Sunday, April 5, 2015

Happy Easter, and barges in the night

Vendors in Antigua

Today is my last day in Guatemala. And it is Easter Sunday. We were serenaded by hymns at sunrise, coming from the little church next door. And then firecrackers of course. Below are pictures from the night procession on Good Friday in Guatemala City. These huge platforms required 150 people to move them. And others to hold up the overhead wires with large forks while the parade passed underneath. Once again it was a moving spectacle. They are huge barges, taking up almost a whole city block.

The perfect ending to the experience was our climbing of Pacaya, the nearest active volcano. it is one of three active volcanoes in Guatemala. It felt wonderful to hike and climb after a week of studying and being more sedentary. I come home tomorrow. Happy Easter to everyone.

Low key Easter procession in a village near Pacaya

Watching the procession

Pacaya. Lava streams date from 2014 eruption. In 2010 a huge eruption changed the top of the volcano as a huge crater was formed. Now all that can be seen are smoke fumeroles. Around the lava rocks on our way down we felt hot steam emerging from some of the crevices.

Hold your hats. Happy Easter!

Friday, April 3, 2015


Birthdays in Guatemala begin with a big bang, literally! While living in Guatemala City we were frequently woken abruptly in the early hours of the morning by loud popping and banging on the roof of the Casa. The first time, I thought it was heavy rainfall. We soon discovered that it was fireworks, a tradition to let the birthday person know he/she is special. These firecrackers look like long sheets of plastic with the explosives wrapped inside. They are sold in local stores and easy to obtain. We are now so used to the noise that we no longer react at the sound.
My birthday did not include the lighting of fireworks. But I was celebrated at the school where I was taking Spanish lessons, and then again at the home where we were living in Antigua for the week. It was a surprise, as I had not told anyone that it was my birthday. Somehow the secret got out. And of course I was touched by all the greetings I received from friends and family at home. Many thanks to all.

Home in Antigua, Guatemala

My birthday celebrated at Tecum Uman, Spanish school In Antigua.
Me and my teacher, Carmen


Antigua, Guatemala

Last evening we were surprised that supper was not on the table at 7pm as expected. All was dark in the rooms around the patio. The house is an old hacienda, with all the rooms built around a large patio in the centre. There is a pretty garden. Our doors all open onto this area, as do the kitchen and dining room. The sitting area is outside on the patio. This is a true colonial-style home. The family owns a garage on the street and the home is behind the business. This appears to be the common style of the better homes in Guatemala.


As we went about our business, waiting for the family to return and begin preparations for dinner, we heard a loud drum beating a slow, regular rhythm.. It was dark outside. It took several minutes to realize that the sound was the signal that a procession was somewhere nearby. I ran out, through the garage and onto the street. At first all I could hear was the mournful sound of the drum. The street was engulfed in smoke and incense. Then I noticed many people of all ages milling about. The more I looked, the more I noticed things going on that were not part of the normal happenings.
Among the people on the street were men dressed in long, dark purple hooded cloaks. They seemed to have an official role. They are called Cucoruchos and they carry the large floats for a block at a time. The women who carry the virgin are usually dressed in white, but I saw carriers in civilian clothes as well. In front of the house a procession was slowly making its way down the street. The drummer was accompanied by other musicians, including a flute, trumpet and percussion instruments. At first they were silent. In front of them was a large wooden platform (float), carried on the shoulders by about ten people, men, women and children. The illuminated platform held the image of Christ carrying his cross. At the next street corner the platform bearers were relieved by another group and the parade stopped while the music continued, this time with another rhythm, and more instruments. People began singing and the procession then continued on its way to the next block. This went on for many blocks, each block (cuadra) allowing for a change of carriers.
As I watched the procession and listened to the solemn music I felt a wave of something mysterious fill my mind and body. Was it the slow drum beat? Could it be the smoke and incense that added a lugubrious tone to the spectacle? Was it the solemnity   and the significance of the procession? Or was it simply amazement at the devotion shown all the people for whom this week is the most important time of the year? I guess most likely a mixture of all of the above.


On Wednesday I left the home where we are living and walked through the streets that lead to the Central Plaza. Some were closed to cars in preparation for the procession that was expected later. In front of many homes and stores people were cleaning the street and beginning construction of an alfombra (carpet). As I turned the next corner, approaching the large arch that crosses the street, (previously used as a passageway from one side of the street to the other to allow the cloistered nuns to go from their cloister to the building across the street without being seen)  I could see many people gathered. There were large numbers of children milling about, all dressed in purple or white robes.  From a distance I heard the beat of the drum and then saw the large platform holding the figure of Christ, weaving its way down the street.

The platform approached and the drum beat continued, now accompanied by other musicians. Holding this heavy platform were about 24 boys, spread out on either side of the platform. Underneath were other float bearers, desperately trying to keep everything afloat. The platform wove down the street.  It was a site to see and I held my breath in amazement that it did not fall. At the next corner the team changed. But following down the main drag was another huge platform carrying the Virgin Mary, this time balancing on the shoulders of a large number of girls! I followed the procession for a block, until another group took over. It was fun to see all the different people following the procession. And behind it all were three men pushing the generator that is used to provide lighting to the floats that are illuminated all night.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


Yesterday I strolled through the streets of Antigua, soaking up the sites and observing the many goings-on that are part of holy week preparations. In the early afternoon we attended a demonstration of carpet making, the Guatemalan tradition of laying down colourful carpets in front of shops, homes and churches as offerings during this time. The story goes that this tradition was brought here by the man who is now the patron saint of Antigua, San Pedro de Betancourt. He was originally from Tenerife and brought the tradition from there. He also built the first hospital for the poor of Antigua.

The tradition represents in part the laying down of carpets and robes on Palm Sunday as Christ walked to Jerusalem carrying his cross. Mayan  traditions have been incorporated into the making of carpets. Here people spend hours dying the sawdust that is used to make the carpets, then constructing them as a family or group prior to a procession that will take place later in the day. Some can be made from pine branches, corn and flowers, others from sawdust or corn meal. Our teacher told us that his family will make three such carpets before Friday, one fore each procession that will pass by his home.

Sawdust dyed orange/green

We spent the afternoon working on a small carpet as an example of how one is made. It was lots of fun, getting our hands covered with dye, and then trying our best to make a carpet......coming away with lots of respect for the work required to make such a piece of art. It takes about 4 to 5 hours to make one and about 30 seconds for it to be destroyed when the procession passes over it!

The finished product

Pine carpet with corn and flowers

Pine carpet with fruit and vegetables

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


I like to travel quietly, never in large groups, and as much as possible to soak in the local culture. This is how I would prefer it to always be but I have to admit I am a tourist, especially in a country where just by the way I look (pale skin with blue eyes and a travel book) I stand out like a sore thumb. Anyway, I have been a true tourist sometimes on this trip. Last weekend was a good example. The whole Guatemala Casira team travelled to Lago Atitlan by bus to visit the area. The bus is actually a former school bus from Quebec, painted white and sporting the many bumps and dents that are required to be on the road in this country. It still wears the logo of La Maison du Père, the Montreal organisation(shelter) from whom it was purchased.

Pierre and I visited Lake Atitlan on out trip here in 1974. It has of coursed changed a lot, as has the rest of the country. But I remember the beach on the lake in Panajachel where we parked our van and camped. That area is now part gravel and part sand, but there is a parking lot above it where the buses and vans park. And outside the window of our simple hotel this time, there were two similar vans parked. They were from Argentina and were travelling from the southern time of South America, to the most northern of Central America. As they cooked their meal behind the van and then closed up so they could sleep inside, I was once again taken back to the when we did the same.

The beach at Panajachel (40 years later)

The little girls in their traditional Mayan skirts and blouses (huipil) still look the same. They follow any tourist that arrives in town, trying to sell bracelets or beaded quetzals. 40 years ago the birds were made of dried corn leaves but that is the only difference.

The towns throughout Guatemala are busy this time of year because of Holy week. Every village has streets lined with colourful carpets made from tinted sawdust or corn meal. This is a tradition here and we saw people working on the carpets in many places. They will only last until a procession carrying Jesus and Mary on heavy wooden platforms passes over them.
In the churches in San Antonio and Santa Caterina de Polopa as well as others we visited, the women were decorating the altars and the men were putting the final touches on the large figures that represent the Easter passion.

Float waiting for a procession

It is interesting to see the mixture of Mayan and Catholic traditions that are part of the religious culture here. We saw groups of women weaving large crosses for Palm Sunday. They add flowers and other things to these beautiful crosses, very different from the dried ones that are manufactured on a large scale for Palm Sunday at home.

Church steps in Chichicastenango: a mix of Mayan and Christian tradition

The church in Chichicastenango was full to the hilt on Sunday. There was no room even to squeeze in. Whole families were sitting or standing everywhere there was an inch to do so. Mass was celebrated in Spanish and Quetchi, the Mayan dialect spoken here.
Although this is a very Catholic country as is evident during this week of celebration, with long slow processions every day and night (right out of a Fellini movie), there are hundreds of evangelical churches scattered through the towns. They too appear to take part in the Easter celebrations, as does everyone here this week.

Monday, March 30, 2015


Work on the farm:

The house at Chacalté: built by Casira volunteers and opened 4 years ago. All materials used are local.

The roads in the area become washed out during the rains of the wet season. Driving over them reminded me of the drive to Tikal forty years ago. Today there are highways that allow for easier travelling between major towns but those in the country are still made from rocks and sand and driving is difficult.  We spent three days with pick and shovel, carrying rocks and earth in the truck and then unloading the load to fill up holes in the road. The larger rocks were  broken by the campesinos using a large mass. This was hot, hard work. Lots of blood, sweat, but no tears...only laughter!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Savez-vous plantez des choux?

Our two weeks at Chacalté, the cooperative farming venture in the hills between Tikal and Rio Dulce, was an experience I will not forget. The lovely stone building that houses the volunteers was built three years ago by Casira volunteers. It is made entirely from stones found on the property. All the wood is local. There are two dormitories, open to the air, where a total of twelve people can stay, in mixed quarters. The plan is that the 8 farmers in the coop will eventually be totally independent and not require the monetary and physical support they now get. For now they live in local villages and come by truck to the finca (farm) daily to work the fields, care for the chickens, and tend to the cardamom, pepper and cinnamon plants that are the main source of income at this point.

These men (campesinos) live a meagre existence with their families. The oldest, Jose, is 71 and the youngest Jobani is 23. In between there are Santos, Miguel, Venizio, Abraham, Herman, and Juan, two of whom are in their late 60s. The finca is their way of perhaps providing a better life for the future. They live without running water or electricity, on a diet of beans and tortillas. It is inspiring to see how hard they work. Every evening one of the campesinos, the one whose turn it is to sleep overnight in the workers shack as a night guardian, is our guest for dinner. It was a pleasure to sit at the same table as these quiet men, who get to enjoy a generous meal each his turn. Some of them are more outgoing than others, seeming to appreciate the good food, a glass of beer or wine, and some company other than that of the chickens. One evening we had a complete family, mother, father and two children, come for dinner because the father was the watchman for the night. A real treat. The children were shy at first, but then enjoyed making paper boats, garlands of dolls, and paper hats.
The food at the finca is cooked by a local Guatemaltec women. Meals are simple but delicious. Fresh juice made daily from  the limes that we picked was a treat after the hard work done in the heat of mid day. The finca has a large lemon grove and I learned how to use the long perch with the wire basket attached in order to pull down the limes. All food grown and taken for use in the kitchen is bought from the campesinos. If we took a banana from the farm, we paid a quetzal. The chickens are slaughtered twice a week and sold locally or bought for the kitchen. Tuesdays and Thursdays are when the chickens are slaughtered. Two local women chop off their heads, pluck the feathers and prepare them for market. Once a week a man arrives on his motorcycle, buys a few chickens that he places in the old cooler on the back of his bike, and drives back on a terrible gravel road, up into the mountains to the town of Guitarra, where they are sold.

The chicken coops, with bananas

Our jobs varied from day to day depending on the needs. We spent a few days cutting long weeds under the cinnamon plants, using machetes. This was arduous work, bending and cutting for several hours at a time. My job for the first few days was to plant seeds that were donated by one of our volunteers who had owned a nursery. I planted beets, radishes, carrots, onions, melon,  and Cuban chilis.The ground is very dry and it is hard to believe that anything can grow in the blazing sun. The seeds were appreciated because it is very costly to buy them in Guatemala. By the time we left I could see small radishes poking through the earth, as well as some beets. But without rain, I wonder if they stand a chance.
Others worked in the makeshift nursery, trying to get tomatoes to grow. There is always cinnamon to grind and bag, herbs to dry, gravel to be spread on the roads around the area, palms to cut for the thatched roof of the chicken coop, etc. etc.

Planting beets

Manaca leaves cut for thatch roof