Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Antigua, Atitlán & Chichicastenango

One morning in Antigua, while waiting for the bank to open, I wandered into a shop selling Indian fabrics.  I had no intention of buying anything, but Indian weavings are beautiful and I wanted to learn more about them.  The young clerk, who had been sleeping on a pallet in the back, gave me, his first customer of the day, his undivided attention.  I made the mistake of admiring something.

A beautiful piece, Señor, woven by an Indian woman of his personal acquaintance.  She is famous for her work.  What would I offer for it?

I told him I had no interest in buying.  He persisted.

Twenty Quetzales, I said, picking what I thought to be a ridiculously low price.

He was appalled.  This woman had spent two months on this one piece.  No, no; he could take no less that eighty.

Really, I said, it's worth no more than twenty to me.  I know it's a fine piece, worth much more, but I'm just not interested.  He should save it for a customer who appreciated such fine work.

Oh, no. Since I wanted it so much, he would make me a good price.  I could have it for no more than 75 Quetzales.

I tried to move on, but he persisted.  The materials alone were worth sixty.

No, no.  I'm really not interested.  Thirty, I said, hoping the low offer would show that I was not a serious prospect.

The poor fellow was almost in pain.  The lady, he explained, was a widow, the sole support of three infants.

By this time I really had completely lost interest in the piece, but kept going out of fascination with his sales pitch.

If she receives a centavo less than forty Quetzales her children will go hungry and she will undoubtedly go over to the rebels.

By this time the bank was open and I was getting tired of the game.  I wished him a prosperous day and walked out of his shop.

He followed me down the street and I finally bought it for 32 Quetzales. It's a nice piece. I'm glad he sold it to me.

Later, I was berated by an Indian lady for buying something from one of her competitors.  The matter was not resolved to her satisfaction and she stamped off, wishing me a “mal viaje”.

From Antigua, I drove toward Lake Atitlán, through small towns and beautiful countryside and cornfields.  Everyone seemed industrious, if not excessively prosperous in material things, and there were women in beautiful Indian dress and men with a machete in their belt.  A green and pleasant land.  

On my way to Lake Atitlán, I turned off the Pan American Highway to take what appeared might be a shorter and more interesting road that led through Patzicía and Patzún where I saw young people flying kites.  All Saints, a week past, is a special day for flying kites and a lady at the guest house had told me that Guatemala has a world-famous kite culture.  I knew of Patzicía because I had read in Carmen Pettersen’s Maya of Guatemala that on October 21st, 1944, “when there was some political disturbance in Guatemala City, news mistakenly reached the Indian town of Patzicía that the Indians throughout the country had risen against the ladino.  They immediately attacked and killed all the peaceful ladinos in the town, mostly government officials and store-keepers.  A similar action at Patzún was averted by the timely arrival of troops.”  All the ladinos were hacked to pieces, men, women and children, an indication of the latent hatred of the ladino.  The Indians hereabouts are Cakchiquel and Pettersen wrote that “the Cakchiquel believe that one day the ladinos will leave and Guatemala will belong to the Indians again.”  The Indianist dream: the white man will go away and the old ways will return.  The Army of course responded crushingly to the uprising. Then in 1976, the area was flattened by a huge earthquake, collapsing the heavy brick and adobe walls and the death toll was massive.

But if the Indians have had bad luck thrust upon them, just a few miles down the road at Panajachel I found people who seemed to have gone out of their way to find it, an infestation of blank-eyed Europeans in cheap, loose clothes and scraggly hair, hanging out in a country where you can live on twenty cents a day by panhandling or doing casual labor or who knows what.  A sorry contrast to the Indians who have endured serial misfortunes and still work hard and attend church and send their children to school and struggle to keep home and family intact and on beautiful fall days go out in the fields and fly kites.

On a narrow mountain road I was caught behind a line of trucks.  I was at first irritated, but then when an elephant stuck his head out of the back of the last truck and looked at me and I realized that I was behind a little circus on its way to a small town fiesta, I decided this was a perfectly delightful to be.

By the mile-high lake of Atitlán I had a late lunch at a nice, new restaurant where I was the only customer and the owner complained about how the trouble with the guerrillas had scared all her customers away.  Except the French, she added: “The French, they are afraid of nothing.”  There was, in  fact, an active guerrilla force still in control of the forested slopes of the volcano on the far side of the lake.  Afterward, I walked along the shore and found a tumbled-down structure of carved, black stone, apparently from Indian times, another of those ruins that had probably never been excavated, that you hear about in the jungle and sometimes stumble across yourself when you are out walking.

From Lake Atitlán I drove north toward Chichicastenango.  Once across the Pan American Highway the road became rough and narrow, in a number of places only marginally paved, and it was growing dark and the road began to fill with people walking home and animals which I had been warned would later be sleeping on the road.  The way began to climb with sharp cut-backs and then there were no more people along the road, only jungle and darkness.  I had been warned that I ought not be on the road at night because there were bandits, but then I also knew I was in the area of civil patrols which, to judge by what photographs I had seen of them, appeared to me indistinguishable from bandits.  It was quite dark when I arrived in Chichicastenango.
      It should probably be no surprise, but the locals quite sensibly call Chichicastenango "Chichi" and Huehuetenango is called, of course, "Huehue".
     I found a nice room for $6/night and opened my guidebook to see what the evening might hold and read: “Here, there is absolutely nothing to do at night.”  In confirmation of this, I learned that the hotel was locked and the doors barred at 10 p.m., and after eleven I heard only total silence in the town.  It was good that I had not arrived any later.

The next morning I was out early, before the hotel had set up breakfast  --  in fact, I had to remove the beam that was barring the front door  --  and went to the square and bought some bread to nibble on from the Heart of Jesus bakery.  In Chichicastenango there is a Big Church and a Little Church facing each other across the square and on the porch of each of them, across the entrance to the church, there was a line of burning candles tended by an Indian family and on the porch of the Little Church they had also a largish fire of pine boughs and pine sap smoking in a tin can censer, as it would have been done in the old days when they prayed to Chac and, as when I had seen certain other expressions of Indian piety I wondered who they were really praying to, or if even by asking the question I was demonstrating that I didn’t understand what was going on. 

While the name itself would have been sufficient reason to go to Chichicastenango, when I was in Guatemala City I had been given a reference to a person there who I was told would be alerted that I was coming, so late morning I phoned him and we walked around the town and talked.

I had been introduced to people through the Episcopal Church and later that day I attended Evening Prayer with the small Indian congregation in the town.  There were eighteen people, most of them from three extended families, who met in the front room of a small home.  The service was from the Book of Common Prayer, in Spanish, with the homily and intercessions in Quiché; a moving service as we sang and knelt together on the cement floor and said the familiar words, albeit for me in an unfamiliar form and place.  Afterward, I stopped at the home of my contact for a cold drink.  I tried to sound him out on how things had been three years earlier when the Army had been fighting the guerrillas in the area and he was diffident in his response, though as we were sitting in his parlor he did point to the corner of the room where the previous owner had been killed during la violéncia.

I felt I was getting along well enough in the language until, later that afternoon in the square, the prettiest lady I had seen in all Central America passed by and said something to me in Spanish and smiled and I realized that I had absolutely no idea what she had said. 

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