A VISIT TO THE LOWER WORLD
This is a author’s mesmorizing account of an encounter during a trip to a Mayan market town in Guatemala.
I arrived in Chichicastenengo still feeling under the weather and found that my hotel was occupied, so I found one called Hospedaje Salvador, which gave me flea bites, but was the only one not full. I went ot bed after 2 bowls of soup (peanuts for me) and Mazanilla tea (Camomile) around 7:00 pm. I awoke to the sound of drums beating, fireworks and shouting at 1:30 am then again at 3:30 am, discovered that the hotel locks its doors so I could not go investigate so I went to bed again. The next morning was market day so I spent the day walking arond and buying hackey sacks, tipica goods and bartering to better my spanish. There was an incredible display of dancing in the streets in the evening with about 50 dancers dressed up in the most elaborate feathered and mirror adorned costumes and masks that I have ever seen. They were shaking gourds rattles and two stepping to Marimba music played on a large marimba carried by 4 men and played by three. A recorder like flute called a hearalded the lead of the procession which was the patron saint cofradias that I had read about. It was a mix between Catholic and mayan ritual and very interesting.
After another bowl of soup and some tea, I was off to bed. I awoke again early to the noise of partying, fireworks but in particular, drum beats at a very monotonous but purposeful beat. This time, it was just before 4:00 am so I knocked on the door of the hotel boss and asked to be left out. I shoved a few quetzales in my pocket, but that was it. He told me that he wouldn’t answer the door until sunrise at 6:00 am so I was on my own for over two hours.
First a bit of history. The church Saint Thomas dates back from the 1540’s when the Spanish Conquistadores subjugated the QUiche Maya with the help of the Cakichtel Maya. Since then, the Quiche have integrated catholicism with their own religion to form a unique blend of ceremony. Every Sunday, the Quiche march to church with their crosses signifying a patron saint in 14 differnt brotherhoods or “cofradias”. These groups are like the masons or shiners only a little deeper and religious too. During most days, the Quiches burn insence on the steps of the church, wear their native clothing, and carry shrines of their saint into the church where they festoon them with candles, marigolds and prayer sometimes right in the middle of a roman catholic mass. The center of the church aisle is covered with candles also over the sites where the ancestors of the Quiche are buried. It was this interesting ritual that I wanted to become more a part of and learn more about while I was in Chichi a second time, for Monday was All Saints Day, a very special day for the 14 cofradias in Chichi.
I slipped down the street towards the noise, remembering how the Quiche still sacrafice chickens at the local idol, an ancient carved rock called Pascual Abaj, just up the hill from town. Might this music I hear be the bellowing of a more sinister type of sacrafice? I am going to be the next sacrafice, elected through mere misfortune of being white and being in the wrong place at the wrong time? These maya are fierce looking people despite being short. With the repetitive drum beating and all, I bet they practice the pagan ritual associated with lowering themselves to another world, the world of animals and ancient spirits so often found in ancient cultures. There can be no other reason for the boom-booming retitiveness of the drums all night long for a second night in a row.
I spy two men having just finished washing at the local fountain (or relieving themselves) for they are stumbling (although notlike some of the mayans I had seen the day before, sprawled out in the middle of town streets sleeping off a drunk or in a total drunken stupor). In thinking of a greeting, I say good morning and am greeted with a look as if they had just woke up after a bing, but were more coherant that that. Not finding anything else to say, I ask them, unbelievably in perfect Spanish. “He visitado el mundo debajo?” Have you been visiting the lower world?
Before I was able to duck the spear that I was sure was aimed at the center of my strongly pumping heart, the two mayans replied, “Si.” “Yes” Good God, I thought, the answer was so fast and honest, my chance was here. So I took it. “Puedo venir contigo? “May I come with you?” “Si.” They smiled and took my arm more to be friendly than to have me help them guide their way through the door of the house where the music was emanating. I entere the outside door of the compound of the house, a typical walled yard, house with several detached rooms and a healthy sized courtyard. The beating drum and flute were being played by two men who sat next to a doorway that was lit but obscured by a screen of some local fabric, somewhat like a lintel doorway that I have seen in ancient Anasazi ruins in Southern Utah. I remember the lintel was said to be a screen against wind for the spirits, or was it to keep the spirits in the room? Ah well, I wasn’t dead yet and the man who dragged me in was pushing me towards the lit doorway past the troubadoors, who abviously thought the sight of a white person in their compound was odd indeed.
In the room, my inebrieated host told me politely but firmly to sit down and then to look at the beautiful shrine. The room was about 20 by 15, had a dirt floor but the floor was covered in pine needles. In the center of the room was a table draped in local colorful fabric with a structure of of some type also covered and festooned with images, mirrors, hand woven cloth objects, anything that would make it look real important. On the front of the table were 20 candles burning, a little alter for kneeling. An electric light hung from the top of the structure, just below a ceiling hung with waves of paper cheche cut outs giving the feeling that the room was actually cave of stalagtites. The chipping plaster walls were adorned with pictures of movie stars, a picture of Santo Thomas, and other symbols of Guatemalan culture. On the back wall was aglass case containing an efigy of what I guessed was a saint, and there were more indistinguishable important (for some reason) items collected carefully behind glass.
As I sat gawking at this cryptic temple, various mayans walked in the room, knelt at the shrine and walked out. My drunk guide, whose name turned out to be Manuel, asked me if I wanted to make a donation to the saint. Seeing that the importnant people were not about and I did not want to see my few quetzales go towards the next bottle of rum, I declined with the excuse that I only had a few bills on me and that I wantet to wait to donate to the saint.
When another man came in to pay homage, Manuel jumped up and grabbed the man’s attention, then his time to obtain a drink of clear liquid served out of what looked like an old bottle of antifreeze. Manuel handed over some money and politely asked if I wanted any. I declined, hoping that my explanation that I had just taken some pills for a bad stomach would go over well enough. I was dreading being asked to join in drinking some local firewater because I feared I would be drinking some hallucogen that would send me out of control in some abysmal netherworld where I would meet the necromancer of the underworld himself.
Manuel sat back and drank sips of his brew, which turned out to be trago, a local maiz based grain alcohol. After each gulp, Manuel spit on the ground and snswered my questions. At times, he seemed to lapse into subconsciousness (or was that a drunken stupor?), but he always was attentive and answered my questions despite my lack of ability in communicating to him.
“Do you have to take alcolhol or drugs to visit the lower world, I asked. “No he replied.” Whew, it looked like I might be spared after all.” What do you see when you visit there?
“My ancestors dancing, a party.” Like the daners in the square? Yes, they are my ancestors, the Quiche Maya. They were a very strong people. I am one of them. You visit your ancestors when you go to the lower world? “Yes, I dance with them,” he replied.
Any more questions I asked of him resulted in mumbling replies and a spit of alcohol. I feared that he would latch on to me in one final drunken lunge and then puke on me. I wondered if gringos with puke on them warranted spearing or even ostracization from the party. Although by now we were a party of one. Manual came to and began asking for the donation so I went outside and encountered one of the homeowmers sweeping up after what looked like a grand party. I asked if I could chip in and he got me a brrom so I helped. This made me feel much better that I could be helpful and they thanked me so I left. Manual smelled the money on me still and he followed me to the next party, which was two doors down the street. This time, the door was closed and Manual said we couldn’t go in. The loud sound of repetitive drums signalled to me that another ritualized trance was underway which Manual confirmed with globbering remarks. He had probably gotten booted from this party for drinking too much.
Still another party beckons up the next block. It is stil dark but this party is quite a bit louder. As I approach the coumpound door, large enough for a car to enter, into view comes a full blown 12 member Marimba band on a homemade stage complete with a roof, speaker system and other electronic equipment. More people are in attendance at this party and I stand outside to watch, listen and observe.
Fortunately, somehow, I have lost Manual and his requests for money which would surely go towards further inebriation. Unfortunatly, another drunk finds me. This one is named Jose and makes a great point of letting me know that his brother is the lead Marimba player. After a few refusals, I agree to join the party inside. To make sure that I am not unwelcome, I ask what appears to be the party host, an elderly man dressed in black, wearing fancy leather sandals and a hand woven turban adorned with braided colored dreadlocks. He invites me into the room again with a fabric screen that seems to have been the center of activity. This shrine room is far more ornate than the first one I saw. In addition, it is full of people, mostly young women dressed in native costume seated in front of the share. When I enter, again the only gring, they all giggle. The elder points me toward the shrine where I agree to make an offer to the saint, which turns out to be Santo Tomas, the most important saint of the town and the one belonging to the most important cofradias. The 5 quetzal note that I hand him looks like it was the highest amount given that evening and he places it in the arm of the saint behind the glass.
I sit down at the front of the shrine, this one festooned with about 50 lit candles. They give off so much heat that the paper creche stalagtites are dancing in their wind. I cautiously look up every now and then and have already planed an escape route for the time when they will ignite.
After some small talk, a local elderly man points to a young girl and suggests that I take her home to my country when I go. The young woman seems angry that such a suggestion is made. She is a little overweight and was probably rebuffing father’s intention to find her a mate, even a joke. Later in small talk I find out that my “mate” is fourteen and her friends are all thirteen to fifteen, and age entirely common to be married in Quiche Maya. After some coffee, I think, er, .. no thanks, and depart the shrine room.
The chilly early morning air is needed respite after my near betrothel and virgin pillage. I must warm my naked legs next to a bonfire smoldering in the remains of a fender of what looks like an old pickup truck. The marimba music is still playing as the sun warms the sky. Confident that I am welcomed to see what else is involved at these parties since it appeared like I gave a sizeable contribition to the probably now flaming efigy, I stride across the courtyard and per into a room that appeared to be smoldering.
The room is full of older women who are busy preparing food. Several huge pots rest near a very large fire, boiling. Two metal trays are perched above portions of the fire and appear to be cooking tamales as other women dice tomates for sauce, move other pots and pat out maize for cooking. One important pot the size of a laundry basket is full of a thick, white porridge that resembles lumpy creme of wheat, only nastier. A woman stirs the conconction with a broom sized spoon. They ask if I would like to try some and my mind flashes to the scene when little red riding hood was lured into the old lady’s house to eat porridge only she is really the wolf and wants to eat her instead. Smoke wafts throughout the room and soot adorns the walls as all the women are crouched on the floor preparing for a feast of some kind. Er, no gracias. I say.
Into the fresh air I go to catch one more wallop of marimba music before I go on my way. One of the elderly men goes into the cooking room and returns with gourd cup full of the wolfy porridge. “Try some atol. This is our customary drink during this celebration.”
I thank him and say that I will try it. I behold the handmade gourd cup covered with Mayan drawings and sniff the brew for toad’s eyes and puppydog tails. Since it only smells of bland maiz, I put the cup to my lips and …Later Note:
Without even knowing the significance of the public dance that was performed by the Chichicastenango Quiche dancers, I have come to realize that the entire night of partying is perfectly related to the dance displayed in public on Sunday and Monday.
The all night partying and drumming sessions by the residents is, in effect, a “priming session” for the later day’s dance. The members of the dance, granted, are acting out a pre-planned, but much of that planning has taken place when members of the Quiche visit the lower world and dance with their ancestors. It only makes sense. During the public festival dance, there were a few clothed individuals that would periodically reposition some of the younger dance members, partly because it was difficult to see but partly because they have not visited the real dancers in the lower world.
Without really knowing, I would reckon to guess that the Quiche use the night before all public dances as a “priming session” to reconnect with their ancestors in the form of dance in order to get into the spirit of the dance and to perform it appropriately according to direction of their ancestral spirits. Both nights I was in Chichi the night before dance celebrations, there was much partying, but more importantly, drum beating, in order to reach the ancestral spirits.
These are a people very much alive and in touch with their past, if not through a written history that was destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadores in the 1520 when they razed the entire written history of these Indians, through a spiritual connection through dance and custom.
I am mesmorized by the women patting out their corn tortillas as if they are beating to a rythm that only they and their ancestors are still able to share, but not of this world. Is there any significance in the look that the Quiche Maya, let alone all the Mayan tribes (Cakichel, Tzituhil, Mam, ect) give to strangers? They possess a particular fierceness about them and are not easy people to get to force a smile. I have only encountered such looks in people who I consider to be so detached that they are dangerous such as criminals, mentally insane or truly evil mannered individuals. Usually when I stare at such people, they either glare back with such hatred that I must look away for fear of being trapped in their world, or they avert their eyes because of lack of honesty or shame. Most of the Maya that I have met are the first group of people — they initially glare back as if in hatred, but then a calm settles in their eyes and they even smile.
It is quite well known that the Quiche support, although not overtly, the guerilla force URNG (??), responsible for beombings and political diruption. I found a flyer in the cemetary where I visited the Maya visiting their deceased relatives. The flyer was a URNG flyer decrying the miltary government’s abuse, corruptio and oppression of Guatemalans. For such a flyer to be present in the most serene and most holy of places, the place of the Quiche Maya ancestors was quite an irony.
Copyrighted by Josh Gerak