Just about the first thing I do after arriving in Antigua, Guatemala’s former colonial capital, is walk into a protruding window ledge. I had been trying to avoid disturbing a couple sat on the curb of the cobblestone street – good intentions that are unfortunately dashed as I curse loudly, drop my suitcase, and swipe a hand across my forehead to see how much damage I have done. No blood, thankfully – and although I am slightly dizzy, I recover my case and go on, heading for the hostel I have been assured is just a few blocks further ahead.
Disorientation, however, proves the theme of the evening. As I head further down the street, the clusters of people I had noticed earlier from the window of the shuttle bus driving me in from the airport are now forming into crowds. It is Semana Santa, I know – Holy Week, for which Antigua’s celebrations are world renowned – but I had not expected to be confronted with all of its ostentation so immediately.
The celebration of Semana Santa in Guatemala is a tradition that was imported by Spanish missionaries in the sixteenth century. Beginning on Palm Sunday and culminating on Easter Sunday, Holy Week festivities in Antigua have become a major tourist trap, and visitors glut the town in order to see the country’s Easter processions; the apex of the celebrations, Good Friday, is particularly intricate, comprising a daylong drama that includes the mock trial and sentencing of Christ. But this influx of tourists is not really in evidence yet, relatively early on Monday evening; I am largely surrounded instead by what seem to be Guatemalan families, who are watching the procession in rapt fascination. It soon becomes obvious that moving through the throngs will be impossible, so I find myself placing my case down on a street corner, wedged in among children hoisted on the shoulders of their parents.
The night air is soupy with humidity and the rich, teak-y fragrance of incense. Elaborate patterns of flower petals and coloured sawdust, known as alfombras, blanket the streets in burnt orange, fuchsia, violet, olive green; in an act intended to parallel Christ’s own sacrifice, these artfully-composed carpets will be destroyed by the processions and made up again ready for the next day. To my left, the forecourt of a gas station swells with penitents in their characteristic robes of purple, the colour of suffering; bobbing amidst them are racks of candyfloss with flashing LED toys strapped to their sides. On my other side, the procession wavers delicately forward, towards me, before pivoting off down a side street.
Just when I start to think that all this is charming, but perhaps better appreciated after a solid night’s sleep and without a potential concussion, from the darkness to my right issues a glistering float. It bears down on the crowds like a ship, swaying gradually into full view. The top of the float is comprised of four figures; first is the serpent, wrapped around a tree trunk, and then follow three representations of Christ – the first kneels humbly, in brown sackcloth; the second is resplendent in embroidered purple, a gaudy gilt-and-silver cross across his shoulders; and the last is in red, gesturing in front of him with his index finger. The result is a kind of bizarre temporal collapse, in which the biblical accounts of original sin and its redemption share the same silver-encrusted platform.
I am, however, even more struck with the expression on the faces of the men – cucuruchos, as they are known – supporting the float, or anda. Carrying an anda is an honour: you must register two years in advance to secure your spot. It’s also an art form: balancing the thousands of pounds in weight that these floats often amount to is no mean feat. Most grimace under its vast bulk – though in the left hand of one, a disgruntled-looking teenager, I see the incongruent glow of an iPhone. More interesting to me, though, are the ones whose faces are impassive, staring stoically into the middle distance. I wonder what they’re thinking about, as the procession drowsily advances.
Behind the float, a band strikes up, and plangent trumpets and ghostly drumbeats issue into the smoky night air. Though the musicians move with a grim protractedness, almost balletic in its rigour, nipping at their heels are a street crew, clearing up the debris from the now-destroyed alfombra – like stagehands preparing for the next scene of a performance. Food carts and vendors selling colourful balloons shaped like Western cartoon characters become visible on the opposite sidewalk. Dust eddies, then settles. The enchantment has been broken; my first encounter with Semana Santa is over.
The crowds around me begin to lumber slowly to the left — off, I guess, to catch the next loop of the procession. My mind thrills with the fantastic, exotic images I have just seen — perhaps also with a faint echo of that jolt to the head I received earlier — and, for the second time that night, I hitch up my suitcase, and make my way towards my hostel.
Featured image by Ronald Cuyan via Unsplash