[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]
The chilled mountain mist that sits heavily in the cobbled lanes is beginning to rise as the Guatemalan sun heats up. On the steps of the old church a shaman is swinging a little silver pot so that scented incense wafts with his wailing chants into the misty air.
The church of Santo Tomás is one of the oldest in Central America. It was built on the site of a Mayan temple-pyramid and local Quiche men still chant prayers here in honour of their ancestors, just as their forefathers did on the steps of the old pyramids.
It’s only an hour after dawn but Chichicastenango market is coming to life on the big plaza in front of the church. Bent-backed porters stagger between the stalls, groaning under huge loads and very soon the little rickety market-stalls will begin blossoming with all the vibrant colours of a tropical garden. At the edge of the narrow cobbled alleyways great heaps of colourful bundles are being offloaded from the roofs of the yellow buses that once carried infinitely lighter burdens during their earlier incarnations as school buses in small-town America. Less wealthy traders are arriving on foot from below the town. Barefoot men marching up the road from their remote highland homesteads. Their women follow behind, also heavily loaded with the woven textiles, carved masks, leather satchels. A few carry bundles of clucking hens that they hope to sell.
Chichicastengo is the market town of an estimated 20,000 indigenous Quiche people and every week a large proportion of them swarm into the town to trade. This market is older than the history of Guatemala itself. The Quiche people were trading on this spot before the arrival of the Spanish. The guttural tones of the Quiche language are normal here and when you hear one of the traders call out in Spanish it seems to jar on the ear. Even after 500 years it seems out of place.
Later in the morning busloads of tourists will start to arrive from Guatemala City and old Antigua. For many of the travellers who are drawn along the tortuous, swooping highland roads, market day in this little town is one of the most memorable experiences in any trip around Guatemala. During the tourist rush-hour it can feel like business revolves around the gringo dollar but you don’t have to wander too far back into the canvas-covered maelstrom to see that Chichi is still functioning essentially as a working local market.
You find everything here from hand-woven cloth and blankets to turkeys, chickens and goats, to farm tools and local medicine. In one corner a man offers a handful of live chicks for a dollar – each of the (once yellow) fluffy little balls of down had been dyed a different day-glo colour. There are stalls here selling magic potions and talismans that will bring money, love, success and, of course, the promise Herculean sexual prowess. You can buy bottles of ointment that will place a curse on your enemies…or alternatively will protect you from their curses.
This is my second visit to Chichi and I’ve come back to re-visit an old friend I haven’t seen for more than a decade. Don Ignacio is one of the leading shaman here and has complete knowledge of tribal beliefs, blessings, offerings and curses (although he claims that, unlike others in the village, he refuses to work black magic). For generations Don Ignacio’s family has carved masks for the local festivals and his ‘House of Masks’ is at the base of a sacred hill that has been home to a god called Pascual Abaj for longer than anyone can say.
Approaching from the shade of the eucalyptus forest, Pascual Abaj’s hilltop clearing certainly seems to possess a powerful spiritual atmosphere. The little stone god is about three feet tall and resembles one of the uglier Easter Island heads. The last time I visited this shrine, I’d been travelling with a French girlfriend and we’d arrived just before dusk to see wisps of smoke curling from a small fire. Five people were in attendance at Pascual Abaj. So, staying amongst the trees, we sat down quietly and they allowed us to watch. They sacrificed a chicken in front of the stone. The eyes of the god seemed to stare judgmentally and the jagged gash below was soon hideously streaked with blood. Things became increasingly surreal – at least to our way of thinking – when they opened two bottle of Gallo beer and started pouring them over the gaping stone mouth. I realized that we were seeing a ceremony that is perhaps twice as old as Christianity. If a poor campesino family will sacrifice a fat, healthy chicken, then it’s easy to imagine that the great Mayan Empire once regularly honoured the gods with the blood of their greatest warriors.
This time, however, Don Ignacio said that he wanted to do a simple ceremony to “give thanks for my return and to wish me luck in case it was another decade before I came back.”
He began by swinging a censer, made from a punctured tin can. Heavy blue-black smoke gathered in clouds, evoking spirits, around the idol. He and his wife carefully laid out the offerings we’d bought and I could see that, along with his appetite for chicken and beer, Pascual Abaj seems also to have a penchant for rice, sugar, salt, candies and chewing gum. Don Ignacio’s face looked strained as he begged blessings and I noticed that, even to the Mayan god, his conversation was peppered with words that had been imported from Spain.
For this reason I could understand a little of what he was saying and as we walked back down the hill I asked him what he’d told the god.
“I was very sorry to hear that the nice French girl left you,” he said. “So more than anything I wanted to ask Pascual Abaj to try to ensure that you have more luck with girls in the future.”