Going Guatemalan

Very little planning,but sure to me lots of fun!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Story of San Bartolomé Redux

Every Sunday in Lent, there is a grand procession, leading up to Semana Santa, and the highlight of the Easter season, Good Friday. I'm not sure why the Catholics celebrate Jesus' death more than his resurrection, but so it is. The processions are massive, enchanting and extremely popular. Its hard to fathom the amount of planning, organizing and managing that go into these productions. This particular float left the church at 5:00am and didn't return until past midnight.

To start, I walked backwards along the route of the procession. Walking backwards allowed me to see the beautiful alfombras or carpets that are created along the route of the procession. The alfombras are traditionally made of dyed sawdust, although anything can be used. Also popular are pine needles with various leaves and flowers, but I also saw one with vegetables, and another made of all different types of coffee beans. The vegetable carpet was my favorite because the vegetables add some height to the image and make it more interesting to look at. Not that the others aren't beautiful and interesting to look at. The sawdust carpets are generally neon colors, and geometric designs. The pieces require lots of planning, can take up to 12 hours to make, and require several participants in its creation. Deigns vary greatly but are always intricate and beautiful.

The carpets are made by the home or business owner who's property faces that piece of the street. Once a design has been decided upon, a specialist will cut stencils for each part of the design. On the day of, a few hours before the procession is due to pass, the work begins, and sawdust is laid according to the planned design. The colors are packed into the stencils carefully, and the the stencil is delicately lifted to reveal the a piece of the pattern.

The idea is that the floats pass over the alfombras, art as an offering to Jesus. You would hope that they would be preserved all day long, but as soon as the float passes over, the image is marred and seconds after the procession has passes, the city clean-up crew is there to haul the remains away.

As I started to approach the procession, the crowd gets denser and denser. Eventually, I couldn't walk any further, signaled by the beginning of the procession - the "Roman" soldiers. The soldiers attempt to make the atmosphere realistic, however, I find them slightly comical. With the surging crowd waiting to see Jesus pass, carrying his cross, the soldiers' role is to clear people out of the way. However all reality and intimidation is lost when the soldier opens his mouth and a polite request in Spanish comes out of his mouth. To further undermine his authority, his costume consists of a helmet with a broom attached - dyed red and turned upside-down. As another reminder that its only a type of role play, some of them are even carrying babies or holding their girlfriend's hand.

Also passing about this time were hundreds of men in purple robes. A great sea of purple men opens up and consumes the street. These men are the participants in the procession that have paid to carry the Jesus float. Its about a $10-$20 fee and then they have to buy or make the purple robes according to the specifications of the church, in this case San Bartolome. More purple men pass, a few are carrying special images or banners of the church, some church leaders that might be dressed in off-white or red, and then more purple men. The line of characters, participants, image bearers and church clergy probable stretched more than 3 blocks long. The actual float of Jesus is signaled by a cloud of incense. The incense is so thick, it made my eyes water. Some people were coughing and it was difficult the breath.

After so much build up and anticipation, the Jesus float finally arrives appearing majestically through the incense cloud. Jesus is about one and a half times the size of a man, and bears his cross. On this float, there was some other biblical figure, (San Baratolome?) and some angels. The whole thing is ornately decorated with ornate robes on the characters, flowers on the objects, and banners with biblical scripture. The float is carried by over a hundred men. Three men in the front guide the way, pushing on the float with all their weight to slow it down, or pulling on it to speed it up. They wore slightly different costumes and are clearly a few of the organizers of this operation. They call down the line of purple men if an order needs to be given, and direct the float around corners and when new purple men are exchanged to carry it.

The purple men grunt under the wieght of the float. When on a long straight, they lean forward, resting their chin on the back of the man in front of them and shifting the weight a little onto their backs. This enables them to walk a little bit faster, but upon reaching a corner or preparing to change purple men, they must lift the float up directly onto their shoulders, and slowly make thier manouver. Each team of one hundred men carries the float for one block before exchanging with the next team. As difficult as this task may be, it very common for men to be carrying their children on the free shoulder. I for the life of me figure out why.

Behind the Jesus float walks a impromptu marching band. The band is made up of mostly tubas, trumpets, and various percussion instruments. They play a slow dirge to set the tone of the occasion (Jesus heading towards his crucifixion) and keep everyone under the float in step with each other. The whole thing - the image of Jesus suffering under the weight of his cross, the men in purple suffering under the weight of Jesus, everyone taking slow steps, dragging their feet the the tune of the depressing music is moving. Its not quite a funeral procession, but its far from a celebration.

Following a short pause after the Jesus float, the Mary float arrives. This float doesn't receive quite the same buildup that the Jesus float gets, but there is still a string of women that precede it. The Mary float is traditionally carried women dressed in black skirts and headscarves. Its slightly shorter, maybe about 50-60 women carrying the float, but there not necessarily any lighter on its bearers. On this float, Mary was dressed in a beautiful robe and had a crown on her head. However, she is clearly in mourning for Jesus' fate. The Mary float is followed by her own band, and creates her own, but very different sense of suffering.

As soon as the Mary float passes, the crowd disperses, and the clean-up crew sweep up the once beautiful rugs that have now been turned into mulch. You would never know that such a procession had passed.

There will be one more float next week on Palm Sunday before Semana Santa. Dyring Semana Santa, I'm told there will be a procession almost every day, growing in size and popularity. Stay tuned...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Story of San Bartolomé

The city of Antigua is known for its Easter-time processions, and for good reason. People swarm to the city from all over the world to watch and participate in these processions. The processions begin at the start of lent, when every weekend a different church will host a vigil on Friday and Saturday, and then hold a city wide procession on Sunday.

San Bartolomé held the vigil this weekend, but this was no vigil in my mind. When I think vigil, I think of a few people, mostly old ladies, dressed in black quietly chanting in prayer, surrounded by candles in a dark room. I think of fasting and hand holding in calm and serene surroundings. But this was no such vigil. My first thought as I approached the church was that it was a carnival, and it was only one step shy of being so. About three blocks from the church, police close the streets and prevent cars from passing through. This is about where the crowd begins, although the streets leading up to this points are lined with parked cars and pedestrians. Along those final three blocks, there are vendors selling sunglasses, toys, icecream, fruit, and local food. Just outside the church the number of vendors and people swells. You would think its a grand celebration; the only thing the setting is missing is joyful music.

On entering the cathedral, its dark and musty. Although there's a crowd of people, its quiet, creating a slightly somber air. There are hundreds of people packed inside looking at some attraction that I can't see. I dive into the crowd and start to make my way forward. The crowd is a mass of bodies all leaning in the direction of the display, not a single free centimeter in the crowd. Everybody is bumping against each other in an effort to inch forward. The trick is to squeaze yourself in as one person leaves. Standing in the back and awaiting your turn won't do anything; you can't be afraid to push yourself forward. However, the whole process of rubbing against bodies, exchanging sweat and sharing body odor is worth it. After a few minutes of this dance, I came to a place where I could stand on my toes to see the display over the head of the woman in front of me. And what a sight it was.

On the ground stretching several feet long and the full width of the church, was a ceremonial carpet. This carpet is made entirely from sawdust, which is dyed and then spread to form an image. The picture takes hours of work and several people to prepare, and its design is an artistic mystery to me. The sheer size of the image requires intricate planning and a deal of engineering. The full image is about 25ft x 15ft and contains all different colors. It looks like a painting; colors are blended to create depth and shadows, figures are created with natural lines, and the background is realistic - but whole thing is made from sawdust! The image was of Jesus probable teaching in a temple. There were some other figures, disciples maybe, on the side. Jesus was larger than life-size, probably about 10 feet tall.

The design continues with an art-deco border, still all from sawdust, but with bold, neon colors. Beyond that is a border made from fruit and flowers. In the corner there was a cage of some birds - I'm not sure what the meaning behind that was. And along the backdrop was a scene of characters - a painted cloth backdrop and some biblical statues. The size and detail of the full display is overwhelming.

After a few pictures with my camera at a funny angle trying to get a good shot over the head of the woman in front of me, I started to make my way out again. This is more difficult than it seems; as I was leaving, people were pushing forward to try and reach the space I was occupying. This creates a standstill, a tug-a-war in reverse (push-a-war?). As I'm pushing my way out, the crowd is pushing forward. There's no space for me to go; so, more rubbing of bodies, raise up my arms to make space for someone else's shoulder, like one of those puzzles that you have to slide all the pieces into the correct place, only there's only one free space.

Back outside with the fresh air and sunlight, I enjoyed some fresh cooked corn and platene chips. Like a carnival.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tomar el bus

Imagine your school bus from elementary school without rules, and thats what the local mass transit system is like here. Always exciting, crazy and a tad dangerous, bus rides are one of my favorite parts of Guatemala. Public transit buses are old school buses that have been slightly modified. They are painted with bright bold colors and are ornately decorated. There is usually a luggage rack welded onto the top with a ladder in the back for access. Inside, there are added handle bars along the ceiling for standing passengers, and sometimes another luggage rack for smaller bags.

In Namibia, buses didn't leave for their destination until they were full. Usually that meant at least 25 passengers, and its possible to wait 4-5 hours for that to happen. In Guatemala however, buses are much more convienient and efficient. Guatemala has a larger population, and therefore the demand to sustain a steady, near constant stream of buses. Even at 5am, I was able to allow two buses to pass before flagging a better looking bus. And although only about half the seats were taken when I got on, within a few minutes, it was standing room only. A few mintues more, and it was packed full. Buses are not considered full until people are quite literally hanging out the doors.

On the road, these buses are monsters, bullying other cars and not stopping for anything that won't pay. The bus I rode accelerated and decelerated quickly (I was pretty car sick at the end of the ride) and honked its monstrous horn at anything in its way. Even when the bus picks up a passenger, there is only a milisecond pause for the patron to jump on, usually having only one foot in the door before the bus is leaving again. I think drivers would prefer their customers get a running start and jump on the bus as it drives by. And you had better move towards the door a least a block before your stop. Calling out "next stop please!" or ringing the bell won't work; you have to be ready to move when the bus stops. As I was leaving, my feet hadn't even touched the ground when the driver started going again. If the bus is full and you're sitting in the back, just use the back door, also known in your school days as the emergency exit.

Perhaps my favorite part about the bus is the drivers assistant, the conductor if you will. This is a little man (Guatemalans are short in general, most men are an inch shorter than I am) that hangs out the door calling out the bus' destination, spotting passengers and collecting money. Once everyone's feet have cleared the ground, he calls out "Sale!" (pronouced sahl-ey) in a not-too-loud, scratchy, almost nasal, small man voice that unfortunately can't be played back here. He holds on to the "e" just a little bit and it makes me think of how someone might start up a roller coaster ride. "Saleeee!"

The whole thing makes for quite a ride. Jump on, accerlarte, decelerate, "sale!" Accerlarte, decelerate, "sale!" Accerlarte, decelerate, "sale!" While all this is going on, I'm lost somewhere in a mass of bodies. There are the rumbles of the disel engine, and the frequent horn blowing, and loud bumping music. Absolutely fantastic, an adrenaline rush at its finest.

Friday, March 20, 2009

At the market

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Market day!

Guatemala has beautiful markets. They look just like they do on the postcards. But while the postcards show all the visual beauty of the place, they don´t capture exactly how overwhelming the experience is.
Fresh fruits line the street - they are brightly colored and stacked high. There is barely space to walk between the stalls. There are the expected fruits and veggies available - oranages, mangoes, bananas, strawberries, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, beans, avacados, etc. - plus a whole lot more that I don´t remember the names of. And for those of you who would ask, yes, there is pumpkin. They don't get any fresher than here, being picked no earlier than the day before, if not the very morning I visited. The odors of the market make me salivate and my stomach growl. The overall scent is that of fresh cut grass, but its not grass, its produce. At one popular stall there was a guy selling little chicks, but he had DYED some of them bright pink, purple, green and blue. Many families go to the market everyday to pick out what they'll eat that night. The stands themselves are brightly colored with a rainbow of umbrellas and signs. In addition to the stands, some people walk the street selling miscallaneous merchandise such as hair clips, belts, shoes, clothing, goats. To top off the sights the people dress in their imfamous textiles which are delicately embroidered with bright and intricate designs. Everytime I go I plan to buy some produce for the household I'm staying with, but I'm always too busy taking it all in to decide.
The sounds of the market are even more exciting. Each vendor is calling out his or her product, offering deals, bargining and trying to attract customers. The market is usually a busy traffic area, so there bus engines roaring and cars honking in the background. Then there's the loud bumping music playing from somewhere close by and the wandering preacher calling all patrons to Jesus who gives us our daily bread. On the hour the local church bells will ring, and at noon they give a full ten minute performance. All of this action wouldn't be justified without a crowd of people. I was always bumping into and dodging people. There was barely enough room to walk. I'm too afraid to go to the market by myslef. I need a guide so that I won't get too overwhelmed and get lost. I've been really lucky to always have a local expert accompany me to the market. The day I go alone will be quite a long journal entry.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Going Guatemalan

For those that don't already know, I'm off again, but this time to Guatemala, and don't worry. I'll be home in a few months. All my Peace Corps entries are still here for those that want to read them, but I'll be adding some new stories about Central American life in Guatemala. Stay tuned...