Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Following Southern Stars by Mitzi Linn
A traveler’s experience in Guatemala during Holy Week
I found myself at the Guatemalan border with Mexico, around noon, in the spring of 1988. I was traveling alone, and didn’t speak much Spanish. It was sunny, warm, but not hot. I’d arrived on the early bus from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, on my way to Chichicastenango, Guatemala to observe Holy Week. I chose Chichi because it is more Native American than Antigua, and since first seeing Guatemalan textiles, I was most attracted to those from the K’iche Mayan region. I looked forward to the famous Sunday and Thursday market where I hoped to buy a nice weaving or two.
Chichicastenango existed as a K’iche ceremonial and market center long before the Spanish arrived. During the 1980’s this area suffered both Guatemalan government and guerrilla attacks on its villages and way of life.
I had recently been at the Mayan ruins at Palenque on a spiritual adventure. It seemed from a Tarot reading made at the Temple of the Foliated Cross that I should go to Guatemala before going back to Oaxaca, my home base. I returned to San Cristobal to spend a few days with my friend Kiki before heading out again. Other friends, Marcey and Janet, gave me the name of a good but cheap hotel in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. That close-to-the border town was my destination for the evening.
I waited at the border to cross the “no man’s land” between Mexico and Guatemala in the back of a pick-up truck. After that, I went through customs and immigration at La Mesilla, the Guatemalan port of entry on the Pan American Highway. Getting my passport stamped, I carried my lightweight bag to Customs. They searched it thoroughly looking for guns, a heavily-armed man in an army uniform told me. Money changers met me as I emerged into the sunlight and I sold my Mexican pesos to buy Quetzales.
As I looked around I noticed a long stream of Mexican buses, loaded with families having just crossed from Mexico, heading into Guatemala. I went to a bus stop to wait for the local bus to Huehuetenango. There, an American guy in his twenties, sat waiting also. I hadn’t really been paying attention to these bus loads of people but he informed me they were Guatemalan refugees returning home from the U. N. Refugee Camps in Quintana Roo, Mexico. He was covering the story for a newspaper in the US. He pointed his camera at me, and wondered if I didn’t think he was really part of the CIA.
This struck me as ironic, a twist of fate, to be at the border with refugees being repatriated to a “model village” somewhere outside Huehuetenango. I happened to have some money with me to help Guatemalans displaced by the war. These were the last of funds gathered by GRACIAS (Guatemalan Refugee Alliance, Consciously Involved Action and Service). We’d been collecting donations during the early/mid 80’s to help Guatemalans, mostly Mayans, who fled their own government’s war against them. The lucky ones made it out alive, though traumatized by massacres of whole villages and hamlets. They had walked, and sometimes crawled, over mountains, through jungles and crossed rivers to become refugees in Mexico. Now here were some returning home.
The camps in Quintana Roo were run by the United Nations. GRACIAS, which I founded after finding out about the crisis in 1982, donated money to Nobel Laureate Bishop Samuel Ruiz who ran the Catholic Church’s outreach for refugees in the San Cristobal de las Casas area. We also helped fund CARGUA (in San Cristobal), a group run by Kiki, Marcey, Janet, Gabriel and other friends that took food and clothing to unofficial refugee camps in the highlands of Chiapas. CARGUA, a grassroots organization, was created to meet specific emergency needs of Guatemalans who made it across the border. GRACIAS also tried to get money to other small groups, including ones that helped displaced people inside Guatemala. I decided that I shouldn’t tell this guy anything, but did remark that I knew more than I wanted to know about this situation.
The Mexican buses were guarded by Guatemalan soldiers, some tough young men who’d probably been innocent Mayan teenagers just a short while ago. Most were probably kidnapped from their villages by the army. They were often forced by brutality, threats and brainwashing to carry out unspeakable deeds against their own people. The newspaper guy seemed nervous, so I just sat across from him meditating. (May all beings be free of suffering)
I watched the buses out of the corner of my eye. The people seemed really happy to be back in their own country. Women and children, some men, were going back to plant their milpas . Here were survivors of the war against farmers and artisans and their self-determination in what seemed to be a genocide against the native peoples of Guatemala. Sitting there in bus stop shelter, I realized I couldn’t be an innocent tourist in Guatemala. I already knew too much about various layers of their culture and their current political situation. Still, I didn’t consider myself on a mission. Donating the money I had with me seemed like a small deal. I just wanted to see Guatemala, buy some textiles in the Thursday or Sunday market at Chichicastenango, and take in La Semana Santa, Holy Week, among the Mayans.
I’ve been in love with textiles from Guatemala since 1980 when my partner returned from Guatemala with a pile of colorful, interesting weavings. Later, GRACIAS used beautiful weavings, films, slide shows and speakers to bring the plight of the Guatemalan people to the attention of our local citizens. Sharing the beauty of their traditional culture made the refugees more real and their situation more extreme. By 1988 repatriation of refugees had been happening for a couple years. GRACIAS had stopped collecting money.
Eventually an old bluebird type bus pulled up at the stop. The driver’s helper put my blue bag up on the top of the bus and I got in. The seats had been replaced by board benches, the third class, in the third world. I seemed so much bigger than the Mayans. Four of them filled one bench, on one side of the narrow aisle. I took the place of two of them. By late afternoon I’d be delivered to Huehuetenango, traveling down the Pan American, stopping to pick up everyone along the road. The bus driver’s assistant yelled “Sale” in Spanish which means “leave, or get going” after putting their colorful bundles up on top. Passengers joined in, a kind of chorus as the bus lurched forward after each stop. I talked to no one, but listened to the Mayan languages spoken around me. Along the highway, there were lots of soldiers. Once, they stopped and searched us. They took a man off. Fear has a way of quieting normal chatter. Women cried into their rebozos (shawls) as the bus continued.
The poverty in Mexico has always bothered me. The poverty in Guatemala seemed worse than Mexico. The mountains, the rivers, the land itself called me with its beauty. But the poor condition of the people alarmed me. I had to remind myself that I’d come for other, more mythical reasons and personal adventure, not a fact finding mission for the World Food Program. Still, I couldn’t help seeing the situation as I headed deeper into the Guatemalan highlands. Huehuetenango has a Spanish-style main plaza. It’s not very remarkable otherwise. The town, a kind of crossroads, seemed dirty. Grime, dirt built up over years, smudged the once colorfully painted buildings. Getting there safely seemed like a luxury though.
I knew I had to get a first class bus ticket for Los Encuentros which left early the next morning. I found the first class bus station, got a ticket, and then went to the hotel recommended by my friends. I got a cheap room not far from the bathroom at the back. I had to be on the first class bus by 6 AM and after many long bus hours in Mexico and Guatemala, I had no trouble sleeping early.
The ride to Los Encuentros was uneventful. Los Encuentros is a transfer point for buses either going down to Solola, Lake Atitlan and Panajachel or the ones going up into the K’iche highland region. I had barely touched ground when I found a bus for Chichicastenango. Getting on this local, third class school bus with benches, I met another foreign woman traveling my way. Tall and blond like me, we talked as old friends might. She was European, working for a NGO at a health clinic in Santa Cruz del Quiche. She filled me in on details of the current political and economic situation as we rode upward through pine forests and little farming valleys. She went on further into the highlands when I got off at Chichicastenango. Karmic winds ruffled my consciousness. I could not escape knowing about the Guatemalan war, even if it was almost over.
Chichicastenango is an indigenous town. White, plastered adobe walls edge the streets which lead to a large plaza. Walking on through the town I found a casa de huespedes (boarding house), an inexpensive place on the far edge of town. There weren’t many tourists, though the handsome man who ran the place assured me that in Holy Week, the town would be full of people from Guatemala City. I settled in, a room with private bathroom, and simple bed and table. A bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling revealed the presence of electricity. Hot water showers could be had when the wood-burning boiler was lit. I only needed to ask.
Eager to explore, that afternoon I walked around town. I looked into the courtyards of plastered adobe buildings pressing against the unpaved streets. I walked past Santo Tomas Church, sitting high on what looks like an old pyramid platform above the plaza. I saw the army outpost on the road to Santa Cruz del Quiche, the one paved road out of town. I found I couldn’t walk out of town on another dirt road I wanted to take. The civil patrol stopped me. Perhaps there were guerrillas camped up on the ridge. This feeling of being in a place occupied by the country’s own army reminded me of my trip to Spain during Franco’s rule.
Later, the evening turned foggy, almost cold. These highlands are around eight thousand feet. I put on my San Cristobal outfit, black skirt, black tights, black sweater with colorful underlying warm layers, wrapped in a wool rebozo (shawl) I’d brought from Mexico. At dusk a nearby hillside blazed with fire, the yearly clearing custom before planting new corn. The flames rose vividly in the night sky.
Right after breakfast the next morning at one of the two tourist restaurants, I went to Santo Tomas, the plastered, white Spanish church which sits at the edge of the main plaza. Undoubtedly the Mayan’s had a temple here before Alvarado arrived to plunder the area. Men with incensors burning copal and chanting prayers stood outside the doorway at the top of the pyramidal-type steps. Below, near the street, a small altar sent up smoke from offerings of pom (copal) made by passing people. I made a prayer dropping a tamale-like pom bundle too.
Inside the semi-dark stone building, I found Mayans, shamans and mid-wives, making beautiful ceremonies on stone altars that go down the middle aisle of the church. They lit small thin white candles, attaching their melted flat ends so they stood in lines stuck to the stone altars. Kneeling above their creations, they lovingly sprinkled rose petals between and around the burning candles and then poured aguardiente (rum) over the candles, chanting their prayers to deities and guardians that preceded the coming of Christ to their Mayan world. Smoke from copal rose from incense burners as each individual prayed for their own or others’ concerns. I sat on a pew enjoying the sweet aroma, enchanted by the candles’ light, and mesmerized by the sounds of their chanting.
Witnessing these ceremonies reminded me of San Juan Chamula outside San Cristobal, Chiapas. At Chamula the shamans don’t use flower petals with their rows of burning candles. And there are no pews in the Chamula church, therefore no middle aisle. It is a Mayan ceremonial center where prayers are chanted in 16th century Spanish and Tzotzil, where musicians make intoxicating, repetitive kinds of songs with guitar and harps, while various ceremonies take place all over the church simultaneously, candles blazing in long and short rows on the floor. Groups of petitioners kneel on the pine needle covered floor in front of various saints dressed in layers of sacred clothing. These saints may seem Catholic but they also represent the old, preconquest dieties. Often shamans set up their own ceremony in the middle of the floor, looking towards the main altar. I’ve sat so many times on the Chamula Church floor observing the happenings that this very foreign situation has become familiar. At Chamula, I often chant Tibetan Buddhist mantras quietly. They blend nicely with the chants of the Chamulans.
That Saturday in Chichicastenango , the one before Palm Sunday, shamans from the area made a ceremony at the stone god figure called Pasqual Ab’aj, an old deity about which I know little. It could have been his day of worship in the Mayan calendar, perhaps adapted to coincide with Christian Holy Week, since this ceremony happens each year on the day before Palm Sunday. He may be the old god of the underworld or the Earth Lord. Perhaps an ancestor of the local people. Several people pointed out the path to the mountain top shrine where his stone head rests in the ground, enclosed in a large circle of smaller stones. I decided not to go. I think I felt shy about being curious, a tourist on-looker. Later that day I met a couple other women travelers who spoke English, one from the United States, one from France. One of them may have gone for part of the day-long ceremony because Saturday night we conspired to do our own ceremony up there the next afternoon. Three feminists with a spiritual bent we trudged up the mountain path through the pine trees on Palm Sunday afternoon. We brought candles and rose petals, copal, and some aguardiante to offer to the universal Goddess.
Pasqual Ab’aj’s stone black face shown with dried blood from the previous day’s sacrifices. A few black chicken feathers still stuck to his stone face. We offered him aguardiente and welcomed his witness to our ceremony.
After purifying ourselves and calling the directions, we concentrated our energies on invoking the Goddess. We felt Her presence as we offered copal, candles, rose petals and some liquor. We prayed for peace in Guatemala, for the return of Feminine power to the planet, for safe journeys and loved ones’ well-being. Local children watched, and I am sure, wondered what we were doing as we lit candles and sprinkled rose petals asking for blessings on that flat stone altar near Don Pasqual Ab’aj. These children of a family who lived close by possibly tended the shrine. No adults came to interfere though, we put back the stones we’d moved when we left and closed the ceremony.
Palm Sunday, the beginning of La Semana Santa (Holy Week) starts the week of Christian Mysteries throughout Latin America. In Chichicastenango, the Cofradias, Mayan lineage holders, officials and spiritual leaders, perform ritual duties related to the Catholic liturgy. These Cofradias or religious societies, formed by the Spanish as part of the religious conquest, seemed totally Mayan to me. I wondered if existing Mayan priests and shamans formed part of these brotherhoods. I felt certain that the Catholic celebration was only part of what was going on, though I couldn’t be sure.
Being in such a Catholic setting, during Holy Week, led me to think about Jesus as the man who sacrificed himself in a historical, spiritual and political way. Once in Oaxaca at the Basilica of Soledad, in the back room where the suffering Jesus is enshrined in a glass box, I understood how Jesus represents the suffering of all humanity. Undoubtedly that is some of his appeal. In San Cristobal de las Casas one of the churches had the Jesus of the Stations of the Cross represented by local Mayans in scenes of social and economic distress, and political persecution by white authorities. Their victimization was shown in drawings at various Stations of the Cross along the white plastered walls.
Historically, Jesus’s sacrifice of himself and the rise of Christianity may have ended the need to make blood sacrifices of other human beings in the Middle East. Jesus, as the mythic dying son in the ancient Goddess tradition and then, the sacrificed lamb of the Old Testament God, fulfilled the need for a human to be sacrificed. That mythic Dying Son came out of cultures where some ritual human sacrifice had been practiced since remote antiquity. Perhaps after Jesus’s death and rebirth, humans didn’t need to murder other humans in order to appease ancestors and dieties.
Blood, the life power and soul of the human beings and animals, has been sacrificed throughout history in many cultures. The Mayan leaders practiced offering their own blood, drawn by cactus spine ropes drawn through their tongue or penis dripped on paper and burned. Human and animal sacrifice served as part of the religious practices of the Mayan as well as other indigenous groups in the Americas. Animal sacrifice continues, usually the black chicken later eaten by the family who sponsored the healing.
There may be some truth to the notion that the cultures of Mexico, sick of the Aztecs’overzealous use of human sacrifice, welcomed Cortes as the long awaited Queztalcoatl (Kukulcan, to the Maya). Of course, Cortes was not their long-departed God. Queztalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, left Tollan because he didn’t approve of human sacrifice which the cults of Tecatzlipoca (Toltec) and his Aztec derivative, Huiztlepotle, required. The god the Spanish brought, Jesus, didn’t require human sacrifice. Jesus, not Cortes, was more like the idea of the returning Quetzalcoatl that was looked for in Mexico. However, the conquest of Mexico by Cortes, and Guatemala by Alvarado, was a huge blood sacrifice--a genocide against the native peoples and their cultures.
Saturday night before the Sunday Market, Chichicastenango began filling up with merchants from all over the highlands. This is one of Guatemala’s most famous markets. Mayan vendors slept on petates , woven mats, wrapped in wool blankets under the portico of buildings that line the plaza. They huddled in family groups waiting to sell and buy the next day. Their colorful bundles of items for sale served as pillows. Thick tortillas, with chilies, salt and some coffee or a bottled drink made up many peoples dinner and breakfast. Food booths with tables and benches appeared in the market before sunrise. They seemed busy all the time.
From where I sat on the pyramidal steps of Santo Tomas church that Palm Sunday morning, the market spread out below, covering the plaza like a colorful patchwork quilt. The temporary booths sprung up with sunrise. Beautiful textiles, huipils, and blankets hung next to jaguar masks, leather goods, and useful farming items. On side streets I found calculators, tape players, batteries and tapes in tiny stalls.
Earlier that morning I had followed a procession of striking-looking Cofradias, the Catholic Mayan brotherhood, in their traditional ceremonial costumes. Led by couples of husbands and wives, they circled the church’s side patio the men in black handwoven wool tunics, their heads covered with a colorful,handwoven cotton tzutze. In their hands they carried silver staffs with sun symbols, bags of copal and small palm fronds. The women wore their most intricate, finest huipiles in the current Chichicastenango design with large flowers. Long strands of silver beads covered their huphiles. Participants carried a large wooden box on a litter. They entered the church by a side door to carry out some ritual within. I wasn’t allowed to follow them inside.
The Catholic Mass began sometime later. The church on Palm Sunday was packed. Mayans, in their traditional clothing, occupied the pews on the right side of the aisle. The ladinos, non-indians, sat on the left. I leaned against an archway on the right, drinking in the sea of color worn by Mayan women around me. The Mass was given in Spanish and in Quiche by the handsome, Mayan priest. Woven palm fronds fluttered in the hands of the parishioners.
After the Mass I noticed a church office in the patio area. After ascertaining from the official there that my money would get to displaced people (internal refugees), I donated the last hundred plus dollars from GRACIAS to their fund for feeding the hungry. These highland Catholic churches lost many priests to the army and far-right death squads because of their affiliation with the Liberation Theology movement. The official assured me that the money would be used to help the victims of the war. Then, I returned to the market to bargain for a few weavings to bring back to the US. I wished I had more money to spend.
In early afternoon I sat on the steps of Santo Tomas. I watched flower vendors sort their flowers. Below in the square, awash in blurs of bright colors, the market would go on until mid-afternoon. A shimmering young woman from Aguas Calientes sold me a small cloth from her bundle. The lively red/green and blue striped tortilla cloth danced before my eyes. I was reluctant to ask her for a photo although I had been taking some photos on the sly throughout the day.
Monday morning I decided to go down to Lake Atitlan for a couple days, cross the Lake and perhaps stay in Santiago Atitlan overnight, or a day or two. I took the bus down to Los Encuentros, and then a combi, a van, on down to Panajachel. I didn’t want to stay in Panajachel, though it is a pretty town, mostly catering to tourists. At this much lower elevation, I’d reentered the tropics and would soon find myself looking out at beautiful Lake Atitlan and the attendant volcanoes that surround it. Banana plants, hibiscus flowers, and palms crowded along the streets, next to the plastered, colorfully-painted, well-kept houses.
As I walked down the main road to the Lake, where I would get a boat, I heard some guy calling out my name. This seemed pretty amazing. I didn’t think I knew anyone in Guatemala. It was Ron, a person I’d met in the GRACIAS days. He’d once presented a slide show of his stay with Guatemalan refugees in the jungles of southern Mexico. Now, he’d founded a weaving co-op in Solola to help Mayan women weavers and their families. I knew he lived in Solola, but hadn’t thought of running into him. “ Small planet” we agreed as we drank smoothies in one of the cute restaurants. We chatted, catching up on each other’s lives, then hugged, and I headed to the jetty. Lake Atitlan is breathtaking, from up high on the road to Panajachel or down at the landing where motorboats wait to take customers across it.
I’d missed the last afternoon boat to Santiago Atitlan so I took the one to San Pedro Laguna instead. San Pedro sits at the foot of one of the most distinctive volcanos. The sun, the wind and the afternoon choppy waters just added to my bliss of being on that mythical body of water. The volcanos really seemed to be gods holding up the sky.
I found a pension near the lake. I left my pack in my room and walked into the small village. I was appalled to hear loud speakers and radios blaring with evangelical Christians preaching the gospel according to their interpretations of the Bible. I counted at least five different evangelical wooden churches on the main, unpaved street. In that gorgeous place, in view of this amazing natural beauty which Mayans consider to be so sacred, I heard the terrible noise of loudspeakers and radios. It was Holy Week but....
Mayan preachers had given up their ancestral ways for what the Baptists, Pentecostals and Mormons offered. In that war-torn time, pernicious with death squads, it was probably an unspoken offer of personal safety. After all the “President” of Guatemala, Rios Monte, was himself a born-again a Christian. He notoriously ordered the massacre of whole Mayan towns accused of being “communists” or supporting the guerrillas. Mostly these traditional Mayans just wanted to be left alone by both the guerrillas and the government.
I managed to get out of the noise made by blaring radios and walk down along the lake. I bought some simple table runner weavings from women eager to sell them. By the next morning I figured I’d go back to Chichicastenango before night fall. I’d kept my room at the pension there. Before leaving I walked to a semi-remote part of shore and sat on a rock, overlooking the lake and women washing clothes near-by. Clouds and fog hung like sheer weavings across the shoulders of the volcanos. The morning warmth nurtured my poetic side. I sang a couple songs I’d made up, a gift to this inspiring place.
Holy Week celebrations consumed the energy of people in Chichicastenango. Upon my return, I noticed that another temple-type church across from Santo Tomas was hosting activities. I learned it is only open in Holy Week and never found out its name. There Mayans made a ritual. No one was allowed to climb the steps. From below in the plaza, I heard a simple drum and single flute play trance-inducing, mournful sounding music. Three large wooden crosses could be seen through the open door. This continued through the day and night that Wednesday. Perhaps they were hanging Maximon there on Wednesday night as they do down in Santiago Atitlan. The mournful sound related to my feelings about the political situation. I felt their oppression acutely with the military always visibly present. By early Thursday morning I felt restless, and decided to head back towards Mexico. I felt it would be nice to have Easter dinner with Kiki and Gabriel in San Cristobal.
I got to Los Encuentros later that day. Standing out on the Pan American Highway waiting for a bus going to Huehue, I met a couple on their way back to Oaxaca. Jorge, a handsome Oaxaqueno with long eye-lashes, and Barbara, a Spanish teacher from the US. Jorge was a tour guide in Oaxaca where they’d met. They’d decided to take a little trip together to Guatemala. We had instantaneous rapport. I felt blessed to find friends I could laugh with. I felt like a homesick Oaxaquena myself, there at the crossroads in that beautiful, and frightening, foreign country.
I had been missing mi querida Oaxaca . I’d recently fallen in love with a jazz musician. His handsome Zapotec face, curly black hair and sunny smile sent a flush of hormones coursing through my body. My bad Spanish and his halting English served to connect us in other ways. Flirting led to a brief tryst. I loved the American jazz and Cuban dance music his band, Grupo Mescalito, played. Hanging out with them on their breaks, those Spanish-only conversations forced me to improvise Spanish and communicate as best I could. Jorge knew him. Oaxaca was a small city then. Oaxacaquenos and adventurous extranjeros (foreigners) met, ate, drank and danced together at El Sol y La Luna Restaurant where Mescalito played. That intimate setting created friendships that endure to this day. I considered it my living room.
After waiting out there on the Pan American Highway over four hours we finally got a slow bus and arrived just before dark in Huehuetenango. When we got off the bus, we found out that no buses would go anywhere on Good Friday, the next day. Everyone would be mourning the death of Jesus. Barbara, Jorge and I figured we’d watch the local celebrations together.
Friday morning throughout Huehuetenango streets were being covered with colored sawdust, making flower designs and Catholic images as a carpet for the Good Friday processions. Antiqua has become famous for these processions. There in Huehuetenango the large, heavy wooden float carrying a larger-than-lifesize carving of Jesus on his way to his death is paraded through the streets over sawdust and flower carpets. Each individual carpet is created by families whose houses they pass. Purple robed parishioners carry the heavy litter on their shoulders, preceded by men bearing incense burners of copal and bands playing dirges. Penitents walked behind. Women carry the mourning mother of Jesus on another heavy, wooden litter. This Virgin of Soledad’s black gown and downcast eyes express the grief of losing her Son. She reminded me of the mothers of victims of the Guatemalan’s governments’ harsh reprisal against its own peoples. Penitentes traded off carrying these cumbersome floats. The colorful carpets returned to sawdust under the feet of the believers. The processions went through every neighborhood as the afternoon turned to dusk, and then darkness. Through the night candles and sky rockets lit the suffering Christ’s way through the somber lives of the town’s inhabitants. By Saturday morning the town was quiet. Jesus had been buried.
This reminded me of a Good Friday observance I’d once seen while sitting in the window of La Galeria in San Cristobal, Chiapas. A Roman centurion on horseback cracked a real whip above the head of a half-naked man with a crown of thorns dragging a large wooden cross down the street. Penitentes made a somber parade behind them down Avenida Hildago towards the Cathedral on the Plaza where, perhaps, he was hung on the cross.
That night I felt a sense of panic which translated to “I must get out of here”. Guatemala seemed so claustrophobic to me. It felt like I’d been there much longer than a week. I was overwhelmed by knowing too much to be a tourist. Barbara, Jorge and I had hung out that day, and ate dinner together in a hotel restaurant. They had each other and wanted to spend the next day being lovers before they got on another bus. I couldn’t blame them but I felt the urge to get going. I would see them later in Oaxaca.
I was determined to take the first bus to the Mexican Border on Saturday morning. I wanted to be in San Cristobal before the Resurrection on Sunday. I was in line for the bus at 5 am.
The trip back to the border took me through the outskirts of Quetzaltenango. I remember sitting on the bus at the bus station for an hour, waiting for it to get back on the highway. The political and economic situation gave me a feeling of hopelessness. Perhaps I was just picking up the vibrations of those around me. Dressed in their beautiful handwoven clothing the people still appeared hungry and scared.
I thought back to my days in Chichicastenango. One afternoon the cleaning woman, a young Mayan in a new huipil, noticed I had my Tarot deck out, looking at the cards. She wanted a reading. She wanted to know if her life would get better. We talked in broken Spanish, both of ours’ second language. She was pregnant with her second child, her boyfriend wouldn’t marry her and her father had kicked out of the house. She lived and worked there to feed herself and her son. I couldn’t convey much, but it seemed that things would be better but it might take a few years. I wondered about the affects of the war on her, but knew better than to ask.
Leaving Quetzaltenango the bus finally got back on the Pan American Highway heading for La Mesilla and Mexico. We stopped everywhere to pick up passengers and to let others off. Colorful bundles tossed down from the bus top were soon on women’s heads or backs, and going up narrow foot paths to unknown tiny villages in the beautiful mountains. Cries of “sale” seemed to move the old bus north. An inexhaustible feeling of grief flooded me. I cried silently all the way to the border.
At the Mexican border I was grateful I could leave Guatemala. As soon as I got my Mexican visa and was on Mexican soil, I felt like kissing the earth. I felt free. And I felt safe enough to try hitchhiking from the border to San Cristobal de las Casas, about three hours further along the Pan American Highway. It was either hitch a ride or wait two more hours for a bus......I decided to take my chances.
Tall and blond, with a bright, blue backpack and smaller red bag, I must have looked strange and disheveled after the early morning bus trip. Perhaps a little crazed too after crying for hours. I thought some of my countrymen would give me a ride as several cars from the United States passed by. None seemed to have room for me. Eventually, a couple of local cafeteros, coffee buyers, offered me the back seat of their small car. Yes, the driver’s ultimate destination was San Cristobal. He was leaving the other man out in Comitan, a town on the way, and eating lunch there at a comadre’s house. They all-but-ignored me talking non-stop with each other. I sang a mantra under my breath. At one point they pulled off the highway and stopped by a fenced pasture. That scared me. They related that they were going to buy honey from some local farmers explaining that this honey tastes great and was cheap. After that we continued along the Pan American Highway.
Though it seemed like days later, it was still Saturday when I got back to San Cristobal. I arrived in time for comida with Kiki and Gabriel. Their house was my house. After a couple of hugs, I put my bags in their guest room. I felt elated to have gotten back safely and to be with close friends again.
After dinner I pulled a couple nice weavings from my backpack and gave them to Kiki. She put one on a small table, under a vase of calla lillies with pictures of her German parents. That tzutze (man’s ceremonial head cover) looked quite handsome covering the table. Then we met out in the sun porch to eat chocolate cake and drink tea. I marveled at how easy it was to be back with Kiki in her familiar, comfortable world. The recent hard roads in Guatemala dissolved into the long afternoon. I shared my insights and experiences from the trip. Since Kiki knew the Guatemalan situation well, I didn’t have to start at the beginning. That was a relief.
By Easter morning I was feeling a sense of rebirth. I wanted to leave for Oaxaca the next day. I doubted I would ever go to Guatemala again even though it is a beautiful and interesting country. I still love the weavings I have from there, and have studied more about ancient Mayan culture and current costumbres. I never was able to shake the feeling of underlying terror that seemed to permeate the common experiences of its people in that time period.
I thought it could be a long time before real reform and justice would replace the repression, even if there was peace. Currently, in 2011, Guatemala and her beautiful people are threatened by the drug mafias and their brutal warlords. They arrived from Mexico when the military in Guatemala was dismantled after the peace accords in the 1990s. May all beings be free of suffering.