Anaconda in Guatemala

San Rafael Pie de La Cuesta, “Foot of the Hill,� but the huge climb getting there begged me to differ. However, the clouds cleared revealing the mountains towering above and the valididty of the name. At the “Pie de la Cuesta,� we were easily convinced to stick around the town for a weeklong celebration.

I never learned exactly what the ocassion was, but the constant aerial bombardment of multi-colored Chinese mortars ensured that I would not forget there was a festival happening. In the middle of the night, I would wake imagining a civil war was occurring outside the door. Hours before the sun rose, an concerted effort was made to destroy the sky with homemade mortars, which must have been unsuccessful, because around sunrise another attempt was made.

I was relieved to see that sky was still intact when I got up to make some coffee at La Finca Villa Alicia, the family coffee plantation of our friend Roberto. The hot, caffeinated beverage was just what I needed before a hike across the rugged Guatemalan terrain that brought us to a lookout over the city.

The horizon burned with a copper glow as the sun reflected along a sliver of the Pacific ocean. Below us was a clear view of the plantation, it´s rows of coffee plants and shade trees added lush texture to the mountainscape. Towards the center were the large cement panels used for drying the beans and a little cobblestone road connecting to the city.

“During the civil war,� Roberto began: “these mountains used to be a stronghold for the guerillas. The military once set up camp at our farm, and when the guerillas figured out where the generals were sleeping; they opened fire in the middle of the night, made Swiss Cheese of the tin roof. You can still see some of the bullet holes. Some nights we could sit on our porch and watch the guerillas exchanging rocketfire between those two mountains.�

“Are you sure that wasn´t last night,� Sean remarked sardonically.

“Hah..That was nothing,� Roberto said with a big smile trying to restrain laughter. “Wait until tonight, that´s when the real show begins.�

I was not concerned with the fireworks as much as with the promise I made to Mario, one of the kids living at the farm. “Sure I´ll go with you to the La Feria tomorrow,� I said, hoping he would to forget.

Maybe it is because we have seen these caravans of rickety contraptions pass us on the roads littering bolts and screws or that the rides are built and operated by thirteen year olds. But, I have come to understand a healthy fear of these nomadic playgrounds. So when Mario snuck up behind me and said, “¿Nos vamos?� my heart skipped a beat.

Only two rides were of interest to the kid, pushing thirteen years old, his hair combed and gelled, his shirt tucked in and shoes shined. The first was a large circle of rapidly spinning swings that I had to veto since I could see that the kids short legs came mere inches from hitting the power lines. The second was a large ferris-wheel named, “Anaconda,� that towered over the small village.

I handed our tickets to the youngster operating the ride and sat down while the “safety bar� was latched into place. With a heavy jerk, we began our ascent. Mario, quickly became bored with waiting as people were loaded, and began aggressively swinging our seat to add to the thrill. After making one slow revolution, the young worker stopped the ride long enough to utter a few broken sentences that amounted to, “Don´t swing in these, it´s dangerous, built by hand, one women fell,� and point to the thin bolt holding our seat onto the ride.

Of course, the ride then began for real and Mario was either unconcerned or unaware of the warning and continued with determination to flip our seat. The ferris-wheel spun fast enough to create the sensation of free-falling. And this combined with the swinging seat/warning, to make the ride both exhilerating and frightening.

Then the power suddenly failed for the entire Feria, jerking the ferris-wheel to a standstill while we were at the top. All the lights that had polluted our view were now absent and we could see down the mountain and just barely make out a silvery reflection of the moon on the Pacific Ocean. “I think I like the Feria after all,� I mused silently.

After 15 minutes of wondering how much longer I would be stuck on the Anaconda, the power sputtered back on. But the many lights on the ride, remained unlit, until the young worker climbed up the wheel and began turning each light on, one by one as the ride slowly spun around and the crowd watched, gasping at the boys dangerous maneuvers.

Eventually the “safety latch� was undone and we escaped La Feria to explore the festivities on main street. An inflated Globo ready to light the night sky stopped us in front of the church, while a 100 foot roll of firecrackers was laid out and quickly ignited, beginning the procession. A large gate opened for a couple dozen folks armed with mortars and “incendiares� marching ahead of a large shrine carried by the locals: two dolphins in mid-leap over sparkling ribbons fashioned into water and an angelic looking figurine standing on a large conch shell. A full marching band formed behind the float and played what I imagined was, “This Little Light of Mine.�.

Everybody nearby lit candles, and began following the procession. I sauntered behind all this trying to get back to the farm for dinner, but a candle appeared in my hand, and I was enveloped by a crowd of lit candles.

“What´s the candle for?� I asked Mario.

“It´s the light of God.� He whispered to me while looking around, apparently for an escape. “Hurry, put it out. Let´s cross the street here.�

His urgency made sense when I saw that he had just aquired a few feet of unexploded firecrackers and was eager to ignite them. “Can I have your candle?�
I left in search of food while he found people and toys to torment with his explosives. About midway up the cobblestone road, I saw my shadow suddenly cast in front of me, followed by the percussion and ear shattering boom that signaled the begining of the fireworks display. For the next thirty minutes, I sat on the mossy road, lined with bamboo hedges and coffee plants illuminated by the full moon and spectral brilliance of incendiares filling the sky.

“I think I like Guatemala,� I thought to myself.