Saturday 7/29/2017 - A Mayan protection ceremony

Today we didn't need to get up at the crack of dawn for sightseeing or work, so we slept in a bit. We had cereal and coffee for breakfast. Humberto was even home, and we had a liesurely morning of chatting.

We gave the kids the gifts that we had bought for them in Russia. Aracely knows that I collect matryoshka nesting dolls, and she had asked if we could buy one for her. We had chosen a cheerful 3-piece set depicting a smiling rosy-cheeked girl carrying a bouquet of roses. For Eddy, Craig had picked out a small Russian tank. (Craig also bought one for himself, as it reminded him of his brother Steve's prized possessions as a child). And we gave all of the kids matryoshka key chains. Eddy's matryoshka suddenly became a tank commander in a visual worthy of a Soviet propaganda poster.

It wasn't from Russia, but we gave Ian a Wheel Pal shaped like a lion. We have given these adorbable chunky wheeled toys made by Playskool to all of our godchildren as infants, and they have proven to be extremely durable. And the kids like them even when they outgrow them.

Soon tourists arrived at Humberto's office, and he went to work.

Tomorrow the Tolers would be heading back home, and we would be taking Eddy and Paulina to Ecuador. We all had packing to do. Craig and I packed a bag to leave behind, including souvenirs we had bought here and warm weather clothing that we wouldn't need in Ecuador. We would be returning here for a few days after Ecuador before heading home, so we could retrieve it then.

Paulina made breaded shrimp for lunch, and it was delicious! The Tolers had intended to go back to Calle Santander to do some last-minute shopping this afternoon, and we wanted to take Aracely and Eddy out for ice cream. However, the weather didn't cooperate. It started to pour, so we all just hung around the house.

We helped Eddy to pack for the trip to Ecuador, making sure that he had plenty of warm clothes. He was eager to model the new hat he had bought with Paulina earlier in the week: it was a fleece Tweety bird hat/mask. Hysterical!

For our last night in Guatemala with the Toler family, we had planned a very special experience: a protection / cleansing ceremony with a Mayan Ajq'ij. An Ajq'ij is a spiritual healer, sometimes referred to as a shaman, but that is a bit of a misnomer. The role dates back to pre-Columbian times, but these healers are still are still very much a part of the indigenous culture to this day. We had seen them in the Catholic churches in Chichicastenango and Santiago Atitlan, as well as in the Maximon shrine.

Luis, who works in Humberto's office, has a father who is an Ajq'ij. They live in San Jorge la Laguna, and his father had agreed to perform the protection ceremony for us. They had planned for this ceremony to take place outside on the lakeshore. We were hoping that the rain would stop so that we could proceed as planned. But it just kept raining.

By the time that Humberto returned from work and we were ready to go, it actually had stopped raining. But due to the intensity of the earlier downpours, everything was muddy and slippery. So they decided to do it indoors, at Luis' father's house in San Jorge.

We all piled into Humberto's van: Paulina, Ian, Aracely, Eddy, the Tolers, and us. Along the way, we stopped to pick up Paola, who had recently returned from her day at nursing school in Solola. We drove a short distance to San Jorge. Luis and his wife and kids also live here, and we saw his wife and sons in the little tienda (store) that they own.

We walked down some alleyways on the way to the house. We passed underneath a sign advertising a clothing boutique called Estefania, and we thought that having a namesake here was a good omen.

When we reached the house, we entered a room which was dominated by an altar and multiple life-sized effigies of San Simon, the Spanish Catholic sanctioned version of Mayan folk saint Maximon. They were wearing sunglasses and had a cigarette in their pursed lips. We couldn't help but think that one of them resembled Bono.

There was a small statue of the Blessed Virgin, as well as a small statue of Jesus carrying the cross. A framed portrait of Jesus and the Sacred Heart overlooked the altar. Prayer candles depicting San Simon sat next to cans of beer and soda. This is once again a syncretism of Catholic and Mayan beliefs.

We met Luis' father, Marcelo Alonso Felipe. We sat in chairs and on benches on the perimeter of the room. First we all wrote down our names on a piece of paper so that he could pray for each of us to God and the spirits.

Marcelo and his assistant Pedro Luis Alonso chanted in a mixture of Kaqchikel Mayan and Spanish, asking for safe journeys and good luck for all of us. As we have learned, Mayans believe that prayers only "count" when they are said aloud, and I guess that one needs to be specific about names as well.

In the midst of their chanting, Marcelo's cell phone rang. He answered it and said that he was in the midst of a cleansing and that he could call the person back later. We all got a good chuckle from the intrusion of 21st century technology on an ancient ceremony.

He quickly resumed the ceremony, asking us all to kneel. He lit copal incense which infused the room with a lovely fragrance. He handed us each a candle and bundles of plant matter (we believe that it was sage, an herb commonly associated with spiritual cleansing). He asked us to make a wish and to say a prayer of thanks. He approached us one at a time, took the candle and sage bundle from us, and waved them over the altar in a circular motion. Then he waved them in circles above our heads while chanting, ran them along our bodies, amd blew two breaths of air onto our heads. He said "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" (in Spanish) while having us kiss the sage bundle several times. He then placed sage bundles on the altar.

Once we had each had our turn, he lit our candles, melted the wax on the bottom, and stuck them to the floor. This was the conclusion of the first half of the ceremony, and next we headed outside and up onto the roof. It was now dusk, and we could see the volcanoes silhouetted against the remnants of the sunset behind us. It was an ethereal setting.

Marcelo, Pedro, and their helper Sabine arranged our sage bundles, as well as small candles, cigarettes, and eggs, into a circle, and lit it on fire. The circle represents the universe, and Marcelo marked the four cardinal directions.

He handed us each three slender candles, and asked us to make another wish. He chanted and bowed at the waist before the fire, reading our names once again from the paper. He then repeated the same rituals that he had done earlier inside, waving candles over us and chanting (minus the kissing of the candles). He then tossed the candles into the fire.

Marcelo splashed Quetzalteca aguardiente liquor onto the fire, making it flare up. He used a poker to stir the ashes, chanting the entire time. Every once in a while, we could hear a small explosion as an egg burst due to the heat. Watching the fire was mesmerizing.

Marcelo told us to close our eyes and then anointed our heads with aguardiente liquor. He gave us each a handful of sesame seeds to sprinkle into the fire, which caused a crackling sound. Then we said another prayer of thanks. The fire finally died down to coals, at which point the ceremony was over.

We went back inside, and were served delicious hot chocolate (an historic Mayan drink of the gods) and bread. Marcelo told us that when the fire is completely out, he will read the ashes, which could resemble a resplendant quetzal, a dove, the sun, a star, etc.

It was a truly humbling experience, where we seemed to be one with the universe. Around the fire, the smoke had gravitated towards Craig, who just let it wash over him. Also, a moth alighted on him. We have noticed moths making dramatic appearances during spiritual rituals lately, from a Buddhist temple in Myanmar to the Catholic church during Yoselin's quinceañera Mass. Here was yet another example.

Marcelo said that the spirits were quite receptive and that the ceremony was favorable to them. The ashes had settled into the shape of a star, which was a good omen. We all felt happy and confident for our respective journeys. The Tolers would head home to Boston tomorrow, and Eddy and Paulina would take their first ever flights while accompanying us to Ecuador.

We have visited shamans in Mexico's Yucatan and in Ecuador, but this was our first experience in Guatemala. It was a highlight of the trip for us, and we will never forget it!

We had wanted to take the kids to Sarita for an ice cream earlier today, but we didn't because of the rain. Everyone was hungry now, since we hadn't eaten dinner. Humberto suggested stopping for churrascos, but everyone was much more interested in ice cream. They called Vanesa, Yoselin, Yasmin, who were at home, and told them to meet us at Sarita.

I couldn't help but smile thinking that the employees were probably not all that excited to have a party of 15 arrive just prior to closing. But they dutifully made filled all of our orders, from banana splits to shakes to cones. And of course as other patrons saw the crowd, they came in and delayed the store's closing even further.

It was really great that we were able to spend that final evening all together. We had made such happy memories on this visit, and we were glad to be able to share our experiences with the Tolers!

San Jorge La Laguna
Ajq'ij Marcelo Alonso Felipe performs a Mayan cleansing ceremony

Ajq'ij Marcelo Alonso Felipe performs a Mayan cleansing ceremony

Ajq'ij Marcelo Alonso Felipe at his altar

Ajq'ij Marcelo Alonso Felipe at his altar

Volcanoes are a gorgeous backdrop for the fire ceremony on Marcelo's roof

Volcanoes are a gorgeous backdrop for the fire ceremony on Marcelo's roof

Ajq'ij Marcelo tends the fire

Ajq'ij Marcelo tends the fire

Paulina and Paola

Paulina and Paola

The sacred fire dwindles

The sacred fire dwindles

Aracely, Ian, Steph, Craig, Kevin, Jenn, Ajq'ij Marcelo, Meghan, Julia, and Pedro

Aracely, Ian, Steph, Craig, Kevin, Jenn, Ajq'ij Marcelo, Meghan, Julia, and Pedro

Ice cream at Sarita

Ice cream at Sarita

See all photos from July 29, 2017

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