Remembering Vanushka on Valentine’s Day

This article includes the very romantic legend of Vanushka. The legend is a wonderful story to share with your loved one on Valentine’s Day. You may want to keep the tradition going by reading it to the one you love! (This article is dedicated to my wonderful partner on Valentine’s Day!)

As you walk into the many tomb filled cemeteries in Guatemala, you can almost feel the air thicken and cool slightly as you walk in. I have visited a number of graveyards in Guatemala – some are nicer than others- but they all leave a similar other-worldly impression filled with tombs with above and below the ground graves. And they all seem to have a slight creepiness to them, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve been repeatedly

Quetzaltenango Cemetery. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

warned never to go to a Guatemalan cemetery alone, especially in the larger cites like Quetzaltenango (“Xela”) or even Antigua since they tend to be stomping grounds for robbers and muggers. Of course, that adds a little adrenaline and more creepiness to the experience of going there.

Nonetheless, the cemeteries here are still very interesting to visit because they are filled with local and national history and of course, lots of local stories and legends. I visited the somewhat delapidated cemetery in Xela and it was no exception. It was more worn down than other cemeteries here

Quetzaltenango Cemetery, Private Section. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

that I’ve seen. Like many cemeteries in Guatemala, Xela’s cemetery has its wealthy private section filled with very large and often extravagant tombs. Some are made of marble or granite, although it is not unusual to find pieces of marble statutes or other items to be missing from tombs from robbers who steal the semi-precious materials and sell it elsewhere.

Then there is the public area that is more modest, sometimes with as little as a mound of dirt with a few dying flowers and marked with a homemade

Quetzaltenango Cemetery, Public Section. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

wooden cross showing the grave of a loved one. The family has to pay a fee every year to keep their family member in the cemetery – but this is only for seven years. Cemetery space is in short supply in Xela so after seven years – you guessed it – the human remains need to be removed and taken somewhere else or discarded. And if the family fails to pay the yearly fee, the government comes along and removes the remains even sooner. Then, it’s anyone’s guess where the remains end up after that. Some families cover the grave with large slabs of concrete in hopes that the government will leave them alone since it’s such a hassle to remove the concrete to get to the remains. But many families are unable to pay for the slab so they are faced with the awful decision of what to do with whatever is left of whoever it was.

Xela’s cemetery is very unique since it features the very popular tomb of their beloved Vanushka- which brings me to the main point of this

Tomb of Vanushka. Quetzaltenango Cemetery. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

romantic blog in honor of Valentine’s Day. Truth be told, just like most guys, I am not a big fan of Valentine’s Day. But I have a romantic side to me and somehow I found myself enamored with the lovely legend of Vanushka, Guatemala’s version of Romeo y Julieta. There are apparently several versions of the story, but they are all a variation of the same theme. And the following is the one I like the best.

Vanushka Cárdenas Baraja was the daughter of a Gypsy family who migrated from Hungary to Guatemala in the early twentieth century. Vanushka and her family performed in a traveling circus that moved around Guatemala for a while before settling in Xela for several months to perform its daring feats. The shows were very popular and attracted lots of people from miles around, and as such, it also got the attention of a number of high profile guests. One of those guests was the son of a very wealthy family from Spain, possibly the son of the Spanish Ambassador at that time. The son saw one of the shows and was completely taken and enamored by Vanushka’s dazzling performance. After the show was over, the young dashingly handsome Spanish man caught a glimpse of the breathtakingly beautiful Vanushka and rushed to where she was to meet her. They were both extremely attracted to each other and the two spent the rest of the evening together and fell head over tails deeply in love.

Knowing that the Spanish son’s family would never approve of him being with Vanushka given her Gypsy background, the young couple embarked on a secret steamy relationship which was unknown to their families, during which time their love for each other deepened and intensified. But of course, their relationship didn’t stay a secret for very long. Somehow, the son’s father found out and was infuriated that his son, who was from such a wealthy and noble family could end up in a loving relationship with a young Gypsy woman from a traveling circus!

Their parents forbade their continued relationship, and separated them by forcing the son to return to Spain, against his wishes, to attend the university there. Of course, Vanushka was devastated, distraught and inconsolable. Sadly, she fell into a deep depression, failed to eat, slowly wasted away and died of a broken heart at such a tender young age.

Vanushka’s Spanish lover did not know what had become of her until he returned to Xela a few years later looking for her. Searching all over, he was eventually told about his beloved’s untimely death. He ran to the cemetery and found her simple tomb. He stayed there for a while, weeping, and he put a single flower on her grave. Each year thereafter, the handsome Spaniard returned to Xela solely to visit his lover’s tomb and to place a single flower on her tomb. He lived well into his eighties but never married since he could never imagine being with anyone other than his cherished Vanushka.

As sad as this story is, this is not how it ends. Soon after Vanushka’s tragic death, a woman who had suffered a similar separation from her own love heard of Vanushka’s story and went to the cemetery to weep at her grave in empathy. Soon thereafter, this women ended up being reunited with her lover which gave rise to the legend of Vanushka. Now, Vanushka’s tomb is

Tomb of Vanushka. Quetzaltenango Cemetery. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

believed to have the power to bring love to those who ask for it of her. As a result, the tomb has been embellished with a statue of the lovesick Vanushka grasping a photo of her treasured lover. The heavily cream painted statue is always covered head to toe with notes and flowers from lovelorn visitors asking Vanushka for help in finding true love, or to be reunited with

Tomb of Vanushka. Quetzaltenango Cemetery. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

estranged partners. Her tomb is the most visited in the entire cemetery. In fact, it receives so many notes, it is regularly painted over and the statue even had to be replaced in 2011.

When we were there, a police car was parked nearby. I suspected there might have been a problem or the officer was there trying to keep the area safe. But sure enough, the police officer was paying Vanushka a visit in hopes of finding true love.

Happy Valentine’s Day from Vanushka and me.

Xela Who?

This article is a continuation of my previous article entitled Quetzaltenango-Rough Around the Edges; And Some Personal Reflections on Coming Back to Guatemala.”

I can’t remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the gunshot. I had been dreaming. My brain was foggy. I opened my eyes. The room was pitch black except for a tiny bit of light peeking under my door. It was cold. The clock on my cell phone showed 4:32 a.m. It took a minute or two for me to remember where I was. I was at the family’s house in Quetzaltanango (or more commonly called “Xela” (shayla) which is the most abrieviated version of its Mayan name, Xelajú noj (sheyla-who-noh), which was shortened to Xelajú (sheyla-who) and then to Xela). It was my first morning here in Xela.

I suddenly remembered that there were supposed to be firecrackers at the neighboring church at 4:30 a.m. to signify the beginning of the celebration of Cristo Negro or Black Christ. Of course. It then occurred to me that the “gunshot” in my dream had actually been the sound of the firecracker from the church. I pushed my earplugs deeper into my ear canals in hopes that any further thundering booms would be muffled. However, anticipating that there would be more, I had difficulty falling back to sleep. I hate firecrackers.

Then, at 5:30 AM, the church bells started ringing. Many of them, in different tones. Why in the world were they doing this so early on Sunday morning?! And mariachi music was blasting from the church’s loud speakers which had been placed just outside the church. More ringing. Ear plugs can only muffle so much. I put the pillow over my head. It helped slightly. The room was freezing. I pulled the covers up higher almost covering my head. After what seemed like a long time, the ringing started to slow down, softened a bit and then finally stopped. But the music continued. I tried to fall asleep but that simply was not going to happen. Maybe I dozed a bit.

By around 6:00 a.m., my ears were assaulted by the sudden loud snapping of hundreds of firecrackers going off at the same time like haphazard machine guns. They popped and cracked incessantly with the music still blaring. This went on for quite a while as well. The firecrackers finally stopped. I tried to doze but I’m not sure if I succeeded. I tossed a little. I still didn’t feel well from the bug I’d been fighting. And I was tired.

I layed in bed for a while until breakfast was almost ready. I had trouble getting out of bed because it was so damn cold. I put on my jeans, the cold denim chilling my legs like bags of ice. I continued to get dressed with more cold refrigerated clothes. Even my shoes seemed frosty as was my sweatshirt. I considered putting on my down jacket but then decided against it since I was only going across the house’s courtyard to get to the kitchen for breakfast. The rectangular colonial house surrounds the courtyard so there are no internal hallways connecting my bedroom to the other part of the house. I eventually made it to breakfast and chatted with the mom in Spanish. We both commiserated about the cold (“hay mucho frio“)and how early it was when the firecrackers went off, the bells started ringing and the loco mariachi music. The pancakes she made me were tasty, thin and light. She offered me instant coffee which I politely declined and asked for tea instead. We continued talking although my fatigue made it a struggle for me to find the correct Spanish words to converse with her. Somehow I managed okay. And fortunately my suitcases were still partially packed.

After breakfast, I was still feeling like crap but I decided to take a walk in the city to explore as I love to do. Maybe that would help me feel better. I was still disenchanted by yesterday’s initial meeting with Xela, an unfriendly stranger. The cliché kept playing in my head: don’t judge a book by its cover. I walked past the church next door to our house, Iglesia San Bartolomé, and watched people creating alfombras or street carpets made of colored sawdust with pretty stenciled designs in preparation for the procession later that afternoon in celebration of Cristo Negro.

Alfrombras in Preparation for the Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Next, I wanted to find my way to the Spanish school, Celas Maya, since I would be walking there the following day, Monday, for my first day. The lessons are five hours a day, one-on-one instruction in which we sit at small tables in a lovely open garden area of a converted old colonial house. I made it there in about 15 minutes, about a mile. Then I proceeded to explore the immediate area of Xela but my negative impressions didn’t change. At least not yet.

Metropolitan Cathedral, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

I walked around the Parque Centro América (the central park) that was fairly nice, somewhat pretty and it was fun to people watch. Lots of people were milling about, kids were playing as hundreds of pigeons were being fed, and vendors were selling colorful toys, junk food snacks, souvenirs and of course, bird food. I then went across the street to the remains of the Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, the beautifully detailed facade of the original

Facade of Iglesia del Espíritu Santo, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

cathedral that was built in 1532, but was later destroyed by earthquakes in 1853 and 1902. Xela’s newer Metropolitan Cathedral which sits next to the Iglesia was completed in the 1990s and is impressive and actually beautiful. Mass was underway and the huge cathedral was packed inside with parishioners with more people overflowing outside. I watched for a little while and then decided to continue with my walk.

I came to a large stately building with columns which peaked my interest. There were statues of poets outside and someone told me it was a municipal building. I later found out it was actually a theater for live performances. Unfortunately, nothing is playing this time of year. I continued my walk but found lots of shops closed. I happened to notice a makeshift train traveling through the streets filled with kids and probably their parents. The locomotive had been created by covering a tractor with painted metal panels to make it look like a locomotive along with a passenger car that was actually a converted bus to make it look like a train. The weak horn sounded hoarse and fatigued and the whole contraption was spewing heavy smoke from the smokestack as it drove around the area.

Street Train, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

My impression of Xela was beginning to improve slightly but I still found it dirty, in disrepair and it seemed to lack charm. Apparently, once the Spaniards moved out of the city, the Germans moved in which explains why some of the architecture in the central historic district has a somber feel, with the buildings looking dreary, gray, worn and old. My Lonely Planet travel book said that Xela is the “perfect Guatemalan town, not too big not too small.“ The book also promised that “by Guatemala standards, it is an orderly, clean and safe city.” Actually, it’s not. Sadly, there is lots of trash around, tons of roaming street dogs and their droppings, pollution from the vehicles, volcanic ash in the air, and drivers speed dangerously through the streets with little regard to pedestrians making it very risky to try and cross the streets. And even the family I’m staying with and the school warned me not to be out at night, to be extra careful in crowded areas, not to hike alone in the Cerro El Baul, a forested lava dome near the house and to never take a chicken bus alone.

Iglesia San Bartolomé next door to my house with Cerro El Baúl behind, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.

As it was after lunchtime, I wasn’t really hungry but I felt I needed to eat something so I ended up at Pollo Campero where at least I could get a piece of chicken. Since many restaurants seemed to be closed on Sunday, the other options seemed to be McDonald’s or Taco Bell which I quickly ruled out. After lunch, I walked around through different streets in the direction of the house since I wanted to get back for the Cristo Negro church festivities including a procession that was supposed to begin around 3 p.m. along with a carnival of kiddie rides and lots of food vendors selling lots of fried everything.

Mass had already begun at neighboring church, Iglesia San Bartolomé which seemed fairly full. The mass was being amplified through loudspeakers outside of the church that could be heard throughout the neighborhood. Deafening firecrackers went off periodically throughout the service. Eventually, the procession started with a group of people exiting the church carrying a small platform or anda bearing an imagin or

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

religious statue of the Cristo Negro with a small band following behind playing somber music. Hundreds of people lined the nearby streets as the

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

procession left the church and entered the city’s streets with thousands of firecrackers going off. It was an impressive site. I ran into the family that I’m living with at the church. The mom was nicely dressed and the dad looked handsome and disguished in his gray suit.

I learned that this was the celebration of the Black Christ of Esquipulas which is a wooden image of Christ now housed in the Cathedral Basilica of Esquipulas in Esquipulas, Guatemala. It is one of the Cristos Negros of

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Central America and Mexico. According to tradition, the imagin of Cristo Negro was apparently found in a cave and had healing power. The image had been sculpted by a Portuguese artist in 1594. It blackened over the

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

years due to soot from the candles and incense. There are many legends concerning the Cristo Negro involving answered prayers and miraculous cures of illnesses that have enhanced its reputation. Many people come and pray, and ask for help in front of this religious icon which has been credited with miraculous healing powers.

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

I continued to follow the procession for a while but then I decided to explore some more streets. After a while as I was heading back to the house, I intercepted the procession once again since it was still going so I had a chance to experience it a second time and of course, take some additional photos.

I got back to the house in time for cena (dinner) and we had a nice discussion about the festivities and the procession. By that time, I was feeling a little better. I realized that I was now living in the heart of Guatemala, in a hard-core intense non-English speaking city which was actually the type of immersive experience that I had been hoping for. Presented with this challenge, I committed to staying the month and then proceeded to completely unpack my suitcases. It was getting very cold in my bedroom, probably down into the lower 40s since the house has no heat. I got my things ready for school and went to bed on the early side under four blankets and fell asleep wondering what this new experience was going to be like.

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved

Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Procession of Cristo Negro, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved
Cristo Negro Carnival, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Cristo Negro Carnival, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.
Cristo Negro Carnival, Quetzaltenango. Photo by Steve Karbelnig, all rights reserved.