The Mayans at the end of the world

Baktun in ChichicastenangoI’m a child of the 90s and in the post-Cold War vacuum I grew up in, my tv-addled brain was regularly filled with predictions about the end of the world. 2012 was a scary concept. I lost a lot of sleep one night after watching a program about the Earth’s impending doom, as predicted by the end of the Mayan calendar. Which was seemingly backed up by Nostradamus.

Given that you’re reading this, obviously the end of the world didn’t happen. I can confirm this. We were right there at Ground Zero in Guatemala – where the Mayans lived – and the world continued on almost as usual. On the morning of the 21st we got up before dawn in Antigua (Guatemala), and spent the day in a minivan driving to Mexico. (More about that trip later.)

Cake in Panajachel

One night in Panajachel in Guatemala, at a cake stand on the street, I met a Guatemalan-American couple. The couple had travelled from the States for the end of the Mayan calendar celebrations (‘Baktun’) on the 21st. I felt a little put out to have timed it wrong to catch the party but they assured me that at Chichicastenango, where I was heading the next morning, the celebrations would be starting on the main market day (every Thursday). The cake, by the way, was one of the best things I ate on my holiday.

Our tour guide at the time, Ernesto, suggested that the whole Baktun thing had been concocted for tourists. However, the majority of people I saw at the celebrations the next day looked like locals: men in cowboy hats, women in traditional dress and children running about. There was a big procession of colourful floats with feathers, accompanied by smoke, incense and heart-stopping crackers.

The Baktun celebrations in Chichicastenango
The Baktun celebrations in Chichicastenango

After a few hours of wandering around the market, we sat down to lunch at one of the stalls off the main square, and listened to the band playing while eating fried chicken with vegetables and black tortillas. I always seem to be gawking at festivities in foreign places. And as is often the case when I’m a tourist, I never really understand what’s going on.

It was a hot day in ‘Chichi’ and the market was a little overwhelming with its endless stalls, but we were in the right mood to be there. I enjoyed seeing the handicrafts and use of colour, such as the colourful local cemetery at the edge of the market. We did our bit for the local economy and spent most of our remaining queztals on things that would be useful back home…including a beach towel featuring The Last Supper!!

Guatemala has a large indigenous population with people from different ethnic groups but the one thing they all have in common is that they’re really short. Probably a combination of genetics and poor nutrition. Walking around the market I felt like a giant at 161cm, and was a foot taller than the small women carrying babies in slings – who would push us out of the way in the narrow pathways. Some of the guys I was travelling with were almost a foot taller than me so you can imagine how tall they were compared to the locals. Not that their height deterred the women from pushing them aside as well.

ChichicastenangoWhen I first started travelling I absolutely loved visiting local markets in different places…and I still like it, but I’m a bit more jaded now because the things on offer look more and more the same (I also wrote about this in a previous blog post about Vietnam). A lot of stuff that gets passed off as local is made in other places – I mean, I’m pretty sure that all of the world’s pashminas come from a factory in China. In Guatemala, there’s still a strong culture of handicrafts but a lot of traditional practices are being lost. From looking at the spools of fabric for sale, natural dyeing techniques for threads are largely a thing of the past.

As we were walking towards the van to go home, a little girl accosted me and tried to sell me some of the stuff she had on her. I didn’t particularly want any of it but she persisted and she followed me all the way to the door of our departing van. She was desperately trying to sell me a Christmas decoration that had briefly caught my eye and she begged me to pay 30 quetzals for it ($2.50). I refused. Eventually though, I caved in but for less than the price she asked for. She wasn’t exactly in a strong bargaining position with the car engine revving. I then proceeded to feel guilty about the whole transaction for the next few days because I really should have given her more, if only to satisfy my conscience. Guatemala is a very poor country and the extra dollar would have meant far more to her than me.

And this little incident is what I find difficult about being a tourist in developing countries. The income disparity between me and the majority of locals is a huge gaping chasm with few ways across. I hate bargaining, but I really hate being ‘ripped off’ – which has happened plenty of times – and being pressured into buying – which has happened even more. So shopping at markets often creates dilemmas for me.

It wasn’t the end of the world while we were in Central America and my childhood fears didn’t come to pass – but I was often reminded that I come from a place that might as well be a different world.

Chichicastenango*In case you were wondering, I used Picasa filters on my photos.

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