Semana Santa - the pageant that Antigua Guatemala is perhaps most globally famous for, yet also the one time of year I have never been over there.
V has repeatedly warned me off being present during Antigua's annual transformation into The Jerusalem of the Americas. "It's a total nightmare", she insists: characterised by heat, dust and hordes of Catholic hypocrites "dressed up like dickheads", a symbolic expression of collective ignorance and enslavement to routines of thought and behaviour that are only partially understood and appreciated - in short a veritable parade of all the values she has struggled to shake off throughout her adult life. (Not a bunny or chocolate egg to be seen either!)
I too have an antipathy to crowds and a suspicion of collective rituals. Indeed, I've often wondered whether my unambivalently positive feelings about Antigua could survive exposure to this spectacle, which would have to be both magnificent and ridiculous in fairly equal measures.
On this particular trip however, I did at least manage to get a bit of a taster, as it would ultimately encompass the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Cuaresma (Lent), the slow funeral march towards Easter week.
Cuaresma is the time when the less grandiose religious houses outside the centre get to push or carry their andas in solemn procession, anticipating on a smaller scale the frenzies associated with the progress of the sacred image of Jesus Nazareno de la Merced, which will have made its way around the cobbled streets of Antigua yesterday - Domingo de Ramos. (The original image, carved in 1655, was relocated to Guatemala City after the massive Santa Marta earthquake in 1773, but made its first official visit to Antigua for about a decade on the third weekend of Lent. )
The largest event I witnessed was the procession of the church of San Bartolome Becerra. Festivities kicked off on Friday night with the Velación (vigil) which sucked in thousands of visitors from towns across Sacatepequez. Most turned up in Bluebird 'school' buses which were abandoned on grass verges along the main road outside this small colonia on the south-western outskirts of Antigua. Their occupants piled out and joined the crowds surging through the narrow streets towards the main square.
Inside the dimly-lit interior of the church was a massive carpet of coloured sawdust, framed by pineapples, coconuts and candles. Proper organisation would have entailed a system of channels and ropes a bit like US Immigration or Disneyland allowing the crowd to file towards and past the carpet in good order, but good order isn't something the Guatemalans really go in for. Instead the church was filled by an enthusiastic mass of shoving humanity. Stop pushing for just a moment and you would immediately find yourself locked in the jaws of the crushing clamp formed by the two warring tribes moving towards and away from the holy rug. It's all done with a most good natured kind of violence.
The plazuela outside the Church buzzes with the sound of generators feeding the lights that illuminate rows of junk food stalls and the smoke from incense and bubbling oil and cow fat that drifts between them. There's a fairground atmosphere, teenage couples go hand in hand, while the older generations circle around in an effort to count off all the members of their extended families.
On the following Sunday morning we had to get out of bed at first light in order to parade in amazement past all the wonderful multi-coloured carpets composed with sawdust, flowers, pine-needles, coroso stems and other ingredients according to the taste and creativity of the households whose facades they grace. I had been told that some of the most intricate designs result from the all-night labour of families whose homes will be passed by this particular procession alone. From 7am that morning until long after sun-down these short-lived masterpieces are trampled in solemn sequence.
However, on Sunday 6th of March during the Santa Ana procession, once of these carpets fell victim to the spinning wheels of a Dodge Ram V8. "Respete por favor!!!" screamed the householders at the would-be apostate in the driver's cabin, who responded by spinning his tyres even more, spewing pine needles in all directions. "Fortunately nobody was carrying a gun", reported the local paper. These are indeed joyous times for the sacrilegious. 45 cars were stolen that same day in the centre of Antigua alone. (Meanwhile I happened upon another stricken carpet that looked like a rectangular section of red and blue beach with multiple dog tracks written in its sand.)
People come from all over Central and South America to participate in the larger processions, heading for a particular church on arrival in order to sign on to the carry the anda for a particular stretch of its journey. The most expensive slots are the salida, the departure from the church, and the passage through the parque central alongside the cathedral where thousands of tourists and well-wishers are your witness as well as, tal vez, the Almighty himself.
The more substantial processions include Judios (Jews) with pointy red headgear and Roman soldiers with 'realistic' sandals and helmets crested by broom brushes. The most elaborate outfits, such as the Roman centurions, belong to the community, but just about every useful male member of Antigua society possesses his own purple Cucurucho costume. Purple is the ever-present colour of Cuaresma and the exquisite pain that it symbolises, an emotional shading further emphasised by the spectacular blooming of the Jacaranda trees across Guatemala during Lent.