, we walked right into a wall of animal frenzy encapsuled by manure stench.   Tightening our ensemble, we nervously packed our wallets back into our bags.  A pair of young girls marched from the assemblage, pulling along a resistant pack of piglets down the dirt road.  I recognized the pigs’ squeals as the ‘children’s screams’ I had heard minutes earlier.  The pigs didn’t walk a step; they locked their little legs into the dust, and the girls dragged them away, leaving panicked piglet dust trails behind.  The four of us held our breath and entered further into the fray.  Goats, sheep, horses, donkeys were all being led somewhere or other.  Vendors called out their products to us as we passed.  A small cow stepped in front of me and mooed.  “These animals have already been bought,” explained my teacher, as she pointed out a barn shelter.  Behind the barn, was an indoor market brimming with what was probably the entire town and all other surrounding villages.  Nearly all vendors inside were women wearing traditional woven blouse and skirt; and this gave the indoor market a disparate aura from the outside lots.  Swarms of color from the women’s clothes erased memories of muddy animals casting forlorn faces.  Female chatter replaced mournful moos and piglet screams.  Women and girls squatted over cardboard boxes filled with small grey bunnies, or chirping chicks in a netted sack.

 

The market wasn’t our final destination that day.  Our featured stop was a visit to the temple of San Pascual Bailon, which we were told held the skeleton of San Bailon himself.  In Guatemala, San Bailon stands as one of many Catholic saints hybridized with Mayan beliefs.  Not limited only to be an ephemeral guide, San Bailon materialized to this part of the earth in the form of a miniature human-like skeleton that was discovered buried in the surrounding hills during Spanish colonial rule.  I never completely grasped what sect of human misery San Bailon protected against or had special powers over, but I did understand that whatever a person might ask for, it was best accompanied by festive decorum and dancing (“bailon.”)  Inside the temple, patrons stashed their live chicken bundles from the market to the sides, and found spaces on the center floor to place prayer candles—a different color for specific needs (money, love, children, health, etc.)  One teenager in a backpack and hoodie approached the Mayan priest stationed at San Bailon’s altar with an armload of candles, one of each color.  The priest blessed her with a smoking incense bundle, and then she walked back to light each candle on the floor, placing her prayers with concentration in the process.  Other patrons were now approaching the Mayan priest and priestess, and speaking to the altar of San Bailon.  The other student and I decided to check out this San Bailon for ourselves.  We peaked at the glass case behind bountiful flower arrangements to see a tiny skull—no more than 2 inches wide—adorned with a tiny crown.  What was likely the rest of the skeleton was dressed in regal clothes, and donned a cape.  As sure as Juliza had promised, there stood the miniscule human-like skeleton representing San Pascual Bailon.  We stood there, bemused and unsure of our reactions, caught between our skeptical sensibilities and the droll supernaturalism of the situation.  Comparing my experience with San Simon (Maximon) in Zunil, I began to see a pattern of spirituality centered on, not the religious lore, nor the space of the temple, but rather on the humanesque representation of the spirit.  Maximon, a life-size flamboyant store dummy, and San Bailon, a 12 inch carcass of God knows what.  There is a tradition of tactility; face-to-face conversation with the saints on which these Guatemalans place their lives’ hopes.  I know from personal contact, the shock of these off-set images of humanity–images that represent us, yet in aberration, stand for something more ethereal–was enough to fill me with some unearthly reverence.

When we all finally had our fill of the cluttered, eclectic crossing of life desires, livelihood, and livestock, we jumped on the bus back home.  A woman next to me cradled a squirmy burlap sack, as blandly as if she were holding a baby.  I knew it was best for me not to ask, and even better not to imagine.

The Appealing and the Peculiar – Zunil and Almolonga, Guatemala

I usually pride myself on my independence, especially during travel, but my time in Guatemala has made me the most fearful, boring and unadventurous traveler I’ve ever been.  All the obvious drawbacks aside, my sheepish ways on this trip have actually resulted some more fruitful travel experiences.  Typically, I never spend money on tour guides if I can do it myself.  However, what I gain in free exploration, I lose in well-researched information.  My Spanish school offered this trip to the neighboring volcanic valleys of Zunil and Almolonga as a group excursion, and hired a government-approved tour guide to fill our experience with lively facts and insider history.

The town center of Zunil was our first stop, just a 20 minute drive outside Xela.  The village lays comfortably inside a steep valley.  Lush patch gardens lead the way toward the town center.    We arrived here for three attractions, two of which were as normal as could be expected in this seemingly typical small town in Guatemala.  The third was a whole different story.

Zunil Cathedral

Because the indigenous Mayans were accustomed to worshiping outside their temples, Spanish conquistadors had troublebringing the new and potential converts indoors for mass.  The conquistadors resorted then to creating elaborate decorations on the face of the cathedrals throughout Guatemala.  This particular cathedral was built in the 16th century.

Indigenous Women’s Weaving Cooperative, Zunil

Just a minute from the cathedral, we visited a women’s weaving cooperative.  Centers like these host products crafted by various local women, giving indigenous women a simplified forum for making traditional weaving viable.

Altar of San Simon, also “Maximon, Zunil

Locals share a drink and a prayer with San Simon.

Maximon, once a rebellious Mayan leader, evolved into sainthood after suffering defeat at the hand of the Spanish.  He now takes the form of a life-size manequin dressed as a cowboy ganster.  Bandana, cowboy hat, shades, alligator boots–the works.  Locals come to share a smoke and a drink (poured down the doll’s throat) with the idol.  There is a small altar of flowers and prayer candles in the center of the room, and a place out back for frying chicken–in a more sacrificial than KFC manner.

Almolonga Baths

Just 10 minutes outside Zunil, the village of Almolonga sits on land thriving with natural “cumbras” (saunas) and “aguas calientes” (hot springs.)  We found a privately owned bath house offering private rooms.  Beside privacy, the benefit of one of these houses is the ability to personalize your bath temperature.

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More about Zunil:

http://www.thresholds.net/zunil/index.html

Cease Travel, Sink into Culture – first week in Quetzaltenango (Xela) Guatemala

Arriving here in Xela (shay-la) this week, all the hopes and fears of the last two months are put to rest.   Xela has the essence I had hoped it would.  Narrow one-way streets wind around the center square, which hosts the Spanish architecture Cathedral, banks and other ancient colonial buildings now housing commercial offices and restaurants.  Couples and families sit on the stone benches surrounding small flower gardens, and enjoy an ice cream cone.  Teenagers meet their friends in the square’s centerpiece, a large Greek-columned gazebo.  As a confirmation of its 6 universities and more than 30 Spanish schools, Xela has nice a college town café culture.  Small cafes are tucked into most corners around the old town center.  Walking through town, American or European students appear fairly often, and are recognizable by their sunglasses and floppy shoulder bags. 

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I had this notion for the past few weeks that Xela would be my Galway of Guatemala.  After finishing a work visa in London, I decided to stay in Europe a while longer and added on a short work visa for Ireland.  I landed in Dublin and immediately the traffic annoyed me, the hostel annoyed me, I didn’t see myself belonging there in any way.  A friend in London had recommended earlier that I give Galway a try.  I checked out of the hostel early the next morning, and took a cross-island bus to the Gaelic capital of Ireland.  On the highway, I instantly felt better.  The green wet landscape slid by.  My senses could stretch all the way across the hilly horizon rather than be squelched by a cramped city.  Finally the bus pulled up the train station just off the main square of Galway.  Throngs of drunk, happy tourists and colorfully dressed performers careened down the town’s cobblestone main street.  I had arrived during the city’s primary annual attraction—an arts and music festival.  And even though the whole city didn’t contain a single free bed, and I was forced to spend a cold night under a tree near the river, I knew I had found my Ireland home.

Minus the cold lonely night outdoors, my transition to Xela from Guatemala City did feel very much the same.  Comfortable on my “first-class” bus (comparable to Greyhound at its best) I endured a few slow miles of potholed streets and angry bus horns, until finally we rolled past the edge of Guate’s stacked and broken cityscape, and into the open mountain farmland.  The driver put a rotation of Mexican music videos on the overhead TVs.  The mother of an American family in the front of the bus turned around in her seat toward her daughter to comment on the changing scenery.  She did this often, and every time she whipped her blond head around, she locked her eyes with mine for a second, maybe deciding whether to breach contact with a fellow foreigner.  I never gave her the chance.  I was enchanted in my directionless, language-less state, and I didn’t want to break the spell.

Being directionless, my memory of the bus ride scenery has blended into a single image of hills, trees, roadside shacks.  I remember

Road to Xela

women in colorful woven dress with bundles on their heads, firewood bundles on their backs, or children slung to their hips.  I think I might have caught the last glimpse of Lake Atitlan bowled by perfect triangular volcanoes.  After 3 hours, the bus pulled into a rest stop near Cienega Grande for a brief meal break.  The passengers were happy for a quick warm meal and a stretch in the mountain air.  A group of college kids sang along with their resident guitarist, a pattern of Spanish songs with Bob Marley, Maroon 5, and Sam Cooke.

We reached Xela a pleasant, music-video-less hour later.  A member of my host family met me at the bus stop.  It didn’t take language to tell that she and her father were sweetest family I could hope for.  As we juggled a small car through a maze of one-way streets toward their house, the two did their best to make small talk with my broken Spanish—broken and unrepaired since 2001.  They pointed out landmarks I couldn’t distinguish, and fun facts I couldn’t quite understand.  In my own absorption, I noticed first off that Xela lacks an obvious corporate chain presence—Guatemalan or international.  There is the odd McDonalds and Wendy’s, and the ice cream service Sarita, but this characteristic was so distinct from the US culture I’m used to that it struck me as the most foreign quality.

I was lucky enough to meet another American resident in the homestay, who is a teacher rather than a student.  She invited me mass at her church the next morning for the Semana Santa service.  Sensing my interest in the religious events, the homestay grandfather also offered to escort me to an evening procession as it passed near the house after dinner.

The procession that night—though less structured and much smaller–was even more beautiful than the massive procession I saw in Guatemala City.  A solemn brass melody from the band drifted forward as boys in black robes carted the altars of previous processions—Jesus tortured, Jesus dying.  Two long lines of boys and men bearing candles followed them on either side of the street, ushering in the thick of the procession.  The altar of Mary shined with the light of hundreds of electric candles, and it floated

Incense cloud shrouds Semana Santa procession

down the street like a Dixie Queen steamboat in the black Mississippi.  Next in the procession, white-robed children swung metal balls filled with burning coal and incense, and Mary swayed high behind smoke clouds.  As the altar approached, I could see the women beneath, balancing the scene (at least 10 feet long) on their shoulders.  They were pressed to one another, supporting the structure back to front without a gap.  And as if that weren’t unnatural looking enough, they rhythmically slid their feet forward in a slow, eerie march.

After the weekend’s festivities came to a rest, I fell into my weekday schedule.  5 hours of Spanish at 8am can really take it out of a person.   I break for lunch and then head out for 3 hours of volunteering in the afternoon.  They are full days, but they feel well spent.  I have a few hours in the evening to take advantage of the city’s café culture, but I am sure to get home before dark.  I haven’t ventured much into nightlife, as there are some safety concerns (but that’ll be a whole different post.)

The past week has been a momentous cultural immersion for me.  I know now that it’s an accurate phrase because, much like being submerged, I feel that I can’t hear what anyone’s saying and no one can hear me.  I’m confined to a mute and deaf environment.  And today, I realized that I will spend my entire trip still trying decode the people I’m living with and the place I’m living in; still trying to adjust to Guatemalan culture.  More disconcerting though is that I’m now in the addictive, adrenaline-producing survival mode that I travel for, and I haven’t yet considered how I will be able to adjust when I come back to the boring old U.S.