Don’t bring a suitcase on wheels,” my daughter Jessica told me. “You’ll never be able to pull it up the hill to the house”.
When I got off the bus in Todos Santos, a village in a remote corner of Guatemala high in the Cuchumatanes mountains, I knew the big test of my journey would not be making it over roads that had been largely washed out by rain, nor travelling on the so-called chicken bus where I had to share my seat with two others. It would be the final climb up to the house where she is living.
My daughter is in Guatemala on an internship with the Canadian International Development Agency and staying at one of the best houses in the village.
To my Canadian eyes, the house seems rather basic. The shower and toilet are outside, as is the kitchen sink, which is called a pila. There is no hot water. Corn grows in the front yard, potatoes in the back, and a couple of chickens are always about, scratching the earth.
The house belongs to Roman, who is from Switzerland, and his Maya wife Cristina. Roman and Cristina met when he was working here with Doctors Without Borders. They married and have two girls. Cristina runs the village co-op where superb textiles are sold and Roman takes tourists on treks through the mountains.
Todos Santos is not a disappointment. The setting is quite spectacular and so are the people, who are largely indigenous, of Maya descent, and speak the Mayan language of Mam.
Most Maya people here are extremely attached to local traditions. A young man may own a cellphone, but he still wears the same type of clothes as his great-great-grandfather. A number of men are always peering over the rail of the central square when we pass by. All are dressed in red-and-white striped trousers and multicoloured shirts with embroidered collars. A few wear black woollen breeches.
The women’s clothes are a bit more sombre. Their skirt is dark blue but their purple blouse, called a huipil, is exquisite and takes three months to weave. Every village in Guatemala has a special day once a year when it celebrates its patron saint.
Todos Santos’s special day is All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, a national holiday. Todos Santos means “all saints” in English. It is actually a three-day festival when unknown or unsung saints are celebrated.
All Saints’ Day festivities in Todos Santos include an infamous horse race. Every rider, I am told, promises to be in the race for four years and if he doesn’t stick with it, he won’t have a long life. If he does, and if he kills a hen while getting on his horse the fourth year, then his life will be rich.
It is an expensive undertaking. The team leader must pay for alcohol, food and musicians and each rider must rent a horse. The riders do it to show their manliness, even though many will have to leave the village after the fiesta to make money to pay off the debt.
Many families in this area are poor and live on $2 a day. Much of the land is rocky and overused and it is hard to earn cash without working outside the village. In earlier times, men went south to work on plantations, but today many work illegally in the United States – El Norte.
They get there by taking a long and difficult route through the Mexican desert. American flags are painted on houses, vehicles and even gravestones to show that they did it and sent money back to their families.
The race track, made of sand, is surprisingly short. Villagers crowd along both sides of it. Some have a picnic lunch because it will be a long day. The weather is glorious, the sky bright blue without a cloud in sight, and the air is crisp. A young woman who is with the American Peace Corps is on a team, the first time that a woman has participated, much less a gringa.
Riders are decked out in colourful ribbons and feathers and each team of six riders takes turns racing up and down the track. While they wait their turn they drink alcohol and a rumour spreads that even the horses are being fed liquor. After a couple of hours some of the horses are stumbling in the sand and the pace of the race slows. Todos Santos has been a dry town for almost three years, but strong sugarcane liquor is very much a part of these festivities and the two jail cells, visible to anyone walking by, are soon filled with hungover young men.
The race loses its attraction after a while and we leave to join a large crowd watching dancers dressed in ornate costumes re-enacting and ridiculing the victory of the Spanish over the Maya. There is a ferris wheel, games of chance, sugary sweets and musicians. In the evening, there is a beauty queen contest in which nine young women dance the marimba and give a speech in Spanish and in Mam.
This is quite an achievement because Maya women tend to be shy and spend most of their time at home, making tortillas, looking after children, fetching water, washing clothes and weaving. Those who attend the literacy and business class my daughter is involved with bring their children with them, always keeping the youngest close to them, for a Maya baby’s soul is believed to be extremely fragile and all-too-eager to return to heaven.
On the last day of the festival, villagers bring floral wreaths, candles, incense and food to the graveyard to feed their ancestors’ souls for the journey through the underworld towards rebirth. The graves are painted bright colours – turquoise, yellow, green.
I take the opportunity to thank those souls who each day helped me up the hill to my daughter’s house. Then I climb it one last time, this time to collect my knapsack and a duffel bag full of recently purchased textiles, before catching the chicken bus south to Huehuetenango.
By Sylvia Fanjoy, Ottawa Citizen, October 29, 2011
Photo credits Jessica Sunter
This article was published in the Ottawa Citizen with the full title “A colourful sense of history: In Todos Santos, all saints are celebrated on Nov. 1”.