Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mystery Photo 18: Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala.

   This is Lake Atitlan located in the highlands of central Guatemala, and in the heartland of pure Mayan culture. The villagers around here all dress in traditional Mayan dress, with the use of many textiles. In fact, each village has its own textile; so you can tell where people come from by their dress, the ladies by their blouses, and the men by their pants, and sometimes their serapes.
These two women are from the same town -- note their similar blouses.


      Lake Atitlan is compared to Lake Como in northern Italy as being among the most beautiful lakes in the world. But some think Atitlan has Como beat, because there are three inactive but perfect cone shaped volcanoes surrounding Atitlan. The name means "At the water" in a local Nahuatl dialect. Located in the highlands of Guatemala, this lake was formed in a caldera and originally did not have an outlet; this type of lake is called endorheic. But there have been earthquakes in the area and this has caused the lake level to drop even though water from the surrounding mountains drains into the lake. This would suggest that some below water level opening was created by the earthquake to drain some of the water away beneath the ground. The lake is the deepest lake in Central America at 340 meters. Due to the lay of the land in this area, every afternoon a wind strikes up on the lake making it difficult to navigate a boat on the surface. Yet every morning the lake is as calm with a surface like glass. Sunset is also magnificent on the lake. We stayed at a hotel in Panajachel right on the edge of the lake with only a public walkway between us and the shore. This allowed many very beautiful views and photos.

     The villages around Lake Atitlan all have names of Catholic saints as their namesakes, except Panajachel that is. Most people in the villages surrounding this lake are of pure Mayan descent. Each village has its own church and the name usually sounds very Catholic, such as Cathedral de St. James the Apostle in Santiago. The small church on the square is the oldest in Guatemala, built originally in 1547. But the religion is a syncretic one, and the worshipers pray to God, Jesus, and Mary but to several of the ancient Mayan deities as well. Inside the churches the people go to the alter to pray to the first group and often kneel in the center of the church and place candles in special receptacles on the floor to pray to the Mayan gods. Most churches have local priests who are accepting of both these practices. I sometimes wonder what the Vatican would do if it knew about this. Local seminaries teach the priests and teach them these various allowances.
A penitent kneels and lights a candle on the floor in the aisle of the church,
and prays to her Mayan deity.
Note the altar and cross along side, but the candles on floor in center aisle.
The ancient altar in the oldest church.

This plaque is located beneath the altar. It depicts the Last Supper Mayan style.
It was a important event, so the whole community would have been there.

     We saw a lot of evidence of this Mayan culture as we stayed in Panajachel and as we visited some of these villages. Here are some photos of a cultural show that was performed in our dining room at the hotel. It was not particularly fancy but it gave us an idea of the music here and some of the folk dancing as well as the dress of the local Mayan tribes.

     We traveled by boat across Lake Atitlan and visited the largest town around the lake, besides Panajachel. That town is called Santiago de Atitlan. Here we browsed some of the crafts of the local people, especially beautifully woven textiles. We also visited a small textile shop keeper who for a small tip showed us how she wound her headdress onto her head every single morning, a process that is quite lengthy and which creates a very heavy "hat". You can see the results in these photos.

These women are using the lap loom to weave. It wraps around the
waist as an anchor. These textiles line the road to the Lakeshore.

Every morning this young lady wraps her heavy felt hat onto her head.

For a donation, she will demonstrate.

My hat is ready made, but very similar.
 Most important the visit to Santiago allowed us to visit Maximun, a local idol who exists only in Santiago, though some of the other villages in this area have similar idols which go by different names and are surrounded by slightly different traditions. Maximun is a small man who has a face, torso, and very short stumps of legs with shoes on his "feet" so that he is only about 3 feet tall. But his torso can wear man sized shirts and jackets. He resides in  someone's residence in Santiago, and is moved to a different residence every year in May, on a Sunday which usually coincides with Mother's Day in the United States. Several young men are always in attendance on Maximun. They put him to bed to sleep, they clean him and his clothes which are usually gifts from visitors. They even put a cigarette or cigar in his mouth so he can have a smoke, and they tap off the ashes as the smoke burns down. He is sort of a mixture of Catholic saints, Mayan deities and even the personality of a conquistador.  People come to him to ask favors, sometimes praying for something good to happen, but also sometimes asking Maximun to do something bad to someone. When people come to ask his favor, they usually bring him gifts. When we visited Maximun he was wearing at least two shirts, and several ties around his neck, and a hat on his head. There were flowers throughout the room, and there was alcohol. People also bring him cigarettes and cigars and sometimes just money. His attendants often drink the alcohol, and smoke the cigarettes, but some Maximun smokes as explained above. When Maximun moves into a residence, basically the family that lived there before have to leave, because Maximun comes with lots of baggage -- flowers, candles, his great grandfather in a glass coffin, all his gifts of clothing, and several statues of Catholic saints and the Virgin Mary. Also there needs to be a place for his attendants to sit and even lie down and rest in the house. Someone is with Maximun constantly. Following are some photos of this strange wooden figure while we were visiting.

Finding Maximun
We are told Maximun is in the tall house up ahead.
Maximun has a lot of baggage in the residence with him. This is
the casket of his great grandfather, we are told.

One of his attenants, and other gifts, decorations, flowers, candles and
figurines of the Virgin Mary and other saints.
Here is Maxiumn with all his glory, and two atendants.

Maximun is smoking a cigar. 

       We made one other visit from Panajachel, involving a drive away from the Lake Atitlan to the market town of Chichicastanango. You must go on Sunday when the whole downtown and city square become a huge mangle of stalls and corregated huts with vendors of everything from purses and textiles, plastic ware and electronics, to flowers and all sorts of fruits, vegetables, and meats, including live animals and poultry. We had been to the market at Otovalo, in Ecuador so we probably were not as impressed with this market as we might have been. But it certainly was a press of people. We visited two churches that flank the square but it didn't take me long to grow tired of the crowd in the narrow walkways of the market. One must remember that the majority of these people are here to actually purchase what they need and they are somewhat in a hurry. The street surface is cobbled and rough and with the crush of people, and the pushing it is even difficult to maintain one's footing. We left earlier than our guide anticipated but we did see the market at Chichicastanago.

     As you can tell from these beautiful colorful photos, Guatemala contains much culture and provided a very enjoyable visit.

A local version of the tuk-tuk. We have no idea about the Star of David.
A chicken bus. These buses are hand me downs from the US which locals
decorate as they see fit and drive to make money from passengers. They
are called "chicken buses" because 1) people are packed in there like chickens
or 2) people take their chickens on them when they go to market. 

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