Sunday, January 13, 2013

Day Twelve - Santiago Atitlan

(Still having trouble with picture uploading)

I had an incredible night of sleep. The Posada that we are staying in is quiet, and the beds are supremely comfortable. I woke up early, but the sun wasn't up yet, so I laid back down again and fell asleep for a few more hours. It was divine. Although it might seem like vacation since I'm away from home, I am truly exhausted. Every day feels like a week. And I'm typically writing at the end of the day, often past midnight to fit it all in. Tonight I'm struggling to put these words together, since this morning seems so far away.

When we arrived last night, Zack and I found our room only had one bed. And although we've become fast friends, we weren't terribly excited to sleep in a bed together, particularly since this place, while quite reasonably priced, is the most expensive place we'll stay. Thankfully Jody rectified the situation and "bumped" us into this casita. It's a two bedroom house, complete with stove, refrigerator, woodburning fireplace, large bathroom, plenty of water (both hot and cold) and most importantly a coffee maker. Which brings me to this morning. It was a delightful cup of coffee, taken with a chorus of birds and a splattering of sunshine.

Our group was finished with breakfast when we finally got down to the dining hall, so Zack and I just cleaned up their plates of fruit, toast and tortillas. Our introduction to Santiago would be through Dolores Ratzan de Prechtel today, and she arrived early, draped in beautiful fabrics, to take us on a guided walking tour. We made the short walk from the Posada into the town center, and Dolores explained the sights along the way and briefly described the history of the lake and surrounding towns.

Soon Dolores knocked on a panel of sheetmetal along the street. The panel swung open revealing a small residential compound. We were welcomed into a nearby room where a number of wooden statues dressed in clothing stood along a wall - the Cofradia. They were hundreds of years old, and she explained each of the statues (mostly saints) and what their meaning was. Townspeople would visit them regularly for various reasons, and would make offerings and say prayers with them. Apparently the statues move to a new house each year, and they revealed to me an interesting combination of Christianity and Mayan religions that I wasn't aware of previously.

Next she led us up and around a maze of stone streets, then up an alley not three feet wide. Walking through people's homes made of sticks and bent rusted metal, we ended at a room nearly impossible to describe, where a Mayan shaman was conducting a ceremony. I felt slightly uncomfortable as we looked in on this ceremony. There were various incenses burning, some christmas lights draped around a glass coffin in the corner, and a short wooden carved statue with a cowboy hat draped in colorful nylon scarves in the middle. A single giant compact fluorescent bulb lit the otherwise dark room. I would soon learn this was the home of Maximon. Dolores explained that the ceremony we were watching was to help a man and his family heal - his wife had recently left him and they were there to ask Maximon for help. I felt voyeuristic, but Dolores made us feel comfortable there. Soon the family rose, gave Maximon another cigarette (he had an unlit cigar hanging from his wooden lips, and a few packs of Marlboros by his feet) and walked out the door. To my surprise, we were welcomed into the room by the shaman and given stools in front of Maximon.

What came next still seems like a dream, and I apologize that I won't be able to explain it, because I'm not sure I understand it at all. I could pick out enough words said by the shaman to understand that he knew that we were from Estados Unidos, and that we were welcome. Dolores translated some of it, and said that Maximon was there to eat our filth, to cleanse us and relieve us of negativity. I was overcome with pricklies, breathed in the smoky air, and did my best to give Maximon all the baggage I have. After more chanting and adorning Maximon with new scarves, the shaman wafted us each with smoke, and we were welcomed to make an offering. We shook hands and made our way back out.

Dazed and confused, I followed the group to a giant church on the town square. This church has an incredible history, and I hope to learn more about it before I go. Again, a very complex combination of Catholicism and Mayan religions were revealed. A statue of Jesus with a crown of flowers instead of thorns. Massive intricate wooden carvings of saints and angels mixed with corn and butterflies. In a corner, about twenty mayans in traditional dress bowed and prayed in front of a statue of Jesus. And in the middle, a strange stage with (dare I say) tacky christmas lights and odd statuettes dominated. I cannot do justice to the scene with words, but Dolores made sense of it with her descriptions of the history there.

Very briefly (and probably inaccurately) - in the 1980's, the Guatemalan military built a base in town, and proceeded to terrify the residents with violence. In response, a Catholic priest opened the doors to the church allowing residents to take refuge there. The priest was soon murdered for his courageous actions, and the people gathered in nonviolence resistance. Their nonviolent resistance eventually sent the military packing in one of the only times in Central America that the military was forced to leave a town. Again, I apologize for my oversimplification of the scene - I need to learn more before sharing details. Needless to say, this site is very powerful, and the people continue to hold that priest and the church in high regard.

Following the church, we were led to Dolores' own home, where we met her parents who were both weaving. Her mother was on the concrete operating a hand loom. Her father was seated, braiding wristbands. They smiled and were excited to share their traditional weaving and embroidery practices with us. This was a thrill, particularly for the artists and textile fans in the group. We all bought something, took some photos and eventually said our goodbyes. The group wandered back the the Parque Central (main square) and sat down to decompress at a nearby restaurant.

Zack and I decided to walk back to the hotel. When I got to our Casita, I collapsed on the bed and entered into sleep. Not typically a napper, I reluctantly fell asleep for a few hours. I awoke refreshed but a little dazed, and walked down to have my second meal of leftovers from my travel companions. I'm starting to feel a little bit like one of the countless stray dogs, snatching meals from the plates of others. I haven't been terribly hungry, so even just a few chips with guacamole is enough to keep me going for a few hours. I should thank the ladies here for the privilege of cleaning their plates for them!

It was then our great honor to meet with the Weavers Committee, who had gathered together at one of their homes to be presented with education scholarships from Farmer to Farmer. From young kids entering elementary schools to University students just months away from graduating as Lawyers - each of them graciously accepted scholarships in varying amounts to help fund their education. The funds come from sales of Farmer to Farmer coffee in addition to straight donations from members. Each of the students gave heartfelt thanks, and many parents expressed emotional gratitude, particularly to Jody, who has been working with them for many, many years. We will spend more time with them tomorrow when we visit the building that they own.

Our group piled into a pair of Tuk Tuks and traveled back to the Posada. We played a few rounds of Euchre in our Casita together, shared in the wonderment of our day, and returned to the dining hall for another magnificent meal. My night was capped with some live acoustic music in the thatch hut near the lake, and now I'll blow out the candles, it's just about Midnight. Thanks for reading. I wish I could explain everything in more detail, but this will have to do for now.

A rooster just crowed. We should both be asleep.

Volcan San Pedro, across from our Hotel

We visited her home and bought a few textiles from her.

Street vendors proliferate here.

The meat truck with a fresh kill.

Treasurer of the Weavers Committee

At the Scholarship ceremony

The standard pickup truck transport mode, not loaded down as much as most!

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