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.