A Travellerspoint blog

Antigua's processions

An exercise in patience and prayer

sunny 73 °F

Years ago I visited Antigua for Holy week and I really felt it was one of the most reverent, spectacular, and spiritual events I've ever been to. As Carnaval came to a close and Lent began I experience the first processions of this year. The first official of lent was scheduled for Sunday, February 17 but on Friday, as I was sitting in the house I heard the moribund music of the procession. My friend said that's live music, there's a procession near here go check it out. As so I ran out with camera in hand to find both sides of 2a Avenida Sur lined with people and they approached the Tanque de Union park where my friend lives.

This was the scene as the procession passed Tanque La Union. I don't know how long this procession lasted but it was still impressive. There were lots of cars, motor bikes, and bicycles behind the procession and no one, not one person honked a horn. I'm sure they wanted to go around and some figured out ways to do that, but there is a solemness to this, a ritual that no one wants to disrespect.

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A couple of days later I was attending the board meeting of the PAVA Foundation when we heard the the procession from Santa Catalina was coming by the hotel. We took a break to watch. The first thing I noticed was the alfombras (carpets) near the hotel. I took a photo before the procession walked over it. The creation of these works of art brings great joy to the people creating them. There are two types, one kind is the one's created by friends and neighbors for processions another is created by the church for vigils.

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This isn't Macy's Thanksgiving Day, this is thoughtful, slow, methodical walking and stopping. There were men dressed in in white and others in a purplish blue carrying the various Saints, Virgin Mary, and statue of Jesus being flogged and forced to carry his cross. Why do these men and women undertake this punishing event? I asked one member of the Hermandad de la Consagrada Imagen de Jesus Nazareno del Perdon y Santisima Virgen de Dolores (Brotherhood of the Consecrated Image of Jesus the Nazarene of Forgiveness and the most Holy Virgin of Pain) this question. He said, "there is a strong tradition that goes all the way back to when the Spaniards first arrived and we want to keep those traditions alive. It is a great honor, it brings us closer to God to share the burden is a gift." The cucuruchos in ancient times were sinners who would stand outside the churches forced to wear purple cone hats (called cucurucho) in order to pay for you their sin(s). They suffered the cold rain, heavy sun and severe hunger and were often insulted by the passerby. Not even their relatives would visit them. This was the tribute they offered the church and community for their sins. As time went on they were asked to parade during Holy Week to pay their tribute eventually it morphed into it's current state.


Today the cucuruchos are not insulted, they are honored for their honesty in admitting they are flawed and sinful. The cucuruchos pay an homage to the church for the honor of marching in the procession and helping to carry the huge floats. The site is quite amazing.

Posted by Aeren 16:44 Archived in Guatemala Tagged religion antigua processions cucuruchos Comments (0)


Fat Tuesday in Guatemala

sunny 68 °F

Carnaval is truly a party. From early hours on Tuesday morning I could hear loud speakers from several directions playing music. Vey, my hostess, told me that she has the "pleasure" of having four schools within on block. On a day like today then you've got competing schools vying to make the most noise.


I spent most of the day getting ready for a board meeting and missed much of the festivities, but I found out that it's probably more partying than I would be interested in. The best part of Carnaval are the eggs. The inside is filled with confetti. As we watched the presidential debate last night the staff casually asked to speak with my friend, Vey, (their employer) and busted a couple over her head in the hallway. I heard a commotion and laughing but, I was intently watching the State of the Union. This gave Vey plenty of time to enter the room and break an egg over my head! Mega, the puppy was having a blast eating the egg shells. We had to put her away to keep her from getting sick on all the paper inside.


I tried to engage Lola in the festivities, but as you can tell, she is not impressed.

Posted by Aeren 13:44 Archived in Guatemala Tagged carnaval fat tuesday Comments (0)

Climbing Volcán Acatenango

The 13,000 ft headache

sunny 34 °F

I’ve always been fascinated with high places. Going to the top of the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, and skydiving. In all my times coming to Guatemala I’ve only climbed two small volcanos, one is called Volcán Ipala in south-eastern region of Guatemala. It was about a 1 ½ hour climb to get to the summit which contained a lovely lake called appropriate “Lago Ipala”. The other was San Pedro on horseback at Lake Attitlan. I think I like the challenge and the view when you get up there.

I decided on climbing with OX (Outdoor eXcursions). The tour was reasonably priced at $86 for an overnight trip and they provided tents, warm coats, backpacks, and sleeping bags if you didn't have them. They explained the trip in detail so I knew it would be a difficult climb, however, Volcán Acatenango was more challenging than I knew. You start at the side of a road and walk up past farmland. By the time you end your climb you’ve traversed four eco-systems: farmlands, high pine forest, cloud level and volcanic level. The first eco-system really took us past farms of corn that had been recently cut, and lots of snow peas, lilies being grown for the upcoming holy week, rows and rows of strawberries, and other vegetables I couldn’t begin to identify since they were just coming up.

It quickly became a steep climb and I struggled to keep up with the pace of the group. There were 8 of us with two guides and a videographer who was making a film to the tour company. At our first break the guide for our group, Mike, said “Let’s put you in front to set the pace. This isn’t a race.” So I began again at the front of the group. I was actually the oldest and smallest person in the group. The next oldest was a man from Canada who I later learned was a year younger than me and Mike’s father. The group was an eclectic mix of Canadian, German, Australian, British, French Canadian, and Americans from the University of Texas from the study abroad program who I had met at a lecture the previous week.

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As we cleared the farmland and entered the high-pine system the air was already thinner. I started to develop a headache but I kept pushing through not wanting to slow down the already slow pace but after 20 minutes I thought it best to take some of my migraine medicine. I had heard them talk about altitude sickness, but I really didn’t think it would affect me. Nevertheless, it’s been years since I’ve done anything in high altitude and it showed. The headache kept getting worse. We cleared the high-pine and I realized I was going to have a bad migraine. Mike offered to take my pack so I wouldn’t be weighed down. I took a second round of medicine hoping it would at least keep it from getting worse. At this point we were over half way to the camp site. It helped some. The headache didn’t get worse. We climbed and climbed. Pass the cloud level, which didn’t have any clouds today and up to the volcanic level.

What they call sand is lava that has been broken up by the winds into small stones. Your feet sink into it and it doesn’t feel like you are making much progress ascending. It’s an eerie landscape that reminds me of science fiction movies like the Martian Chronicles when they are terraforming the planet. There are patches of green that don’t look like they quite belong there.

We finally reach our camp site and begin to set up camp at the base of the larger peak of Acatenango. The view of the valley from here is spectacular. I am determined to climb the higher peak to get a view of the Fuego volcano. The winds are terrible have to climb almost on all fours. I can see the top of the summit and then sunlight hits me with such intensity that a color aura develops around my eyes. I am literally blinded, I close my eyes, and my migraine is back in full force. I can go no farther. Tears are streaming out from the pain. Mike comes back to encourage me to continue the climb, but I cannot. The pain is too intense. So my climb to the top of the summit is foiled. I am lead down back down to the campsite where my eyes begin to adjust but my head is splitting.

Mike tried to encourage me to see the sunset from a smaller rise to the right of our camp site but I had just enough energy to crawl into the tent. I changed to night clothes and crawled into the sleeping bag but the wind was blowing so hard and the backdoor to our tent wouldn’t zipper up. The wind whipped into the tent full force. My sleeping bag was rated for 40 degrees and it must have been in the 20’s. Fortunately, my tent mate had accidentally carried up a second sleeping bag and I opened it and used is like a blanket for the two of us. The group came down from the summit after the sun went down and I could hear them discussing how windy it had been up there. They asked me if I wanted dinner, but I knew if I ate it wouldn’t stay down and my headache was still intense. Around midnight all the water I had been drinking coming up the mountain was ready to come out. I had to choice but to leave the confines of the warm bag and venture out to the windy cold weather and I was so happy I did. I looked up at the night sky and it was glorious. Stars, millions of them, dotted the heavens. My astronomy skills are very poor, but I could recognize Ursa Major only because I’d been to the McDonald Observatory last year and I remembered the astronomer explaining the “Big Dipper” is the upper side of the Great Bear (Ursa Major) constellation. The rest was just beauty.

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In the morning our guides woke us around 5:30 am to see if we wanted to see sunrise. I found them huddled around the fire keeping warm and heating water for coffee and tea drinkers. I walked over to the east and got a couple of shots of the sunrise. I didn't remember ever seeing clouds pouring off mountains like these. Again it made the cold, headaches, and stiffness all worth it.

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Coming off the volcano proved interesting. There was a porter that had ridden a horse from his farm up to pick up the videographer's pack and bring it down. I walked back about half way, but I was still not feeling well. Eddie the second guide suggested I might ride the horse down. The suggestion was a great one. I mounted the horse and made my way down able to keep up with the rest of the group. It didn't have a regular mount and when I first sat on the cargo mount I kept sliding off. Finally the young porter said, "Let's have you sit on the hindquarter. You don't weigh much and I think it will be easier." Much to my amazement, the horse was fine with it and the ride was much better.


In Antigua it is amazing to realize that the doubled peaked volcano is the one I just spent the night on and that the saddle between the two peaks was where we camped. It is quite humbling. I think I will climb again even though I had such a terrible migraine. I just will start taking the medicine a lot earlier. The views from up there are too precious to miss.

Posted by Aeren 05:56 Archived in Guatemala Tagged volcano sunrise acatenango Comments (0)

El Jardín Infantil - The Children's Garden

Early Childhood Development through Stories and Playtime

sunny 74 °F

This morning I got up pretty early, 6:00 am to be exact. I confess that would be my normal time to get up back in Austin, but here I've been a tad more relaxed. The reason for my early rise was to go to Paxixil in the district of Tecpán near the ruins of Iximche to visit the library that a group of us from Seekers Church in Washington, DC, with friends from Texas, California, Colorado, and Iowa (you know who you are) helped to fund and build. The community library project is just another way that PAVA is moving with the times. PAVA has built a number of schools in the highlands and been involved in countless community development projects including building bridges, providing potable water, teaching sanitation and health, providing stoves, operating a bookmobile and providing scholarships. Education is at the core of PAVA's goals for helping the development of the highlands. While providing schools provides an important part of the education of the children it is not necessarily the community hub we had hoped it would be.

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PAVA hoped the schools it built would be available for use as community centers, however, there arose an unforeseen complication when the keys were handed over to the Ministry of Education. It seems the ministry's idea of stewardship of the building is to lock it up tight as soon as classes are let out for the day. This normally happens around noon, so the building sits empty the majority of the time. In coordination with the village Community Development Councils (COCODE) a plan has been devised to provide a structure that is the property of the COCODE, not the Ministry of Education. That structure is the Community Library. PAVA has been nursing these fledgling organizations in Paxixil, La Loma, and Panimachavac to name a few. The Executive Director and two employees have been working in these communities developing and implementing early childhood stimulation programs using stories and structured playtime. The Paxixil library was the first one built by PAVA and designed pro-bono by architect Axel Parades.

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Along the way to Paxixil we picked up Araceli in Chimaltenango who will be working at Paxixil today. The drive is pretty smooth once we get past Chimaltenango until we turn off the highway into the town of Tecpán. We slowly work our way through the town following the signs to the ruins of Iximche. A good part of the road to Iximche is unpaved, dusty and has a few more pot holes than I remember from last year. The community at Paxixil is relatively small, the first building we see is the school that we built a couple of years ago. We continue up the road to the library and although I've seen it in photos it is still surprising to see the structure. I take a moment to visit with the president of the COCODE and then set off to take a few photos. From the moment we mothers drop by to bring there pre-kindergarden children to "El Jardín Infantil" (the children's garden). It is not a garden of plants it is the name chosen for the program to work with pre-k children ages 3-5.

As mothers drop off their children at the library they may sign out a picture book for an even younger child at home. No one is left out. Araceli teaches the "promodores" (library assistants) how to create teaching moments in playtime. In this video you can see one of the girls teaching a preschool child how to count. The children attend from 9:30 - 11:30 am and the time is packed with activities. Eventually the library assistants will be able to take over the jardín and it will free up Araceli and the other PAVA employees to continue training other communities.


I stayed long enough to listen to Araceli tell a children's story of a seed becoming a flower. She is so expressive in the story and engages the children in every aspect. Keeping these little ones engaged is no easy feat. But with Araceli telling the story you never know when she's going to ask you a question or do a hand movement. It is quite entertaining.

Posted by Aeren 15:06 Archived in Guatemala Tagged education pava libraries Comments (0)

Poverty, Panhandling, and Pennies

Struggling with what's right

sunny 71 °F


Everyday I read a reflection that comes into my inbox from Trinity Wall Street. It's their reflections on a year of Radical Christian Life: A Year with St. Benedict. Today's reflection included a quote from Lyndon Johnson who once said, "Doing what's right isn't the problem. It's knowing what's right that is the problem." The problem for me is I don't know what that means when it comes to people who are homeless, poor, and beggars on the street. In every city I've lived in and visited there are poor, homeless, disenfranchised people begging for a few scraps from the table of life. Here in Guatemala it is no different. There's a woman I see daily on my jog who's lost both of her legs. I don't know what illness or injury befell her to launch her into this desperate lifestyle of having to rely on begging in the streets for a few coins from the passerby. I try to carry a few coins with me to give her and some of the other desperate people I see along my route.


I don't feel good about doing it. I feel desperate myself. What good am I doing? 1Q is barely 14 cents, it feels substantial in your hand but it's nothing. She'd have to collect 8 of those to buy an avocado from a street vendor. Never mind having a real meal. I've spoken to other people in the non-profit sector here who have told me that there are centers for rehabilitation, centers for the aged, centers to feed and help the homeless, but they are few and the need is great.

I had a conversation with my host's cook this morning about this situation to get a feel for her take on this issue. She's seen the same disabled woman I spoke of and she says that she feels very sorry for her. She knows an additional piece of the story... the woman has a child and the cook condemns the man who got her pregnant and left her in this desperate condition. She doesn't know anything else about this poor woman and explains she would never have the nerve to ask her, but she pities her and does give her some money when she has some to spare.


But she has little pity for others she sees along the street, the young mother and child begging for change when she is obviously healthy, the man who could use a bath and should be out working the fields, the obese man who doesn't seem to have anything wrong with him other than being obese and sits there playing a harmonica poorly all day long. Even in a country where work is hard to come by those that have work, any work, there is a strong stigma attached to those who they perceive as not trying to work.

Since retiring from the Army I've worked in two different non-profits that specifically serve homeless women and men. On one occasion we were having a fundraising breakfast and one of the men was giving a testimony of living on the street and his life now. He stopped and I sat there worried about what was going to come out of his mouth. Then he said, "I used to beg for money outside of the train station and people knew that I was going to buy alcohol with it and they still gave me some. I'm telling you don't do it. Give it to Friendship Place instead. At least we'll get fed." The comment was unsolicited. He and I had practiced his testimony and it didn't include this statement, but later he told me, "I felt I had to say it. They needed to know the truth, they don't help anybody by giving the cash on the street."

His testimony, nevertheless, does little to ease my conscience. I feel I have to do more. I've been known to buy lunch for a homeless woman and her children. Just as I've seen people do all kinds of charity on the street. Perhaps that's enough. Perhaps getting a smile from someone when you give them a sandwich and a cup of coffee is enough. I have a feeling it's not quite it. Donors have asked me what to do when someone asks them for cash and I've told them, "you need to follow your heart." I just wish I knew what my heart was telling me, so for now I'll have to just keep digging for answers.

Posted by Aeren 16:28 Archived in Guatemala Tagged poor poverty homelessness Comments (0)

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