Saturday, March 25, 2006

And the Living Is Easy

It's March, which for many loyal readers is the beginning of the end of a long winter of shoveling snow and itchy mittens. But in the tropical-but-not-really weather pattern of Guatemala, we're in the dog days of summer. The streets are plastered with ads for Gallo beer, as ever, but now the girls in bikinis enjoying a cool barley pop are given the ostensible excuse of cooling down from the summer heat. It seems it was just weeks ago that the locals were bundling up in their arctic expedition gear to face the sub-balmy temperatures of January. It is not clear to me exactly when we crossed the line into verano, but the average temperatures have creeped back up from the 60s to the high 70s; and apparently for the finely-tuned Guatemalan constitution, that makes all the difference.

Soaking in the indolent estival spirit, your correspondent has been less-than-intrepid in seeking out new corners of Guatemala of late. In a fit of pique, the editorial staff demanded something of interest, and dispatched the correspondent with a native guide to see some local sights.

Iximche is a minor ruin a couple hours from Guatemala City; it will not be mistaken for Tikal, nor featured on the tourism board's advertisements, the national currency, or beer cans any time soon. However, it did fit the summer mood perfectly. Iximche is on a broad flat area, with large plazas that have been restored with now-yellowing grass, and is only a couple miles off the Pan-American Highway. Given the near-zero entry charge for locals and the absence of grassy parks in most cities (concrete-planter-and park-bench plazas being the standard urban open space), the ruins were used less for contemplating the ancient culture of the Maya and more for picnicking and playing catch.

That emphasis changed when your correspondent and his local guide wandered back to the far end of the ruins, where a group was gathered around a ceremonial fire burning in the center of a compass star with each point made of a different color of flower petals. A group of "spiritual guides" were leading the ceremony (they were quite explicit in admonishing all listeners not to call them "priests"), alternating between Spanish and Cakchiquel (an indigenous language). It was quite a scene; regretably, the staff photographer was warned that he would not be allowed to ply his trade during the ceremony.

The guides wore a mix of modern clothing and traditional woven items, swung censers of incense and randomly splashed alcohol on the fire. They blessed participants by touching a flower to their knees, wrists, shoulders and foreheads, and then the participants would throw a bundle of candles in the fire. Following this, there was a baptism of sorts, where the guides, of fairly advanced age, would pass babies over the fire -- which included some unitiated kids of up to ten years of age and significant weight, which seemed like a recipe for disaster as but in the end only resulted in stifled guffaws from the crowd. The guides then danced around the fire in a not-particularly-elaborate dance until their compact disc player crapped out on them. They asked if anyone in the crowd had a discman that they could borrow in order to continue the centuries-old ceremony in the mannner of their forefathers, but no volunteer emerged. While the speechifying surely continued for hours more, your correspondent was unable to stay to hear it all, having a busy schedule of summer lollygagging to get back to.

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