Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sending off the spirits

In mid November, when I was in Canada for a conference, I got word that a relative of some of my friends here -- Matilde and her daughter Jeanet -- had died. It was Jeanet, who is my colleague at the radio station, who first told me that her grandfather (and thus Matilde's father) had died -- I am friends with both mother and daughter, but these days am in daily contact with the daughter. I only met Matilde's father once, at the luncheon Matilde had held at her home a few week after the September 11 election, to thank her family and friends for supporting her. He was a bit frail and ailing; we sat at the same table and I spoke with him briefly, but he and his wife left relatively early. Over the intervening two months, I have heard through both Jeanet and Matilde that he was not doing well, and so it was not a complete surprise when Jeanet told me, via a chat message on Facebook (yes, that is often how we stay in touch when we are in different cities or I in a different country) that her grandfather had died. Since Jeanet's father abandoned Matilde and the children when they were all fairly young, Jeanet said that her grandfather was really more like a father to her, and that everyone was very sad, especially her grandmother.

When I returned I called Matilde, but her voice was bright and cheery when she answered the phone. She has, in general, a very positive outlook on life, very philosophical: I blogged about this earlier when I reported on the post-election luncheon, at which she talked about not having gained a seat in Congress, and described it not as a defeat but as a learning experience. And I know that with her, those are not just words repeated mindlessly, but they truly express her belief and her approach to life.

Jeanet told me that the family was going to do a novena; for those of you who are not Catholic, a novena is a series of prayers held on nine consecutive days, and when someone has died, there is usually a series of prayers that culminates on the ninth day.  Jeanet told me that they were going to go to the cemetery on the ninth day, and place the stone on her grandfather's grave, but that it would be a "novena Maya" -- a Maya-style novena, and not a Catholic novena. Her mother, Matilde, is an ajq'ij (a "Maya priest"), and so I would have been a bit surprised if they had told me they were doing a mass. She invited me to accompany the family, and I gladly accepted; although I barely knew the grandfather, I am very fond of both Jeanet and Matilde (and the other members of the family whom I know -- Jeanet's husband and two daughters, her brother Juan and his wife Sandra). She told me they were going to leave for the cemetery at 8 on Saturday morning and I said I would stop by and pick them up (Jeanet and her family, and her brother Juan and his wife Sandra all live in the same compound as Matilde).

Then Wednesday afternoon, I received a phone call from my friend Javier in Xela, inviting me to come to his home on Friday for a Thanksgiving dinner. His wife is from the U.S. and he lived there with her for several years, and so they had invited people, including our mutual friend Humberto, to come to their house. I was very touched by his invitation, and although accepting both invitations would mean a lot of driving (it's 2 hours to Xela, and so I calculated that I could leave Quiché on Friday afternoon, spend the night, and then leave Xela at 6 a.m. on Saturday and get back to Santa Cruz by 8). I had plans to be at a public event for the international day of no violence against women (November 25, which was Friday), since we were going to transmit it on the radio station, and Javier had told me they were going to eat at 3. The story of the Thanksgiving dinner is a bit separate so I will write about it in a separate blog, but for the purposes of our present story, let's just say that I was in my car on Friday afternoon tootling along the highway from Santa Cruz to Totonicapán, and Jeanet called to tell me that there had been a change in plans. The family was going to the cemetery on Sunday, not Saturday, but they were going to do a ceremony at 5 p.m. until midnight on Saturday, and Matilde had suggested that I accompany them. I accepted with alacrity; attending a very private family ceremony is a privilege not extended to everyone, and I took it as a sign of the family's (and especially Matilde's) affection for me that I was invited to be present.

I had not planned to spend much of Saturday in Xela (since we have a lot of pending projects, I often like to leave open the possibility that some combination of us can meet, but it usually doesn't happen), so I made my routine stops on the way out of town. Xelapan is a local chain of bakeries and restaurants. It has become a custom for me to pick up some treat for my friends in Quiche. Sometimes I get some cookies for the radio station, sometimes I have gotten a loaf cake for Jeanet and her family. And I usually pick up some foccaccia for myself. This is the only place I have seen foccaccia for sale in Guatemala -- they are small, round, individually sized. While they lack the sprinkling (or drenching) with olive oil that I recall from the foccaccia we ate in Liguria, along the Mediterranean coast of Italy's north, the texture of these is the closest I have found to the dreamily fluffy ones we found in Luguria. I also usually fill up on cappuccino for the road (quality varies depending upon who is behind the counter). Then next stop is Pupusawa, a place that sells pupusas (basically stuffed tortillas -- typical fillings are cheese, chicharrones, mashed black beans). I developed a liking (to put it mildly) for pupusas (another blog on that) from my friends in the Salvadoran community in New Bedford, and that liking turned into something closer to an addiction when I was in El Salvador, as I was able to taste for the first time pupusas made with nixtamal, freshly-made dough, and not Maseca. As a small illustration, the day I left for the U.S. we got up early and made a stack of 15 or 20 cheese pupusas that I then packed into my bag, and put into the freezer when I got home, and doled out in small doses over the next couple of weeks. I make pupusas de queso at least once a week, a great quick meal, but the pupusas at Pupusawa are much better than what I make (I think it's the masa, and also the stove that they have).

As much as driving is sometimes exhausting, I find it hard to stay in a cranky mood for very long when my drives take me through breathtakingly spectacular landscapes. Also, interestingly, I have yet to find myself fighting sleep at the wheel, as so often has happened in my weekly treks between Brooklyn and Rhode Island/Southeastern Massachusetts as I commute to my job at U Mass Dartmouth. But here I am always alert, even when I have had alarmingly little sleep. Maybe it's driving a standard instead of an automatic, on roads that have a lot of speed bumps and curves, necessitating a lot of shifting and manuevering. Driving here demands a lot of attention, as opposed to the relatively flat super highiways in the northeastern U.S. Cruise control would be worse than useless here. The drive between Xela and Quiché is one of my favorites, and I always find myself mentally refreshed and spiritiually nourished, as ironic as that might sound, although it is also a very lonely stretch of road. I perhaps will write a separate blog about the road since I spend so much time on it.

I had enough time to stop back in Chinique and drop my things. I also was not entirely certain where I was going. Jeanet had told me it was close to Doña Fermina's house,which is along the highway between Santa Cruz and Chinique. So it took several phone calls to Jeanet to figure out a meeting place and time. And then I got there and waited. And waited. I try to be punctual (I do not always succeed) and since we had agreed upon a time, I did my best to be there. I was running a few minutes late and so called Jeanet en route. She told me that she had not left home yet and that she had to run an errand. Well, it made no sense to turn back (I was already more than halfway to our meeting place) so I got there, parked as best I could (there are not really shoulders on any of these roads, mostly drainage ditches with a very narrow area between the paved surface and the ditch) and listened to the radio while I waited. Finally Jeanet and her husband arrived and I followed them, down a narrow dirt road about a kilometer or two.

There were several cars along the road near the house and I added mine and then we walked into the compound or homestead (there were a couple of small structures, I wish I were better at spatial or architectural descriptions), on a narrow dark path. We passed the main house where Jeanet's grandparent lived, and then came to a small two-room adobe brick house that was separate from the main house. There were about 15 people inside, ranged around the edge of the room. Most on chairs, a few seated on the floor and some stretched or slumped on a bed in one corner. They were nearly all relatives and a few neighbors or friends. I was the only non-Maya person and the only non-Guatemalan present (I just add that as an observation).  Space was tight, but Jeanet insisted that I sit on one of the chairs, so I did.  Later Matilde, her mother and also my friend, came in and sat in a chair near me. Jeanet pointed out her uncle who lives in the U.S. (she had mentioned to me some time back that she had two uncles who lived in the U.S.).

The floor, which was packed clay, was covered with a blanket of pine needles. Two or three men, one of them Matilde's brother who lives in the States, were trying to arrange a plank of wood so that it would form a kind of table in front of the altar which occupied the center of one wall. The altar reminded me of many I have seen in Cuba and in the Afrocuban religious community in the U.S. -- a table covered with a white cloth, upon which were arrayed some glasses of water, candles, some flowers, and photographs of the deceased, along with photographs of other deceased relatives. The men were trying to balance the plank of wood so that it jutted out from the table perpendicularly into the room, and they laughed and joked in K'iche' as they discussed the best way to balance it. Finally they got the wood arranged and covered it with a cloth, and then took handfuls of pine needles and heaped them onto the plank so that they roughly formed the shape of a human body (head, torso and limbs), which they then covered with another cloth.  more pine needles were strewn on top of this human shape, and then heaps of flower petals arranged as well.

Jeanet explained to me who some of the people were in the pictures on the altar: there were a few of the grandfather who had recently died, but also a few photographs of young women. Jeanet explained that those were aunts, sisters of her mother, who had been killed during the armed conflict. The war is never very far away, it seems. Jeanet's grandmother, whom I had met once before, entered the room and I went over to greet her and offer my condolences. I embraced her and she started to sob and so I continued to hold her and say what I could to comfort her as we stood in the doorway for a minute, and then she stopped, wiped her face and went to sit down.  I recognized Mario, a young linguist who works with the group Chilam B'alam de los K'iche's -- an organization that is dedicated to preserving and promoting religious and other cultural traditions. They had invited me to a ceremony some weeks back at a sacred site, Tzojil, on the highway between Santa Cruz and San Andrés Sacjabajá, and then Mario had come to the radio station to copy the photos I had taken onto his flash drive.  I walked around the crowded room and greeted them. Then a little while later I took a closer look at the ajq'ij who was officiating (he hadn't been in the room when I had arrived) and realized that he was Juan Ixcop, also from Chilam B'alam, and so then Mario's presence made more sense (Mario is not an ajq'ij). Juan asked the children of the deceased - Matilde, her sister and brothers -- to arrange some flowers in containers on both sides of the "corpse" that had been created on the plank of wood; there was one container of flowers on each side, about at the midpoint, and then two at the "head" -- which was the end of the plank that extended into the room. Then the children were instructed to take candles and line them up on the floor, melting the ends so that they would stand upright. I am not sure if there was a specific number of candles that each person was supposed to have; they seemed to be counting them out but I couldn't really tell. Then they lit all the candles, so the plank representing the corpse was surrounded by flowers and lights on the floor. It was quite beautiful.

The ceremony started with prayers and giving thanks. It was almost entirely in K'iche' and Jeanet, who had invited me, was in and out of the room as she has two children, both of whom got a little antsy from time to time, and she was also helping with food preparation, so when I asked her, a few days later, to explain to me what had happened, she wasn't able to give a full explanation. But the rough idea that she gave me was the ceremony was essential to ensure the smooth transition of the person's spirit to the other plane of existence.  That was why the priests constructed a representation of a human body. If this ceremony were not performed, then there was a danger that the spirit would linger, and not be at peace, and also the surviving family members would not be at peace. It sounded roughly similar to the very little that I know about Navajo death rituals... that the spirit must be properly sent on its way.

The ceremony was held in two parts. The first part was in the small house where the simulacra of the body had been created. It went on for about two hours, and then there was a break and we were served tamales accompanied by tortillas (yes, double doses of cornmeal masa... the dough part of the tamales is kind of liquid-y, and you can use the tortillas to scoop it up and transfer it to your mouth. Or just use your fingers if there aren't spoons. Or both). There was a lot of conviviality during the break. I wandered outside to where Jeanet and her husband were at one of the fires, toasting tortillas.

Then the ceremony reconvened in another part of the homestead, a room that was made of wood or bamboo, with a row of benches around the edge). There was no light except for the candles we held and perhaps someone had a flashlight. At the front of the room, there were some candles on the floor. It was cold, as the walls were not solid, and we all huddled on the benches and then later Juan Ixcop, the ajq'ij, made a fire in the center of the room.

As the fire grew, we had to turn our faces away, as it got very hot, and the women pulled their aprons or shawls over their faces, as the heat was intense.  Juan spoke some, stirred the fire, and then everyone put our candles in the fire. It was clear and cold when we finished. I offered to give a ride to several people who were going back in my direction, and said my goodbyes, and extricated my car and we took off. The road was dark and bumpy, the stars shining in the cold night air, and we reached the highway and then my passengers got out a little ways up the road, and then I took myself home to an almost silent town (with the exception of a few barking dogs).

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