September 04, 2006
Central American Market Culture
You quickly learn the local rates, residential gringo rates and a third one for tourists. They can vary dramatically from double to ten times the fair market price, depending on how gullible you look.
Clearly Guatemala is a market culture, whether it’s a twice-a-week vegetable, fruit and trinket sprawling, or a massive multi-street gathering of crafts and goods, such as the infamous Chichicastenango (Chichi), where women line the streets in brightly colored Mayan attire.
In Chichi on market day, the rows go on and on, interweaving with other rows of materials, hand-made blankets, rugs, ponchos and bags. In the middle of the square, locals slurp soup from white tinny bowls, the kind we used to take on camping trips in SE Asia. Deeply fried chicken and potato skin stands run along the edges, and in the square’s heart are ‘fixed’ fruit and veggie stalls, which remain long after the twice weekly sprawl is packed up for the day.
We discovered an authentic local eatery on the second floor of the commercial centro, with a veranda overlooking the massive marketplace below. On each side stood a church, landmarks I started using to avoid getting lost in the maze of ‘stuff.’
The majority of accommodation choices were fairly basic, some with and some without a private bathroom. We ended up at the tiny Posada El Arco guesthouse, which one could easily miss if you did not speak Spanish or have a strong intuitive nature.
Like some of the intricate cluttered paths in Morocco’s Casablanca and Fez, a calle didn’t necessarily connect to an avienda and rarely were there street signs to indicate where you were at any given time.
Most of the hotels and guesthouses are either inside or surrounded by lush gardens – healthy green tropical bush, vibrant colors from regional flora, and tree-hung hammocks. Laced with exquisite birds, you might think you died and went to heaven, except for the five am roosters and stray dogs and cats that occasionally wander into your room if the door is ajar. I’m convinced (at least hopeful), that all Gods would eliminate early morning rooster calls in all imaginable heavens.
Chichi had an energy that Antiqua and other nearby towns lacked. Poor in comparison, even more evident the evening we arrived, when the streets were bare and people were seemingly tucked away in shanty-like housing in or outside the town.
The character of the town was a washed out early afternoon photo rather than a town which held the richness of both its early morning and late afternoon light.
You are immediately drawn to the larger of the two churches, Santo Tomas Church, which was built in 1540 on the site of a Maya altar and then rebuilt in the 18th century. It lay in the southeast corner of the plaza, the local K’iche’ Maya (called Maxenos), have been left to adopt their own style of worship, blending pre-Columbian and Catholic rituals.
A major anchor of the town square, it is a long box painted white, with neither the imposing bulk nor the awesome grandeur of a cathedral. This is fitting, as the interior nurses an ecumenical faith of Catholicism and Mayan pagan worship. Patron saints for children, healing and travel line the walls, their faces hazy through the smoke from incense candles lit by Mayan women chanting remembrances for their recent and long-departed dead. Jesus watches from the front and seems to approve.
Go back on a Thursday or Sunday, however, and the church is an odd, oversized adjunct to a shantytown, as the entire square - and all the streets alongside - are taken over by the produce-mongers, rug sellers, trinket merchants, and moneychangers who make up Guatemala's most famous and frantic open market.
The secular energy spills into the church, approaching - and perhaps crossing - the line of disrespect. Mayan women in traditional dress have unhushed cell phone conversations in the pews. Local guides follow the tourists into the church, giving no rest to the haggle-weary.
At the front, a handful of supplicants kneel next to tables piled high with lit candles. They pray, their arms clutching the wooden bars of the low gate in front of them, as if resisting the force of the market's energy outside.
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