Antigua, although beautiful, is full of gringos, and it is nearly impossible to even formulate phrases in Spanish in the privacy of one’s own mind there, let alone speak any. The locals often address you in English in the street, which is far from the norm in Guatemala. Indeed Antigua, with its refined cafes, clean streets and ruined churches feels like a town from a completely separate country. I passed a pleasant few days and left for Quetzaltenango, or Xela, as it is known locally by its Mayan name, deriving from Xelaju (pronounced ‘sheyla-who’), the settlement’s pre-Hispanic name.
Xela is a contrast in pretty much every way. Resolutely normal, and relatively unmarked by foreign influence considering the large number of language schools, the second largest city in Guatemala feels as though no one other than its inhabitants is paying much attention to the town, unlike many tourist locations that, for better or worse, have been attended to by people that don’t live there. Xela’s bizarre architectural style is the product of historical accident, in the form of a devastating earthquake that in 1902 levelled most of the colonial churches and buildings, ending the town’s rivalry to Guatemala City. The re-build was in neo-classical style, at least some of which was the result of dictator Ubico’s wish to symbolise his power in Doric columns, many of which serve no purpose and terminate in mid air. Likewise the extremely odd Templo Minerva, out of town near the bus terminal that bears its name, is incongruous and now pretty much ignored. The highest concentration of this Grecian style occurs, naturally enough, around Parque Central, where the facade of the old baroque cathedral remains standing, with the bulbous new version squatting behind it. There’s a window high up on the old facade that now opens onto empty space. Xela being a mountain town, and the Parque being situation in the valley’s declivity, the new cathedral’s fairy-tale domes are visible from most places in the city. It’s all highly unusual and in its own way characterful.
In a way Xela’s development is the opposite of Antigua’s, as the destruction caused by an earthquake stimulated a strange re-build rather than the preservation of ruins, which is one of the reasons Antigua is so popular with tourists. Inhabitants of Xela are proud of their town’s historic importance, which can still be seen in their football team, the Xelaju, whose fans carry banners reading ‘Sexto Estado,’ the sixth state. This is in reference to the independent Western state of Los Altos, which took Xela as its capital and resisted central control from the Capital from the break with Mexico in 1820 until 1840, when President Carrera relegated Xela permanently to the status of provincial capital.
I climbed two volcanoes close to Xela – the crater lake of Laguna Chicabal, and the perfect cone of Santa Maria, 3700m above sea level. In both cases the culmination of the walk, either the lake or the summit, was used as a social and religious gathering point and by Guatemalan Mayans. The water of the lake, especially, is sacred, and it is prohibited to touch it. Clouds were moving very quickly over the lake surface. At least fifty Guatemalans families were barbequing meat and drinking pop on the lake shore, and it was a similar story at the summit of Santa Maria, where a Catholic ceremony of some kind was also taking place. Thirty or so Guatemalans, formed in loose circle, were singing and clapping rhythmically with rising and falling vocal tonalities, led by one or two singers at the beginning of each phrase. It’s the first time I’ve really seen clearly at first hand how Mayan and Christian spirituality are fused: although the songs are about Christ, there is a sense of something older here, only with different words.
Also regarding Mayan spirituality, I attended a lecture at my language school on the Maya Cosmovisión, given by a Maya Sacerdote or shaman. The talk was fascinating in many ways, but the most pertinent part to record here is a quote from a Ki’che shaman who was arrested for practising Mayan beliefs. While in jail, in 1917, he was interviewed, and said of his religion that it provided ‘un sistema de valores que relaciona y explica al ser humano, la naturaleza, el tiempo…yo veo a dios en los arboles, en las piedras, en las nubes…’ (‘a system of values that relates and explains what it is to be human, nature, time…I see god in the trees, in the stones, in the clouds…’).
I spent New Year in Xela, and went to New Year Mass. It was an extremely lively affair, the music being primarily driven by enthusiastically sawed-at violins, and the congregation singing along with gusto and more or less in time. The padre cracked jokes – New Year’s Eve being a Friday – ‘and of course I’ll be seeing you all at Mass again on Sunday.’