Saturday, April 5, 2014

Esquipulas, Guatemala

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.

In 1737 Pardo de Figueroa, Archbishop of Guatemala, declared the place sacred after being miraculously cured of a chronic ailment on a visit to the Esquipulas springs. No one can confirm what the ailment was. Locals say it was eczema, which doesn’t sound like that bad a disease until you considered the wool clothing the Spanish wore in this hot, sweaty climate. The new church, located one-mile from the original, was finished in 1758 and it has remained one of the most important pilgrimages for Latin American Catholics.

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. 


Circling the entire church are all the religious kiosks selling candles stamped with various saints; rosaries in all shapes and colours; 3-D shiny pictures of Jesus winking at you; the Virgin of Guadalupe encased in seashells; plaques for your door, your car, your fridge; ashtrays with pictures of the Basilica; place mats with pictures of the Black Christ.

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.