Holy Smokes

Trip Start Sep 15, 2010
Trip End Jul 23, 2011

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Flag of Guatemala  , Western Highlands,
Monday, April 25, 2011

As a predominately Catholic town, Antigua has been in full swing with Lent and Holy Week activities for the past six weeks.  Every Friday there have been church vigils and every Sunday corresponding processions.  The atmosphere is an interesting cross between a lively community fair and solemn funeral service. 

The processions usually last 12 hours and are a little like religious parades with two large, wooden floats.  During the final week they also involve elaborate outdoor carpets made of sawdust, pine needles and fruit.  Local groups take hours to build them even though they are destroyed within minutes as the procession passes over.

Although primarily a family tradition, I had heard that anyone can help carry the processional floats.  Yet when I first saw a group of women carrying one, I thought it would be impossible due my height.  A few weeks later, I met a woman at a cook-out who encouraged me to sign up and explained that I would be in the first group according to my measurements.  I was thrilled at the prospect of participating and wasted no time registering and finding the required black gloves.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into ...

The day before Easter, we gathered in the large church "salon" --  which was a really a hot, stuffy warehouse.  All dressed in black (to signify mourning), over a hundred of us stood waiting for an hour and a half as they arranged us by height. One lady made a huge scene because she was unhappy with her placement.   

As one of the tallest women, I was assigned the very last shoulder carrier position.  We silently entered the crowded church as the band started to play.  At the sound of the drum, we were then instructed to lift the float up.  Holy Smokes.  I knew these things were heavy, but even with 25 women on each side, I did not know it would be THAT heavy.  They say participation is penance for one's sins.  Apparently I had some serious debts to pay!

As we slowly stepped side to side, I was completely hunched over and starting to sweat.  Two steps forward ... one step back ... three steps forward ... five steps back.  I couldn't figure out for the life of me the reasoning behind our rhythm.  Not to mention that my headscarf slipped off three times.  All I could do was pray to God to please get me out of the church without making a scene or falling down.

Just when I thought it was almost over I looked up and saw that we had to squeeze through the main church doors.  What!?  I followed the girls' lead in front of me, ducked under the 3,000 pound float, switched shoulders and kept moving.  At this point, I was convinced we might get crushed. 

A total of 45 minutes later, my prayers were answered.  We made it to the street where the next group quickly took over.  Not only was I relieved, but I developed a whole new appreciation for what IŽve witnessed over the past few weeks.  The community effort required to pull off these events is remarkable.  I am confident I will return to Guatemala throughout the years, but I doubt IŽll ever participate in a procession again.
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