Made in Guatemala

By Susan Harb
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 10, 2002

There is no such thing as a good night's sleep before market day in Chichicastenango.

First-timers to this village in the western highlands of Guatemala may think the revolution has started again, but the staccato pops and thundering booms are merely celebratory firecrackers and homemade rockets and not the return of civil unrest. The earth tremors are not bombardments, only the benign rumblings of one of the country's 35 volcanoes, a handful still active. Still, the quake often is strong enough to move your bed a foot across the floor.

Then there are the moans and gear-grinding groans of the ancient overloaded trucks and arthritic recycled school buses as they squeeze through the narrow cobbled streets, delivering bundles of goods and bundled-up Indians, squealing piglets and plaintively yelping turkeys who seem to sense their destiny with the chopping block.

Cool mountain air carries the tantalizing greasy smell of chicharrones -- fried pork rinds -- and the pungent scent of copal incense. The pork is cooked in huge kettles throughout the night to keep the workers fueled as they lash together their makeshift booths. The incense is courtesy of the religious who pay their respects by candlelight on the steps of Santo Tomas cathedral in the central plaza.

Mingled with all of this is the restless excitement of having survived the trip from Guatemala City, along a perilous route of zigzags and hairpin turns studded with roadside shrines to those who didn't make it, and finally arriving at a place so remote and mysteriously Mayan. Like a child on Christmas Eve, one lies awake with wonderment at what tomorrow will bring.

There is no such thing as a good night's sleep in Chichicastenango.

Another volley of rockets gets you to your feet before daybreak -- and that's a good time to hit the market and watch the colors unfold like a brilliant sunrise.

Textiles and Traditions

Mexico and Costa Rica are popular destinations for U.S. travelers. Not so many venture into neighboring Guatemala. Most of the country's 800,000 annual visitors are European, according to the Guatemala Tourist Commission. "Europeans are more adventuresome," said one official. "Your State Department discourages travel," said another.

Americans certainly shied away during Guatemala's 36 years of civil unrest, in which some 200,000 residents died. Despite a 1996 peace accord, the State Department still advises caution due to criminal activity within the country. I made my fifth trip there this fall without incident.

Guatemala is a small country -- roughly the size of Kentucky -- at the northern end of the Central American isthmus, bordering Mexico to the north and El Salvador and Honduras to the south. It is a loud country on the color spectrum, a land of bright flowers and rainbow textiles.

Some 20 indigenous Mayan tribes still adhere to tradition and wear their handwoven and elaborately embroidered huipiles (blouses, pronounced wee-peel-es), cortes (skirts) and pantaloons, creating a polychromatic explosion on a landscape already vibrant with blaze-orange jacaranda, fuchsia bougainvillea and azure skies. The costumes of these rural people -- who are less subject to modern or outside influences, or even interested in them -- express their native artistry and are an intrinsic part of the country's beauty, especially on festival and market days when everyone wears their finest.

And so it is with the remote Quiche Maya, who turn their village of Chichi into one vast produce and textile market every Thursday and Sunday. Twice a week this small mountain town becomes a temple of tipica, the Spanish term for native handicrafts and now used by some in a derogatory sense for second-rate goods. Others, however, view tipica as a treasure trove of ethnic wares, inviting the discerning eye to ferret out the aesthetic from the everyday. Chichi offers such a challenge.

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