Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Monday, December 13, 2010


Today is the Virgin Mary’s day in Guatemala. It is Sunday, and though the market is always busy in the park on this day, it’s especially crowded for today’s occasion, crowded not only with lunch vendors and ice cream vendors and frozen-choco-banana vendors, but also with stagey altars where people can pay a few centavos to take pictures. They pose their children next to reindeer, Santa Claus, the Virgin herself, and the flashes go off. The little boys, two or three or four years old and with moustaches painted on their faces, sit calm and unblinking on the stage.

Fireworks have been popping all day, starting, as usual, at 4 AM. I have stopped wondering why little children are allowed to play with fireworks, and in fact I hardly hear them at night now; I wake up to the booms and then fall asleep again without waiting for the crackling to stop. But today is a special day, an auspicious day, and so the fireworks are out in full force. Everywhere you walk, you hear them crack around the corner. Kids run past clutching the bright sticks in their hands. Everyone is decked out in their best clothing, their traditional clothing, their clothing tipica, and they eye Kendra and Henry and Sergio and I as we slouch past in our jeans and denim shirts and faded backpacks. Men clutch their girlfriends’ waists; parents clutch their childrens’ hands; their children clutch fireworks and ice-cream cones and pink cotton candies. Yes, the parque central is pulsing today.

We leave the town and hike up the hill towards where the countryside begins. The buildings dwindle and diminish, but we pass a large, crowded church where, outside, women are serving food on styrafoam plates to their men and children and elderly. At this church everyone wears their finery; the women have woven ribbons and flowers into their glossy braids, and the men wear dark suits and ties and cowboy hats and polished black shoes. The children are in tipica clothing, brilliant Mayan skirts and peasant blouses, with shiny gold earrings dangling from their ears. Huge letters mounted on the roof of the church read, Christo Viene. Christ is coming. Kendra describes the way the sign reminds her of roadside billboards in Alabama which threaten their residents with Christ’s impending visit. Christ is coming soon—behave! Christ is coming to get you. Inwardly I doubt that this is what those signs read, verbatim, but I don’t question the way the words on the roof remind Kendra of the definitive messages she saw in the South.

We walk up and up, away from the bustling church at lunchtime and into the hills. The bumpy rock road becomes a trail, which cuts alongside a crumbling stone wall. Sergio tells us that a rich Spanish man owns the land beyond the wall, and he works somewhere in Xela now. We take turns hoisting our bodies up to peer over the wall at the long meadows and stands of piñón that break up the rich man’s property, and then we keep walking, past little fields of dry corn, past a stand of grain, wheat maybe, that waves in the hot wind, past little flower gardens. Past wild bougainvillea, past farmers walking with machetes. The sight of those long, curved knives has become, like the fireworks, a familiar thing that no longer startles me.

We walk past an old, crumbling colonial house that, in it’s heydey, must have had a glistening fountain of cool water, extensive gardens, a view of a land that once was wilder. Now, decrepit, the fountain stands dry, the gardens dry too, the view also dry and hot and jammed with the buildings that make up Xela and the towns surrounding it. Old corn cobs are drying in piles out front, and we peer through the locked black gates at the whole lot. Behind us are a few huts with tin roofs. A boy in a blue tie watches us from where he is perched on his bike, and beyond him two dozen boys play soccer on a dusty, uneven field. Una escuela? I ask Sergio. No, una familla? he guesses. A huge family, I think to myself, as we keep walking back down the hill, past the eroded colonial house and the vibrant, shouting game of soccer.

And then we come to a little unassuming building painted green, with a few wide beams that create open-air walls. Come here, Sergio tells us, and we follow him towards the church and down a little incline. The air grows suddenly quiet, the shouting from the match obliterated, the wind temporarily ceased. The heat swells and I am suddenly sweating a little, but somehow also cold. We pass between shade and sunlight. We follow Sergio down.

We reach another little open-air hut, but this one is different than the empty green building we just passed, because this hut is lined all around with little statues, reminiscient of those Easter Island sculptures but of course much smaller. These statues are two feet tall and have round little heads and long bodies and drip with candles that have melted on them. Inside, white flowers litter the ground, their petals scattered, Two candles burn in a little altar carved into the front wall of the room. Sergio explains that this is a Mayan ceremonial site. He points to the firepits surrounding the building, and then up into the hills. They live there, he tells us. The Maya live there.

There is no one around, but I can feel a presence. Maybe it’s the candles that have recently been lit, or the fresh flowers, or the burnt-out fire pits. Someone came here this morning, and maybe last night, to honor these idols, these decidedly non-Christian statues. Just a mile below, the Catholics are celebrating, eating, praying for Christ to hurry up and come, but here, where the only sound is the filter of wind, something else has happened. It’s something secret, something sacred, something few have witnessed, something more ancient than even Christ’s first arrival. We leave the flower petals to swirl in the wind and fly from the idols they were brought here to decorate, to honor, to enable a different kind of worship.

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