Market Day in Chichicastenango

Published: November 24th 2013
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As we awaited our lunch, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the largest chicken I have ever laid my eyes upon as it was being wrestled out of a plastic bin bag by the owner of our chosen eatery. We were somewhere in the pulsing heart of the markets of Chichicastenango, renowned for being one of the best in all of Central America. Anyway, back to the chicken. Caroline and I were hungry and I wondered if this particular chicken would be the one that would end up on our plates. Alas, it lived to fight another day, with the lady who ruled over the cooking pots deciding it wasn’t worth spending her money on. It was plunged back into the bag, wings flapping and feet clawing and scratching in its vain search for some solid ground for a fleeting chance of freedom. Its owner hoisted the bag off the ground and swung her way along to the next kitchen in hope of finding a buyer. Seeing this local interaction took my mind back to the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo, for they are similar in that they are not only places that draw tourists, but are also essential trading points for the locals too, as they have been for many, many years.

The purpose of our visit to Chichicastenango was primarily to purchase Christmas presents. We are landing in Australia on Christmas Day and it wouldn’t do if I saw my family for the first time in a year without any gifts! Having spent the bulk of the last few years in Latin America, gifts from this region of the world seem apt.

The vibrant colours of the handmade fabrics here are visually arresting, alongside the leather goods all tooled by hand. Just by walking the streets of the villages in the highlands of Guatemala, you can see Mayan descendants still using a traditional loom to create their shawls and so on. On market day, any traveller is accosted by a swarm of colourfully clothed ladies thrusting items before your eyes, quoting ever-changing prices. As you negotiate, you are increasingly surrounded by a condensing ring of women, none of whom are over five feet in height, usually with at least two gold teeth (and maybe missing a similar number of chompers too).

If you listen carefully as you wander through the markets, you realise that you only hear Spanish being spoken in negotiations with tourists. The locals have their own dialect, linked to the language of the Mayas. Chichicastenango is also a place where traditional pre-Christian beliefs are still followed, using shamans, hallucinating agents and even a smoking God. Considering the number of active volcanos here, it’s hardly surprising that they have a god linked to smoke and fire. On the steps of the church in the midst of the market there were traders selling flowers, fruits and vegetables, whilst inside people were approaching the altar on their knees, candle in hand. At the same time on a nearby hill there was a sacred Mayan spiritual ritual taking place involving fire and stone. Unlike the southern countries of Central America, Guatemala still has a strong native culture, from language and dress to spiritual beliefs. The Spanish conquistadors and the Catholic priests weren’t able to completely eliminate what already had existed here and the melting pot is well and truly on display during market day in Chichicastenango.

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