Thursday, September 29, 2011

L'shana tova in the altiplano: the prologue

At sundown on September 27, the Jewish New Year begins. For the last few weeks, I have been thinking about how I will celebrate this event. Let me clarify that I am not religious; my parents and at least my maternal grandparents were atheists, but nonetheless very clear about their Jewishness as a cultural identity and a heritage. I have continued pretty much in that vein, although I think I have a stronger affinity for ritual and ceremony than they did. Most years I have celebrated Rosh Hashanah at home, with my daughter, with friends, or both. A few times I have wanted to hear the sound of the shofar, the ram's horn that is blown several times during the series of holidays that mark the New Year, and so have found a synagogue or temple that had an open service; sometimes we have gone on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, which is about 10 days away. But mostly I have celebrated Rosh Hashanah by making a big round loaf of challah, sometimes with a double braid, and sharing it with Aiyana and whomever else we have decided to invite, along with some apples and honey.

The two other holidays I have always celebrated are Passover and Hanuka. But I find it hard to celebrate these holidays without other people; part of the point of most celebrations and rituals, from my point of view, is to share the joy (or the catharsis) with other people.  So, when Passover rolled around this year, I was hoping I could find someone else who was Jewish who might invite me. And I thought I had done so. At an art opening in Antigua, a long-time expat whom I'd met a few times, a woman named Dee, spotted my Star of David (which I only fished out of a jewelry box and put on just before I came here) and then introduced me to a friend of hers who was also Jewish. I commented that I had been thinking about what to do for Passover. Dee said that she sometimes did a seder but her home was very small, but that her friend did a larger seder. The woman, whose name I cannot remember, said yes, she was going to do a seder and she would invite me. I gave her my card and never heard from her again. I didn't have the energy to do something on my own.

But as the seasons rolled around and the new year approached, I thought that I wanted to do something for myself, and also to share some of who I am and what I am about with people here. The people I've met here have been very eager to invite me to their homes for Semana Santa, for example; I had more invitations than I could manage. And so I want to, in some small way, reciprocate -- although because I am on my own, and do not have an extended family I can rope into helping me out, I am wary about inviting too many people. Also, since I am only here for a year, I have not invested in huge quantities of plates and silverware, so that limits the invitees list somewhat. This is probably a very un-Guatemalan or un-Maya attitude. People here, when they make a celebration, do it on a large scale and have 40 or 50 people, and pile on copious quantities of food. They do, generally, however, have an army of relatives to help out.

My first thought was that I would like to celebrate the New Year with my friends in Xela. I don't live there; it's 2-3 hours away depending upon which route I take; and I haven't spent that much time there, all things considered. But I felt very much at home there the first time I visited, especially with the little nucleus of ex-combatants with whom I spent a few hours at the cantina. Although I haven't gotten together with all four of them at the same time again, I have seen all of them since, some more than others, and so I decided that I wanted to share this event with them. Especially as several of us had been working very hard around the elections (there, you didn't think I was going to let that many blogs go by without even mentioning the elections, did you?), and I think we all feel a need to recharge and refocus. So it seemed like a good moment and a good occasion to get together, and also to let them into some of my culture, in the same way that people here have generously invited me to participate in their culture.

The challenge was where to do it; inviting them here wouldn't have been realistic as I have no place to put them, and there are no hotels, and if there were, it would be asking too much of them to come all the way here and then have to pay for lodging. Xela is about 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 hours from Chinique, depending upon which route you take, traffic and road conditions.  Luckily my friend Humberto was willing to let me use his kitchen to cook and invite people to his home, so that is the plan for this weekend.  It won't be on the exact date, but that wasn't feasible. And he had an oven, which I checked out when I was in Xela last weekend (I desperately needed to see a movie so we went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes). The oven is important since I have, for most of my adult life, made a big round loaf of challah every year for Rosh Hashonah. I think I probably started doing this when I was at Oberlin, and have continued it ever since. So Rosh Hashonah without my own home-made challah would not be the same. And needless to say, it's not as though I could run out and buy a loaf here if I got stuck.

But after some thought I decided that I should do something in Chinique and invite some of my friends in town and also my colleagues at the radio. As fond as I am of my friend in Xela, I do live and work in Quiché. This was going to be a little tricky also, because I only have so much space in my house, so many pots and pans, and no oven. I have a wood burning stove which is just a stove top and a small 2-burner electric stove. Not really a stove -- a 2-burner hot plate. I also am working at the radio station nearly every day, and we have just started a new regime of clear scheduling and accountability so cooking an elaborate meal (including making bread) for several people would require a lot of advance planning and strategizing. I thought about inviting my friends from Tapesquillo but the logistics were daunting. It would be either very expensive or time consuming for them to come to town (expensive if they took cars; time consuming if they walked) and then I would have to give them rides home since there are no cars that go up there at night. That road is no picnic in the daytime; at night it would be a nightmare and then I would have to drive back down to get home. So in the end, I just invited people who are closer: my friend Caterino, who has a shop in town and lives in a caserio along the highway, and my K'iche' teacher Leonardo (who, it just so happens, has a stove with an oven in his house). Leonardo has been giving me classes in K'iche' intermittently but we spend as much time talking as we do in instruction. In addition to being a linguist and a language teacher (he teaches at a bilingual secondary school), he is also an aj'qij (a "sacerdote Maya" -- Maya priest), and we have talked some about religion and the Maya cosmovision, and so I thought he would be interested in how another culture celebrates the turn of the cycle.

I invited my two colleagues at the radio, Jeanet (also written Yanet) and Kan, and another friend who used to work for Ixmukané but no longer does. I didn't invite others from the staff of Ixmukané (those who are based out of the office in Chichicastenango) because I didn't feel that I could pick and choose; I would have felt obliged to invite everyone. And since many of them live in Chichi, they wouldn't have been able to get transportation back home: transportation, in case you hadn't picked up on this yet, plays a powerful role, at least for me, in defining social relationships.  Seeing friends in Chichi in the evening means traveling over steep winding roads in the dark. Seeing them anywhere else means that they have to figure out transportation, and none of them have cars. There is very little transportation between cities/communities in the evening.  Jenniffer and Jeanet live in Santa Cruz, and Jeanet's husband has a motorcycle, so I figured, Jeanet and her family can get home okay, and I have enough space to put up Jenny and Kan. Also, Jenniffer and Jeanet were both students of Leonardo's some years back, so I thought that would be a nice opportunity for them to see each other.  At the last moment, I called up Reyna, a friend who also used to work with Ixmukané -- she was actually my initial contact with the organization, and she had invited me to her house during Semana Santa, so I thought it would be nice to reciprocate (she is also Caterino's aunt and lives near him along the highway, so I would have been easily able to give her a life home).

Next installment will be about the cooking, the food and the "ceremony", such as it was....


  1. I'm looking forward to the next installment. Shanah Tovah, Lisa!

  2. Just about to get started on it.... spent most of the day shopping and cooking for round 2 in Xela.