The Western Highlands – the story so far…

Every picture tells a story, and here are some of ours from around Quetzaltenango/ Xela thus far.

The museum of Zunil

This very cute, family run place was a joy to visit – just the kind of museum I like: two rooms, no more than 20 minutes to see everything, and no unnecessarily long information boards that you feel obliged to read in full, despite knowing you will remember nothing five minutes later. We got a personal tour, and learnt a lot in a small space about the culture and traditions of the village. Indigenous culture is strongest in the Western Highlands. This is most evident, to the untrained eye at least, in the costume (or traje) that the people (mostly the women) sport. The design of the fabulously coloured and patterned cloth is specific to the community, and there are artisans that use traditional weaving techniques in each pueblo that keep the traditions alive.

The work is hard, as the museum’s proprietor, and master weaver demonstrated. It takes weeks to make the full costume, and a fine example can set you back up to Qtz 3,500, 280 quid. A huge amount of money, in anyone’s book, let alone in a country like Guatemala where 51% of the population live below the national poverty line. For this reason women often only have one or two outfits, and families often argue about inheritance of the clothes when someone dies. Even at this high price the daily rate for the weaver when you divide by the number of days it takes to make some of the clothes is absurdly low. I can’t remember exactly unfortunately, but it shocked me.

The lady wears traditional costume - the intricate blouse is called a 'huipil'

San Simon, or Maximon

Also in the village of Zunil we found the shrine of San Simon, or Maximon – a saint with some interesting habits. Revered by many indigenous people, but not recognised by the church, San Simon enjoys drinking, smoking and money. In Zunil he occupies a special, darkened, smoky shrine. Dressed in Western clothes, and dark glasses he receives supplicants who bring him the things he likes best, and in return he listens to their requests for help. An attendent looks after him, making sure he has a constantly lit cigarette in his mouth, tapping his ash for him so it does not soil his suit. We witnessed a fascinating scene where a man brought rum to San Simon. The mannequin was tipped back and the rum poured into his mouth, dribbling down into a bowl below, later to be sold at an inflated price – kind of like holy firewater I guess.

The story goes (in Zunil at least, there are different versions) that San Simon was a prisoner from Europe sent to Central America as penance. He escaped and rampaged around the countryside, sleeping with women while their men were working in the fields, and generally causing nuisance. Eventually he was killed by irate locals. However, after his death, his body was exhumed by an enthusiastic woman who was in awe of his white skin. She preserved his body, and set up a shrine to him in her house. Eventually the idea caught on and many people began to visit, bringing incense, candles, etc.

The shrine of San Simon is taken very seriously, and apparently people have been beaten up for making fun of the extraordinary spectacle. He has a day dedicated to him at the end of October, I couldn’t help thinking that in honour of the saint of vice there would be a great party!

Pics cost Qtz 10 each - what else would you expect?!

Copavic glass factory

Apparently one of the most successful cooperatives in Guatemala, the Copavic glass factory was a delight to behold. Behind a rusty corregated iron door, lay a hive of artisan activity. Once our eyes grew accustomed to the dingy light, and the smell of the propane-fired kilns we could watch glass-blowers at work. Using 100% recycled glass, men of all ages and abilities (from the apprentice to the true aficianado) blew jugs and tumblers from the molten glass as though they were playing with balloons. We were offered a turn, and demonstrated just how difficult it is with misshapen globules of glass flopping sadly on the end of the rod after a couple of puffs.

Men at work

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