Guatemala / Ecuador 2017

Thursday 7/27/2017 - Chichicastenango Market, Dinner at Isabela's

I did a couple hours of work this morning before heading down to breakfast with the Tolers. We had a quick breakfast of hearty bread with jelly, orange juice, and coffee before leaving at 8:45 a.m. for our trip to Chichicastenango. Thursday is one of two weekly markets which occur in "Chichi," as it is known, making it a very good day to visit. Aracely and Eddy had to go to summer school this morning, so they were unable to join us.

It was just the Tolers, Humberto, and us today, with Humberto pulling double duty as both driver and guide. We made a rest stop at a very quaint restaurant called La Molina Vieja (The Old Mill). It was a picturesque hacienda which overlooked fields and farm animals. Beautiful Thunbergia Mysorensis (clock vine flowers) hung from the roof of the pergola, and hummingbirds were feasting. We interacted with two adorable and friendly kittens, and enjoyed seeing a lamb resting in the shade. The partially open-air dining room was filled with antiques, and there were orchids growing in the trees. They had small antique gas pumps outside.

Although it was just a rest stop for us, it is also a nice destination in and of itself. After getting back into the van, we continued on to Chichicastenango. We parked in the garage of the Hotel Santo Tomas, and then went into their lobby. Craig and I had stayed here back in 2004. From the moment you enter through the oversized wooden door with antique brass fixtures, you feel like you have stepped back in time to the colonial days.

The architecture is Spanish colonial, with a central courtyard complete with a fountain and beautiful vegetation. There are parrots on perches who have been taught to say "hola." The walls of the corridors surrounding the courtyard display various antiques, most of them religious. There is a whole wall of carved wooden crucifixes, as well as niches with statues of saints. Carved wooden deer heads on sticks hung on another wall harken back to the pre-Colombian Mayan religion. A painting of the Virgin Mary mourning at the foot of Jesus' cross hung above two candles and dried ears of corn, which symbolically epitomized the synthesis of Mayan religion (in which man was created out of corn) and Spanish Catholicism.

The hotel has a very nice gift shop. I was especially impressed with the selection of books, and I bought an English language copy of the Quiche Maya bible, the Popul Vuh. This book has a special connection to Chichicastenango, as it was discovered in the Santo Tomas church in 1702.

Popol Wuh:
Ancient Srories of the Quiche Indians of Guatemala

by Albertina Saravia E.

The book recounts the Mayan cosmogenesis: after trying and failing to create man from mud and wood, the deities were finally successful at creating man from corn.

The book also recounts the story of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, and their exploits in Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. Xibalba, literally "Place of Fear," was the realm of the lords of death as well as the demons which are responsible for plagues upon mankind. Mayans performed human sacrifices to placate the lords of Xibalba.

The twins' father and uncle had been very gifted at playing the Meso-American ball game. Their loud playing had disturbed the lords of Xibalba. They were summoned to Xibalba to play against the lords. Along the way, they were put through a series of tests, which they failed. They lost the ball game and were sacrificed.

The Hero Twins, conceived after their father's death, were talented ball players, just like their father and uncle. But they were also successful tricksters. After honing their skills by punishing their older siblings, the twins used their cleverness to pass the various trials and tests on their way to Xibalba. They ultimately defeated the lords of Xibalba and retrieved their father's body.

In its defeat, Xibalba ceased to be a place to be feared. Man was no longer required to perform human sacrifice to placate the lords of death.

The Hero Twins were transformed into the sun and the moon.

We wandered through the outdoor market, looking at all of the different items for sale. Masks are the town's claim to fame, but many other types of typical handicrafts are available as well. There are many woven products (huipile blouses, belts, camera straps, tablecloths, bags, backpacks, etc.), and Humberto explained the significance of some of the motifs in the weaving. There were carved wooden statues, both religious and secular. There were ceramic nativity scenes and T-shirts.

We bought some souvenirs and honed our bargaining skills. Craig and I went off on our own. We wanted the Tolers to be able to experience Humberto in full-on guide mode. We wanted them to be able to have his undivided attention and learn from his extensive knowledge.

Craig and I went into a little photo shop which also sold religious icons for shrines and processions. The proprietor, Pedro, was quite friendly. He was happy to hear that we were American, as he said that the number of tourists from the United States has dropped in recent years. We chatted about the current political situation in the U.S., and explained that we like to be good will ambassadors to learn about other cultures and prove that all Americans do not share the views of our current administration. Pedro was very matter-of-fact, reminding us that many nations dislike their leadership and everything is temporary. He thanked us for visiting Guatemala and hopes that we continue to do so. We enjoyed our pleasant chat with him.

We met back up with Humberto and the Tolers and walked a short distance down a side street to the indoor vegetable market. We went upstairs to the gallery-style loft on the perimeter of the second floor. This gave a bird's eye view of all of the buying and selling of produce going on below. This vantagepoint called to mind the vista del pajaro paintings from San Pedro.

In one corner of the loft, a group of young boys had gathered to play arcade video games.

We left the vegetable market in search of lunch. Humberto asked if we were up for some local fare. We were, and he led us into an indoor market area, straight to a food stall called Comedor Juanita. Juanita and her husband cook local favorite dishes, and it is very popular with local clientele. We sat on benches along a narrow wooden table. Craig and I had chilies rellenos, papas fritas, and rice. It was delicious, simple, and inexpensive.

After that, we went to the two churches in the center of town. They stand opposite one another, one to the east and the other to the west. This is a common motif with Guatemalan churches. The smaller of the two churches always goes by the nickname of Calvary chapel, and is dedicated to the Mayan underworld. The larger of the churches is dedicated to the God of Catholicism.

We visited the Calvary chapel (Calvario del Sr. Sepultado) first. Churches here are always a syncretism of traditional Mayan and Catholic beliefs. The underworld that Calvary represents does not have he stigma of Christian hell, but is rather simply where all souls go when they die. Mayans believe that man was created from corn, and that he returns to corn after death.

It was decorated similarly to many churches in the area, with a carved wooden altar. It had a wide center aisle which was punctuated with slate slabs on which offering candles were placed. Narrow rows of pews flanked the aisle. Colorful vases holding flowers decorated the altar. Old wooden crosses of various sizes were propped against the walls.

Ajq'ijab' (indigenous healers sometimes called shamans, though the latter is a bit of a misnomer) practice in this church, and people ask for protection ceremonies and are also able to communicate with their deceased loved ones. Humberto took us to a small, dark anteroom where many of these ceremonies take place.

Next we crossed the market grounds to the larger church, Santo Tomas. Architecturally, it looks similar to Calvary only larger. Both have semicircular stone staircases leading to the entrance. Flower sellers had colorful bouquets laid out on the steps of Santo Tomas. There was a cement altar at the foot of the staircase where ritual offerings were being burnt. Primitive incense censers made out of coffee cans with holes punched in them emanted smoke with the scent of copal.

We entered the church. It has a lovely wooden altar which resembles a mountain. We saw indigenous healers (Ajq'ijab) lighting candles and adhering them via hot wax to stone tablets in the middle of the center aisle. A woman was appoaching the altar on her knees as a sacrifice. This church is where the Popol Vuh was discovered back in 1702.

We attended Palm Sunday Mass here in this church in 2004, when we experienced Semana Santa (Holy Week) in the Lake Atitlan and Antigua area.

Finally, we went to Moreria Santo Tomas, a family-run workshop which produces wooden masks, the signature handicraft of Chichicastenango. The workshop dates back over 100 years. They create wooden masks and costumes for a variety of festivals, which they sell and rent.

This was our third visit to this workshop. We had bought a jaguar mask with red glass eyes here on our first trip to Guatemala 13 years ago. We had also visited with our friend Mukul in 2010. During those visits, costumed children demonstrated a ritual dance here. It depicted a bullfight in which the bull kills the Spanish bullfighter. This definitely seemed subversive, as a way for the Mayans to exact symbolic vengeance on their colonial oppressors.

There were no dance demonstrations this afternoon, but a group called Los Maxitos was playing jaunty traditional marimba music.

We went from room to room, admiring each and every mask. Motifs ran the gamut from Mayan (jaguars, Hero Twins, skulls, owls) to Colonial (Spaniards, monks, angels, saints devils). There were brightly painted ones that looked like the paint had just dried, and there were others with a more antiqued look. They had the sooty appearance of objects which had been around camdle smoke for decades. We could also see masks at the very beginning of the production cycle...naked and awaiting paint and lacquer.

One dimly lit room contained a life-sized statue of San Simon seated behind an altar table. A candle burned on the altar, surrounded by bottles of soft drinks and other offerings. Behind him were effigies of other saints. There were parts from old, broken marimbas. It seemed like we had left the modern world behind and been transported to colonial Guatemala.

I wasn't sure if we would buy another mask today, as our mask display space at home is getting pretty crowded. But we fell in love with an antique looking diablo (devil). It turns out that this is, specifically, Lucifer. Effigies of him are often displayed on altars alongside Maximon / San Simon. According to Jim Pieper in Guatemala's Folk Saints, "Lucifer is not usually prayed to for action but for inaction. Prayers and offerings are made so that one will be left alone and not tempted, acted against, or pursued by the negative forces of the lower spiritual world." (page 197).

Lucifer masks are used in various morality dance plays. There were several Lucifer masks of different styles, but the one that we purchased has horns and pointy teeth which reminded me of a piranha. It is roughly the same size and overall shape as a wooden Dogon mask we bought in Mali, so we thought it would make a nice addition to our collection.

As we were about to leave the mask workshop, my new camera's screen suddenly stopped working. Luckily, it happened at the end of the day, and I had already taken the photos I wanted. I used my phone to take a few more shots, and was happy that I had a backup camera back at the house.

We walked back to the van, dodging pushy vendors who were desperate to make a sale at the end of the day. One little girl approached us, trying to sell us potholders. We politely told her we weren't interested. She was quite bold and persistent, literally begging us to buy from her. She even followed us as we walked back to the parking garage. She was pulling on our clothes and wouldn't leave us alone.

When we reached the garage, several people needed to use the rest room before the drive back to Pana. She continued to hound us as we stood in front of the garage, even grabbing Craig's cane! So we retreated into the van to try to get some peace. She actually got into the van with us!

This was a breach of boundaries. The dance between vendors and tourists is a delicate one. We are friendly to everyone around us. We like to buy from locals, and sometimes if someone is a good salesperson and personable, we may buy something we normally wouldn't. But on the other hand, if someone crosses a boundary by verbal bullying, shaming, or invading our personal space, we wouldn't buy from them even if we did want the item. We can't condone that kind of behavior and reward them with a sale. We have no patience for outright disrespect.

We asked her to exit the van, and then Humberto drove us back to Pana. We were all tired after the excursion and were lost in our own thoughts, but we noticed when we passed through a microclimate of what appeared to be apple orchards. We are familiar with how they look because we have so many of them nearby in New England. Humberto confirmed that this is indeed an area which is known for its apple production.

We got back to the house shortly before 5 p.m. I did some research on the web about my camera's problem, and found out that it is a well-known problem with the Olympus TG-860...the flip screen malfunctions and shorts out. Wonderful! We haven't had this camera for long, and it was not cheap. This is quite disappointing, as I have been a loyal consumer of the Olympus Stylus brand since we first went digital in 2003. Luckily I have my backup camera with me. I had hoped to let Eddy use it when we go to Ecuador, but now it will be my primary camera for the next two weeks.

At 7:30, we walked around the corner to the restaurant owned and operated by Paulina's sister Isabela. She is a fantastic cook, and she has a group of loyal regulars who come in for typical food and beer. The restaurant is very small, and our party of 16 (the whole family, the Tolers, and Paola's boyfriend Cristian) leaves very little room for anyone else. So she decided that the best course of action was for her to open especially for us on Thursday, her normal night off.

A few regulars walked by, happy to see that she was unexpectedly open on a Thursday night. They greeted us warmly and took a seat at the bar. Rather than feel that they had been displaced by a group of gringos, they appreciated the fact that they could hang out on a night when the place is normally closed.

We enjoyed Isabela's delicious chicken tacos along with home made French fries and strawberry shakes. We kept ordering more of everything because it was so delicious! We also enjoyed the company of her precocious little granddaughter Maritsa.

This would be the last time we would eat at Isabela's restaurant at this location. Her landlord is repurposing this building, so she will be moving to a location in another part of town. We said our thank yous and goodnights and then walked the short distance back to the house. Everyone seemed punchy; Yoselin gave Yasmin a piggy-back ride, and much laughter ensued.

It had been a busy day, as tomorrow would be as well. So when we reached the house, we all retreated to our rooms pretty quickly in order to get a good night's sleep.

Our guide and driver

Our guide and driver

Julia and Meghan, Hotel Santo Tomas courtyard

Julia and Meghan, Hotel Santo Tomas courtyard

To be or not to be? Chichicastenango market

To be or not to be? Chichicastenango market

Kevin bargains for a souvenir at the Chichicastenango Market

Kevin bargains for a souvenir at the Chichicastenango Market

Vegetable market, Chichicastenango

Vegetable market, Chichicastenango

Lunch at Comedor Juanita

Lunch at Comedor Juanita

Calvario del Sr. Sepultado

Calvario del Sr. Sepultado

Iglesia Santo Tomas

Iglesia Santo Tomas

Moreria Santo Tomas

Moreria Santo Tomas

San Simon, Moreria Santo Tomas

San Simon, Moreria Santo Tomas

Isabela and Aracely

Isabela and Aracely

See all photos from July 27, 2017

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