The invitation from the Consejo de Pueblos del Occidente called for a reclamation of the true meaning of the Oxlajuj B'aq'tun, calling upon all brothers and sisters to help disseminate the message of the true meaning of the B'aq'tun, and to join with them them (CPO) in the sacred sites of Zaculeuw, Iximche and Q'umark'aj, starting at noon on December 21. I had spent the night of the 19th in Xela, which is about 2 hours away from Santa Cruz del Quiché (Q'umark'aj is located on the outskirts of Santa Cruz del Quiché; some of the stones from the destroyed Mayan city were used to build the cathedral that overlooks the central plaza of Santa Cruz). I had breakfast with one of my dear friends in Xela, someone who is active in the CPO, to catch up a bit and pick each other's brains. Sadly, he wasn't planning to arrive until the 21st, his daughter, who is also a good friend, had said she would arrive on the 20th, so I was hopeful I'd have some company for the long overnight haul.
The highway between Xela and Santa Cruz is one of my favorite stretches of road because of the spectacular landscape. The road is lightly traveled once you pass Totonicapán, which is about 20 minutes from Xela -- one time I had to traverse it after dark and that was one of the few times that I have actually been anxious about my personal safety, mostly because there are some stretches with no houses nearby, and so if anything were to have happened, I would have no one to call for help.
Although I hadn't slept much (I don't generally sleep well in Guatemala), I felt refreshed and ready to hit the road. I don't quite know why, but I actually enjoy, in some perverse way, driving in Guatemala. Perverse, because as I've written in earlier blog entries, the roads often have sharp curves around steep mountains, there are almost no shoulders, other drivers -- especially those of trucks and intercity buses -- are maniacs, and there are often places where the road fell away during a rainy season, or on other stretches there are a lot of speed bumps. But around every heart-stopping curve, there is heart-wrenchingly beautiful landscape, so beautiful it hurts. Heading past Cuatro Caminos towards Totonicapán, there is a place where women gather to wash their clothes. It's fed by a natural hot spring, and it might technically be labelled a bathing area (balneario) but I've only ever seen women washing clothing. I didn't stop or slow down, as I wanted to get to Santa Cruz with some time to spare, so that I could sit in the one upscale café and have a latte and think, more than anything else. But I could see the dark-bright colors of their clothing, what they were wearing and what they were washing, as some stood knee-deep in the water and scrubbed, others knelt on the grass near the water, and I could see the steam rising from the water.
An uneventful (thankfully) two hours took me to Santa Cruz, with enough time to get my latte and change my clothes (I had no idea what would be expected and I knew it would get cold at night, but I thought I'd wear a nice dress, to look at little bit less like a tourist). I drove up to Q'umark'aj, found a parking space on the drive up to the site, and went off in look for anyone who looked like they were about to start a ceremony. At the main "plaza" surrounded by some hills and monuments, I saw a man and three women gathered around a small fire in the center. The man had a red servilleta (woven cloth) wrapped around his head, designating him as a Maya priest, and the three young women were all wearing "nice" traje (i.e. clearly not everyday wear but special occasion clothing). There was someone taking photos, who turned out to be a journalist from one of the major radio stations, Emisoras Unidas, and then a few other journalists.
I didn't really know who was going to be setting up for the ceremonies that had been announced by the Consejo de Pueblos del Occidente (CPO) or Chilam B'alam, but I was on the lookout for people who looked like they were organizing SOMEthing. And while this one small group was conducting their ceremony, some other people arrived in a van and started to unload things: this, clearly, was the start of preparations for something on a larger scale. I could overheard some of the conversation between the small group of four conducting their ceremony and the journalist, and so learned that the three women were all "official" representatives of "la mujer maya" -- that is, each of them had won a title in one of the innumerable local and national pageants for Maya women. They are not precisely "beauty pageants" as looks are not the only criterion, and they have been criticized for "folklorizing" Maya culture. However, they've interested me and so my antennae went up.
One of the people who had arrived with the supplies for the ceremonies also participated in the interviews, and then the queens and the man who was officiating at the ceremony took off. I introduced myself to the woman who was directing things, who was from Chilam B'alam;we had met, I think, at an event last year. The person whom I know best from Chilam B'alam, it turns out, was out of the country, officiating at a ceremony in Europe. Later, others arrived, and slowly people started to assemble the elements and construct the altar, in the middle of the large ceremonial space. There were over a dozen men and women who were Maya priests, and others who helped put together the altar. There were several different kinds of incense, pine needles, candles of different colors, flowers, flower petals. Eventually there was a central altar, and then four smaller altars, each at one of the four cardinal points; a total of five altars, and the various priests and priestesses were divided among those altars so that each one had a few people who were responsible for attending to it.
I realized that I hadn't really planned adequately for food, and there isn't really anything near Q'umark'aj... and I thought about driving back to Quiché, but didn't want to lose my parking space, as I knew that people would be arriving throughout the afternoon and evening. So I just figured that I'd work something out (I was lucky: others had brought food to share). The afternoon proceeded pretty leisurely. Eventually, around 2:30 or 3, the compñeros and compañeras from the CPO arrived, and also my friend/colleague Ixchel from Radio Ixmukané, to do some interviews. One of the people from the CPO was a woman named Lola Chavez, She is a well-known activist in Quiché, and suffered a brutal attack by armed men earlier this year when she was leaving a meeting of the K'iche' People's Council of the CPO. I'd never met her but knew her reputation and knew about the attack, and we have mutual friends, so I introduced myself and she was extremely warm and generous with me, and then I later brought Ixchel over and introduced her so she could do an interview. I also introduced Ixchel to the president of Chilam B'alam, who was presiding over the arrangements for the ceremonies. She left, however, in mid-afternoon...
And so I will leave this off for now, and return later to write about the actual ceremonies, finally.