We traveled to a city called Chichicastenango (Chichi for short) to celebrate New Year’s Eve and do some service at a school there. It sits 6,000 feet up a mountain and we spent a good two hours navigating precarious turns and cliffside roads. Sometimes the road was so vertical that I was terrified we were going to start sliding backwards. On the upside, the height offered a breathtaking view of Lake Atitlan and its surroundings. We stopped a couple of times to take it in and marvel at the beauty of creation. Finally we reached the town outside of the city were we were staying for the weekend.
We stayed at a school called Centro Educativo Anunciata, in the girl’s dormitory. Upon arriving, we were given a tour of the school and grounds. The students range from pre0schoolers to the equivalent of ninth graders. There are about 600 students total, include the 200 girls who board. The school is specifically for marginalized indigenous children and the sisters who run it will actually turn away students who do not fit this criteria. All the students pay whatever they can based on their family’s income. Some of the students do extra chores or work at the school to pay for their tuition.
The most powerful part of the tour was seeing the chapel. There were a bunch of beautiful murals painted by the
students. The main one, by the altar, depicted people from many different villages connected through the Eucharist and was a very powerful image. The others showed the events between the Assumption and the Crucifixion. While we were in the chapel, our chaperon began telling us about the most recent period of civil war in Guatemala. Religious men and women were being martyred left and right during this time. They eventually had to close the school and it was occupied by the army. The building that is now the chapel was used as a torture chamber. As soon as I heard this, my stomach turned over and I was horrified just thinking about what had happened there. But then I realized that something beautiful had been made out of this tragedy and that it is somehow appropriate for a church to be built on the blood of martyrs, sacrificed in imitation of Jesus.
My mind and heart full of what I had experienced, next we we took a walk into town, which slowly turned into a hike up the rest of the mountain. As if we weren’t high enough already, we proceeded to climb to the highest point in Chichi called Pascal Abaj. There is a Mayan altar there and we happened to come down upon a Mayan Priest performing a ritual. The ritual was in thanksgiving for the old year and to welcome the new one. I felt awkward, like I was invading his privacy, but it was interesting to see. We were all standing reverently, when suddenly the priest’s cellphone rang. We were all shocked and tried our hardest not to laugh. To our surprise, he answered it! This broke the magical atmosphere and showed how much modern technology has invaded our world. It was a perfect, ironic picture of the meeting of traditions and the modern world.
Our first night in Chichi was New Year’s Eve and the Guatemalans definitely know how to celebrate. We had a traditional meal of tomales and a really thick, delicious hot chocolate. After this we went to Mass, which I was happy to be able to experience. We were literally the only white people in the church and a lot of people stared and pointed at us. Since Spanish is not the first language of the indigenous people, sometimes the priest would randomly switch to Quiche, the indigenous language, during Mass, which made it all the more confusing.
After mass, the sisters at the school, treated us to some fruit and dessert. We had another traditional New Year’s food – a hot punch with fruit such as pineapple, apple, coconut and raisins. It was good, but definitely took some getting used to. We sat around playing games and talking to the sisters as we waited for midnight to arrive.
As the hour approached, we crowded onto a small balcony to watch the fireworks that were already starting. Of course, there are no laws regulating the use of fireworks so everyone sets off their own, which I’m sure is perfectly safe. In Guatemala, it is a tradition to eat twelve grapes at midnight, which I think has to do with the twelve months of the year. So at midnight, we all embraced, celebrated and ate our grapes, as fireworks went off from every which direction.
I need to add a note here that the fireworks lasted for at least the next two days – apparently celebrations are dragged out as long as possible in Guatemala and everyone looks for the littlest excuse to party.
The next day we woke up to a new year and finally got our hands dirty doing service. Our task in Chichi was to paint the school’s two basketball courts which were becoming faded. It seems like something small, but I’m sure the students spend a lot of time of the courts and will definitely be grateful that we freshened them up.
While we were painting the first court a family came and played soccer in the field next to us. It was yet another example of how people here celebrate life and just enjoy every day. They came over to talk to us and offered us a fruit called Nispera which came from their own backyard. Later we found out that they had brought the fruit for themselves but gave it all to us, because they knew they could always get more. The generosity of the poor is just so beautiful! They are generally willing to share what little they have, especially if you are a guest. Their attitude is completely countercultural in this world of greed, yet they are happier than most of us. I just think we have so much to learn from the poor, about humanity and what’s really important in life.
We also tried another new fruit called Anona. It tasted like Rastifari, which I had in Tanzania. Trying new foods, especially fruit, is one of my favorite parts of traveling.
That night we went out on the town and visited El Hotel Santo Tomas where a group of marimba players were performing. The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala and very popular – the performance was excellent. The hotel itself was something to see and like its own mini museum. The original owners collected statues, paintings and artifacts from 13th and 14th century churches. All of these items covered the walls of the hotel and were incredible to look at. There was also an outdoor courtyard in the middle of the hotel which contained a garden overflowing with beautiful foliage. We sat down amidst this beauty to share some chips and guacamole then headed back to the school for bed.
Our last day in Chichi was a Sunday, so we headed to Church in the morning. We had been warned that some people might be performing Mayan rituals during Mass and they did indeed. It was slightly distracting but they were very subtle about it. There were slabs of stone in the aisle and about half way through mass an old lady went to kneel by them and start the ritual. I’m still not sure how I feel about this being done during mass but I think it is good that they are able to combine Mayan traditions with the Catholic faith. It says a lot about starting where people are at and not forcing a people to abandon all of their traditions when they convert to Christianity.
The town of Chichi becomes one huge market every Sunday so as soon as Mass was over we got lost in the crowds for a couple of hours. As in Tanzania, this kind of environment overwhelms me and is not really my favorite thing. Everyone is begging to make a living and its hard not to feel bad for all of them. The children begging you to buy their wares was especially heartbreaking, especially the disabled ones. I bought a few things and then headed back to pack up for the drive back to San Lucas.
Looking back, I think the weekend in Chichicastenango was my favorite part of the trip. I felt at one with the people – especially during mass and rubbing elbows with them in the market.