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ruthless compassion
19 May 2004 @ 11:24 am
First things first, I won't be extending my stay. I finally managed to wring an answer out of Delta and to change my ticket will cost more than $300. I thought about trying to get a one way on TACA, but those aren't running at less than $300, either. I was having mixed feelings about the possibility, and par for the course, I'm now having mixed feelings about not being able to do it. A friend/fellow student offered to pay for the ticket change -- she thought it would be great for the school and she wants me to stick around, but the fact is that if I felt really strongly about it, I could cover the cost. The fact that the money is the deciding factor for me, despite my possibly being able to afford it if I really wanted to, makes me disinclined to take her money.

I'm kinda annoyed about the situation because I emailed the school before I bought my tickets to come down, and they so easily could have written me back to say, hey, we could use help during these weeks, would it work for you to plan for that? Oh well.

The power has gone out more times in the past 3 weeks than it did the whole four months I was here last week. I wonder if it's due to the new presidential administration's attempts/desire to privatize the electricity in the country or due to weather, or some other thing. Unfortunately, I gave my headlamp to someone in my family last December and didn't think to bring one with me, anyway, this time. That's okay, candles are nice!

This morning, I went on a school outing to the town of Zunil, which is a couple of kilometers beyond Almalonga, the agricultural center that I visited last week. Zunil also has a lot of agriculture but has less land to cultivate. Its claim to fame is threefold: Fuentes Georginas, a very lovely hotspring up in the mountains (we didn't go there today), a very old church with a lovely and huge and ornate silver cross, and a cofradía with a San Simón. For me, the San Simón was the most interesting here. The churches are conceptually interesting for the age and the impact the Catholic church has had here, but, really, a church is a church. But San Simón is a singular experience (actually, there are one or two more, but each is very different, I'm told, and regardless, they're not ubiquitous in the way of churches).

San Simón's symbolism is a mix of Mayan and Catholic and blasphemous Catholic beliefs. He's a wooden statue who represents either a god, a saint, a Judas or some mixture of the above. This one is white, and wears sunglasses and a cowboy hat. He's hosted for a year in one house and then on November 1st he gets moved to the house of a different member of the cofradía (brotherhood). It's a huge honor to host San Simón, but it's also a big responsability, of course. Anyone can come to visit San Simón, who has his own room. If you don't bring him a gift (usually cigarettes, cigars or rum) you pay to get in. In the room, which is dark and smokey, he sits facing the door. In front of him there are 100 or more candles that people have left in prayers, and people kneeling in front of the candles as they offer their prayers and light their candles. The room is thick with the smell of rum and wax. People kneel at Simón's side and kiss his hands while praying into his ears. They put their towels across his lap to soak up his energy to take home to sick relatives or friends, and a man occassionally takes off Simón's hat to wave it (and the life force it contains) over the people praying at Simón's feet. There was a constant hushed murmur of people praying in Spanish or Quiché.

It was all very interesting. The cofradía collects thousands of quetzales every month from people's donations and visits, and from the sale of the ashes from San Simón's cigarettes and cigars, which are considered to have healing powers, and the income from the charges for people to take photos (which I didn't -- it was a tad expensive and a photo really wouldn't have captured the experience of being there), etc. Although the Catholic church rejects the San Simóns as devil figures, the cofradía donates a huge portion of the money it takes in to the Catholic church, which doesn't talk about where the money comes from. Typical.

But, really, what an interesting experience, and I love the contradictions that are so deeply interwoven in the communities here and in the society as a whole.