Trip Start Nov 26, 2009
12Trip End Dec 10, 2009
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Chichicastenango was not originally a Mayan town. It was created by the Spanish in 1524 as a place to dump the K´che´ refugees they created by destroying the nearby town of Utatlán.
I suspect the current economic climate had more to do with the small crowd than the fact that I was there on a Thursday, but, either way, although there were a lot of people there it wasn't nearly as crowded as I thought it might be based on the descriptions I'd read
It turned out that he's a registered guide and, by helping me park he got first crack at me to sell me his guide services. One of the commonalities of developing countries that you don't see in developed countries is the aggressiveness in hawking your wares or services to tourists. Great effort and ingenuity is expended in finding ways to separate tourists from their dollars.
Instead of doing my usual thing of saying "No, gracias" and walking away, I accepted his offer. He could offer me information I wasn't going to get elsewhere and I'd never hired a guide before so I decided to give it a try. Instead of heading for the market first we went outside of town. As we walked he pointed out a plant growing out of a sheer dirt wall and talked about its spines. This plant is the origin of the name Chichicastenango which means, "Place of Nettles" in Nahutl.
We climbed a steep hill just outside town. Many of the hills in the highlands are topped with Mayan shrines and we were heading to just such a shrine; this one know as Pascual Abaj
We finished climbing to the top of the hill where the shrine to Pascual Abaj was located. There was a central altar surrounded by smaller altars and there were a couple of people there beginning a ritual with the help of a shaman. Two other people there performing a ritual, Carlos told me, were a shaman and his assistant.
Mayans will hire a shaman to perform a ritual to cleanse them of spiritual impurities, help a business succeed, for healing for themselves, a child or other relative, put a hex on an enemy or most any other need that comes up in human lives. The shaman, in a highly ritualized ceremony, burns an offering on the altar while praying to the Mayan gods out loud. These are long, loud and impassioned prayers. The offering burned on the altar varies somewhat, depending on what's being prayed for. In the case of the first set of pictures, the success of a bakery owned by the petitioner was the purpose of the ritual and the offering includes bread
Everything has significance. Different flowers are used in different ceremonies. Different colored candle have different meanings and purposes. The items burned on the altar all have significance and vary depending on the situation.
The large stone in the center of the main altar is Pascual Abaj. Carlos told me the original Pascual Abaj was stolen some years ago so this is a replacement which is sunk several feet into concrete.
Going down the hill and back into town, we went to the Catholic church. No photography is allowed inside but the inside of the church has some of the same low altars I saw on the hilltop. Francisco Ximénez, the town priest from 1701 - 1703 found and read the Popol Vuh, the Mayan holy book. The Maya saw he respected their traditions and set up their altars inside the church.
Before entering the church, the faithful make offerings before the front door, burning copal and estoraque incense in perforated cans
Carlos told me that a couple who planned to marry would come to the church, light two candles, one for each of them, put the two candles right next to each other and place them on one of the low altars. If both candles burned to the ground and remained standing next to each other, it signaled that the marriage would last. If one of the candles fell over before it finished burning, it meant the marriage would not last.
The couple whose candles didn't stay standing would then go to a hilltop shrine for a ritual by a shaman to cleanse them of whatever the impediment was that would prevent their marriage from enduring.
For these Maya, the church is alive with the spirits of their ancestors. The spirits of the "first-people", the ancient ancestors, live under the altar railing at the front of the church. Former officials are in the middle aisle. Commoners are in the nave and native shamans are beside the door.
Catholic saints are incorporated into the Mayan pantheon and are appealed to in prayer and offered candles and the same alcoholic beverage poured out at the Mayan shrine on the hilltop.
We wandered through the market which is, indeed the most incredibly immense town market I've ever seen
On the side of the market opposite the main cathedral is a smaller church known as El Calvario. The scene outside is the same, with people offering incense in perforated cans and praying outside the front door. Inside, at the front of the church is a glass-encased supine effigy of Christ which is taken out of the church and paraded around the streets during Easter week.
My last stop was at the town cemetery which looks like a small city with cement monuments almost as big as a small shack. Of course it's wealth based and if your family can't afford a huge cement monument you get a mound of dirt. At the back of the cemetery are more Mayan altars. When we got there two rituals were in progress. One was well underway with people standing around a fire praying loudly and fervently. The other was just starting.
I took only one picture because one of the shamans motioned to me not to take pictures. This shaman was wearing a black head covering and using black candles. Carlos told me this indicated he was praying to Maximón for evil and that he motioned to me not to take pictures because taking a picture would interrupt or cancel the hex. He's the shaman at the front of the picture. The group at the back were praying for good, Carlos told me.
I asked if there are particular shamans who pray for evil and others who pray for good but Carlos told me a shaman will use whatever ritual is appropriate for a client's wishes
Chichicastenango is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Antigua so I left before it got too late and I could get home. When I did get home I managed to drop my camera and damage it. Today was spent taking care of errands in Antigua. One of the camera stores I stopped at gave me directions to a store that might be able to fix the camera. I had been absolutely sure that they'd tell me they had to send it off somewhere (Guatamala City? the US?) to get repaired by a factory-authorized repair shop. That's the story I'd hear in the US.
Instead a business that sold wine and had an Internet cafe was reputed to be able to fix cameras. It sounded questionable to me but I had nothing to lose so, following the directions the camera store gave me I found the shop. They said they'd charge me 250 Quetzales (about $30) to determine what the problem was and see if they could fix it. I took them up on their offer and, when I returned they had it all fixed, so I can keep adding pictures to this blog! (Sure would be boring if you had to just read my writing with no pictures.)
I also stopped by a travel agency. I had planned to make day trips around the country using Antigua as my home base but in order to get to the department of Petén where the most impressive Mayan ruins are, would require 10 hours of drive-time one-way (in Guatemalan traffic on Guatemalan roads). Ten hours out, plus ten hours back plus at least two nights hotel (probably more) plus gasoline just wasn't worth it. I do not like group tours. But this time that seemed like the better option if I'm going to see Tikal, which I do not want to miss. So I relented and have a group tour scheduled for next week.
There's much, much more to see in Petén department than just Tikal but that will all have to wait.