Once again I rode the boat across the lake to Santiago Atitlan.  I met Susanna at her house around 6 PM as we’d agreed.   She and her husband Gitzi were more than hospitable, they were charming hosts.  She was glad that I was interested in the confradía. Especially when I told her the story of the San Lucas Band, and showed her that they are on Youtube, and downloaded the liner notes from the record onto her computer, and confirmed that one of the producers of the record is Linda O’Brian, an ex-nun who is famous in these parts.  Another woman named Karen met us at their house, and Susanna and Gitzi served us all dinner, and then the the four of us rode in their pickup truck to the fiesta.  Susanna is Canadian, Gitzi is Swiss, and Karen is Swedish.  All of them have lived here in Santiago for many years, off and on.

The confradía of San Sebastian is in the house of Juan Mendoza, the Alcalde of the confradía, a leadership position that is apparently hereditary. So the fiesta took place in an extremely crowded room of a house with a shrine to San Sebastian at one end.  It was basically a drunken dance party.

The music wasn’t what I had imagined. I had imagined a local band playing acoustic and out of tune. There was a professional dance band called Sonora Dimension, with about 10 members including two alto saxes, marimba, trumpet, two singers, electric bass, drums, and congas (all men, no women in the band). The band was on the roof of the building, and occupied pretty much the entire roof.  They played dance music, competently and professionally, with a sound system suitable for a sports stadium, and in fact their sound filled the whole neighborhood, through giant speakers on the roof.  In addition, some huge speakers downstairs guaranteed that the sound level would be deafening.

I went up on the roof to watch the band for a while, and a man signaled me to move over to another place because I was standing too near the edge of the roof, which had no railing.  Meanwhile, kids were running around me and playing.

I also imagined that the event would have some qualities of a religious service, with people chanting and lamenting the martyrdom of San Sebastian.  There was no chanting or singing, only dancing and drinking.

Downstairs, the room was crowded enough that when Susanna invited me to dance with her  and Karen, I was in physical contact with  other people. A guy was filling small glasses with beer and handing them to people, who immediately drained the glass and handed it back.  Then it was refilled and handed to someone else.  Later, they were moving on from beer to rum. A lot of people shook my hand and generally acted welcoming.  I would attribute this to several factors:  it’s a friendly and welcoming culture, I was there with Susanna, and they like having a few gringos around to pay for the booze.

I asked Juan (the host) if I could have permission to take a photo of San Sebastian, which he offered willingly.  My camera battery was down and the flash would not work, so even with permission, San Sebastian refused to be photographed.  And I can’t do it justice with words.  The shrine was decorated with many many candles and flowers, plus some balloons, cowboy hats, and other objects.  Off to one side was a lurid crucifix, and in the center was the statue of San Sebastian himself, dressed in hand-sewn robes, a hat, and five or six scarves tied around his neck like neckties.  People handed money to Juan, and he tucked the bills under the scarves of the statue, and then every once in a while someone took some money and went and bought more booze.  I contributed 100Q, and I think maybe that had something to do with why Juan gestured to  me to kneel next to him in front of San Sebastian, and he asked my name and where I’m from and the name of my wife and when I’m returning home, and he did a  big long benediction for me that took at least five minutes, side by side on our knees before the shrine, and this with maybe 100 other people in the room.

As the hour of 10:00 approached, I had to make a decision whether to catch a tuk-tuk before they stopped running, or wait longer and then walk about a kilometer back to my hotel late at night, or wait until maybe 2:00 AM when Susanna and Gitzi would be ready to leave and they would drive me home. For a gringo to be walking alone in a town he doesn’t know, late at night, is not considered safe.  So I departed, walked about 5 or 6 blocks, and found a tuk-tuk.

So, did I have the highlight experience that I was anticipating?  I would say yes it was, and it was outside of what a tourist normally has access to.  But on the other hand I still want to hear the marches and dirges that accompany a procession.  For that, I’ll have to come back for the Semana Santa, which this year falls at the end of March.  I fear that even then, the musicians may be so professional by now, that the enthusiasm mixed with bad intonation and over-blowing of the San Lucas Band may be a thing of the past.  But Gitzi played me a video he made of the procession last year, and the dirges themselves seem to have a built-in clunkiness and bad intonation, or maybe it’s a Mayan set of tones that sounds out of tune to our ears.

Other odds n ends:

I have a bike!  I love it. Getting around by bike instead on foot or in a tuk-tuk is wonderful.  Steve’s friend Mario, a Guatemalan, married a German woman and is moving to Germany, so he was glad to sell his bike.  I took it to a shop where the guy overhauled it for 100Q, maybe about $13.  The gears and brakes and everything work now.  I’ll give it to Steve when I leave.

Dec 2, 1990 is  the date on 13 graves in a memorial park in Santiago.  On that date, the army massacred 13 people.  The people of Santiago rose up in protest, and the army pulled out of town.  It was the turning point of the civil war, when the people of Santiago Atitlan showed the rest of the country that they could empower themselves.

The house where I’m staying is in a narrow alley off Calle Santander, the main tourist drag in Pana.  Santander is jammed with restaurants, hotels, and shops selling crafts and T shirts.  Some of the crafts are tacky, and others are the real thing.  I hate that street because it exists only in order to extract money from tourists, and hardly resembles the rest of Panajachel, or Guatemala.  Hiking with Bear yesterday, he commented that he loves to walk down that street because it is a living museum of arts and crafts that will be lost.  With globalization, and with Spanish language education, those traditions will wither away.

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