Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 December 21-23 Chichicastenango

Wednesday Otto and I got up at 5:40 am, had some breakfast and headed to Chichicastenango for the Festival of Santo Tomás, where we hoped to see the Palo de Volador.  Here´s a link to what that is...

The views from the bus were fantastic; I realize how redundant I sound because I am always saying this but it's true.  The country here is like a blend between my two favorite places, the jungles of Kaua'i and the Bighorn mountains in Wyoming.  There is often fog in the valleys, making the scenery seem like something out of The Lord of the Rings or The Mists of Avalon.  

Here are some pics from the bus ride...

The Palo de Valador is a performance that happens in parts of Mexico and (I think?) much of Central America, or at the very least all over Guatemala.  Apparently there are performances several times each day from the 13th-21st of December, but I had read in my book that the Festival of St. Thomas goes on for a week and it culminates on the 21st of December with the  Palo de Volador .  Sadly, the last performance of the day was at like 10 am and we didn't arrive until about 11 or 11:30.  People kept saying that maybe there would be another performance but there wasn't one the entire time we were there, which was a bit sad.  However, the festival itself was really cool and there were tons of (really dangerous!) fireworks.  In the space of about 24 hours I heard/saw more fireworks than I think I've seen in my entire life!  The people of Guatemala love fireworks!  There was a church where they were setting off fireworks (like black cats- that made lots of noise but didn't look pretty) constantly; the steps of the church were constantly on fire until someone would stamp the fires out, which wasn't really high on anyone's priority list so it's pretty accurate to say that the steps were on fire quite often! 

Cartoon character parade.  Don´t miss the fact that one has a gun!  lol
The spanish conquistadores!  And, a guy with a very large load!
more conquestadores!
cute purse I bought for $2 US.  :o)
Palo de Volador guys, NOT on the pole!  grrr!
Otto and I stayed at a little place called Posado El Teléfono, which I had read about in my CAOAS.  There was a tourist guide guy (the like of which I had also heard about from my CAOAS- people who find tourists and help them “find” hotels, costing more than it would because the hotel pays the guides a portion) who tried to talk us out of going there, and got pretty bitchy with me after I explained to Otto why I didn't want to use his help!  Despite what the guide said- that the place was dirty and unsafe- we found it to be absolutely fantastic.  The rooms and bathrooms were actually very clean, it didn't feel at all unsafe and the family that ran it was very sweet.  The “kitchen” was less developed than I would have liked (only a barbeque grill to heat water over, and no real space in which to prepare food) but most places don't have kitchens available for the guests to use so it was better than nothing!  Also, there were several cute little communal areas, one of which was a rooftop terrace that had a spectacular view of the cemetery on the west side of the city.  A couple of the staircases were a little rickety but they, and this little bridge right outside our door that went to another part of the hotel, were very charming. 
Steps leading to our room.
Bridge outside our room.
Our room

Cute communal area on the floor below our room (from whence the pic of the stairs leading to our room was taken).
Steps leading to the rooftop terrace.
Terrace from outside our room (it was too small to get a really good pic).
The cemetary, taken from the rooftop terrace.
We met another traveler at the hotel, a guy named Leandro who was from Argentina, and hung out with him on Wednesday evening with a Finnish guy named Sami and a Czechoslovakian girl named Suzanna.  There was a firework show at 6:30 with some of the coolest fireworks I've ever seen in my life; there were the normal ones that I'm used to seeing in the US but there were so many others that I've never seen before.  It definitely ranks pretty high in my list of favorite firework shows- at least in part because of the fear factor!  There wasn't much of a space cordoned off so the crowd was very close to the fireworks and I was pretty sure that the tents lining the area where they were setting off the fireworks would catch on fire, as some of the fireworks were exploding less than about 10 or 15 feet above the tents!  Also, there would occasionally be stray fireworks that had been assembled incorrectly or something, causing them to shoot off in unpredictable directions, sometimes exploding very near the crowd! 

On Thursday morning Otto, Leandro and I hiked up this hill on the south side of the city to check out the Shrine of Pascual Abaj, a Mayan Shrine I had read about in my CAOAS.  It is a shrine to Huyup Tak'ah, the Maya Earth God.  It was a short hike, but a pretty steep climb so it was a nice way to start the day.  Upon our arrival at the top we were pleased to see that there was a sacrifice going on!  There was one “Brujo” (priest/shaman) and five people who were praying and participating in the sacrifice.  I didn't take any pictures but I will try my best to describe it!  (These pics are from the hike on the way up.)

A moreria on the way to the shrine
Another moreria
The shrine itself on the east side of the site, and there the priest lit five bundles of candles, each formed from about 10 candles tied together.  There was a rock there that was shaped like the shoulders and head of a person (Huyup Tak'ah) and there were some handkerchiefs folded into triangles and stacked atop the “head” to make it look like a woman.  I guess Huyup Tak'ah is female?

In the middle of the site the priest had assembled a huge pile of offerings.  The pile had what I think were charcoals as the base and was about 3 feet in diameter.  A yellow powder, probably cornmeal, was sprinkled on the perimeter, encircling the pile, and 9 (I think; 9 is a sacred number to the Maya people and though I didn't count the eggs I think it's likely there were 9) eggs were placed at regular intervals around the circle, right outside of the circle of cornmeal.  Inside the circle of cornmeal was the charcoal, on top of which was piled two huge blocks of sugar, each about 4-5 inches x 8-10 inches, and tons of candles, bread, cookies, chocolate, gum and marshmallows. 

We must have arrived just as the ceremony was beginning.  There were a 3 Chinese people watching the ceremony as well but we were the only other people there besides the Brujo, his helper, and the five people who had come to pray, who knelt down on the south-west side of the site holding bags of cornmeal that the priest gave them and prayed aloud for at least 45 minutes, most likely an hour (we had to leave before the ceremony was over because we needed to meet up with Sami and Suzanna at 9 but it looked like the ceremony was almost over when we left). 

While the people prayed the Brujo also prayed, chanting around the fire and the people who were praying.  One thing that was a little amusing was that at one point he was holding a handful of about 7 or 8 candles and he was chanting around the people who were praying while smacking them all about their bodies with the candles, especially on the head.  You could tell he was hitting them somewhat hard because you could see the peoples eyes blink every time he hit them!  After he smacked each person about 40 or 50 times he would hold the candles in front of their face for them to kiss, then move on to the next person.  He then sacrificed the candles to the fire.  He had two boxes full of stuff to sacrifice to the fire- candles, alcohol, chocolate, marshmallows, cookies and what I think were pumpkin seeds or seeds from some other type of squash.  When he offered the squash seeds to the fire (and also to Huyup Tak'ah) he made a noise with his lips that sounded a lot like the noise the vehicles make on the Jetsons, which was pretty funny because it seemed completely incongruous!  For a lot of the time he just walked around and chanted while offering candles and other things to the fire but after a while he had the people who were praying stand up and he gave them things to offer to the fire.  At one point the eggs started to explode which was pretty exciting as there were bits of egg flying everywhere!

Here is a link to some pics of a ritual at Pascual Abaj.

I really wanted to see what they would do with the cornmeal but we just didn't have the time, unfortunately.  We rushed back to town, passing at least 50 tourists on our way down the hill!  We were very thankful to have gotten up early enough to miss the hoards!  We grabbed some breakfast with Suzanne and Sami and walked around town a bit afterward, checking out a large indoor fruit and veg market with some of the biggest carrots I´ve ever seen in my life!  We had heard that there was a performance of the Palo de Volador at 2 pm so we waited around for that but it didn't happen.  :o(  So, that was a little disappointing considering it was the whole reason why I had wanted to go but it was fun to see Chichi and we still had a great time.
Mayan men in traditional garb.
View of part of the market from a bridge.
Single serving hot dogs!
Giant carrots (compare them to the cauliflower nearby).
From left to right, Otto, Sami, Suzanne, Leandro and me.
Some Mayan women in traditional garb.
The Mayan people consider gold teeth very beautiful.  :o)

I will continue my escapades in and around San Marcos in my next post.  :o)

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