Travels (inland) during the week preceding Easter, 2001: May 22, 2001
Holy Week in Antigua
There are a few land trips high on anyone's list of things to see in Central America. First and foremost are the many Mayan ruins spanning from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico through Nicaragua. Some of the most impressive examples are found in Guatemala. We were researching the tour possibilities to some of these when we were presented with an opportunity to see the world-class event at this time of year - Semana Santa, Holy Week, Easter - in Antigua Guatemala.
We had heard about the event from our friends on Pepina and seen their photos from their visit several years ago. The news we had from Barillas management was that rooms were sold out, no room at the Inn. We had promised ourselves that we would remember to schedule the trip when we were on the Caribbean side, then began focusing on touring Mayan ruins. But the family from See Life had done their own calling and had located a house for rent, convincing the landlord that a one-week rental was better than nothing. A third boat joined us to reduce the expenses.
Although there are buses that could have taken us to San Salvador for much less, they didn't start running soon enough. We rented the Barillas van to taxi us to the first class bus station in El Salvador's capital, arriving there just before they opened at 7am. We rode a bus that was truly first class, with a stewardess, free breakfast, beverages, extra big seats and leg-room, blankets and pillows and of course . . .movies. This bus (King Quality) took us to Guatemala City, a 4-hour trip.
The landlord and her daughter, driven by their chauffer, were waiting for us. First they took us to a shopping center so that we could purchase our week's supplies; a monster grocery store, beyond anything seen in the US. This place also included pizza parlors, McDonalds, GNC, banks, opticians, and other services just across from the grocery cashiers. After lunch, we split up into three groups to shorten the provisioning task. Soon we were back in the van climbing a mountain road to the 4500-foot elevation of Antigua.
Our travels that day gave us a broad view of El Salvador and Guatemala. Guatemala appeared to be much more diverse. In El Salvador, the most modern part is in San Salvador, but clearly just a token display. In general, there is mostly evidence of poverty; El Salvador is a poor country, still qualified as third world. Guatemala, on the other hand displayed a wider range of development, an emerging nation. There were poor areas, of course. However, the bus passed housing developments that could have been in California. Guatemala City had many modern buildings, commercial developments and high quality streets. The city is unofficially organized in zones; we were advised that zones from 1 to 10 were to be stayed away from. I am sure that those "barrios" would have given us more perspective, but we weren't here to judge, only to appreciate.
The drive up to Antigua took us into a whole new temperate zone. Pine trees and less tropical foliage passed by as the van climbed. The air temperature dropped too. The week we spent in Antigua saw us in long pants during the day, jackets after dark, wishing for parkas during the early morning hours, and a blanket when we were lucky enough to sleep. What I mean in that last comment is that Semana Santa is practically a non-stop parade. There were nights when we slept little, some days we slept with the sun still out.
Luckily, we arrived a day before the serious activities began. That day we trudged around, becoming familiar with Antigua, a town older than our country. Along the typical street the walls of one building merges with the next, whether a home, a hotel, a shop, a bank or a restaurant. For instance, if a home, upon entering it contained courtyards and gardens deep within the walls of the building. This was a new and very unique style for us. So most of the beauty that exists is not seen from the streets - it's very private (and secure). This old and beautiful town presented many photo targets and we noted lighting conditions for the right time for future shots. Antigua is a very photogenic town! Unfortunately I only had so much digital storage in my camera, not bringing the computer for up loads.
Antigua's reenactment of Christ's crucifixion is reputed to be second only to Spain's. Every stage, every step to the cross, upon the cross and to the cave was laboriously depicted and carried for miles on the shoulders of men and women from the many churches there. The statues were the most life-like we have ever seen. It was breath taking to see the whole affair in person. I am attaching a few photos, but can only use words to impress the quality of the experience on you. If you want to have a moving experience, come here once in your life! But I warn you, Easter in the US will never be the same for you. In Antigua, the quietest day of that week was Easter Sunday . . .
In general, on each day one or more churches within Antigua had a procession starting from within their aged architectural-wonder house of worship. The first procession we saw on Tuesday was one "float" carried by boys, followed by another carried by girls. Along the routes of all of the processions, people created some of the most intriguing, if not outright beautiful, murals with colored sawdust and flowers. Stop! I am talking about procession routes that are several miles long! These people would spend hours creating messages or art right in the path of the procession, hundreds of these murals. Hundreds of costumed men, women or children would precede the "float", not touching the murals. Only when the float carriers followed, the "alfombras" or carpets were disrupted, destroyed. Following close behind the last person in the procession, a small group of men with brooms, a skip-loader and a dump truck hurriedly removed the remnants of the artwork.
As the importance of the procession grew, so did the detail and quality of the alfombras. Friday morning's procession (Christ carrying the cross to Calvary) promised to be the most impressive. The Roman soldiers were to begin by riding out at 3am. That meant that the alfombras would be made between midnight and dawn. We hiked down from our house to the church and found the carpet makers hard at work already at 1:30am. We walked the route, watching the care and skill of the workers; these people were probably professionals, or at least guided by professionals. We watched art created, destined to last at completion only minutes. So we spent hours appreciating the construction of a few that intrigued us.
At 3am, we returned to the church to see a full Roman troop, officers on horseback, move through the city stopping occasionally to read the charges against Christ before proceeding. It was hard not to feel a sense of being in another place at another time. Jammed in the crowd, we saw many women overtaken with tears, the only other noise being the horses' hooves striking the cobbles and the trumpets heralding the "announcement". After the Romans moved off and around the corner, we hurried back to watch our favorite carpets being completed, huddled together against the early morning chill.
Finally the alfombras were finished and we tried to capture them in our camera. Then we raced back to the church to see the beginning of the special procession. The float was reported to weigh 8500#, carried by 80 men. The process of selecting the carriers began with the volunteers paying to have the honor. Then their shoulder-height was measured. Groups of 80 equally tall men were given numbered shifts. It was these men who preceded the procession, hundreds of them waiting their turn. In front of them were men with incense burners, the smoke making a virtual fog within the narrow streets. It was just 6am, the dawn quickly moving toward sunrise, as the huge float slowly moved out of the church. The carriers weaved from side to side to achieve a rhythm. Steerers at the front and rear of the float pushed back to slow the float down or to the side to turn it. As the float approached a power line, men with tall poles raised the wires above the top of the cross. It was a very coordinated process. However, even with the power wires, the whole affair still left us with a feeling of realism.
That morning the clouds and smoke that had hung over Antigua had disappeared, presenting the clearest of any day that week. We separated ourselves from the procession route to savor the beauty of seeing and photographing the volcanoes which frame Antigua. The last two photos captured what I wanted, before running out of memory.
We toured the churches to see some of the floats we had missed. Senior Sepultado (the dead Christ) statues were almost gruesome, with the blood and his severely lashed back. We were almost emotionally exhausted when we went back to the house.
On Sunday morning, we had breakfast at a rooftop table at a little family restaurant a few blocks away from the house, opening our Easter card from Mary and Karl-Heinz. The owner's twin daughters entertained us, keeping Cassandra and Geoffrey close in our thoughts. Later, on a whim, we stopped in at an Internet café and found a few more online Easter messages from Raymond and Bonnie, as well as Linda. Those helped us come back to reality, from a never-to-be-forgotten experience - Holy Week in the Guatemalan highlands, in La Antigua.
The Crew of Nanjo