Thursday May 10 – Chichicastenango
We connected with Francisco, our beloved and remarkable young friend whom we are sending to university as soon as we arrived in Pana. When we told him our schedule, he asked if he could join us for our day at the Chichi market. So when we came out to the van we had hired, there was Franciso to greet us. It felt so great to see him.
After an hour drive to Chichi, one of the largest and most famous markets in Guatemala, we enjoyed breakfast at a beautiful hotel there with a jungle garden and beautiful parrots all around on their perches.
The Chichi market is a riot of color with booth after booth of all manner of textiles. Fairly soon, we found the little ally behind some of the booths where Mayer found extraordinary bargains last time we were here, and there they were again, with the same women. They were totally delighted when Mayer showed them his photo of them from two years ago on his iPhone. – He and Erica were at it again, so excited at what they were finding. Me too, actually. I did not even pull out my iPhone to listen to my book! The fabrics and embroidery are so stunningly gorgeous. – It was wonderful to have Francisco with us, as Mayer could get his opinions and knowledge about the age, quality, meaning of symbols, value, etc. Also, now Francisco insisted on carrying the big bag of textiles, not a light burden.
We found another little back alley like that (we think the women back in these areas may not be paying for a booth space . . .) where Mayer found some of the wide belts he’d been seeking, and Erica picked out one beauty for me to wear with all white and only this belt. She is full of suggestions for my wardrobe!
Rain cramped our style somewhat. We huddled under umbrellas but then came to the (covered) booth where Mayer has bought serious antique huipiles before. The woman is knowledgeable and honest, and collects genuinely old pieces. After considerable conversation and deliberation, he bought two. They are substantially more expensive, but Mayer has clients who seek these special pieces and sold all the ones he bought from her before. He loves having them in his collection.
It was still raining, so we headed for the indoor antiques store. I found a sweet, novel Virgin of Guadalupe, but we could never agree on a price, so I left it behind.
These buying scenes are funny because both the sellers and we each have our secret languages. They have long conversations in Tzutujil (Tzoo-too-heel), the indigenous language of Santiago and Chichi castenango, while we chatter away in English, talking all about them (first we make sure they don’t speak English), and then we tell each other the results of our conversations in Spanish.
The rain stopped and we shopped some more. Mayer wanted two spectacular huipiles and bargained quite a while with a very nice woman and kept coming up toward her price. These negotiations always seem pleasant, with both parties laughing and smiling, and Mayer making jokes. Mayer knows reasonable prices and is secure with what he thinks is fair and still always wants to be fair with the seller too. He bargains with confidence. He finally walked away from this one. He’s quite happy to leave a piece he wants a lot, if he would have to pay more than works for him. – Five minutes later, the woman found him in the crowd and offered him yet another price, and this time, Mayer went for it. She wanted to sell and he wanted to buy and they worked it out. She seemed happy.
By now Francisco’s package was super heavy, but he would not let us help. We were ready for the hour van ride back to Panajachel.
Mayer was ready for a nap, so Erica and I went in search of the fabulous marimba players I love to hear every time I come to Pana, in one of the restaurants. It’s three sisters who play incredibly beautiful arrangements with enormous skill. They were not playing that night, so we went ahead to Mr. Jon’s, where we had arranged to meet both Mayer and “Sarah.”
Sarah is a person whom Clint met on his last trip here. He encouraged us to contact her. She turned out to be fascinating. Her mother is indigenous Guatemalan; her father is a Dutch Jew who spent time in a concentration camp. She grew up in G. and the States and has lived in Guatemala for 53 years. She has four children and a number of grandchildren, most of whom live together with her in a little compound on the edge of Pana. She looks about 85 with very wrinkled skin and awful teeth, but is 65. She has a smokers voice and cough. She is a professional tour guide and is recognized in the circles that count as the most knowledgeable expert on Guatemalan textiles. She is warm, and an excellent storyteller. We had tons of questions, and she had tons of answers.
Friday May 11 – Santiago AtitlÁn
We were back at Mr. Jon’s for breakfast, the best in town. My “eggs Hemingway” are memorable: poached eggs on excellent English muffins on salmon with a light hollandaise. Mmm. I can taste them now as I write. And hash browns as good as Mayer’s. Every meal is more wonderful stories, this time a few about Erica’s kids and her parenting philosophy: affirm them, let them be who they are. And she thinks us wonderful activates to do with them. She has a week on and a week off, so the week on, she spends a lot of focused time with them. She recently set up a camp in their back yard and camped out all week with Lou, cooking over a fire, stargazing. Sleeping out. Eloise had a lot of trouble passing her federally required exams to graduate from high school, and Erica cancelled two planned trips so she could be with her to help her with these exams!
We hired a private small boat for the 40-minute trip across the lake (so we did not have to come back at a certain time). The trip directly across the lake was calm with a light breeze and the views of the spectacular volcanoes all around the lake.
Maris, the mother in the family we love so much and from whom we buy our beads, met us at the dock with big hugs and then patiently walked all around the town with us. We found the best woodcarver in town and bought a puzzle box for Lou, one for Erica, and one for us, plus a decorative box for me. We toured the market and then the fascinating church we love.
From Previous Journal: The church was beautifully hung with drapes of fabric from the ceiling. Along the walls were saints dressed in drapes of Western fabric. The Maia don’t consider them to be dressed, even if they are carved with clothes on, unless they have fabric clothes BUT the fabric is Western cloth NOT beautiful Guatemalan weavings, because the Maia want to be clear that these are not their saints.
The front of the church had three altars, one for women, one for men, and the middle one. The middle one was destroyed in the 1979 earthquake and was re-carved, but the side ones date from the 1500s.
This is the only altar in the world with pagan gods carved into it. Maximon, the folk saint of Guatemala but not sanctioned by Rome, is right there in the carvings and also some other “folk” figures. The Catholics and Maia religious people basically tolerate each other, and the church is a blend. Some time ago, a new priest came and covered the whole altar with a white cloth. No altar of his was going to have pagan gods on it. Somehow the controversy went all the way to the Vatican, and it was Pope John Paul, who had traveled to G. and loved it He was here three times. He ruled in favor of the folk saints and the cloth was removed.
During the civil war, a beloved priest, an American from Oklahoma, was brutally assassinated. He arrived in Santiago in 1968 and was killed in 1981. There is a monument to him and other martyrs of that senseless war. The army came to Santiago and slaughtered ten peasant farmers while they were at work in their fields. After a few incidents, the army left Santiago and peace returned.
The Tzutuhil people came to this area in 900 B.C. and lived in prosperity and in harmony with the land until 1524, when the Spanish conquered them. Franciscan Friers came in 1547, when this church was built. It has been damaged by earthquakes and rebuilt several times, but it’s the original building.
Then we walked through the narrow cement walkways and streets to the home of Juan and Maria, their three children: Angélica 12, Maira 10, and Ricardo 6, Maria’s mother Dolores, Francisco, Maria’s brother, and Francisco’s girlfriend, Anna, and their baby, whose name is Maria Susan, not Susana, but Susan, and that is the name they use for her: Susan. I was very touched by this when Francisco told us over the phone, but to actually meet Susan, now six months old, and hold her, was a remarkable experience for me. I had a real moment with her, holding her and gazing into her eyes and she into mine. We bonded and I could barely let go of her.
There was much talking and storytelling and then Maria pulled out the huipiles she has been working on. New huipiles are vastly more expensive than the dozens of used ones we have been buying. They were beautifully crafted, with gorgeous colors and embroidery. I had been planning to give the family a gift of $500 usd, because Mayer had explained to them that we bought such a huge supply of necklaces from them last year, the we would not be able to buy any this year. Buying several of Maria’s and Anna’s hand made huipiles gave me a way to give them the $500 while letting us buy some beautiful huipiles. One of them, I gave to Erica because it looked utterly spectacular on her, with her perfect coloring and fit. – Again, it’s so funny that we have private conversations in English, they in Tzutuhil, and together, we speak Spanish.
The reason that there are mountains of used huipiles in the markets for as little as five to twenty-five dollars but new ones are several hundred dollars is this: Guatemalan women like to wear new huipiles. They do not value the history of a garment, even within their family. However, they will never purchase an old huipile because they do not know the “karma” (my word) that goes with the peace. It might have been worn by a bad person. It might be toxic in some way. And they must wear huipiles from their own village. These beliefs, habits, and superstitions go very deep. So the old huipiles are available for collectors! And the women work hard all the time making beautiful new ones, mostly to wear themselves or to sell for expensive prices to others in their own community. All the women in these communities do dress beautifully, with an eye-dazzling huipile, a “corte” (long piece of fabric hand woven on a large pedal loom and wrapped around them) and a wide decorative belt. Many of the men, and an occasional teenager, wear tee shirts (sad to see), but the women are all in this gorgeous attire.
Next we went to the tiny room next door, just big enough for Francisco’s loom, where Francisco demonstrated his weaving. About six years ago, he taught himself this complicated skill by watching other weavers and built his own loom. It takes three days to weave the warp threads through the combs on the loom to set up to weave a piece. The small, intricate patters, including important Maya symbols, are all al result of the way the thread is dyed before the weaving begins. He winds the cotton thread around a large frame and then ties it off in certain patterns before he dyes it. The tied portions do not accept the dye. Then when he weaves a thread though the warp threads, on a shuttle, he has to line it up perfectly with the one he just wove to create the pattern. It’s mind boggling.
Men weave on these large looms and weave mostly the large corte’s for women’s skirts. Women weave the huipiles, much smaller pieces of fabrich, using a back-strap loom.
Francisco is such a present, mature, warm, and bright person! He gets up at 4 AM every day and fishes from 4 to 8. He sells his fish to vendors in the market. Then he weaves from about 9 to 1. And then he studies all afternoon. He attends university on Saturday’s only. Next year it will be Sundays’ also. His degree will take seven years. He is studying to be a teacher and also a school counselor. He is taking the psychology lessons separately from the regular curriculum.
Later when I got him by himself, I asked him how his relationship with Anna was going. (She was very shy and, after we met her, retreated to the back rooms and was not part of the jovial family conversations.) He said, “We are building our relationship day by day.” I asked if they were planning to marry, and he said, “No.” They met at church. They are both Catholic. I’m afraid he just got her pregnant. But she does live at the house with him and his family. – All these indigenous are devout Catholics – except the ones who have been evangelized by born-again missionaries. We did not see much evidence of that on this trip. In the church, quite a few people were kneeling at the altar, crossing themselves, and praying.
Now Juan and Ricardo put us in two tuk-tuks and took us to the shrine of Maximon.
From a Previous Journal: Them we got a tuk tuk and Juan took us to see the shrine of Maximon, the Guatemalan folk saint. They move the sanctuary/shrine every year to honor difference neighborhoods, and they had just moved the shrine yesterday! It was a room of a small compound, someone’s home. There sat Maximon, seated, but covered with layers and layers of silk ties. People bring silk ties as an offering. They have to bring twelve. He was basically a wood carved mask on top of a garment made of these ties. They change the wood mask every fifteen days. In front were many candles. About five men were seated around. They politely answered our questions. Over to the side were statues of three Christian saints, and a life-size sepulcher with Christ lying in there. On the other side was a beautiful colonial trunk that Mayer eyed enviously. They told us all of these things always travel with Maximon, and the trunk contained all his necessary appurtenances. We stayed and took in the scene and the healing energy. – This is the main shrine of Maximon in Guatemala.
We also visited their local shrine to Santiago, patron saint of this town (named Santiago Atitlan) (and also of Spain and of many towns in Mexico. Saint James. He vanquished the last of the Moors from Sothern Spain.)
Now we took our tuk-tuks to Posada Santiago, a beautiful hotel owned by Americans David and Lisa. David (close friend of Ernesto) met Lisa in San Miguel. We hoped to connect with them but were not successful. They are in town, but are otherwise occupied. Too bad we did not give them more warning. But we all went down to the lovely pavilion on the water and together enjoyed chips and dips and a variety of liquados: Juan and Maria, Francisco, Maira, darling little Ricardo, and us. All this time, Angelica was at school, and we never got to see her.
Juan and Francisco tuk tuk and walked us back to our boat and there were loving good-byes. “Estamos in contacto!”
After the fun boat ride back to Pana, dinner was at Guambio, where I enjoyed tilapia and Mayer and Erica had steak. Erica: “I love meat!” The waiter was funny! The music was a woman with a lovely voice and a guy on a keyboard singing songs like, “Fly me to the Moon.” Lovely! – Walking back to the hotel, we patronized the pie lady, always there with her booth on the street with a variety of delicious pies. She is obese! and very sweet, and her pies are great. She has become an annual ritual for us.
Saturday, May 12
Breakfast was at the Deli in a truly beautiful jungle garden, but the eggs benedict only made me long for the ones at Mr. Jon’s. But Mayer loved his banana pancakes. We had to spend some time packing up the duffle bags with all the textiles. Erica had eyed a stand with barbecues chorizo where we had a snack.
Sarah had invited us to drop by her compound on the edge of town, so we headed over there, and she was happy to see us.
Her compound was large but pretty scuzzy. The buildings were sloppy and dirty, totally unorganized with old hippy, dirty furniture. We met several family members including a totally darling grandchild about six, named Hailey, who kept asking Sarah for various kinds of help (finding something in the kitchen, buckling her shoes). Sarah was sweet and patient with her. Hailey is fully tri lingual with English, Spanish, ad the local language of Panajachel (different from the one in Santiago): Chatchequel. We had a long conversation with Sarah in what passed for a living room. She is extremely knowledgeable and a real expert on all the textiles. Some of what we learned from her:
- About 30 years ago, computer designs entered the picture. Now, there are sewing machines hooked up to computers, and many of the huipiles are decorated that way (though the fabric is still hand loomed on back strap looms, mostly.) Indigenous women will not wear old huipiles because they do not know what spirit might abide in them. They want new ones, and these machine embroidered ones are ones they can afford. Many huipiles are still hand emproidered, but the new ones are very expensive and most indigenous women cannot afford them.
- There is no domestic silk. Very little real silk is used in the textiles. Sometimes a garment may be embroidered in pure silk, but the fabric will not be silk (even though people tell us, this is a silk huipile.) They use “Aleman cotton,” which is half cotton and half bamboo. It is very soft and beautiful. What people say is silk is actually rayon, and may be a synthetic rayon. The brand name is “Arteseda” or Art Silk. So people may not actually be lying to us when they say it is silk. It is in fact “art silk” or rayon.
- Sarah does not believe that all the dyes the collective uses are from natural sources, as Juana told us. She said she’s sure they use some commercial dyes. We would be disappointed if this is true, since Juana went to some length to tell us what colors came from what natural sources. Yellow she said was from carrot and a flower. But Sarah said, “Carrot is a very unstable, fugitive dye and won’t last long at all. It will disappear in the first few washes.
- Weaving in Guatemala and among the Maya goes back 10,000 years.
- A woman named Sarenda Balaskas started the beading industry in Santiago. She came here as a hippy in the 60s and taught a few women to bead. Two of her beaders were murdered during the Civil War, so she left. She returned after the war in the 80s, and continued to teach women to bead. She brought bead suppliers to Santiago. She is still beading and now has 450 women working with her. They are not the largest beading group anymore, but it was she who got the whole thing started in the 60s. Amazing because now it is huge in Santiago, one of their main industries.
- Mayer and Sarah discovered they have a mutual friend in Jane Minsk, whom Mayer met when she sold huipiles at the Ashby Flea Market in Berkeley.
- During the war, there was a meat embargo, so people ate deer, and wiped them out. There are no deer in Guatemala any more.
For dinner, we returned to the beautiful Japanese restaurant, Hana, with lovely classical music in the background. After dinner, we went up to see if the women were playing marimbas, but again, they were not there.
Sunday, May 13 – Van to San Cristóbal
We were up early to load our 12 pieces of luggage into the private van we hired to get us back up to San Cristóbal. We have to hire a private, as opposed to group, van because we can’t delay other passengers at the border while declaring our imports, and, we have so much luggage, we’d have to buy extra seats for it, so we just hire our own van.
We stopped for a good buffet breakfast an hour into the trip.
The border rituals took an hour but went very smoothly. We had carefully prepared our facturas, paid our reasonable customs, and proceeded.
Conversation in the van was lively the whole way. We keep talking about “the movie.” The book that I ghost wrote for Mayer’s sister, Phyllis, about Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking as a method of elective death in the face of degenerative disease, has been picked up by a producer who now has a backer for it. Erica’s boyfriend, Vincent, has been an assistant director in the French movie industry for twenty years. He and Erica wrote the screenplay. Phyllis blundered into a producer at a speech she gave, who loved the screenplay. We received news on this trip that the producer now has a commitment from a billionaire who will finance it. The producer is currently at the Cannes Film Festival looking for a director and distributors. We all know how fickle the film industry is, but this seems to be moving forward, and we are all quite excited about it.
We had a long conversation about the Enneagram and other personality systems and how the integrate and what number or category various people in the family might be. Fun!
Our hotel, HACIENDA DON JUAN, charmed Erica endlessly. She couldn’t believe how old-feeling and beautiful. We had dinner right at the hotel and headed for bed.
Monday, May 14 – San Cristóbal – Erica’s First Time
After our delicious huevos motuleños again, we drove the van to the big, colorful Santo Domingo market. Mayer’s parking spot, right smack next to the market, is always there for him, and today was no exception. Erica is so much fun, dazzled by the variety and she’s really into buying. – Mayer did some more buying: beaded purses, a few more pillow cases. Erica noticed some designs that he had overlooked and decided he liked.
We had connected with Clint and knew he and Blanca would be in San Cris that morning, so we connected up by cell phone and met in the market, so happy to see each other. Blanca is so warm and welcoming. We adore her! We did some blouse shopping together.
We walked the Andador (pedestrian street) and stopped for super delicious little pastries. Erica spotted a suitcase in a store window. She needed another big one for all she’s bought, and she found a perfect one. In the main square, in the kiosk, three men were playing marimba (we never did get to see the women in Panajachel), so we sat on the upper deck of the kiosk, in the tree tops, and enjoyed daiquiris.
Then we walked to the beautiful, modern BO HOTEL for a fancy dinner to celebrate Mother’s Day for both of us.
The walk back to the van was through the market with all the booths now covered with tarps, like a ghost town.
Tuesday, May 15 – Teopisca and Amatenango
We drove to Clint’s and Blanca’s house in Teopisca, about a 40-minute drive. It was really fun to see it. Clint has many pieces of antique furniture and lots of antiques and folk art, and the house is warm and welcoming. We picked up the boxes he was lending us and then headed for the nearby town of Amatenango to pick up all the ceramic jaguars from Esperanza Perez and the ceramic chickens from Albertina Perez. We loved the time with Albertina and her family. They have a large and tidy compound, a lovely family, and there was lots of laughing an joking. They had everything pretty well packed up already. Albertina took Erica and me on a little tour of the compound and showed us the outdoor stove, indoor kitchen, pomegranate tree, etc. All of great interest to Erica.
At Esperanza’s, there was about an hour of packing, and then we headed back to Clint’s for dinner. It is thrilling to see how happy he and Blanca are together. We swapped many stories as always with Clint. One of his this time was about a friend of his in San Francisco who needed to buy jeans for a camping trip for his family and had a lot of trouble finding them at many stores. “There is a real gap here,” he said to himself. So he worked out a deal with Levi and opening a little store called “GAP.” – Clint still knows this guy! (I think he eventually sold the store though, after he’d built it into a legend.)
An Unforgettable Experience of México