Sunday, February 22, 2015

El Wayeb’ with Rigoberta

Like so many adventures in Guatemala, today started out beautifully, slowly morphed into a wild goose chase, and then suddenly we were exactly where we wanted to be having a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

The email Mushy sent us read, 
"Hey there, One of our indigenous interns sent this around today.   I don't really know what to expect, so it should be fun. Anyone interested in going on Saturday?"

It was an invitation from one of the interns at USAID to come join in on a Mayan ceremony to celebrate the Mayan New Year, called in K'Iche' "Ri Wayeb' ", in Spanish "El Wayeb' ". They celebrate the Lunar New Year just like the Chinese do, which is amazing because these cultures are on opposite sides of the world. But this also makes a lot of sense since everything in the real world truly revolves around the planets and the sun and the moon. How did we come up with our New Year again? 

Needless to say, Hubby and I were in! 

The directions on the invitation sounded pretty clear, the location was around 39km out on the highway around San Lucas and there would be signs. We were expecting a small fair of some kind with traditional dances, lots of color, flowers, corn, some ceremonial fires and maybe a food stall selling grilled mystery meat and hopefully some cut up fruit with lime juice in little plastic bags. 

Mushy was driving Miz M and Gummy Kid in the Mushy Mobile, we were driving with A-Zam in our green Wasubi so we had a nice, easy little caravan of 2. 

Right around 40km we pulled over, "Did you see anything?" "Nope, no signs, nothing that looked like any event, hardly any roads even..." "Ok let's go up the road to the gas station and ask there."

And so began our two hour search for El Wayeb'. 

Long story short, we did 3 laps including driving back down the other highway 1/2 way down the hill to Antigua. We stopped multiple times asking the locals if they knew anything about this event. I truly love Guatemala. Everyone we asked became earnestly invested in our search even though they knew nothing about the event, but they all were certain they were sending us to the right place. We had no idea and so of course we tried all their suggestions. Finally we had our emergency flashers on going slow looking for signs of a gathering and when we saw a grassy lot with a few extra cars and a tourist bus parked there we pulled into the driveway with our fingers crossed. We had decided that after this try we would bail on the adventure and go to Antigua for lunch. But we saw Mushy ask the dudes standing at the gate, and then victoriously thrust her thumb into the air, we had found it, hooray! 

Wild goose chase over! We parked in front and quietly crept through the gate to the back of the house where we could hear marimba, flutes, drums, and Mayan voices speaking K'Iche'. 

The back yard of the big, Guatemalan style 2-story house had a giant avocado tree in it providing an umbrella of leaves and creating a round room of shade. The tree had a presence that reminded me of Avatar, it was an old tree with really good energy. Under the tree was a circle of about 75 people, a few foreigners but mostly Mayans in beautiful colorful woven shirts, skirts and head wraps. They had a big floor of fresh pine needles laid down with happy displays of yellow dahlias, daisies and lilies in terra cotta vases, dried cobs of yellow corn, little native oranges and a tall altar with golden strands of ribbon connecting out to all the bouquets of flowers in front of it like a maypole. There were two fires burning in the middle, putting off thick black smoke but smelling delicious like pine resin and incense.

We sat and watched the religious leaders saying prayers in Spanish and K'Iche'. They were pairs of men and women, a husband and wife spiritual team, to keep it balanced. Offerings of orange resin-filled fatwood, cacao beans, flowers, sugar, and hundreds of little bees wax candles were thrown into the fire. Near the end of the ceremony we were given stems of purple statice flowers and sticks of fatwood and invited to walk a circle around the fires. We said goodbye to the old year when we laid our purple flowers at the base of the tree and asked for blessings for the new year before offering our fatwood to the fire while the music played and we half danced half stepped our way around the circle. It was beautiful. 

We aren't sure how long the ceremony lasted since we got there late but we watched it for about 90 minutes, sitting on the ground on the edge of the circle. Little Gummy Kid did really great, entertaining himself with a pine cone he picked up in the parking lot and an avocado that fell from the branches, landing with a scary thud nearby. 

The intern who had invited us glowed with pride as she introduced us to her husband and little 1-year-old daughter and her parents who had led the ceremony as one of the religious pairs. She and her husband were learning the ways and hoping to follow in her parents footsteps one day as spiritual leaders themselves. She explained what we had seen during the ceremony, each little action had significance. The color for this new year is yellow, hence all the yellow flowers, corn and fruit adorning the altar. Last year's color was purple. There were two fires, one to bid goodbye to last year and one to welcome in the new year. 

After the ceremony ended one of the older spiritual ladies dressed in bright yellow textiles welcomed us all and thanked us for coming and invited us to have lunch and stay a while longer. Our friend told that was Rigoberta Menchù making the announcement and this is her house. Wow. We had no idea we were ringing in the New Year with the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and one of the most respected human rights leaders in Guatemala and possibly the world. 

They had a big lunch prepared for us. Big pots of red soup, literally named Sopa Roja, with rice, squash and mutton. Tamalitos on the side and dishes of spicy chile cobanero sauce to mix into our soups. Rosa de jamaica juice to drink. It was delicious! I don't think I've ever had sopa de chivo before. Eight hours later as I write this story that sheep soup is still digesting and trying to crawl back up giving me the worst heartburn ever! Oh well, it was worth it... sheep soup with Rigoberta, never would have guessed we'd stumble into a day like today, but that's life in the Foreign Service. 

After lunch we lounged on the grass in the shade of the big aguacate tree, Gummy Kid ran laps around us and we watched as a big white and orange cat made the rounds begging for scraps and scowling at the kids as he dodged their eager advances. 

We wished our new friends a Happy New Year one more time and strolled out to our cars, inhaling the sweet smells of the smoldering fires and pine needles and thanking the musicians for playing. No photos were allowed at this special event but we'll keep those memories (and hopefully not this heartburn) forever. 


  1. Wow--how amazing to share a Mayan New Year's ceremony, especially with Rigoberta Menchù! No wonder the giant tree had such good energy. Awesome memories you are making. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Priceless. What a memorable and special day!

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