Monday, April 27, 2009

Semana Santa, Rambo and The Quilters

Semana Santa

Holy week, Semana Santa, is the largest religious holiday in Guatemala which leads up to Easter Sunday. From the famed religious processions in Antigua, to the beautiful alfombra ( rugs) people make in the street with dyed sawdust, it’s a week of relaxation and celebration with family and friends; not to mention a bunch of religulousness but most of you know how I feel about that anyway so I’ll spare you the soapbox speech just this once.

I remained in my site as the office was closed and I felt it important to spend the holiday in my community as a way to further integrate. I was in Antigua the week before the holiday and participated in a pre-Semana Santa procession where hundreds were present. Truth be told I was on the way to a pub and I could only get there by marching in the procession with hundreds of others. I can only imagine how crowded it gets during holy week.

On holy Friday the team in the planning office and I made an alfombra in front of the municipal building. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed the 5 hours together before the procession came and trampled our creation on their way to the church; as is the tradition. It’s similar to a Tibetan mandala only the alfombras are much less complicated and don’t require nearly as much time to make. But making something only to quickly destroy it is the shared commonality.

Rambo and the Quilters

A good buddy from Colorado, Steve, is the co-owner of a travel company and he recently brought a group of quilting enthusiasts from the U.S. to Guatemala where they experienced one of the country’s finest attributes – its textile history. There are literally thousands of different traditional outfits worn by both Mayan women and men and the group spent a week here visiting textile museums, meeting with famous quilting experts (or should I say artists?) and of course they did some sightseeing. I took the week off and traveled around with them.

Some of the highlights include staying three nights in Casa Santo Domingo, Guatemala’s most remarkable hotel. It’s an old convent which was converted into a 5-star hotel in the 80’s. I’ve never seen anything like it. They did an amazing job preserving the ancient structure and surrounding colonial ruins and blending it with modern amenities. I certainly enjoyed a few swims in the pool and delicious cuisine. I have to admit that I missed the usual fare of beans and eggs and tortillas but I certainly didn’t complain eating filet mignon for dinner or cream cheese, lox and capers for breakfast. I also made friends with the massage therapist, Milton, who offered to sneak me in to the pool area anytime I’m in Antigua. His family used to host Peace Corps volunteers and he appreciates what we do and have to go through during our 2 years here.

We also went to Chichicastenango, Central America’s largest indigenous arts market, and then headed up to Petén to visit the Tikal Ruins. Tikal was inexplicably magical. From spider and howler monkeys to leaf cutter ants to some of the most impressive Mayan temples and ruins in this part of Central America, I saw and learned a lot and fell in love with this country all over again.

So a week with 15 quilters, mainly older grandma types (very endearing though), who do you think the tour company should have provided as the guide? A Guatemalan quilting enthusiast who could connect with their clients? No, not quite. The guide knew a lot about Guatemalan textile history, no doubt about it. He just happened to be a former Kaibil commander during the internal conflict. The Kaibilis, referred to as killing machines, are known as the most elite special-forces unit in Guatemala. Specialists in jungle warfare and survival, these guys are unstoppable killers. The only foreign special-forces unit currently operating in the Congo is a Kaibil team. Vinicio, our fearless guide, and his unit were responsible for countless raids in the Ixil Triangle over many years (where the worst of the worst went down), 915 total confirmed kills, and who knows what else. There are reports that the Kaibiles did some things to the villagers not worth repeating on this blog.

He would tell stories about the war to all the quilters over the on-board microphone on the bus. Nobody had a frame of reference and I think I might have been the only one who had some insight as to what he was saying. For example, he was part of three military coups; one of which put Rios Montt in charge of the country. If you know anything about what happened during this period in Guatemala’s history, you’ll know what a brutal leader Montt turned out to be. Vinicio was a wealth of knowledge about quilting, the history of the war, and the jungles of Petén. Everywhere we went people recognized him and addressed him by his nickname, Rambo.

So that’s a little taste of my week with Rambo and the quilters. Thanks, Steve, for giving me the opportunity to spend the week with you guys. And if you don’t come back to Guatemala sometime soon, Rambo and I are going to track you down and put you in the machete corner. Rambo taught me a lot of new phrases.