Chichicastenango: Central America’s largest market, great fun for kids!

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The treacherous mountain roads in and out of Lago de Attilan are much more pleasant from a seat on the bus. It’s a two hour ride (one way) to Chichicastenango, a little town in the mountains known for it’s unique religious blend of old Mayan and Catholicism. We got up early and caught the bus to see the Sunday market, one of the best in Guatemala.

The children are amazed by how different Guatemala is from Mexico. For kids used to surfing across the US-Canada border without the blink of an eye they are surprised by the immediate cultural differences that a line on the map can make. Hannah is in love with the clothing: rainbow hued huipiles, embroidered lace blouses, long swaths of almost neon striped cloth tied into bundles carried on heads and around babies carried on backs. Anywhere else in the world it would be garish, here is simply is. It’s almost as if color was invented here and then slowly seeped out between the volcanoes into the rest of the world, losing it’s intensity the farther it traveled. It is a truly spectacular place.  

The kids have been shopping hard for a few days, each one searching for that one special treasure to carry away into their adult lives as a recuerdo of this place. I’ve been putting them off until this market. They dove in with single minded purpose and a little roll of Queztales (Guatemalan money) in their pockets.  Gabe and Ezra struck pay-dirt first.  Gabe decided a couple of days ago that he wanted a “man bag” from here and we’ve been looking. Leather? Too expensive. Woven? Too cheap and touristy looking. And then he saw them, hand woven of cream and chocolate colored alpaca wool in a native design. Since Ezra wanted one too they made a better deal and the proudly stalked around town volunteering to carry everything else I purchased.           

Elisha is a different guy altogether. He’s quiet. He looks. He says very little. He knows what he wants and it is never what the other boys want. Just before lunch he tugged on my skirt hem, “Mama?  I think I know what I want for my special treasure... a machete, a real good one.” His face was serious and his eyebrows buckled in the middle just like his Dad’s. Together, he and Tony set out on a mission. They looked at several and eventually ended up purchasing a medium sized machete (still almost the length of the boy’s arm) in a handmade leather case. Elisha drove a hard bargain, getting his knife for a third off of the asking price and walked away a happy man. “I think this is a good choice Mom,” he mused later. “I will use this my whole life and Grampsy will be proud of me.” That he will. He’ll spend the rest of the trip trying to sharpen it up.           

We stepped through the thick wooden door of the church to get a break from the cacophony of the bustling mercado and into instant silence, insulated from the rest of the world by the thick stone walls. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the sweet, smokey darkness, the only illumination being the candles burning on the alters. “This church is different from all the others we’ve been in,” whispered Ezra, and so it was. Simple white washed walls, thick wood beams holding up the ceiling tall black panels so thick with smoke that only the ghosts of the images of the paintings beneath could be seen. The whole place swam in a heady mixture of incense, fresh flowers and melting wax. Down the center of the church, where the aisle would normally be, were a series of low, flat, stone mesas, alters to gods other than the one we’ve come to expect in a Catholic church. Hundreds of candles burned on their flat surfaces, surrounded by flower petals of every shade, illuminating the weathered faces of mayan women, their resplendent colors muted by the semi darkness and the smoke. They were praying, not in Spanish, but in their ancient tongue, lighting hand dipped candles, two at a time and sticking them to the stone with melted wax. Flowers were decapitated and sprinkled around the base of the candles and then some sort of liquor was poured around the base of the candles, over the petals and the mixture of smoke and steam was drawn to their faces with leathery hands and inhaled as they bowed low to pray. We watched in silence. There was an intensity and a sincerity in their peaceful worship that permeated the whole place, a very real faith filled the stone cavern in a way that is sorely lacking in churches much more architecturally significant than this one. It seemed a world away from the bustling market outside.           

We descended the steps of the church, side stepping the flower and candle vendors, being careful not to get burned on the flaming makeshift alter piled high with offerings and incense that spiced the air with a pungent tang, working hard not to lose a child in the crowd. I was on a mission for textiles, a rainbow hued blanket to sleep under far, far away and dream dreams the color of these mountains;  tiny, handmade slippers for babies not yet born (not mine, don’t worry!) and one of the carefully, intricately embroidered belts that the ladies here wear to hold up their cortes. I’m going to use mine as a strap for my guitar. While I stood and chatted with the little Mama who made my blanket and helped her fold and unfold several to compare patterns, making jokes about both of us needing more hands with so many children, there was action taking place behind my back.            

Hannah hasn’t made her big purchase yet. I think she’s holding out for a dress from the Yucatan, when we get back to Mexico. She is, however collecting little treasures and being our music girl, she’s been eyeing the reed flutes. While Tony and I consulted on patterns and price she was working on a flute salesman, putting her ten words of Spanish to good use. He started a fifty quetzales ($6 USD). She shook her head and offered twenty. He laughed and shook his finger: forty, my best price. She turned away, “Nope, too much.” He pulled her back... “how ‘bout thirty five?”  She smiled, raised her one eyebrow and said, “Thirty.”  She got it for thirty and selected a deep green color with a quetzal bird carved the length of the flute.            

Ezra was watching. He’s always watching. He looked at Hannah, looked at the flute and decided he wanted one too, so, all by himself, he started in on the guy. It was a funny exchange between our determined little dwarf and this amused flute salesman. There was a lot of pointing and head shaking. Ezra only had twenty. The flute salesman could see there was no bargaining, for no more money existed, and I refused to cough up one more quetzale. Ezra held out his twenty. The salesman reached for it. Ezra pulled it back and pointed at the flute. The salesman held out the flute, a maroon red one, and Ezra reached for the flute, holding the end of it in his hand while he held out the money in his other hand. The salesman nodded and smiled and carefully took the money in one hand, releasing the flute in the other. Ezra smiled, pleased with the trade, pleased at getting it for ten quetzales less than his sister and pleased to have not been the one to part with the money before taking possession of the goods. Of all of the kids, he’s the most third world in his mindset.           

Hannah was a bit miffed at first, although she laughed and could appreciate the humor of the situation. “Well, that’s how it goes sometimes,” she said, shaking her head, “Anyway, this flute is worth thirty.” That it was. Even so, Ezra stalked around all day like a proud peacock, asking me at least ten times to be sure to tell Gramps about his deal and that he beat Hannah. He may never get over it. He certainly won’t let Hannah forget it in this lifetime.

Article Type: 
In-Person Impressions


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