Sunday, November 30, 2008

Taking the chicken bus to a Mayan festival

After the morning fog on Saturday burned off (see our art film on mornings in Xela here), we met up with four friends to spend the day at the indigenous village San Andres Xecul (shea-kool) for its annual festival.

After meeting Ben, Krista, Kelsey and Tom outside our Spanish language school ICA in Quetzaltenango, we walked north to find a 'chicken bus' that could take us to Xecul. It turns out that old school buses don't die, they just get shipped to Guatemala and converted for use as public transportation. The conversion process includes a custom paint job, a booming sound system and pimped out accessories such as an air horn and a Mercedes logo mounted on the grill.

Bus drivers work in tandem with an ayudante, or helper. The ayudante seems to magically float on, around, and on top of the chicken bus. At one moment he is collecting our 3 Quetzales (0.40 USD) fare, the next he is weaving his way through the throngs of people to hang out the front door and shout out the bus destination. As the bus slowly winds through small towns, the ayudante will jump out and ply the streets for more customers, then run and jump back onto the moving bus a few blocks later to squeeze people into the seats and aisle to maximize the amount of passengers the bus can carry. If you get on the bus with more chickens than can fit on your lap, the ayudante will lug your package to the top of the bus, then swing into the bus through the back emergency exit door as the bus rolls down the road.

Walking several dusty blocks to the chaotic central bus station of Xela, buses sped past us honking as the ayudante hung precariously from the open door shouting the bus destination. As our group of six tall, fair foreigners arrived in the central bus terminal, we were immediately swarmed with people offering rides. Every bus is named, usually after the driver's daughter or mother, and the bus we boarded for the trip was named Graciella. Men and children selling sweets, ice cream, and what looked like jello shots made their way through the bus shouting their wares and prices. The bus was packed full, with three people to a seat and standing room only in the aisle, but as usual the ayudante somehow made his way through to collect the fares. After a bumpy 20 minute ride we arrived at the dusty crossroads of Morales, and the ayudante waved us off the bus toward a waiting bus for San Andres Xecul. This bus sped up through fields and farms to the deforested hills surrounding Xecul, blaring its horn at every passing vehicle.

We arrived in Xecul as the marimba orchestra was testing the decibal limits of the band's wall of speakers. Vendors crowded the narrow streets selling baskets, sugar cane, sweet bread, handmade candies, and the typical assortment of cheap trinkets found at many county fairs in the US. We headed uphill to the hallucinogenic church dome that poked above the surrounding cement buildling. Painted circus red, yellow, and blue and adorned with grinning cherubs, dancing tigers, and climbing vines, this church faced the central plaza and ground zero for the fair.
Rickety faded amusement park rides that I imagine had their heyday in the US in the 1940s were set up in the central square, and filled with shouting children wearing multicolored traditional clothing of the local indigenous people. This was a green fair: all of these rides were hand powered by men heaving levers or simply pushing the rides to keep them moving. After losing a couple of quetzales trying to land a coin on plates floating in a kiddie pool to win a soda, we headed to the church to see if the décor inside matched the outside. Neon lights illuminated the central altar, and hundreds of candles were burning as women prayed and children sat quietly. While we could still feel the pumping bass of the marimba band coming from outside, the relatively quiet church was a welcome break.

Back in the central plaza, following a speech of mixed Spanish and K’iche (the local Mayan language) and some earsplitting fireworks, a crowd gathered around a roped-off area. Three men adorned in sparkling costumes and wearing freaky masks (we think they represented Spanish conquistadors) began to dance haltingly back and forth as the crowd watched. Larger groups of dancers dressed in black and white bedazzled monkey costumes, or yellow and black spotted tiger costumes made their way into the roped-off area and danced as a group. They jumped forwards and backwards, hoping from one foot to the other, facing each of the 4 cardinal directions, before bowing to the crowd. Over and over, individual dancers faced the crowd, shook their rattle and beat their whip on the ground, then stood still while cupping their hand to their ear. After watching for about an hour, we headed back down the hill to catch another chaotic yet entertaining bus back to Xela (click here for a video of our day in Xecul). While we enjoyed the chicken bus experience, it made us appreciate having a our own car for transportation. We couldn’t imagine riding for 6 hours packed into the back of cramped school bus on the way to Tikal.

Saturday evening Shirly and Sergio dropped the kids off with their parents so the four of us could explore Xela’s nightlife. This is our last weekend in Xela, and we are very sad to be leaving our Guatemalan family. We shared two pitchers of cerveza mixta, another Guatemalan specialty made from a combination of the light lager of Gallo and a darker porter called Moza, at Cantina Tecun. This bar is the oldest in Guatemala, and serves up some mean pizza. Sergio and Shirly wished us luck on our travels, and told us that whenever we returned to Xela we would have a home with them. They also gave us a bottle of an indigenous alcohol called Quetzalteca and a tablecloth. In our halting Spanish we thanked them for welcoming us into their home and family. As the night continued and the litros of Cabro disappeared, we listened to live music in a small bar as all of the locals shouted the words along with the singer. We leave the Castillos on Monday for two weeks of travel through Guatemala to visit Lago Atitlan, Chichicastenango, Antigua, and Tikal.
(Shirly and Sergio with cereza mixta, Chris and Kristin much later in the night with a litro of Cabro)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Just another weekend sitting in hot springs and working on the farm

It was bone-chilling cold in Quetzaltenango (Xela) this week, so on Friday afternoon we headed to the Fuentes Georginas, a natural hot spring high in the mountains.  A bumpy ride on a retired American school bus took us through the outskirts of Xela and into the surrounding farms and countryside.  We passed small produce markets of brilliant fruits and vegetables, women in brightly colored dresses tending the fields, and people carrying unbelievably heavy loads of wood on their backs.  The road narrowed to one lane as we climbed higher into the mountains, and when we smelled sulfur we knew we were close.  The hot springs are nestled in a narrow green valley shrouded in fog.  The hot water, naturally heated by the surrounding volcanic activity, pours out of cracks in the rocks into three pools of varying temperature.  The hottest pool became unbearable after about 10 minutes of soaking, so we retreated downstream to a pool that soaked away the cold that had permeated our bones from our unheated bedroom and icebox classes (see video of our trip and the hot springs here).  In addition to relaxing in the hot springs with our friends Tom and Kelsy (joydrive.ca), we also brought our friend Ron Botran.  Chris picked him up at the local liquor store during our morning break from classes.
 
(Relaxing in the hot springs; Chris getting our friend Ron ready for the trip)

Saturday morning we woke up early to join a volunteer project hosted by ICA, our language school.  For the last 15 years, the school has sponsored a reforestation effort in the surrounding mountains.  This project's mission is to raise a hundred thousand trees of local species such as alder, cypress, pine, and eucalyptus every year.  Deforestation in Guatemala is a problem as 60% of Guatemalans still use wood for heating and cooking.  We walked about 2 miles to a nursery on the outskirts of Xela with great views of the erupting volcano.  It felt strange to walk in a city past internet cafes and clothing stores, while goats are herded down the street. On the tree farm working with friendly Laura, her son Julio, and another farmer named Carlos, we hoed, weeded, and raked until our hands blistered and our backs ached.  Chris was especially brave and helped me pick the transparent finger-sized worms out of the freshly turned dirt.  We felt totally beat after only working 4 hours, but we were quickly reminded of how lucky we are when we passed city block sized gravel pits where all work was done by hand with wheelbarrows and shovels.  I think another trip to the Fuentes Georginas with Ron may be in our near future.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Beer with Santa, a chicken, and the Castillos


Through our Spanish language school, we’re staying in Xela with a great family. They really make an effort to show us their day-to-day life and help us understand Guatemalan culture. Tuesday night they drove us to the centro commercial (mall) so their kids, Oscar and Alfonso, could say hello to Santa Claus. Except for the people speaking Spanish and the security guards armed with shotguns, we could have been in any mall in the United States. After the exciting visit with Santa, the kids raced around the Guatemalan equivalent of a Walmart, pulling toys and dulces (desserts or sweets) off the shelves. Inspired by a package of marshmallows, I figured it was time to introduce the to an American specialty and bought some Rice Krispies and marshmallows. On the way home we drove by the giant arbol de navidad (Christmas tree). We assumed the 3 story artificial Christmas tree was paid for by Gallo, the Guatemalan beer, because of the huge illuminated Gallo sign rotating on the top of the tree instead of a star. Beer and Christmas is such a great combination. We were close to running away when we saw a man emerge from the tree through a hidden door sporting full black combat gear and a shotgun, but Sergio pointed out that he was just a security guard protecting the tree from vandalism.

(Gallo tree and the Castillo family)
Wednesday afternoon Shirly took us to the market where each day she buys all of her groceries. This was a world apart from the centro commercial we visited earlier. Most people in Xela buy the majority of their food in this open air market where the foods are fresh and less expensive. We made our way past stalls where men hawked pirated CDs and DVDs, knock-off Columbia and Nike jackets, and piles of shoes, socks, underwear, and clothes. Past the clothes vendors we shuffled through the crowds in the meat market where slightly bloody stands were covered in headless plucked chickens, and decorated with strings of fresh sausages and huge pieces of cow. We even saw some hooves (we’re not sure from what animal). Stepping back outside, huge cloth containers brimmed with beans, dried chilies, herbs, rice, and pastas. Women in indigenous dress sold small quantities of beautiful fresh vegetables, handmade cheeses wrapped in banana leaves, bread, and many fruits we didn’t recognize. This market put any farmers’ market (or Whole Foods) in the US to shame, both in variety and price. I think I counted over 10 different varieties of peppers alone. On our walk home we had a great view of Volcan Santiaguito as it spewed a huge plume of smoke into the sky. Later that evening Shirly and Sergio treated us to home made Micheladas, a popular drink in Mexico and Central America. An unusual combination of clamato juice, Worcestershire sauce, beer (Gallo of course), lime, and salt, this drink is typically consumed with bocaditos, or finger foods. The Castillos served us a can of tuna marinated in a spicy tomato sauce spread on saltines. Sergio especially enjoys Micheladas, and we talked about our lives while we listened to a CD of 1960s Guatemalan protest music. During some of Guatemala’s dark times in the 60s and 70s, people would be killed for singing or listening to this music:


‘No basta rezar hace falta muchas cosas para conseguire la paz,
Porque tambien reza el pilote para ir a bombardear a los ninos de Vietnam.’

It is not enough to pray for many things, we need to work for peace,
Because the pilot who bombs the children in Vietnam also prays.

Spending so much time with the Castillos has helped our Spanish just as much as the intensive Spanish classes we have been taking for the last two weeks.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Earth, wind, and fire (and god) on Santa Maria Volcano

This morning we awoke at 4:30 am to catch a 5 am bus. We arranged a guided trip through Adrenalina Tours to climb inactive Volcan Santa Maria, the volcano we can see from our bedroom window. Xela is at 2335 m (7780 ft) elevation, so it is chilly in the mornings and evenings, and we were warned that it is cold on the volcano. We bundled up in our warm clothes, gloves, hats, and long underwear, and started the hike under a half moon. After an hour, the sun rose and we were shedding clothes, throwing them in our day packs. However, as we continued to near the peak of Santa Maria at 3772 m (12,573 ft), a cold wind started blowing and a dense fog settled over the mountain trail.

 Three hours later at the summit, gusts of wind and clouds whipped over the peak, and we quickly sought shelter behind some rocks to put on every available layer of clothing. Crowds of people, many in the colorful traditional clothing we see in Xela, had camped on the volcano in standard tents as well as crudely built shelters made of plastic sheets barely held together with ropes and rocks. They were crying, singing, and praying while huddled in the rocks to keep warm. From what we could understand from our guide Yolanda, this volcano is a highly spiritual place for indigenous people of this area. At the top of Volcan Santa Maria, we had a spectacular view of the surrounding mountain ranges and the 2488 m tall active Volcan Santiaguito. This volcano is considered to be the ‘hijo’ or son of Santa Maria, and erupts about every 45 to 60 minutes.
After watching for 10 minutes, a stream of smoke erupted from Santiaguito, and we watched the growing cloud billow high into the sky. After 20 minutes of miserable cold and shivering, we couldn’t take the arctic winds anymore, and begged our guide to lead us back down Santa Maria. By the time we were halfway down, it was sunny and warm again, so we could better enjoy the views of the mountains around us, the farms and towns below us, and the wildflowers that grew on each side of the trail. Chris finally regained feeling in his numb hands and pathetically complained about frostbite. Streams of people continued past us climbing to the peak, many of them grandmothers carrying children on their backs or bundles on their heads, wearing beautiful indigenous hand-woven dresses, and hiking in heels and flimsy sandals. They really put us to shame as we battled the elements decked out in expensive Gortex jackets, nylon pants, fleece gloves, and hiking boots. (Click here to see a video of our day on the volcano)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Xela, not to be confused with the Warrior Princess

Through the ICA language school, we arranged to take three weeks of intensive Spanish language classes and stay with a local family in Xelaju. We met our new ‘family’ last Sunday night, and got to know them better over a dinner of steaming mugs of hot chocolate and sweet Guatemalan bread. Shirly and Sergio Castillo have been hosting students from ICA for several months, and they know to speak slowly and clearly so we can understand them. Their two very sweet children, Oscar and Alfonso, are 5 and 6 years old and enjoy practicing their English with us. After talking with the Castillos for several hours, our brains were overloaded with Spanish so we went to bed early.


(views from our bedroom window)

ICA places its students with typical middle-class families, and it has been interesting to see the similarities and differences from life in the US. While they have cable and cell phones, the Castillo home is quite small and simply constructed around a small central courtyard. The family shares one bedroom, and spends much of its time in the adjacent living/dining room area. The bathrooms and sinks are located outside in the courtyard, and both clothes and dishes are washed in a cement sink. Our room is upstairs over our bathroom, and is a large simple room furnished only with a bed and dresser. The water and electricity is somewhat unreliable, and taking showers in the chilly morning has made for some chattering teeth. Sometimes in the middle of the night we are awakened by cats walking noisily on the tin roof, and in the mornings by a wobbly recording of music blasted from a nearby church.
(views from our bedroom door)
Since that first Sunday night, we fell into a nice routine, and I feel like our Spanish has improved dramatically. We share a large two-course breakfast of a milky porridge and tea, followed by eggs, tortillas, and bread with Shirly and Sergio, and then head to ICA for 5 hours of one-on-one Spanish lessons. Heads spinning from irregular verb conjugations and loads of new vocabulary, we eat a hearty lunch with the Castillos around 2 pm. Shirly is a great cook, and we really enjoy the Guatemalan foods she prepares for us. Thick corn tortillas or crusty bread is typically served with a meal of meat, beans, vegetables, and juice. Some days we especially enjoyed delicious tamales, chilaquiles, or soup as well. We have been surprised by some unusual food combinations though. One morning I was excited when Shirly set down bowls of cornflakes instead of porridge for breakfast, as I do miss some simple things from our previous life in the US. I poured milk out of the pitcher and happily started to eat, but was quite surprised by the first spoonful as the milk was hot. In Guatemala apparently all cereals are eaten this way. Another morning we were served pan-fried plantains with a pungent Guatemalan cheese, which was an unusual flavor combination to say the least. We spend most afternoons drinking liquados, tasty milk and fruit shakes, or coffee in a local café with wireless internet access, while doing homework, reviewing flashcards, and copying notes. One afternoon we slacked off and took a trip up into the verdant mountains surrounding Xelaju to relax in beautiful fog-shrouded natural hot springs. After returning home at 7 pm, we share a smaller dinner with the family, usually consisting of tea, bread and tortillas. I think watching Spanish Nickelodeon with Oscar and Alfonso has also helped our Spanish a bit.
 
 
(colonial architecture in the parque central, Xela)
One of the things we enjoy the most about our time in Xelaju is learning more about how life in Guatemala has changed so much over the last 30 or 40 years. During the colonial period from the 1500-1800s, the Spanish enslaved Guatemala’s indigenous people to work the land. After witnessing the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Caribbean and other Latin American areas, the Catholic church approached conversion of the local Mayan people with slightly more respect and pacifism, and the Christianity practiced today in much of Guatemala is a mix of Mayan animism and ceremony with Catholicism. Society in Guatemala became quite stratified, with European born Spaniards holding most of the land and wealth; criollos, or people born in Guatemala of Spanish blood slightly below the Spanish; mestizos, or people of mixed Spanish and Mayan blood in the middle; and Maya and black slaves at the bottom. In 1821, the criollos successful revolted against Spanish colonial rule and achieved independence from Spain. This did little to improve the lives of the mestizos and actually diminished quality of life for Mayas and slaves in Guatemala. From the 1870s until 1945, a series of brutal, greedy dictators did modernize Guatemala somewhat in order to stimulate coffee production. However, this mainly served to increase the socio-economic, class, and race inequalities already in place.  Between 1945 and 1952, democracy was beginning to take hold in Guatemala.  Much of these reforms were undone as the Guatemalan government was overthrown by a CIA-orchestrated invasion from Honduras in 1954, after Guatemala attempted to expropriate vast lands that were being held fallow by the United Fruit Company. As a reaction to the violent military dictatorships that followed this coup during the 50s and 60s, left-wing guerrilla groups began to form. By 1979, Amnesty International estimated that 50,000-60,000 people had been killed during the political violence of the 1970s. The 1970s, 80s, and 90s were marked by military coups, dictators, and starting in 1982, a civil war between the ruling military junta and the URNG, a coalition of four powerful guerrilla groups. Atrocities were committed by both sides of this civil war, which ended in 1996, after an estimated 200,000 people had died, millions were homeless, and countless others had disappeared. While life in Guatemala has dramatically improved since then, human rights abuses, corrupt government officials, drugs, and poverty still plague the country.
(typical streets in Xela)
All this aside, the people here are incredibly friendly. It is considered impolite to begin a conversation or enter a store without first greeting people with ‘buen dia’ (good day), people smile as you pass them on the sidewalk, and Sergio greets us a with a hug and a handshake every time we see him. Tourists in Guatemala are generally unaffected by the problems that plague Guatemalan citizens, but we are glad to be living with a family so we can better understand their lives. Sergio and Shirly grew up during the civil war, and have shared stories about hearing gunfire around their homes, and seeing neighbors and their children pulled from their homes, never to be seen again. Despite that, Sergio smiles as he talks with pride about Guatemala, and says ‘gracias a Dios’ (thanks to God) when he discusses how his children’s lives will be so different from his childhood.
 
(view of our family's street)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Crossing Mexico's other border

We successfully crossed the border between Mexico and Guatemala on Saturday November 8. We spent the previous evening in Comitan, a town close to the border, but far enough away to be removed from border problems. According to the International Migration Organization, one out of every ten Guatemalans live in the USA as of 2003. Mexico is fighting the same losing battle as the United States in trying to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs migrating across their southern border. With more than 1/3 of the population of Guatemala living on less than $2 USD a day, it is easy to see why over 100,000 Guatemalans risk their lives trying to cross through Mexico to enter the United States every year. We woke up at 6 in the morning in order to get an early start, as it is best to be off the roads in Guatemala by the early afternoon. We arrived at the Mexican immigration office just as they were opening at 8 AM, and after about an hour we were back in the car heading towards the Guatemalan border. After ten minutes of driving, the road seemed to disappear in a crowd of people and crude market stalls. Not knowing what to do next, we drove at a slow crawl while unconerned people moved slowly out of our way until we came to an orange cone in the middle of our lane, and a small chain link fence extending from both sides of the road. A man in a blue uniform asked us to get out of the car, and then proceeded to spray down the inside and outside of the car with an strong citrus scented insecticide. I am not sure what I was expecting the border to be like, but it definitely was not this. Looking to the side, you could see cement posts placed every 50 yards up the hillside marking the border. After paying for this unusual car spray down, we spent another hour getting all the payments and papers processed for Guatemala. We then got back in the car and fought our way through more street markets. While it took about 2 hours to get our papers in order, passports stamped, vehicle import permit, and fumigate the car, in general it was a pretty painless process. It felt strange to be able to actually see the border between two countries stretching up the hillside.

(Mexican-Guatemalan Border)
A street market had taken over the main highway that ran through the Guatemalan border town of La Mesilla, so after a quick detour through some narrow streets that wound through small neighborhoods, we continued on the Pan-American Highway to Queztaltenango. Locals refer to this bustling town as Xelaju (shay-la-who), which is the original K’iche name for the pre-Hispanic site. The K’iche people are direct descendants of the Mayans, and they make up about half of the town’s population. They are easily recognized, as their clothes are a riot of different colors and patterns, but they seem to be completely integrated in to modern life, as we see them in McDonalds, talking on cell-phones, and riding noisy scooters around town. Xelaju is the somewhat gritty commercial center of Western Guatemala, and has a mix of beautiful crumbling colonial homes and churches around the central park that contrast with the typical cement-walled and tin-roofed homes of most of the inhabitants. The views from the city are shrouded in fog mornings and evenings, but during the sunny afternoons two dramatic volcanoes grace the horizon. We decided to stay in Xelaju for several weeks to live with a local family and take intensive Spanish lessons.
(street market in La Mesilla, Guatemala

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

November 4, 2008

Tonight we watched the election returns on CNN while simultaneously trying to follow the results online. We've had some slow connections here, but tonight it seemed like everyone in Mexico shared the same dial-up line. Our friends Kelsey and Tom, a Canadian and a New Zealander, joined us for the evening. Many of the people we met on this trip expressed intense interest in the outcome of this election. I am glad it's over now - the uncertainty was killing me these last couple of days. To calm our nerves during the early hours of the initial returns, we burned some candles and copal we bought in Chamula, a Tzotzil town near San Cristobal. These candles, sconces, and copal incense are used during traditional Tzotzil ceremonies in their church and on holidays such as Dia de los Muertos.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Party with your ancestors on Dia de los Muertos

We've been awakened by many different unusual noises in Mexico: braying burros, phone call announcements, marching music, and howler monkeys. The morning of November 1st in San Cristobal de la Casas, it was church bells and fireworks. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a holiday that has evolved in Mexico over hundreds of years, combining both pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions. Pre-Hispanic Mexicans traditionally welcomed the visiting spirits of the dead into their homes a week after the autumn equinox by building arches of yellow marigolds over the doorways to provide a portal for the spirits to enter our world. Food and drink were placed under the arches to welcome the spirits when they arrived. After the Spanish conquest, this pre-Hispanic celebration was combined with the Catholic holidays on November 1 and 2 of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, which shared similar traditions. These traditions have continued to evolve, and today people celebrate by visiting the graves of departed loved ones, decorating the graves with marigold flowers, pine needles, food and drink, building altars in their households, and visiting with family.

We visited the towns of San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantan, both about 3 miles outside of San Cristobal de la Casas, to observe their Dia de los Muertos celebrations. We went on a tour organized by “Alex and Raul,” although our guide was actually named Cesar. He provided interesting information on the culture and traditions of the communities we visited throughout the tour. Chamula and Zinacantan are both Tzotzil villages, an indigenous group directly descended from the Mayan civilization. Chamula is a fiercely independent town that has autonomous status within Mexico, allowing them to have their own police force and local government. Mexican police or military are not allowed in the town. They are very suspicious of outsiders, as they have been fighting to maintain their culture since the Spanish invasion and still feel threatened by Christian missionaries. Photography of the Chamulan people, the interior of their church, or any religious ceremonies is not permitted, but Cesar did let us know when it would be appropriate to discretely take some pictures from a distance. As we descended into the Chamulan valley we saw hundreds of families gathered around graves blanketed in orange flowers and fragrant green pine needles, playing music on guitars and harps, sharing meals and a strong sugar cane liquor called posh. Chamulan people wear the traditional clothing of their ethnic group: the women wear colorful silk blouses and homespun black wool skirts, and the men wear black or white jackets made of the same fuzzy fabric. Ringing church bells and ceremonial firework explosions echoed through the valley as we walked around the graveyard to the town center. Across a large marketplace men rang church bells, and as we neared the church, clouds of aromatic pine incense called copal billowed from the church door. Chamulan tradition considers copal to be the food of god, just as corn is the food of the people. Leaders of the Chamulan spiritual community gathered in front of the church, setting out lines of coke bottles filled with soda as offerings to visiting spirits. Younger men packed gunpowder into narrow metal tubes to shoot off homemade fireworks. Traditionally, cane sugar juice was used as offerings to the gods and to draw out evil, but Coke and Pepsi have largely replaced that as a more readily-available alternative.

We entered the church and carefully made our way across the stone floor, slippery with a layer of pine needles. Cesar explained to us that this church is no longer under the control of the Vatican, and priests are only allowed to visit monthly to baptize newborns. Statues of saints in glass display boxes lined the church, many of their faces covered with colorful clothes, so that the spirits of bad people who had returned for the day would not be able to look at their faces. People sat in a large circle around the altar in the middle of the church, sharing posh, sweet bread, and a milky corn stew. The altar was covered in orange flowers and surrounded by pine needles and white candles. These offerings are typical of many Chamulan ceremonies. Flowers are considered to be the food of God, and pine needles represent the people for whom the prayers are being said. White candles represent mother earth, god, and purity. Posh is often used in healing ceremonies to strengthen people and liberate their soul from evil spirits.

Afterwards we visited the home of a spiritual leader. Dried garlands of herbs and flowers covered the beams of the house and the air inside was thick with overpowering copal incense. The spiritual leaders stood behind a table draped in flowers, pine needles, and flickering white candles. As the musicians played an eerie repetitive chant, the leaders removed layers of colorful cloths from several crosses and statues. These cloths will be washed and used to cover the crosses and statues again once they were clean. Deafening explosions shook the house as men blew up fireworks outside. Small glasses of posh were passed to us to sample, which had a fiery taste like a rough tequila. Slightly muddled from the loud explosions and copal smoke, we made our way to the next town, which was blissfully more quiet.

San Lorenzo Zinacantan is a more prosperous village than Chamula, and their Dia de los Muertos celebrations are significantly more reserved. They are a distinct Tzotzil group from the Chamulans, and wear beautiful black cotton clothing embroidered with intricate turquoise, purple and blue floral designs. We visited their church, bells ringing, to observe their colorful altar with food and drink offerings for the dead. We also visited a family’s home to learn more about traditional Tzotzil healing practices. The women of the house sold scarves, table cloths, tortilla wrappers, and other handwoven clothes, all brightly colored with intricate designs. One of the younger women made tortillas in a simple cement room furnished only with a small table and a large fire at the center of the room.

The next day, we wandered over to the large cemetery in San Cristobal de la Casas. Dia de los Muertos celebrations continued there, and the graveyard was thronged with crowds of families. Vendors pushed carts selling sweets, soda, fruit, and chicharron, a delicious and highly unhealthy fried food that is covered in spicy chile and lime. Bands of musicians roamed the graveyard, stopping to sing and play traditional songs for groups surrounding their family's graves. Some graves were simple mounds marked with wooden crosses; others were large mausoleums with glass doors, altars, and pictures, but most were surrounded by families and decorated with candles, orange marigolds, and pine needles. The atmosphere was festive and celebratory, and we discussed how different their views on death and loss (at least on this day) seem to be from the somber atmosphere you would expect in graveyards in the US (click here for a video of our Dia de Muertos experiences)