Maya, Maya, Maya

Trip Start Mar 09, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Friday, October 12, 2007

I had a lightbulb moment the other day. To be perfectly honest, writing up the blog once every 3-5 weeks is a bit time consuming so from now on I'm going to write it bit by bit when access to a computer allows. Yes, I know it's obvious but I just didn't think of alternatives, OK? Hopefully the writing will be fresher too as I've become really boring recently, sorry about all those lists.

So last blog saw us heading up into the mountains, to Chichicastenanga to be precise, or Chichi as it's known. To get there we took 3 different "chicken buses" and it was such fun. Think USA yellow school bus which has been "retired" from active service some 40 years ago for very valid health and safety reasons and you'll have an idea of the comfort and style. A family of 6 is expected to use up only 1 (2 seater) space and it can get very cosy indeed for all of us. There is a reason why no-one stands holding onto seatbacks on these buses, the drivers, they're all maniacs and, I'm told, not averse to a few drinks to improve their driving skills. Maybe they think the religious stickers plastered around their windscreens are enough to keep us all safe. "I drive but Jesus guides me" sort of thing. Fine, but please, put your hands back on the steering-wheel and your foot off the acelerator! Overtaking only takes place if the bend ahead is suitably blind and the hill steep enough to allow the manoevre to take the maximum amount of time. All this excitement is accompanied by the ear-blasting sounds of the ilk of Whitney Huston or Celine Dion.

There may be a scream etched into this blog at this point as I've just lost 2 hours worth of writing AAAhhhhggggg. I'm off for a beer and I'll try again later!

Okay feeling slightly better now but I think you may be in for an abridged version. No cheering please.

I was describing the bus drivers in the Highlands around Antigua but lets not forget their sidekicks whose tasks include collecting fares and cargo storage. Not as easy as it first sounds. For one thing, collecting fares in such packed buses requires what could almost be described as crowd surfing. Secondly, most people's belongings, except for the odd chicken, are stowed on the roof of the bus. I was riveted by the agility of the sidekicks who can swing out of the rear door emergency exit, climb the ladder to the roof and locate the necessary piece of baggage while the bus is careering round corners at full pelt. If I explain what happened when we changed buses you'll get the idea of what an organised bit of chaos it all is. First we're shouted at that this is where we want to get off and we should exit the bus immediately (the bus has not necessarily stopped at this point). The sidekick swings himself out of the bus and up to the roof. We jog beside the bus and catch the dropped luggage before he swings down and shoves us in the direction of our next bus and its sidekick who gathers us up and repeats the sequence in reverse order. Two things you must remember during this transfer is not to stand anywhere near the exhaust which is belching clouds of thick black noxious fumes and not to get in the way of the man who decides to take a pee against the side of the bus.

So I try not to be boring and here I am talking buses. We arrived safely in Chichi at the very friendly and comfortable Posado de Arco. First thing we did was visit the square which is covered in market stalls and the church which sits behind it up a flight of 18 steps. While we were admiring the church we were approached by Tomßs who ditched his broom and uncovered his "official" tourist guide badge. No idea what the going rate is for one of those! He explained the significance of the different coloured candles set in various areas with the aisles of the church. Each area signified something specific like business success, good crops or good health. There was one very well candled spot which it transpired was for men who drank and smoked too much. I offered to light a candle for Tomßs as he admitted sheepishly that his swollen black eye and bashed nose was the result of too much drink. It looked very much like he'd run into someone's fist.

We arranged to meet Tomßs the following morning so that he could take us (at our vast expense)to see the Mayan shrine to Huyup Tak'ah. He promised us headless chickens made in offering for a good marriage (if they keep dancing after decapitation..the chickens that is... it is a good omen!)but we were "disappointed" and had to make do with less gory, if equally intriguing ceremonies. The shrine consists of the very old (possibly thousands of years) stone face of Huyup in front of which has been built a simple stone altar. These are set on a large, naturally smooth, stone surface atop a pine clad hill behind Chichi. When we arrived the shaman was preparing for a ceremony and ritualistically set a fire at a distance and opposite to the stone idol. He did this by meticulously laying a circular trail of sugar which he then divided with a cross to represent the four points of the compass. On top of the sugar he laid incense before using this to fill in the spaces. Next came the candles in various significant colours and sequence, the small sweeties, the 2 tins of chilli paste set at the rim, the chocolate bars and the bread piled at the centre. Finally he scattered an outer ring of flower petals and sprinkled everything with water before setting it alight. We made sure we stepped back well before the cans exploded...a sign of a good ceremony!

During all this the shaman was praying and consulting a couple of well-worn books, one of which was the Mayan calendar. the altar, a young man was also lighting candles (green for success in business) and paying his respects. He was followed by a young couple (no chickens) and their baby and toddler. The young husband set a fire similar to the shaman's but concentrating on white, yellow and red candles which is to say he was ensuring a happy marriage. Everyone was dressed in everyday clothes, the shaman and the other men in western style and the woman in the traditional dress of this area which is very lovely.

We did see more outlandish garb at the Sunday market where there was vast excitement and hullabaloo created not just by the crowds of stallholders and customers but by the procession of plaster saints and followers that descended the church steps and wound round the market in great style. The spectacle was made all the more memorable by the loud explosions from huge bangers set off in scaffolding pole footings. The dense smoke from these mingled with the heavy smell of incense from the swinging burners to smart the eyes and catch in the throat.

Another chicken bus and a motor launch saw us arriving at another little bit of paradise called the Casa del Mundo in Jaibalito on Lago de AtitlÓn. The lake or "caldera" was formed when the cone of a volcano collapsed. Luckily three other volcanoes remain to provide a dramatic backdrop, although, to be perfectly honest, the cloud base was so low most of our stay that we only got the full effect infrequently. While there I did some swimming and Dave did some hammocking (he's a natural). We also walked along the hillside to 2 neighbouring villages which was enjoyable and took a launch to another village across the lake to visit Maxim˛n which was weird.

Now, Maxim˛n has a bit of a personality disorder in that he combines the Spanish San Simon as well as the Mayan Ry Laj Man to name but 2 others. In Santiago AtitlÓn he was being housed by a village elder or "cofradia", each year they take turns to have that honour. We found him with the aid of an angelic-faced, barefooted little boy who took us down a partly cobbled, partly puddle potted alley, across a derelict courtyard and through a low, dark doorway into a small smoke filled room. Here a middle-aged man was performing some sort of ceremony involving another man and his black fedora hat which was very similar to the hat Maxim˛n was wearing. The solemn proceedings were watched over by an elderly couple seated on a wooden bench against the wall, a cigarette smoking gent by a table and Maxim˛n himself looking quite disdainful and aloof as a cigarette smouldered between his wooden lips. Once the supplicant had finished kissing NSE and W on his hat, it was placed briefly on top of Maxim˛n┤s and then I was allowed to make my offering, 15 Quetzales and a Marlboro Light (where'd that come from?). Very weird.

We're now in Flores having spent the night in Tikal last night. Tikal is a vast Mayan site with temples, pyramids and palaces struggling to keep their heads above the encroaching jungle and it's quite wonderful. We arrived early yesterday after an overnight bus from Guatemala City and immediately set off with a guide to explore. It was hot, damn hot, but dashing Dave managed to climb quite a few pyramids and I managed 1 too which offered spectacular views over the jungle canopy with the tops of beautiful ruins peeping through. We saw some Spider monkeys and heard about other more exciting sightings. We were told that dawn offered the best chance to see all sorts of creatures and duly booked for a Sunrise Tour. Yesterday afternoon it rained and rained but we'd had a wonderful morning and were optomisitic about this morning. Unfortunately it was still raining at 4am and we had to abandon the idea. I'm sure there will be more opportunities although seeing the animals in that setting would have been spectacular.

Tomorrow we leave for Belize and then it's on to Mexico. I'll write again at the end of the month before we head off to Japan.

Lots of love to all
Dave and Joyce
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