Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Jaques Costeau Redux

Well, well. My diving instructor Walter turned out to be not as much of a supporter as I thought. Despite his promise we would dive the next day he simply disappeared. Then the day after he never mentioned diving again, avoided me and would sort of look away in guilt whenever I made eye contact.

Strange, I´ve never been summarily "dumped" by a diving instructor. Bad enough being kicked out of diving class, but feeling like you were a bad one night stand, and moreover, someone who had paid for it, really has to take the cake.

Perhaps he was just as uncomfortable as I when trying to do my skills tests; the lake´s current kept pushing me directly into Walter´s face as I floundered in my flippers necessitating him to keep pushing me away.

At least C´s spanish has improved and perhaps next time, I will do my confined test within the safety of a currentless pool and a diving instructor who can´t get away.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Bravery of Jaques Costeau

We are currently in the heaven of a small town called Santa Cruz Laguna on the famed Lago De Aititlan. Aldous Huxley called it the most beautiful lake in the world and he wasnt far off. It is a huge aquamarine body of water surrounded by three volcanos. The lake itself was created 85,000 years ago when an enormous volcano exploded creating the crater that became this lake.

The crossing by boat to this small town was somewhat daunting the chop becoming ferocious in the late afternoon. The local captains who appear to be somewhere around 15 and their respective crew 7 years of age, overload you in their rickety boats equipped with seven sorry lifejackets and start the motor to make the tríp to the various towns about the lake. On our soujourn, we were placed at the very front of the boat next to a 6 year old sailor who was responsible for look out and roping the boat up. His Dora the Explorer backpack didnt give me that much confidence in his sailing skills. But then many of the famous mariners of the past who had circumnavitgated the globe didnt have the benefit of at least a kindergarten education either, so who was I to judge.

C glared angrily throughout the trip as lake water poured in and covered her, her hair and our luggage. The little sailor tried to assist by giving her a ripped, dirty plastic tarp to sort of cover her hair which she didnt find to be very effective. As the boat lurched across the lake tossing and pitching in the white caps, I began laughing. At the rear of the boat two American hippies in their late 60s decided to lift everyones spirits by pulling out some Mayan flute and playing away. I was just glad C didnt have a hangover like I did or I think, she would have gladly sacrificed the guy to San Simon.

The lodge we are at specializes in scuba diving at high altitudes. We were excited to be getting our open water license, C especially, until she started watching the diving video which warned you never to hold your breath under water, even shallow water with a regulator, as your lungs will explode. Immediately she opted out of the course and decided to take Spanish.

I bravely continued on and mastered easily the many quizzes about the terrible things that could happen to you while diving. I felt confident that I would pass my first open water confined dive. That is until I tried.

First they dress you up in a massively restrictive wet suit. Next you are loaded down with the Buoyancy Control Device, your octopus, your regulator and pressure gage. Next comes the steel tank filled with oxygen and your leaded weight belt. Mine seemed to have eighty weights in some sick ratio to the degree to which I am on the heavy side. Finally comes your flippers and mask.

I felt like a medieval knight and fervantly wished for a hoist to lift me into the water. Instead Walter, my diving instructor, and I had to walk in little booties down to a pier some way away on a crooked cobble stone and dirt path up and down over little bridges of crumbling concrete.

At finally arriving at our destination, soaked in sweat from the wet suit which completetly insulates one, Walter told me to now remove alll my equipment which had taken me such time to put on and do a swimming test. The choppy waters and buoyant wet suit meant that the only swim I could effectively do was a backstroke as the suit kept rolling me onto my back.

After floundering backwards to another pier and back it was out of the water and back on with my equipment.

We jumped into the water and so far so good. I figured out how to add and subtract air from my vest. We put the regulators on and breathed in and out underneath the water. I was able to breathe under water without mask. I could take my regulator out and put it back in. I could purge my regulator. I was able to throw away my regulator careful to blow out and not hold my breath lest my lungs explode and recover it blind.

Now for the test involving flooding your mask with water and getting rid of it. As I was wearing contacts I was required to do this with eyes closed. Unfortunately it involves blowing air out of your nose while being careful not to breath it back in by way of nasal passages while continuing to breathe through your mouth regulator. Again and again I tried it while being bounced around by the afternoon chop. I kept motioning to surface. Walter started looking at his watch. "What´s wrong" he asked. "I keep thinking I´ll breathe in water through my nose instead of my regulator, its scaring me". "Why" he replied. Hmmm...I thought, well for one, I am not a fish, I cannot breathe under water. He looked at his watch again.

We shall try again tomorrow and Walter, being the great teacher that he is and wonderful sport, promísed that if I cant get my PADI license, we´ll still just do some scuba diving around the piers.

Oddly enough breating under water and swimming around doesn´t bother me at all. I guess I must try tonight to blow out of my nose while breathing through my mouth.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Chichicastenango: The Fantá´s in the Fire

Just before Christmas the Mayan highland town of Chichicastenango holds the fiesta for the patron saint of the town: Santo Tomas. All the Maya from the countryside flock to the town for this week long festival. As in most Mayan areas, it is a sacred Christian event melded with and often overwhelmed by paganism.

To begin with, the Church of Santo Tomas has a Christian altar at the front but four large stone altars run down the middle. Here the Maya light candles and worship the ancient pagan gods representing earth, sky, sun and moon. The family kneels in front of the stones and places candles chanting prayers and incantations in Quiche or whatever Maya language they happen to speak. The oldest appears to be responsible for speaking on behalf of the family. Shamans burn incense in large empty tins which resemble paint cans waiving them in front of the images of Saints who are in fact a cover for the gods.

At the front people will pray the appropriate Catholic saint giving offerings of bottles of Coca Cola which the worshipper rotates in front of the effigies in a particular pattern. Other supplicants crawl back and forth on their knees deep in fervant prayer, dressed in tradtional Mayan dress clutching white candles.

Outside of town, up a very high hill is a place among pines where an ancient Mayan god is worshipped without reference to Christian symbols. Whole families stood around the altar where shamans built fires for each clan. The people made offerings to the god: of liquor, flowers, Coca Cola and even bottles of Fanta. We watched as the shamans tended the fires and poured the libations on the flames. One family had sacrificed a chicken which sat cooking in the flames. While the family shamans made incantations, family members stood by eating,drinking and laughing like anyone on a summer´s picnic.

Down in the town, thousands of Maya lit fireworks, all dangerous and illegal in Canada. Some, the big booming ones that didn´t have any colour, were to call people to mass. Outside the church thousands of mini dynamite fire crackers were lined along the steps of the 500 year old church and lit repeatedly by shamans, young men or Catholic confradis who stood on the steps dressed in Maya finery in front of enormous effigies of Saints, decorated with feathers, mirrors, weaving of apples and other fruits. The firecrackers shot shrapnel through the throngs and you had to stand back and cover your face lest you get shrapnel burns. The paper from burnt firecrackers is almost knee deep at places, the scene always obscured by smoke from incense or fireworks.

When the Saint´s are paraded through the town, they are followed by Mayan women with burning white candles. Mid-way down the street, they meet with a shaman who has covered the ground with a carpet of large fresh green pine needles. In the middle he has made magical patterns out of rose and flower petals. The saints must be blessed by him and he waves incense from his paint can before they can cross the sacred ground.

At the base of the steps celebrants virtually all men, completely hammered on moonshine danced dizily almost falling at each step to marimba music while the austere shamans, in Maya clothing wearing Apache like headwear, looked on. Fallen on the ground lay men and women so drunk and passed out they looked dead. Sometimes this could in fact happen on moonshine. As Josh a guide commented, the streets on fiesta days can resemble a massacre.

During the fiesta, a number of Maya dress in astounding gold, silver and black costumes, with masks adorned in gold, representing blond European men. They are playing the part of conquistidors and do dances. In some they rattle angrily at each other, in others they dance with a Toro or maybe a jaguar.

The few tourists there, like me, stand open mouthed and take photo after photo. The Maya themselves, look through you. No interest in us except for the occassional little child who giggles at my glasses, my blond hair or my tattoo. You could be a ghost. A gringo is of no importance. You are not the world just something by the wayside.

San Simon: One Tough God

If I didn´t have photos to prove this, everyone would think C and I were making this up. In fact last night an employee at the lodge we´re staying in could only say: you´re drunk¨ when we reported on our encounter with San Simon.

The indigenous Mayans in many ways remain a pagan people, much to the chagrin of the evangelists who are taking over Guatemala and to the annoyance of the Catholic church which has basically learned over 500 years to just put up with it. However the church was not so forgiving in the past. There was a Mayan God in the Lago Aititlan region many years ago and a priest became so angry at the idol that he chopped off it´s arms and legs. Suddenly, so the story goes, the god now spontaneously appeared in four more regions of the country. He was eventually called San Simon "Saint Simon" but he is also thought to be Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ, Pedro Alvarado the butcher Conquistador who slaughtered the Aztecs as well as a form of an old Mayan fertility god. In any event whoever he is, is one mean hombre.

In the town of Zunil where one of the manifestations of the God has appeared, San Simon holds court and many come to pray to him and ask of him favours or relief from or the placement of curses. San Simon can help people but he can also do very bad things should a worshipper request such a favour.

Every year the Confradis or Catholic Mayan lay brotherhood decide in whose house he will reside for the year and in a large procession which is helf on October 28 he is carried to his new home. It is considered a great honour to have San Simon in your domina and the householder will benefit from some of the revenues from photo-ops charged for a picture of San Simon. However with the honour comes the many tasks involved in hosting him.

C and I were taken to visit San Simon by Josh, a guide who has lived in Xela for many years and has a very depthful knowledge and respect of the country and the Mayan people. He tried to prepare us for San Simon but I am not sure anyone could properly do this.

We walked down a small alleyway in the little town, following hand painted signs saying "San Simon this way". We came to a concrete garage space where there was the seat of San Simon. He was a mannequin, the kind from a department store, and of a male child I think, wearing what appeared to be an expensive motorcycle suit, golden hip hop bling hanging around his neck, a thin black moustache painted on the mannequin face. He sported black leather gloves, a red Bloods´ bandana on his head over which sat a large cowboy hat. He held a wooden staff and wore very tough cowboy boots. He also sported dark aviator sunglasses too large for his face and smoked a lit cigarette from a cigarette holder. He looked alot like Duke from Doonesbury frankly and the comparison doesn´t end there. San Simon, like Duke, relishes a lifestyle of danger and excess.

In front of him on the ground were some 60-70 lit candles in an array of colours representing the prayers that people had asked him to fulfill. On the floor amidst the candles were shapes set out in coloured sand representing spells.

A Shaman dressed in ordinary clothes helped a man at the altar who had come to ask San Simon for some kind of help. He snapped his fingers repeatedly above the man's head and chanted incantations; he removed the enormous cowboy hat and placed it on the supplicant's head so that he could share San Simon´s power.

After the incantations ended, the supplicant and Shaman got up and went over to San Simon, the Shaman tipped the chair back and the old man, still sporting the magical hat, poured Guatemalan fire water down San Simon´s throat, apparently a favourite liquor of his. Once San Simon had finished his drink his chair was returned to his resting postion and the Shaman lit a new cigarette put it in the holder and returned it to San Simon´s mouth.

Josh advised that San Simon´s clothes are changed daily and he is always adorned with the bling, sunglasses and tough guy outfit. At night the host or Shaman undresses San Simon and puts him to bed and wakes him the next day, dress him and places him again in his chair.

Outside the garage, a small homespun store sold candles, firewater liquor and cigarettes, all for supplicants as offerings to San Simon.

In back of the house large piles of ashes covered three homemade alters where sacrifices were made to the God. The remains of feathe roasted sacrificial chickens lay cold in the black soot. A pen of potential sacrifices sat nearby, the hens and roosters clucking and apparently oblivious to their fate as offering to this one very tough god. Hanging from the front of the concrete alter hung a severed chicken head that stared back at us; a reminder for C as to why it was not a good idea to liberate this current batch.

I duly paid my 20 Quetzales for two photos, even though the Shaman only noticed that I took one. I was relieved at my honesty as I watched as the Shaman placed my bills into the basket which sat on San Simon´s lap.

An ancient fertility God, a Conquistador and the man who betrayed Christ. Like the Mayans, I had no wish to cross him.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Homeland Security

C and i sit in Antigua, Guatemala waiting for a shuttle to take us from this town to the Mayan spiritual home of Chichicastenango. Antigua sits beneath three huge volcanos: one a classic pyramid shape, another consisting of two matched volcanos and the third a huge creature which belches lava, smoke and rock day and night. At sunset yesterday the firey smoke from Pacaya, the very active sister, looked like an orange torch of fireworks.

Our adventures have been limited so far, having been here only since 3 yesterday, though C might be nominated for the Darwin Awards by the Office of Homeland Security. At the airport in T.O. she espied an abandoned bag sitting by a door, away from any secured zone and being the good Samaritan she is, despite my repeated warnings, picked it up and brought it into the airport and wandered around with it. She finally found an open Air Transat counter and announced to the workers there that she had found this abandoned bag outside and would they please take it. She put it on the counter and I watched as the terrified staff ran away and yelled: Ï don´t want it, it could be a bomb, take it away¡

C responded by running backwards. Luckily we were not in Israel or no doubt she would have been shot. Luckily security showed up immediately to investigate the leper bag and C was not taken into custody for interogation.

I was happy she did not do something similar in the George Bush International Airport in Houston during our stopover. The airport swarms with soldiers on leave from Iraq and Afghanistan going home for Christmas. The quantity of military personnel is astounding. It reminded me of Israel where everyone between 18 and 20 is in uniform. Most of the soldiers appear to be poor white young men and women most from the south judging by their accents as they excitedly call family and announce they will soon be home.

Here in Antigua we were awakened at the ungodly hour of 6:45 am by some workers who elected to blast strange Guatemalan latin versions of Christmas carols downstairs. I used to love The Little Drummer Boy but fear it may be now ruined forever. I never realized how repetitive it is until it was accompanied by a reggae beat. The sing along aspect of the carols did not assist in our enjoyment of them nor the fact that all night people came and rang the doorbell starting at 2 am to get back into the hotel. I would have preferred the hated insomniac rooster from Nazareth.

More soon from Chi Chi...