Wednesday was Independence Day here in Guatemala. Meaning that festivities started Monday morning and most people have yet to go back to normal schedules. A full review of the week would be impossible, but here are some highlights.
Bombas (fireworks) go off fairly regularly here in Guatemala. It’s your birthday? BOOM! You got a promotion? BOOM! It’s Tuesday night? BOOM! These fireworks are simply noisemakers and do not provide any visual effects. BUT on Independence Day they bust out the good stuff and you get both noise AND light.
Independence Day just wouldn’t be the same without a good parade and they don’t skimp here. I witnessed TWO parades in my training community and while they don’t have the floats that we’re accustomed to in the states, they do have marching bands (with incredible capes and hats), hoardes of children in homemade costumes and countless pageant queens. Every school gets a theme from the community for the parade and they prepare accordingly. One of the major themes was the environment. There were students carrying “PLANT A TREE” banners, kids dressed up as flora and fauna (most of which I doubt even exist in Guatemala…) and crafts depicting pollution. However, I was most taken with the kids dragging stuffed animals with a sign that said “Dead animals in the street”.
The other major theme was patriotic symbols and national culture. Traditional garb, Quetzales (national bird, also the name of the currency), Monja Blancas (national flower), Ceibas (national tree) and flags were aplenty, of course. But I particularly liked the kids who were charged with presenting traditional foods. They had their parents cook dishes and then carried the plates through the streets. There was a particular darling who ate the beans he was carrying throughout the duration of the parade. He was my favorite.
Much like the Olympics, a torch is run through the country during the two weeks leading up to Independence Day. It starts in Peten (in the north) and works its way through ever department down to the capital. It’s called 1000 Kilometers for Guatemala. This is the main one, but that doesn’t stop every school/muni/department from having their own mini torch runs. This means that every couple of hours (or minutes the evening before Independence Day) traffic stops as a group with a torch, followed by kids with whistles, followed by trucks loaded with yelling people, followed (sometimes) by an ambulance make their way somewhere or other – it’s never really clear where they are going with the torch.
We made the mistake of leaving the Peace Corps offices a little late Tuesday night when people were starting to really get into the spirit. Our camioneta was slowgoing as it tried to maneuver around large crowds and torch runners. It was packed, as usual, but everyone was having a nice time watching the festivities out the window. Until we went past a crowd gathered around a community pila (basically fountains for washing clothes) and they chucked a bucket of water at the side of the bus. Of course, the windows were open. Of course, nobody could move. Of course, we all got soaked. It smelled lovely.
I thought this was a unique occurrence, perhaps something that only happens in the strange pueblo we were passing through, but when we got off the camioneta and started our walk home we were attacked by pila hooligans in our own town. And I’m pretty sure they were yelling something along the lines of “Get the Gringos!”. When I asked my host mom about it all she was able to tell me was “People are celebrating our independence.” Clearly, nothing says “Independence” like the ability to thrown water at strangers.
Dude, it’s delicious. It takes two days to cook (hence why it’s only for special occasions) and the only ingredients I was able to learn from my host mom are meat and vinegar, but there’s some kind of magic in there.
Greasy Pole Climbing
All sorts of strange competitions happen in conjunction with the holiday (races, drawing/craft contests for kids, even some strange event in which you have to catch a ring on a straw while riding a horse) but the absolute best is the greasy pole. They save it for last and it is exactly what it sounds like: groups of men attempt to climb a pole that has been covered in grease, trying to get the flag at the top. First ones to get the flag win a prize (600Q this year).
The men climb on top of each other, fall on top of one another, get absolutely filthy and thrill the masses in the process. Nobody won this year (not even close) but it was still great entertainment. I hear some years they also do a Greasy Pig competition where they set a pig loose in the streets, covered in grease, and the first person to catch it gets to keep it. Sadly, no pig this year.
Overall, I had a great time witnessing host bro, Carlos, eat his weight in popcorn and watching the release of giant paper balloons. I had a great time sitting in the park, amongst the crowds, with my host Mom. I thoroughly enjoyed the music, food and overall festivity. Aaaaaand I hear Dia de Todos Santos (at the end of October) is even better. I just hope there’s no water throwing.