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A Pilgrimage to Guatemala

I had always wanted to travel to Guatemala, and my neighbors the Amaya family were taking their large truck on a pilgrimage to Esquipulas for Holy Week. After hearing all the details of everyone else's trips, it sounded like an experience that I just couldn't miss. I asked Don Jose Amaya if I could go with him and his family. He was more than happy to have me come along for a small fee. I also thought it would be a good idea for me to get out of town in case both Nahun and Edwin happened to show up for Spring Break. The whole plan seemed very well thought out, somehow.

The family that I traveled with were leaders in the community, and they owned a big truck or camion. They lived in one of the nicest houses in town had four daughters and a son. Sometimes, in the mornings the girls would blast music at 6am! For a while, their favorite song was Whitney Houston's, "I will Always Love You" translated into Spanish. Don Jose otherwise known as Don Chepe had been the mayor, and he, his wife, Dona Argentina, and their daughter Evelyn (23) sat in the front seat of the truck. They carried about 25 paying passengers including me in the back of the large flatbed truck where they had benches set up. It was a crowded, jiggly, long ride to Esquipulas through the departments of Lempira, Gracias, and then into Guatemala.

We left from Concepcion on the Monday morning of Holy Week. I took my seat in the back of the camion along with the rest of the travelers. It was a pretty quiet but rough ride. In the middle of the day, they took a break and everyone got out and collected firewood for cooking. Towards the end of the day, they pulled up to an area along a river and parked. It was time to camp Honduran style. Most people just had a blanket, and were going to stay on the bare earth. They were intrigued with my camping mat and sleeping bag! The women set up camp and started cooking. We ate and went to bed. At 3:00am the women were up and cooking breakfast! We got an early start, and went over the border. I gave Don Chepe my passport, and everyone gave him their papers. I'm not sure if this was the best way for me to do it, but he got my passport stamped at the little border crossing building. Then, we continued to Esquipulas, which is located very close to the border.

We came rolling into a parking field behind the cathedral, which was covered in garbage. Immediately, they started setting up camp, and I ran to look for a hotel in town. I found a nice one with two beds and came back and invited Evelyn to stay with me. We arranged that I would eat with the group at the truck, and Evelyn would stay with me. It was fun staying together in the hotel, as she was my favorite daughter of the family. The family had access to the bathroom, too.

First on the agenda was a visit to see the statue of the Black Christ. Everyone from our group went into the basilica or cathedral, and lined up with the rest of the pilgrims to touch the statue of Cristo Negro. Many people kissed the statue or touched it after kissing their hands. It was somewhat solemn, but there were some people talking in line. Many people also lighted candles in prayer. When we went outside, there were crowds of people all over the streets. Many of them were camped out on the streets, and in the parks. I couldn't really believe how dirty it was. This wasn't what a I had expected from any part of Guatemala, and I was very surprised and disappointed . The next day, I told Evelyn and Dona Argentina that I was going to Guatemala City for a night. I invited Dona Argentina to stay in my room the night I was gone. She was very appreciative.

I took the four hour long bus ride to Guatemala City, and found a quaint, runned down hotel. Next, I went to the National Palace, and someone gave me a tour. Outside, there was a large plaza where women were selling woven and embroidered goods and clothing. I bought an outfit, a vest, and some gifts. At this open air market, I met an English woman, who knew something about some violence that was going on. She asked if anyone had bothered me, and I said no. Then, she told me about an American woman who had been beat up, and that there was a warning against foreigners traveling. I realized that I might have been the only American crazy enough to be there! As I walked around the streets, I saw beautiful sawdust paintings that were put out on the streets before the Good Friday processions. This was one of the reasons I wanted to be in Guatemala-to see these famous sawdust rugs.

The next day, I returned to Esquipulas on the bus. I was nervous about safety, so I put my cash in my shoes. Nothing happened, except we passed many deforested mountains, cactus, and garbage on the side of the road. It seemed to me, I had picked the two ugliest and dirtiest places in Guatemala. From various people, I had heard how beautiful Guatemala was, but I didn't see that part of it at all.

That Maundy Thursday night, the people from our pilgrimage were going to see a movie, and they invited me to go along. I had no idea what it was about, but I followed them over to a crowded room, and watched them burst in with great enthusiasm. There, we watched a dramatic movie about the life of Jesus Christ. For some, this was the only movie they had ever seen. I found the whole thing rather amusing and boring at the same time. What a cultural experience being with these people and observing what made them tick!

The next day was Good Friday, which was the day of the procession. I went around and looked at all the beautifully painted rugs of sawdust, before they were wrecked by the processions. We then watched the people marching over the rugs with statue floats of Jesus Christ and Mary. After that, people swept away the sawdust, as if the whole thing never happened. It was quite the experience. I also bought a characteristic straw hat with Cristo Negro, painted gourds and flowers on it.

One of the people in our group was the town photographer. He took a picture of me in front of the cathedral, and then I said we should have a beer. He was probably in his early thirties, but had never drunk a beer in his life. He said he would, upon my invitation, and we went to a cantina, where he had his first beer! It was amusing to hear his commentary on it. I don't think it became a regular thing for him, though!

The next day, we took the long trip back to Concepcion. We camped in the same place, but I wasn't surprised by it this time. Then, we rolled into town honking loudly, cheering and wearing our crazy straw hats per Concepcion tradition! Happy Easter! It was Easter Sunday! The whole trip had taken a week from Monday to Sunday.

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