A to Z challenge: Day 5
E is for Esquipulas, Guatemala
Esquipulas stands in a valley ringed by mountains. It’s original name in the native Nahuatl language means the place where flowers abound. The famous Basilica eclipses the flowers. After watching the mammoth white building for miles as we descended into the valley, we did feel like we had arrived at Oz. We were surprised it was there since we were expecting a simple border on our way to El Salvador.
None of our guidebooks had mentioned it’s one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Latin America. Families save for years to make the trip to Esquipulas and pray in front of the Icon de El Cristo Negro. In 1595, the famous Quirio Catano sculpted the statue after being commissioned by Franciscan monks and the Dominican Brothers. Catano choose a dark balsam wood for the statue and immediately the Maya Indians began worshipping it.
It may be known as the City of Peace, but that doesn’t mean Esquipulas is quiet. Inside, the church floor is ablaze with candles lit by visitors who kneel to pray amid clouds of smoke and incense. In the background is organ music and monks singing. Outside along the ramp are hundreds of people waiting patiently for a chance to see the Black Christ now behind a glass wall. On the steps are all the families in their traditional clothing of their village, posing for their family portrait with the Basilica in the background.
Scattered amongst them are the toy kiosks and the ones selling hats, shoes and other items. Alongside one side are the food kiosks selling homemade tacos, soup, chicken, lemonade, fish, guacamole, salsa chips and specials of the day. And all around is the music playing on radios, CD players and everyone is singing along. Everyone is happy. Everyone feels blessed.
One kiosk grabs my eye. It’s selling candles in the most outrageous colours: Violent fuchsia, bright purples, intense blue, brilliant emeralds. Whoever designed the candles has matched the pictures of the saints to the colours so everything co-ordinates. The candles are beautiful in a kitschy kind of way. I buy four matching pairs.
The enthusiasm of the place has stirred my lapsed Catholic faith and get in line to be blessed by the priest. I inch my way up the steps to the Mayan priest who was holy water on your forehead. He reaches my waist. I bend over for my blessings asking that my family be kept safe on the trip. I’m holding my newly purchased Guadalupe dice for the car and the candles. I haven’t bent over far enough and the priest misses my forehead, splashing holy water into my eye. I started laughing and everyone joins. “You will see God’s hold path now,” the priest said as he smiles sweetly.
I would remember his words when the car brakes gave out on the way to Xela.