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Guatemala Journal
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 santiago sacatepequez

12 noviembre
You may know it as the Day of the Dead in Mexico, in Guatemala November 1st is called All Saints Day. Families flock to cemeteries to decorate graves and visit their ancestors, but the wonderful surprise about this special day is the kites. Guatemaltecas create colorful kites, tiny and gigantic, artistic or whimsical or with socially conscious themes, and fly them high above the cemeteries to release the spirits in a joyous celebration.

A group of us boarded a school van and journeyed to the small town of Santiago Sacatepequez, known for its beautiful kites on this day. Sacatepequez is the name of an area - much like a county. Many of the towns with saint names bear the name of the saint then the geographic area: my school is in Santa Catarina Pinula, the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan all end in Atitlan. This town is close to Antigua, usually less than an hour drive. At the turnoff from the main highway, the buses released people who would walk the long winding road to the village. We drove in closer to town, found a dirt parking lot in a finca (farm) and walked the remaining mile or so to the cemetery, passing kite and craft vendors, aromatic food stands. My friend Kami turned to me with a smile and said "There's nowhere I'd rather be today than here doing this" and I had to agree.

At the top of the hill, before the cemetery, festivities were already under way. Music and a loudspeaker drew us to a stage where the lovely reigning Señoritas of the nearby villages sat, surrounded by a backdrop of kites. A gigantic kite was under construction, with huge bamboo poles supporting a 15 meter frame. We threaded our way through tight crowds at the cemetery entrance to see a panorama of kites, spectators and kite operators, vividly painted grave markers and memorial structures covered with fresh flowers. I wandered the grounds visiting the elaborately designed kites before flight to admire their handiwork. Geometric patterns, religious icons, slogans for social justice, many topped with flags. Young and older men carried kites to high places in preparation for lifting them into the air, and worked ropes tied with rags trailing behind. As you walked, you needed to take care to avoid ropes and running men. Kites fluttered like so many birds with brilliant plumage looping and twisting above us.

Along one side stood several huge kites on display. Poles were used in the center for leverage to raise the big kites. It was quite a spectacle to see one go up! Not long after noon a brisk wind swept through the cemetery giving a welcome lift to many of the airborne kites, but wreaking havoc with the gigantic kites - a collective sigh could be heard as the tall fragile structures sagged and left only the boney skeletons standing. This fleeting art form, as elaborate and labor intensive as the carpets of Semana Santa that are crushed underfoot each day, was ripped and blown so soon after its creation. Soon after their demise we headed out, caught in a slow moving claustrophobic crush of people in the streets.

At the end of October, my school, Colegio Maya, hosted the Central American (small) American schools volleyball tournament - 170 kids. As part of the opening ceremonies, there was a demonstration or, more appropriately, performance of the ancient Mayan ball game of Pelota. Four men in dress similar to those in artwork adorning ancient pottery. Bouncing the ball off a wall like racquetball, the players propelled the ball with soccer (futbol) moves, aiming for a high hoop mounted vertically on the wall. For three long days, yours truly posted volleyball scores and photos in real time, with student photographers feeding me information and digital images. It was exhausting but exciting and a memorable experience for the visiting and hosting players.

A friend and neighbor, Debby our music teacher, is directing the production of Handel’s Messiah at the National Theatre and at one of the most beautiful churches in Antigua this holiday season. I had the pleasure of being a fly on the wall at one of her rehearsals recently - a choir of about 80 people, it will include two soloists from the states at concert time. I invited myself along to listen and photograph and was surprised to be introduced as the official photographer, some of my photos will be submitted to the newspaper. After working on specific sections of the piece for over an hour, the group took a short break. To summon the choir, Debby played the Hallelujah chorus on the piano - everyone walked in singing ("king of kings, forever and ever..."), it was magical! As you look through the photos, imagine 80 voices in harmony...

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