A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Aeren

Andas, Alfombras, Incense, and Processions!

Holy Week in Antigua

sunny 81 °F

All of Guatemala has processions during lent and Holy Week. I could pick up the Prensa Libre newspaper and check out the scenes from other villages and cities in this very religious country to see a montage of color. But Antigua is special. It is large enough to have as many as four processions on one day during Holy Week and small enough that you can actually plan to go see each one on foot. A necessity if you saw the traffic! I slept very little from Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday. There was just too much going on. So here is a synopsis of this very Holy Week... (Hint: I've prepared explanations on most of the photographs, so click the photo and you can read what I wrote about it!)


Maudy Thursday or Holy Thursday has been special to me because it commemorates Jesus’ last supper. Of course some people seem to forget that the last supper was actually a Passover meal. It is also the day that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Many of the churches I have belonged to over the past decade have adopted that practice and I find it a little uncomfortable, but then isn’t that the point? Getting outside your comfort zone and making yourself a servant leader was one of Jesus’ goals. So as Holy Thursday approached I wondered what I would do to commemorate the day. My host had bought lots of flowers the day before and we had done much to prepare them to make an alfombra in front of her house. I am a doer. I like being in charge, but here I had to be a servant. I had no expertise in making a rug especially one made out of flowers!

The procession was going to come by between 5:30 and she calculated we needed to start around 1:00pm. We spent the morning preparing the flowers for the carpet. We had roses, calla lilies, agapanthus, gerber daisies, baby's breath, The two coolest looking flowers were the bird of paradise and the palm flowers (known as corozos). The corozos come in a large pod, she bought five pods that were about 5 foot long. The pod has a tough outer shell that we used a machete to cut into. The pod splits and kind of looks like a boat. Inside is the flower which looks like something out of a science fiction movie once we are done stripping it down.

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I stayed up till 11:00 pm following the procession to try to see Vey's young housekeeper carrying the Virgin, but I somehow missed her. It might have been all the incense. Nonetheless, I got a very nice picture of Gloria as she was standing in front of the house. I did get to see the beginnings of many alfombras and I tried to make a mental note of where some of these were so I could get pictures of them before they were offered up to the procession.

On Good Friday I arose at 3:30 am; I really wanted to stay in bed, but I wanted to see the procession from La Merced more. It was worth the early hour and spectacular seems like a small adjective. I felt like I was watching a live play. There were Roman soldiers on horses and carriages as well as escorts for Pontius Pilate and Herod. I was unprepared for a scene from the passion play were Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate and he offers up to the people one prisoner to free, Jesus or another. The cries came out, "Barabbas! Barabbas!" and a prisoner was brought forth. He was told he had to walk the procession and then would be a free man. I had a very nice view of the procession exiting the church, but I decided to just enjoy it rather than fiddle with my camera controls in the dark to get a shot. After watching the Anda come out with Jesus, I set off to find some coffee and document some of the alfombras. There were so many! Everywhere along the route there were people creating rugs.

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After looking at lots of rugs, I headed back to La Merced to see the entrance of the procession. I mentioned earlier seeing the freeing of Barabbas; when I told this to my friend, she explained that Antigua at one time had a jail and the authorities would offer this "deal" to a real prisoner! This was actually in the recent past, she said the jail has only been gone about eight years. They never released a murder or someone guilty of a major crime, mostly people involved in petty theft. I don't know if on this day it was a real prisoner or just a volunteer, but I noticed at around 2:15 pm as he entered the church square and he was pronounced free by Pontius Pilate and he removed his ropes quickly walking off from the square not remaining for any of the other ceremony. The anda with Jesus finally entered the church square and it seemed bigger than when it left in the morning. I guess because I could see it better against the La Merced Church. This time I took several pictures to share...

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This was a day of firsts for me. I left this beautiful procession and walked to Escuela De Cristo to see their procession. I went into the very crowded church to see the alfombra that had lovingly been prepared and designed by the Hermandad. The man in charge of that alfombra was Enrique who is the orchid specialist that works for Vey. Afterward I walked down the street to what would be the beginning of the procession. This procession is very long because it includes the stations of the cross with cucuruchos pushing the each station float wearing black robes and tall pointy hats. They looked quite scary.

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I walked with the Iglesia de Cristo Church procession until 11:00 pm. With only 4 1/2 hours sleep the night before and being up since 3:30 am this morning I was fading fast. Added to the lack of sleep was the incense was burning my lungs. I felt a little drunk from all the smoke. I called it quits and walked home about 11:15 pm arriving at 11:30 pm. I gratefully slept until almost 10:00 am. I decided against walking with any of the processions although I did help to make an alfombra in front of my friend's store. The processions today were without Jesus. The Virgin Mary is taken out, searching for Christ.
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The procession ends up walking past Vey's house much later that night and we watch it again. It is still amazing to me the devotion there is in carrying the anda and staying with it. I end up getting to bed around 10:30 this night and the procession won't make it back to the church for another hour.

Easter morning comes at 8:15 am for me with the sound of my alarm to remind me about services at La Merced Church. I get there just before 9:00 am and the place is packed, but I manage to find a seat. All the black drapes are gone, replaced by bright yellow and white banners. The message is one that is being replayed throughout the world, "Hallelujah, Christ has Risen!" There are still even more processions today. I wait at the house to see it come by, the representation of the risen Christ.

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And so for me Holy Week comes to a close. I am happy, tired, and feeling very fortunate to have witnessed this process from lent to Easter.

Posted by Aeren 20:35 Archived in Guatemala Tagged la holy iglesia de antigua merced easter cristo week alfombra Comments (0)

Finishing Lent and entering Holy Week

How can five weeks go by so fast?

sunny 79 °F

Lent has continued to be amazing at Antigua. Five weeks of lent have come and gone so quickly I can hardly believe my time here is coming to an end. I came to Holy Week once years ago—and then only for a weekend. The experience has been profound and humbling. Week after week processions come out of churches with men called “cucuruchos” carrying a wooden platform called the “anda” with Jesus on one platform and women dressed in black carrying the Virgin Mary on another anda. If that were not impressive enough, there are children’s processions also during the week and they carry a miniature version of the Jesus float and the Virgin Mary. (Note this posting has lots of photos. Click on the photo and you'll get an explanation of what you are seeing.)

There’s a website where we could see the maps of each procession called www.i-n-r-i.org (I don’t know if it will be up after Holy Week), but it was useful to check were processions were passing. Below is the Palm Sunday Procession of La Merced Church. It started at 11:00 am.

I walked almost the entire route talking photos of the elaborate carpets that people were making in front of their homes and businesses. In some cases entire city blocks were involved. Palm Sunday commemorates the day Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. The gospels record the arrival of Jesus riding into the city on a donkey, while the crowds spread their cloaks and palm branches on the street and shouted "Hosanna to the Son of David" and "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" to honor him as their long-awaited Messiah and King.

Antigua on this day has an almost carnival feel to the city. Vendors work their way through the crowds selling their wares which include cold drinks, popcorn (freshly popped with a generator on the small cart), fruits, empanadas, and lots and lots of toys to keep the children entertained. That part of it seems surreal almost sacrilegious and strikes me as a kind of moneylender moment in the temple—but, people need to make a living and people need to eat.

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A polite, “No gracias” keeps the vendors moving. While there would be no alfombras without processions, I think the alfombras are one of the main reasons people have come Antigua during Lent. Alfombras, as I mentioned in an earlier post are made by churches and lay people. I hope you enjoy my selection of alfombras from my wanderings on Palm Sunday.

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The La Merced procession on Palm Sunday is large, but it was not the largest attended. The previous Sunday procession of the little church of San Bartolomeo a neighborhood just outside of Antigua, brought 100,000 of thousands into Antigua. That procession started at 06:45 am and didn’t end until 11:00 pm! I took a shining to a particular alfombra that week that I documented below beginning with a video:

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Posted by Aeren 09:48 Archived in Guatemala Tagged children religion jesus antigua saints processions catholicism cucuruchos Comments (0)

Making the World Better Through Music

How meeting the Juniata College Choir lifted my spirits

sunny 69 °F


I made a phone call last week to an old friend, Jorge Chojolán, director of the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy in Xela. We’ve only met in Washington, DC a few times, but he is an old soul and you can’t but help to say “old friend” when talking about him. I wanted to visit the school, so I asked “could I come this week?” He quickly replied that he had a wonderful idea! “Stone Church arrives today in Antigua, perhaps you can get a ride with them because they come tomorrow.” I met up with “Stone Church” at the hotel, but it really wasn’t Stone Church group it was one member of the Church, Henry, and the Choir of Juniata College. He helped to organize their visit to Guatemala. That Saturday night I attended a performance in Central Park and I was blown away. OK, I’m not any kind of an expert on choir music, but what I heard was great. I had been feeling a little blue, but these young people perked me back up. I just didn't realize how much more than a choir they were.

I recorded them singing Laudate Dominum and I heard a little girl in my row ask her dad “¿Papi, asi as que cantan los ángeles?” (Daddy, is that the way angels sing?) Kind of sums it up.

Sunday morning I went to the 9:00 children’s mass at La Merced and listened to the Choir sing two songs. It’s not normal for clapping at this church, but people did clap and clap loudly. What the choir didn’t know was that the cameras facing them with the technicians was actually broadcasting the mass live in Antigua’s local television station! So they are now celebrities without knowing it.

Around noon, I hitched a ride with the choir and we arrived in Xela about 4:30 pm. The choir went on to practice for a couple of hours and I met up with Jorge, Veronica (his wife), Laura (one of his four daughters) and Sara (a staff member from Juniata). We got caught up with what’s been happening at the Academy and I was thrilled to learn that they are now offering a full high school program and a diploma that allows the students to continue to study at University.


We left COFA (a Catholic Hospitality Center) in time to make it to the Academy by 7:00 pm. We were welcomed by Jorge and a large group of faculty, parents and students. They invited us to a feast prepared by the parents. What had been originally planned as a simple gathering for the college students after a long ride from Antigua, Guatemala turned into a full-fledged celebration replete with every kind of possible Guatemalan delicacy including Chicken in Green Pipian Sauce (which is long considered Guatemala's national dish. If pepian wasn’t enough the cooks had prepared a second chicken in red sauce dish, tamales made from black corn masa, rice with veggies, black beans, fresh fruits, and sweet tamales for desert! No one complained of hunger.


The evening was one of few speeches, but much fun. A particularly festive activity was realized when one of the students, Neil Donovan, pulled out a bag of balloons and began to make balloon figures. He was the most popular person in the building among the young and old.


The forty seven college students disbursed after dinner to play soccer, talk to children, family and staff. Lack of language skills did not detour the Juniata students from trying to get to know the people around them and everyone associated with the academy felt them to be genuine. Here are Aley and Lauren taking a photo with two of the mothers.


At the end of the evening, Jorge met with a group of the Juniata students who had prepared lessons for the next day. The classes included teaching: basic music theory (to help the academy’s choir), children’s songs, the physics of sound, sports, health and nutrition, psychology, and mime. The next morning the groups rotated through the classrooms teaching the lessons they prepared. The Juniata students were impressed with how polite and well behaved the children were but we were more impressed with how these college students had thought carefully about what to present and moreover making it age appropriate for each classroom. The children’s songs class had a particularly interesting time since they taught every class except one. Kindergarten students were taught a song about “Head, shoulders, toes” and some rhythm using clapping while fifth and sixth graders were taught “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in rounds and vocal exercises that morphed into a beat box with harmony. All the teachers commented that it was the most interesting classes they’d ever had with volunteers.

After a full day of working with children the choir made their way to sing a concert at Casa No’j Cultural Center in downtown Xela. The Miguel Angel Asturias Children’s Choir played two songs before the Juniata Choir took the stage which was actually the second floor balcony of the center. The video shows the two working together at the school earlier in the day. Here are choir members "helping" the children's choir with one of their songs.

The Juniata Choir played a one hour concert with five sections. The songs were a thoughtful considered mix of baroque, religious, spiritual, and a bit of fancy. We were all impressed and thrilled to listen to the beauty and quality of the music. The final song of the evening was a beautifully arranged piece by Dr. Russ Shelley, Juniata’s Choir Director, titled “Set Me as a Seal” based on the Song of Solomon. It was particularly meaningful in this time of lent. The audience seated in the courtyard below rose to a standing ovation in appreciation for the wonderful music. Best of all the concert was broadcast live over Radio Quetzaltenango!


Tuesday morning the Choir boarded buses and headed out to meet one of the academy student's family: Alfonso and his wife, Enedina. The drive was about 35 minutes away in the village of Pachaxk Cantel in Canton. Their son, Melvin, attends InterCap and the Academy every day. The family, like many of our families, live a simple existence. Alfonso said he and his wife never attended school but they wanted to ensure their children were educated. Their first son attended the Academy and graduated with an electrical degree and now works for fixing electrical equipment. Alfonso showed the choir his vegetable garden and Enedina joyfully gave a tour of her kitchen. Below is a musical thank you from the seniors in the choir to Alfonso and Enedina.

The choir then made a trek further up the mountain to get a view of the city. Below is a group photo from the overlook.



Over the next few days the choir sang at the Metropolitan Theater in Xela, an outdoor Amphitheater in San Marcos de la Laguna, a gymnasium in Panajachel, back to Antigua, another concert in Guatemala City and then head home.

The Juniata Choir gives me great hope for the future. These young men and women are not trying to become the next American Idol, they sing because it brings joy to them and to the audience. They are studying to be doctors, scientists, liberal arts majors, with dozens of other wonderful fields in between...and in the mean time they will travel the world, do good and spread joy through their music. And if their selflessness of spreading joy was not enough, they announced in Xela that they had decided to sponsor a scholarship at the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy for next year. Hallelujah!

Posted by Aeren 12:09 Archived in Guatemala Tagged children education students xela singing choir quetzaltenango Comments (0)

Visiting Petén

The ruins of Tekal and Yaxha Nakum Naranjo


This past weekend I attended the annual PAVA Foundation board meeting in Antigua, Guatemala. One of our board members announced that one of the people visiting her had fallen ill and was returning with his wife to the states. They'd planned a trip to the Tekal National Park in Petén, but now wouldn't be attended and couldn't get a refund. Unlike the United States, they could transfer the entire package to someone else for a small fee. I waited to see if anyone else wanted to go and by the evening no one else came up so I said yes. I had to get up at 3:30 am for a 4:00 am departure to Guatemala City.

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Without much incident we made our flight and arrived in Petén at about 8:30 am. Another hour of driving and we made it to the Jungle Lodge located in the Tikal National Park and a short 20 minutes later Arlene, Suzi, and I were out hiking the ruins of Tekal with our guide Carlos. Barbara on the other hand, chose to rest and went out after her much needed sleep. She's been there so often she could give tours!

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We walked through parts of the ruins of Tikal which was the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Some of the monumental architecture dates back as far as the 4th century BC. Our guide told us stories of the discovery of Tikal and the archaeological investigations and I was grateful for the reminder of the history lesson.


As we approached the Great Plaza I was overwhelmed by the size of the structures and the grandness of it all. It was my second trip here and it was still just as awe-filled as the first time I came.


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I wandered around the park exploring different areas of the complex with my new friends.

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We heard about another park called Yaxhá Nakum Naranjo that was about 74 km away (about 45 miles). We became interested since the it had been the site of the show "Survival Guatemala." Apparently, the show had donated considerable funds for improvement in the park in order to film in the park. I was quite impressed with the park and I'd like to go back.

Posted by Aeren 15:48 Archived in Guatemala Tagged tikal peten maya_ruins Comments (0)

Paxixil Library Celebration

"Fired up" to learn

semi-overcast 52 °F

The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.

Opening Remarks

Opening Remarks

On a cold Saturday morning on February 16, about 45 guests, which included PAVA Guatemala and PAVA Foundation board members, donors, and representatives from the communities of Panamachavac and La Loma joined the village of Paxixil to celebrate the community library that PAVA helped to build. Eugenia Minondo de Fairhurst, outgoing president of PAVA Guatemala began her comments with the above quote from Plutarch and whether spoken in English or Spanish the meaning was clear to everyone present. The library has been operating since late October 2012 and this was a grand celebration planned by the community. PAVA assisted the COCODE (Community Development Council) and the library advisory group to outline the presentation programs offered in the library (like the El Jardín Infantil, interactive story time, and memory games) and explain the use of the facility, but it was clearly the community's show. All were ecstatic about it!

Women's Library Committee

Women's Library Committee

Although PAVA has in the past built a number of bridges, several water projects and over 70 schools, this project opens a new chapter in PAVA’s community development. The library building is owned by the COCODE and operated jointly with the community advisory board which is made up of only women. Eugenia mentioned that in her first meeting with the community she wanted to meet with the woman’s group, but only the all-male COCODE showed up. She reminded them about meeting with the women’s advisory board and they said this is the woman’s advisory board. Realizing no women would be at this meeting, she continued to explain the operation of the library. The men listened carefully, left and then later informed PAVA that library operation would be a woman’s responsibility since it is an extension of caring for children. Male and female roles in this an all the communities PAVA works in are well defined. It has made for interesting conversation since at one library PAVA recruited a bright young man as a promotor (library promoter or assistant). The men in the village made fun of him because it was considered woman’s work even though one of PAVA’s two library coordinators is a man and no one mocks him.

Norberto, COCODE President

Norberto, COCODE President

The library’s unique design made all onlookers impressed as the giant colorful bamboo doors of the library were rotated to show a display for each subject on the program. Speakers presented a range of issues from the youth programs to explanation of cultural heritage. Norberto, the President of the COCODE, acted as the master of ceremonies introducing each topic as panels were flipped to show the display.

The highlight of the festivities was a traditional dance by the children that you can see below.

The community pride was palpable as Norberto invited everyone inside the library to see the programs in action and look at the panels close up.

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Lunch was a locally prepared feast featuring chuchitos (dough made from corn filled with chicken and wrapped in corn husks {which I did not eat, but everyone raved about}), tortillas, veggies and fire-roasted sausages. The meal was prepared by the Paxixil women with an assist by the community men who made a cinder-block fire-pit to roast the sausages. During the meal guests mingled and members of the La Loma COCODE expressed awe at the beautiful library and mentioned that they can hardly wait to start on their new building.

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Despite the cool weather the event was a great success. More importantly the young and old minds of Paxixil are living into Plutarch’s quote and are “fired up” to learn.

Posted by Aeren 18:56 Archived in Guatemala Tagged education pava libraries Comments (0)

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