We dressed warmly, packed jackets and water into a daybag and walked out of the Possada with torches in hand. The sky was dark, the moon hidden by clouds and the heavy smell of wood smoke lingered in the damp night air. The crickets chirped incessantly as we turned onto the dirt track towards the village for our rendezvous with Felipe.
Earlier that day, we tumbled out of a microbus to find ourselves in Chajul, a remote village in the Ixil region of Guatemala. My desire was to have been in Tikal for the BIG Mayan ceremony, but everywhere was booked, so we decided to visit Tikal when the celebrations had died down. To say I was disappointed is not enough however, sometimes the Universe has a better plan.
The guide book said ‘Local families also rent out beds in their houses to travellers; you won’t have to look for them, they will find you.” Looking around the village, I saw in an instant that things would be basic. Homes were built from wood and daub with chickens running wild through the open doors.
“Oh Dan, I’m really excited. Where will we sit? Can you see anyone likely to offer us a room?”
We made our way to the Plaza, bought spurious orange flavoured drinks, chips, fried beans and tortillas from a street vendor, plonked our rucksacks on a bench and sat down to eat. The sun was high in the sky and the air was muggy and smoky. Our chosen spot offered little in the way of shade. Moments later, we were surrounded by three children who tried to convince us to have our shoes shined. Their grubby faces may have been charming, but our dusty nubuck hiking boots had no requirement for polish.
“Dan, I think we need to move somewhere else, we need to look conspicuous.”
“How much more conspicuous can we be? We’re the only foreigners here. They will find us.”
The women wore traditional Mayan costumes, full length wrap around dark red skirts with thin vertical stripes, heavily embroidered huipiles in shades of reds, blues and greens, bright multi-coloured pompommed head bands woven through their plaits and earrings made from old coins that dangled on lengths of wool. Not one of them offered us a room for the night.
“Welcome to Chajul. My name is Felipe and I work in the Bank. I’m also the curator of the museum. You can stay at the Hotel or the Posada,” our new best friend announced in Spanish, without pausing for breath. There was no talk about staying with a family so we didn’t push it and engaged in some small talk instead and resigning ourselves to a night at the Posada.
“Today is an important date for Mayans. We will have a small ceremony at midnight on top of the mountain.”
Seizing my chance, I asked if it was possible to attend. He warned it was a steep 2Km climb in the pitch black, which didn’t put me off, so it was arranged that we would meet in the Plaza at 11pm.
By 10.30pm we were ready and dressed. Moments after leaving the Posada, feral dogs hurled themselves from the shadows, snarling, growling and snapping at our heels. My heart thumped and I clung to Dan for my life.
There was still a mile to go.
“Cock-a-doodle-doo!” I looked up and saw the silhouette of dozens of chickens roosting in the trees. There was no time to enjoy the peculiar sight, time only for flight. The animal cacophony was deafening, worsened by my own yelps and squeals. A faint glimmer of street lights beyond the abattoir , offered hope and encouragement. We quickened our steps. Using the beam from our Maglites to dazzle the dogs, we made it through and arrived at the rendezvous.
Breathless and sweaty, we sat on a low concrete wall to recover. Felipe appeared and invited us to his house for coffee as we had to wait for the arrival of the Mayan priests. He introduced us to Jean Michel, a Belgian who was staying with Felipe and joining us for the ceremony. The room had a table, several chairs and an old television. Images of the main ceremony at Tikal flashed on the screen and the volume was incredibly loud. Felipe went to the television and increased the sound to distortion. The Tikal ceremony seemed fake and staged for television.
The priests arrived, laden with sacred bundles of flowers, candles, a metal pipe welded to a flat plate which resembled a rocket launcher and fireworks. We were a party of seven – two Priests, an Elder and Felipe in full traditional dress, the Belgian and the two of us in hiking gear. One priest swung an incense burner and lead the way, my job was to carry the arum lilies.