In Guatemala, Good Friday marks the peak of Easter celebrations : the most elaborate alfombras, artful strips of dyed sawdust designs, carpet the streets for the most sacred processions to shuffle through while the people dress in their most special attire to eat the most ice cream cones. The day before is filled with the fluttery anticipation of Christmas Eve as sawdust is sifted by 5-12 year old specialists and dyed to brilliant hues along with the hands doing the work, and surprisingly large bottles of surprisingly strong local liquor empty with surprising speed.
That was when we made it to Coban, the capitol of a region best known for coffee cultivation and a town that Michelle and I appreciated, as it turned out, a whole lot more than most people do. Even while we were staying there, we would get blank stares when we told other travelers that we were having a great time. “What is there to do?” they would ask.
Once we found a hostel, we clustered our bags around the dresser in our room because when we tried to put them in the dresser it tipped over. Then we set out to walk around town, maybe eat some food, and within a couple blocks I spotted the third sign I’d seen advertising tayuyos, which were a food I hadn’t heard of – a common occurrence that meant I had to go find out what it was. As we approached, a man from the doorway just before the sign stepped out and started talking at us : also a common occurrence, so we didn’t pay much attention. He was uncommonly inviting us to come in, though, and because he and his friends wanted to play us a song. Just one song. With the utmost respect, with heart, it was a holiday, and above all with respect, just one song… and the house was buzzing with three guitars being shared among 4 and 5 and 4 again older men, and a couple younger women, and three children lording over a mountain of fine sawdust that was a building material and a useful task and a mess all at once, and the host with his orange palms welcoming us and, after two songs, pouring us our own cups of barrilito and cola with a little wedge of lime that our jovial entertainers did not care even a smidge to have in their drinks.
They played together for hours, sang absolutely lustily, and between songs asked us for requests while we explained that we didn’t know these songs until they thought of another; and we stayed until the women and children had dispersed and the songs had begun to repeat and the men had begun to tell us about their divorces and profess their love. After hugs, explanations, farewells, and another song, we walked away smiling so much we were laughing.
The next day we got up early to go see the bright alfombras and morning processions in a nearby town called San Cristobal, famous because they make an alfombra every year that runs straight down a hill from the church doors for over a kilometer. Back in Coban that afternoon, we watched a procession that struck a far more somber note : all the people draped with black lace instead of the red and purple satin we had seen that morning, and the religious figure at the center of the procession borne through the streets by women instead of men. These processions are a dream of visual indulgence, and a sensational tradition of careful hours devoted to creations that will be trod away in minutes : reminders of the sacred in the temporal.